It’s been 30 years since Kitty Lagareta first joined Communications Pacific, and now, as CEO, she shares what she’s learned and her take on the PR issues facing the state today
Public relations executive Kitty Lagareta is described as an “inspiring leader who’s a cross between Mother Theresa and Tony Soprano.” Bada bing! That’s quite a characterization and an interesting mix of saint and scrapper.
Is she a compassionate protagonist for our times or a gadfly with no filter?
Observing her 30th year at Communications Pacific, one of the state’s most influential PR firms, we ask the animated chief executive officer to reflect on her colorful career. Reverie was never more rousing.
Lagareta has been in the crossfire of Hawaii’s most complex and controversial issues. From guiding the Superferry through rough political waters to helping elect Hawaii’s first woman governor (Linda Lingle in 2002) to dismissing embattled ex-University of Hawaii president Evan Dobelle, Lagareta never has backed down from a challenge.
“You know, I’ve never found discomfort to be an inhibiting factor,” she says.
Indeed. This strategist does not squirm. But she does succeed.
Where does her resolve and mettle come from? How do she and her firm approach the art of strategic problem-solving? Read on.
Lagareta, 62, says, “I see a lot of stuff going on in our state that makes me sad. You see a lot of conflict, things we don’t like and things that don’t seem to be fixed.
“I look at the work that we’ve done over 30 years. Working together gets stuff done,” she adds. “It’s easier than most people think, but many won’t take the time to listen and engage. When projects like Superferry or rail hit a snag, it’s because community building and purposeful dialogue are missing.
“Often outsiders come here and spend a ton of money advertising one-way messages. They consider that talking to the community, but I’m not sure they talk with it.”
There’s clearly a difference, in her view.
Her firm, Communications Pacific (CommPac) was founded in 1969 to help individuals and organizations communicate authentically and purposefully with audiences. Expertise includes reputation management, enculturation, media relations, crisis and issues management, consumer marketing and event planning.
Lagareta joined CommPac in 1986 as “a high-risk hire” with no PR background and immersed herself in community work, launching Hawaii’s Ronald McDonald House and serving on several community boards.
That brought her into the world of fundraising. It was auspicious, as her first client was Dr. Richard Kelley of Outrigger Hotels, who put together the Hawaii Convention Park Council to raise money to lobby for a convention center.
Kelley recalls, “When I first met Kitty, she had just started working at CommPac as an account executive, just about the lowest rung on the ladder of the PR profession.”
Nine years later, Lagareta bought the agency from partners Clif Kagawa and Rick Zwern, becoming its president-CEO. The company had downsized considerably during the recession, and Lagareta led an inspired rebuilding process that eventually saw CommPac’s revenues rebound and reach new highs.
“The recession was a pivotal time for me,” she admits. “We were bigger than we had ever been. We had a staff of 72 employees. We were doing a lot of work on land and real estate issues, and that’s the area that got walloped. Clients were shutting down their operations, going into bankruptcy or leaving town.
“Going into bankruptcy would have been easy for us, too,” she reflects. “But, I thought, I can’t do that. Even if it takes me 10 years, I’m going to crawl out of it and not pass the problem on. That’s what we’ve done.”
Today CommPac is a tight ship of 28 people with clients including Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Island Air, McDonalds Hawaii, American Red Cross Hawaii, and Na‘i Aupuni, among others (commpac.com).
“Our firm has a personality,” says Lagareta, who has two sons and four grandsons. “It’s not my personality. I like to think it’s Bobbye Hughes McDermott’s personality.”
CommPac’s original owner Hughes, who married ad man and author John McDermott, was a feisty Texan who came here in the 1950s for a holiday and never left.
With encouragement and support from then-ad agency employer Ray Milici, Hughes opened her own PR shop in 1969, with Honolulu Gas Co. and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel as premier clients.
Hughes was known for her straightforward advice and creativity, which she blended with a touch of Southern charm.
Lagareta still has the vintage conference table from the early days of CommPac, where Hughes led high-powered strategy sessions with clients. If only furniture could talk.
Lagareta, her spirited scion, is known for taking a slide on the long table as comic stress relief. She did so once wearing a red prom dress. The image of that caper is forever itched in the annals of the agency. Hello, Kitty.
But, at CommPac, fun is the sideshow, not the main event.
Having worked with Hawaii’s top firms and causes, we ask Lagareta to identify the top PR issues facing the state today. Her response is thought provoking:
1) “THE SENSE THAT NOTHING CHANGES FOR THE BETTER.
“There are great people, great ideas, even great efforts to do great things in Hawaii, but these things often don’t come to fruition. We are very good at doing things badly here.
“There is often a lack of political will in both government and the private sector. Not enough of those who champion great things make it through the pushback and challenges before they run for cover.
“I believe that Hawaii could be all the great things we aspired to be, but it takes leadership in all sectors of our community and honest dialogue through the challenges and difficulties.”
2) “LACK OF TRUST IN BUSINESS, GOVERNMENT AND EVEN IN EACH OTHER.
“It seems to be growing, and without trust it is difficult to bring people to the table to talk about solving problems and pursuing opportunities together.
“I see this at the state level, the county level, the community level and at the individual level.”
3. “TOO FEW PEOPLE REALLY LISTEN ANYMORE AND EVERYONE TALKS TOO MUCH.
“When I came to Hawaii more than 40 years ago, I was fascinated by the concept of ‘talk story’ that truly engages someone through listening, learning and sharing relevant information and experiences in order to understand and know someone.
“So much of the work our firm has been doing for the last three decades is about trust-building and two-way conversation, where there is listening as well as sharing, versus blasting messages at someone you want to influence.
“It results in a better outcome for all concerned, but it is a process that takes time. Those who have experienced this process wouldn’t do it any other way. Those who haven’t often come to town with a huge advertising budget and an agenda. When they fail, as they nearly always do, they go home saying that, ‘It’s just too hard to do business in Hawaii.’
“The biggest opportunity for Hawaii is for elected officials to stop acting like they run everything and for the business community to stop treating elected officials like they run everything.
“It would be so powerful if elected officials would do those things we count on government for: health, safety, infrastructure, public education and defense, and if business leaders would work on building trust and engaging more of the communities they influence to participate in what goes on in this special place.
“Inclusivity is not one of our strengths in Hawaii. We limit our opportunities severely when the same people are always at the decision-making table.”
Finally, we ask if she has any media training tips for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Lagareta was pointed, saying, “We know the work we do is very effective and gets results, which is why we are very selective about where we apply our expertise. Donald Trump would never, ever be one of our clients.”
Bada bing, bada boom!
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was employed by Communications-Pacific in 1985-89 and 1992-94.
CommPac associates offer favorite Kittyisms:
On addressing client problems: “She’d tell us to fake it until you figure it out. But figure it out fast.” —Megan McPherson
On cussing in the office. “Only Kitty gets to use language like that at Communications-Pacific.” —Ann Botticell and Al Hoffman
On balancing life and work: “I overhead Kitty giving her son advice on the phone. I thought, wow, she is not only a smart, savvy, stylish businesswoman, but a beautiful mom as well. That was an inspiring moment for me.” —Cari Costanzo
On life and her skate-hover-boarding risks: “There’s something about pushing to the edge. I think if you can keep that feeling you had as a kid in some of your day-to-day life, those are things that felt good then and they still feel good.”— Kitty Lagareta