Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

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.


Interviewer: Let’s look at the international realm. When you were with Porter-Novelli, it had many offices, across the globe—in the ninety’s or something—and thousands of clients. You became an expert at counseling the international client. Can you share any experiences that highlight again, challenges, but in the realm of the international—a challenge or a certain situation that you handled when you were counseling in this international realm?

Ostrowski:   I think that companies have certainly gotten much better at their global communications. Public relations is—even though we have global programs and deal with global entities—it’s still a local profession in the sense that you’re dealing with people who live in the community; customers; you have different cultures; you have different languages; you have different practices; all that stuff. So you overlay global on top of that and it’s very tempting to say one message is going to be the message. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t get me wrong. You have to have a sure sense of who you are as an organization, but I have always found that very often the ‘not-invented-here syndrome’ reigns supreme in many organizations. So I’ll relate a story—this was actually a couple of years ago, but I think it was a good eye-opener for everybody—we were working on a program for a new drug launch. It was going to be a global entity and the client was a big pharmaceutical company and they had a group of people that would come together twice a year and we would share marketing and the public relations stories and what we were working on. The company was a U.S. company, but the people running the program were from the U.K. To make a long story short, I remember this distinctly, we were going around the table and everyone was presenting what they were doing in their market and the Italians got up and everybody started looking at their watch, and it was really rude. So the guy from Italy got up and he describes the program they’re doing. The guy from Spain sitting across the table said, “we liked that program so much that we adopted it too, and it was a great idea.” The thing that was so remarkable to me was that you could see the Brits and the Americans going, “Wow! They came up with a great idea like that.” It was not because they happened to be Italian or Spanish. It was just because it wasn’t U.K. or U.S. I think that one of the things that I’ve always tried to counsel global companies in, including at Porter-Novelli, is that great ideas can come from any place and you have to have mechanisms and a way for people to share those [so] that they can filter up through an organization so they can get a chance to appraise them and see if they fit in a greater context.

Certainly one of the basic fundamentals of any relationship, including that of your own employees is making sure that people feel that they are getting credit for having come up with something, even if it never ends up getting implemented, but at least people feel that someone has been listening to them and understand that here’s what they’ve been able to say. I think that’s extremely powerful on a global scale and it’s something that you can easily overlook. I’m not sure how I would formulate that right now today in advice I’d give a client, but I do think that it is one of the things from a global prospective that you really have to pay attention to.