20 Minutes with Kristina Hellhake
As one of the first Berlin-based PR agencies focusing on sustainability, its founder Kristina Hellhake did everything right. She does not only have a clean consciousness, but trusting clients, the skills and knowledge to ride the current awareness-wave and a true calling. By telling the stories, she herself wants to listen to, her work guarantees relevance – by confronting the important and sometimes uncomfortable topics of our times, Kristina steps up the Berlin communication game. Compose PR's brands have something to say, whether it is about authenticity and transparency, environmental protection or the taboo around periods. Kristina gives these topics a space and a voice. We talked with her about her years as a self-employed woman, the sustainability-'trend' and why there's never an "enough" in fashion.
Nele Tüch: You founded your own agency in 2014 which takes care of the brand communication of fashion- and lifestyle brands. At the same time, you’re a part of Melagence and The Conscious Club – where’s the connection between these three?
Kristina Hellhake: Melagence is one of my clients. Usually, I communicate for labels - here it is all around the work of this Berlin sales agency and the team, the brands, their vision. We just thought we’d give it a try even if it’s a bit different, and I must say it’s a lot of fun. In the end, it’s just the same PR-wise, as every agency or company is also a brand itself. It's all about telling interesting stories. The Conscious Club is the workspace and creative hub that I co-created with 3 other women who work in handcrafting businesses. My part was the concept of the club idea - as you can learn crafts like hand embroidery or illustrations here and they also sell their goods such as beautiful pillows in the store. My office was based there for over two years. Now I moved to a bigger space because compose grew and the team has changed a bit, but I still would love to hold workshops there and start a book club. Once you’re a part of TCC, you stay connected!
"But what I think is more important, is that whenever you tell a story, as a writer or a PR, that you care about what you talk about. I care deeply about people and I care deeply about my work and I think that creates the insights and topics that matter to the journalist or spark their interest. We all just know when something is real."
NT: Since you started as an editor, you have the perfect insights into what an editorial team wants from a brand in terms of PR communication. How do you use these insights to differentiate from other communication agencies?
Kristina Hellhake: I always wanted to be a journalist and started writing at a very young age. When I went to university I also worked at a newspaper, so it was writing first and PR much much later. Honestly, after finishing university, I simply wasn’t brave enough to go to a journalism school, so I started working as an intern at a startup, stumbled upon PR and the rest is history. My freelance work as an editor for STYLEBOOK is a really nice escape from the PR world from time to time and the team is so great – I’ve learned so much! I hope that maybe through this experience I understand what’s interesting and valuable to a journalist. But what I think is more important, is that whenever you tell a story, as a writer or a PR, that you care about what you talk about. I care deeply about people and I care deeply about my work and I think that creates the insights and topics that matter to the journalist or spark their interest. We all just know when something is real.
"Always trust your intuition who to work with. I think communication can only be authentic if it comes from the heart."
NT: You turned towards freelance work in 2014, so now you are a pro in the field. What do you wish someone had told you before becoming self-employed?
Kristina Hellhake: I’m actually glad that I didn’t have an exact idea of what I was getting myself into. I wouldn’t call it naivety but rather optimism, it's what made me jump right in. My mood was: „I have no better place to be right now, I might as well just try”. I trusted things with compose through the ups and downs and that’s what made me go through it all. I think what would have been a helpful advice, is that everything always changes - if you feel like you’re stuck in a situation or project that doesn’t feel right, this won’t be forever. If you love something and money is coming in, this might not be forever either. And therefore most importantly: Always trust your intuition who to work with. I think communication can only be authentic if it comes from the heart. Also: Forget about a proper vacation for the first two years. Save some money for bad times (or for that vacation after two years).
NT: How did self-employment change your daily life?
Kristina Hellhake: For the first three years it was pretty much a seven days per week job and brought a lot of commitment and uncertainty at times. The latter is gone by now, I usually work with my clients for a long time and am able to plan ahead. Obviously, the situation with Covid-19 is challenging again and I’m back to planning more from month to month - pretty much like everyone else. With compose in theory I am able to work from everywhere, whenever it suits me. But obviously, I want to match my clients' schedules and needs and see them in person as much as possible. I think self-employment is my biggest freedom and at the same time, the biggest responsibility towards myself and I enjoy all the projects and beautiful people that it has brought my way. I am eager to grow with it and excited to see what’s next, so self-employment changed my life into feeling really happy about what I do in my job, pretty much every day.
NT: With compose you bet on mindful and sustainable labels. Do you feel that the fashion industry became more open towards and more interested in these topics within the last couple of years?
Kristina Hellhake: Definitely. When I started communicating about sustainability in fashion around four years ago, it was still something new! Now journalists and consumers sort of expect a certain level of awareness and sustainability, it is nothing special per se anymore. Which is great! Small labels naturally adapted faster to sustainability and big fashion houses try to take that USP from them, that is where a lot of greenwashing happens. But don’t get me wrong, H&M implementing changes towards sustainability is great! This needs to happen in order to change the system and make it visible to the masses. So yes, I see interest and openness on all sides, but at the same time, this is still the beginning. In interviews we still talk about the basics, we still introduce ourselves and the sustainable ways we approach. The society is still learning about this and some people hear about it for the first time.
NT: How mainstream is sustainable fashion now and will it stay this way in the future?
Kristina Hellhake: As I said, there is a growing demand for sustainability and transparency, many people want to understand what they are wearing. But mainstream, unfortunately, is still the mass production and consumption. This is not a system disruption but a steady movement and it’s growing every minute around the globe.
NT: Do you have a current obsession, a topic you can’t stop talking about, something you are burning for or something you are a big fan of at the moment?
Kristina Hellhake: I am usually obsessing with whatever my clients are up to, a launch, a show, interview or collection. I get super excited when I see new collections and want to wear everything myself. Otherwise, I think I am a quiet observer - throughout the day I browse through articles, Tumblr and Instagram and take in the aesthetics and topics to get inspired for my work. Something that gets me going lately is financial security and knowledge, especially for women. I have been invited to a talk hosted by UN Women and Esprit and it really blew my mind how much (involuntary) dependence is given in women’s everyday life. So to learn more about that and talk about money and the value of work and plans for the future with fellow female freelancers, for example, is really important to me.
"I think in terms of sustainability or conscious ways to consume, there is never a point where we reach „enough“ - there is always room for another voice in the value chain."
NT: Something the creative- or fashion-industry isn’t talking about enough?
Kristina Hellhake: I think in terms of sustainability or conscious ways to consume, there is never a point where we reach „enough“ - there is always room for another voice in the value chain. Water will hopefully be the next big topic in this department. The big players need to be involved, even more, the pressure and our demand for change must be steady and I believe that every interview, every behind the scenes of brands who try to make a difference, is meaningful.
NT: You moved to Berlin 16 years ago. Does it feel like home or would you consider to move to another city at one point in your life?
Kristina Hellhake: Berlin is definitely my home, this is my base. But it's not homey in a romantic way, Berlin still feels like a diva to me, the city itself has a very special energy and it's not always welcoming. I love the diversity and the roughness and just walking through the streets and taking it all in and I have certain places I love to go and that inspire me. I love Berlin! I also love the countryside and nature and two winters ago I spent some weeks living on a farm in Brandenburg. That was, of course, a very different lifestyle, very calming and I enjoyed the different rhythm of the day, where you pretty much go inside and to bed when it’s dark. But that also changed my energy and slowed me down a lot. So for now, I want to stay in the city and have that vibrant lifestyle and keep going - but I am saving money to buy a small summer house in Italy one day. That’s my dream.
"This might sound cliche, but personal leeway or space is ultimately what you find in yourself."
NT: Personal leeway (=Freiraum) - what does it mean for you and where can you find it?
Kristina Hellhake: This might sound cliche, but personal leeway or space is ultimately what you find in yourself I think. And some days I don’t get there at all. What helps me reconnect is nature, is yoga, a talk to a close friend, a good laugh, not taking things too seriously. Travelling alone. Riding my bike in a forest listening to music and singing along. That’s my personal gateway.
NT: What’s your personal way to cope with the current situation?
Kristina Hellhake: Usually I catch myself staying busy to feel relaxed. Right now I am very much acting like I am on an isolated farm - I slow down. The first 2,5 months of this year have been very busy and eventful, so this is the exact opposite and I had to find my balance with it. Communication in every way is key for me - about what I need, how my clients feel, what we want to focus on for now, how we can face this together and what actions we want to take. I think this situation allows us to revalue what and who we put our energy in - if we are lucky enough to even have the time and money for such luxury thoughts. I personally reflect on goals more, apart from compose, I cope with silence, books (easy readings, such as crime stories), yoga and meditation in the morning even if I don’t feel like it and even if it’s just 10 minutes, walks in the sun and good honest talks, professionally and privately.
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