With an undergraduate degree in psychology, Gardi Wilks, MA ’90, never set out to have a decades-long career managing public relations for brands like Smucker’s, Timex and Hasbro. But she didn’t expect to exit college at the height of a recession, either. Wilks tucked her Calvin College diploma under her arm and marched (well, drove) from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Muncie. Wilks graduated with a Master of Arts in Public Relations from Ball State University.
“In psychology you learn to ask probing questions, so to me moving to journalism was a natural choice,” Wilks said. “I quickly decided that I was better communicating behind the camera and moved into public relations where what I learned both in journalism and psychology continue to be useful every day.”
The practitioner started her career in New York City in 1984. She left Muncie before officially graduating because she was eager to work. Macmillan Publishers, the company responsible for the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” books, was a client of hers. She worked at Ruder Finn & Rotman, (now just Ruder Finn), whose clients include Cadillac and McDonald’s. Later, she moved to Cohn & Wolfe, now part of Burson Cohn & Wolfe (who serves FedEx and Sharpie).
“I am a firm believer that life evolves the way it’s supposed to, and it very much did for me,” said Wilks. “Ball State was a transformative place for me. The education that I got there, it really prepared me for a career.”
Return to the Midwest
She and her husband, Brad Wilks, MA ’90, returned to Muncie in 1989, as Brad was hired to be the director of public relations at Ball Corporation. Gardi was able to work remotely for clients, a rare practice at that time. She maintained relationships with clients using a phone and a fax machine. The turnaround time was longer than today’s standards, but they worked thoughtfully together to produce quality work on time.
In 1995, Gardi established the Wilks Communication Group, which she owns and operates with Brad, whom she met in Journalism’s master’s in public relations program. The multi-service firm offers marketing and communications support for consumer brands, nonprofits and corporations.
The firm, Gardi said, positions itself as a partner rather than a vendor, embedding itself in the clients’ mission and work. With that mindset, the firm has kept clients for several years, even decades. World Vision has sought public relations support from Wilks Communication Group for 25 years.
Making an Impact
The Wilks give back through their work with nonprofits that “give back in a really big way and are making a difference,” she said. In the case of World Vision, the Wilks’ firm guided the company’s Giving Tuesday messaging with stories about the impact of the Christian humanitarian organization.
“Those kinds of stories are hard work, but they’re really inspiring to me as an individual and to our team because we know we’re making a difference in developing countries,” Gardi said.
Inspired by Trailblazers
Gardi attributes her drive to the legacy of strong women who came before her. She grew up watching the first wave of feminists like Gloria Steinem demand change. Her mother earned a doctorate and worked outside of the home.
“There was never a thought that I wouldn't or couldn’t be a career person because I had this amazing legacy right next to me, and I tremendous respect for the change that had been made,” she said.
She has applied those lessons to her work at the firm—eliminating income disparities among men and women, and advocating for equity across the board. She estimates that most communications firms are 99 percent women, while the Wilks Communication Group is 60 percent women and 40 percent men.
The industry is changing, she said, but work remains. For 30-plus years, she has continued to see and experience subtle differences in how men and women act or are treated in the workplace. If coffee is served at a meeting, for example, Gardi said it is often women who “take care of it.”
“We’ve lost touch with the struggle,” Wilks said. “A lot of things reverted or change didn’t happen as quickly as we thought it might, or it wasn’t embedded into society like we thought it would when we were in the 70s and 80s.”
Teaching the Next Generation
Building on that legacy, Gardi said she works to be a role model to young people working at her firm and elsewhere. At her firm, the most significant way she finds time to teach is through treating interns as employees, listening to their contributions and allowing them to do the same jobs “all department levels of account people do.”
Another way she was able to impact the lives of young people was during her time as an adjunct professor of journalism at Ball State, from 1989-95. Gardi brought her experiences in New York to the classroom, using those situations to bring curriculum to life in courses like, Introduction to Public Relations, Publicity Writing and Public Relations Campaigns.
As faculty advisor for the Public Relations Student Society of America and Cardinal Communications, then called Limited Edition, Gardi said she used her knowledge of how to run an agency and how to be a communications practitioner to grow the groups and educate students.
Although she doesn’t believe she will return to teaching, Gardi continues to give back to Ball State as a guest lecturer and sharing advice for students in Cardinal Communications, now part of the McKinley Avenue Agency, the student-run advertising, strategic communications and media sales agency. Two pieces of advice she consistently offers the next generation, include:
- You’ll learn a great deal about your profession in your classes and that’s great. But it’s more than that. You have to have an understanding of business in order to really contribute. You have to understand business, number one, and where communication and marketing fits in it.
You need to understand analytics and things are not just done anymore because it’s the right thing to do, things are done because data tells us to do them. So, really understanding how that influences decision-making is really important, and knowing what marketing does for a company, and communications.
- You have to be a person of the world. You have to know more than just your area. You have to have curiosity. You have to have a real keen interest in a couple of things, and it can be a number of them but it can’t be just your profession. I always say, sometimes we’re not as deep as we need to be but we always have to be very wide in what we know.
You have to have to be fast in terms of what you learn, and then you have to have some really broad knowledge of business and the world at large—different cultures, look at trends that are changing the way we look at the world and how we’re thinking—all of that is really important.
by Alexandra Smith '18
- Student status: First-year graduate student, MA in public relations
- Expected graduation: May 2020
- Hometown: Elkhart, IN
- Fun fact: When I'm not reading or writing, I'm running. I've done four half marathons and one full marathon.
- Future goals: I would like to work in social media for a company like Ironman Triathlon or Disney.