Oral Histories

Cordelia Donovan

Full Interview

Cordelia Donovan Biography

Cordelia Donovan, CEO of Cordelia Donovan, Inc., a public relations and marketing firm located in Manhatten, specializes in the beauty, finance and fashion industries.


INTERVIEWER: It’s March 23, 2012 and I’m with Cordelia Donovan in New York City. And I want to thank you for spending some time with us.

DONOVAN: Thank you for having me. I’m honored and excited.

INTERVIEWER: Great. Before we get started I just want to say something to sort of inform the viewer as to what we’re referring to. Forty years ago, Inez Kaiser conducted a study that revealed that minority women often experienced difficulty in gaining access to much needed capital for their businesses and that they lacked the advantage of higher education or training in business. Do you think these same barriers exist for minority women today?

DONOVAN: Absolutely. I think they exist for minority women today especially. But I also think they exist for all people. I think even Caucasian women; they exist to a greater degree than their male counterparts. But, it’s very interesting, since 2008 I’m hearing Caucasian men scream that they need access for—capital for their business which was something that wasn’t before so I don’t know if it’s the current economic times also. But I do think that women, especially minority women are at a disparage for capital to their businesses. So I face that struggle every day.

INTERVIEWER: Well, why don’t you describe your path in life that brought you to the point of having enough courage to open your own agency?

DONOVAN: Wow. I don’t have a typical PR background. My background actually comes from the finance world. At first I started out pitching and selling after I graduated from Cornell University, I got my Series 7 and started selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds. I have a great mentor in my life and I must say that, in your path, a mentor is absolutely necessary. He told me, the one thing you want to learn how to do is sell, because no matter what you do, selling includes all aspects of business; customer service, pitching, relationship management. You will learn how to do…you can do anything. And I didn’t really necessarily want to do it but I trusted him and trusted his guidance and took that sales position. From that, I learned the importance of writing a good pitch, writing the script, how to craft it so that people can understand it. Also, I was told that if you can sell an intangible asset and get people to invest in an intangible asset because they don’t see the investment in the mutual fund—you can pretty much sell everything. So, I became very good at selling intangible assets. From that I was in American Express marketing department, I was a director of their New York office and then they sold off the financial division. So after I went into management, they sold off the financial division and I just decided before that, I just wanted something new. But when you’re really good at something, you kind of need a little push in life to give you that so, I decided that, I like the entrepreneurial world that sales provides you, I like pitching and I did a lot of soul searching. And I always liked media. So a friend of mine at the time who was also another mentor of mine, and I think that that has a lot to do with it, is Robin Beaman and she’s Oprah’s publicist. She’s in Chicago and I contacted her, went back and forth to Chicago and basically started moonlighting with her. I would say, on a contractor basis. And she said wow, you’re really good at this, I said oh, it’s the same thing. You’re just selling the media; you have to find the people that want your product or service, just like you have to find the people that are interested in your story. You have to find these people, you have to think about what’s going to make them move to write about you and then you have to get the clients and develop the relationships. Ok, fine. So I guess I kind of picked up very quickly from that, being in the finance world. And one of the things that I use when I hire people and I train them is, I say, you have to get sales experience. That’s an absolute must, even for my writers that are in my firm. I give them a Zig Ziglar book; I give them a Tom Hopkins book. Now that’s very unusual for a PR person but it’s really important when it comes to pitching and distinguishing yourself so even if you’re a writer you have to know how to write where it’s enticing enough to have someone want to buy your story just like they want to buy your product or service. The writing side is more important now because people are—I believe—people are reading more. Maybe not more books, but they’re reading more with online content. So how do I make that salacious enough—and journalists get inundated with a million emails. So I have to make it salacious but not really too ‘salesy’. And that’s really where I believe, my success motto is—and my firm—with just my path and my background and taking the good and the bad and the ugly and kind of mixing it together and coming up with your own formula.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. What benefits and hurdles do you find to being a minority public relations practitioner?

DONOVAN: Wow. I have a lot of benefits and hurdles. Some of them are general as to being a woman business owner. Some of them are just specific to minority women. We’re in a really interesting stage—when you sent me this question I knew I was going to be asked so I was thinking a lot about it. What’s very interesting for me, unlike a lot of minority friends that I have that have PR firms, I’ve actually built my business dealing with a lot of Caucasians. Because I was great at relationship management and in the finance world, I just kind of used those relationships to say what I was doing and let them know about the PR firm and so forth where I was told by Robin Beaman of course that, you don’t want to be labeled as “minority only”. And, there’s so many minority—when you’re African American women, you almost have to prospect Caucasian business more, and get that business first before you take a minority contract. Because if not, they will only label you and say, oh you just deal with minorities. And yes, there are certain things in a minority marketplace where someone wants to go after a niche market but there are certain things that are just human beings, whereas a Caucasian person doesn’t have that as a hurdle. They don’t have the fact that they have to watch who they take in in their client mix because they don’t have to worry about the typecasting that comes along with that. And so I find as a minority woman, that there are certain things—I always have to make sure I have a good client mix and client demographics whereas a Caucasian woman—they can just take the business and they don’t have to worry about being typecast because of their color—that the only business they do is when you have minority outreach. So I think that’s the number one hurdle and it’s something I’m always thinking about when I’m looking at my book of business. The great thing about being a minority woman though, I find that in the last year to two years, I’ve been very courted by or very attractive to international firms that want a U.S. presence. So, I think for the first time, maybe being a minority at the front of the company is maybe being seen as a positive. So like I said, it’s just a very interesting time that you’re doing this interview and it’d be great maybe to look at doing it even three or five years from now because the world is in such a fast change mode. I’ve never seen so many changes like this just overnight.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a good idea so maybe someone will get in touch with you in about five years.

DONOVAN: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: So, do you belong to any PR related associations?

DONOVAN: I belong to PR related associations as well as other ones. I’m really going to be honest with you; this is where the sales person in me comes out. I have no interest in pontificating amongst a bunch of public relations people and—‘’I do this in my firm and I do that in my—“ honestly I want to get out there—work, play hard, and I like to go home. I like to go out and enjoy New York City. And I don’t like time wasters and I find that some of the associations can just be that—unless you’re going into teaching. But if you’re a doer and not a teacher then—I just belong to them just to say I belong to them for clients and put the logo on my brochures. Really, that’s it. I don’t find them useful at all, unless they throw a ‘meet the media’ event. I don’t find them warm and friendly, I don’t find other people willing to share really what their doing in their firm and open up so I’m one of those people that…I may give the clues away but no one gives me anything so I think there needs to be a shift in the focus there with the PRSA. I’m a member of it. I’m a member of New York Women in Communications and its pretty much kind of the same thing. I do think they get more journalists involved which I do like that approach. But I just don’t find, and this is something I talked to the people in the PRSA about. Particularly the New York chapter, I don’t find them to be of any help outside of just paying my association and chapter fees.

INTERVIEWER: Interesting.

DONOVAN: I’m just honest, I’m sorry.

INTERVIEWER: No, no. I respect your honesty.

DONOVAN: I do find a lot of the social media associations to be more useful in that. Social media society, which a lot of PR people do belong to. A lot of the writers of social media—I’ve actually met writers on Twitter and say hey, I’ve got a great story for you what’s your email. You know, you have to get their email addresses or information any way you can. I belong to Media Database, I have one for my company but sometimes that information is not any good. So, I found him on Twitter and social media societies, because it’s so new and everyone’s still trying to figure out, there’s a lot more intellectual sharing that goes on there as opposed to, I just want to be top dog and my firm is better than your firm. In social media society it’s more like, the artist’s world. They want to share their work, they want to show their work because it’s so new that we want it to explode, we want it to ignite. So, a lot of PR—I mean, you have to incorporate social media strategy in your PR strategy now anyway. And I think we see that even on the news. A simple tweet can make you or break you, or a Facebook picture. So, I think that it’s very important that PR people incorporate that and I’ve found even writers, they’re a lot more relaxed as opposed to a meet the press event with the PRSA where they know they’re going to have a bunch of press people coming after them. You may get a journalist that comes and talks about what they’re doing on social media and Twitter but yet, they’re a journalist. So you get value from that and you just look at who the journalist is and your client base and figure out if you can use that person…that person’s contact info. So, I find the social media societies and I pretty much say any of them, there’s a lot popping up, I go around to the different meetings, I find that I get more out of them.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Have you ever had a client ask you to do something that made you uncomfortable, you felt it might be somewhat unethical—has that ever happened?

DONOVAN: I’ve had clients make me feel uncomfortable which is all the time. [Laughs] No not all the time but a lot of times can make you feel uncomfortable. Thank God I have not had a client ask me to do anything unethical. I’ve had clients make me feel uncomfortable when I question them, but I say a journalist is going to question you so I have to—this is just a part of the process. But thank God I have not had that in my business yet.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. How long have you been in the business?

DONOVAN: Nine years.

INTERVIEWER: Nine years, okay. So in your nine years, what are the most important public relations issues that you’ve faced? What have you learned during your career?

DONOVAN: The enduring truths are people are people and we’re all human and I think I’m reminded of that lesson every day. I think as PR pros, we try to make mountains out of molehills and sometimes you’ve just got to realize that you can’t make a mountain out of molehill. And that is something that I always have to grasp at because you have to have a can-do attitude but sometimes it’s not realistic. So, just certain truths that I have is that, just be realistic although you’re optimistic. About what you can do for your clients and what your clients can do and the timeframe you can do it in is very important. Because, I’ve had clients who maybe I have said and I’d like to take personal accountability—well, I think we can get something going in three months—but their story was a lot more difficult and maybe you needed a year to really begin to educate the press and start their whole PR campaigns. And I’ve had campaigns even pick up after I was no longer working with that client. So, an enduring truth is also be open and not stubborn and people are people and be forgiving and know when you can’t do it. My mother always says a true woman knows when to leave. So, always know when to leave that relationship. Leave that story alone or leave the client alone because it causes a lot less drama and heartaches and tension later on. I’ve also found that this is a 24hr job. You’re always on even if you’re off 24hrs the news, the media—they’re going without you—especially with social media and the Internet. I’ve woken up and seen things like—whoa, just watched the news last night and just…how did that happen? It takes eight seconds for a story to get out. We see that with what went on in Egypt and Trayvon Martin before the media even speaks about it so whether the journalists are on, whether I’m on, whether my clients are on, the people are out there. And they’re demanding the content and they’re going to shape it if you don’t. So I believe now, everyone needs PR. Everyone needs media training. Even down to the yogurt shop down the street. Because if you serve—they’re tweeting about you, this whatever does not taste good. There’s a guy on twitter that tells where his truck is at everyday and people follow him and he’s a success with his food truck in New York and he managed to get news people to show up and next thing you know he’s on ABC, he’s on NBC, he’s on FOX5. So, some of those truths are just always be ready, no matter how small you are, how large you are. I also believe that clients should not try to do it themselves. I do believe that there’s room for us. Because, you can’t do it all, and if a business owner is trying to do his own PR then, who’s going to run your business? So, those are just certain truths that I’ve learned, and that they like you one minute—the media likes you one minute and the next minute, the media doesn’t like you but isn’t that the case with people also? Sometimes we like our friends one minute, the next second we’re like, ‘she’s crazy. She’s nuts.’ You know? So, we’re all really just human and not to take it all too seriously and learn how to laugh.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. I’m going to ask you—a personal kind of story if you can think of something that you might want to share. What was the greatest challenge in your professional life?

DONOVAN: My greatest challenge is—and I guess yeah, you’re going to get into the personal because I believe whenever you have a challenge, in order to overcome it professionally you have to overcome it even personally. It may bring up certain things within yourself and it goes back to the kind of do-it-all attitude I have. I’m a business owner, I have five employees, I have four contractors who are always looking for work when my employees are packed up and inundated and I have a lot of people asking me for stuff. I also am a single mother in New York City so I have to run my home life and I have to run my business life. I have a teenage daughter who’s 13 and I have to also, at this time, steer and run her life. Not in a Mommy Dearest kind of way but steer it in the right high school, the right social activities. So there’s three different components of trying to run things, trying to provide for people and I always feel like, oh gosh I have a lot of people just kind of hanging off me. And I know that when I take on that role, but I think a lot of people when they decided to be an entrepreneur; really don’t realize the weight when you carry people. Because my team, they’re just like children. Sometimes they give me more headaches than my own child with the bickering and whatever—she said this—and it’s arguing by email now and after a while I’m like, get on the phone and just yell at each other for 10 minutes but don’t cc me on a bunch of chain mails because I got 10 other emails I need to look at and I don’t want to read your drama because it goes on for a day and a half. Just hash it out by phone, call if you don’t like her and get it over with but don’t keep going by emails for a certain point. And I just got all these different components and I’ve got my daughter’s emotions and so forth and just being a single parent and she’s in her teenage years and trying to make that time to do it all in my professional life and do it the right way, do with the best integrity that I can operate in. Because I think we all have lapses in integrity from saying—oh, I’m not home to whatever. Being ethical and being someone that not just my clients but someone that my daughter looks up to and that may be two different people. Your clients look at this and what you have on and how you carry yourself and how hard you work. You know, your daughter may just look at how you just simply can laugh at her silly jokes. And so, juggling all of that and then figuring out and thinking about my client’s media campaign, but also my daughter’s future. So, that is the number 1, hands down challenge. And sometimes making that call when work is not that important, my daughter and then the client is upset and juggling all those balls and wanting to be good at all of them. Why? Because I get personal satisfaction from my professional life. But I also get satisfaction from my daughter, because she helps me not take my professional life too seriously actually. That’s kind of why I like the humor. But then I look at the aspect of my daughter and how do I juggle my personal and professional life. That’s my biggest struggle all the time.

INTERVIEWER: Well you have a very full plate.

DONOVAN: We all do though. It’s not just me, we all have that as a challenge and I think we need to stop expecting people to be perfect. I also think we need to give people the real 24hrs. I think with email we’ve almost hit that—I texted her two hours ago. And I even have to catch myself with doing that like, sometimes people are busy. And so I think that whole aspect of utilizing technology to be efficient and do great business but at the same token, realizing that it’s humans that power everything and there’s going to be a lot of mistakes.

INTERVIEWER: Well, we could look at the other end of the continuum on that. Rather than your challenges, what accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

DONOVAN: Wow. And we’re just talking professionally? I guess this would go both because I think with an entrepreneur it’s really tough to not be personal about your business. And every entrepreneur I talk to whether it be—especially public relations people, we really have to be passionate about what we’re doing in order to take a client in a media campaign. I find that I’ve worked better off of passion than I have off of money. When I found something that I really liked in a client that I was really interested in, as opposed to a client that paid me more money. It’s just one of those things. So I think the greatest accomplishment I’ve had is that I’ve been able to duplicate the good parts in other people and then teach people how to duplicate the good parts in me and then take out the bad parts of me. And I’m starting to see staff, even interns that have moved on and I’m still in touch with, take pieces of what I’ve done and do it better. And I think when you can see a good duplication model, or yourself duplicated in others, that’s a great accomplishment. Because it can help fuel your passion when it’s all burnt out and you’re tired so I think that’s a great accomplishment. I honestly think the fact that I’m able to employ people and feed my daughter and take care of her and send her to prep school and actually laugh and have fun and run a business and live in New York City, which is a very difficult city, and I’m not homeless, I actually consider that the best accomplishment ever. That as a woman and as a minority woman that not only am I able to take care of myself but I’m also taking care of others. I really hate the stories when you see—they’re on welfare…disparity and the comments more particularly towards black women having children, not taking care of them, and being on welfare. That’s not the reality or my world. So I kind of—not that I live my life to dispel the myth, but I kind of pat myself on the back and say look, I’m dispelling the myth. Why don’t people take a look into my friends and my world because it’s not a stereotype. There’s so many others that are just not stereotypes, including Inez Kaiser which I knew nothing about until I got this write-up, and I was so fascinated because you do not hear about back…I don’t remember what year it was… Just some time ago, she’s the first African American woman to start a public relations firm and I look at Robin Beaman whom I looked up to, who I still look up to who after she left Oprah has her own firm and she has some great accounts. When I look up to so many of those before me I go wow, it can be done. And you can do it and not be stereotyped and typecast as a, oh you just handle people when they want to do minority outreach. Inez Kaiser, people like Robin or whoever handle other mainstream accounts. And I think that that’s a powerful message in that and I think that I’m really proud to be a part of that story and have my firm as a part of Inez’s legacy.

INTERVIEWER: Excellent. We talked a little bit about social media, you specialize in social media and you advise your clients to take their reputation goals to the next level, are there public relations challenges unique to firms doing business primarily through new media?

DONOVAN: You really want to interview me because I’m incredibly honest right?


DONOVAN: Okay. Let me just tell you something about the social media expert. It’s only five years old, everyone’s an expert. So, there you go, I’ve said it. Penn State, you’re an expert. You know probably more than I do, the communications people. Why? It’s new, it’s still developing and PR people are figuring out how to use it. Interestingly there’s two schools of PR, I have older—I call my PR cronies who don’t use it, and don’t realize the importance of it and they’re still grappling with it and then they hire a 20 year old to do it and they realize their client sounds like they’re 20. You can’t hire a 20 year old—and I’m all for hiring young interns of—do your social media. But I also write that out. I give them standard, they have to cut and paste and modify it but your brand will sound like your 20 and unless you’re reaching out to 20 year olds…your brand will sound like a 20 year old if a 20 year old is doing it. If you’re reaching out to mothers, you have to have someone; social media just…PR people cannot clean social media up. No matter how hard they try and I think a perfect example is Susan G. Komen—people are still talking about that, still to this day. Susan G. Komen had to give the funding back and the Planned Parenthood thing and social media’s impact—people are still going to remember that, if it’s bad. If it’s good…if they even see it, a second. So, I think because the way social media is, I believe that every brand should have a complete understanding of it. Social media has allowed my company to be global and go global without being global because I have brands who found me through social media and I’m really amazed at how someone in Australia finds me on Twitter and then we start a relationship and then we start emailing and then now they’re my client because they’re interested in the American marketplace. So through social media I believe that clients need to not only just manage their reputation and what messages go out, also clients can use it to let people know about their products and services. So, if it’s an additional channel and a billion people, a hundred million, I don’t know, I’m always losing track because it’s always a new platform—I think that clients have to use it. I actually have a great PR story about social media I love to share and it’s my personal one. So Delta Airlines, I’m flying and I went to a conference. Vegas after four days, you’re just tired of it. You just want to come back home you know the ‘ching, ching, ching, ching’ you know. I was there for a week, I get to the airport on a Saturday, everyone is leaving on Sunday and I leave on Saturday evening and they put us on the flight. We’re leaving and then we sit there for four hours. You can’t use your phone and then we go back and they say we have to switch planes. We switch planes, they took us back out, we get on the taxi and we’re back there another two hours. Another plane had already left to New York City, direct flight. By then it was 11:30 and we’re sitting on the plane and there’s the 2 year old kid crying, I’m like someone just please do something with the kid because I’ve worked all day and I just want to get back home. And Delta Airlines, we felt like, they were lying to us. And I’m only saying its Delta because it’s out there on Twitter and you can see a conversation between Delta and myself. I said you know, I’m sick of this I said let’s go to Twitter. Turn on my phone, I had my app, and I start tweeting. I cannot believe that Delta had us change planes to have us sitting her for another hour and a half and no one responded and I’m venting my frustrations about Delta Airlines. Then we go back in and then they say we’re going to get you a new plane and then they have us waiting again and then they say no more flights and then the flights all day Sunday are all booked up. We’re going to try to get you out of here, this and that. I actually flew another airline to Philly and then took the train from Philly to come in because otherwise I would not have been able to get back to New York until Tuesday morning if I would have waited for Delta. I’ve got a child, as I mentioned, I’m a businesswoman. Monday I have people…I’ve got clients. I’ve got all these things I have to deal with Monday morning, not including the fact that I just need to be home and rest and I can’t spend another week away from my child and my business, my personal—everything. So, I’m really upset, they give us pillows and they say wait, we’re short staffed because it’s between 3 and 4—3 and 5 in the morning, they have limited staff, they have one person, the flight was packed. I don’t know how many people can fit on the plane—literally a line out the door, I grab a pillow and I’m like—I’m going to Twitter with this. And the first thing I said is just, I’m going to go to another airline. Now, I flew the other airline, they actually took care of it when I called while the other people were waiting and I called up and the woman was nasty over the telephone. I said wow, I’m not getting anywhere with these people. So, I start tweeting again. Like, I can’t believe that their dedicated customer service person, even if I’m a little bit erratic—they should be calm because I’ve literally been here nine hours and have not left. And they haven’t given us any food—nothing but some red blankets. And the person was just really; I can’t do anything for you. Actually the front desk person managed to get me to another airline to Philly because I just said, get me out of here and on the east coast as soon as possible. I would have flew anywhere in the tri-state area there. And then they said, don’t worry your bags; we’ll take care of them they will be delivered to your house. Low and behold Delta lost my bags and I didn’t get my bags back for like, 15 days…damaged luggage—it was a nightmare. When I went to Twitter, by the time I landed in Philadelphia, I had gotten an email that they had responded. Delta Assist and we want to help and this and that and they said—direct messaged me. I know direct message means that—follow me so you can direct message me so they wanted to take it off the public platform and put it on the private and I said okay. So the person when we went direct message wasn’t really helping me out, I went back on to the public messaging about Delta and the Delta Assist person and I got credit towards the flight, baggage probably for the next ten flights I take with Delta, all just by conversing on Twitter. More than I got at the desk. More help than I’ve gotten by email. More help than I had gotten on the 800 number speaking to a person. I got more from Twitter. I could not believe it and I said, this is a great case study of how you can use social media from a customer service perspective. Case in point, Delta was watching, they knew I was upset, they knew I was tweeting about them. Now, that could have picked up into a news story, it didn’t but sometimes you do hear about them getting picked up on news stories. So, if I don’t advise my clients to use social media, they could get totally ripped out there. You could say anything you want and they don’t even have a chance to defend themselves. Because maybe it is a nervous or a scary person, maybe it isn’t, maybe you don’t know what happens in your company because you have 50 people. You don’t know what 50 people do the eight hours that they’re with you. So, social media allows you to be able to kind of, gauge their brand, gauge the abuse of your company, and everything without you having to I guess, spy or read an email so I think people have to own it. And I think that clients have to understand it. I think they have to take an active role in it now.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Well, is there anything else that you wish that we could chat about a little bit or do you feel like we’ve covered enough ground?

DONOVAN: Yeah, thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Oh Cordelia, thank you.

DONOVAN: I think that it’s a great field. I think that with new media—social media—I think the PR rep needs to not just be the standard communications person. I think they have to be technologically savvy. They have to know new media, social media. They even have to learn how to work a camera—thanks to the cable person back there. But, they have to learn how to work the camera and do video and imbed video into your pictures—which I’m taking a class on next week on just simply how to some rough cuts and editing to be able to pitch my clients’ stories better so I think a PR person has to—their mentality has to evolve. Their views have to evolve, their technology skills have to evolve—not just change but evolve. I think that if you’re not that person, then it’s going to be very difficult for you in new media but I think for the person that is that person, there’s a lot of opportunity for people that are looking to evolve and they like a little bit of video with a little bit of social media and at the same time they’re a great writer and they can express for their clients a great way. And also, you always have to work on your writing skills. That’s something that I try to do myself, as well as with my staff, is that we always have to look at how we write, what we write, sometimes the greatest writer may not be the greatest pitch writer but knowing what the different types of writing that’s required for the job is very important and you know, probably being the catch all. I think public relations firms need to have an idea of not do everything but know who they can hire to do other parts of the business, and we also have to be marketers now. Whereas there was a clear distinction between a social media, PR, and a marketer, now all three of those are mixed and that’s your PR professional firm now.

INTERVIEWER: Cordelia Donovan, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

DONOVAN: Thank you.