Keep a sense of humor. Not everything is a crisis. Before I scaled down the size of my firm I had at least a crisis a day when my PR agency was at its peak in terms of the number of staff. Like one day, a client services rep couldn’t make the super important “big client” meeting because she was too busy bailing her boyfriend out of jail. On another day, it was the ongoing drug dealing enterprise in the copy room. An unforgettable crisis was the disastrous holiday party: the caterer didn’t show and we wound up eating trail mix and drinking bottled water. Some were smoking joints. When they got to the munchie stage, people began dealing candy bars and chewing gum. “Laugh it off,” my mentors often told me. That was hard to do, especially the day one of my top account executives returned late from lunch — the one she had with one of our biggest clients: She was martini-drunk…with a broken nose. Though she tried to hide it, it continued to bleed. I didn’t even ask, I just pointed to the door.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cherie Kerr. Cherie, founder, and president of KerrPR, has been in the field of public relations for the past 43 years. Originally with Martin Advertising, one of Orange County’s oldest and most reputable advertising and public relations firms in Southern California, Kerr started her own firm in 1978. Since that time, she has created and managed hundreds of public relations campaigns and programs that have awards and high praise awards recognition for her clients and praise for her many accomplishments.
Along with Michael Eisner, Kerr was named one of “The Top Ten Most Sensational People” in Orange County in the early 90s by Orange Coast Magazine. She has won awards for her work from the Public Relations Society of America in crisis P.R., and also won more than a dozen MAME statuettes from the Pacific Coast Builder’s Conference and the Southern California Sales and Marketing Council for her innovative P.R. creativity. In October 2019, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award for her work in comedy by OCArts — the Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award.
Kerr is well versed in her field having represented clients in virtually every industry including law, real estate, health care, manufacturing, retail, technology, hospitality, education, transportation, and entertainment. Kerr enjoys an impeccable reputation among members of the media including producers for such shows as ABC’s “20/20,” “Good Morning America,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “CNN Headline News,” “Nightline,” “The Today Show,” “The Sunday Show,” “Access Hollywood,” “NBC Dateline” and “Entertainment Tonight,” to name but a few. She also works regularly with high-profile print/Internet outlets including Yahoo!, The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, New York Times, Bloomberg/Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, ESPN, People magazine, USWeekly, Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and Reuters to provide them with expert sources for commentary and creative suggestions for further developing their story ideas.
Cherie Kerr is also a speaker-trainer and communications coach who assists major companies, corporations, and institutions through her KerrPR subsidiary, ExecuProv. Founded in 1983, this company has taught hundreds of individuals, managers, and top-level executives from top Fortune 100 and 500 companies, the rigors of improv comedy and has blended them to fit the business sector in terms of “performance,” and “content creation.” Kerr teaches her students how to use the improv playbook precepts — how implement them in their day-to-day presentations and overall communications. Those on her client list include: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Kia, BP America, Allergan, Experian, Southern California Edison, Office Depot, Nissan, Mattel, The Marriott and Hilton Hotel chains, ConAgra Foods, and Ingram Micro, to name but a few. During her 37-years with this company, she also has worked for numerous colleges including USC, Otis, Chapman University, and UCI, as well as government agencies and organizations including: the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where she taught both midshipmen and faculty for eight years; West Point Cadets and officers teaching the latter more effective ways to design and deliver class curriculums, and the D.A.’s and city attorney offices. As a consultant for many corporate executives, she has coached them individually, for both presence and content preparation for key speeches and major broadcast media interviews. She also has coached various members of the Board of Governors of the State Bar of California, the District Attorney and City Attorney offices throughout California. She is frequently called upon to speak before groups, and also has appeared on radio and television news and talk shows, speaking about public relations dos and don’ts and public speaking and communication skills.
Cherie is a founding member of the world famous L. A. Groundlings. That is the organization is where she got her improv comedy chops.
Newly added to her menu of ExecuProv presentation and communication skills courses, is “Zoom This!, an online course that teaches business executives delivery techniques as well as how to create and arrange interesting content. Typical of Kerr, she is always ahead of the pack when it comes to revolutionary new ways of presenting and communicating to the world.
An author of 13 books, nine of which feature self-help techniques on communications skills, she shares her ideas and theories culled from her varied background and expertise in PR and communications. Her other works include a book on how to write sketch comedy, a book featuring the how to’s of building original comedic characters; another covering one-on-one networking skills, and also a critically-acclaimed memoir of her father’s life as a jazz musician entitled “Charlie’s Notes” which was a New York Book Festival winner in 2011. She has also ghostwritten books (and dozens of columns) for her clients, including a memoir by Bruce Givner, who, as an intern at the DNC in June, 1972, accidentally foiled the plans of the break-in burglars by staying late. Kerr’s books are available on Amazon.com and at Barnesandnoble.com and through ExecuProv’s website. They have been translated and sold in 17 foreign countries, as well.
Kerr has also written, produced and directed an original full-scale musical comedy, written five full-length screenplays, and more than 400 comedy sketches. Having produced a number of comedy shorts for the O.C. Crazies, Kerr founded Ree-invent Films in 2011 to expand her efforts into full-length feature films. Her first independent film project, We’ve Got Balls, which has won nine major awards since its world debut at the 2013 Newport Beach International Film Festival, won big at the Action on Film and Movieville International Film Festivals, as well as at THE IndieFEST; the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival and WorldFest-Houston. It was picked up for distribution by Indie Rights and released in May 2015. Kerr also just released “The Show Can’t Go On!” a 90-minute largely improvised mockumentary about trying to mount and keep up a sketch comedy show. In it, she plays herself. To date, the film has won six awards along the festival circuit and become an official selection in several others. She also is currently in pre-production on her next feature-length project, Small Claims, a highly improvised comedy.
Kerr’s screenplay, “Hype” was an Official Selection and her short film, “Background Check” was runner-up for “Best Comedy Scene” at the 2014 Action on Film International Film Festival. Her “Balls” trailer also won a first-place honor from WithoutABox in 2014.
Kerr is the mother of award-winning filmmaker, Drake Doremus, winner of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Like Crazy. Doremus trained under Kerr as a member of the O.C Crazies sketch and improv troupe, having started on Kerr’s stage at the age of six, leaving for study at the American Film Institute at age 19. Doremus has gone on to make several other films such as Breathe In, Zoe, Newness, Equals, and Beauty Within, Endings, Beginnings was released in October of 2020. It stars Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan. He also won awards for “Love Antosha,” a documentary about the actor’s life.
Kerr’s public relations approach is always creative, energetic, diligent and integrity-based, and innovative. Her results are a testament to her work. It is no secret that others in the field of public relations envy her achievements, talent, and reputation. She is the mother of three and grandmother of five.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It was quite an by accident. I quit college to get married because that was what most of my girlfriends were doing at the time. In the 60s, you got married and had kids, and became a homemaker. By the time I was 24, I had no college degree, no job, a divorce, and two children under the age of three. I had to find a way to support them. I answered an ad for a receptionist job at a homebuilding company. During the interview, they casually mentioned they also had an opening for a P.R. person. I enthusiastically nodded yes when asked if I wanted to be considered for it, even though I didn’t know anything about P.R. When they called the following day, offering me the P.R. post, I panicked. As the class clown all the way through school, and a hope that I would one day become an actress (comedienne) or (in late high school a teacher of comparative literature. The latter shaped me into a decent writer by the time I got to college as a Humanities major. But my grades overall were not that great. I was too busy organizing events for my sorority, promoting attendance at the football games, rallying my peers on campus to spread the word to participate in many worthy causes, and setting up networking programs. I was heavily involved in the social scene. Now, suddenly, I was going to become the official P.R. person for a company in an industry I knew nothing about. I read business publications every night right after I put my little ones to bed. I studied the way many writers wrote his/her copy. With this new job, I soon learned the how-to’s of press releases, and how to schmooze at mixers (with press and colleagues). I then tackled their monthly newsletter as an editor.
Within a year, the homebuilding company’s ad agency hired me out from under the homebuilder because I had won a prestigious award for them, and their client, (my boss). The award was for my innovative approach to the way I penned the copy for their annual report. Swept away, I then spent four years at this agency — it was like a scholarship to a university. I tackled all I needed to know to become a full-fledged publicist. Two years later, I started my own P.R. firm.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In the very beginning, I had no money to rent office space. I was newly divorced with one empty closet in a small study. I ripped off the sliding closet doors and brought in a handyman to fashion a desktop out of one of them and set up shop. Though my “office” was in the house and I never saw anyone except my children on a daily basis, I still dressed up every day to get me in the spirit (pantyhose, suit and all) of being the boss. I enforced my own eight-to-five rules, made myself stay late if I went over the one-hour lunch period, and wrote out a company policy even though it was just me. Three months later, I had to hire four staff members to handle the workload. I set up shop for them down the hall from my bedroom “suite” and put the staff members in the bonus room. Within four more months, I had enough money to rent office space that I soon outgrew. Today, I own two commercial buildings in which I run four businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know if it could be determined a mistake, but within three months of starting my sole P.R. practice, there was a clash with management (me). I called a meeting. At first, I sat in one chair, not far from my makeshift “president’s” desk, and directed my dissatisfied comments to the boss’s chair. My gripe: I wanted a bigger salary. Once I confidently expressed myself, I quickly ran to the other chair and plopped myself down to argue the other point of view from a president’s point of view. This back and forth, stating both sides of the argument, went on for a while. At one point, I even fired myself. Ultimately, I did negotiate a pretty good deal. Crazy, yes, but it has been my ever-evolving sense of humor that has gotten me through many tough times. Playing both roles that day, early in my “start-up” career, was not the only time I did this. Just last year, I called myself out for not honoring back vacation pay. To date, I’m still due 68 weeks. I’ve since settled.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We are working hard to publicize The Show Can’t Go On! a 90-minute mockumentary about trying to mount and keep a sketch comedy show from crashing. We also are helping a client build his on-air platform to land a recurring broadcast gig.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are so many. I can’t mention a name, but we were once handling the PR for a celebrity tennis tournament. The “celebrity” was about to do a press conference as a kickoff for the event. He was seated at the dais next to a Playboy bunny. Film crews were present. The bunny was in the shot, cozying up to the celebrity. He happened to be married and his wife saw the press conference. She jumped on the next plane on the east coast, I later learned, I was tasked with trying to downplay this incident to the celeb’s wife.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1). That I would need to not only be a strong creative but a savvy businessperson. I had flunked math all the way through school; I was clueless. When I started my firm, I didn’t know what a balance sheet was, had no aptitude for understanding a P&L statement, and a bottom line was something I thought was the last sentence at the end of a page of copy. There was the time I hired a financial officer for our company (at that time I had 18 employees) and completely took my eye off the road. This guy, “financial man,” I called him, wasn’t paying payroll taxes and by the time I figured that out, we owed the government over 90,000 dollars in payroll taxes. I remember telling one of my partners (in a dark comedy way) in one consecutive breath, the one who suggested I let him go: “I don’t need to fire him because I’m just going to kill him.” Needless to say, he was let go, and from that day on, I have kept my eye on all financial aspects of my company. I even know how many toilet paper rolls we have in both the men and women’s restrooms at COB each Friday. Silly, perhaps. But it makes me feel comfortably in control.
2). Keep a sense of humor. Not everything is a crisis. That said before I scaled down the size of my firm I had at least a crisis a day when my PR agency was at its peak in terms of the number of staff. Like one day, a client services rep couldn’t make the super important “big client” meeting because she was too busy bailing her boyfriend out of jail. On another day, it was the ongoing drug dealing enterprise in the copy room. An unforgettable crisis was the disastrous holiday party: the caterer didn’t show and we wound up eating trail mix and drinking bottled water. Some were smoking joints. When they got to the munchie stage, people began dealing candy bars and chewing gum. “Laugh it off,” my mentors often told me. That was hard to do, especially the day one of my top account executives returned late from lunch — the one she had with one of our biggest clients: She was martini-drunk…with a broken nose. Though she tried to hide it, it continued to bleed. I didn’t even ask, I just pointed to the door.
3) Don’t mix your personal life with your business life. I did exactly that. Told one of my clients it was against company policy to date a client and then asked him to kindly stop hitting on me (though I was madly attracted to him). He said “okay.” A few days later he proposed to me. I said “yes.” I married him six months later. Five years after that, we got a divorce. He was one of my biggest clients. Huge losses all the way around; very painful personally and financially.
4) Listen to all the things your mother used to say and continue to follow the advice she gave you. I had forgotten many of them, but I have now learned to lean on them. On rough days, many will hear me mutter quietly or loudly chant: “This too shall pass!!!”
5). Go with your gut, always. The best advice comes from deep within. I recall the day a favorite client of mine, who owned one of the country’s largest pizza manufacturing companies told me to not just think things through but feel them through. I’d been in business for about five years by then and had made some stupid mistakes. Now, before making any major decision(s), I always become still and quiet. I then ask myself: How do I feel about this…?
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
When you can, get out there and show up at every mixer, meetup event, and fundraiser and introduce yourself to the people you don’t know. Push hard on your social media outreach program(s) and make sure you broaden your contacts — work on it every day. Today, online networking is more important than ever in the age of Covid-19. The one big mistake lots of people make is to not follow up with people they meet. Find an appropriate reason to reach out, whether it is to share something you think they will find of interest, an interesting article, tweet, video, etc.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads? We rely on referrals. Always have.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Yes, “The Little Engine That Could.” It sits on the table across from my desk in my office. It is an original copy from the ’40s. My mother used to read it to me; the first time at age three. Anyone who works for KerrPR, ExecuProv, or Ree-invent Films has to have read it or I won’t hire him/her. Everything you need to know about perseverance, courage, and the will to forge on is embodied in that book.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be world peace. One of the campaigns KerrPR created and successfully executed was “Bridges of Peace.” Our client was a progressive, non-denominational church. They wanted an outreach program, so we created one for them. In short, we made connections with high school students in Russia and they came to Orange County, California to work on different aspects of affecting world peace. Each student was paired with a high school student in Orange County, as well as a reporter from SoCal media. It was a huge success. It garnered widespread press and many of the youngsters made life-long friends. This church kept the program going for a number of years.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.