Susan Bennett earns FPRA Lifetime Achievement Award
A love of writing, which began at the age of 14 and led to careers in journalism and marketing, recently helped earn one Fort Myers resident a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Florida Public Relations Association, Southwest Florida Chapter.
Susan Bennett, owner of Susan Bennett Marketing & Media, received the prestigious award during the chapter’s Image Awards ceremony on April 15.
“It means the world to me. Of all the awards I have won, more than 200, this is the one most meaningful to me. It’s a cumulation of all I have done in my career. That they value the work that I have done. What could be a nicer compliment than that,” she said.
Although the chapter holds an Image Awards ceremony every year, the Lifetime Achievement Award is only given out when the chapter feels someone truly deserves the award. Bennett said the award has only been given out six other times in the 30 year history of the chapter.
“I was very surprised and very humbled at the same time. Even though I have had a long career in public relations and journalism, I am not done yet,” Bennett said.
The ceremony, she said, was very well done outside at the Caloosa Nature Center. She said she was pleased to see all the young, bright smiling faces of the people who will carry on the profession for years to come after she is gone.
While a student at North Fort Myers High School, Bennett was given her first opportunity to tap into professional writing for the local newspaper, the North Fort Myers Citizen, when it started a column on high schools.
At the age of 14, she was making 15 cents a column inch to write about school happenings. In that day and age, Bennett said the more she wrote, the more she got paid, so she wrote really long columns.
The Fort Myers News-Press picked up on the column, and asked her to contribute articles for free to the publication when she was a junior and senior at North Fort Myers High School.
Her writing career continued while attending the University of Florida every summer for four years. As a journalism major, she worked for the News-Press writing obituaries, food, real estate and business news while reporters went on their vacations.
One of her front page stories, an idea Bennett pitched in the 1960s, was about how many women in Lee County were taking birth control pills. After calling every pharmacy, she produced the front page story.
After receiving her bachelor and master’s degree from the University of Florida, Bennett began working for a radio station where she did five, 5-minute newscasts a day.
“I was the first female voice on the air in Southwest Florida,” Bennett said.
When she began missing her reporting roots in print, she left the radio station after three years and returned to the News-Press where she stayed for 13 years. The publisher noticed she was getting a lot of stories in the paper and asked if she wanted to begin a public relations department for the newspaper.
“I was a hard news reporter,” Bennett said. “I made the leap. It was a good decision for me as it turned out. I went on to be named the best marketing director at Gannett for five straight years.”
In that position, she went around the country to help set up offices to launch teams for USA Today.
“It was nothing to hit four or five cities in a day. I was flying around in one of the Gannett jets. I was really tired at the end of that. I was really burned out to be truthful. I decided I had enough, so I came back,” Bennett said.
One of the newspaper publishers decided to start their own newspaper in Southwest Florida. It started with the Naples Express before other newspapers were acquired in Boca Grande and Lehigh Acres.
Unfortunately in 1991 a recession hit and advertisers started scaling down on the advertisements, which eventually led to closing the printing company, Gulf Coast Press, in Bonita Springs, numerous papers and selling the Boca Beacon.
For the first time in Bennett’s life she was left without a job. While looking for full-time work, a number of people started reaching out to her asking if she could do a project for them. One job turned into two and then continued to multiply from there.
“I kind of backed into having my own company. All this work started coming to me. I had enough to make a go of it,” she said, which led to the opening of Susan Bennett Marketing & Media in February 1991. “I have represented hundreds of local businesses, some national and never looked back.”
There have been many highlights of her career in both journalism and public relations, one of which was lending a helping hand in building the detoxification center for Southwest Florida Addiction Services — a $9 million campaign.
“Now thousands of people are able to get the help they need with addiction,” Bennett said.
The memory of an impromptu meeting in a St. Petersburg bar has also stayed with her over the years, as she had a drink with John Belushi as they watched “Saturday Night Live” together.
“I just sat down and talked to him and took notes on my arm and transcribed them when I got to the hotel room later,” she said. “I am sitting in the bar talking to John Belushi and watching John Belushi.”
The article was printed in the News-Press.
One of Bennett’s first PR campaigns at the News-Press also ranks high on her most memorable moments. She said there were 52 American hostages held in Iran and her publisher told her they had to do something to help free the hostages, put pressure on those that can and gave Bennett the assignment to come up with a plan.
The plan evolved into developing ads that ran for free to anyone who would run them, asking Congress to bring the hostages home. Flags were also sold and shipped all over the country.
“We had flags flying all over the place as a result,” she said.
Ultimately those hostages were brought home.
There was also an instance where Bennett almost went to jail because she would not give up a source for a story she did regarding unemployment during the recession of 1977. The source confided in Bennett as long as his name would not be released. She kept to that promise of never revealing the identity of the man who received unemployment while having a job.
When the state unemployment office read the story, officials wanted the name of the source.
“They took me to court and almost sent me to jail refusing to reveal my source. I told my attorney I would rather go to jail than reveal a source because my career would be done,” Bennett said. “As it turned out the source came through on his own and I did not have to go to jail.”
Now 72 years old, Bennett continues to do what she loves because “I don’t bleed red, I bleed ink.” She has a dedicated 800-square-foot office in her 4,000-square-foot condo in downtown Fort Myers where she continues her passion, which now involves a lot of work with medical clients writing news releases, ads and occasionally ghost columns.
She said although at one time she had a staff of 12, she decided to go smaller, handle less work and again produce the work.
“I missed not doing the work myself. I didn’t fire anybody. As they left and found other work, I didn’t replace them,” Bennett said.
She has kept to her journalism ethics and has never accepted a client that she did not fully believe in because if she could not, how was she going to convince anyone else.
Some of her longstanding clients include Physicians Primary Care, which has offices in Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres; Quigley Eye Center; Community Concert Associa-tion; Lifeline Family Center; and Valerie’s House.
“I don’t know if I will ever retire. My health is great. I have never been seriously ill,” Bennett said. “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I love what I do, so why would I quit loving what I do?”
She also wants to put her talent to use in her personal life by writing a family history after she dives into some deep research. Bennett said it would be a family history for her family, so it could be passed down through the generations. Part of her family history includes her father being a pressman for Better Homes and Gardens, and her aunt an editor for True Story Magazine.
“Printers ink is in my blood and always will be,” Bennett said.