Businesswoman learned from a legend: her dad

Gaye Bunderson//March 22, 2011

Businesswoman learned from a legend: her dad

Gaye Bunderson//March 22, 2011

Serena Carlson's interest in natural resource industries stems from her love of the outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Serena Carlson)
Serena Carlson's interest in natural resource industries stems from her love of the outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Serena Carlson)

Last May, Serena Carlson of Coeur d’Alene became just another statistic when she was laid off her from her job.

Carlson had worked for four years in north Idaho as communications program manager for the Intermountain Forest Association, which, she said, “didn’t even make it out of 2010.” But while the association survived in another form due to an operating agreement with a South Dakota forestry group, Carlson also stepped up and made it through a tough time.

“I looked around – kind of the first thing you do when you are notified you are going to lose your job,” Carlson said. “I looked around and looked around. When the economy is down, the first thing to go is communication and public affairs. There weren’t a lot of businesses hiring those kinds of employees.”

But Carlson saw that the need for those services still existed, even while companies were pulling back on them. “Businesses can’t hire a full-time person but could use the services of an independent consultant,” she said.

So she launched her own company, Carlson Strategic Communications LLC, soon after being let go from the Idaho Forest Association and said she’s been very busy with clients since then.

Carlson’s job history includes working for a company her father Chris started, The Gallatin Group. “I worked for Gallatin for four years and kind of cut my teeth there. I worked through high school and college. What other job will allow you to take off four or five hours a day to go to school?” she asked.

Her work focuses on the public outreach needs of natural resources industries such as timber, mining and agriculture. She specializes in crisis communication, media relations, media training, public speaking training, press release and fact sheet writing, strategic plans, meeting facilitation and public opinion research.

“That was what I worked on at Gallatin. I’ve always enjoyed timber, mining, land use issues. For hobbies, I’m a distance runner, love to hunt and love to ride my horse. That’s why I focused on natural resource industries – I like to be outside,” she said.

She deals almost exclusively with environmental issues and said there’s two sides to every story; sometimes companies need help telling their side.

“Everyone wants a healthy environment, clean air and water, and the public is worried about it. Companies are on the defensive,” Carlson said, maintaining that anybody with a point of view and a computer can write a blog, for instance, without concern for accuracy.

“The blogosphere and social media are protected by the First Amendment,” she said, and are not subject to claims of libel the way responsible news outlets are. Carlson puts forth her clients’ perspective, countering any misinformation that may be circulating.

“Everyone who comes through my door needs something different. They’re having trouble with a federal agency or regulation issues, or communication needs between the company and the state, or they have an issue the public doesn’t understand and need outreach and media relations so the public understands the issue,” she said.

Her father works for his daughter’s firm as an of-counsel.

“He’s available on an as-needed, spot-work basis. Mostly he’s available to certain clients who worked with him in the past. That’s why I keep him. He’s a legend and has forgot more than I’ll ever know about public affairs and public policy,” she said.

To start her own company took only a little bit of money, for making business cards and launching a website. “Low overhead is good,” she said. “You can charge less and pass the savings on to the clients.”

She was given a bit of wise business counsel from an acquaintance at another job she held, with the Washington State Senate from 2003 to 2005.

“I’m keeping my head above water financially. The best advice I ever got came from a lobbyist I know. He said, ‘On the months that are really good and you make money, don’t spend it. Because some months might be great, others not.’ It’s truly feast or famine,” she said.

She also sought startup tips from an attorney.

Self-employment suits her. “I find it curiously freeing not to have to work for a boss. My clients are my boss, but it’s not quite the same,” she said. “I’m having a lot of fun sometimes. Even doing my taxes for the first year wasn’t as bad as I thought.”