Social change drives business plan for PR firm's founder

A profile of Melissa Orozco, founder and creative director, Yulu Public Relations

Photo: Chung Chow

Melissa Orozco worked in social-impact public relations before placing the word “impact” in front of verbs and nouns became trendy.

“For a long time, we were almost looked at as girl scouts sitting on the other end of the boardroom table,” said the founder and creative director of Vancouver-based Yulu Public Relations. “It just puts a smile on my face sometimes when I think about some of the clients that thought what we were doing was cute and gave us the invisible pat on the head when we were talking about ways to bring innovation into their business model,” she said.

Where companies were doubtful, competitors in many industries have jumped to create and rebrand products and services that uphold social and environmental values.

“It’s like, I’m not a spiteful person, but that kind of thing feels good,” she said.

Orozco never intended to start a PR agency, but she always intended to pursue public relations.

“I’m like one of those rare cases where I actually knew I wanted to do communications and PR from the first day of freshman year,” said Orozco, who studied at the University of New Mexico before transferring to the City University of New York-Hunter College. “I’ve just always believed that stories have the power to drive behaviour.”

As for where she developed a passion for “impact relations” – cause-focused PR that generates positive social or environmental impact – Orozco said she’s frequently asked whether her socially conscious bent is attributed to her upbringing or personal life.

“My team is always asking me if I have a boyfriend in prison or a family relative because I’m so obsessed with the U.S. prison situation,” mused the New Mexico native, who grew up not really knowing how to recycle, and volunteering at a soup kitchen here and there throughout her youth.

“I’m very much into the social issues,” said Orozco. For all her enthusiasm, her professional focus on such issues has come much more practically. “I fell into this industry on accident.”

After several years of New York City agency experience where she got to work with brands including Patrón Tequila, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Perrier Mineral Water, Orozco left work in the city that never sleeps to follow love to the West Coast.

The move led to three years working at Peak Communicators in Vancouver, at which time her work visa ended. (The relationship would eventually end, too.) Awaiting her permanent-resident card, Orozco took time to reflect on what she wanted to do and landed on consulting.

“I was working with non-profits because they had small budgets and I was a small firm, and then I just started to grow an appetite for it. I just started to become good at it,” she explained. “When it really became of interest was when I realized that I was becoming a subject matter expert on the topic.”

Today, she exclusively takes on clients that are contributing positively to the environment or society, which means Yulu turns away 80% to 90% of the business that comes in annually.

“In the first few years, it did feel like a pitch and a sell; now we’re in strong demand and we have something that is so valuable to businesses,” she said.

“We’re careful to not shove our mission down the throats of new biz prospects right away because we don’t want to turn them off or isolate them or make them feel uncomfortable.”

With Orozco, however, that conversation inevitably comes up.

“At first it was a little different because Melissa didn’t just take what I asked her to do. She came back with ideas,” said Navid Boostani, co-founder and CEO of ModernAdvisor.

The Vancouver-based company connected with Yulu for input and advice on the launch of their robo-adviser platform. After some research, Orozco countered with Yulu’s mandate, and an idea to make ModernAdvisor the first robo-adviser in Canada to offer socially responsible investment portfolios.

“It’s been fantastic to be the first because a couple of our peers then followed suit,” said Boostani. “She wants to do good, but she also has a very keen business sense. She sort of convinced me again that this is a good business idea as well.”

Orozco takes a hands-on approach to her work, from selecting whom, to take on as clients to involving her firm not just in clients’ outreach, but in their business model development and broader strategies.

“Melissa came to Cambodia and actually saw the World Housing homes first-hand,” said Scott Wilkins, managing director for Vancouver-based World Housing, which has created a one-for-one gifting model for condo developers. It started through a partnership with Westbank Corp.’s Vancouver House – where for every unit sold, a home was built for a family in Cambodia. The organization has since housed more than 2,700 people in 552 homes, across 31 communities.

“Melissa was part of our early strategy sessions. Everything from culture, defining our brand and who we were, and also obviously just helping with the public relations,” said Wilkins. “We’ve got a lot of time for Melissa.”

Orozco, now a Canadian citizen, calls it a fun time to be doing good.

Over six years, Orozco has gone from being treated like a girl scout, as she put it, to having Red Bull fly her and her team to speak to 150 of its marketing executives about how to incorporate social impact into marketing towards generation Z.

“We have knowledge and expertise that is really important, not just to the environment, not just society, but businesses now know it’s very important to them,” she said.

“It’s just so fun now, you know, it’s like really fun.”