In our latest installment of SBC's monthly small business feature, we meet Brian Chandler, founder and president of Commonwealth Public Relations, a PR and marketing firm based in Richmond, Virginia. In a recent interview with business writer Robert Lerose, Chandler speaks about how the company got started, the challenge of growing a business at the right pace, and how your personal interests can net unexpected business opportunities.
When you follow your passion in business and in life, good things can happen. Just ask Brian Chandler, the only entrepreneur from his family who went out on his own and forged a singular path throughout his career.
After working as a newspaper reporter for three years straight out of college, Chandler became an account manager at Carolina Public Relations in Charlotte, North Carolina. He thrived on the agency life—handling multiple assignments for a wide range of clients—but left after 10 years so that he and his wife could move back to his native Virginia to be close to family.
He accepted the position of director of public relations for Virginia Blood Services, a large nonprofit with more than 200 employees, but something was missing from his life. "After a couple of months, the agency lifestyle was just calling me back," Chandler recalls. "I think it was the diversity of working with different clients with different needs that really appealed to me."
Unfortunately, the timing worked against him. The 2008 recession was in full swing and none of the agencies in Richmond were hiring. Chandler juggled freelance assignments at night after his regular workday ended, until he was faced with a big decision. "After a few months of freelancing, I got an offer for a large six-month contract. It was a now or never opportunity," he says. "I decided to [say yes] and go out on my own and start Commonwealth Public Relations in May 2009."
From the start, Chandler wanted to distinguish his firm from other agencies, starting with the company name. Instead of naming the company after himself like many other small business owners do, he deliberately chose something that would not only identify his core geographic market—the Commonwealth of Virginia—and the primary services he offered, but one which would also work well in SEO results.
Richmond's vibrant advertising community helped Chandler settle on his own business model. Rather than compete directly, he reached out to advertising agencies that had little or no PR capabilities and positioned himself as someone who was "an extension of their team, who didn't threaten their business or threaten to take their clients, but who had a good business sense, a good business personality, and was able to help them with their PR needs—and it worked," he explains.
Commonwealth Public Relations quickly booked work with many advertising agencies, building up a well-regarded portfolio in its critical early days. As word spread, Chandler fielded inquiries from other types of businesses as well. While he was happy about making a name for himself, his growing success also presented an ongoing dilemma.
"I always wanted to be smart when it came to growth," Chandler explains. "I did not want to add staff just because we brought in a big client and then have to lay them off if the client went away. Figuring that out in terms of timing and whether to work with contractors or full-time employees was probably the biggest challenge that we faced."
The chance to gain greater visibility for his young firm came early in Chandler's first year in business. The PR Consultants Group, a network of small to mid-sized agencies in the top 50 U.S. media markets, had an opening in their local chapter. Chandler interviewed and became the representative for the Virginia/West Virginia area.
The appointment opened new doors for Commonwealth Public Relations, paving the way for work with brands such as Macy's, 7-Eleven, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "For the last three or four years, we've handled Black Friday media relations for Macy's in Richmond," Chandler says. "We're able to reach out to local reporters and generate awareness in the community about what's happening at Macy's locally. We provide boots on the ground for these brands because we have the local knowledge."
As Chandler was finding new ways to grow his business, the changing media landscape was also pushing him in new directions. He still used traditional media outlets such as printed magazines, radio and TV to get exposure for his clients, but "we realized that in some cases, bloggers are really strong influencers and can drive opinion and increase awareness of a brand and a company," he says. "We're working with them much more now than we ever did when I first got into public relations."
While he was still working in the corporate world, Chandler learned how to develop a social media campaign thanks to Dean Browell, the founder of Feedback, an international social media research firm. "That was just a huge game changer for me when I started my agency—knowing enough about how to develop social media and use it so that I could actually give my clients counsel and, in most cases, start to manage it for them," Chandler says. "Social media has been a tremendous driver of change in the way we're doing business."
As Commonwealth Public Relations approaches its five-year anniversary in May, the company serves about a dozen full-time clients and another two dozen intermittently. Most clients are in the telecom and healthcare industries, but it also does work for nonprofits, auto dealerships, retail businesses, restaurants, and professional services—feeding Chandler's love of diversity. He has two full-time and one contract employee. According to Chandler, they've averaged a 56 percent annual increase in revenue over the last four years.
The 39-year-old married father of a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter is a self-described tie guy. "I wear a tie almost every day. It's just something I like to do," he says. "I think it sets me apart because people will remember me as wearing a tie when some other people don't."
His attire may be formal, but it was a decidedly casual activity that may have given him his biggest surprise. During a professional development session in the Commonwealth Public Relations offices last year, Chandler worried that he felt "like a robot whenever I use Twitter. I'm always just talking about PR or marketing and there's no personality."
At the suggestion of his account manager, he changed his Twitter profile to reflect one of his true passions—saltwater fishing. This led to the discovery of a community of associations geared around the saltwater industry. He began following them, joining their discussions, engaging with them—and received a call last fall from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. They were looking for public relations help for one of their sister associations and wanted Chandler to pitch them.
"I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do PR work for this industry—and all because I changed my profile and started tweeting about things I'm passionate about," Chandler says. "With Twitter, there's no harm in having your personality shine through. You never know when it could lead to new business."