TV Reporter Turned PR Pro Takes Local Firm To National Heights

By Paula Burkes The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Karen Wicker, a TV reporter-turned-public relations practitioner, sat down with The Oklahoman on Tuesday -- her 54th birthday -- to talk about her life and career. 

Oklahoma City

When the New York-based Public Relations Society of America put out a request for proposals from firms interested in crafting a campaign to increase membership in its college chapters nationwide, Karen Wicker decided her small Oklahoma City firm -- Candor -- should vie for the project.

"We really thought they'd hire a large firm in New York or L.A., but we submitted a David-versus-Goliath pitch," Wicker said.

"The bottom line is ... we won!"

Undertaking such enthusiastic initiatives, Wicker said, has helped Candor, which she founded in May 2012, grow to more than $3 million in annual sales and a diverse staff of 18 -- including PR Week magazine's young professional of the year, Ally Glavas.

Wicker said her firm "runs the gamut" in the organizations it serves through marketing, video, social media and public relations projects.

Among its some 45 active clients are Devon Energy and the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, which soon will launch a new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program and Walmart. Following the recent shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Candor sent an associate to help with crisis communication.

From her office, originally a turn-of-the-century ice house at 729 W Sheridan, Wicker, a TV reporter-turned-public relations practitioner, sat down with The Oklahoman on Tuesday -- her 54th birthday -- to talk about her life and career. This is an edited transcript:

What were you like in high school?

A: I played alto saxophone in the band and was into drama. I competed in dramatic interpretation solos and acted in school productions, including as Felicity, the old lady in a wheelchair in "The Shadow Box." I also was a budding entrepreneur. I picked up vintage clothing at flea markets and, after school and on weekends, sold my merchandise -- "K.K. Kollectibles" -- from rented booth space at an antique mall a few blocks southwest of 30th and May. That job helped me pay for my first year of college. My parents struggled financially, so tuition was up to me -- or scholarships, which is what carried my older brother, now a professor at Duke, through college. Our mother was mainly a stay-at-home mom, and our dad sold advertising for newspapers, the last 20 years of his career for a company that printed advertising circulars that were inserted into small-town newspapers. He'd leave every Monday morning and be home late Friday afternoons.

Where'd you go to college?

A: I started at the University of Missouri but quit after two months. Though I worked some 25 hours a week -- at a flea market and stuffing envelopes for an investment firm -- I ran out of funds, was homesick and lost. I lived with my parents for the next year and half, worked and saved money. During that time, I not only transformed myself mentally and emotionally, but physically. I lost more than 100 pounds, which I've kept off. When I went to Missouri, I -- at 5-foot-5 -- weighed 230 pounds. I lost the weight by riding a rented stationary bike for an hour every night in front of the television in my parents' green-shag-carpeted living room. When I went back to school at OU -- at age 19 1/2 -- I was able to fund my journalism degree. Along with my savings, I talked the OU law school into letting me sell coffee and donuts from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., four days a week. I'd get up at 4:30, buy day-old donuts at Daylight Donuts, make coffee on-site and serve from a cart I kept in a closet at the law school.

Tell us about your early broadcasting career and segue into public relations.

A: After I graduated from OU, I worked as a broadcast journalist for 12 years in Tulsa -- for OETA and KOTV. A highlight was covering the Oklahoma City bombing for OETA. For three months, I drove daily to Oklahoma City to cover the story and then back to Tulsa to report on it. I moved to PR after I received an award from the National Conference for Christians and Jews and was seated at the awards banquet by the dean of the medical school at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. He called me afterward and offered me a newly created job as director of communications. It was more money and an opportunity to go back to school and earn a graduate degree in human relations. In the 10 and half years I was with OSU, I advanced to director of external affairs and not only oversaw communications, but also alumni and donor relations. I worked the following six and half years for Schnake Turnbo Frank PR, including as region president in Oklahoma City.

How'd you meet your husband?

A: My girlfriends double-dared me to try online dating, and we met on eHarmony.com, which matches couples based on extensive personality questionnaires. I set my geographic parameters within 10 miles of my Tulsa residence, but then this fellow from Kansas City crept in. Jim and I had a natural rhythm and immediate attraction rooted in a shared authenticity. We corresponded for six weeks before we met and began dating. Eleven months later, we moved to and married in Oklahoma City, where I relocated to care for my aging parents. A management consultant, Jim could work from anywhere. When we married, he adopted my then 9-year-old daughter, Chandler, whom I'd raised on my own. Jim is the only dad she's ever really known, and Chandler felt an immediate kinship with his two older children, whom he'd also adopted. A minister friend of Jim's came from Kansas to marry us in our home in Heritage Hills, with all our family and friends as witnesses. But we learned, right before the ceremony, that a union by a Kansas cleric wouldn't be valid. To marry officially in the state of Oklahoma, we stood up again three days later at St. Luke's, where the church custodian and executive assistant were witnesses. I cried even more at that second wedding, because St. Luke's is where my parents were married and the church in which I grew up. My dad, a World War II vet who was raised Baptist, met my mom, the daughter of a Nazarene minister, after the war at the Sunday Night Dance Club at St. Luke's.

What led you to start your own company, and how did you come up with the Candor company name?

A: I married Jim, a business coach who told me I was good at growing someone else's company, but that I might want to think about doing it for myself. A few years into our marriage, I warmed to the idea of having my own company, which immediately caught fire. In our first 18 months, I signed a new client every six days. Our challenge then became not to sacrifice quality for business development. I settled on the name Candor, because we speak to the point -- with honesty and truthfully, or with candor. We don't spin; we're here to craft truthful messages for our clients, as the media is looking for clients to tell the truth -- not to duck and hide. It was natural that I christened my firm "Candor" as my family names are Chandler and Wicker, whose Latin roots are chandelier and wick, which means to thread transparency through a single point of illumination, like a candle, our company logo.

PERSONALLY SPEAKING Position: Candor, president and CEO Website: candorpr.com Age: 54 Graduated high school from: Putnam City High School Education: University of Oklahoma, master's in human relations and bachelor's in journalism. She recently was inducted into the OU Student Media Hall of Fame. Spouse: Jim Kessler, Candor managing partner and husband of 10 years. Children: stepdaughter Lauren Morris, 31, of Overland Park, Kansas; stepson Collin Kessler, 29, of New York City; daughter Chandler Kessler, 19, of northwest Oklahoma City; and granddaughter Daphne Morris, 6

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