Kitty Yannone: An Appreciation

Kitty Yannone. (All photos of Kitty are “borrowed” from her Facebook page. Photos from the Hall of Honor induction (below) and the link to the video (also below) are provided courtesy of PRSA Hawaii.)

Today I’m sharing some memories of a friend, colleague and former boss — Kitty Yannone — who passed away two months ago, at age 69, after a valiant, years-long battle with cancer that I never dreamed her indomitable life force would allow her to lose.

Although I worked closely with Kitty as employee or colleague for what I’m now amazed to realize was nearly a quarter of a century, I was never personally close enough to her to now be able to write a proper appreciation, one that would reveal the many ways in which she was so vibrant a presence in the lives of all who knew her, and in her community.

While this piece is about Kitty, please allow me to begin with a few recollections that may seem to convey as much information about myself as about her.

I first met Kitty in late 1994 or early 1995 when we were invited to serve as co-panelists on the craft of speechwriting at a luncheon of the Hawaii chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I had only recently finished a nearly yearlong stint as speechwriter to Hawaii’s governor, John Waihee, and Kitty had long since earned a wonderful reputation as an award-winning speechwriter for the clients of her public relations firm, Communications-Pacific (CommPac).

Although we got only barely acquainted while sharing the stage, that panel proved to be a great door-opener some five years later after I’d been “downsized” by my next employer. Considering the possibility of creating a freelance writing-and-editing business, I asked to brainstorm with Kitty. She readily agreed and invited me to breakfast. I was hoping to interest her in having CommPac offer me work I could do as a freelancer. While we talked, she looked over my portfolio samples. Then, rather than give me hope of landing CommPac as a client for my planned freelance business (which, years later, I finally created as Pen-for-Rent), she asked if I’d like a full-time job at her company and — as I like to embellish what happened next — she grabbed me by the collar, sat me down in her convertible, drove me to her office and introduced me to her No. 2 (the firm’s president; Kitty was CEO) and all but instructed him, while I stood there, mouth not quite agape, to hire me.

Still more mind-blowing to me was that on my first day on the job (three or four days after that breakfast), Kitty asked me to join a meeting with a big new client. At one point in the discussion, she turned to me and asked for my thoughts. In retrospect, I see this as typical of Kitty’s energetic, optimistic approach to almost everything, and imagine that she might have done the same with any other new employee she found promising. But at the time, I was astonished to have had such confidence shown me as a yet-unproven colleague. Her attitude was an unfathomable burst of fresh air, an extraordinary contrast to the style I’d experienced with a recent boss.

That client meeting was indicative of how well Kitty and I would work together for over 13 years, right till the time when Sandra and I moved to California (to be closer to our grown kids and other family) and I had to leave CommPac behind. A long-time believer in the importance of solid writing as the bedrock of communication, Kitty made sure that no written work would go out CommPac’s door till I’d had a chance to review and strengthen it. This applied not only to the work of the entire staff, but also to virtually everything she wrote herself — and I can attest to the fact that she was an excellent writer.

Now that I’ve noted a bit of the history underlying my affection and respect for Kitty, let me explain why it’s taken nearly two months to put fingers to keyboard to write this. I’d been waiting to link it to an event that I knew would take place this past Thursday, July 27 — PRSA Hawaii’s annual awards dinner (quite coincidentally, the evening before the celebration of Kitty’s life). This was the occasion at which Kitty was posthumously inducted into the chapter’s Hall of Honor, a distinction bestowed only on the most legendary of Hawaii’s public relations professionals.

I would love to have seen Kitty inducted into the Hall of Honor even a decade or so ago, while she was still working indefatigably to make a difference in ever so many situations and had long since distinguished herself as a powerful force for good in the community. In fact, without her knowledge, I had previously nominated her for this recognition. Still, far better late than never, and I greatly appreciate the alacrity with which PRSA Hawaii leaped into action to authorize the honor once it became known that Kitty might not live to attend her induction. (She was informed of it just days before she passed away and expressed her gratitude for the honor.)

To provide an idea of how deserving Kitty was of this honor, I encourage readers to click here for a wonderful video that PRSA put together and incorporated into the presentation. I’m also excerpting below from the nomination for this honor that I wrote back in 2016 as well as the nomination I wrote in 2003 for the chapter’s PR Person of the Year Award (the Gregg W. Perry Award, which she won). The bottom line for me is that Kitty richly deserved this distinction.

    [Kitty] has long been widely and deservedly thought of as one of Hawaii’s foremost public relations professionals. This, by itself, should qualify her for this honor.

    Kitty is not only a credit to our profession but is active in support — sweat equity support, not just financial support — of numerous not-for-profit organizations in our community. She works hard to make our state a better place to live and work.

Separately, I am attaching what I wrote when nominating her for the Gregg W. Perry Award 13 years ago. It is as true — and, I believe, compelling — today as it was then. FYI, I did not share the fact that I was nominating her until after she’d been selected for the Perry Award. Nor is she aware that I am nominating her for the Hall of Honor now.

Hall of Honor posthumous induction (at 2023 PRSA-Hawaii Koa Anvils dinner). From left: Huy Vo, event chair; Cindy McMillan, former CommPac EVP; John McNamara, former CommPac president

    In her nearly two decades as a public relations practitioner, Kitty has continued making waves, shooting straight, thinking strategically, solving problems creatively, and providing clients — paying and pro bono — with expert communications counsel. In the process, she has become a much sought-after speaker, … a committed entrepreneur, and a passionate participant in Hawaii’s economic, social and political progress.

    In the process, she has made CommPac arguably Hawaii’s hottest — and almost certainly its liveliest — communications firm, with a word-of-mouth reputation that has resulted in a steady flow of new business referrals.

    Kitty is a hands-on practitioner who thrives on the long hours and late nights needed to resolve communications crises; who takes the time to craft high-profile client speeches herself; who places strong emphasis on quality work; who goes out of her way to praise staff members — junior as well as senior — who have scored a win; and who takes a personal interest in the development of young staff members and interns, placing a high premium on mentoring them and advancing their careers. Kitty clearly loves her work.

    No wonder that to a great many people in local businesses and nonprofit organizations, Kitty is the most visible face — and exponent — of public relations in Hawaii today.

I’ve reserved the last word for Kitty herself. Following are the remarks she made when accepting the PR Person of the Year Award in 2003. I still remember being impressed not only with what she said, but the passion with which she spoke. (Carol Nakagawa, Kitty’s longtime secretary, shared these remarks with me when I wanted to include them as part of my Hall of Honor nomination.) I conclude with Kitty’s words here: 

    Aloha and Good Evening. Let me start by saying that I am absolutely passionate about the work I do as a public relations professional. I wake up every single day knowing that I made the right career choice and looking forward to the tasks ahead. I am proud to tell people what I do for a living and I hope to continue doing it for many years to come.Why am I so enthralled with the work that we do as public relations professionals? Because it is always challenging, always interesting, and, if done well, it always makes a difference. Our profession has evolved tremendously since its beginnings as something that P.T. Barnum practiced — stunts and spin.

    Today, there is hardly a business or organization that does not understand the importance and value of communicating effectively. Great products don’t sell without great communication. Great ideas don’t become reality without great communication. Crises don’t become manageable problems without great communication. Leaders don’t motivate and mobilize followers without great communication. The fact is, there are very few corporate and organizational initiatives that can be successfully achieved without some level of strategic communication — particularly in today’s world. As a result, our profession has earned a place at the decision-making table — we are now strategists and planners whose work directly affects the bottom line. Public relations and communications are no longer just “a nice thing to do.”

    And the people who do the work we do and do it very well are what I call “race horses.” You have to be very smart, very strategic, very fast on your feet, very confident, very articulate and very well networked to excel at what we do. You have to do your homework, know the issues, know the context for the issues, and know the players. Well-informed is an understatement for people who excel at what we do. I can tell you that it is truly a pleasure and a challenge to work with people like this every single day. That’s why I’m passionate about our profession. And, this is a most appropriate moment to introduce the race horses that I get to work with every day. Can I ask the team from Communications-Pacific to please stand up and be recognized — you are the ones who allow me to be up here tonight — thank you!

    Finally, I’d like to say a word about “spin” and the derogatory way it is often used when speaking about our profession: In order to do what we do as public relations professionals at the very highest level and with the strongest results, we are required to ferret out the truth and the essence of a situation, a product, a concept, or a plan and then develop the most effective ways to communicate it. What we do is all about the truth, and those who forget this usually don’t stay in our profession for very long. Those who call us “spin-doctors” don’t have a clue about what we really do.

    Now that I’ve conveyed the passion I have for our profession, I hope you’ll understand why I am so very honored to receive this award tonight from my colleagues. I am proud of the work that we do and it means a great deal to be acknowledged by PRSA. Thank you.

Huy Vo, Cindy McMillan, John McNamara

Aloha oe, Kitty. May your memory be a blessing!

At the gym. Kitty began most days with a rigorous workout and swore by its benefits. Once she began her battle with cancer, she’d say it toughened her for her battle not only with her illness, but also with her multiple rounds of chemo.

Clowning around. Kitty was renowned for her sometimes outrageous (and occasionally bawdy) sense of humor. Once she chaired a Rotary Club meeting wearing a deliberately disheveled, rainbow-colored wig. I regret missing the time (before I joined CommPac) when she made her entrance to a staff meeting by sliding the length of our beautiful conference room table. (This is said to have been video-taped, but I never saw it.) On a more personal note, Kitty never tired of kidding me about my mythical past in the CIA (thanks to my knowledge of Russian and my having previously served on the staff of the U.S. consulate in Leningrad, USSR).

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.