BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editor’s Note: Everyone remembers when they first realized in early March that COVID would be changing their lives. We have been struck by how many Chicagoans have replicated the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes after our 1871 fire. Caitlin McCarthy’s indomitable spirit inspires us in a new series on profiles from the pandemic—individuals successfully pivoting in the face of uncertainty.
“It was March 13, my 32nd birthday, and it was the toughest day to process. I had spent six years building my PR and marketing agency, C|Louise. I had five people on my staff, and I refused to let them go even though a big percent of our business was restaurant clients, and drastic changes were ahead. I told myself I have to make this work for my team, and our clients,” McCarthy recalls.
Foremost in McCarthy’s mind was keeping her five employees still on her payroll: “I just knew I had to make this work, whatever it takes,” she says.
In a recent Zoom interview, accompanied by her dog, Luna, and her pandemic puppy, Mario, McCarthy shared her strategy for the pandemic and beyond.
Tell me how you have taken control of your life and work during the pandemic.
As March 2020 began, no one could know what we were bracing for. As the news continued to flow, I felt the whiplash like everyone else. In an instant, I knew my job, my company, my team were being overpowered and redefined. Drastic changes were ahead. Changes that couldn’t be controlled. The updates had me in tears. Tears of fear for the unknown uncertainties of the restaurant industry as an entirety, an industry that I had worked in for over a decade, an industry that gives such value to the populace but for me it was more personal. I created a business so I could spend time with the focused, hard-working workers of the restaurant world. They inspire me. What was happening was heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and on every level, inconceivable.
Yet the news kept coming. Nothing temporary about this. I made a promise to myself to stay focused, not quit, and take it one day at a time, to do whatever it takes to get to post-pandemic. With no end date in sight, my team and I got started exploring whatever it would take to pivot in a direction to help our clients manage their immediate issues. I feel fortunate to say I have a great team that I admire professionally. My inner strength and motivation to push through this came from making sure they kept their jobs and that I personally would work harder than I ever have to keep them all employed. Never once did I consider surrendering. We pivoted as a team.
Together the CLouise team strategized to offer more services on top of the current committed services. I called my coworker Kelly, who happens to also double as my sister, and said, ‘It’s time.’ It was time to conquer our projected goal that we had outlined pre-pandemic: to diversify our portfolio of clients, work to expand geographic untapped territories, and challenge ourselves to explore added responsibilities. At the end of any given day, no matter what the travails, our team decisively was not going to let down our clients and were determined to explore fresh goals to instill optimism.
‘The Pivot’ is still in full throttle, and I am proud to say that we have successfully diversified our client portfolio this year and expanded to new territorial expectations. Our work is progressive and still a daily grind, but we are doing all we can to do our part.
My favorite quote, ‘You must dig the well before you are thirsty,’ has never been truer than in 2020.
What has been the hardest part of working through the pandemic?
Honestly, I gotta laugh or I’d fall over. There have been too many ‘hardest’ parts.
Top of the list, undoubtedly the fatigue. The worry and anxiety every day, every hour of keeping the business afloat, your staff employed, encouraging the clients to be strong—and the toughest part of all that was not being able to see our team and clients in person. This is a very personal business that started to feel impersonal. We couldn’t let that happen.
But with any hard and tough challenges, you gain much perspective. Often that perspective can lead to new opportunity and positive experience. It doesn’t change the fact that some days are truly unbearably hard, but I can say I’ve gained unexpected insight. And I’ve got the bruises to prove it.
What can public relations accomplish when done at its best and what do you like most about the work?
That’s easy: the art of storytelling! PR and marketing have endless opportunities and avenues to entice variable interests to topic and story! It’s exciting and never boring!
Were you always a storyteller? Share some of your favorite memories from growing up.
I’m grateful to have grown up in a suburb of Chicago. It’s special to realize my memories of my visits to the city of Chicago as a youngster are very prominent to my adult instincts. My mom would take me with my two sisters into the city more times than I can count! Exposure to the gorgeous skyline, walking the city streets, having special celebrations at downtown restaurants, browsing the big brand stores, seeing Santa at the State Street Marshall Fields, getting my haircut at Maxine’s on Rush Street, ice capade shows at Chicago Stadium: Chicago is very much a part of who I am. It was that influence that set my future, as now I have the opportunity to work and represent many different businesses in Chicago including in the very familiar 900 North Michigan building the upmarket food court Aster Hall. It’s funny how life can come full circle. I think about that sometimes when I take the escalator up to Aster Hall.
Do you have to be a people person to work in PR?
I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all in public relations. In our team setting, we all compliment each other in one way or another, and therefore it’s a collective contribution to helping our client roster. Everyone brings something uniquely different to the table, which I love. It’s intentional because I’m not afraid of character strength. I need my team to remain strongly collaborative.
I do consider myself to be an introverted extrovert. Presumably people probably think I’m an extrovert, given the vast professional network I’ve built in a relatively short amount of time. Yet I’m true to myself in that I really like to foster my relationships without a lot of ego or hoopla. I’m OK with that. People get to know the real me. I am an introvert at heart in many ways. My relationships matter to me. I can only hope that I am very much a people person.
How have you kept up with your friends during the pandemic?
My fiancé, pups, and I have definitely done our fair share of virtual hangouts! However, I also started making all sorts of creative gifts. At one point, I was making hats with fun patches and tie-dye t-shirts personalized with initials and even cute dog patches that resembled my friends’ dogs. I was sending these gifts around the country to my dear family and friends, as well as making creations for my friends in Chicago and the C|Louise team, and I was dropping off care packages. If I couldn’t be with the ones I loved, and missed, I made something thoughtful for them so they knew I was thinking of them. It led me to open an Etsy shop and Instagram for all my creations. I was donating $1 of every sale to Feed America—you can head to @CLouiseShop on Instagram to see everything.
What are your holiday plans?
My two dogs, Luna and Mario, and my handsome best friend and fiancé, Jorge, are at my parents’ home in North Scottsdale, Arizona, enjoying socially distanced time together. My mom and dad are my best friends, therefore spending nearly ten months away from them was really, really tough for me. It’s joyful celebrating my engagement in the mountains with my parents, with the added bonus of seeing my co-worker/sister who also lives here! Our agency now has business here in Arizona, so our FaceTime meetings feel closer!
We are looking forward to another Thanksgiving together this month outside on my parents’ back patio, and hope to be in Mexico with my fiancé’s family in December. Our families are our everything. We are doing what we can to be as safe as possible in order to keep our hearts full!
I know your work is another extremely important part of your life. How do you envision your ongoing career path?
Keep aligning with the type of business that makes it fun to wake up excited and ready to go full blast—even in a pandemic. Also, to keep building and expanding our team and continually look for new team challenges so everyone can stay innovative, energized, and vibrant. Challenges create opportunity and that is what this pandemic has proven in many ways. I am anxious for 2021 and onward. What else can we do but be prepared for all ahead? I am nervous but a good nervous! Our team is working hard and always will. We will continue to redefine and recommit.
When you’re not working, how do you unwind? What are you reading and viewing now?
I am reading New Beauty and other periodicals in the beauty industry. Our agency recently started working with a world-renowned plastic surgeon and his incredible team, therefore I am trying to learn as much as I possibly can about his business. I’m loving it.
I recently watched David Foster’s Off The Record documentary on Netflix, and I enjoyed it. I am a huge fan of Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and many of the other artists Foster collaborated with. Also, Quincy Jones is quoted perfectly in the documentary saying, ‘Love, trust, and respect. Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being. That’s the bottom line. So you work on being a good human being first, even before a good musician.’ I’d say that is true for any line of work! Be a good human being first, always!”
Photo credit: Stephanie Bassos Photography