The Messengers

Madison is under the influence of these women

Pictured left to right: Lisa Hartman, Melanie Kranz, Kristina Hoffman, Chris Schellpfeffer and Jennifer Savino

Pictured left to right: Lisa Hartman, Melanie Kranz, Kristina Hoffman, Chris Schellpfeffer and Jennifer Savino













Here’s yet another reason we keep getting called Dame County: A growing number of remarkable Madison-area women work in communications-related fields such as public relations, marketing, advertising, lobbying and community organizing—jobs where their ability to influence what we buy, do or even believe is paramount. And they’re very, very good at it.

They’re also part of a much larger demographic swing, where for the last few decades more women than men have been choosing careers involving persuasive communication. Today, for example, more than sixty percent of the nation’s advertising and public relations managers are women, according to federal Bureau of Labor statistics.

Cecilia Ford, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of English and sociology whose most recent book is Women Speaking Up: Getting and Using Turns in Workplace Meetings (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), says socializing factors may give women an edge in crafting convincing messages. But that difference, she emphasizes, seems to be cultural, not chromosomal.

“There is no conclusive or definitive evidence across different experimental and natural settings that women, overall, speak differently from men,” she says. “Even in [vocal] pitch ranges, women and men aren’t that statistically different, on average.”

Rather, it’s nurture and not nature that gives women and men different styles of communication. Ford, who also teaches a course on gender and language, says traditional tasks (think child-rearing) lead women to become more overtly empathetic and adept at determining the type of communication most likely to elicit a positive response. This bears out in the workplace, she says, with study after study demonstrating that men are more likely to be culturally accepted as leadership communicators and women as persuasive ones.

“Women have great skill at persuasive communication because of their socialization, or the roles women play,” Ford says. “They have more ways of figuring out how to convince people, because they have to.”

Agency Pros

“I think people who are naturally empathetic, regardless of gender, do well in communications because rarely are you trying to communicate to someone who is exactly like you,” says Jeane Kropp, director of brand strategy and a partner in Hiebing, one of Madison’s established marketing firms. “If you have empathy and can kind of get inside the psyche of others, then you have a really high potential to succeed.”

The various marketing, advertising and public relations firms around town are hotbeds of creative and persuasive communication. You may not know the women who own, run or work at these companies, but you’ll certainly recognize their creations.

Kropp, for example, can boast that she helped create MasterCard’s “Priceless” tag, and sent sales of Kraft’s DiGiorno into orbit by understanding that the frozen pizza could compete head-to-head with home delivery. Specializing in the kind of creative thinking that allows her to study a book of market research and tease out the one true message in all those numbers, Kropp is currently busy branding new products for nationally known companies and enjoying the fruits of her efforts on Hiebing’s new campaign for Culver’s, which just hit the airwaves.

Across town, Jennifer Savino, vice president at Knupp & Watson & Wallman (KW2, for short), another high-profile ad firm, is relishing a success of her own—luring Chris Schellpfeffer away from well-known Lindsay, Stone & Briggs to become the company’s director of public relations earlier this year.

“It’s part of my cunning plan to hire the people who are the very best at what they do and make them crazy happy to be here,” Savino says with a smile.

Her company does have national clients, but KW2 is better known here for its work on behalf of scores of local organizations and businesses, including Overture Center, and for public service announcements such as 2008’s jaw-dropping commercial on road-worker safety, created for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. As the company expands, Savino says hometown public-service efforts, such as the $1.5 million in goods and services generated through the company’s annual Goodstock program, will continue to be a high priority.

Schellpfeffer good-naturedly denies being “lured” and says she joined the company for the new challenge of re-doing what she did at her last position, which was build a booming public relations practice. Expect her to excel while she does it: As one of Madison’s PR rockstars in national media relations, Schellpfeffer is the kind of rep who makes Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporters slide open their phones and call her clients, not the other way around.

Melanie Kranz, who worked her way up from reception to vice president and principal with ZEBRADOG (formerly ZD Studios), says a lot with her work that says almost nothing out loud. The firm specializes in environmental design and branding, so much of her job coordinating targeted messaging campaigns results in powerful, but non-verbal, communication. If you’ve seen the colorful banners affixed to the Capitol Square light poles, or the State Street thumbprint icon, or the UW athletics spaces ranging from Camp Randall concession stands to Badger Alley to Bo Ryan’s office, you’ve seen ZEBRADOG—and Kranz—in action. As adept at developing new business and scoping projects as she is budgeting and pitching in on creative design, Kranz is justifiably proud.

“It not only makes the spaces better and reflects how great the programs are,” she says of her firm’s work with the athletics program, “it’s been a real game-changer in the recruiting process.”

It’s too soon to tell, but the game-changing, landscape-shifting explosion in social-media marketing may generate more opportunities for women to tap communications skill-sets that connect people to people and people to products.

At Stephan & Brady, VP and public relations director Kristina Hoffman and senior VP/account director Lisa Hartman bring their teams together to collaborate on some of the company’s best-known accounts, including Archer Daniels Midland, Miller Brewing, Wilderness Resort and Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. And Hoffman just launched a blog to promote the firm’s success in the niche market of premium food. She allows that the conversational approach of blogging may benefit from a communication style more typically attributed to women.

“I think women are relational, and developing relationships in marketing is a real strength,” she says. “The more you get to know somebody, whether they’re clients or internal staff, the more that enables you to build trust and persuade.”

Power Suits

Late last year, Tanya Bjork [pictured at far left] enjoyed a day most lobbyists would consider the pinnacle of their careers. As director of federal affairs for the state of Wisconsin, Bjork accompanied Governor Jim Doyle to Washington, where they and a delegation of Midwestern governors met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in her grand Capitol office. Then they crossed the rotunda to chat with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his fabulously appointed quarters. A few hours later, she and the governor traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to talk with President Barack Obama in, you guessed it, the Oval Office.

When she’s on the job as a lobbyist for the state, what Bjork talks about is Wisconsin. And when she talks, everyone listens. Including the chair of the House Committee on Transportation, for whom she interned way back when. And the director of the powerful political action committee EMILY’s List, for which she managed a seventeen-state regional network. And the current president of the United States, whose Wisconsin campaign she ran. And she’s effective. Remember when the state received $1.6 billion in the first recovery bill and then feds dropped $810 million into the pot for a high-speed rail link from Milwaukee to Madison? It was Bjork’s responsibility to help make Wisconsin’s case for that money. When Obama came to Madison to spotlight the $5 billion Race to the Top program from the auditorium at Wright Middle School, that was her doing, too.

Bjork demurs that her job is rarely as spectacular as that trip to Washington. Instead, a typical day finds her working the phones: checking with contacts and tracking legislation, serving as a communications conduit who tells government staffers and policymakers what they need to know to make a decision in Wisconsin’s favor.

“Issues are easy to learn if you have a story to tell,” says Bjork. “To be quite honest, part of the reason we’re as effective as we are is because we have a great story to tell in Wisconsin.”

Kris Andrews [pictured above, center] and Rhonda Norsetter [pictured above, right], federal lobbyists for the UW System and for UW–Madison, respectively, say their employers are part of that story.

“There is not a greater university in the world,” says Norsetter, whose title is senior special assistant to the chancellor and director of federal relations. A Madison graduate, Norsetter became the only female lobbying for a Big Ten university when she took the job in 1992; now the group is basically gender-even. Because fully thirty percent of UW–Madison’s budget comes from federal research funds, Norsetter has traveled to Washington at least once a month for eighteen years. She has risen through national ranks in her field, too, and in 2011 will become chair of the Council of Federal Relations for the Association of American Universities.

As Norsetter’s counterpart for the UW System, Andrews also spends a lot of time in Washington—though she’s usually too busy to look up all the friends she made there when she served as chief of staff for former congressman Scott Klug in the 1990s. Widely credited with boosting the profile of the UW’s outstate campuses since she became assistant vice president for federal relations in 2001, Andrews is justly famed for launching innovative programs throughout her career. For example, she worked with Sue Ann Thompson (featured in our cover story) to establish the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation, and went on to serve as the organization’s first executive director and raise more than $1 million in just over a year.

Flying Solo

Can one person make a difference? Cheryl Tessier and Barbara Cole Hernandez think so. Each is president of her own one-woman public relations firm, founded after years of learning, doing and growing with established Madison companies. And both have built thriving practices all on their own, thank you, by combining traditional public relations with creativity and hard-won expertise in crisis management.

Tessier [pictured at right] spent several years at Stephan & Brady and now runs Finesse Public Relations where she recently helped publicize Summit Credit Union’s innovative Project Money and Pay It Forward programs. Her clients include an international food ingredients corporation, and lately she’s been helping an unnamed but well-known customer make sure an internal problem doesn’t also become a tricky public-relations issue.

Hernandez [pictured at left] gained considerable experience counseling clients through PR crises while a partner at Hiebing—she helped Epic respond to media inquiries during the company’s 2008 dust-up with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, for example—before she struck out on her own last year to found BCH OnPoint, Inc. One of the best-known practitioners in Madison’s public relations community, Hernandez is a past president of the Madison chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and in 2008 was named the organization’s Communicator of the Year.

Community Service

Some of Madison’s most influential communicators advocate for causes, not clients. If Maureen Busalacchi’s [pictured at right] name is familiar, for instance, it’s because she’s the woman behind the statewide smoking ban that will take effect this summer. As executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin since 2004, Busalacchi directed years of painstaking effort—persuading lawmakers and tavern-owners, linking community groups and helping everyone stay on-message.

“Messaging was really important,” she says. “When there’s community involvement and media coverage, I think people can really understand—and for us [the ban] was really about getting people to understand the issue.”

And Busalacchi says her organization is just getting started. “The smoking battle is far from over,” she says, adding that she sees working to create communities that are healthier, overall, as her real mission.

Jennette Bradley [pictured at far right] has embarked on a mission to influence an entire generation of Madison girls. The new CEO of Girl Scouts of Wisconsin-Badgerland Council, Bradley is a former politico from Ohio—three terms on the city council in Columbus and four years as the state’s lieutenant governor—who landed in Madison last winter.

Her job? Set the new group, created with the complex merger of four smaller Girl Scouts councils, on the best possible course for the future. Her strength? Communication. Bradley says that will be the key not only to her success but also to that of the girls her group will serve.

“We have to develop leadership skills in young women and prepare them for the future,” she says, “and to do that we have to give them the skills to step up, speak up, show compassion and make connections.”

Grand Dames

A few decades ago these four women, who helped shape Madisonians’ opinions and behaviors, were pioneers. Today they’re just extraordinarily successful. And still hard at work, as this snapshot of what they’re up to lately attests.

Marsha Lindsay continues at the helm of Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, the “psychology of persuasion” firm she founded in 1978 and built into a branding and marketing powerhouse. She also established and runs Brandworks University, an annual conference attended by hundreds of marketing execs each year. And she serves with equal passion on industry boards and local committees.




Virginia Henderson is more involved than ever with two of Madison’s most influential community organizations: the terrific kids’ summer science program she runs for the African American Ethnic Academy (she’s president) and the scholarship-raising Women in Focus (she’s a longtime member and leader). A former head of the Minority Student Achievement Initiative for Madison schools, Henderson says, with a laugh, “I think I retired to work harder.”



Carol Toussaint will say she’s doing less these days, but don’t believe her. She was named to Overture Center’s first board of directors in 2001 and still serves on it as well as the 201 State Foundation, which also supports Overture. She was a member of too-many-to-list UW–Madison committees for decades, and she still is. “I can’t think of any woman I’ve known who has had more influence in the
community than Carol Toussaint,” says Marsha Lindsay. Indeed, the lecture series she founded, Vantage Point, drew Biddy Martin’s first public speech as UW–Madison Chancellor.  


Joan Collins remains synonymous with publicity. And by that we mean both the woman and her eponymously named company, Joan Collins Publicity. She still runs the business, which she founded in 1966 and includes not only her staff but a nationwide network of freelancers. She won a Governor’s Trailblazer Award for Women in 2007, and generously gives back to nonprofits in general, with more than $100,000 in donations to the Madison Community Foundation, and to women and girls in particular, through MCF’s A Fund for Women.



Contributing writer Mary Erpenbach is director of communications for Discover Mediaworks and board member of PRSA’s Madison chapter.

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