Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

Helen Ostrowski Biography

Helen Ostrowski joined Porter Novelli in 1993 to head the health care group, and has progressed through a variety of positions including general manager of the New York office, head of global practices and key accounts, president of the Americas, and finally, chief executive officer in 2003.  Ostrowski has over 35 years of experience in public relations and has worked closely with CEOs and senior management of companies such as Wyeth, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Gillette.  She is on the Boards of the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Arthur W. Page Society and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, the Counselor’s Academy, the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and was named an Inside PR All-Star in health care in 1996.  She is a John W. Hill award winner from PRSA-NY and serves on the Board of Trustees of Roger Williams University.

Transcript

Interviewer:   Well, we’re in Chicago and sitting with Helen Ostrowski.  It’s Sunday, September 13th.

Ostrowski:   My birthday.

Interviewer:   Your birthday, that’s correct. Thank you so much for taking time away; well you’re here for a conference on your birthday as well, but thank you for spending some time with us. So let’s get started.  If you could just talk about your career path following graduation from New York University, through your time at Porter-Novelli, and what you’re doing now.

Ostrowski:   A quick synopsis of that is I started working right after high school. I was a secretary and I was brought into the public affairs division at American Cyanamid, which was a Fortune 200 company, no longer around, but well known for being in the chemical industry and pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, etc. I spent ten years there. I worked my way up. I went to college at night at NYU while I worked during the day and eventually was promoted into an internal communications spot. And then I was cycled through a number of positions. I was very lucky because in those days—this was back in the early 70’s—that department had some very, very senior people from the industry generally, who had the time to spend with a younger person. That made a huge impression on me because it really taught me the importance of giving back, which is something I’ve carried through all my life.

After I left Cyanamid, I went to Schering-Plough for five years. I worked in the corporate department for a while, corporate communications. I was very fortunate. We had a new CEO; he needed an internal speechwriter, so there I was. I was 28 years old; I got to work with a very charismatic CEO who taught me a lot about how CEO’s think, and what’s important to them. I often thought about that after I became a CEO myself. And then I moved into the international pharmaceutical division at [American] Cyanamid where they were really practicing marketing communications at a global level, but as part of our profession, I would say it was really at its infancy. Then after that I decided I needed to break out of the corporate world and probably get some real hands-on work. So that’s when I moved over to the agency side and I worked for a couple of smaller health care public relation s agencies so I got a chance to work on marketing programs for products, which was great. And then Porter-Novelli hired me [in 1993]. They brought me in to head up the healthcare practice in New York.  We had a lot of very good pharmaceutical companies that we worked for and my job was to grow and expand that.  When the position for the general manager at the New York office became open, I moved into that and ultimately I became the CEO in 2002. I saw the agency through a huge amount of change over that period of time and I would say about two or three years ago we started talking about the fact that I would really like to retire early. I have an older husband. I have a lot of things in my life that I still want to be able to do. So I felt it was important to also turn over the reins to new leadership, additional leadership that I’ve been cultivating over the years. So we put in place a succession plan and in 2008 I moved to half time. I proposed to my parent firm that I should become chairman for a year, which would provide the kind of transition they were looking for and the agency was looking for. I did that and then I retired at the end of last year.

So what am I doing now besides being able to sleep past 4:30 in the morning? I am still on a number of boards, including the Arthur Page Society board. I’m also on the Board of The International Youth Foundation, which oversees youth development, particularly in developing countries, so that is really a great organization, and a couple of other boards as well.  I also just started teaching as an adjunct professor at New York University in a masters program; and I’m actually spending a lot of time as you might imagine on things I just didn’t have a chance to do before, a lot of time with my husband, my kids, my grandchildren, my friends, my family, not traveling as much as I thought I would. Interestingly, I realized that I had traveled so extensively in the last ten years that the last thing I want to do really these days is to get on another airplane if I can help it, unless it is something really special. So I’m really actually trying to see more of the environments I live in. We live in New Jersey and Florida and we spend a lot of time driving back and forth when we’re going and I’m getting to see parts of the country I’ve never seen before. So it’s just great and life is good.