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Lansing public relations pro Kelly Rossman-McKinney remembered as 'trailblazer'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing businesswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney, who broke barriers for women in Lansing and created a "gold standard" among public relations professionals, died Tuesday. She had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in May 2020.

Rossman-McKinney, who was known for her quick wit and dynamic communications style, had led communications in Attorney General Dana Nessel's office since 2019. 

She got her start in Lansing as a legislative secretary in 1979 before serving in Gov. Jim Blanchard's administration. The Lansing-area Democrat later began a public relations firm from her kitchen table before founding a bipartisan public relations firm with Republican John Truscott in 2011. 

Rossman McKinney retired from Truscott Rossman in June 2018. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate before going to work as Nessel's spokeswoman. 

"There will never be another Kelly Rossman-McKinney," Nessel said in a statement Tuesday. "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.  Kelly forged deep relationships with so many of her colleagues at the Department of Attorney General, and her loss weighs heavy on all our hearts tonight."

Rossman-McKinney set the "gold standard for public relations," Nessel said, calling Truscott Rossman "one of the largest and most well-respected public relations firms in Michigan."

"Throughout her career, Kelly has demonstrated a commitment to the greater good and to the pursuit of excellence," Nessel said. "Her commitment was accentuated by the charisma and positivity that permeated every aspect of her interactions."

She also was known for her outspoken and unapologetic work as a woman in a Capitol culture that didn't always welcome her tenacity.

In January 2020, Rossman-McKinney told The Detroit News she “pushed back, hard,” against sexism in Lansing early in her career. In the past, women might have tolerated comments because of their positions or because it involved “men of a certain generation," she said. But they should know better by now, she said. 

“There are always a handful of social Neanderthals that serve in the Legislature,” Rossman-McKinney said at the time. “Perhaps in their own world before they came here they weren’t accustomed to women in the work place.”

Condolences flooded in from other Lansing leaders Tuesday, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said Rossman-McKinney "always knew what to say and when to say it."

"A trailblazer and role model who meant so much to so many. Her unmatched political instincts and razor-sharp wit shaped Lansing for decades," Whitmer said. 

"One of my favorite Kelly aphorisms was ‘have a high bar and don’t lower it for anyone.’ She set a high bar for us all. We will strive to meet it every day. My love goes to Kelly’s family who centered her world," Whitmer added.

Truscott honored Rossman-McKinney for her "courage, wit and humor" and said founding Truscott Rossman with her in 2011 "was the best decision of my career."

"There never has been and never will be another Kelly Rossman-McKinney," Truscott said. "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."

Rossman-McKinney continued working for Nessel for some time after her cancer diagnosis, and in January 2021 referred jokingly to her chemo session as a "break" from the busyness of the office.

“Work helps me focus," she told Michigan Health blog earlier this year. "If you have something to do that can take your mind off things, embrace it. For my infusions, I always ask for a recliner instead of a bed. I work. I’m on conference calls. I’m writing.

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