Barri Rafferty: A Champion with Velvet Gloves

By Aundrea Cline-Thomas

Barri Rafferty During her 25 years at Ketchum, Barri Rafferty climbed the ladder to become the first woman CEO of a top five public relations agency. Not satisfied with being alone at the top, Rafferty has been a vocal advocate for gender equity, diversity and inclusion. She is one of the founding members of Omniwomen, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of women leaders. This summer, Rafferty made a major career move, joining Wells Fargo where she is Executive Vice President and Head of Communications, demonstrating she is showing no signs of slowing down.

“I have been told I ‘throw a punch with a velvet glove’ and I take pride in that trait,” Rafferty says. “I have toughened up over the years, but always try to maintain a leadership style that is kind and generous.”

After being at Ketchum for 25 years, how have you continuously positioned yourself for constant growth?

When I left Ketchum to join Wells Fargo, many were surprised and felt it was a courageous move. But I saw it as a continuation of the professional journey I have been on, which has always included making bold moves, being open to new experiences and leading innovation. I have always stretched myself to volunteer for the assignments that pushed me out of my comfort zone. If you don’t feel challenged and a bit nervous at times, I would say you are probably not committed to growth.

How did you learn how to own your value?

Learning to “own my value” is still a work in progress for me, and most female leaders. It is still hard for me to negotiate on my own behalf, but it is a muscle I continually work on.

When I went to Davos, after being asked several times whose wife I was, I realized I had to do more. In my frustration I wrote a blog that led to a TEDx Talk and launched my journey to become a stronger advocate for women in leadership. As I advocated for our place in business, I became a champion for myself and my own value. I encourage women at all levels to acknowledge if it is easier for you to advocate for your team than to do so for yourself, you need to ratchet it up a notch.

Breaking the glass ceiling is such an exciting concept, but are there cuts associated with being the first woman to lead a top five global PR agency?

This year has been particularly tough as we navigated a global pandemic, resulting in an economic collapse and the need to keep our people safe while moving business forward. It has been a priority for me to balance the human and financial impact.

Simultaneously, the deepest cuts have happened when “managing out” people who are long-term friends or who were unconvincing when making the business case for things I believed in. Still, I showed up the next day with a smile ready to “set the weather” for our community and that’s hard. Those scars stay with you, but I am hopeful they have enhanced my leadership style.

What have you learned about being a leader during tough times?

Self-care is critical. If you don’t put your oxygen mask on first and build your own resilience, you won’t be able to lead effectively with empathy and compassion. I know that sounds antithetical, but it has served me well.

What do brands need now, that they didn’t consider three months ago?

Leaders today must show empathy and compassion, putting their customers first while investing in their employees and communities.

In a world where people are scared and vulnerable, we need leaders and brands to have more heart and focus on societal improvement and safety. Data shows that trusted brands have increased market value, and conversely there is a reckoning for brands that don’t demonstrate authenticity and commitment to a higher purpose. That correlation is the best way to convince businesses to do the right thing.

What does winning the Matrix award mean to you?

It is truly the one award I coveted. I have watched past honorees and been moved by their speeches. They shone a light on varied paths to not only be successful, but do it while lifting other women up. I have tried to embrace their advice and empower others to reach their full potential. There is so much more to do and I hope I can continue to use my voice to motivate others to engage in the way I have. Everyone should be able to look back and see the number of people they have helped to be their best selves. That is what means most to me.

Aundrea Cline-Thomas is a reporter at CBS New York.

To learn more about Barri Rafferty, read her NYWICI Profile here.


Leadership skills shared by NYWICI’s finest.

learn more


Do you have decision fatigue?

learn more


Tips and tricks that can jump-start your career.

learn more


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.