Finding Purpose After Disaster

Posted Feb 6th, 2021 in Blog, Podcast

When you are struck by a life-changing disaster, it’s often very easy to lose sight of what is important. It is in these times, however, that honing in to our purpose is needed the most. Rhonda Rees, an award winning PR publicist, survived a triple threat: losing everything in the Woolsey Fire that ravaged California, getting lost in the woods for an entire day and night, and her brother suffered an unexpected brain injury, all back to back. Her business was interrupted. How she bounced back from that serves as a lesson for us all as we navigate this life, not knowing when the interruptions will come.

In this episode, you will get to learn business and life lessons as Rhonda joins Lisa Pezik to talk about:

  1. The importance of business interruption insurance;
  2. Why connection and referrals are so necessary when disaster strikes and you have exiting clients;
  3. The silver lining in even the worst of tragedy;
  4. Who PR is for and not for;
  5. How PR is all about finding the right angle that’s relevant; and
  6. How to release power from material things and put it back into your own personal development.


Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Finding Purpose After Disaster

With Rhonda Rees

I’m excited to have a guest with me, Rhonda Rees, who is going to be sharing her several stories about overcoming hardships that interrupt your life and business. If you've been living in 2020 or 2021, this is like one big interruption and one big hurdle that we've had to overcome and come together as a family, as a community, as a world. I believe that interruptions are going to happen. You've got to have a plan. You've got to be in the right mindset, headset, heartset, and soulset to be able to work through this. That's exactly what Rhonda did. I can't wait to dive in with her. Rhonda, I'm glad you're here. Welcome to the show.

Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

Let me tell you about Rhonda Rees. She told me before we hopped on, it is her 40th anniversary in PR in 2021. She's been around the block doing public relations. She's an award-winning veteran in this field of PR. She is independent and is in charge of Rhonda Reese Public Relations Company and Aseity Press Publishing. In 2018, Rhonda was named as one of the five most powerful publicists in Hollywood by PeopleMaven. I asked her if she'd name drop a little bit before we get on. I said, “Have you worked with any celebrities?” She was saying Johnny Depp and she did things with Demi Lovato that came to some of her events. That's always awesome to have somebody that's been around the block.

She is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Profit and Prosper with Public Relations: Insider Secrets to Make You a Success, and is also a recipient of the Publicist of The Year honor from the prestigious Bulldog Reporter publication for media awareness and a campaign she orchestrated to bring attention to online book piracy. She has worked with authors, celebrities, Fortune 500 companies, manufacturers, fire and safety firms, attorneys, politicians, environmental companies, financial planners and nonprofits. She's an active member of professional business and civic organizations, and she has served as President of the former Publicity Club of Los Angeles. On paper, Rhonda's winning in life, everything is good. She's with celebrities and getting awards, but you've been through some stuff in this many years. Tell us how you came up with this idea of business interruptions because what interruptions have you had in your businesses and your life?

I will tell you and your audience all about business interruptions. I have been working steadily in public relations and book publishing. Unfortunately, along with many other people, I was a victim of the big Woolsey Fire that was at the end of 2018. It took my home. I had a home-based business, so my office too, along with hundreds of other people in surrounding areas. Many people in Malibu lost everything, including myself. Nobody prepares us for such a calamity. It happens at a moment's notice.

What happened is I went to bed like I usually do. This was on November 8th of 2018 and around 10:00, the phone rang, it was a friend of mine and said, “They're evacuating people in your area.” There had been a couple of fires earlier in the day. They were burning out of control, but they were far enough away, I thought. I went, opened the door, smelled the smoke, got dressed immediately and started getting some robocalls. The strange thing is that my car was in the shop at that time and I couldn't pack up the car with things. I made arrangements to get a ride with a neighbor of mine. We left at about 3:00 AM and I grabbed what I could fit on my lap and went with her to her mother's house. The next morning, we found out that our homes and office burned down and I lost everything.

A lot of times people think, “That's never going to happen to me. That happens to other people.” Nobody can prepare for that. That's a part that makes you human when you realize that you're not invincible and untouchable.

One of the problems with that particular fire is there were a lot of other fires burning out of control. I'm in Southern California, but many of them were up in the Northern part and they were short-staffed with proper personnel and firefighters. It was a real seat of the pants situation. What do you do when something as disastrous as this calamity happens? You're unprepared, you don't expect it and you are in denial. It sinks in and you say to yourself, “Yesterday, 24 hours earlier, I had everything. I had my office supplies. I had my book inventory and now it's completely gone.” You have to start all over again from scratch. What do you do? How do you get through such a time? There is no rule book at all and you have to put one foot in front of the other and know that you're not the only person that is experiencing this. That helped me a little bit because of other people, it wasn't just me, but sometimes the calamity could be your one place or there may be a hurricane or a flood or an earthquake. It could be about anything.

That period where you could feel like you're all alone because you're having this experience. As you said, not alone and unfortunately, it was a community that was ravaged. It was a city and a state. My mentor at that time had to be evacuated and luckily, he was able to keep his home. The firefighters were able to get there, but I know that was a scary time. Even me being in Toronto, Canada and in another country worrying about people that I know that were involved in this. We are connected. We are together in this.

With 24-hour news coverage on cable TV, you feel like it's right in your living room. You can be all over the country or the world and know what's happening. What I decided to do now is I put together a business interruption plan for your audience, what you need to know and do if something like this were to happen.

Please share with us. Gives us the steps. How did you rebuild your business? How did you rebuild your life? How did you come back stronger than maybe you were before?

It was trial and error. I did have a few things already in place. One of the major things was if you have a home-based business, you want to have homeowners insurance. There is something that I learned that I did not have, and I wanted to pass this along. There is something called business interruption insurance, and this will help to cover lost income and other things, I believe the furniture and whatnot for the business. This is something that wasn't explained to me or I didn't ask about it because you never think about something like that. Had I had business interruption insurance, that would have gone a long way to help me at this crisis time.

I had good homeowners insurance, and because I had a home-based business, it took care of that in a way. I had a category called ALE, which is Additional Living Expense, and that allowed me to stay at hotels or rent an apartment or pay for meals. That was a good category. The one thing about these major disasters like what I went through is people don't realize how long a time it's going to take to get your life back. That disaster happened a few years ago and I am still in the process, and same with my neighbors, of getting their lives back. It could take about many years or so, or it depends on the severity and what happened. It's very important to have good insurance.

On top of the insurance, there was another fire that had happened about a year before our fire. You may have heard of this one, it was called the Thomas Fire. That one was also in a similar area more like Ventura County, and Woolsey was more LA County. This Thomas Fire taught a lot of people a lot of good things to do in the event of another disaster. Our Fire Woolsey benefited greatly from the knowledge and the experience of the people that were handling the Thomas Fire. One of the things that they learned, which was incredible, is when you have such a big fire as I did, you will lose everything. That means you're going to lose important paperwork, birth certificate, business forms, pink slip on your car, marriage license, passport and things that you would not necessarily think of.

I would suggest if your readers have a strong box or have some kind of a box to put all those important papers that you could grab at a moment's notice. I would have grabbed all that, but because my car was in the shop, I had to get a ride from my neighbor. There wasn't room in her car. It might be a smart idea to have it on a computer and you could take your USB stick or pin drive. For some of these important documents, you may be worried about security issues. If there's a way to have the original paperwork in a box or something that you can easily grab.

With the Thomas Fire, the people that were in charge of that, when it came time to our fire, they set up a government building within our area. They kept this building open for 2 or 3 months, every day, evenings and weekends, maybe not Sundays and they invited all the specialists, people from the DMV, people from the electric companies and the gas companies. They invited people that were in charge of documents of any kind. They also had people from charitable organizations. What they did is they set up rooms on about two floors of this office building. They let each of us come in there and re-obtain all of our important paperwork in one go. We were able to quickly meet with people. Even though this process was faster than it would have been if you tried to go on the phone and do this, it still took several visits to this building. It didn't happen exactly in one time, but you could cover quite a lot of ground and meet with the people and get your life back easier.

What about your clients? Did you have contracts with people? Did you let them know? How did that affect your business? Were you worried about losing clients?

All of the above. As a matter of fact, two days before the big fire, I met with a potential new business client and because of the fire, I lost out on that. I also had a couple of existing clients and they were more than understanding with me. One, in particular, I was in the middle of a run with and I had to make arrangements. I had to think very quickly. What had happened was we were in the middle of a campaign, but I was able to put them on hold. In my place, I knew of a very good social media person. I had him meet with her instead. She did his social media for about three months while I was still rebuilding my situation. I was able to seamlessly come back and do traditional PR for him. It was going to be the other way around. I was going to do more traditional PR first and then do social media or we were going to work in tandem, but it lucked out. It worked out on that score that we were able to do it. There was another client that I lost. It's a sad thing because what if you're in the middle of something really crucial or I would have asked a colleague to take over if it was critical and I would have supervised that.

You never know when disaster will strike. Make every moment in your life count.

That's why it's important to have other people in the industry and have strong connections with someone that for whatever reason, nothing that you planned for, but if something happens that you can at least say, “Go to this person and they'll help you while I'm dealing with rebuilding from a fire or a tragic death in my family or an illness or whatever has happened, whatever interruption.”

At the beginning of your introduction, you were mentioning the COVID crisis. I know we've all had to be good at modifying the way we do business. We have Zoom meetings, safe social distancing and masking. Back then, it was more on having a specific disaster that happened, but you have to be quick on your feet. Sometimes you can't always get your client back or most will understand, but it depends on the circumstances. There was another organization that I learned about called the Small Business Administration, SBA. They're an agency that will assist and get assistance from the government possibly to help with a business loan. That may be another consideration to contact them. That organization was at that building that I was mentioning and they were meeting with people and you could fill out applications. Also for FEMA, for disasters and relief and things that are a possibility.

The other touching aspect of this was many charities, many nonprofits and very benevolent people in the public and business people were good at giving us donations. Most of that happened in the form of a card from a merchant retailer or restaurant. We also got money donations and you didn't have to pay taxes on them. In addition to that, I've been an active member of some professional business organizations. One of them, the Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network called SPAWN, they set up a GoFundMe page specifically for my business because I did not have that business interruption insurance. They stipulated that the donations would be used for me to rebuild my office equipment and things.

When you're good to people, generous and of service, you will see that come back to you as a beautiful thing. I remember when we first met, that was not the only interruption. Didn't you lost somewhere or something you were telling me about?

I had an incredible string of luck or I don't know what you would call it, bad luck maybe, but what had happened is six months before the fire, I was taking a stroll in a wooded area near where I live. I was familiar with the trails and I had done it a lot of times. It was supposed to be a quick few minutes hike around. I did this but what had happened is they had had some rains, and the terrain and paths looked different. Long story short, I got lost and it got dark on me. I wasn't smart, I didn't take a phone or water. It was supposed to be a very quick little hike and I ended up all alone. It was pitch black. I got lost. I hurt myself, cut up my back, scrape my knees, fell down, and got dehydrated. I ended up spending the night there all alone. The next morning, I walked and hiked and couldn't figure out where I was. I screamed all night and I couldn't get any help. Luckily, I found a patch of dirt that looked somewhat familiar and made my way out to safety. Six months later, the Woolsey Fire happened and I lost everything. One year later, I got an unexpected phone call from a hospital that had my brother in an emergency situation. And her brother suffered an unexpected brain injury, all back to back.

That's a lot of loss, change, and scary stuff to happen. How did you stay sane throughout all of that? How did you cope with all of that?

It was a big challenge. What happened was being lost in the woods helped to prepare me in a strange way because I had to use some incredible survival skills. I was trapped for twelve hours or half a day all alone. I didn't know if I was going to make it out alive. I had to use certain skills and things I told myself. I sang songs in my head. I didn't cry because I thought, “Nobody's here to hear me. I need my energy to get out.” I was using every skill imaginable. I had been a girl scout a long time ago. I had camped in the woods. I have gone to summer camp as a kid. Whatever I knew and learned from before and I had a lot to still live for, loved ones and things kept me motivated.

When I survived that big ordeal, by the time the Woolsey Fire hit and I was faced with such a calamity, I said, “Why don't you apply the skills and what you learned in that other experience that's still fresh in your mind to how to cope with this?” Once I got through the Woolsey Fire experience, then the thing that hit my brother, I said, “If you've been through these two other things, why don't you apply what you learned from both of those experiences?” I was grateful to be alive and still here. I do have a strong spiritual sense and a belief in a higher power, God and it did help.

The word that kept jumping out at me when you were talking was purpose. You still had stuff to do. Not that you ever want to say that when bad things happen, sometimes we get lost in that, “Find the silver lining and get over it.” Sometimes society expects us to bounce back a lot quicker than sometimes we are ready to cope with. In a way, that tragedy and those situations prepared you when the fire hit that you knew you were resilient and that you could get through hard things.

The night that I spent in the woods, I made rocks for a pillow and had a thin jacket on. That became my bedding. I blew into my jacket to keep warm overnight. I was fantasizing while I was doing this. I thought, “Maybe pretend you're in a Radisson or a hotel or something nice out there. Pretend you're there and you're not here.” I fantasized also at that time and I thought, “If I'm trapped here, I never get out and never live again, I won't have any material things anymore. I won't have my home, my belongings, the comforts of home and things.” The thing I wanted more than anything was a glass of orange juice and a glass of water. I thought if I could have those two things, I'll be happy because I was so dehydrated. It put the priorities in order. I was thinking that six months before it happened to me that I didn't have my belongings anymore.

The mind is so powerful. It's crazy. When I intro and said, “Johnny Depp and Demi Lovato,” they feel like PR is for the celebrities only. Explain to them a little bit about what exactly PR is and who it is for.

I got my training and the majority of the PR that I do is for regular business, everyday people and people that no one has ever heard of before. The real art form to public relations is how you can take a completely unknown product or service or person or author and make it fly, interesting, make the media want to give them attention and get their word, name and information out. It's the real art form of a public relations person to come up with something that we call the right PR angle or hook. That's an idea or a suggestion that describes the product, service, client, business, and makes it interesting enough so that the media will want to cover it and give them space in the newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, online, social media and make it happen.

I love that because I think a lot of people do themselves a disservice by saying, “I'm not important, smart, good or big enough.” Here you are saying that it's not anything you, it's how interesting or what is the right angle or hook to get it.

The thing is I have always felt in all these years that there is an angle in everything. Not to toot my own horn, but to be honest, over these many years I have literally seen, heard and watched it all for many generations. I can tell you, I have never had a situation where I haven't gotten some coverage for a client. Most of these clients have never done much of anything that people would recognize or hear of. I have to think outside the box, be creative and come up with a snappy angle and get their attention. I can give you an example of that.

Let's use the example of that my business was interrupted for the Woolsey Fire. I didn't explain what he was or who he is and what he did, but he is a psychic detective. He helps people solve mystery cases of lost loved ones, pets and things. I use the disaster timing to have a better campaign for him in the long run because when I was representing him before the fire, we were going down a certain track, but when the fire happened and the business was interrupted. The fire happened in the fall, I came back in the spring and what I was able to do is I thought to myself, “I'd like to get him some good coverage and publicity.”

You can’t take all your stuff with you when you’re gone. All you can take is who you are as a human being.

I remembered that he told me that he specializes in loss pets, being a psychic detective. What I did is I tied the media campaign when I worked with him again on something called National Pet Month, and it was in the month of May. My campaign with him was a month or so before that, leading up to this big National Pet Month. I tied in his skill and service with this National Pet Month and because it was time-sensitive, immediate and something the media wanted to cover, I got him all kinds of press attention, TV, radio and print.

You're not capitalizing on the time, you're showcasing someone's strength at that time when they are needed the most or they are relevant.

The whole trick with PR is to tie in that angle with something newsworthy or a holiday theme or something resonating with the public. If somebody had been a super mask manufacturer prior to this COVID crisis, this would be an interesting tie-in with the need in society or if there's a new tax law that got changed and you're representing an accountant. With PR, you would connect the dots and push about that tax change or something and then you have an expert that could talk about it.

Is there a right and wrong time to have PR?

Let’s put it this way. What's very interesting is this same psychic detective, I had been signed on to help a month before the fire, which would have been October 2018. I was going to do October, November, December 2018. We're doing a three-month and it was going to extend after that. The thing is at that time of year originally, we wouldn't have been able to use the same angle of National Pet Month because that wasn't until May. A lot of this is timing, but I would have come up with some other angle instead.

There never is a wrong time. You just don't know.

The stars aligned with that particular event. The media perceived it and saw it as more immediate because National Pet Month only lasts that one block of time so that they needed to interview him more right away. That's always a good thing.

If this is your last day on Earth because we never know when a disaster is going to strike, would you say that you're going back to that purpose in your business? You had to re-establish, get back up again with business and your personal life was turned upside down and you had to rebuild. I know you shared about appreciating little things like you wanted a nice glass of orange juice and water. Did you think about when it comes to the end of your life or living here in the present? Is there anything you would tell our readers to help them get present or did your perception change?

I like to make every moment count. One of the ways I've been doing it and I did it before these disasters, but I have a little bit more credibility doing it now. I make use of my social media, Facebook for example. I like to send out messages of hope, inspiration, sticktoitiveness, of pleasant pictures, things that will cheer people up because when you die, the one thing that I realized after the fire is you can't take stuff with you, and all you can take with you as who you are as a human being, how you've treated people, how you've gotten along, the contributions you make to society and things like that. That truly hit home because when I lost everything, I was at a certain stage of my life where I still had more life in me, but most of it has been behind me.

I'm not materialistic at all. I'm still living without much in the way of furniture and I'm no longer attached to material things. I used to have an extensive book collection and that's gone. I said to myself, “You should know what it is to read about by now.” Staring at a bunch of books I've already read is interesting, but I said to myself, “Maybe you have to go and fly. Maybe it's put to the test all those lessons you thought you had to learn.” The other interesting thing that I remembered is I used to collect trinkets, sage the house, and have little incense or crystals or objects or rabbit's foot. When I was trapped in the mountains in the woods, I said to myself, “No rabbit's foot, no lucky charm, no four-leaf clover is going to get you out of here.” It hit me and I thought, “The only thing that's going to get you out is your wits about you and God or a higher power.” After that experience, when I'm finally in a new home and getting settled, I don’t need to buy those objects or that stuff that I thought was going to help me somehow, because I remember very vividly when push came to shove, none of it matters.

It goes back to the power of investing in you, your health, happiness and mindset. I love the way you said and framed that. That's so true. Instead of looking externally for the answer or the guidance or the right next step, you've got to go internal.

I'm glad I was the age that I was when this all happened. Had I been in my 20s or 30s at that time, I might've perceived all this as more of real hardship. I might've grieved a lot and been upset. I might've put a lot of power into these objects in the books and the trinkets. I might've thought I lost something major. By the time I was the age I was at, and at the stage of my life, I said to myself, “There's something freeing about not having to deal with all these things and not having a lot of baggage.”

That's important for entrepreneurs and for business owners to realize how resourceful and how much you can do with not a heck of a lot. Don't put power into the things, put power into yourself.

Even nowadays, when I see advertisements online or on TV and they want to sell their this and that or their objects of whatever kind, I say to myself, “It's not necessary.” I don't mean to put down their business because that's how they make their living and I'm sure it helps others and gives comfort. It did to me before all this happened. After the fire, I stayed in 22 different places in a year. I stayed in hotels, motels, people's homes, I did house and pets sitting. All I could do was take with me what I could fit in my car to go to the next place. I truly didn't want a lot of things and people wanted to help and donate. I got a little bit of clothing and that was very helpful. I got some odds and ends around for the future. It was almost better at that time to get a gift card because many well-meaning people don't understand that people are living like gypsies and might be on the run and you don't want stuff.

Not that you want to advocate to lose everything, to have that perception, but what a beautiful flip on that. It took losing everything you had to be able to realize what you have now and what matters in life.

You put that very well. I was one of the rare exceptions that my car was in the shop. Even if I wanted, we had a couple of hours’ notice before we evacuated officially, technically if I had my own car, I could have packed it up with a few things, but I couldn't. Fate was saying, “Rhonda, you're not going to have anything.” All I had was a shirt on my back and less than a week's worth of clothes, some toiletries and a couple of papers. That was it.

I love the fact that you're here and doing podcasts. You've shown that even in the darkest of times or the roughest of situations that you can make something good of it and you can still continue. I love how you framed it. It's a business interruption. It's not a business closure.

As a matter of fact, on the flip side, I had never been so busy since I got back on my feet. During the whole COVID crisis, I had more clients then than in a long time. All the clients I represented had some angle that had a connection to the COVID crisis. It was a full-circle moment.

How can they get in touch with you if they want to book you for interviews or find out about PR or follow up with you?

The best way is the website, I'd be more than happy to communicate with your audience and go from there.

Rhonda, I could've kept going on and on with you. Thank you so much for giving me your time and your expertise. I know you were putting a lot of thought into this interview. I want to honor you for that. I know my readers are going to love this. Thank you for being here with me.

Thank you very much. It all went by so fast.

Thank you, readers, as well for being here tuning in and taking these stories that you hear of inspiration. The first point that we talked about, that you're never alone. Even when you think you're the only one dealing with this hardship or this thing that you’ve got to navigate, you're not alone. There are resources and people to help you. There are sources of inspiration like Rhonda to show you that it is possible to get through whatever it is that comes your way. You are resilient and capable. You don't need crystals or maybe you do. It's all about the wits about you and you being the shining star to get yourself out of whatever situation has happened to you. Thank you for being here. We'll see you again next time.

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About Rhonda Rees

Rhonda Rees is an award-winning veteran in the field of public relations. She is an independent in charge of Rhonda Rees Public Relations Company, and Aseity Press publishing. In 2018 Rhonda was named as one of the five most powerful publicists in Hollywood by PeopleMaven. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed book, Profit and Prosper with Public Relations®: Insider Secrets to Make You a Success, and is also the recipient of the Publicist of the Year honor from the prestigious Bulldog Reporter publication, for a media awareness campaign she orchestrated to help bring attention to online book piracy.
In her varied career, Rhonda has represented a wide variety of clients including authors, celebrities, Fortune 500 companies, manufacturers, fire and safety firms, environmental companies, attorneys, politicians, financial planners, and nonprofits. She is an active member of professional business and civic organizations, and has served as president of the former Publicity Club of Los Angeles.

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