Ever since college, Susan Stoga had a passion for the fast pace of the media industry.
Originally from suburban Chicago, Illinois, she studied journalism at the University of Iowa, getting her start reporting on elections as early as her sophomore year.
Upon graduating, Susan decided to leave reporting behind and instead put her skills to work doing media relations for a major retailer back in her hometown. It was in that role where she had her first experience owning crisis communications for a major brand, when the retailer came under fire on Black Friday by an anti-fur demonstration group.
After dabbling in various PR and integrated marketing roles both in-house at major brands like Hyatt and at a few agencies, Susan found herself working for a publicly held company which would soon become her last traditional 9-to-5 job.
She stuck it out with the company through two major reorganizations before deciding it was time to try something new.
What initially started as a year of freelancing while she plotted her next career move eventually became the foundation of the business Susan still owns and operates today, Carson Stoga Communications.
From freelance to firm
“When I first left my corporate job, I could not believe how much business was out there for someone who had strong media relations skills and good crisis experience,” Susan says.
While building her client list and personal network, Susan reconnected with a former high school classmate, who was the PR director for the Chicago O’Hare Hotel at the time.
The two started working on new projects together and one year later in 1999 formed Carson Stoga Communications.
In its initial years, the firm focused on clients in the tech, retail and hospitality areas, industries Susan and her partner already had extensive experience working in. Since then, the firm has withstood the test of time, making it through The Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
She credits some of the firm’s longevity to her willingness to stay agile and adaptable.
“I believe in specialization,” she says. “But when you operate a business for more than a decade, you have to be willing to make changes to keep up with the changing tides.”
When Carson Stoga’s work in the tech startup space began to slow down, they pivoted focus to other direct-to-consumer clients. Susan says, no matter what industry they were focused in at any given time, she always kept her eyes and ears open for different areas of compatibility that would allow them to grow as a business.
“What you start out with now might not be an area that’s viable five years down the road,” she says.
When thinking back on some of her favorite projects, Susan has always been drawn to clients with a pretty devastating issue in need of solving. Whether they want to get their business back on track or are in the midst of a specific crisis, she loves tackling new problems and being able to apply the skills she’s acquired through the years to help someone who really needs it.
Passion project: Starting Let It Be Us
Susan doesn’t reserve her passion for problem-solving for just her clients only, though.
Having adopted both her son and daughter, Susan felt compelled to use her communication skills for good as an advocate for child welfare.
She got her start serving on a marketing committee for an agency working in both the U.S. and China on international adoptions. But when the organization merged with a larger parent company based out of state, she found herself in need of another opportunity to continue her work.
Together with six other founding members, Susan helped create Let It Be Us, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the landscape of foster care and adoption in Illinois.
“Out of all the states and Puerto Rico, Illinois is ranked last, number 51, in terms of the speed that children are taken out of foster care and placed with a permanent family,” Susan says. “We put our heads together to figure out ways we could change that, and move our state up the ladder.”
The organization grew from that small group of founding members to what is now an extensive network of volunteers and a multimillion dollar donor base.
Susan’s advice for other solopreneurs
Susan’s biggest piece of advice for other solopreneurs, particularly those just starting out: Build a strong network.
“I’m kind of a pack animal — I like joining communities and being part of a bigger team,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I ended up in the Solo PR group.”
Being able to create, maintain and grow an extensive network of other industry professionals is one of the things she loves about the Solo PR Pro community.
“I believe in specialization, but if a project is truly not a good fit for me I can refer that business to someone else in the group who would be better suited to take it on,” she says.
Continuously networking within the PR field has also helped Susan to build out a well-rounded team at Carson Stoga.
What started with just two co-founders has now blossomed to a team of three full-time employees and a much larger network of “trusted resources” who Susan has met and worked with extensively over the years.
“We work as a network within ourselves,” she says. “Just like in the Solo [PR Pro] group, you’ll see people partner up together. Sometimes it works out well and you do another project. Then three or four years later, you’re still working with them regularly. It gives you the opportunity to find the exact right person for your business, should you ever get a client that needs more than what you yourself can provide.”
She emphasizes the importance of having others to bounce ideas off of and learn from, in addition to simply growing your client network.