Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

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: What was the biggest challenge that you faced during your career?

Ostrowski:   I’ve had a few that are memorable, some of which I probably would not want to recount for the record. I would say the biggest challenge for me was when I took over Porter-Novelli. It was right after 9-11 [and] the industry was having a really tough time. It was really a time of great change for the agency. We had some issues that we really had to deal with and one of my challenges was really to find something that would help motivate the entire global operation. It was an interesting situation because the agency was a global agency, but everything outside of the Americas did not report to me. It was split up at a higher level inside our parent firm. So I had a global brand, but I didn’t have any say over how it was expressed outside North America or outside the Americas. So one of the things that was important, as I say, was to find a way to bring our workforce together, to motivate people and also to create a strategy for the agency’s future so that we would be able to have a future that was going to be meaningful and successful. So we embarked on a program that involved about forty of our senior leaders in Europe and in the United States and—actually globally, I would say. That was really designed to find what was the agency’s proposition? We knew we were formed in the social marketing mode, but that wasn’t the only work that we did. It tended to be what we were known for, but the fact of the matter was that it was maybe only ten to fifteen percent of the agency’s revenue, so we had a lot of other work we were doing.

Without going into detail, the process really was extremely empowering for our senior leadership. It really bonded that group together. Not so much that they bonded to me, but they bonded together as a leadership team, and that was hugely important to help us rebuild the agency and have a positive path forward and really engage our employees. So it was very time consuming. There was a lot of travel involved, but it was definitely the right thing to do. Again, I took some lessons from my early days with that whole idea of you have to be honest with your workforce, about the current state of your affairs; whatever they are—positive or negative; what the future looks like; how are we all going to get there together; what’s expected of you; what we promise to be able to deliver, whatever that might be. That was not perhaps the scariest challenge I had, but it was certainly one of the most major challenges. The others would be more individual, I would say, more personal.