Last week, Verb spoke with Jennifer R. Hudson, a public relations professional with a distinguished track record that began in the airline industry. With a focus on strategic corporate communications, Jennifer discussed with us the challenges faced by businesses and media and misconceptions about what public relations can and cannot do.
Verb: How long have you been in business and how have you responded to the changing landscape of the media world following the booming growth of the internet in the last two decades?
Jennifer Hudson: I’ve been in business for myself for 15 and a half years. I’ve worked in communications for 25 years. When I first started my career — like a lot of PR professionals — I was focused on media relations. That was back in the days when a lot of PR people were former journalists. I am not a former journalist. I have worked in TV stations before and I have a master’s degree in journalism, but I actually chose public relations as my path. I worked with a lot of seasoned journalists in corporate communications. In those days it was all about media. At American Airlines, where I worked, we would field hundreds of media calls a day.
When media began to converge, the landscape changed. We were dealing with fewer players. As we progressed through these changes (like the advent of the internet) reporters starting getting laid off.
Once I got into graduate school and saw that the real purpose of public relations was not just media, it was a game changer for me. I was able to shift my focus from just media relations to a realization that public relations encompasses so much more – that it is truly about relating to your various publics. And those publics could be employees, government officials, investors, influencers, or even event planners. Public relations is very broad for me. When I decided to work on my own, I wanted to focus on strategic communications so I could help clients decide whether or not media or employees or whomever the target audience might be, was really the most appropriate for them to achieve their business goals.
I’m very passionate about strategic communications. It’s much more impactful on organizations. It requires them to think in creative and strategic ways about not only what activity they should be doing, but whether or not they should even be doing those activities. You’ll have people say, “We want to get the word out, so we need media coverage.” I work with a lot of non-profit organizations and there is often this unspoken battle inside the organization, where someone may think the target audience should really be donors and funders (because they are the ones who pay the bills); someone may think that it’s media (because we need to get the word out); some may think that the organization is not spending enough time engaging employees and they are not invested in the mission. And the same is true with companies as well. So my role as strategic advisor is to help them go through the process of deciding where the focus should be, because it impacts where you direct resources.
I’m working right now with a client who has hired me to provide strategic oversight for their PR agency, their social media agency, and their internal fund development person. My role is to help them craft a communications plan that will be executed by these three entities, and to keep them aligned (and to ensure they are talking to one another). For example, we don’t want to lead with a social post when we may want to give a scoop to a reporter. Or, maybe we want to lead with our funders and donors before we do any external communications. Maybe we want to talk to our employees first — which, by the way, always needs to happen. I’m a huge champion of employee communication.
“My biggest pet peeve is that ‘PR’ means ‘media’”Jennifer R. Hudson
So, to answer your question, my work has evolved into that. I don’t just focus on media relations. Media is certainly important. I love social media. I think it gives companies an opportunity to go directly to their clients. I view media as an amplifier. Brands have such a great opportunity to reach and engage their target audiences through more direct channels like social media, or even their website.
What are common errors or misconceptions when you take on new customers or generally in the corporate world when they think about public relations? And about what public relations can do and cannot do?
The biggest one of course is that media coverage can happen quickly. And the biggest misconception (and my biggest peeve to be honest) is that public relations is about media. PR people themselves are guilty of it, right? As I just said, public relations is a management function where you are relating your various publics, and these various publics can be anyone, one of which is media. So that’s one of the biggest misconceptions.
When I decided to focus my consultancy on strategic communications, I had to spend a lot of time educating. The notion that you can get a reporter and have something happen quickly is another common misconception. I have to teach clients that media relations is a marathon, not a sprint. And I have to explain that there have been many times in my career (it happens all the time—you guys know) where I would be developing a relationship with a reporter, providing helpful information. This is the way I work: If there is no immediate news story, then I want to spend the time educating and informing the reporter on a consistent basis about the work of the client, and hopefully that information with the client is interesting and worthy to be shared, because if not, I’m not sharing it.
“The biggest misconception about PR is that it can happen quickly”Jennifer R. Hudson
So, it’s a marathon. I started working a pitch about one client in January, but didn’t get a story published until the September-October issue. It’s important to counsel clients about the need to be patient and how a shrinking media landscape makes getting coverage much more difficult. It’s like a drop of water in the middle of the desert – almost impossible – so strategy and patience are key (and having a great newsworthy story!).
My relationships with reporters are very, very important to me. It’s so important that I have refused to pitch something or write a news release about something I know is not newsworthy. I just won’t do it, because my relationships with reporters are so important to me. I know what makes a good story and when I pitch a reporter I know they are much more likely to get involved and interested because I haven’t brought them fluff in the past.
It must be quite an effort. Do you stand up to your clients and tell them not to pitch that?
I do, yes. And then we look at other things or ways to make it newsworthy. Because it doesn’t mean that it’s not worthy of coverage. Usually it is that there is a broader, bigger, meatier story underneath that is not being told. If we want to talk about product X, and there’s nothing really special about it, but there is a beautiful story in the way that product X was created, or a beautiful story about the employee who worked on this product or has a passion that drove them –that’s a way to enrich and add greater substance or find different angles that might be of interest to a reporter. The best business stories are the ones that are personal anyway. We like hearing why a certain founder started a company and what drove them. That may often be more interesting than the piece itself.
“Usually there is a broader, bigger, meatier story underneath that’s not being told”Jennifer R. Hudson
The same client [we were talking about before] has this amazing story: one of their senior leaders’ father was a teen during Nazi Germany. He wrote a book about his experience escaping the country. I read the book and it’s just fascinating. I pitched the story about her as a female leader and told the reporter about her father’s book as well. It was meaningful to me as a Black woman and I suspected it would meaningful to him because he’s Jewish. We got a front page story for her as a result. Yes, she’s an expert and does wonderful work, but lots of leaders do that. It was the story underneath that really attracted. So you have to be able to dig deeper with clients. And you have to be bold. The goal for that particular pitch was to position them as a thought leader in their industry. I had a nice hook to do that because I’d done my research.
“The best business stories are the ones that are personal”Jennifer R. Hudson
This is also why research is so important for me. I’ve had clients get so annoyed because I ask tons of questions. I want to interview all the senior leaders in the organization. I do it because I know it works. That’s also the boldness you have to have. If I know as much about you and your company as you do or more, it’s going to enrich the way that I pitch your stories. And I get excited and moved and invested as well, which makes the pitch much more authentic. I want to hear people’s stories and find out that nugget that makes them special – that makes their business stories worth hearing.
If you have been observing the business landscape of the United States which industries or businesses right now are badly in need of urgent PR assistance or help?
This might be because of the people I am working with right now. I don’t know if you’ve heard the stories about Bon Appétit [a food publication in the U.S.] and others that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, are being exposed for their own racism. They’re struggling to respond because their own senior leaders have said racist things. I’m also seeing it in the travel industry, people being called to task for the lack of authenticity.
“Internal equals external”Jennifer R. Hudson
I’ve always said “internal equals external.” What you communicate inside the organization, and whether or not you are truly walking the talk, becomes very visible outside your organization. I am seeing employees across sectors and across brands calling their companies to task if they are demonstrating a different face publicly than they are internally. They are caught with their tail between their legs because they are not being authentic. There is a lot of introspection happening, a lot of reflection on what we need to do differently and how we need to fix ourselves internally to truly reflect whatever it is we are promoting externally. So it is not enough to say Black lives matter, it’s not enough to just post supporting statements on your website if your staff has no Blacks, no Hispanics, or if you’ve got an all-White staff, or if you are not actively seeking ways to hire more diverse staff. The numbers bear themselves out: companies that are more diverse are more profitable. That’s a fact. I’m happy that companies are waking up to this. So yes, I am seeing issues across industries, with companies being challenged to really respond and reflect with authenticity what they are promoting externally.
As a PR professional, what would be your guidance in those cases for these companies that are faced with these double-speak issues? And if you feel part of the African-American community, have you encountered instances of this behavior you were just describing?
I’ll answer the first question first. I think it’s really important, because I do workshops on core values, vision and mission. I just did a talk two days ago with BizHack about this very thing — about pivoting back to your core values. It’s important for companies to look at their core values and what they say they stand for through this broader lens now of racial and social justice.
If honesty is a core value for you or integrity is a core value for you or professional value or whatever the core value is—I’ll just use honesty as an example—look at that core value through this broader lens: Are we being honest and creating an environment of honesty for all our employees? If an employee feels that they are being sidelined, discriminated against or treated less than, are we creating an environment for them to be open and honest about that and are we being open and honest in the way that we are responding to that and helping them? Do we have policies and practices and systems in place to ensure that we are living out that core value of honesty?
“It’s important for companies to pivot back to their core values”Jennifer R. Hudson
It’s important for companies to pivot back to their core values and look at them vis-à-vis Covid-19, vis-à-vis racial and social justice. I think Covid-19 offers an incredible opportunity as well to pivot back to core values. What have we been communicating during this time? And which of our core values should we be prioritizing now? What should we be prioritizing for this moment right now? Maybe it’s not honesty. During the workshop this one business owner said something beautiful: “One of my core values is giving back,” and that’s the value that she is prioritizing right now in light of the cries for racial justice.
And if you’ve encountered instances of this behavior…
So this is the challenge with systemic racism. The overt racism you can see — somebody calls you a horrible, derogatory name, or somebody says something to you. That in-your-face stuff I have honestly not experienced much of, if at all. One of the examples I’ll give you is that I live in a predominantly white neighborhood. I grew up in Texas, where greeting people, saying “good morning” or “hello” is just the thing we do. We start conversations in grocery stores, we talk to anybody! I’ve lived in this neighborhood now for 20 years and there have been so many instances when I walk down the street and a neighbor would be passing and I would say “good morning” and they wouldn’t say a word. Or you feel this frost. And you can’t quite explain it, you know? It really leads to this, not anxiety, or I guess it’s anxiety, because you get used to it, but you are like are they doing that because I’m Black? I never allow that kind of thing to stop me from being successful. I’m a woman, I’m a Black woman. I just do my thing. And as far as I’m concerned, I have something wonderful and an expertise to offer to the world, and the people who don’t want to take advantage of that — too bad — because there are a lot of people who appreciate what I bring to the table, and will pay me for it. Maybe that stems from this incredible strength that I got from my parents.
I think that’s the story of a lot of Black Americans. You think about how systemic racism permeates the culture in our country and the fact that we have not just survived, but thrived. I’m incredibly proud of that. So maybe I have. I’m sure that I have, but the kind of overt stuff has been more like people not saying “hi” to me or feeling this frost when you travel in certain states, and knowing that people may not really want you there.
My son is about to go to college. My husband and I—I’m married to a White Belgian, so our kids are bi-racial, they look like Brown people — we have to think about where they go to college in terms of whether or not it’s a safe space. Like we were considering all of that as much as whether or not it was academically great or not, or whether it was a beautiful campus, or whether he would comfortable. For us and him, the comfort level had a lot to do with the racial mix of the university. So it’s just always there. And it’s tiring, I gotta tell you, but you find joy and happiness. That’s why I have to meditate!
As someone who has worked in the airline industry you must have faced a lot of crisis situations and you must have switched too many times, I believe, to crisis communications mode. Can you tell me a bit about your experience and how was that education for your current career as a PR professional?
My first job in corporate communications was at American Airlines. I started working at American Airlines right after college, because they were only hiring Spanish-speaking reservations agents. I had studied and lived in Spain. I spoke Spanish and I wanted just to get back to Europe, to Spain. So I thought, if I work for an airline I get to speak Spanish all the time and I have flight benefits! But then it turned into something so much more. I knew that I wanted to study communications and I was at that point that a lot of undergraduates find themselves: do I continue and go to grad school or do I get a job? I got the job, knowing that eventually I would go to grad school, but I still wanted to work in communications.
I had this wonderful opportunity at American Airlines to work in the communications department. We had a video production department, reservations was a multiple thousand-person organization, and I always had my hand in communications in some way, even in the reservations department. I eventually got tapped for a management track, to work in management. I began supervising the Spanish department that I initially started in, and, while in reservations, we actually had a role to play in crashes. So this was during a time before I even got into communications, when airlines would call the families to notify them about their loved ones — if they were safe, if they had not made it. That was the role of my department. It was called the Initial Response Group. We did that until at some point the Red Cross took it on. As you clear the passenger manifest you have to be very, very clear about who you knew survived and who didn’t. We would be the ones calling families.
This was my first experience with crisis communications and, sadly, I had worked a few of those before I got into corporate communications at American. Three weeks after I took the job in corporate communications at American Airlines a 757 flew into the side of a mountain in Cali, Colombia. Because I spoke Spanish, even though I had only been on the job three weeks, American Airlines sent me to Cali to help manage the communications. Two of the most important aspects of managing crises are openness and a quick response when you have information that you can share – and making yourself available to reporters to answer questions.
The training I got at American Airlines just changed the trajectory of my career. When you deal with situations like that, it teaches you how to manage your own feelings in moments of crisis. It also gives you great perspective on other crises. I’ve had clients with crises since, and I am like: “This is nothing.” You obviously have to temper that reaction, but when you deal with deaths on your planes, crashes, reservations centers near bomb sites, or airports in areas of political or civil unrest, it’s difficult not to compare crises later to those types of situations.
But it was wonderful training, and allowed me to deal with crises at subsequent companies – Y2K at Sabre (which turned out to be truly nothing) or the loss of Concorde at Air France, which impacted us at British Airways. So yes, I’ve had my share of crises in communications. Issues management and crisis communications was a core part of my work as a communicator in my corporate life.
Those experiences are also why research is so important to me now. When you are thinking through issues, when you are thinking through crisis communications planning, you’ve got to anticipate possible problems that could come up and create responses for those. You’ve got to identify your key spokespeople, develop talking points, coordinate the decision tree, all of that is a part of crisis planning. So yes, it’s been a big part of my career.
If you can tell me in one line, I’m sure every PR professional faces customers with what I call the Wall Street Journal syndrome: they have product X and they want it published in the Wall Street Journal. What do you do?
I would educate that customer about what it takes to get into the Wall Street Journal.