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Carolyn S. Fraser: “Keep your head above water and never let them see you sweat”

Keep your head above water and never let them see you sweat. These things are important to keep in mind when leading your team, especially when they’re looking to you for all of the answers. Don’t be robotic, but let them know what’s going on, and how you’re going to figure out a solution to […]

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Keep your head above water and never let them see you sweat. These things are important to keep in mind when leading your team, especially when they’re looking to you for all of the answers. Don’t be robotic, but let them know what’s going on, and how you’re going to figure out a solution to the challenge at hand. Also, reassure them that things are going to be alright. It’s important for me as a business leader to do all of the above when faced with new challenges that affect the business.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn S. Fraser.

Purposeful, dedicated and resilient would only begin to scratch the surface of The PR Shoppe founder and CEO, Carolyn S. Fraser. Over her 15+ years as a strategic communications practitioner, Carolyn has led winning integrated marketing campaigns for some of the top brands in the world.

Brands represented include Revlon, Visa, BET Networks & Black Girls Rock!, Laila Ali & ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Maytag/Whirlpool, Ernst & Young and CURLS.

In 2016, Carolyn married her passion of marketing and mentorship and founded “Resilience in Business”, an online empowerment platform to help entrepreneurs and small business owners strengthen their ‘mental grit’ and better hold themselves accountable to success.

Carolyn has a B.A. in Business Administration with a minor in Communications Studies from The University of Missouri — Kansas City. She has completed several professional development courses, including a hard-earned Crisis Communications certificate from Northwestern University’s School of Communications, and course completion for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth’s Building a High-Performing Minority Business, and Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses programs.

She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity, National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m a Midwest girl with a hint of East Coast, as I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Kansas City, MO. So it made sense that after graduating from college, I wanted to move back to New York, the media capital of the world, to work in communications. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, but I knew some form of communications was where my heart was leading me. So, I picked up, sold everything I owned, and moved to New York with 4,000 dollars in my pocket, and slept on my favorite cousin’s bed (with her) for six months. I was hungry for success!

At the age of 26, I found myself having to start over and learn the trade. I took an internship at a well-known PR agency, and worked part-time at Applebees, before securing a full-time position at a boutique PR agency, which specialized in B2B communications.

While I sharpened my skill set at the agency, I also began moonlighting as an entertainment and lifestyle publicist, which helped me gain a tremendous amount of celebrity and red carpet experience. I eventually was recruited by a leading lifestyle PR agency, which specialized in consumer work.

I decided to pursue the position at the lifestyle/B2C agency, because long before I was being recruited, I had wanted to work there, but was previously overlooked when I applied and went through the interview process. Already knowing the new position was not ideal, as they hired me to “help change the culture of the agency,” I accepted it anyway. That should have been my red flag. It didn’t come as a surprise when I was terminated a month later, after filing a formal complaint about a senior staff member who was harassing her team, including myself. Following that experience, and seeing how traditional agencies had so much control over their employees’ destiny, I decided to pursue entrepreneurship.

I found myself starting over once again before the age of 30, and launched an integrated marketing boutique, The PR Shoppe. My first client was doing PR for my sister’s Houston-based beauty event. Through this experience, I was able to network and secure a handful of amazing clients. I eventually relocated to Chicago for a better chance at success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I honestly do not process my mistakes as “funny,” but rather reflect on the key learnings and lessons which helped me grow. That said, I’ve smiled thinking how much I can overreact to certain situations. A takeaway I have from when I overreacted in the past, is when I was working on a national campaign. I was contracted through another agency at the time and spent countless hours coordinating an interview for a well-known celebrity. And at the very end of the campaign, I secured a social media live interview — this is when social media live interviews were just emerging on the platforms and being underutilized. Details were finalized and the interview had been booked when the reporter mentioned that her editor pulled the entire interview, communicating that they were “double-booked.”

I was upset and completely overwhelmed. I cried, I panicked, and overworked to try to make the situation right. And in doing so, I met with a friend and mentor, who helped me regroup and calm down. In the end, the agency didn’t give the cancellation a second thought.

So, the one lesson I learned early on, is that no matter how important marketing and PR is, it’s not life or death. What I do isn’t brain surgery and everything will be O.K.; even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. It’s better to realize sooner rather than later, that there are certain things you can’t control. But if you do your very best and things don’t work out; that’s O.K., so long as you did your best. Don’t continue to make yourself feel guilty and don’t take certain situations personally.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m incredibly grateful for my mentor, Robin Beaman, of Beaman Inc, whom I call my “PR momma.”

In 2016, Robin and I met at a PR Networking event in Chicago and she, not knowing me well, referred a piece of business to me which happened to be with a national beauty brand. To this day, that brand is still the agency’s biggest client.

I’m forever grateful that Robin saw something in me and took a chance in referring the business to me. I don’t take that for granted. Since Robin and I met, she constantly thinks of me, my agency and sends business my way all of the time. And I do the same for her!

She’s expressed in the past that she “felt my spirit,” and that led her to referring business to The PR Shoppe; and I’m very grateful for that. She put her name on the line for me, and I’ll never forget that level of trust of generosity.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

The PR Shoppe’s internal vision is to create a space for our team (full time, freelance, internship; anyone that joins our team at any level) that is diverse and completely judgment-free. I’m a diverse person and I wanted to create a space where diversity is at the core of everything we do. I do this because I never had the pleasure of working at an agency that made diversity a priority.

In fact, in some of my past positions, I was brought into meetings because I was a “person of color” and someone to be a “diverse face,” at the table. Furthermore, my ideas were only utilized or expressed when absolutely necessary, with my creative ideas often falling to the wayside.

By allowing people to come and be productive in their own environment, we are showing that we care about their creative process and their productivity. We don’t stand over our staff and ensure they are at their desk during a certain period of hours for the sake of tradition. As long as our team is hitting deadlines, bringing positive energy to their work and contributing as much as possible, that’s all that matters to me.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

2019 was the most challenging year for The PR Shoppe. We had a client decide that they didn’t want to prioritize paying us (we weren’t paid for nearly six months) and as a result, it impacted the bottom line for the agency. At that moment, I had to make a decision; continue to be overlooked or confront “the system.”

After six months of not receiving payments, I knew The PR Shoppe could potentially fold, as I didn’t have other major opportunities in the pipeline to make up for that loss. So, I went to work. I sent a very compelling letter to the company’s legal department and senior leadership, and was contacted almost immediately and received payment. Following this experience, I shared my process and contact information with other vendors who also had the same experience in not receiving payment so they could get compensated for their work too.

This was a really hard lesson but a key one for me to work through and overcome. I look back at this experience, and I’m really proud of myself for taking appropriate action, and am grateful for my team who trusted me and followed my leadership during that time.

There were a few lessons to be learned during that process, but the biggest lesson for me was to never (again) have all of my eggs in one basket — diversify your client accounts!

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Yes, absolutely! Probably every six months… genuinely. But that’s just a part of entrepreneurship and being a small business owner. When things get tough, you think about other options, but it’s important to not judge yourself for that — I certainly don’t! I let that feeling come, I process, and then I get back to work.

To help sustain my drive, I always go back to my “why,” which is financial independence and security, because there’s not a glass ceiling when you run your own company.

Secondly, I set out to create a space where my team and I can create and provide solutions to our clients, based on our terms. When you take away roadblocks and barriers to creativity — because let’s face it, it’s hard to be creative — it leads to our core mission, of being a judgment-free, diverse, creative space. And it’s really important to me that we continue to uphold these core standards at The PR Shoppe.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Mental Resilience. You need to keep your head above water when those challenges come your way, and find strength in your mindset, knowing that this too shall pass.

Your mind and mental well being is the most critical role you have. So, when you’re able to protect and strengthen your mind, you’re able to lead more effectively.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Assuring your team members and reminding them that, “this too shall pass,” is very important. Affirming your team, thanking them, being grateful for the contributions and letting them know that you are doing the work to bring in more opportunities and solidify job security, is a great way to boost morale. I also like to inspire and motivate our team by sending kind notes to them.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I learned effective communication in JROTC; Praise — Put Down — Praise. For team members, blanket the difficult news in affirmations, compliments, encouragement, gratitude, etc. For clients, blanket the difficult news in wins, promising news, progress and solutions. Always communicate that you’re doing your best, as long as you can back-up that claim.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Oprah once shared something that I will never forget: “When the future is unpredictable, do the next right thing.”

A lot of us cannot plan right now, due to the current circumstances (being in the middle of a pandemic), so we need to do the next right thing. Then after that, continue to do the next right thing, then the next, and the next, and the next, etc.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Yes, absolutely. BE RESILIENT. Not giving up is the number one thing a company can do to navigate turbulent times. When you are resilient, you may get knocked down ten times, but it’s important that you get back up on the eleventh time. Now, that’s not to say that when you get knocked down, you don’t need to regroup or pivot, or take a breather and process; but know that you will need to get back up.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

The three most common and consistent mistakes I’ve seen other businesses make during difficult times are:

  • Businesses jumping ship too soon
  • Businesses reacting too soon
  • Businesses not pivoting fast enough

All of the above go back to what I previously touched on — resilience. Businesses need to take a moment to process, then pivot and figure out how to change your brand messaging or service offering to meet the season (e.g. a pandemic). Many businesses stop seeing the (long term) opportunity.

As a business leader, you have to stay ahead of the game, be level-headed, think things through, and continue to reinforce that “this too shall pass.”

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

One of the things I’m very proud of that my businesses have done well, is pivoted.

For my personal brand, Resilience in Business, I’ve completely pivoted to be 100% online. I had already started pivoting to more online coaching and creating more digital products, however, during this time I’ve completely pivoted my accountability program to be an online tool. So, being able to diversify services, even something as simple as moving from traditional to digital platform marketing, is really important.

Additionally, a good leader needs to diversify. Diversify your staff, your client base and be open to new approaches to your business.

It’s also really important to network strategically. Strategic networking is important, but now it’s essential as we’re (literally) staying inside. Business leaders need to figure out how to stay connected and network. For The PR Shoppe, we’ve leveraged our certifications as a minority-owned and minority and women-owned business, so we can participate in strategic connections, such as virtual networking events, conferences, panel discussions and more.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Keep your head above water and never let them see you sweat. These things are important to keep in mind when leading your team, especially when they’re looking to you for all of the answers. Don’t be robotic, but let them know what’s going on, and how you’re going to figure out a solution to the challenge at hand. Also, reassure them that things are going to be alright. It’s important for me as a business leader to do all of the above when faced with new challenges that affect the business.
  2. Be an assertive leader and have an “all hands on deck,” mindset. As a leader, you need to roll up your sleeves and make things happen. And oftentimes, depending on where you are in your company, you may not always be hands-on. But, when facing turbulent times, the playing ground is level for everyone, and you need to do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission.
  3. Take care of yourself. Self-care is EVERYTHING. Your mental and physical stability will be challenged as a business leader. I learn this lesson time and time again. You’re pouring into everyone else. Who is pouring into you? You need to take time for yourself in order to be an effective, strategic leader.
  4. Stay connected. Always be on top of industry news and happenings in the marketplace. Continue to be informed and in-the-know. You need to be educated, so the more informed you are, the better you will be at setting yourself and team up for success, which will benefit your company and clients in the long run.
  5. Be flexible and look for different ways to find new opportunities. An opportunity that’s right in front of you may not be exactly what you’re looking for in that moment; but if you’re in a position where you may have to shut down operations in a certain area temporarily (or until that space or industry is back up and running), take a chance on something different. Be open to change and new possibilities, and don’t be set in your ways.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” — Steve Jobs

I love this quote because it helped me take the plunge when I decided to move from New York to Chicago in order to be in a productive mental space. I was in my first year as business owner, and my environment was not conducive to the growth I needed as an entrepreneur. My network at the time was filled with nine-to-five employees making great money, and our system was: go to work, do our work, hang out and party/chill, then get up and do it again. And I knew that that was not going to be conducive to my work ethic or lifestyle.

The part of the quote that reads, “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking” really resonated with me, and helped me stand firm in what I wanted to do and what my purpose was.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can follow me through my websites and social channels:

The PR Shoppe

Resilience in Business:

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