WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin
2,780 Saturday mornings ago, give or take a few Saturdays, a short, spunky Minneapolis teenager named Pam Edstrom took her SATs. You may have heard the story of what happened next, because Pam told it often. When her turn came to talk to the guidance counselor about her scores, he sat her down and gave her what I imagine he thought was good news: Pam didn’t need to bother taking college-prep classes anymore. Instead, he suggested, how about some courses in typing, or maybe home economics? (It was the early 1960s, after all.) The counselor explained that Pam should swap Shakespeare for sewing, sine waves for stenography, for one simple reason: “You,” he said, “are perfectly average.”
According to that guidance counselor, “average” was Pam’s story. But we all know the truth: This guy was completely WRONG, which I’d like to point out could be called an earlier version of “fake news.” Pam was anything but average. Pam was extraordinary. Talk about a “STORY GAP.”
Proof of that is in what happened next. Instead of signing up for those typing classes, Pam got herself a scholarship from the American Legion and headed off to the University of Minnesota. Then she went to graduate school. Then she got a job at a big tech hardware company (Tektronix), and then moved to a small software company called Microsoft. Then she joined me and we built WE, the world’s first female-owned, still-independent PR agency — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Pam could spot a truth from a mile away. She knew that counselor was wrong. She knew she wasn’t meant to drag a Smith Corona around some office somewhere, tapping out someone else’s vision of the world; she was meant to get out there and create a new one. And that’s exactly what she did.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — and not just because Pam joined PRWeek’s 2017 Hall of Fame last night in New York. I brought 40 people along with me to honor her at the event — but I’m sure I could have taken 400. (Take that, guidance counselor!) These days, it can feel hard to keep the truth front and center. It seems that there’s a Story Gap around every corner, swamping us from every direction. Climate change? Fake news! Poverty and inequality? Fake news! Folks around the world need our help? Fake news! Facts? Fake news!
Pam changed her story. She closed her Story Gap. What if we all did this? Doesn’t everyone have the right to do this?
Pam’s favorite question was: What problem are you trying to solve? Today, I ask that same question in a different way. I ask: What story are you trying to tell? What truth are you trying to uncover? What gift are you trying to share? In today’s fact-optional world, how can you slice through the static and close the Story Gap YOU are most passionate about?
That’s WE’s call to action as communicators. It’s why our work matters. In part, it’s how we live Pam’s legacy, every day.
But, of course, we are the lucky ones. We have the power and the tools to tell the truth, to close the gap, to change the story. What if we didn’t? What about all the other “average” kids out there, the ones who don’t get the opportunities that Pam had? Every day, all around the world, how many extraordinary young women and men are told they aren’t good enough … and how many believe it? How much potential stays locked? How much talent gets wasted?
Building leaders, and training the best and the brightest to help tug the Story Gap closed, has always been at our core. And it was certainly one of Pam’s top passions. To that end, WE has just established a Pam Edstrom Scholarship and Endowment Fund to support undergraduate students in communications, beginning in the Pacific Northwest where we first opened our agency doors. The initial set of scholarships will be awarded this spring, and we can’t wait to meet the students who will one day pick up where Pam left off. In this small way, WE seeks to spread her gift and share her promise.
We started our agency rooted in the truth that People must always be our number one goal. We honor that truth from our origin story — and Pam as a part of it — every time we hire amazing people and let them be amazing. Every time we celebrate one another’s triumphs and learn from one another’s mistakes (and the other way around, too, since —trust me — you’ll never grow if you don’t royally screw up every now and again). Every time we defer to the best idea in the room, no matter who it came from. And every time we can look around a room and see with great satisfaction (as I did last night) that we have brought others along with us. Not just Waggener (that’s me) and Edstrom (that’s her) but truly WE.
At the PRWeek Hall of Fame event last night, we raised our glasses to my partner Pam — industry trailblazer and the best business partner there could ever be. I raised my glass as well to my best friend Pam — teller of stories, asker of questions, giver of gifts. Most of all though, we were really raising our glasses to that “average” teenager in Minneapolis, the one who ignored the guidance counselor’s story and told her own instead. She represents the power of people to reach their highest potential. She was extraordinary.
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