It takes less than a minute in the same room as Dana Arnold to hear her signature laugh and see her contagious smile. Behind the smile is a high-powered woman and thought leader who started her own public relations practice at 25 and is currently the Director of Public Relations and Social Media at Hiebing, an integrated marketing and brand development firm in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I’ve always known PR is what I wanted to do,” Dana says, dressed like a CEO, but with her dark brown hair let down. After completing internships while at John Carroll University, she landed a gig at Akhia, a small PR agency in Ohio. Her first full-time boss, Jan, became one of her idols. Today, a photo of Jan rests on a desk shelf in Dana’s office at Hiebing. The photo reminds Dana how great it was to have a boss who is skilled at finding great talent and helping them understand how valuable they are to the agency.
“She taught me how to lead with empathy, to care as much about individuals as the work they are doing,” Dana says. “People don’t work for companies, they work for people. That’s how loyalty is created.”
After three years of learning and building loyalty, Dana moved to Arizona where her passions for food, cooking and restaurants could be combined with her PR skills. In Scottsdale, Arizona, hospitality is big business. Openings of new restaurants and hotels happen every week, building the tourism market and making the market extremely competitive. Dana stepped in that market to create a buzz around businesses that would have difficulty doing so on their own.
At age 25, Dana started Soapbox PR. “Ignorance is bliss,” she says while laughing. At the time she was building her business, her business coach Troy Henson, who was with Be! Coaching, recommended reading the E-myth. The myth is the mistaken belief that a business is started by someone with phenomenal business skills, when, in fact, most are started by those who may know little about running a business, but push forward anyway.
“80 to 85 percent start their own business by saying ‘I can do this on my own, I can do this better on my own, and make money on my own. I got this.’ Which is totally how I was,” Dana says. “What they don’t realize is that starting a business is 1/3 of the work.” They forget they have two other jobs of getting new clients and being a manager of people, according to Dana.
Dana was lucky she enjoyed seeking new clients, kickstarting projects, building new relationships, and everything that goes into the action of getting new clients. As for the action of managing people, she learned something vitally important along the way.
“Initially I subscribed to the notion of ‘I want to hire people I don’t have to manage.’ And that’s just stupid,” Dana says. “[Now] the people I want on my team are those who want to be pushed, want to be given feedback, and want to know what they should be doing different or better… I learned that coming out of the gates.”
While any entrepreneur learns plenty on their own, a mentor is vitally important when starting a business, according to Dana. “Whether you’re a business of one person or 20 people, if you are the head of that business, you are the end of the line, and it’s a stressful place to be,” Dana says. “There was no doubt I was going to continue to climb, but the coach helped me spike and not let the valleys get as deep as they could have if I didn’t have someone to help me there.”
Four years later, Soapbox PR merged with Olson Communications and Dana acquired the title of vice-president. Three years after the merge Dana admitted what many confess when they stop learning. “I was bored,” Dana says. “I don’t know how to explain it any other way.”
Dana came to an agreement with Olson Communications that she would retain the restaurant-related clients for her own independent PR practice called BigKitchen Marketing.
Through her endeavors, Dana learned three main qualities to seek in a work partner. Are they cheap? Are they good? And are they fast? In order to have a successful partnership, you need to pick someone who excels at two of the three qualities, according to Dana. This trifecta framed Dana’s decision-making process of whom to work with.
“I have a client who’s asking for turnaround tomorrow so I can’t work with this guy who is slow as molasses, as cheap as he is or as good as he is. So I’ll go over here to someone who is more expensive, but good and fast,” Dana says. “And some people are only one of the three and you need to get rid of them.” Ultimately it is through trial and error where you figure out who you will ultimately partner with. As with any solo endeavor, there are limitations to what you can do alone.
At Hiebing, Dana found her home, her family, the place where she wouldn’t get bored, wouldn’t need to do things alone, and where she could always learn from others. Not only is Dana on the management committee at the agency, but she is also on the board of directors. “I’d like to think that I play a key role in helping to define our culture, growth trajectory and financial success because of this,” Dana wrote in email. While at Hiebing she gets to mentor aspiring marketers and entrepreneurs, she is also in an environment where she continues to learn.
Dave Florin, president of Hiebing, taught Dana the importance of feedback. “Accountability is so important,” Dana says, reflecting on the lessons from Dave. “It showcases that you care about somebody when you give them feedback.” Feedback also means observing if someone is trying their hardest. “[When] they are selling themselves short of what they are capable of, not realizing their full potential,” Dana says. “That drives me bonkers.”
Today, Dana continues to stretch her capabilities and excel at her role at Hiebing by seeking out new challenges. She dances on the line of being the teacher and the student. Above all, despite her superpowers, Dana continues to be human and makes mistakes.
“The ones that bother me the most are the ones where I thought I should do something, but I didn’t make the time to do it and I regretted it on the other side,” Dana says. “If I only would have spent the five minutes to make the phone call or 10 minutes on a conversation about the thing I just thought of. It’s the little things.”
Two photos of her boys, Frankie (8) and Dominic (6) on her desk shelf and the several hours Dana says she works begs one of the most important questions of a PR pro who has had a habit of putting in 60 hours of work a week: How do you balance work and life?
“Work life balance is what you make it,” Dana says. “I used to sweat the balance, but when I was at South-by-SouthWest (an interactive conference held in Austin, Texas) I saw a panel of female executives, and one of them said to stop talking about balance. It makes you feel like you’re on a teeter-totter. It’s not work-life balance. It’s work-life blend.”
Dana has stopped worrying what other people think her balance looks like and now concerns herself with the blend that works for her, her husband Keith, and her kids. “I checked the box this past year getting over what I should be doing to what feels right,” Dana says.
There is no doubt Dana will continue to climb the PR ladder, to do what feels right, and expose herself to more growing and learning opportunities. “You attract what you are passionate about,” Dana says.
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