Susan McLennan, Sustainability, Social Justice and a PR Specialist’s Perspective

When I first met Susan McLennan, she was one of three speakers at a Life Entrepreneurship forum. As soon as I heard Susan speak, I knew that she was someone I wanted to learn more about.

The speakers before and after Susan told of their life stories, how they came upon some incredible personal hardships, how they overcame their hardships, what they learned, how they had subsequently built successful businesses and how they could help us in doing the same. They were terrific speakers and I truly enjoyed them.

But Susan took a very different approach. She started her presentation with just a sentence or two about her own background, quickly brushed past that part of the presentation, and went on to the story of her work as a PR specialist with her company Babble On Communications.

What struck me was that during her whole presentation, she directed her attention entirely to the causes she was working on and kept saying how fortunate she was to be able to work with these wonderful people. Her focus was entirely outwardly directed and she expressed her excitement and passion about the people or causes she was associated with, whether they were clients or not. Her stories were about their contribution to the world, not hers.

Her story stood out for me because it was so different from the other two talks. Since I hadn’t met a lot of PR specialists I thought perhaps that’s just the way they work. But after recalling the few PR specialists that I had met, her talk still seemed very unusual. Besides having incredibly compelling causes, she got my attention because something in the way she communicated the story told me that she was a much bigger part of the story than she was saying. And I got the very distinct impression from her knowledge of details and activities, that she took these causes very personally, not just professionally.

I was convinced there was more to the story and decided that she would be a good candidate to interview for my series on Business Executives who promote sustainability.

As much as I want to say more about Susan, and I will later in the article, I don’t think she would be very happy unless I first say a little about a few of the causes that she has dedicated her life and work to, and for which she shows so much passion. Besides which, they are stories that help to fill the picture of who Susan is and how she spends her time.

The James fund

The James fund was started by a six year old boy, James Birrell from Peterborough Ontario, who was suffering from Neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma is a very rare and painful form of cancer which strikes primarily young children and which destroys their nerve endings. Children with Neuroblastoma, at least when the story began, rarely survived more than a few years and, due to the rare nature of the disease, at least the time James was diagnosed, research on Neuroblastoma was virtually non-existent. There were just too few cases to make research for a treatment commercially viable for drug companies. Susan noted that even the equipment for treating cancer is primarily designed for adults and often difficult to use with children. But little James Birrell, who was destined for a life of extreme suffering, didn’t let that slow him down. With assistance from his father Syd, he decided that he would start a fund to raise money for research. At the time James was diagnosed at the age of 4, Syd was also raising two other children and caring for his wife, Pam, who was herself was just recovering from breast cancer.

Susan described the cancer research situation and the challenges of the medical industry in a fair amount of detail and it seemed from the comments she made, that she had spent quite a lot of time directly involved with the project. I’m not sure about this so I’ll ask next time I speak with her. She told me that research done on adult cancers do not necessarily have a great bearing on treatments of childhood cancers whereas research on childhood cancers apparently has tremendous relevance to adult cancers, the difference apparently as a result of the rapid growth of cells in children. Susan commented on how funding for research is focused on the same corporate criteria of quarterly results that influence most business decisions and like so many decisions in corporate world are designed to win the tiny battles but tend to lose the war.

James was a very active child and his favorite saying was “Ya can’t let cancer ruin your day”, and so he decided to live his life that way. During the course of his fund raising efforts, he gained the attention of many celebrities including Mr. Dress-up and Fred Penner and astronaut Chris Hatfield. He also enlisted the help of an engineer, James Muit, who helped him build a soapbox car to race in soapbox derby. James took a serious spin in the final race but it was all good. You can see the clip of James’ race on W5. And James used to spend time with the cast and crew of the Kratt brothers’ program Zoboombafoo, a children’s program for which Susan is the PR agent.

James also managed to attract the attention of actor Tom Hanks, who later became a patron sponsor of the James fund. James wanted to talk to Tom Hanks because of his role in the movie Apollo 13, a movie which James loved because it was all about space and overcoming the odds, two of his favorite themes. James and his family spoke to and corresponded with Tom Hanks on many occasions and Tom Hanks sent the gift of a toy Astronaut to James.

Susan talked about the many selfless efforts of Tom Hanks in helping James to raise money and how he continues to contributes directly to the fund through dedicated acts of service. He wrote the forward to the book written by Syd Birrell, aptly named “Ya can’t let cancer ruin your day”, and dedicated his time to many events to help the fund raising effort. Among them, Hanks generously gives James Fund signed merchancise from many of his films to help in fundraising efforts, including the da Vinci movies and Cast Away, donating countless signed volleyballs for the cause. And Susan remarked that he did it always on the quiet, never in a very public way.

James died at home 7 years ago just after his 8th birthday. But he remarked prior to his passing that he would always be fighting cancer. No doubt that through the efforts of the many he inspired he always will. James left an enormous legacy of courage and contribution that few of us will match. And he still lives on in the memories of the people he touched and through the James fund which has now raised over 3 million dollars for Neuroblastoma research and through the lab at SickKids named in his memory.

His father’s book “Ya can’t let Cancer Ruin Your Day” is a collection of e-mails that were written during the course of James’ short but powerful life on this planet. The book is available nationwide in Chapters, and copies of the book were purchased by a number of philanthropists and donated to many paediatric oncology hospitals throughout North America including 17 here in Canada.

In addition to raising funds James’ case attracted the attention of leading researcher, Dr. Kaplan to work at sick kids. Dr. Kaplan’s approach was if you have a theory and some science to back you up, try it. Susan commented that Dr. Kaplan enjoyed working in the Canadian system because it fosters greater cooperation between doctors whereas the US system fosters competition.

In her own very humble style, Susan spoke very little about her own contribution, but it was clear that all of these activities were far more than just business for her. She was part of the story even though she never really said much about what she did.

The Kratt Brothers connection

Susan went on to tell of her admiration for the Kratt brothers (her clients), and the amazing work they were doing in the world. The Kratt brothers had pitched their ideas with a number of US television networks and weren’t getting very far. They were told that their program was too complex for kids. But they we persistent and not about to give up. They believed that kids had the capacity to learn more complex ideas about the world and nature than we generally acknowledged. The Kratt brothers hired Susan as their publicist and with her help they were soon spreading their message, educating kids about the environment and nature through their hit TV program Zoboombafoo. They went on to do a series on the National Geographic channel and another on PBS and they started the Kratt Brothers Creature Hero Society at the request of kids who were desperately looking for ways to help the animals they love. The first project under the KBCH Society banner was ”Grizzly Gulch”, a program to purchase a vital piece of land in Montana where the Grizzly mothers learn to take care of their young. They expect to have the necessary funds to complete the transaction by August.

I asked about the Kratt brothers and their connection to James Birrell. Susan said the Kratt brothers just wanted to connect with someone who needed them and helped out of the goodness of their heart.

And finally, a little more about Susan

Susan started out as an actor and was part of actor unions including Actra, UBCP and CAEA. She did on stage and on-screen work, but soon realized that she suffered from stage fright and it wasn’t what she wanted to do. Susan was under contract to Paragon, producers of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Paragon also owned HandMade, which is best known for some of its earlier works, including Time Bandits and Life of Ryan. As a reader for Paragon, she wrote the Reader’s Report for the Kratt brothers first show Kratt’s Creatures ultimately ended up as the Brand Manager for the Kratt Brothers at Paragon.  Babble On’s brand was developed while at Paragon, launching a more fully rounded roster when Paragon dissolved.

And here is where we get to the heart of Susan and why she’s so passionate about her work.

Susan made a conscious decision to work only on projects that she truly believes in. She says she’s a realist and knows that she has to pay the bills and workers, but she’s clearly not all about money and she generally finds more than enough work with companies that are serious about preserving the planet and bringing about social justice. She says she has much less interest or patience for companies that are simply trying to promote themselves as doing good without actually backing it up with action.

Susan works with her husband Mike Erskine-Kellie. Her husband Mike does creative work and Susan does the PR.

Babble On Communications has done work for SickKids, The Childhood Cancer Foundation, Make Poverty History, SoChange (a not for profit), TV Ontario and CBC. They’ve promoted documentaries and/or events with luminaries such as Stephen Lewis (about social Justice), David Suzuki and Ralph Nader.

She talked a little about “Vote out poverty”, an event which Stephen Lewis headlined, and when I asked about Stephen Lewis, she commented that “(for him) it’s not just about AIDS or any one disease, it’s about injustice. He gets the bigger picture”.

What is her biggest learning?

She said that it was all about trying to think about everything through the eyes of others, learning to look at the bigger picture, picking your battles and timing and keeping in mind how you think about the universe. She gave me the example of how she looks at others on the other side of the world and asked how can we allow people on the other side of the world to live in utmost poverty and yet not do anything about it? “What if the paradigm shifted and we were living in squalor? What would we want others to do for us?” If we know the answer to that, then we know what we should be doing to help them as well. When she talked about it, I sensed her frustration with the fact that others continue to suffer. But Susan’s a hopeful person and doesn’t dwell on the negatives.

How do we get others involved?

“Attraction, not preaching” It’s about getting others to want to do what’s right. ”If you say this is good for you and you should do it, you’ve lost the battle.” And while it’s about attraction, she also said it wasn’t about sugar coating either.

She talked about an example with the Kratt brothers. The network was telling them “You can’t use big words like predation” but the Kratt brothers insisted “kids are smarter than you think”. She recalled when one child came up at autograph session, and remarked that the brothers hadn’t been fair. They said what do mean? He said “I was having so much fun that I didn’t realize I was learning”. They try to get the right message out.

I asked how to get people to want to come to you. She said people connect to others through their own story. It comes back to thinking through the eyes of other (do they have good reasons for resisting what you’re saying)? Everyone has their own battles, paying the mortgage, food, raising their kids. You won’t know until you look at life through their eyes.

And she advised that we should get outside of our traditional comfort Zone. Spend some time twittering to the world and listening to what others are twittering about.”

Other observations about Susan

What I also noticed was the intensity of her passion for her work. And I realized at that moment that it was really all about capturing that. If you see someone with that kind of passion and love for the world, you automatically get a feeling that working towards the same thing is a source of joy and meaning and you automatically want that in your life too. You want to help out.

And it’s more than just passion. There are a lot of passionate people in the world. Some who are passionate yet self-interested and some who are passionate because their afraid of what’s going to happen if we don’t do something. Susan’s kind of passion is really contagious because she sees the positive in what others are trying, then she gets personally involved, contributing her own skills and then she tells everyone else. As she helps others to make a difference, you know that’s where she gains her own joy and contentment. She doesn’t have to tell you what it does for her, you just feel it.

Keeping out of the Muck

I asked Susan what she does to keep from getting mired in the muck and negativity of the world. She said that she keeps an open mind and recognizes that some companies and corporations throw around the right terms but don’t always show the right actions. When she sees this, she stays clear of it because she wants to make sure that she always learns something from her clients.

And she also acknowledged that once in a while she starts working with someone and gets caught finding out that their not really what they profess to be.

Philanthropy and Work

I asked her how much of her own work is philanthropic. It seemed a little hard to separate the two because it seems everything she does is for a good cause and one seemed to flow into the other. She said sometimes she gets paid for her work, sometimes not. And she said that sometimes even when she starts off doing something philanthropic, some foundation will see what she’s doing and they’ll invite her to do the same for them, and, of course, they’ll pay her for her work. But she’s realistic. She said in times like these, sometimes the money is there, other times not. “You can’t do much for the world if you’re bankrupt.”

She said she enjoys working with promising young people and that she loved to mentor them believing that they will remember her when they hit their stride. She gave an example of Brandon Schupp who was 13 and on Canada AM and in Globe and Mail from the top of the mountain that he had climbed. He was Readers Digest hero of the year. Susan remarked that she never saw someone with so much humility. And she felt so good about the fact that Brandon still comes by each year and takes her for lunch as a thank you for her help. She said that when Brandon applied for a camp counselor position, he gave her name as a reference. When the camp called her, she realized that Brandon had neglected to mention all his major accomplishments and interview with the media, focusing rather on other skills he had learned about counseling, typical of his humility.

She gave other examples of young people she worked with including Cancer survivors who went across Canada on a bike and one of whom had lost a leg to cancer and more recent work with Cloe Whittaker and Tyson Jerry of Driven to Sustain (http://driventosustain.ca) who are attempting to raise funds by setting a record for the longest journey in a vehicle driven 100% on waste vegetable oil.

She talked briefly about a Disney celebration where Disney had distributed 75 life size Mickey Mouse dolls to celebrities to dress up anyway they wanted. Tom Hanks decorated his in space uniform and held a fund raising event in honor of the James fund. She mentioned that she had gone there to support the initiative and it slipped out that she had travelled at her own expense. After telling me the story, she seemed a little embarrassed for even mentioning it and she said she didn’t like to toot her horn. That was already obvious, but I assured her it was OK for me to toot it for her.

She also said she loved to work with people who created a story out of their life and people who wouldn’t take no for an answer. And she was thankful that her organization was small enough to be able to choose who it works for.

Sustainability and Social Justice

I asked Susan about her view of Sustainability. She remarked that she’s been working in the area of sustainability for more than 12 years, long before the term became popular. Pretty much all of the causes taken on by Babble On Communications are about making a difference in the world. And Susan said she plans to continue on that way as long as she can afford to.

What’s Next for Susan?

She said the Kratt Brothers will be at Dollywood, she would be doing more fun work with sochange (www.sochange.ca) and helping the James’ fund go to an international level. Her Husband is writing a fun classic Arabian internet series to foster cultural understanding, she’s working on Spellz (PBS), and continues blogging on babbleoncom.com (they both have blogs, her husband’s is called “Sick days”), and her husband also has a web site about the character Avery Ant which is themed on Social Justice and has been selected for inclusion in Library of Congress. Avery the Ant runs for different positions including the Pope and Prime Minister of Canada. She mentioned that she had handled PR for a “quasi-spoof” site http://canadianalternative.com which was a web-site for Americans who wanted to leave US to move to Canada when President Bush got elected for the second term. She said that there were actually a lot of Americans who left the US during that period. “We forget that Canada is a country of immigrants.” She also continues to promote foundations such as the Good Neighbors Club.

At that point in the interview she was called away for a trip to New York and I still never got to learn about her direct involvement on many of these causes. What I do know for certain is that she’s incredibly well connected and she uses those connections to make a difference in the world.

I feel pretty certain I’ll be keeping in touch with Susan periodically and I’ll do an update next time I talk to her.

I thank Susan for her time, her passion and her dedication for promoting good and seeing the best in people. She’s an inspiring person.

Till next time,

Garth Schmalenberg

Web:http://www.hbi-leadership.com
Twitter: @gschmalenberg

3 Comments

  1. alantru Said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    A wonderful article. Susan is a marvel.

  2. Jennifer Said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    I have connected with Susan via her husband’s “Sick Days” blog, and I follow her on Twitter. Now I feel even more honored for the privilege. Thank you for the lovely glimpse into her life and passions.

  3. Elizabeth Said,

    May 22, 2009 @ 12:34 am

    What a fantastic article!

    I work at the Good Neighbours’ Club, a drop-in centre for homeless and marginally housed men over 50 in downtown Toronto. As a small organization run on a shoestring, we have been incredibly fortunate to have Susan volunteer her time to help us with PR. She’s been very generous – giving feedback on our website, getting us in the loop about Twitter and blogging, attending media events, and the list goes on.

    We’re so lucky to have her, and it’s great to see her get some recognition!

    If you’d like to learn more about the Good Neighbours’ Club, check us out at http://www.goodneighboursclub.org