By: Macy Rosen
Delta Air Lines COVID-19 vaccination campaign, “Protected together. Connected together.” exceeded its objective by 20%. The campaign gave a glimpse into airline crisis communications. Airline public relations is not the most popular career amongst young PR students, but maybe it should be.
Delta Air Lines, awarded J.D. Power’s Best Airlines in 2021, has many opportunities for PR professionals seeking a fast-paced, aviation-related career. Speakers Gina Laughlin and Savannah Huddleston had students tearing up watching a video about the airline’s time through the pandemic.
Laughlin is the vice president of global employee communications at Delta Air Lines and Huddleston is the CEO of communications.
During the height of COVID, Delta was nothing short of inspirational. The video showed Delta pilot, Chris Dennis, sharing his story about the pain he felt during COVID.
After flying one of the last planes in, Dennis took photos of all the planes parked on the runway he landed on in California and expressed his devastation on a note.
The note stated how chilling it was to see all the aircraft on the ground. The note also wrote, “When someone finds this, it must be the light at the end of the tunnel.” Sure enough, a crew member found his note.
The video really showcased the family-like dynamic Delta fosters for employees in their careers. During the pandemic, employees had virtual town hall meetings with Delta CEO, Ed Bastian. Laughlin and Huddleston expressed during these meetings, employees were able to see Bastian in a vulnerable, yet confident state. Delta also consulted Dr. Henry Ting from Mayo Clinic, answering questions from employees and their families.
During the campaign, the internal communications team prioritized keeping employees safe and informed. They needed to understand employees’ needs at that time. “We helped conversation in the business, it’s about putting our finger on the pulse of the employees,” Laughlin said.
Internal communication at Delta is vital for both crisis situations and day-to-day operations. It was important they understood what employees needed and how they could make their jobs easier.
Laughlin and Huddleston emphasized creating a safe environment within the company to make customers feel safe while traveling. Delta also provided free COVID testing for employees during this process.
“We put people before profit,” Laughlin said.
Protected together. Connected together.
When vaccines became available, Delta as a company did not want to mandate the vaccine. After conducting surveys, the internal communications team found that only 50% of Delta employees were willing to receive the vaccine.
Their goal was to vaccinate 75% of their employees. After conducting communication and research, they were able to understand what employees needed to feel safe getting the vaccine. Accessibility was a problem for Delta employees, so the company provided vaccination sites in break rooms in the airport and other places.
With these tactics, they were able to get 95% of Delta employees vaccinated without a mandate, exceeding their goal by 20%.
“We used every tool in our toolbox for the vaccine campaign,” Huddleston said.
BLM and DEI
In 2020, the death of George Floyd opened the eyes of many. At Delta, employees of color felt taken care of.
Laughlin and Huddleston shared they approached this process in a very specific manner. It was important to know their audience and meet diverse groups of people where they are, rather than expecting them to be at a predetermined place. They strived to understand and have compassion for different perspectives in different communities.
George Floyd’s death was directly addressed and employees were encouraged to attend workshop-based groups to help them cope and feel safe in their company.
“It’s grounded in the values of the company, what we stand for and where our employees are too, on any given issue,” Huddleston said.
By: Emily King
A panel of professionals discussed life inside the agency world. The panel spoke on the real day-to-day life of communicators and work-life balance. The panel consisted of Amiso George, professor at Texas Christian University who moderated the session, Valerie Beesley, vice president of Finn Partners, Jennifer Little, executive vice president of Texas Market Leader BCW, and Scott Pansky, Co-Founder, Senior Partner of Allison & Partners.
What do managers and people look for in hiring?
Beesley: “Always look super interested, do your research … on the company and know what they stand for,” Beesley said. Going into an interview knowing and understanding how the company works and what they stand for will set you apart.
Little: Tell your story about what you have done and relate to skills you need for PR. Show the interviewer that you have done the work. She wants to see that students have a passion for this industry, being at ICON is an example.
Pansky: Make sure to ask questions during the interview. Before you apply make sure to ask yourself these questions, “Do you want a career or just a job? Where is your passion? Have you done your homework? Do you know our clients?” Pansky said.
Could you share your thoughts on informational interviews?
Beesley: Informational interviews are a way to learn. Ask for suggestions from the interviewee on what you could be doing or how to conduct an interview better. Go into it by not asking for a job but learning what that person does. “Plant the seed and build those connections,” Beesley said.
Little: “Drop the expectation that you are going to get a job out of this interview,” Little said. “Do the interview to get information and to chat.”
Pansky: Informational interviews are great for relationship building. The people you interview will remember you when they hire one day or when they are asked if they know someone good for this job. Being genuine and getting to know someone will put you further in your career goals. Always remember to follow up in the future.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Beesley: A good tip is to ask your informational interviewee what their work-life balance looks like in their company. Make sure to ask how much out-of-office work is done in the position you are applying for. This could help see what your work-life balance will look like working for that company.
Little: You have to set your boundaries in life. “Sometimes you have to cancel a vacation because you want to be a part of a project,” Little said. “And sometimes I don't want to be a part of something and that's why I’m taking a vacation.”
Pansky: The world we live in now where hybridization is common I think will help tremendously with balancing work. This past year Pansky made it a goal to attend all of his kid's sports games. Make sure to set the time aside to be present in your life and not always put work first.
How do you see the agency changing?
Beesley: We will be seeing more integrated campaigns. During these future campaigns, there will be a lot of consideration of all channels. Depending on what the audience needs and where they spend the most time are where we will see how channels change.
Little: Social media has changed the game of PR. Social media won’t be going away and this has been the biggest game changer. It will continue to change and we have to stay on top of it and use it to our advantage.
Pansky: No matter what happens in the industry we still have to focus on what's going to happen. “The press release is still going to be sent,” Pansky said.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Beesley: Always be curious and care. The trick to doing well in your career is to be curious, always ask questions and go further. Care what the work you are doing and what's around you.
Little: “Be okay with making mistakes, we are our toughest critiques, accidents happen, and always laugh after,” Little said.
Pansky: Participate in meetings and don't be shy. You aren’t going to be as young in your career as you are now. “Don't be shy and participate early,” Pansky said. “Young professionals aren’t just order takers.”
By: Chania Crawford
Vice President of Corporate Communications at Hilton Hotels and Resorts, Kent Landers, opened ICON day two with a keynote address and essential career advice for future public relations professionals.
Landers graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a degree in communications. He previously worked in various leadership roles at Coca-Cola for 10 years and served as the External and Corporate Communications Director at Delta Airlines in the early 2000s.
Landers took the time to explain the importance of adapting to the changing world as a PR professional. He used the acronym VUCA to explain how professionals can adapt and be successful in a changing environment.
V in “VUCA” stands for volatile; volatile means possessing the ability to change quickly and unpredictably. Landers used the example of when he worked at Delta Airlines in 2001 during 9/11. Landers and the Delta Airlines communication team used volatility to deal with the crisis and uncertainty around airline companies after 9/11.
U in “VUCA'' stands for uncertainty, meaning nothing is guaranteed and you must be ready for anything to happen. Careers as PR professionals will be uncertain, especially for those who want to do crisis communications. It is essential to never be too comfortable with “normal” because the world is ever-changing.
C in “VUCA” stands for complexity; everything is more complex than it seems, especially what is seen on the news. The relationship between an organization and its stakeholders is complex and needs to be understood and upheld by a company's communications team.
A in “VUCA” stands for Ambiguous. At times during a situation or crisis, there may be a lack of clear information and communication between all parties involved. PR professionals must communicate clearly and concisely so all parties involved understand the situation.
“It’s important to take a step back and remove your personal beliefs from the situation before taking action,” Landers said about ambiguity.
Landers closed the session with 10 pieces of career advice for young PR students. He tells students to think about,
Thoughts from a PR student
By: Genevieve Krejci
Over the course of six days, PRSSA’s ICON conference allowed students and professionals to mingle at a variety of different events, including breakfast, a career development exhibition and more. At these events, I had the chance to meet and network with professionals and peers alike and learn some essential tips for networking.
1. Don’t Be Scared
The first piece of advice I have is you cannot be afraid to network. You must have the courage to go up to anyone and promote yourself. Professionals are there to help you break into the field; if you don’t go up to them, you miss out on unknown opportunities. A public relations career requires bravery; our job is communicating, and the first step is connecting with professionals and peers. Connections get you jobs, and the fear of making them will hold you back.
2. Make Talking Points Beforehand
The first step may be having the courage to speak to professionals and peers, but the second is having talking points about yourself. You have one chance to make a first impression on these people; having talking points or an elevator pitch is the best way to prepare for a networking opportunity. These can include achievements, fun facts, interests and career goals. Make sure you have something specific to say when you speak to someone because you never know if they could change your life.
3. People Love to Talk About Themselves
Once you have your talking points, think of some questions you could ask professionals and peers. Don’t forget to ask about their background. This can be an excellent opportunity to show that you researched them or their company. Ask how they got their position or what inspired them to write a book. Showing interest in their career allows you to build a meaningful, less transactional connection. These conversations are also more likely to stand the test of time. People love to talk about themselves, so use that to your advantage.
4. Have a Goal With Each Connection
I cannot lie; I fell prey to this. I was so excited to speak to a connection that I hurried over and introduced myself without determining my next point of conversation, resulting in an awkward silence. You should have a reason to go up to them, whether that is asking them about their career, sharing something you loved from their presentation, or asking about internships at their company. Make sure you have something to talk about so awkward silences do not impact your first impression. Our job is communicating; make sure you showcase you can do this comfortably.
5. Your Peers Have Just as Many Connections
ICON brought together professionals and students from all over the world. While networking with professionals, don’t forget that peers your age have connections too. We met PRSSA members from dozens of universities and colleges. Another great thing is making lasting connections with peers can result in friendships! Our PRSSA board connected with the board from DePaul and Ohio State, and now we are planning to visit their panels in the upcoming year. Connecting with peers could result in finding a job later in your professional career. If you choose to move to a new city or change fields, it can be helpful to have connections across the industry. The more connections you make, the more opportunities you will be presented with. You never know where a conversation can take you.
All in all, ICON was a fantastic opportunity to network and meet amazing people. Networking goes a long way in this field, and knowing how to do it well could result in some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, maybe even your dream job. You’ve got this!
By: Margaret Werren
The 2022 PRSSA ICON session, “What Aspiring Pros Should Know About PR” showcased how public relations really works. Hosted by Melissa Vela-Williamson, who has over 20 years of experience across different public relations sectors, topics showcased included getting started in PR, making positive first impressions, email rules, and media relations.
Williamson is an accredited, internationally-recognized public relations expert, national columnist and podcast host. Williamson has nearly two decades of multicultural and integrated communications experience; she serves as a consultant, trainer and account director at her boutique firm, MVW Communications.
Some of her clients include Kampgrounds of America, H-E-B, Alamo Colleges District, Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas and Texas State University. Williamson is a certified diversity professional where she leverages her PR and DEI expertise to create social good.
Smart Talk: Public Relations Essentials All Pros Should Know
Published in 2022, Williamson’s book, “Smart Talk: Public Relations Essentials All Pros Should Know” is a guide to navigating the evolving PR industry and forging your own path toward an impactful and successful career.
Williamson wanted to showcase how to develop beneficial relationships, creating integrated communication strategies, planning targeted campaigns and advising clients in their diversity and inclusion efforts. Some chapter titles in the book highlight what PR actually is, media relations do’s and don'ts, planning like a pro, starting smart with PR etiquette, tailoring to serve multicultural needs, understanding integrated marketing communication and building your PR toolkit.
Getting Started in Public Relations
Williamson’s presentation started with describing all the different sectors of public relations and tips on getting started in the field.
“The top piece of advice I would have for you that is going to make you marketable and what employers are looking for is that they want experience. They want to know that you can jump in and help,” Williamson said. They're not going to spend their days training you. And you need evidence of that experience.”
Another tip Williamson shared for getting started in public relations is building your own personal brand and the importance of building and maintaining two-way relationships.
“Customer service is #1 in public relations. If you work in PR, you are going to be helpful in a million different ways,” Williamson said.”If you are not helpful, that is going to be remembered too.”
Emailing is More Important Than You Think
Williamson stressed the importance of email etiquette in the field of public relations and how it can sometimes make or break relationships with journalists.
“I have a whole chapter about media relations and how the very embarrassing things that happened to me with missteps in emails and follow-ups, it’s a really important part of our job,” Williamson said. “How you handle email is actually super important. It’s going to be your main communication tool. With email, there are actually a lot of unwritten rules that you don’t learn until you embarrass yourself.”
Her top rules when it comes to using email the correct way are watch your tone, take complex topics offline, keep it short and sweet, edit before sending, think before you send, follow the To, CC and BCC rules, watch punctuation and remember what you write is published.
Effective Media Relations
Williamson defined effective media relations as starting with planning and ending with delivering a clear, impactful message that benefits your organization.
“Tip #1 is just accept that [media relations] will always be intimidating your whole career. It will be uncomfortable your whole career. Doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it,” Williamson said. “The thing with media relations is to know that it is a game and you have to be proactive, have purpose and be intentional. Such as curating and maintaining relationships with journalists.”
A second important tip Williamson shared was to understand what is newsworthy and how to tailor your pitch to a journalist by making it effective.
“Understanding what is actually newsworthy is really hard. You may have an employer that thinks everything is newsworthy,” Williamson said. “I have a whole chapter where I line out the nine criteria that journalists are trained on to look for
newsworthiness. If you know what they are, you can stack them and make a story excellent when you pitch it.”
Williamson broke down the four-step process of public relations using the acronym RPIE, which stands for research, planning, implementation and evaluation. Below is her breakdown of each letter. She emphasized that you will be the top pro if you understand strategic communication planning.
Research: “Understanding there is something you can gather: information online, secondary research someone has done and what are the numbers and data.”
Planning: “For a lot of clients, it is making the time to sit down and think. If you are in the agency world, you have more time to think than the client’s who are working in house do because they are busy putting out fires day to day.”
Implementation: “When you put that plan into action. Plans are worth nothing if you don’t activate them. While you are doing that plan, figure out what is working and what is not and then make changes along the way. Document that so your next plan is even easier.”
Evaluation: “How can we measure the reaction?”