December 7, 2007

Pursuing the Big Idea

Mary Stengel Austen ’86 finds her niche as president and CEO of Tierney CommunicationsBy Kate Helm

As an undergraduate at Lafayette, Mary Stengel Austen ’86 envisioned a future in sales, but a fortuitous job opening at a public relations firm the summer after she graduated led her down a different path.

Now president and CEO of Tierney Communications, a Philadelphia-based public relations, marketing, and advertising firm, Austen found her niche.

“The most rewarding aspect is the people I’ve met and the businesses I’ve touched. And I mean both the people I work with and the people I’m partnered with as clients,” says Austen, one of three co-founders of The Tierney Group, her company’s precursor. “You get to meet such incredibly smart, intuitive, interesting people. That, for me, has really been the fun part. And the meat of the work, too; you get to see how your ideas and passion for their businesses come to life.”

For Austen, the appeal of public relations and advertising lies in the variety of the clients who seek her services. She has provided strategic advice to marquee names like Verizon, Coca-Cola, Disney, Marriott, GlaxoSmithKline, McDonald’s, and Tiffany & Co. And to oil companies.

“The main attraction [of this field] was the diversity of the business,” she says. “It was the diversity of industries and of the work, curiosity, and learning something new every day. Also, I’ve found things I didn’t think would be interesting that have turned out to be. I never would’ve thought I’d go purchase an oil and gas magazine, but it’s really interesting how oil makes its way back to you. That was really interesting and happened to be a side benefit.”

Tierney’s specialties include working with celebrities in advertising, including James Earl Jones for Verizon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Commerce Bank, Ray Charles for the Pennsylvania Lottery, and Eric Clapton and Johnny Cash for Martin Guitar.

Austen has provided communication strategies for numerous national and international organizations facing a variety of issues and crisis situations, including mergers and acquisitions, abrupt management changes, labor strikes, discrimination charges, environmental challenges, and one of the largest commercial office tower fires in the country.

One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of her work is staying on top of the rapidly changing technological advancements in media and communications.

“From the cell phone to the Internet to social networking, it has just exploded,” Austen says. “We have to continually tweak our business plan so we can keep making an impact for our clients. We have to know what the tools should be to get their message across because it’s a very cluttered environment. Something that hasn’t changed is that a great idea can still break through. The big idea will never go out of style. But the media changes continue to force people to learn more about the media vehicles and how to use them. You have to make sure you’re still relevant for the client.”

The Philadelphia Business Journal recognized Austen with its 40 Under 40 Award, given to “40 rising stars based on their professional accomplishments and their commitment to the community.” She also has received The Spirit of Life Award from City of Hope Cancer Center.

Austen admittedly “fell into” public relations, and she credits her Lafayette education with giving her the flexibility to take advantage of that summer job opportunity.

“It was a great environment because you felt you could test the waters, but you had a net,” she says. “The community is very supportive of trying new things. The chance to work one-on-one with the faculty and have them truly be interested was very helpful when I got outside because I was more willing to be aggressive and step out, and that has served me well.”

Though her children have some time before choosing a college, she hopes they, too, will be open to exploring what the liberal arts have to offer.

“Because I was an English and government & law double major, I was able to get the full benefit of a liberal arts education and the benefit of delving into multiple disciplines,” she says. “It forced me to explore a little bit more. There’s a part of me that worries high school seniors are so directed that they don’t give themselves the option to be open to find an interest.”

Austen continues to be active in the Lafayette community and believes it’s an exciting time to be a Leopard. She is a Standing Committees Associate. She has hosted students for externships and is involved with the Office of Career Services’ Gateway program. She has hosted internships for Lafayette students and served on the Lafayette Leadership Council.

“I feel a sense of responsibility to give back to an institution that gave a lot to me and shaped who I am,” she says. “It’s also fun to stay close to campus. The new leadership has sucked me back in. I have a lot of respect for [President Emeritus] Arthur Rothkopf ’55, but I think it’s the right time for Dan [Weiss], who has a real vision for a campus like Lafayette. Lafayette is a small place, but a lot of people from Lafayette are in big places themselves.”

So strong is the Lafayette connection that Austen believes students should take advantage of it while still undergraduates. If she has one regret, it’s that she didn’t seize the opportunity to use the network of alumni to explore career options. She encourages students not to be hesitant to reach out for advice and support.

“I think people may be pleasantly surprised at how open that door would be,” she says.

After growing Tierney from a staff of three to 150, Austen strives to provide a nurturing environment much like the one she enjoyed at Lafayette.

“[Lafayette’s] a really special place where you can come into your own and get a sense of what the bigger world’s going to be in a safe and incredibly rewarding environment,” she says. “I’ve developed lasting friendships and business contacts. It’s a campus that doesn’t leave you. When you meet other people who go there, you feel a kinship to them. It’s more than the academics, it’s how I was taught to think and be curious. I was open to various industries and opportunities. Lafayette allowed you to do that, but with some structure. I’ve tried to create a similar environment in my business and give [my employees] room to chart their own courses and grow.”

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