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San Francisco’s power publicists

By Katie Morell

If you’ve ever met someone truly in love with his or her job, you know the glow they get when talking about what they do and how they can’t believe their luck. This is the case with three of San Francisco’s most successful PR mavens: Lori Puccinelli Stern, Jessica Mullens and Claudia Ross.  What makes them the best in the game? It all starts with passion for the work.

Lori Puccinelli Stern

Lori Puccinelli Stern is the kind of person who leaves a positive impression on everyone she meets. “Lori walks around with a sunbeam on her,” says Hilary Newsom, president of PlumpJack Group and Puccinelli Stern’s best friend. “She spreads joy wherever she goes.”

On a Friday in January, Puccinelli Stern talks passionately about her role as vice president of Glodow Nead Communications. “The difference with us is results,” she says over a Caesar salad at Hillstone. “We have people who clip press hits all day long.”

The results have been hard fought, and Puccinelli Stern has the track record to prove it. Today, her name is synonymous with PR excellence in the city. Both Claudia Ross and Jessica Mullens pile on the compliments, with Mullens even calling Puccinelli Stern a “work idol.” After graduating with a communications degree from UC Santa Barbara, she worked as an event planner and was tasked with orchestrating a birthday party for Danny Glover’s father. The party went so well that Glover asked her to work for his new restaurant concept—Planet Hollywood.

This was the mid-1990s, and Puccinelli Stern jumped at the opportunity, working all hours and meeting hundreds of celebrities along the way (many of whom are now her closest friends). Following a long stint with Planet Hollywood, she decided to start her own PR practice, but soon joined Glodow Nead—this month she celebrates her 12th anniversary with the firm.

These days, Puccinelli Stern has traded in her party shoes for time with her husband and two daughters, ages 11 and 12. “My older daughter is almost 13, which means I have five more years with her,” she says. “That means that our social life is much less the society scene and more about going to great places with friends with children.”

While travel is a big part of her life—her family likes to spend time at their home in Incline Village—so are dinner parties. “My dinner parties are legendary. I have the smallest house, but I can crank some great food out of my itty-bitty kitchen,” she says.

For Puccinelli Stern, friends are incredibly important, and she chooses them wisely. “I only surround myself with people who make me a better person,” she says. “If you aren’t OK climbing over the couch to get to my dinner table, you aren’t my people.”

The feeling among her friends, it seems, is mutual. “She is amazing at what she does because she remembers people and cares about friendships,” Newsom says. “On a personal note, I remember when my mom was dying, she said to me, ‘I know you will be forever taken care of because Lori is your best friend.’ She was right.”

On a sunny Wednesday in January, two miles south of the glitz of Shreve & Co., Mullens opens the door to her office. “Welcome to Eche,” she says, as the light of the room behind her glows and its minimalist decor comes into view. The Eche she speaks of is Eche Martinez, an interior designer she became friends with after hiring him to decorate her Hillsborough home, and with whom she now shares an office where she operates her firm, Mullens Public Relations.

Like Puccinelli Stern and Ross, Mullens is a legend in San Francisco’s public relations scene, but her story has an interesting twist: her career started in neuroscience research. Upon graduating with a psychology degree from UC Santa Cruz, she worked in cognitive behavioral research at a Stanford lab. But when faced with seven more years of education, she hesitated.

“I made the connection between what marketing people do and impacting behavioral change, so I called up Ketchum for an informational interview,” she says.

The year was 1997, and Mullens was hired on the spot, only to be poached by a technology start-up and then go freelance. She founded her firm in 2000 and continued working with tech clients, later migrating to lifestyle work.

Jessica Mullins

On a sunny Wednesday in January, two miles south of the glitz of Shreve & Co., Mullens opens the door to her office. “Welcome to Eche,” she says, as the light of the room behind her glows and its minimalist decor comes into view. The Eche she speaks of is Eche Martinez, an interior designer she became friends with after hiring him to decorate her Hillsborough home, and with whom she now shares an office where she operates her firm, Mullens Public Relations.

Like Puccinelli Stern and Ross, Mullens is a legend in San Francisco’s public relations scene, but her story has an interesting twist: her career started in neuroscience research. Upon graduating with a psychology degree from UC Santa Cruz, she worked in cognitive behavioral research at a Stanford lab. But when faced with seven more years of education, she hesitated.

“I made the connection between what marketing people do and impacting behavioral change, so I called up Ketchum for an informational interview,” she says.

The year was 1997, and Mullens was hired on the spot, only to be poached by a technology start-up and then go freelance. She founded her firm in 2000 and continued working with tech clients, later migrating to lifestyle work.

Maja Lithander Smith hired Mullens in mid-2016 to help launch FOUND by Maja, a design boutique on Sacramento Street. “It has been amazing what press she was able to get me off the bat,” she says. “San Francisco Cottages & Gardens did a story on my home and featured me on the cover in September.”

When Mullens isn’t brainstorming with clients, she’s planning extravagant dinner parties—take-out pizza nights, they are not—while also wrangling her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. She was able to mix the two recently when organizing a joint pirate-themed party for her children (whose birthdays are a week apart), complete with tattoo stations.

If she were not running a successful PR firm, Mullens would be doing something completely different. “I would have a high-pressure washing company. It would be deeply satisfying to create cleanliness,” she says, laughing.

What is she looking forward to this year? Mullens says she plans to hire an intern and continue working with longtime clients—all of whom she loves.

While Lithander Smith is a new client, it looks like the pair will be working together for a long time. “Jessica is helping me grow my business,” Smith says. “I’ve gotten a lot more than just PR help, which is wonderful.”

Claudia Ross

It’s a crisp December evening as San Francisco’s elite stream into the opening of Shreve & Co.’s new location at 150 Post Street. Women in gowns carry flutes of Clicquot; diamond-studded patrons greet each other with cheek kisses. Everyone seems to know one another, but none more than Ross, owner of Cross Marketing.

At once relaxed and alert, she effortlessly navigates the room, saying hello to everyone she passes while simultaneously instructing the catering team to replenish the halibut tartare. Her conversations don’t last long, but the contents of each interaction are meaningful. “How is your mother? Is she feeling better than when I spoke with you last?” she asks one passerby, who responds quietly and gives her a warm hug.

Rewind the clock more than 20 years and Ross was a UC Santa Barbara political science graduate who landed a job in the advertising department at Condé Nast Traveler. She soon took a similar position at Harper’s Bazaar and stayed for 10 years, later branching off on her own.

That was 2005 and Ross hasn’t looked back. If anything, she’s spread her wings, maintaining Cross Marketing as her primary focus while launching other companies, among them a graham snack food business called Pipsqueaks and a vineyard—Double R Family Wines.

“Claudia is strategic and goes above and beyond,” says Tatiana Sorokko, a contributing editor to Harper’s Bazaar and longtime client. “I remember we did an event in LA and she was coming from New York. She wanted to see her kids, so she flew to SFO, then to me and changed in the car. I’ve always been so impressed by her.”

While Ross is dedicated to strategically helping her clients, work–life balance is of utmost importance to her. Most days, she wakes up before dawn and drives a few miles from her Lafayette home to take a trail ride with her horse, Gambler. Then she helps her two sons—ages 13 and 14—get ready for school, feeds her two dogs and checks on her five chickens. From there, she heads into the office.

“Without a balanced home life, I couldn’t do what I do,” she says. “I never stop working, but in the past few years I’ve realized that traveling and having fun is as important as working hard. I’ve never been happier.”

Back at Shreve & Co., guests flinch at the sound of glass breaking on the floor. Ross calmly springs into action, emerging a few minutes later with a half-broken wine glass and a smile on her face. One partygoer turns to another.

“Isn’t she the best?”

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