I had the pleasure of meeting today’s TDMJ PR Pro a few weeks ago, and was so compelled by her story that I knew you would be, too. In addition to being a new wife and mother like myself, Mrs. Lara is a tenacious public relations professional who started out in the world of academia and leveraged a thirst for knowledge and willingness to work hard to create her own opportunities. For Lara, this has translated into a pretty impressive career track only a few years out of college-not bad for someone who didn’t study communications in college! Already a senior account exec with several agency positions under her belt and a consulting practice in the works, Mrs. Lara is one to watch.
Mopwater: Describe your path to PR. How did you wind up in this field?
JL: My path to PR was nontraditional, but I wouldn’t change it for the world because each step has molded my experience. I received my B.A. in Sociology and a business certificate from the College Park Scholars program at the University of Maryland. While I enjoyed my major and loved analyzing groups of people and their behaviors, as well as organizations and the key factors influencing their effectiveness, I often wondered what profession I’d pursue after college. I felt pigeon-holed between working in HR and becoming a social worker. Neither of these options appealed to me, so I took a few communications courses and was intrigued by the power of words and the way media pundits ‘spun’ messages to advance their platforms.
When internship time rolled around, I landed a position at a corporate PR firm. The firm used a top-down approach, so most of my responsibilities involved sitting in on conference calls, taking notes during focus groups and stuffing press kits. I valued absorbing strategy and client relations skills from time around senior staff, but longed for more direction when we interns were tasked with pitching reporters to attend a movie screening with no direction other than the details of the event. Needless to say, the reporters were not happy with our undirected pitches, and this experience left a sour taste in my mouth about pitching.
Upon graduation, I accepted a job in HR at a staffing agency. I had mixed feelings about my internship experience, so I figured I’d give HR a chance. However, the grass wasn’t greener on the other side, so I took action to change my situation.
I had taken a liking to WPFW-FM, DC’s progressive Pacifica station, especially the alternative angle they offered to mainstream news, so I devised a plan to inquire about opportunities. During my lunch break, I took a cab to the station’s office and asked for Askia Muhammad, my favorite morning host. We spoke about the station, his career and whether any positions or volunteer opportunities existed. He mentioned WPFW’s DC Radio Co-op, gave me information for joining their list serve and commended me for my initiative. I was thrilled to discover that a few members were looking for people interested in working on a radio documentary entitled “Jazz, Gentrification and the U Street Corridor.” I immediately joined the project and through prospecting potential interview subjects, brainstorming story angles, conducting and editing interviews and researching U Street’s history, my love for public-interest PR was borne. In fact, I leveraged my volunteer experience with the DC-Radio Co-op to gain a full-time position at the nation’s largest public-interest PR firm, Fenton Communications. The bottom-up approach at Fenton allowed me to gain experience and confidence writing press releases/advisories, coordinating press conferences/teleconferences, strategizing campaigns and pitching, pitching pitching!
Mopwater: What aspects of the industry are you most excited about? JL: I am excited about the integration of social media —blogs, LinkedIn, twitter, Facebook, Pitch Engine—and other innovative channels that exist to connect with the general public, pr/marketing professionals, reporters and bloggers to raise awareness about clients’ causes and products. I was slow to join twitter, but finally jumped on the bandwagon to be part of the conversation—as the lottery says, “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” So, I’ve been reading up on social media, attending networking events and reaching out to social media professionals to sharpen my skills.
Mopwater: Describe a typical workday including your work hours. What do you do all day?JL: At Lyons PR, a radio PR firm, there isn’t a typical work day, but I check my blackberry first thing in the morning for pressing emails, watch the local and national news and am in the office by 9am. I scan Washington Post.com, NYTimes.com, industry and news blogs, DCRTV, twitter and online trade publications for the ‘news’ of the day. Then, I begin making pitch calls if I am booking an upcoming radio media tour (RMT), or draft a media advisory, send it to the client for sign-off and build my media list. If it’s the day of a RMT, I usually moderate the second leg, follow-up with any reporters or hosts that need to re-schedule, then prepare a preliminary report for the client. While other days, I will brainstorm and draft public service announcement scripts and audio news release scripts or attend an afternoon workshop. When I have downtime, I research radio networks and radio shows for listenership numbers, show formats and a host’s interview style to guide my outreach efforts and our clients’ interviews. I’m out of the office by 5pm to pick up my 6-month old son.
Mopwater: Describe your office setting and workplace. JL: I work in a small office in Kensington, MD with four full-time employees. The environment is laid back and collegial, and we employ an ‘all-hands on deck’ approach to achieve results for our growing list of clients. On Fridays, we work from home and return on Monday for another busy week. Clients don’t come into the office often, but we’ll head into the city for afternoon workshops or evening networking events.
Mopwater: What are your favorite and least favorite PR tasks and why? Do you love to pitch? JL: My favorite PR tasks are writing proposals, press releases and pitching. The proposal writing process is very stimulating because one must understand the client’s organization and their needs in order to prescribe PR solutions to achieve the client’s goals. And, with the rise of social media, boundless opportunities exist to employ new tactics that can effectively reach and influence target audiences.
Pitching is another favorite task of mine, and when I was consulting full-time, I conducted a “Pitching 101″ workshop in New York with a former colleague for PR professionals and non-trade professionals. This was the launch event for my independent consulting firm, Mpact Communications, and was well-received, offered great exposure in a top market and resulted in new business.
Over the past few months, I have been asked to conduct pitching workshops, and my former colleague and I are planning to bring them back…Stay tuned!
There are days when I don’t want to make one more pitch call, but it’s the development and execution of the pitch that drives me.
My least favorite task is compiling final media reports because it is always a tedious process. However, it’s very important for the client to see what measurable results were achieved from our outreach, and it’s a good record of our work and accomplishments.
Mopwater: Do you dread writing releases? Adore blogging for your brands? JL: In the beginning of my career, I did dread writing press releases. Coming from a sociology background, I was used to writing dense, theory-based papers. So, I learned on the job how to write journalistically. Now, writing press releases is one of my favorite tasks because I thrive under pressure, enjoy crafting a strong lede and digging for a juicy statistic that will grab reporters’ attention. It’s always nice when a radio host reads your press release word for word as the intro to their interview, too.
Mopwater: Who are some of your (or your organization’s) clients, and what kind of projects do you take on for these clients? JL: At Lyons PR, we’ve been conducting a lot of radio media tours for the National Education Association, Rubber Manufacturers Association, FINRA Foundation and Anheuser-Busch’s corporate responsibility initiatives. Whether the president of the NEA is conducting radio interviews in response to President Obama’s education speech, or RMA is kicking off National Tire Safety Week, we’re there to get their issue or message on the airwaves. And, with government clients, like AHRQ, we write, produce and distribute public service announcements to educate the public about how to play an active role in their healthcare.
Mopwater: Describe a recent project where you produced results of which you’re really proud. JL: We executed a RMT for the National Education Association at the height of the healthcare debate, linking healthcare to education. We were able to secure 16 interviews in 48 hours on regional, national and syndicated radio shows. The NEA was able to get out their message, as well as encourage their members and supporters nationwide to take action by signing an online petition. Now, we have national and syndicated hosts calling us to book NEA’s president and executive members for commentary on contentious issues.
Mopwater: What is your favorite thing about this job? JL: I love raising awareness for clients whose work positively impacts communities. And, I’m always excited when I’m able to insert diverse voices and causes into mainstream media.
Mopwater: Do you think you’ll be in this position in 5 years? JL: In five years I will be working for myself, God willing!
Mopwater: If you could work on any PR or marketing project of your choosing, what would it be? JL: I currently have included PR recommendations into a marketing proposal for a national client’s 18-month campaign. I’d love for this project to come through!