Lou Hammond laughs with a down-home charm embedded long ago from the north Texas ranch where she grew up.
The big-city public relations firm owner never forgets where she came from, even though she lives in New York City, splits her time in the Lowcountry and lived five years in Lebanon when her late husband worked for PepsiCo Inc.
“I was a cowgirl,” Hammond said with a chuckle in her growing Charleston satellite office of Lou Hammond & Associates on King Street, her dachshund, Presto, ever by her side.
Now entering her fourth decade as chairman of the firm she founded in 1984, Hammond oversees three offices: the headquarters in New York City, the two-year-old downtown Charleston office and a smaller outpost in Miami.
Her website shows the sun-splashed high rises of Miami, the church-steepled skyline of Charleston and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, reflecting not only her office locations but telling the world she’s set up in some of America’s greatest cities.
Her 40 or so clients run the gamut. From helping to sell Charleston area golf venues for the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to handling PR for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Hong Kong or the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Lou Hammond & Associates’ reach is global.
The University of Houston business administration graduate even started an international service among independently owned public relations and marketing firms to help clients who might not want or can’t afford the services of larger firms. The services aren’t free, just more affordable.
The PR World Network is made up of 22 global firms with capabilities to serve 50-plus countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. The PR World Network logo can be found on each firm’s website.
Because of her prior 10-year tenure in public relations and as a lobbyist for the now-defunct Pan American World Airways, Hammond made contacts across the country and around the globe.
When she first saw Pan Am, a former powerhouse in the airline industry, starting to descend in prominence in the early 1980s, Hammond decided to strike out on her own.
“Pan Am was becoming a sad place,” she said. “It was obvious there were issues. It was declining. I said, ‘I sort of know the business. Why not?’ There was no other PR company that had a corporate background that I knew of.”
She started in New York, where she lived with husband Christopher and worked for Pan Am. In December 1984, she launched her self-named public relations firm with herself, a secretary, a journalist who loved to write and worked part-time and a couple of international customers she knew from her days with the airline.
Her first clients were Spain’s tourism office, Thailand’s tourist board and a Napa Valley hotel called Auberge du Soleil. She still handles tourism marketing for Thailand.
From those humble beginnings, the company has grown to 40 workers. The Charleston office alone, started in 2013 with two employees in renovated space in a building at Queen and King streets, now has 15 employees. The office has expanded to take the place of a law firm that moved to another floor in the building.
“It’s grown faster than I thought it would,” Hammond said.
“Our growth potential is certainly here,” said her son, Stephen Hammond, CEO of the company who lives in Charleston. “We are building our local business.”
In fact, he was the one who suggested she open a local outpost.
“I said, ‘As long as I can walk to the office,’ ” she recalled.
Besides the local CVB, the firm’s Charleston area clients include Wild Dunes Resort, Caviar & Bananas, The Beach Co., Avocet Hospitality Group (which includes The Vendue downtown and The Tides at Folly Beach) and The Gaillard Center.
Its other clients span the nation and the globe, and many of the national accounts are handled out of the Charleston office, Stephen Hammond said.
Among the first clients in the Charleston market was Caviar & Bananas. Co-owner Margaret Furniss got to know the firm in 2011 when Lou Hammond & Associates helped launch the opening of the renovated Charleston City Market, where Caviar & Bananas opened its second gourmet market and cafe in Charleston.
“I think they have an incredible idea of what’s happening in the Charleston market and in other industries and how we can tie things together,” Furniss said.
Lou Hammond said her years of experience, both with the airline and her global clients, gives her a leg up.
“We handle crises immediately and responsibly and work with our clients to create comprehensive plans and seminars,” according to her firm’s website. “These measures prevent faulty and inadequate communications, which can result in a serious loss of public confidence and irreparable harm.”
Because every business has unforeseen problems, she created an agencywide crisis response team, available around the clock to handle whatever comes up. That came straight from her years with Pan Am.
“We had planes going in every direction,” she said. “We had duty officers, always on call with a beeper or home phone, to be called in the middle of the night. I was one of about 10. We didn’t have cellphones then. It was not always trouble with an airline. A family was separated. A crisis in Iran. We operated under strict guidelines of what to say and what not to say. We were trained in real crisis management. Crisis management was part of PR.”
As for the Charleston move, Hammond couldn’t be happier. She visited the city not long after Hurricane Hugo’s pummeling wrath in 1989 and remembered thinking it reminded her of Texas with its slower pace, accents and, particularly, its friendliness.
“I love it when people walk down the street and say, ‘Good morning or good afternoon.’ ”
In 1999, she bought a house just south of Broad Street, developed a couple of clients and frequented the city often.
Hammond never takes on more than she can handle, and she bills clients differently from many other agencies by not keeping time records.
“If someone calls, we take care of the problem and help them,” she said. “When the need is there, we take care of them.”
As for taking on new clients, Hammond, like her son, sees opportunities blossoming in the South.
“A lot of companies are moving here, and we like doing business in South Carolina,” she said. “It’s an easy state to do business in. It’s been rewarding.”
Asked if there were any drawbacks, Hammond said learning new technology has been her biggest challenge.
“I’ve learned an IT room is more important than a bathroom,” she said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.