Kelly Rossman-McKinney, PR trailblazer who shattered glass ceilings in Lansing, dies at 67

By: - November 10, 2021 10:20 am

Kelly Rossman-McKinney

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a public relations trailblazer and political powerhouse who shattered glass ceilings throughout her 45-year career and became one of Michigan’s most well-known and respected communications experts, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. She was 67.

During a career that spanned nearly five decades, Rossman-McKinney was the co-founder of one of Michigan’s most influential communications firms, Truscott Rossman, and most recently served as the communications director for state Attorney General Dana Nessel.

“There will never be another Kelly Rossman-McKinney,” Nessel said in a statement announcing Rossman-McKinney’s death Tuesday night. “I am heartbroken by the loss of one of my most trusted advisors, and I am honored to count myself amongst those who had the good fortune to work alongside Kelly and to witness her artistry.”

Known as a mentor to countless lawmakers and communications leaders in Lansing and across the state, Rossman-McKinney launched her career in Michigan’s capital city as a legislative secretary in 1979. She went on to serve as an aide in both the Michigan House and Senate before being asked by former Gov. James Blanchard to run the newly formed Michigan Youth Corps, which became a national model for similar programs across the United States. Rossman-McKinney led a series of initiatives under Blanchard, including the Office of Michigan Products — where she vaulted state-made goods onto the international stage.

In 1988, she started a communications firm, the Rossman Group, that has long been regarded as a pioneer in Lansing’s public relations landscape. Rossman-McKinney, a Democrat, went on to merge her company with Republican communications strategist John Truscott’s firm to create Truscott Rossman in 2011.

“After years of competing for business, and even serving as adversaries on issues, Kelly and I joined forces and founded Truscott Rossman in 2011. It was the best decision of my career,” Truscott said in a prepared statement.

With Rossman-McKinney’s death, Truscott said he has “lost more than a business partner.” 

“I’ve lost a best friend, my work wife and one of the most heroic people I’ve ever met,” he said.

“There never has been and never will be another Kelly Rossman-McKinney,” Truscott continued. “She shattered the glass ceiling for women in Lansing by taking risks — risks she understood and committed to because she knew what challenges were, and she faced them head on.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney and John Truscott. | Photo courtesy Truscott Rossman

After retiring from Truscott Rossman, Rossman-McKinney joined the attorney general’s office as communications director in 2019. 

“Kelly was the gold standard for public relations, respected by her peers and admired by her colleagues,” Nessel said.

As remembrances of Rossman-McKinney flooded in following her death, politicians, reporters and communications experts recalled a leader who championed a wide range of colleagues, particularly young women as they began their careers. 

“Kelly Rossman-McKinney was one of a kind,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a prepared statement. “Honoring a woman who always knew what to say and when to say it is difficult. A trailblazer and role model who meant so much to so many. Her unmatched political instincts and razor-sharp wit shaped Lansing for decades. Her name literally graces the skyline.”

“It is hard to imagine this town without her, but Kelly’s timeless advice will continue to shape the work we all do,” Whitmer continued. “One of my favorite Kelly aphorisms was, ‘have a high bar and don’t lower it for anyone.’ She set a high bar for all of us. We will strive to meet it every day.”

In May 2020, Rossman-McKinney was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer that had spread from her kidney to her liver and spine. She spoke to Michigan Health earlier this year about continuing to work while undergoing chemotherapy.

“It’s not like chemo hurts,” Rossman-McKinney said. “It’s just me, sitting there with my IV dance partner. I had my personal cell, my work cell and my laptop going. I was watching a news show that one of my bosses was one — I was working. Well, I was doing double duty. I was working working, and I was also busy fighting cancer.”

As she battled cancer, Rossman-McKinney said it was crucial that she continue to laugh.

“It’s essential to keep your sense of humor not only intact, but on high alert,” she told Michigan Health.

On Truscott Rossman’s website, the firm maintains a page dedicated to Rossman-McKinney. There, the company writes, “there’s a whole lot we could say about Kelly. Listing her awards, alone, would fill this page. Instead, we decided you should hear from Kelly in her own words.”

What follows is Rossman-McKinney’s “10 Tips to be a Successful Businesswoman.”

“Accept the fact that men will be called — and commended for being — aggressive, assertive, direct, decisive and powerful,” she wrote. “You will be called a bitch.”

That moniker, she said, should be turned on its head and used as a reminder for the men who think they’re in power — they’re not.

“Remember that BITCH is an acronym for Boys I’m Taking Charge Here,” Rossman-McKinney wrote.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.