As a former high school English and journalism teacher, as well as one of the few women in leadership in local public relations in the early 1980s, Ann Barkelew quickly fell into mentoring those aspiring to PR careers.
“I was often asked to give industry speeches on what it was like to be a woman in a high-profile position,” she says. “A lot of young women would come up to me afterward and say, ‘I would like you to be my mentor.’ ”
One of Barkelew’s young mentees was Sue Sorensen Lee, who joined Dayton Hudson, the Minneapolis-based department store company that later became Target Corp., in 1988. At the time, Barkelew was Dayton Hudson’s corporate vice president of public relations. Lee, who’d recently been hired as the public relations manager for the company’s department store group, didn’t report to Barkelew. But the two crossed paths and hit it off.
“There was a spark in Sue that was really fun,” Barkelew says. “As she started to take on more responsibility, she would call me to bounce off ideas. I could see she had what it took to grow in the field. I encouraged her to get involved with different professional activities. I would invite her to things, try to give her more visibility in the company.”
Barkelew also helped Lee manage her first major communications crisis in the late 1980s. Union-organization efforts at Dayton Hudson stores in Detroit had begun heating up, and organizers had scheduled an event at one Hudson’s store for the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year. The media would be clamoring for comment. Lee’s ability to carefully handle reporters would soon be tested.
“One of the essentials of being a PR professional is the ability to be calm during the storm,” Lee says. Having seen Barkelew exhibit that quality many times, Lee walked over to Barkelew’s office to seek counsel before returning a call to a reporter in Detroit, a heavily unionized city.
“I said, ‘Why not call him now?’ ” Barkelew recalls. “As Sue was talking to him, I was scribbling notes and holding them up. Afterward, she fell into the chair, exhausted, and we both laughed. Being a mentor is like being a coach. I was like someone in the wings on a stage, whispering the lines.”
Lee says this moment “was the start of learning how to manage crisis communications for me. I was dealing with reporters with a point of view. I needed to inform, educate and prove things that were different than what they believed. I certainly could not have done it without Ann’s guidance. She had confidence in me, which was huge. No matter how late it was or how busy she was, if I came to her with an issue, she would take time to talk me through the situation and the options.”
In 1994, after 14 years with Dayton Hudson, Barkelew retired. Two years later, she received a call from FleishmanHillard, asking her to open a Minneapolis office for the St. Louis-based public relations firm. Barkelew recruited Lee to join her.
“As we grew, Ann asked me to lead the consumer and food division,” Lee says. “She positioned my work on a national level, gave me lots of visibility, and seeded that part of me that wanted to be entrepreneurial.” In 2004, six years after moving into the higher-level position, Lee launched Minneapolis-based Lee Public Relations, which focuses on strategic communications for companies in the consumer and food sector.
Barkelew also recruited another mentee, Beth Heming, whom she met through Musicland, the now-defunct records retailer and a FleishmanHillard client at the time. Though Heming didn’t work for her, Barkelew coached the communications industry newcomer on how to prepare a comprehensive strategy for the financially troubled firm. In 1994, Heming joined FleishmanHillard’s investor relations practice.
“I learned from Ann’s style, her intelligence, the quickness with which she analyzes a situation and can articulate a strategy,” Heming says. “When top executives threw the toughest of questions at her, she was unflappable.” Over the years, Heming has sought to emulate that style. “Even after I was working for her, she would recommend me for [jobs] and counsel me on what type of position I should take to further my career,” says Heming, who is now the Minneapolis-based chief compliance officer for Maryland-based investment management firm Rothschild Capital Partners.
Barkelew left FleishmanHillard in 2002, but she still gets calls from people who worked for her or with her, she says. “I get more out of it than they do. That people want your advice is pretty flattering. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I learned about social media from the younger people and I now have a wonderfully wide circle of friends.”