Kris Schindler: The Willing Heretic

by Karen Long

This is a woman who uses the term “inside the box thinking.” So why does she make so many people nervous?

Early in life Kris Schindler displayed her trademark disregard for convention, an uncanny ability to motivate her colleagues, and creative use of available material.

It was a slow day at recess. Kris was in the second grade at Greenhill School, a private school in Dallas, and she and her friends were bored. They decided to stage their own production of Charlotte’s Web. Kris is reminiscing over coffee and apple pie at Imbiss Grill, a short stroll from the Old Town offices of Start-Thinking, a marketing, advertising and public relations firm where she is Managing Partner. “There were three or four of us who took the lead in making this production happen. Of course there was some negotiation and some positioning that needed to occur as far as who would talk to the teachers into this, who’d be in charge of writing the script and making handwritten copies for the cast.”

“There wasn’t a lot of gravitation towards homogeny at our school.”

Kris was elected teacher liaison, and promptly secured permission for the budding acting troupe to remain indoors during recess, and the use of an empty classroom for rehearsal space. The lost and found box was raided for costumes. A few days later the curtain raised on opening day to rave reviews, and an encore performance for the first graders.

The Connector
Her early flair for “negotiating and positioning” with the second grade teachers was foreshadowing of things to come. “Making connections is one thing that I feel very confident about and that I’m not afraid to say that I’m good at,” Kris admits. She uses the skill daily to make things happen for her clients.

Last fall Kris worked with the Western and South Central Kansas Division of The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, to promote the MS Society’s gala benefit, Dinner of Champions. Rather than send out a few press releases hoping to land on the calendar pages of the paper, Kris went to work with her skills as a connector. “She got this huge feature article in Wichita magazine,” says Michelle Masood, Development Coordinator at the National MS Society who worked closely with Kris on the event. “The whole focus was on District Attorney Nola Foulston but we could also then mention here’s this event coming up that’s honoring Nola.” This “back door” approach was part of a carefully crafted and complexly layered integrated communication campaign that proved highly successful. “We received more exposure than we ever have before for the event. We definitely had more participation and more interest in it as a result.”

“I just pick up the phone and act like I know the person.”

Chris Elston, Associate Publisher for Wichita magazine gives her perspective from the other side of the publicity table. “One of Kris’ distinctions is that she has an ability to bring people or ideas together that maybe are a little bit divergent.”

“We have the media calling us and asking us for stories, so we generally know what they’re interested in covering.”

The Chameleon
Kris’s flair for connections served her well when she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990’s. Within two weeks she had a job with a top– and Academy Award-winning– production company, “all through networking and not being afraid to pick up the phone.” Kris remembered what her mother taught her growing up. “Just go in and act like you belong there, like you own the place.”

Mom’s advice helped Kris adjust to the fast-paced, survival of the fittest business environment of Los Angeles. “It wasn’t my production skills that helped me evaluate all the HD pilots for 20th Century Fox. Honestly, I was given no instructions. None. This HD TV just showed up in my office one day.” Kris’ voice is rich with barely contained laughter, as it often is when she shares stories. Her assignment was to screen the pilots for traditional film techniques made obsolete by high-def technology: Styrofoam bricks looked exactly like… Styrofoam under the high-resolution detail of HD, and a clean sheet of paper crumpled to look like trash didn’t look trashy enough.

“Many people working in the entertainment industry don’t have direct experience in their field when they start their jobs. To progress in your Hollywood career, you have to tap into your transferable skills. It matters that you can get in and analyze things and make sense of things. There’s so much problem solving, coming up with answers on your feet, knowing how to pick up the phone and call someone to make something happen.”

The Heretic
It’s this kind of nimble, intuitive approach to problem solving that can cause friction with clients and partners. “Sometimes when I throw things out in the room, people think it’s an impediment or that I’m trying to play devil’s advocate.” Kris says, “But, no, the intent is to examine and to push and probe to determine if the ideas on the table are the best ideas and if they’ll accomplish what we’ve set out to do. Sometimes you just have to take that leap and make it happen.”

“I’m asking people to take risks, to do something different. An anagram for Kris is risk.”

“One of the times I felt like I stuck my foot in my mouth was during the visioneering process.” (When the city brought in consultant Henry Luke to create a 2020 vision for Wichita.) The topic of discussion was how to stop the brain drain and keep bright young people in Wichita. Kris stood up and gave her opinion. “My perspective was we should encourage young people to go other places. When that prodigal son returns then things can happen; they have these new ideas of what the city can be and the motivation to make it happen.”

What was the reaction when she made this statement? “I stopped getting notices for the meetings after that.”

“I’m an agent for change. If you want to make something happen, things generally have to be shaken up a little bit.”

Inside the box thinking
Ironically, the creative leaps sometimes lead to something Kris calls “inside the box thinking.”

“Inside the box we’re pushing the limits almost to the point of busting the box wide open,” she explains, “There’s no reason to be working out here” – she waves her hand in the air far outside the boundaries of an imaginary box – “when this is the right fit” – the hand retracts to just inside the box – “…for your resources. And if you break that box open, fine. Next time move up to the next size box.”

“A small change can have a big impact.”

Kris used this technique to great effect with Heart of America Men’s Chorus. When Kris brought a proposal to the board of directors two years ago the HOAMC was starting its fifth season and had 270 season subscribers. They had never hired outside promotional resources, says Jeff Mosch, Business Manager of the HOAMC. “It was a fairly substantial risk for our board to want to think about taking, you know, a monthly commitment to PR and marketing at that level. We couldn’t exactly go from nothing to the Cadillac version,”

One year later Kris handed him two binders thick with media clippings, publicity materials, improved design materials and radio spots generated by her team. The board was so pleased with the exposure — and the 31% increase in subscribers — that renewing their contract with Start-Thinking was an “absolute no-brainer,” and in fact, the HOAMC expanded the firm’s responsibilities to include a strategic brand repositioning and a website redesign.

“I’ve learned that when you’re helping someone change it’s a process; it’s about helping them take one step at a time toward their end goal.”

The Free Thinker
“Sometimes you need to have ideas just for the sake of having ideas. You can sit around a room and say, ‘Oh, we can do this, we can do this, we can do this.'” Kris explains that communication is a rapidly changing field and idea exchanges help generate dreams and goals and opportunities for change and growth; solutions and new ways of approaching problems and resolving issues too. But sometimes she says, this can be a distraction for clients. “There exists the risk that a shiny object will pull them off target. But that risk is minimized when you work with us because our team has the skill and the experience to get our clients where they want to go without deviating too far from the strategic plan. But we do save all the ideas and plug them in when and where appropriate. Maybe not right away, but when it’s right.”

“I have this brain that doesn’t shut off.”

“There have been times when we’ve had to say, this isn’t a good match (with a client) because what we feel is best of them is too big for them to grasp.” But for the adventurous client who’s not afraid to try new ways of looking at problems — and a little “inside the box thinking” — a partnership with Kris and Start-Thinking will lead to unprecedented productions and encore performances.

And no boring recesses.