(Last Updated On: 05/06/2011)

Lauren Gard Builds Hype (and delivers on it, too)

99designs.com, a startup that connects graphic designers with the businesses and website owners in need of their services.

I recently had the chance to ask Lauren some questions about her career and what its like to work in public relations. If you have even a passing interest in the field, read on: she has a lot of great advice and information for you.

For readers who may not know exactly what public relations is, could you take a minute to explain what it is and why its valuable?

Public relations is the practice of both raising and managing the profile and reputation of an organization among its target audiences. A company may provide the greatest widgets on the planet, but if the people who love to buy widgets don’t know about it, chances are it wont be around for long.

A few ways companies attract new users or buyers are through word of mouth, social media engagement and through paid advertising. Another is through PR, which provides valuable third-party validation. When a respected newspaper publishes a positive article about a company’s new product, for instance, readers are likely to think, Hmm, I trust this newspaper…this thing really must awesome! Where can I buy it? A glowing article about a company can drive a great deal of business.

Of course, the flip side of PR involves controlling a company’s reputation when something potentially damaging arises. Think back to the last time a major oil spill occurred, and the CEO was thrown in front of TV cameras and made to be held accountable. The PR staff plays a major role in figuring out how to handle the situation. How should the company respond? Should it apologize and accept responsibility right off the bat or go on the defense? What information can be shared with the public and what might the consequences be? PR is not always fun, or easy!

You started your career as a journalist, and later shifted into public relations. What was your motivation for making that change?

Ive wanted to be a writer since I first picked up a pencil and began publishing my own little books and poetry collections as a kid. I pursued a path as a reporter and editor for about a decade after college, including getting a masters degree in journalism.

In 2009, after working at a half-dozen different publications including two major national magazines and pursuing an independent non-fiction book project, I realized I wasn’t actually feeling fulfilled or very happy as a journalist. What I wanted to do – get paid a good living to learn about whatever I happened to find compelling and write long, in-depth stories – simply wasn’t where the media world was heading. For most journalists, articles were getting shorter, deadlines tighter and salaries remained modest. Also, I realized I wanted a job that was more 9 to 5 – as a journalist I was constantly thinking about what my next story might be, regardless of whether I was on and off the job. There was just no downtime.

A PR contact Id stayed in touch with from my very first journalism job out of college asked me to join his small agency in San Francisco. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, though a somewhat scary one because being a journalist was completely intertwined with my identity. It was not just what I did, it was who I was. Yet within weeks of taking the leap into PR, I knew Id made the right choice. The firm specialized in professional services PR, so my clients were lawyers, accountants, health care executives – very smart people with great stories to tell. Helping my clients connect with their target audiences through media opportunities was just as rewarding as being a reporter. My hours were better. I got paid more – in fact, for the first time in my working life, I didn’t feel I was being underpaid. After about three years I moved to my current in-house position as PR Manager for 99designs.

Can you explain a little bit about what 99designs does, and what your personal goals are there?

99designs is an online marketplace that connects small businesses and startups seeking graphic design work like logos, web pages and print materials with a community of more than 185,000 graphic designers around the world. Traditionally, if a small business starting up or rebranding needed design work done, they’d hire a friend or family member to whip something up, or try to find a local designer who could do it at an affordable price. 99designs innovative crowdsourcing model enables customers to launch a contest for design work that any designer on our site can enter. Dozens of designers submit their ideas and over the course of a week the customer provides feedback to individual designers and the group as a whole. At the end of the week, the customer chooses their favorite design and that designer receives a predetermined cash prize. 99designs has facilitated more than 160,000 design contests and has paid more than $42 million to our design community since we launched in 2008.

As PR Manager, I’m responsible for raising awareness of 99designs among our target audience of small business owners and the design community. Prior to joining in 2012 when 99designs marketing team was formed, nearly all of 99designs new customers and designers came through word of mouth. My goal is to leverage the media to bring in more users as we continue to expand here in the United States and around the world. It may sound cliché, but if I can help make 99designs a household name, Ill consider myself successful!

These days, you spend a lot of your time pitching to journalists. Do you feel like your background in journalism makes it easier for you to connect with them?

Yes, although I think my passion for the media in general – my life-long daily habit of reading multiple newspapers, magazines and other media outlets online and off – goes a long way, too. Its that curiosity – that desire to know whats going on, to see who’s writing about what, to track unfolding stories and figure out how you might create opportunities for PR for your client or company – that is essential.

Its wholly possible – and common – for people to do well in PR without having first worked as a journalist. That said, I can see a few ways my experience has made it easier for me. Ive been on the receiving end of thousands of pitches during my journalism days, so I like to think I know how to write a pitch that will get a journalists attention (and how not to get blacklisted.) Ive made many journalism contacts over the years, and while mastheads seem to change daily, they’ve proven helpful. Also, I do think some journalists may be more prone to working with me because Ive been in their shoes and understand the editorial process. Still, at the end of the day its the quality of the ideas I pitch and the way I do it that sell a story and score coverage for 99designs – not my background.

You told me that you’ve never been happier at work than you are with this job. What about it makes it so much fun?

A significant part of why I enjoy my job so much is that 99designs mission is one I truly believe in: to empower graphic designers around the world to make a living doing what they love to do. And, simultaneously, to help small business owners and startups get off the ground and running with branding they love and feel good about. I hear daily from designers able to support themselves and their families through their work on 99designs and business contacts they’ve made on the site, and from customers thrilled with the quality of the work they’re receiving. Also, a few months ago we launched 99nonprofits, an initiative to provide free graphic design work to not-for-profit organizations. We’ve received more than 100 applications and selected several dozen organizations to participate to date – its awesome. I always told myself that if I did go into PR, it would be to help a cause or people I really care about, because that’s what I always aimed to do as a journalist. I truly feel I’m doing that.

I feel lucky to have such a wide diversity of topics to pitch, from internal news (like a survey of our design community or a launch into a new country) to cool design contests on our site (such as Grammy-winning musician Bon Ivers recent tattoo design contest, which Rolling Stone and a slew of other publications covered).

Finally, 99designs vibrant, fast-paced and fun culture has proven a perfect fit for me. Were a young, enthusiastic team of about 75 staff across San Francisco, Melbourne and Berlin, and we all share a common goal: to help the company and our customer and designer communities find success at every turn. And, simply put, we also like each other. A lot! The San Francisco office holds happy hours every Friday, convenes weekly with our teams around the world in all-hands video-conferenced meetings, does volunteer work together, and can regularly be seen doing pushups as a group or leaping onto our industrial-strength pull-up bars to stay in shape. Coming to work is like coming to a family reunion everyday minus the drama!

I know this is a tough question (especially for someone who wears as many hats as you do), but what is a typical day in the office like for you?

On a typical day Ive already responded to a few emails on my iPhone before getting out of bed – with offices on three continents, the emails come at all hours! Im usually in the office around 8am, out soon after 6pm, and the hours in between fly by. I’m responsible for coming up with and pitching story ideas, coordinating incoming interview requests from the media, managing our international PR firms, managing and editing our customer blog, overseeing fun and informative surveys of our communities, arranging for our executives to speak at events and conferences, making sure the company and our executives are nominated for relevant awards, and attending the occasional trade show. So on a typical day, I tackle any number of to-do items on my list.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help from your mentors, former colleagues or even from That Nice Executive You Met Once on the Train. Most people who’ve had positive interactions with you are happy to help you advance in your career – no matter how long its been – so don’t be afraid to ask for a half-hour of their time when you’re trying to figure out whats next for you. The majority of the jobs Ive held have come through personal contacts. The editor of a magazine I interned at in high school ended up helping me land a magazine job out of grad school – ten years later! My first PR job also came from a contact Id made many years earlier. And my current role came through a friend who knew I wanted to work at a startup and alerted me to the opportunity. Turn to the people you know to help you get where you want to be – and then do the same for others whenever you have the chance. Its a very small world out there!What advice would you give to students who think that they might like to work in public relations?

Read as many publications online and off you can get your hands on – don’t just rely on Twitter and Facebook feeds for your news. Write for your school newspaper and offer to do PR for campus groups and causes. Then read and write some more! Don’t feel you have to major in communications or public relations – study anything you’re passionate about. (I went to a liberal arts college that didn’t have a journalism or PR-related major and majored in psychology.) Go to networking events for industries you’re interested in – not just PR-related – and strike up conversations with at least ten people before heading home. Learning how to talk to people – to anyone – is a crucial PR skill.

What are a few qualities that people need to have if they’re going to be successful in this field?

If you’re a news junkie and a solid writer with a knack for connecting the dots and consistently coming up with creative story ideas and angles, you’re off to a good start. Add to that the ability to be flexible, think on your feet, juggle many tasks simultaneously and do it all without breaking a sweat (or at least without breaking a sweat at the office), and you’ll find success is just a few press releases and pitches away!Thanks so much for your time!

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