For Shirley Johnson, taking on clients as a solo PR professional wasn’t part of some grand plan. It happened organically following many successful years in broadcast production and healthcare and pharmaceutical public relations.
After living in Chicago, Colorado and New York City, Shirley moved home to Georgia to be with her mother who was battling leukemia. She quit her job with Edelman PR so she could spend less time commuting and more time with family, and when it was time to get back to work, she knew she couldn’t return to a cubicle. Her industry contacts began sending her clients, and her solo career took off.
Five years later Shirley is principal of Stage 1 Public Relations, where she works with clients in the healthcare, biotech and non-profit industries. And in 2021, she took full advantage of the freedom her self-employed lifestyle offers — Shirley and her 13-year-old son moved to Florence, Italy.
“I would advise, if you are able to work remotely and do your own thing, go see the world and get a new perspective,” she says, “because there’s clients everywhere.”
Cross-country career path
Shirley graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in public relations and a Master’s degree from Seton Hall in corporate and public communications. She worked in a few boutique PR agencies before moving to Chicago where she landed a job in the research department at the Oprah Winfrey Show at its peak.
She followed her former spouse to Colorado, where she created “next on” promotions for BET.
“Pretty much all day I would watch movies, and then I’d go into the editing room and take bits and pieces of the movies and come up with creative promotions to get people to watch,” she says, adding that she loved the job, even though it was very challenging.
It wasn’t until she moved to New York that she made the transition back to PR, working for hospitals and agencies — including Edelman and Manning Selvage & Lee (now known as the MSLGroup) — servicing biotech and pharmaceutical companies. She worked in-house doing crisis communications and product launches for two more pharmaceutical companies before moving back to Georgia.
When the freelance work started coming her way, Shirley says it felt great to be making her own money, so she pursued more clients.
“I was like, You know what, I like this so much better,” she says. “I work from home. I don't have to worry about the commute. I can pick up my son from school, and I can be there when he gets home. Everything was just much more balanced for me.”
Working on the highest-rated daytime talk show in American history
The opportunity to work with Oprah on the highest-rated daytime talk show in American history was another happy accident in Shirley’s career. She recalls going to an agency to interview for a different position, only to be told she was being put in for a job at Harpo.
“I said, ‘Harpo — isn’t that Oprah?’ And she said, ‘Yep, exactly,’” Shirley remembers. “I went there on a Wednesday and they hired me on a Friday.”
Before she knew it, Shirley was reading every piece of fan mail and viewer correspondence that came in and pitching producers based on the stories and questions people submitted. She moved to the research library to do fact checking, which sometimes meant doing speedy background checks on LexisNexis (these were the pre-high speed internet days) while in the middle of a live broadcast. She even got to be on the show a couple of times.
Five years of reviewing incoming pitches really helped to hone her own pitching strategy and formed a strong foundation for the work she does today.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” she says, adding, “And yes, Oprah is just as wonderful as she is on air. It was a great opportunity.”
Flying solo in Italy
Shirley loves the clients and agencies she works with through Stage 1 PR. One client has created an app for detecting mild cognitive impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s, and she says it has been really rewarding to see the company flourish and land new partnerships. She’s also gotten great national placements for stories about the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
She appreciates that her work is so varied, and she credits her Solo PR Pro membership with many of the great opportunities that come her way. “This is probably one of the best organizations that I’m a member of,” she says.
Shirley has a great attitude about taking risks: “When things happen, it’s great. And then when it doesn’t come together it’s even great too — because you learn from all experience.”
Shirley was all about new experiences when she moved to Italy on a student visa this past summer. She takes Italian language classes every day and loves that the people in Florence are so friendly when she wants to practice her new skills. She loves that she can take quick trips to neighboring towns — or even to Paris or Austria — to seek out more new places.
“I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface,” she says. “Having this opportunity — especially at this chapter in my life — I just wake up every day, and I have to pinch myself.”
Shirley is not wasting any opportunity to connect with her passions. She’s looking at auditions for local choral groups and trying her hand at some fiction writing. And as a self-proclaimed foodie, she’s enjoying the cuisine that Italy has to offer.
“I've lived all over the US,” she says, “and I've never felt more at home than I do here. Everything is smaller. I walk everywhere. You can't beat the experience. You just can't.”