On the Brink


Leslie Carlson channels the big idea.

Share this article!

0315 profile brink01 620px
 Left to right: Marian Hammond, Heidi Nielsen, Leslie Carlson.

Leslie Carlson channels the big idea.

When the city of Portland formed a task force to reevaluate existing taxi rules in light of Uber’s incursion into the transport landscape, it wasn’t a surprise to colleagues that Leslie Carlson, owner of Brink Communications, ended up on the committee.

“Leslie is tech savvy and understands the transportation system,” says Chris Warner, chief of staff to Commissioner Steve Novick, regarding Leslie’s appointment. “And as we are examining the ‘private for hire’ regulations as part of [the] transportation system in a growing city, Leslie has a great skill set to find solutions.”

Carlson’s career trajectory, from deputy communications director in an earlier Kitzhaber administration to freelance PR professional, then co-chair of the Multnomah County Sustainable Development Commission, and finally agency business owner, seems to echo Portland’s trend pattern.

She has combined political acumen around communications and a commitment to a socially and environmentally sustainable society as her winning formula. And if some grouse Portland may have lost its appetite for daring ideas, Carlson is still bullish.

“Portland is in an idea boom,” she says. “We’re having an impact on the national conversation, and it’s due to the fact that we’re a factory of ideas right now.”

In the last two and a half years, Carlson and her partners, Marian Hammond and Heidi Nielsen, have built their company into a local agency with seven full-time employees, seven subcontractors and $1 million in annual billings.

That doesn’t yet position Brink within sight of the top — in terms of billings and number of employees — PR firms in Portland. Nor is Brink the only one focusing on sustainability.


Public relations firms
are downsizing — in a
manner of speaking.
“The trend is shifting
over from large firms
toward starting your
own boutique firm,”
says Taraneh Fultz,
president of the
Portland chapter of
the Public Relations
Society of America.
Fultz defines boutique
firms as having 10
employees or less,
and says Portland PR
professionals are also
known for their entre-
preneurialism and
focus on eco-friendly
clients. She lists in
the boutique- sus-
tainability category
firms such as Harvest
PR, Watershed
Communications and
Green Rising. Large PR firms
are reluctant to open
offices in Portland
because it is such a
small market, Fultz
says. “Boutique firms
can be more nimble.”

Yet Brink’s growth has been swift — the $1 million in income came in a year ahead of Carlson and her partners’ goal. The company is adding new employees at a steady pace, and working on high-profile projects like the Fair Shot Oregon labor campaign.

“Our key strength is that political sensibility, and bringing private-sector branding and marketing savvy to nonprofit and public-sector campaigns. I think there’s growth in doing that,” Carlson says. “We’re doing a lot of sustainability campaigns, and we have added expertise in urban affairs, city-focused transportation, and policy and housing.”

Before she set out on the path of freelance work in 2000 to help juggle the needs of a young family, Carlson, 49, earned political chops and connections working as Oregon press secretary for the ’96 Clinton-Gore campaign, then as deputy communications director in John Kitzhaber’s 1995-98 administration.

While building her freelance PR business, she widened her connections with four years co-chairing Multnomah County’s Sustainable Development Commission from 2006 to 2010.

“She has this combination of great ideas and an understanding of how to move things forward in the best possible way through collaborative means,” says Justin Yuen, a former co-chair of the commission and president and founder of FMYI, a collaboration software firm. Yuen also chairs the board of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Carlson herself joined the BTA board in late 2014.

Trendsetting even in her downtime, Carlson is a dedicated cyclocross bicycle racer on the Sweetpea Ladies Auxiliary team, one of the first of just a handful of women’s cyclocross teams in the nation.

A mother of three, Carlson says the firm works at achieving work-life balance for employees. “I’m not that concerned if people are sitting at their desks from 8 to 5 as long as clients are getting what they need,” she says. “We’re dedicated multi-taskers, and if your kid is sick and you need to go, it’s a no-questions-asked environment. You just go.”

Once her children were school age, Carlson first ran the one-woman eponymous firm of Carlson Communications. After a chance meeting at a Chipotle restaurant, she partnered with Marian Hammond, who has a strong background in political communications. In 2012 they took the name Brink. Not long after, Hammond and Carlson added a third partner, Heidi Nielsen, who folded her own Good Works design and branding agency into the new company.

The savvy and connections of her partners and her employees drive the growth of the company, Carlson says. They target companies, government agencies and nonprofits that have big visions and are working on realistic, measurable steps in the present.

“We are clear that we want our work with clients to move the dial in a positive way — and if it doesn’t have that potential, we won’t take it on,” says Brink partner Nielsen. “When you put a stake in the ground like that, it makes you vulnerable, but it also inspires people to join you.”

For example, Carlson has worked on and off with local transportation advocate (and Oregon Business policy columnist) Joe Cortright since meeting him in 2005. A steadfast critic of the Columbia River Crossing, Cortright is now promoting his ideas about sustainable transportation nationally via his City Observatory think tank, a Brink client.

Carlson is also working with Ergo Depot, a company that began distributing stand-up desks, and has now moved its showroom to the Central Eastside and will begin manufacturing its own line of ergonomic desks and chairs.

Ergo Depot, Carlson says, blends that big-idea sensibility — their tagline is “evolving the way humans work” — with hip products and an ethic of social responsibility. 

When asked about her most satisfying project of the last few months, Carlson mentions the viral video spot “19th Century Man” Hammond produced for the Fair Shot Oregon campaign, which is working on raising the minimum wage, and getting equal pay and sick pay for Oregon workers.

“It was then I realized we can bring fun techniques to these bread-and-butter issues and really move the needle,” Carlson says. “That’s also when I felt like, wow, we might have made it.”

The most challenging aspect of her growing business, Carlson says, has actually been the slew of details around the business itself. “When I was a sole proprietor, it was really simple,” she says. “I didn’t go to business school. I went to journalism school, and many of the financial aspects of business have been outside my comfort zone.”

Looking to the future, Carlson envisions national export of Brink’s strength in livable-cities campaigns and work for more clients across the U.S. In addition to Cortright’s City Observatory, Practice Greenhealth, a national nonprofit membership group working on sustainable healthcare, is on Brink’s roster.

“We’re about 30% national clients, and we are looking at growth there,” Carlson says. “I think Portland is still ahead of the curve in a lot of areas, and that we will be able to take that expertise and sell it to other cities, companies and causes.”

As Brink will soon outgrow its Southeast Portland office, Carlson will move the company to the soon-to-open Washington High School business complex. “I’ve been biking by the site for a while,” she says. “Lots of people redevelop, but combining it with a concert hall and a restaurant, it feels like it really is creating a community. We knew it was going to be interesting and vibrant.”

It isn’t surprising that her company will be an inaugural tenant at Washington, as staying on the trending edge seems to be built into Carlson’s DNA.

 {jcomments on}