Graduating from CSU, Chico with a degree in Recreation Administration, Christi Black never anticipated entering the field of public relations. Luckily for her, she took a number of Public Administration and Journalism courses as a part of her course work, which were helpful as she pursued jobs outside of recreation and ended up with a 25 year career in public relations. Now working for one of the biggest public relations firm worldwide, Ogilvy, Christi is the perfect person to go to for PR-related advice. I am so excited that Christi has generously decided to share her experiences and advice for students pursuing a career in the field. With such a busy schedule from her successful career in public relations, how could we not be obsessed with Christi Black?
1. How did you become involved in public relations?
I became involved in public relations when I worked for a national nonprofit organization as Project Manager of the northern California health fair program. I was responsible for organizing and promoting 65 health fair locations that were hosted during one month each year by community organizations to provide free health screenings to adults. I recruited and managed 5,000 volunteers to provide free services to over 20,000 people during each “health fair month”.
One of my corporate sponsors was the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, and we had great support from other regional media, politicians and civic organizations. It was a good introduction into the world of “public relations” although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just doing my job.
2. What is your background/history with public relations?
During my three-year tenure as with the health fair organization I joined the Sacramento Public Relations Association, where I met my future business partner, Robert Deen. He was a PR manager at a large corporation at the time. We were on a committee together that organized a huge regional public relations conference, which was very successful. Not long after that I quit my health fair job to do part time consulting. Robert was let go from his job and decided to start his own PR firm. He asked me to go into business with him. I wasn’t sure what it would entail, but I was sure I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
We started Deen+Black Public Relations in 1987. He worked full time, I worked part time and we had a ½ time administrative assistant. We targeted state government public education campaigns for our business. One of the first big contracts we landed was to promote safe driving – and I’ve worked with the state ever since on a variety of such campaigns.
Robert and I sold Deen+Black to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in 2001, 13 years after we started the business. When we sold the firm, we had 50 employees in four offices throughout the state. We were very successful and eager to join the “big leagues” by being a part of an international firm.
Robert retired two years after we sold the firm. Ten years later, I’m still with Ogilvy! I am a “managing director” which is a very senior role. I am responsible for business development (bringing in new clients) and client service (doing work for the clients I have.) I also served on the company’s international management committee for many years, which was very interesting.
3. What has been your favorite, or most interesting public relations case, that you have worked on?
I’ve had several favorite cases, that had clear measurable results:
- Sober driving campaigns for the state of California. I helped design and lead public outreach that made drunk driving taboo in California, including to promote the .08 laws. My staff is still doing this important work, 23 years later!
- Teen pregnancy prevention public affairs campaigns in California and across the country. I’ve led programs to promote to adult decision makers the successful strategies to prevent teen pregnancy – the things that adults can do to help teens make healthy decisions. This includes promoting comprehensive sex education in schools and making contraception available to sexually active teens. During the ten years that I worked on this effort, the teen birth rate in California declined significantly.
- Now I work on a number of environmental communications programs, focusing on water policy, land use, air quality and flood management. It is interesting work.
4. How has public relations progressed or developed since you began working in the field?
There have been several changes to the profession since I began 25 years ago:
a. The importance of multi-cultural communication is recognized across the board. It used to be a sub-set of any public relations effort. Now the profession recognizes that we must design public relations programs to reach diverse audiences, rather than simply translate materials and think that is enough. (For the record, one reason Deen+Black was so successful is that we were paying attention to multi-cultural communications from the beginning. We were kind of ahead of the curve.)
b. Social media has changed everything. Society doesn’t depend on the mainstream media, political machines or the entertainment world to create content. The public creates content, and puts it out there, at an amazing pace.
c. We suffer from information overload. There is so much content, and so many communication channels, that target audiences easily become overwhelmed. However, this creates an opportunity for public relations professionals. We are charged with directing our audiences to particular sources for information, or to help our client’s messages “break through” the clutter.
5. From a public relations standpoint, how do you utilize social media?
Social media is an integral part of our world. We use it to:
- Manage all types of “crisis” situation. Social media is a necessary part of crisis communications, as it is provides instant communication channels to get information to a large number of people. In a crisis situation, social media also helps clients correct incorrect information and make sure their customers or constituents have the information they want them to have.
- Create online communities to try and test products and to tell other people about their experiences.
- Promote an issue or cause to like-minded people, and to send the information out to their sphere of influence.
- Publicize an event, to get people to attend.
- Encourage respected bloggers to write about key issues, trends, products or service.
- Track trends, public opinion and issues of concern.
- Anticipate emerging issues – and if something is a problem, address it immediately.
6. What are the benefits of using social media for public relations? The disadvantages?
The benefits are:
- Ability to reach a large number of people in a short number of time.
- Ability to effectively “target” the demographics of people we want to reach.
- Ability to help target audiences carry messages for the clients (we don’t have to rely on sending information out via TV or other media, with the right tools, the audiences will carry the message).
- Word-of-mouth is the most credible of all information sources. That is – people tend to respect and rely on what they hear from their friends more than what they hear or see in an ad or a news article. Social media makes this possible.
- Social media is a fact of life. There is no point to discussing disadvantages.
- Public relations professionals must adhere to strong code of ethics with social media. Otherwise, it can blow up in your face. But this is true with all public relations tools.
- Public relations professionals must stay ahead of the game as much as possible – learn everything they can about how to effectively use social media and use it wisely.
7. For students interested in entering the public relations field, what would you recommend they do to jumpstart their career?
- Become very well-rounded. Don’t just go to school and hang out with your peers. Internships and volunteer experiences are mandatory. We never hire anyone without such experience. We’d rather have a B-C student with varied life experience and excellent referrals than a straight A student with no life experience.
- Volunteer with social service or community organization. Get experience with event planning, publicity, using social media to promote a cause, and working with a variety of people.
- Read. Everything. Not just the media you are interested in. Consume mainstream media to become informed about what is going on in the world. Consume media to learn how various stories and issues are “framed” in relation to others.
- Become an excellent writer. This is critical. Learn to write clean, brief and to-the-point materials for the news media and for business purposes. Too many students graduate with terrible writing skills. They learned to write term papers, but that doesn’t work in business.
- Join the PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) the student version of the PRSA. If there isn’t a chapter near you, join anyway and attend the regional and national conferences. Read their website. Learn what’s going on in the profession.
- Become proficient at using social media to promote a cause, idea or story. This can be done through volunteer work or an internship. Most employers expect new grads to know more about social media than just FB or Twitter.
- A great resource is WOMMA – Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Join WOMMA – but if you can’t, at least read their website every few days.
Christi Black is the managing director at Ogilvy Public Relations in the Sacramento Division. To get connected with Christi Black, check out her LinkedIn profile.
*main photo courtesy of sacramentostreet.com