2023 Business Icons: DH’s Cher and Jim Desautel
Desautels helped shape Spokane’s PR landscape
Dylan HarrisMay 11th, 2023
Cher and Jim Desautel, 70 and 74, respectively, recognized a void in the public relations sector in Spokane in the 1990s. While there were PR professionals in town, Cher says, many of them were headquartered elsewhere.
After outlining a plan on a bar napkin at Elkins Resort, at Priest Lake, Idaho, in 1996, the couple founded Desautel Communications & Marketing, later known as Desautel Hege and now doing business simply as DH. The Spokane-based communications agency now has about 50 employees and an additional office in Seattle.
But the company rose from humble beginnings, Cher says.
“We were scraping at the beginning to get any capital,” she says.
One of the agency’s first clients was Washington Water Power, now Avista Corp. During Ice Storm ’96, Jim says he called Judy Cole, former senior director of business and public affairs at Avista and past Icons honoree, and offered to help. Cole accepted his offer, and eventually hired the couple’s firm, although contacting them at the time proved to be difficult, Jim says.
The agency’s only contact information at the time was a post office box number, so Cole had to make some calls to figure out how to get ahold of them, he says.
“We were still in our basement,” Cher says.
Many of the Desautels’ early clients were casinos and health care agencies. Jim, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, had a background in journalism and photography, and Cher had experience working in the city government and health care sectors.
“We had a lot of varied background when we started the business, so I think that worked for us,” Cher says.
Cher is from Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. She moved to the U.S. in 1973 and eventually worked for former Spokane Mayor Ron Bair in the late 1970s as assistant to the mayor and council.
“There weren’t a lot of women around then, and for many, many years, I was the only woman in the room,” Cher says.
The couple met when Jim hired Cher at Desautel Consultants, a business he operated out of the Flour Mill building, in Spokane. Cher and Jim got married in 1982, and Cher worked at Premera Blue Cross as vice president of communications from 1983 to 1996.
Cher later taught communications, marketing, and leadership classes at local colleges, including Eastern Washington University, Whitworth University, and most recently Gonzaga University.
“I always liked to teach, and I felt like I was able to make a difference there,” she says.
Jim was born and raised in Omak, Washington, on the Colville Indian Reservation. He left when he was 18 to attend Eastern Washington University. He spent some time in New York City as a recipient of a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism fellowship through CBS Broadcasting Inc. and the Ford Foundation.
He returned to the Pacific Northwest and worked in media roles at KREM-TV, in Spokane, and KOMO-TV and KING-TV, in Seattle. He was the first photographer on scene at the Sunshine Mine disaster in Kellogg, Idaho, and covered Expo ’74, he says.
One of Jim’s proudest moments, he says, was when he wrote, produced, and narrated a film titled “The Price We Paid,” which was presented to Congress as part of the efforts to negotiate a settlement for the Grand Coulee Dam, which flooded many tribal lands when it was built. The settlement was agreed upon in 1994 and secured the Colville Confederated Tribes a lump sum payment of $53 million, as well as over $15 million a year from Bonneville Power Administration for as long as the dam produces power.
In addition to handling PR projects for Avista, health care agencies, and various small businesses, many of the Desautels’ campaigns were for tribes and tribal organizations.
Longtime public-relations professional Susan Ashe, who owned her own firm, Ashe Public Affairs, and worked for Kaiser Aluminum Corp. and city of Spokane at different stages of her career, says Jim and Cher made a big impact on the area tribes.
“They had great outreach to the tribes, and I think that was important and initiated tribal involvement in the well-being of our communities,” Ashe says.
Ashe went to Omak High School with Jim, and says she remembers how fast he was on the football field. She says she also watched Cher in the PR profession before the two opened DH.
“The two of them deciding to open their own firm was just a brilliant move, because they both had all of the qualifications,” Ashe says. “They were young. They were enthusiastic and energetic, and they’re both really professional.”
In 2001, DH won Best of Show across all the Silver Anvil Award winners for a campaign for the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services related to the state’s expansion of health care for children. The Silver Anvil Awards are presented yearly by the Public Relations Society of America for the best strategic public relations campaigns of the year.
Jim says he emphasized quality and zealotry when it came to business and people. He also says people in the communications field need to be critical thinkers and resource oriented.
“If you want to get in this business, from day one you need to understand research,” Jim says.
Cher says that public relations is more than just going to cocktail parties and shaking hands, like some may assume. She says that people in the field need to “have their ear to the ground and be able to read the market, but also pay attention to their customers, their employees, and be ready to work really hard.”
Michelle Hege, CEO of DH, says that the values that Cher and Jim instilled are still present at the agency today.
“I really credit them with having a vision for our company,” Hege says. “They built a culture inside our company based on trust and respect.”
Hired in 1998, Hege was the first employee the Desautels brought on at DH. They made her partner in 2000.
“They gave me the opportunity right from the beginning to become a leader in an organization,” Hege says.
Using integrated communications strategies—the blending of advertising, public relations, branding, and community engagement—wasn’t really the norm in communications back when DH was founded, she says.
“Now, that’s what I would characterize as the standard in our business, but they were early to that,” Hege says.
Jim gradually retired around 2010, and Cher retired around 2015. They continue to stay in touch with Hege and the team at DH.
“Just seeing and hearing what they’re doing … it’s fun to watch,” Jim says. “It’s pretty impressive.”
The Desautels have two daughters—Sara and Stacey—and four grandchildren who Cher says they get to spend a lot of time with now.
Cher and Jim both say they miss all the fun and laughter at DH and throughout their careers, but that they’re having even more fun together now.
“Nobody’s life is perfect, but ours is pretty darn good,” Cher says.