Pat Harden, APR, recently retired from Harden Communications Partners, the PR agency she founded in 2007. She developed a team of seasoned pros specializing in healthcare, financial and professional services for the award-winning firm, which became a Stanton agency in 2017. The agency boasts a roster of brand-name clients based in the Bay Area, as well as nationally. In her corporate career, Pat held senior positions at American Century, Fidelity and SunAmerica. She served on the board of the Round Table and as chair in 2011. She currently serves on the board of the East Bay SPCA and the Vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church, as well as on the advisory board of Health4theWorld and ChannelNet. She was previously a board member of Theatre Bay Area.
How many years have you been a member of the Round Table and what volunteer roles did you fill? I joined PRRT in 2001 after moving to the Bay Area in 2000 to take a job at OffRoad Capital, an early fintech. It failed like so many other dot-comms in the “tech wreck.” I knew hardly anyone in the Bay Area. Happily, Mitchell Friedman introduced me to the Round Table. I was delighted to find it such a welcoming, collegial group! For several years, I co-chaired the holiday party and the silent auction. It was always lots of work, but we had so many fun, magical holiday events at Victor’s, the gorgeous room at the top of the [Westin] St. Francis.
Why was it important to you to get involved in the organization and to contribute so generously to the Round Table’s scholarship program? I immediately liked PRRT because it was locally based and a great way to meet more local professionals. It has an amazing history as one of the first organizations of PR professionals in the country. The programs appealed to me then and now because they are about topics of local interest—what’s happening in the Bay Area. Not just “how to pitch a story” but the hot issues of the day, whether political, cultural or social, we hear from local movers and shakers. Most of all, I value the many friends I’ve made through PRRT over the years.
PRRT’s scholarship program gives me the opportunity to “pay it forward” by supporting scholarships for the next generation.
You’ve had an amazing career. Can you tell us why you chose to start your own PR agency and what have been the best parts of your business life? It’s not like I was a born entrepreneur! But after 20+ years in corporate roles, I couldn’t face going back into a corporate job. Like many women of my generation, I bumped my head on the glass ceiling. Although I reached the level of VP and SVP of communications at mid-sized companies, I was stuck in upper-middle management. I wanted more challenge and opportunity.
I stepped off the cliff into self-employment with trepidation when I turned down a corporate opportunity to try out consulting. Within a few months, I realized this was the right path for me and I never looked back. Soon I had to move out of our guest room into an office and hire employees. I merged that first PR firm into another local firm after three years.
My favorite corporate role was at Fidelity when it was an up-and-comer in the ’80s and ’90s. I ran a field office for the Western region, developed media training for their entire brokerage network and created consumer PR campaigns to complement marketing. The company was very open to new ideas, and it was exciting to be part of the “democratization of investing,” as mutual funds took off. Starting two PR firms from scratch and seeing them grow and thrive is absolutely the best experience of my career. Owning a small business taps everything you know and demands a total all-in commitment, but is incredibly satisfying. There’s no one to blame but yourself when things go south. But you have the power to fix problems, surround yourself with the best people you can find, and make it all work together. We built a terrific management team at Harden Partners, and I’m proud of the work they continue doing today.
What are the top characteristics of a successful PR practitioner (and can you provide an example of someone who exemplifies those)? Beyond basic communications know-how, public relations requires resourcefulness, creativity and a high level of grit and determination to see things through. This is true both in-house and on the agency side. I also believe in the power of positive relationships—treating people the way you’d like to be treated. In dealing with clients I focus on deep listening to grasp the essence of a situation and what is required for a successful outcome. I had a fantastic role model in my very first PR job out of school at Sunkist in LA. I hired Dolly Reed Wageman, a brilliant, pioneering marketing/PR expert, as a PR consultant for a “lemons for beauty” campaign. She became my “mentor” and lifelong friend.
Can you share something unusual or unexpected (or funny) that happened to you during your career (like an unusual request from a client or boss or a moment that humbled you or that made you proud)? In the first joint new business pitch after we joined Stanton, I had the misfortune of being trapped in a locked hallway by the service elevator! It was the Christmas season and the elevator stopped at every floor for deliveries of holiday gifts. Eventually a FedEx delivery guy rescued me.
The most humbling moment of recent years is when I let the staff at Harden know that I was transitioning into retirement. Over a surprise lunch they gave me a beautiful statuette that says “Never underestimate the difference you made and the lives you touched. Thank you from all of us!“ I don’t think I had ever cried in a work setting until that moment.
Any particular advice to people starting in the PR profession now? Work hard, do your best. Keep learning. Do not let your ego get in the way. Unfortunately I’ve seen PR executives and agency owners become so ego-driven that they miss opportunities because they must always be “right” and have the last word. In the world of PR, you can never know it all. Stay open-minded and self-aware.
How do you feel, having retired? I continue to do media training and select consulting work, so it’s been a gradual transition. I’m also working on a personal writing project and have joined two boards since retirement from full-time work. Right now, I am finishing Obama’s first volume of his presidential memoir—so inspiring!
What now? As a semi-reformed adrenaline junkie, I am doing my best to channel the energy that went into PR and running a business for so many years into new positive, fun and beneficial endeavors. Like the rest of us, I am excited about TRAVELING. Fingers crossed my husband and I go to southern France and Burgundy in October and I hope to go on a postponed yoga retreat in Morocco in 2022.
–Edited by Molly Walker