“I kind of did things backward: I had my family first and then went to college,” said Howard, president of Straightline Public Relations, an affiliate of Hanon McKendry. “I wanted to be a history professor, but after taking my first writing class I was hooked.”
While working on her degree Howard started an internship with a hospital in St. Joseph, at a time when there was no such thing as public relations in health care. “They decided they wanted an internal newsletter and I started writing that,” she explained. “By the time I graduated they had created a public relations position and I moved right in.”
Since purchasing majority ownership of Straightline two years ago from Bill McKendry, co-founder of Hanon McKendry, Howard has had little time to look back on a career that kept her in health care public relations for just over 10 years.
However, she doesn’t dismiss the fact that it landed her where she is today. After leaving the health care field in the late ’90s, Howard started her own freelance company, working for businesses in South Bend and Muskegon, while also teaching public relations courses as an adjunct professor at her alma mater, Andrews University.
After discovering that she wanted to be part of a team and work alongside other people, she began looking for a position of that sort and was struck by an ad in the newspaper.
“I really identified with Straightline’s mission statement, and with all of my experience in the health care industry, that really aligned with all of the nonprofit work we now do,” Howard said.
Howard started as senior counsel at Straightline in September of 2000, when the company was located in what she called Hanon McKendry’s attic. With three other people in the office, the team started taking clients and going about public relations in a different manner.
“I soon saw the differences between working for a smaller, entrepreneurial type agency and working for one corporation,” said Howard. “To start, it was no longer easy to just learn the one field you were working with, but you had to be familiar with every market each of your clients was involved in.”
Howard added she also found it quite humbling, doing all of the faxing, copying and running around she hadn’t done in a large corporation. “I even learned how to do a FedEx,” she joked. “But it was a great learning experience and something that was constantly stimulating and quite a change of pace for me.”
A few months after Howard’s start with the agency, sole owner McKendry offered the company up for sale to his employees. Howard had never considered something along the lines of owning her own agency but was soon convinced she had the right skill set to take the company to new places.
“I went up to Bill and I said, ‘Bill, you don’t know me very well, I haven’t been here long, but you can trust me. I will never lie to you and I think this would be a good partnership,’” explained Howard. “And from there I purchased majority ownership in the company, under the agreement that Bill would stay on as part owner for five years.”
While he still owns part of the company and will continue to do so for the next three years, Howard said since the deal went through, McKendry has taken a backseat and allowed her to lead the company to where it is today, with mentoring and guidance along the way.
After surviving a tough 2001, Straightline has come out fighting and on top. “We did struggle last year, just as many companies did, but most importantly we survived and we have some great new things coming up this year that we are very excited about,” Howard said. “We also wouldn’t be where we are without our amazing staff and wonderful clients, both, who stuck with us through the hard times. And I feel after that, we have really grown as a company.”
And this year Straightline has again been rewarded for the hard work it has done.
The West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America’s Spectrum Awards earlier this month gave Straightline six gold awards, two silver awards and the best in show award. In addition, account manager Jeremy Bakken was named Newcomer of the Year, as a professional of three years or less who has demonstrated potential for becoming an outstanding public relations practitioner. Bakken was nominated by fellow employees and was informed of his award with a surprise party given by Straightline staff.
“It really is a testament to the staff we have here, not just Jeremy’s award, but the foresight of the staff here to nominate him and support each other that way,” Howard said.
Howard enjoys spending her free time with her significant other of ten years, with whom she enjoys boating on Spring Lake. She also enjoys reading and time spent with her two granddaughters.
And looking into her crystal ball Howard sees herself continuing to enjoy life, while taking Straightline down new paths. “I really think we have a good thing with our focus on branding and our different approach to public relations. We really want to understand the company from the inside out and the industry it is a part of in order to better determine what is going to be right for that specific client,” said Howard. “I also see myself never being bored.”
With a diverse client base, ranging from nonprofit organizations to schools and furniture designers, Straightline sees an advantage. “We don’t have all of our eggs in one basket,” Howard explained. “We really have diversified ourselves, and it also forces us to continuously be creative and keeps us doing our best.”
“It is our team that makes the business. I am here to lead, and just like I have received, be a mentor and a source of counsel — but it is really our team that makes this,” said Howard. “Without a great team and a great set of clients, we might still be in the attic.”