February 4, 2012

STRANGER: Rozanne Weissman
LOCATION: Bangkok Joe’s, 3000 K Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dinner with a marketing communications executive

When I sat down for a meal with Rozanne Weissman, she saw me take a tape recorder out of my jacket and lay it on the table near her, the “on” light glowing red.

“Does this mean I have to be interesting throughout dinner?” she asked.

Her joking concern wasn’t necessary. For more than two hours at a relaxed Saturday night dinner in Georgetown, Rozanne was entertaining and interesting company, sharing stories about her volunteer work, life in public relations, and even the best way to crash parties from her long-ago “Washington Connection” class on social climbing in the nation’s capital.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Rozanne also went to college in the state and studied journalism and public relations. But living in a state that — by her description — isn’t that thrilling, she was ready for a drastic change. So she decided to try and find work in Washington, DC. That was in the 1970s. She found a reporting job, moved, and has lived in the capital city ever since.

All that time in DC means she knows some good and affordable restaurants, and she suggested having dinner at Bangkok Joe’s. I had never eaten there so was happy to give the place a whirl.

It’s apparently a popular restaurant as almost every table was full when we arrived. We were seated in one of several booths with elevated chairs. They were surprisingly comfy and private, despite the open plan of the room. The waiters were also incredibly attentive, which is always a plus.

So far, so good. As we browsed the menus, Rozanne offered advice on what I should order while also offering more tidbits about how she developed her career in DC.

She started work as a reporter in the drug and medial research field, a job she had for “three long months.” She was one of only a handful of female reporters covering Congress at that time. “So that was neat,” she said.

“But I wanted a job where I could travel for work, so I could go places and see things. I was young, I wanted to do that,” she said. And so Rozanne shifted into the world of public relations, taking a job with the National Education Association (NEA), an organization representing teachers and other education workers. At the NEA she covered teachers’ strikes, trained local educators how to handle the media, and more. It’s a job she’s very glad to have had.

At one point the NEA awarded her with a fully paid sabbatical to work on a Senate campaign. She was looking for “an interesting statewide race that was tight and being watched, and that would be intriguing.”

She narrowed it down to three races. How did she pick the one to work for? Singer John Denver and actor Robert Redford were campaigning for the candidate in a Utah Senate race.

With a grin, Rozanne said that the presence of the two celebrities sealed her decision to work that race. And yes, she got to meet Mr. Redford when he made an appearance at the candidate’s office on the Hill.

Stargazing however isn’t the reason she took a little bit of time out of public relations to help out with a political campaign. “I did that because you had to have Hill experience in this town to understand how the nation’s capital works. And then when my senator lost, I spent the remainder of my sabbatical as an investigative reporter for Jack Anderson to get the behind-the-scenes on how things really work.” Anderson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.

During her time in Washington, Rozanne has also worked for several other major organizations including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Alliance to Save Energy. At the latter group she created and managed 19 nationwide marketing communications and energy efficiency campaigns, including a memorable and award-winning advert that was — of all things — a humorous play on static electricity. “In my career I’ve won 60 marketing and communications awards,” she said.

Although she enjoyed working for the Alliance and others, in 2010 she decided to launch her own business as “chief guru” of Rozanne Weissman & Associates, a marketing and communications consultancy. The move was partly due to developments in her personal life.

Rozanne’s mother, who has since passed away, was sick and in a hospice at the time. “I wanted to spend much more time with her than a full-time job would allow,” she said.

Although it was a sad time in her life, Rozanne said the hospice staff was outstanding. “I don’t know what my sister and I would have done without hospice. They were so extraordinary. The volunteers loved my mother so much.” In turn, she appeared in a video for the Hospice Foundation of America about making a hospice choice as an option for people facing end of life decisions.

Soon after, Rozanne found herself back in DC. It seems that her experiences with the hospice have inspired her to do more volunteer work with local organizations.

Every Wednesday, Rozanne can be found at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which offers a weekly safe environment for children of homeless families to play together.

I was eager to hear more, and had been following her words so closely that neither of us were quite prepared when the waiter arrived to take our order. We quickly settled on the chicken potstickers as an appetizer — and it turned out to be a good choice.

It’s minced chicken, sweet corn and shitaki mushrooms served with a spicy ginger-soy dip. Despite the fact that my bumbling efforts to eat with chopsticks made me drop the food several times, I managed to eat enough to give the starter a thumbs-up. The potstickers are stuffed full of the tasty ingredients, and the sauce gives the snack a nice kick.

As I tried to control the chopsticks and avoid tossing my food onto the floor, Rozanne (a deft expert at using the utensils) told me more about the Playtime Project.

The organization works with homeless shelters across the city, and Rozanne volunteers at a location in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. It’s a large room stocked with toys and books. “It’s a place for the parents to leave their children, a safe place for a couple of hours,” she said, with ages ranging primarily from 1 to 5, but sometimes children 8 to 9 also attend for help with homework and fraternization.

Rozanne doesn’t remember exactly how she discovered the program, but “it sounded very interesting. And I wanted to work with young kids because I had spent a lot of time in nursing homes with my parents before the end, and that was a hospice and the elderly and so on. And I thought I wanted to look at the other end of life,” she said.

The children usually start out the sessions doing free play — meaning they can run around, grab toys, pull on Rozanne’s pant legs (this happens often, apparently) — with the volunteer adults supervising. They also have designated times for cleaning up, snacking and reading.

“You can tell they really care for the kids,” Rozanne said of the volunteers. “It’s also nice for the kids to receive love from some adults that care about them.”

“It’s a safe place for a couple of hours

Unfortunately, she said, there isn’t always the chance to make long-lasting connections with many of the children because they might only come to the playtime group once or twice. The homeless families are living in temporary shelters and the goal is to help them get out of the shelter and into a permanent job and long-term accommodation. When that happens, the children no longer come to the playtime. “That was sad for me, because with this one girl we had developed a close relationship. She was a real delight and I definitely miss her.”

Rozanne said she’s a regular at the playtime group, which has been featured in the Washington Post. Although the children have had tough lives so far, Rozanne said she is happy to be able to give some of her free time to the program to put a smile on kids’ faces.

Making children happy appears to be something she also tries to do through her public relations work when she can.

For example, Rozanne previously had as a client the DC Italian restaurant Al Tiramisu (which I can attest to serves delicious food). The 15th anniversary of the venue happened to be occurring the same year as the 150th anniversary of the Republic of Italy, and so Rozanne devised a number of promotions around that theme including creation of an Italian cooking week for an elementary school cooking club. The chef held cooking classes at his restaurant and in the school cafeteria kitchen, teaching children how to make authentic Italian food.

Elementary school children came and made gnocchi, salads and lemonade. “It was so cute because they had at least two helpings of salad, and it just shows that if you involve kids in the making of food that they will eat something healthy,” she said.

Alas my choice of General Tso’s chicken for a main course probably wasn’t the healthiest option I could have gone with that night. The poultry is battered and served in a ground chili sauce served over wok stir-fried lomein noodles with onions, celery, carrots, sugar snap peas, bean sprouts and scallions.

It’s pretty good. This probably won’t sound like much of an endorsement, but the meal was like high-end takeout. Nothing fancy or special, but the sauce has a pleasant sweet tang and the lumps of chicken are very generous. A filling and tasty dish.

Rozanne also seemed to enjoy her meal of drunken chicken.

Typically served over noodles, Rozanne switched her order to have it over rice. It’s chicken, sweet basil, chili and garlic sauce, and she had no complaints about it. Rozanne has been to Bangkok Joe’s several times, so it’s clear she’s a fan of the place, and I can see why.

And yes, with the potstickers and the main courses we ate a lot of chicken that night. “I’m going to be all chickened out,” Rozanne said with a smile.

As we made our way through our entrees, Rozanne said she wanted to tell me about a “crazier part” of her life. I didn’t know what was coming.

Turns out that craziness was a “Washington Connection” class she used to teach, which also included tips on crashing parties. Years ago Rozanne needed an extra source of income and fun and so she started the class. “I basically taught people how Washington worked and how some people actually crashed parties they weren’t invited to, to be seen at the right places,” she said. “So I had this life where by day I was this PR person and by night I taught this crazy class.”

It was a behind-the-scenes on how Washington worked and the best methods for sneaking into parties at embassies and elsewhere. One of her tips was to take a glass filled with a little bit of wine, enter a party through a side door, and then mingle among the crowd, pretending to have been there the whole time.

Another tip was to have a photographer follow a couple around and take pictures, creating the image of bigwigs that are naturally meant to be at the party. This was in the days before digital cameras, so couples accompanied by a personal photographer were typically able to ease their way into an exclusive party thanks to Rozanne’s tip — even if they weren’t on the guest list.

One day Rozanne was chatting with a reporter who learned about the class. So it was that his wife — who worked for the Associated Press — came to the class, covered it, and produced a big article all about the gatecrashing guru. “My phone did not stop ringing for three solid months with media calls,” Rozanne said. The class was covered in People and Playboy magazines, the CBS Evening News, and media around the world.

Although she doesn’t teach the class anymore, reminders still pop up. Rozanne was at a cocktail party for the media when a former boss walked up to her and asked for details on an attractive woman circling the room. Rozanne said she had no idea who the reporter was. Turns out it was one of her former students — not a journalist — who had crashed the party. “She was not kicked out and my bosses thought it was hilarious that she crashed my gathering,” Rozanne laughed.

By the way, the Salahis — the couple that crashed a White House party and got to meet President Obama uninvited — were not students of Rozanne’s. She wouldn’t recommend trying to stumble into a party at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without an invite. The Salahis’ gatecrashing prompted friends from around the country who remembered Rozanne’s well-publicized class to email her asking jokingly whether the duo attended her class.

Without the class to teach, Rozanne keeps her spare time full these days with her volunteer work and also writing film reviews for the website DC Digest. She likes to attend film screenings, and after launching her own marketing communications consultancy vowed to treat herself to seeing more movies at the cinema.

“I don’t like watching DVDs. I like going to movies. I like audience interaction. I used to tell my friends I like the big popcorn, I like the big screen, the big sound,” she said.

A busy schedule for anyone to keep, but Rozanne manages it. She’s a friendly woman and quick with a smile and chuckle, though anyone who can’t be personable and make it appear effortless would probably not have enjoyed a decades-long career in public relations.

Dinner was over and I reached for the tape recorder, flipping it back to the “off” position. Rozanne needn’t have worried about having to be interesting for the duration of dinner. For more than two hours, she did so with ease.

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