Crawfords Timing Is Right

May 19, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — It was time. Really, it was.

After more than 20 years of doing public relations, media relations, public affairs, and communications work for the likes of Old Kent Bank, WXMI-TV, and Spectrum Health, Carleen Crawford recently decided to strike out on her own.

“It was time, quite simply,” she said.

“I had spent over 10 years at Spectrum Health. I had, I think, contributed a lot to their communication and PR success. I also learned a lot there, going through the development of a major system, a merger of two fine hospitals. But I was reaching a point where I wasn’t attaining my personal career and professional growth goals,” she added.

“Sometimes, I think you just have to step back and say, I think it’s time for a change.”

The change came a little over a month ago when she created Crawford Communications, a firm that offers public relations and communications services and consulting, along with strategic public relations planning, issues management, and marketing communications.

As for her title, Crawford told the Business Journal that she preferred principal rather than owner.

“I don’t own much, yet,” she said with a healthy laugh. “I guess I’ve got to remember, nothing is off the record.”

She is so right. But for the record, Crawford has targeted clients who can’t afford a full-time public relations staff and those whose staffs are swamped.

“For me, that will mean plenty of challenges, new opportunities and, I hope, a lot of fun,” she said. “Because of my experience I can do anything from counseling, to development of a plan, to actually implementing it, if they need that.”

Crawford has been a steady performer in the local communications field since the native Detroiter came here in the late 1970s, when a friend from college gave her a job tip and she quickly found herself in the marketing department at Old Kent Bank.

“When I moved back to Detroit right after school, I ended up in a branch management training program and I realized that wasn’t really my forte. But when I moved back to Grand Rapids, the media weren’t hiring so I went back to what I was familiar with,” she said.

“But before I got into that aspect of banking, this friend introduced me to a human resources person who told me that Old Kent had a huge marketing department and they really needed somebody to do public relations. That was huge.”

So huge that Crawford co-directed the very first River Bank Run.

Five years later, she went to WXMI, then an independent UHF television station. There, she directed public affairs and became an on-air personality.

“Once I started doing that work I think it really affirmed for me that public relations and communications was what I enjoyed, what I thought I had the skill and talent to do, and that has been my career ever since,” said Crawford.

A trip to the hospital — as a career move, mind you — was next for Crawford. She did communications work for Butterworth Hospital and then Spectrum Health, after Blodgett and Butterworth merged. She managed corporate communications, by working with the executive officers and management teams, and served as the strategic program manager for DeVos Children’s Hospital and Spectrum Health before deciding to go out on her own.

So what enticed her to leave the Motor City, the media mecca and communications capital of Michigan, to get deeply involved with public relations here?

“I fell in love with the west side of the state. I think after growing up in the Detroit area and moving over here, the pace of life felt more comfortable and yet it still felt metropolitan to me. For me, it was a big city without all the negative aspects of one,” explained Crawford.

“I think my first choice, not knowing any better, would have been to go to Kalamazoo. But just the way life is, I ended up in Grand Rapids and I have loved every minute of it.”

Crawford also loves her work. She said analyzing problems and then developing solutions are what she likes most about what she does. Both often involve digging below the surface, doing the research to find out what the real dilemma is.

She also wished, though, that more executives better understood the value that consistent communication can offer their firms. Some, she said, don’t grasp that notion until they’re in a tight spot.

“Often, it’s the executive who is misquoted either at a meeting or in the media, or something goes wrong and they’re under a lot of scrutiny. That is when they realize how important public relations is,” she said.

“And, yet, everything they do builds their image and their reputation, in one way or another. So I think it’s better to have control of that and pay attention to it, rather than have outsiders do it for them.”

Carleen is married to Guy, who is a partner and a steel broker at Alto Steel. She recently completed the Leadership Grand Rapids course and is active in Interchange, a group of 40 former graduate students from Western Michigan University — where Crawford earned her bachelor’s degree in communications and master’s degree in organizational communications. She also belongs to View 100, a local organization made up of women who hold executive positions.

The Crawfords play golf in their spare time, and she likes to read and garden. Mostly English murder mysteries and only flowers.

“I did try growing vegetables once in my life and it was a disaster, so I’ve never gone back,” she said with another healthy laugh.

“I ended up with more zucchini and green beans than the entire neighborhood could eat in two years. The other things just never grew right. They just kind of floundered. Or I drowned them or something. I don’t know. But for some reason, vegetables are real tough for me.”

Hopefully, growing the business will be easier for her than the veggies were. Over the next year, when her venture reaches its first anniversary, Crawford hopes she has associates working at Crawford Communications. Admittedly, she said that was a pretty lofty goal. But if she does reach it, that will mean she has been productive and successful, and that her previous work did make a lasting and positive impression.

“It’s certainly scary right now, but it’s also very exciting,” she said. “I probably wasn’t ready for this 10 years ago, but I am now. I just have more confidence in my ability. Of course, I’ve got more experience and I’ve got my master’s.”

See, it was time.

“It’s sort of like, why not? If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.”           

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