As part of the celebration of Black History Month, we want to acknowledge PR professionals who are making a positive impact in the industry. During The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations February board meeting, we had the opportunity to interview Alicia Thompson, APR, who has more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing marketing, corporate and crisis management communications strategies, and programs for companies and agencies, including: Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen (NASDAQ: PLKI), BellSouth Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE: KO), Fletcher Martin Ewing and Cohn & Wolfe. Thompson currently serves as vice president of communications of Edible Arrangements.
What motivates you to become successful?
A./ I think that success is defined differently by everyone and success for me is guided by the success of the people that I mentor. I find my success by watching them reach their goals and aspirations; I think that by focusing on their success versus my own progression up any kind of ladder has actually allowed me to accomplish a lot of the things that I have during the course of my career.
Black History Month
What does Black History Month mean to you?
A./ Black History Month has actually evolved for me as I’ve gotten older. When you are younger, you learn all Black History Month information, facts and data and you kind of go “yeah, yeah, that is really cool.” But as I’ve gotten older and I take a closer look at this industry, I’ve realized that I know a lot of people in this profession, but there are not enough people of color. And so Black History Month, to me, has become more about making sure that I take personal accountability to make sure I am sharing information about the African-American pioneers in this industry that came long before me and did amazing things, but do not get the appropriate recognition. So, I feel that it is my personal purpose to make sure that I am not just a walking fount of black history information, but that I am actually sharing that information with others. But I have to do that all year long beyond Black History Month.
Did you ever face race-related challenges when you started your career? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
A./ I am sure I did. Now, let me provide some context. Because of the way I grew up, I was always the first, the only or one of few people of color in school and work. It was just me and my brother on the bus, me and my brother in our neighborhood. So, my life experience is slightly different, and I think because my life experience is different, I am reacting differently to cultural and racial insensitivity. But I am keenly aware that I have and do face race-related challenges. My normal reaction is to take a page from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and kill it with kindness and just keeping moving. I also have never been afraid of changing jobs if I felt that my skill set was not being appreciated. If you look at my résumé, you will see I’ve had a lot of jobs in my career. I think in some of those cases, I had a moment like “Why am I here?” — these guys do not get the value that I can bring to the table. The flip side of that is I hate to be in a situation where I am asked “How do you think African Americans will feel about that?” I always respond, “I can tell you how I will feel about it, but I can’t speak for a whole group of people.” That annoys me to no end. If you actually get to the proverbial “table” and you are the only one in the room, don’t let them make you the voice.
Mentorship and Leadership
Who has been a mentor to you?
A./ I have a handful of mentors that have played a role in my success. First is my mom; she spent 30 years in corporate America, so I learned a lot of lessons about how to navigate the politics of an organization from listening to her around the dinner table. Another influential mentor in my career is a former CEO that I supported, Cheryl Bachelder (Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen). She is an amazing leader! One of her favorite lines is “I have to know you, to grow you.” So, she always took an interest in us as individuals, not just as a team member or by our roles within the organization. And just watching her and being able to emulate and model every day was an amazing experience. And then I had a number of other role models. I don’t want to leave out the men. I had a great boss named Paul Ellen at Cohn & Wolfe that just cared about his people, and because we knew he cared about us, we worked 10 times harder to be sure that we delivered everything that he needed us to deliver. It was just a very mutual relationship of support and encouragement, so I put him in that category as well. And then I think of mentors like Necole Merrit, my manager at Bellsouth; and Barry Love, my manager at Fletcher Martin Ewing. All of them have become friends, but they still mentor me. Even though I do not work for them anymore, I can call them for advice and they are always there.
On the Plank Center’s YouTube video about key qualities of PR leaders, you mentioned four key qualities: integrity, constant curiosity and willingness to learn, commitment to excellence, and courage to do the right thing.
How do you as VP of communications and a professional with so much experience keep the curiosity ON?
A./ I think some people are naturally curious. My mom might call me nosy, but I call it curious. I am a curious person. I always like to understand the why behind things. Why do things happen the way they do? Why do people behave the way they do? As a professional, I think we have to push ourselves if we do not have a natural curiosity, so I read voraciously. My day starts out with scanning a number of media sources, including The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, The Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, PRWeek, AdAge and The Washington Post. I scan all of those. I want to know what is going on, not only in the world and in the business community, but also in the PR and advertising world. So, I try very much to read PRWeek and any publications by PRSA, and I think that is such a matter of always wanting to know so you can connect the dots. As an in-house professional, your CEO is reading those media and you never want him or her to show up in the office and say, “Hey, did you know?” Even if you haven’t explored a topic in depth, you want to be like “yeah, I read a great article about that in The New York Times this morning.” So be in the know, because you have to think about it in the way that can have implications for your day-to-day business.
Alicia is also a member of Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, the College of Charleston Department of Communication Advisory Council, Women’s Foodservice Forum, Black Public Relations Society of Atlanta, Leadership Atlanta, National Eagle Leadership Institute and Board of Directors Network.
What drives you to be part of these different organizations?
A./ I was president of PRSA Georgia. I was president of the Black Public Relations Society of Atlanta. And for me, those organizations and associations are also ways to grow and develop. Coming here this weekend is one of the highlights of my year. My fellow [Plank Center] board members are amazing people, and so anytime that I get to sit in a meeting and listen to them and how they think and how they look at the information that we receive, I am learning and it is exciting. Anytime that I get to have dinner with them and have a conversation, I soak up so much knowledge. I am on this board and I am on a board at the College of Charleston, and both experiences are learning opportunities for me. Some of these people are my peers, but a lot of them are people that I had admired for years. So for me, getting involved is a way for me to continue my growth and my professional development. It is an opportunity to expose myself to new ways of thinking and people that will make me continually curious and continue to, hopefully, share that knowledge with my mentees and team.
On 2018, Alicia was named Top 100 Most Influential Black Women and also part of the PRWeek Hall of Femme.
What women have inspired you in your professional and personal life?
A./ There are a lot of women that have inspired me for many, many different reasons. Again, I would have to say my mom, because she overcame a lot and raised two, I think, amazing children and was always constantly loving and caring. I am also inspired by an African American PR professional named Cheryl Procter-Rogers. She was one of the first board members of color on the PRSA national board. She was a pioneer and is just an amazing person. I always watched her career and said “I am going to be like Cheryl.” Cheryl Bachelder, as I mentioned before, has always inspired me because of her leadership style focused on servant leadership. She believes in service to others before self, and I always just thought that was a wonderful way to approach the business. In the industry, [I am inspired] by Betsy Plank. The things that Betsy accomplished made her the original female pioneer in this industry. When I was at Edelman, knowing that she was one of, if not the first, female PR executive at Edelman made me absolutely proud. There are an amazing number of wonderful women in this industry. I find something to admire about them all.
What message can you give future female PR professionals?
A./ My best advice to women that are coming up in the PR industry is always know your value. Have integrity. The PR industry is an industry where your integrity can be challenged on a day-to-day basis. Have high integrity and don’t let anyone undermine that for you. And be constantly curious because this is an industry where you have to remake yourself and evolve constantly. It is extremely different than when I began 27 years ago, and you will not have a long successful career in this industry if you are not a little bit of a butterfly that can change yourself. When I did PR in the early days, the job was about picking up the phone and pitching a story. There was no digital media. There were no social media. There were no influencers. But if I had not evolved continuously and made myself over and over as these new things came along, I would have been out of the industry years ago. So be curious, because you will have to evolve yourself continually.
Diversity in PR
What do you think about companies having a diversity quota?
A./ If we are talking about ethnic diversity, I think natural human nature is to bring someone on your team that looks and feels like you because that is who you are most comfortable with. Bringing someone on your team that is very different from you or the complete opposite from you is unsettling for a lot of people. So, until we get to a point where we are teaching hiring managers to hire truly blindly, we probably have to have some quotas.
What can we do to build a diverse pipeline to the PR industry?
A./ I think we need to start introducing the discipline to diverse high school students. I did not know what PR was until the last semester of my senior year of college. I am an English major with a triple minor in communications, women’s studies and sociology. I had taken every class in the communications department. I needed three more credit hours in my last year, and I was like “What is this PR thing? I think I will take that” and fell in love with it. I think that we need to get to students earlier and expose them to what the industry can offer. Once we hook them, we really need a mentoring program in place from their freshman year onward. If we even think that they have an interest in communications or PR, we have to cultivate that—build their confidence, keep them interested and curious about what is new in the space‚—because we will have to nurture people of color coming into this industry. Unless we catch them early and nurture them all the way through, they will come in and then drop off and go to something else.
Written by Gloris Trujillo, co-vp of diversity and inclusion.