Christina’s Coffee Talk: Stephanie Smirnov

Stephanie Smirnov
Stephanie Smirnov

This week I had the pleasure of getting to know more about our favorite PR Mama: Stephanie Smirnov, president of DeVries Public Relations. Stephanie relies so heavily on three gargantuan mugs of Starbucks coffee a day that her family is trained to not talk to her until she’s had the first sip. Sounds familiar. She’s a pro at wakeboarding, Wii Resort Wakeboarding that is, and relaxes in her Catskills home with her husband and son “swimming, skiing, grilling and chilling.” Stephanie listens to the best old-school funk, disco, and R&B and reads her favorite mommy blogs (The Bloggess, The Pioneer Woman, and Rock and Roll Mama to name a few) and design/trend blogs—a new favorite Design*Sponge. Okay, enough of the fun stuff. When Stephanie said she would participate for Coffee Talk, I couldn’t wait to find out how she is so successful in her career and also a great mom with a very solid family. How does one find the time for it all? And so I give you, Stephanie Smirnov . . . super mom and PR pro:

  1. Did you see yourself going into PR?
    1. Not at all. I studied Art History in college and graduate school and planned to be a professor. I didn’t even know you could major in things like communications back then. I fell into PR by accident during my tenure at the Donna Karan Company: I went there to “take a break” from school before heading to the University of Pennsylvania for my doctoral program. I was hired as an assistant in Donna’s office (very “Devil Wears Prada”)and was able to work my way into a marketing/PR role after about three years. I absolutely adored my years at Donna Karan. It was a thrilling place to be as a fashion- and beauty-obsessed 20-something.
  2. Tell me about your current role in PR
    1. Once I got into PR, I knew I wanted to stay in this industry. But because I started in the business on the client side, I figured I’d stay there. I hoped I’d end up running a department at one of the big beauty companies like Estee Lauder or L’Oreal. That dream really had a hold on me, to the point where I left DeVries to do a stint at L’Oreal, gave it three good years, and realized ultimately I missed agency life. So I came back to DeVries in 2003 and I’ve been here ever since.
    2. Did you find any resistance at being a woman in business, or a family-oriented mom? Not at all. I’m fortunate to work at a company where family/work balance is respected. I’m grateful for this every day.
      There is no doubt in my mind that I could not do what I do without my husband. That he gave up his career in dancing to focus on our son and home blows me away.
    3. Do you think husbands and wives can both have successful careers while juggling family? I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’ve never been in that situation. I’m sure there are couples making it work but I imagine it comes with tremendous sacrifices. I have friends who have wonderful nannies, but I never considered that option. I felt strongly that my husband and I be our son’s primary caregivers.
    4. What challenges have you faced in juggling family life with career? The worst thing for me is the business travel. My son is old enough now to express his unhappiness about my travel in no uncertain terms (he’s 6 ½)—he understands the concept of getting on a plane and being in another city for a week. Until recently, it was all abstract for him but the more he understands that I’ll be gone, the more painful it is for me to leave.
    5. What advice or top 3 tips would you give to women looking to have both a career and a family.
      First and foremost: if your gut says you’re ready to be a mother, do not wait. There will never be a perfect time to go on maternity leave. If you’re putting off having a child because you’re afraid of what your employer will think then you are probably working for the wrong people. Second: Get your support systems in place. Motherhood is hard work. You may be a rock star at the office but trust me, your children will outwit and outplay you every time. Whether it’s neighbors, family, girlfriends, your partner or spouse, a nanny or babysitter . . . do not be afraid to ask for help, to delegate, to get support. You cannot have a career and be a mom by going it on your own. It’s not fair to you or your child. Third: Don’t be afraid to be creative and make requests of your employer so that you can take care of things at home. Employers are more open than ever before to flex time, shared positions, compressed work weeks, telecommuting. If you’ve proven yourself at the office and have a thoughtful plan for how to manage your workload with less time in the office, do not be afraid to present it.
  3. A little off topic, however recently there is a lot of discussion about men losing jobs and women gaining jobs and the roles are being reversed. There are a lot more stay-at-home dads than before.

    1. Do you agree or disagree and why? I have to imagine there are more men at home with their kids now as a result of the economic downturn. I’m not sure I see this as an opportunity for women, though, because there are plenty of women out of work, too. It’s not like WWII when women could fill factory jobs left open by men shipped overseas—now, the jobs simply aren’t there. Not for men OR women.
    2. From your experience, how has the role for women in PR changed over the last 20 yrs? I’ve been in consumer PR (with a specialty in beauty) practically my whole career, a sector of the industry that seems to skew female. I’ve had amazing role models my entire career, women like Madeline DeVries and Marina Maher who founded their own agencies in the 1970s and went on to become huge industry leaders. The generation that followed Madeline and Marina has gone on to attain positions of great visibility and influence in our business, women like Weber Shandwick’s Gail Heimann, Marina Maher’s Nancy Labadie, Porter Novelli’s Julie Winskie. They prove it’s possible to balance work and family with grace, and are role models for PR people of both genders.
  4. Now onto PR—have you always worked in Consumer PR? Yes, the portion of my career that’s been focused on PR (which is most of it) has been in the consumer arena.
    1. What is your favorite aspect of consumer PR? I love it because I’m such an avid consumer myself and get so absurdly excited about my favorite brands—I could carry on about Prius, Sharpie and Nintendo till the cows come home, and I don’t even represent them! It’s easy to channel this passion into client work. And as luck would have it, I happen to actually be the consumer many of our clients are targeting—it’s easy to do program development for Olay or Pepperidge Farm when you can get inside the head of their consumers so easily.
  5. What are some of the daily tasks and/or obstacles you encounter as president of DeVries?

    1. The tasks are more fun to discuss! I oversee our Strategic and Creative Services team, which includes digital strategy, research and analytics and digital production. My team works across all our businesses and partners with the account teams on program development and execution. I also spearhead new business efforts, which I love. (It appeals to my competitive nature!)
    [Editor’s Note:  There was simply too much fantastic material to include it all in one post.  Please check back in with PRBreakfastClub on Thursday September 17th, for the rest of Christina’s interview with PR Mama Stephanie Smirnov.]

    As always, feel free to join our coffee talk and add to the questions/comments. If you have any additional questions for Stephanie Smirnov please post them below and we’ll see if she can spare a few more minutes for some answers.