A chance encounter with an Associated Press reporter – and a realization he had the legal connection to help the journalist – is what convinced John Hellerman that he could take his then-early public relations career to a higher level. Within the legal space, Hellerman later received top-notch grooming from established leaders in the field like Jay Jaffe and Richard Levick before going out on his own to found Washington, D.C.-based Hellerman Communications. In addition to providing excellent service, Hellerman is employing innovative techniques to foster win-win relationships with clients with results-driven contingency pricing.
Lawdragon: Can you talk a bit about your company and what you do?
John Hellerman: My corporate communications agency, Hellerman Communications, provides a wide variety of consultative services to professional service firms' executive leadership, and we often work on behalf of individual partners at those firms to credential their expertise – such as via earned media, awards, social sharing, etc. – and help them own their markets by becoming sought after influencers and thought leaders. Aside from the business development work, a significant part of our practice is crisis and litigation communications consulting. We are often brought in to help firms navigate their bad news or the media interest around one of their clients' matters.
LD: What drew you to this type of work?
JH: I organically discovered "thought leadership" – the power and value of dealing in expertise with the media. When I was young and just starting out in PR, I did a lot of consumer work – promoting restaurants, office-equipment manufacturers, hotels, casinos, etc. Although on occasion it was great fun and I did some very significant projects, including the Chicago Holiday Parade, the Church of the Angels and others, oftentimes there was absolutely no value to what I was pitching. I really was just trying to get a share of "free advertising" for something inconsequential.
However, one day, while managing media for the Chicago-O'Hare Hilton Hotel during the 1996 Major League Baseball labor negotiations (to end a strike) that the hotel hosted, I was on the dias and happened to overhear an AP reporter complain to his AP photographer colleague that the current head of the National Labor Relations Board was not talking. It so happened that I had one law firm client at the time – in those days, we did Page 6 type stuff to promote the attorneys, “movers and shaker who'd you go to lunch with” type articles. The day before I had met their newest lateral partner, a gentleman who happened to have been a recent head of the NLRB. I casually introduced myself to the AP reporter and explained that I had overheard his conversation and was sorry for his frustration and asked if speaking to a former head of the NLRB might offer him some insight into what the current one was thinking.
When his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "F-yeah! When?” – I knew that working for lawyers and other professionals to help them market their expertise was far more rewarding and useful than what I was currently doing. It totally changed the whole dynamic between me and the media; I had expert sources that could add value to reporter's stories. In facilitating these source relationships, I was offering the reporter equal value.
LD: What else do you like about what you do?
JH: I like the fact that our clients are brilliant and, in being so, they are often involved in the most interesting work and cases. So no day is the same and I always go to bed feeling a bit smarter than when I woke up.
LD: Can you flesh out for us what you do by describing a recent matter that you’ve handled and some of the challenges involved?
JH: We successfully helped a private school discharge a beloved but problematic head of school. The school was small and had an engaged community of parents and alumni, as well as some regionally prominent business owners as members of its board. There was tremendous concern by the board that their actions to remove the head would be seen negatively and the fallout would not only potentially impact staff retention and recruitment and school enrollment, but also the board members' businesses and status in the community.
LD: What’s a lesson to take from that work?
JH: The importance of being transparent – the act of being forthright and communicating regularly with stakeholders builds enormous trust capital and mitigates many of the typical problems that occur when circumstances change for the worse during a drawn-out project or news cycle.
LD: Can you tell us a bit more about your career path. What were some of your earlier jobs that led you to this?
JH: I was a writer in a Chicago law firm personally hired by a prominent partner to help promote her practice. One of her clients owned a leading PR boutique and offered me a job. After my organic discovery of the value of thought leadership I mentioned earlier, I found Jaffe Associates – a pioneering firm in professional services marketing at the time – and landed a job working closely with Richard Levick. In 1998 we left Jaffe and started Levick Strategic Communications where I served as EVP. In 2001, I left Levick and started Hellerman Communications, which has become a premier firm in our field.
LD: What advice do you have now for students or young professionals who want to do something similar?
JH: Write well. Keep connected.
LD: To the extent your business involves innovation in the legal industry, what is it you are trying to achieve that will help your clients in their business?
JH: We're quickly getting to the point where the impact of every activity will be measured and anything that can't be measured won't even be considered. I want my clients to understand the value of their business development efforts so they can allocate their resources more strategically. For instance, we use a proprietary, patent-pending, “Results System” called “Points,” whereby we do not bill for time or effort spent engaging in media relations. Instead, a partner’s or practice's strategic campaign is designed by assigning values to an acceptable universe of desired outcomes – for example, media, awards, clients, etc. – based on the importance of each to them. Points are deducted from their account when – and only when – the specific outcomes are achieved.
Points isn’t just another way to pay for PR services. Our results system offers certainty regarding PR deliverables and enables firms to allocate their marketing and public relations resources more accurately and effectively. And, by scoring outcomes according to their strategic value, we’re able to benchmark their practices and partners against their peers and competitors, and make the campaign’s impact exceedingly clear to the firm's leaders.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JH: I have three children (ages 8, 10, and 12) and I enjoy watching them in all their various activities. I like to drive and sail, and lately have been watching a lot of documentaries about different aspects of the Kabbalah.
LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities?
JH: I serve as an Officer and Trustee of my temple and as a Trustee and Board Member of my children's school. I've always felt that when you're part of a community you should get really involved in it. Working through significant issues and mitigating problems with brilliant people is rewarding – I always walk away with a new insight.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?
JH: I was really young when it came out, but “The Paper Chase” is still the best.
LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?
JH: If I hadn't done what I did, I might have been a Political Consultant, Movie Producer, Media Pundit, or Uber driver.