Capitol Communicator is running a series of profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this “up close and personal” profile, we feature Gwen McKinney, president and founder of McKinney & Associates. Photography for this 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.

Gwen, tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m the president and founder of McKinney & Associates, the first African American- and woman-owned firm in the nation’s capital that expressly promotes social justice communications. As the firm’s chief strategist, I translate our vision of public relations with a conscience into a sustained and tested suite of communications services and activities. We provide strategic counsel to organizations working on issues that range from health equity, voting rights and adult literacy to criminal justice reform and educational access, and I am honored to have served as a trusted adviser to many of the nation’s most influential civil rights leaders.

Are you involved in any other organizations?

I’m a member of IABC, PRSA and Washington Women in Public Relations. I also am a benefactor of the Tides Foundation Donor Advised Fund and have created the McKinney Justice Fund, which awards small communications grants to worthy nonprofit organizations—often leveraging my firm’s pro bono support with modest financial contributions.

What are the things you are most proud of?

This question spurs a lot of nostalgia as I mark the 25th anniversary of McKinney & Associates this year. I’m so proud that we have thrived with unstoppable staying power and never abandoning our credo and commitment, is first and foremost.

I am also proud of the people who have supported me—now and during the past 25 years—as staff and consultants. Connecting to the incredible client work, my tough love, and the firm’s push for excellence, they learned not only to succeed but to exceed—surpassing even their expectations—and have scaled unimagined  mountains. While diversity is an important value that I live in my staffing, I have a special commitment to providing opportunities to women—especially African American women—usually not available elsewhere. Because people tend to gravitate to people who look like them, my open door is a service, not only to the individuals who walk through, but also to the profession. We expand the ranks of communicators bringing different and unique experiences to our craft, our clients and the public.

Related to that, I proudly own the brand of public relations with a conscience, cultivated and delivered to every project. More than practicing “Cause PR,” I work my values through a racial justice lens that drives the firm’s advocacy.

Some of my greatest honors have come from recognition by peers and people who have been important to my professional development. Two that stand out are the nomination as PR Woman of the Year by Washington Women in Public Relations and the Drum Major for Justice Award from the Frederick Douglass Society of West Chester University, given to a worthy alumnus. Both those tributes came in 2012.

And finally, “Yes I Can”—like the little engine that could—is a powerful affirmation that began as a small echo in the firm’s first days, operating in the basement of the Saint Augustine Church Ecumenical Center. The “Yes I Can” mantra was resounding – and still reverberates – from my suite of offices on K Street. Whether it was luck, pluck, talent or all of these elements that got me here, those humble beginnings will always be my most cherished asset.

Who were your personal role models?

Many role models have influenced who I am, but there is one woman who made an indelible impact at a decisive moment. Elaine R. Jones, a phenomenal attorney and public advocate who headed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) from 1992 to 2004, cast a vote of confidence in me and my small, untested experiment (then McKinney & McDowell Associates). LDF is a separate organization from the NAACP and is considered the nation’s first public-interest law firm devoted exclusively to civil rights litigation and policy. From the first day of Elaine’s tenure, McKinney & Associates was her trusted communications confidant and counselor. Her support proved to be magnetic.

It is worth noting that large and established communications firms were courting LDF, which had no AOR in the early 1990s. In fact, because of the LDF’s unparalleled reputational brand, many of those firms would have signed LDF as a pro bono client. Elaine, living her commitment to equal justice, chose us. Just one year out of the church basement and still trying to earn our stripes as a communications company, her decision to sign on as our first retainer client sealed the deal beyond that one account. It helped to define my niche as a communications firm committed to racial justice and civil right communications. Others who respected Elaine and LDF took notice … and we were off! Our long run as AOR for LDF (1992 – 2006) included remarkable campaigns that solidified my brand and passion for civil and human rights advocacy. Elaine, by example, also taught me the importance of opportunity, opening doors and believing in people often overlooked by others. I am eternally grateful to Elaine for her wisdom and her choice.

Did your role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?

The best advice was to not only talk the talk … but live it, demonstrate it, and be it through your walk.

What professional advice do you have for others?

Yes you can … if you believe you can, you will! But there’s also no replacement for smarts, hard work and sustained effort. No one gets to the top of their game simply because they believe they should be there.

What advice do you have on what’s appropriate attire for your organization?

Our attire is as varied as our backgrounds and represents the different races, ethnicities and generations who work here. I enjoy mixing styles, and I love bold colors and patterns. While fashion is the way we present ourselves to the world, it should also be fun! As long as it’s clean, neat and professional-looking, our dress code leaves ample room for personal expression. We’re the antithesis of a buttoned-up D.C. agency; other than Fridays, which are our dress-down days, semi-casual works in our workplace.

Where do you buy most of the clothes you wear to the office?

There’s no one place. My wardrobe is an investment, a collage of many clothiers, ranging from Neiman Marcus to TJ Maxx; from Nordstrom’s to Target. I’m a bargain hunter, so I relish scouting around to find high-quality clothing at a discount. I enjoy putting outfits together, mixing and matching accessories, textures, colors — hats, tights, shoes, boots, coats — to come up with a “Gwen” look.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

My parting shot to communications aspirants and fellow travelers: Success is a rich stew with many ingredients. Start with a hefty cup of the improbable. Sprinkle with imagination and a pinch of good timing. Blend with talent, and then fold in confidence and faith in the angels!

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