Capitol Communicator is running a series featuring profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this “up close and personal” profile, we feature Debra Silimeo, executive vice president at Hager Sharp in Washington, D.C., and one of three inducted into PRSA-NCC’s National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame on Sept. 16. The other two inductees were Robert Mathias (and you can see an interview with Mathias in Profiles on the Capitol Communicator site) and Don McLearn. The induction ceremony took place at PRSA-NCC’s Annual Thoth Awards Gala at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Photography for the “up close and personal” series is by Cade Martin; wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson and Janice Kinigopoulos for THE Artist Agency.
Debra, please provide us a short bio.
I’ve been very fortunate to have spent well over a decade helping grow Hager Sharp from a small – but feisty – firm into a vibrant, employee-owned agency that offers the full range of communications services; all dedicated to helping people live healthier, safer, smarter lives. As executive vice president at Hager Sharp, I develop and manage national communications campaigns, and serve as a brand ambassador and marketing officer. We’re the 8th-largest independent health communications firm in the country, and one of the top education firms. We have a great culture: our clients are making the world a better place, and our team members are some of the smartest, most creative, thoughtful, fun people in the business.
I also like to say that I’m a “reformed” journalist, in that I gave up the adrenalin fix of the news cycle so that I could pursue public policy work, and actively work for change. I moved from radio and TV in D.C. – WTOP, WAMU and NBC4 – to top communications positions on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton Administration, then to the private sector. PR is an exciting place to be – with our industry constantly changing – great for someone who likes to wake up to different challenges every day!
Are you involved in any other organizations?
Oh, yes! Community service is in my DNA. I serve on the board of the DC Chamber of Commerce, which works to improve the business climate here. I’ve served on the board of and am active in Leadership Greater Washington, a network that connects leaders from every part of the region and every type of organization. I’m on the National Press Club’s Speakers Committee – it’s a great organization “where news happens” and keeps me engaged with my journalism roots. Washington Women in Public Relations is a great professional development organization and I’ve participated in mentoring events and serve on its advisory council. I co-chair the Girl Scouts’ Women’s Advisory Council. I love participating in Girl Scouts Camp CEO every summer, despite the heat and bugs. The idea is that girls can meet accomplished women from many walks of life to learn about careers and possibilities in a relaxed, outdoor setting. We businesswomen may be there as role models, but the truth is I am always inspired by the girls. If these young women are our future, we’re going to be OK.
What are the things you are most proud of?
Being part of the growth of Hager Sharp. Re-branding a federal agency that led to record numbers of small businesses – especially women- and minority-owned businesses – getting assistance. Successful legislation to raise the minimum wage, which helped millions of workers right away. I am grateful every day to be working with clients who are trying to make the world a better place and for their many small victories along that path. It’s a journey and I’m stronger for all of the ups and downs along the way.
Who are your personal role models?
The late Susan Hager, who founded Hager Sharp at a time when very few women owned businesses, breaking glass ceilings while being both successful and intensely active in volunteer work. She was a friend and mentor. Working Woman magazine called her a heroine for what she did to promote fairness in the workplace. My dad, James Silimeo, had a lot to do with my interest in public service. He had a fulltime job, but found time to be engaged in local politics, because that was how you got things done for the community. He served as head of our town’s board of commissioners, and I learned first-hand the importance of constituent service and ethics in government. He’s long retired from his day job and politics, but still going with community service – he’s 88 and has just been honored for 25 years of service running his condominium board!
Did these role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?
Yes, and here are three that have guided me:
– You can do well by doing good;
– Be the strategist, not just an order taker. Your boss and your clients want that and appreciate it; and,
– At the end of the day, your reputation is your most valuable asset.
What professional advice do you have for others?
– Constantly learn. Do something every week to feed your brain;
– Treat everyone with respect. It’s the right thing to do and if that’s not reason enough, it’s also good business. In this town, the staff assistant you’re nice to this week will be the executive director deciding whether to hire your firm in a few years, or represent you in Congress!; and,
– Stuff happens. You can’t control a lot of the things that will happen in your life, but you can control how you respond to it. Focus on that. Don’t let the gremlins get you down!
What advice do you have on appropriate attire for Hager Sharp?
It’s fun to be creative, but always look smart enough or have something handy for a client meeting or sudden call to the C-suite or White House. There’s truth in the saying “dress for the job you want.”
Where do you buy most of the clothes you wear to the office?
I love to travel and find unique items that I can mix with things from local shops. I have a dress from Hong Kong that I like to wear with a belt from Texas. I like some classic pieces (Ann Taylor, Eileen Fisher) mixed with boutique finds. And, can I give a shout out to Victor Roa, who is a magician as well as hair stylist?
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
I believe that exercise saves lives. It keeps you healthy mentally and physically. And I’d like to say thank you to Capitol Communicator for creating this series and including me. It’s so interesting to look behind the bios of my colleagues in the industry, and I hope we can find a way to connect beyond these pages. And a huge thanks to Cade Martin and his terrific crew.
And, finally, I really want to look like that woman in the photo!