Member Profile: Darolyn Davis
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You have been in PR for over 25 years. Share a few ways it has changed over the years and where you see it going.
PR of yesteryear is never to return. When I started out I had a typewriter, landline phone and a fax machine to communicate about public interest issues. I would write a pitch letter, and a-one-page news release to drive attention and get everybody talking. I was on a first name basis with reporters who you could call at their desks and they’d answer their phone. You could have in-person discussions with a reporter about the news worthiness of a story to generate earned media. PR success was measured by getting a story above the fold or at the top of the news hour. I would scan, cut out and tape up stories that ran in the daily newspapers, and I hired a media clipping service to look for television or radio stories that ran on one of the three networks as a result of my efforts. While traditional media is still important, a lot has changed. Readership and viewership of mainstream media has dropped significantly over the last two decades, so getting on the front page doesn’t carry the same impact it once did.
For me, one of the most significant shifts in public relations is the speed in which you can now communicate. The fact that you can communicate directly with your audience has changed the relationship between PR professionals and the public. Now it is essential that you know everything about your audience—their likes and dislikes, how and when they want their information with and the issues that are important to them. The flipside to that is now you can also get instant feedback from your audience, and change course more readily to adapt to their response.
Everyday there are new platforms to use to connect to your audience, new tools to further segment and reach the stakeholders you want to engage. This change has made public relations more important than ever. No longer is advertising the most effective way to raise awareness; it doesn’t create trust, which people value more. But as PR professionals, we have the power of creating compelling content to create deeper relationships with an audience. PR is more about telling compelling stories and creating and facilitating two-way conversations with an audience. We can no longer rely on just providing information, instead PR professionals need to know how to influence the content that is created by others. We are in a better position than ever to reach our audiences in stimulating, diverse, and effective ways.
Another significant change I see is individual engagement. Consequently, Corporate Responsibility and Community Benefits have grown meaningfully—through engaging with consumers and stakeholders, there is a renewed focus on human interactions, building trust and communicating values. Additionally, both government agencies and private sector companies are finding more value in PR, branding, and engagement than ever before. Budgets are increasing because there is a realization that creative communications strategies that create connections and opportunities for two-way conversations with consumers and voters help build support and loyalty.
Because of this shift in meaningful engagement, I think the pendulum will swing back. Social media, social engagement, and digital communications will still be key tactics in our communications strategies, but I think you’re going to start seeing people craving more community engagement through PR. There will be more opportunity to engage offline more often.
Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences with a client.
There are two specific projects that have stuck with me. We were hired to provide strategic communications and media relations for the first child born from sperm bank insemination who would meet her donor father. The Sperm Bank of California was the first in the country to give the option of releasing identification information to a child once they reach adulthood. When Maggie turned 18, and had information that could lead to meeting her biological father, she looked for him. The story spread like wildfire; it raised interest worldwide. We received calls from India, China, Switzerland, England, Australia and many others around the world. The media—including national and local outlets—were vying for exclusive interviews.
At the same time, we understood that a young woman’s life and emotions were at stake. Her story tapped into so many issues about our humanity and brought so many questions to light; about parent relationships, how many brothers and sisters she might have, how it would impact her relationship with the man she has called “Dad” most of her life—it was all these sensitive issues to discuss and think about, and reporters from all over the world were interested. Shouldn’t this be a private moment and did she understand how the exposure might impact her life? It was touch and go. One minute she was ok with the media attention and the next she didn’t feel comfortable. Ultimately, she met her biological father and we were able to balance the interest of the public and this very private moment. The project was a true lesson managing complex issues and being at the forefront of a new frontier. It was incredibly memorable.
Another project that is close to my heart was managing the Oakland Unified School District public relations crisis regarding the announcement of its “Ebonics” resolution. The resolution sought to improve students’ performance—African American students, who comprised 53% of students in the district, had an average GPA of only 1.8—by using several proven language-teaching strategies, among them a method of comparing “Ebonics” with Standard English. However, after the announcement of the resolution, negative media responses erupted around the world with misconceptions of what the District was trying to do—even national leaders like Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou, along with parents, voters, and other students, were confused by the resolution because of the media’s inaccurate perception that the District was going to teach “Ebonics.”
My firm was brought in in the midst of the public relations crisis. We worked with the District to help calm the media frenzy, dispel widespread misconceptions about the issue, refocus their message, coached key spokesperson and focused national media attention on the fact that African American children were failing educationally and the importance of teaching student no matter how they speak at home, that speaking Standard English is the key to learning any subject. It gave us the opportunity to bring this issue to light in the media, and led to more discussions about the undeniable need to solve educational disparities for African American youth. We were able to raise awareness nationally and politically when the Superintendent and school board members were asked to testify before Congress on the issue. It generated lively debates in the media and with news commentators from Meet the Press, Good Morning America, Dateline, The Today Show to Vanity Fair, New York Times, London Telegraph newspaper, and many others from around the world.
Which industry does the majority of your clients come from and why?
They majority of our clients are from the public sector, however, we also work with many private sector clients. Public policy is my passion. After working in the California State Legislature for one of the most powerful and politically savvy legislators in our State’s history, I learned the importance of being at the table and I saw an opportunity to engage the public in public policy in a greater way. There was a gap between policy development and input from the diverse population that make up our society. There was an opportunity for more voices to be heard and an opportunity for better collaboration between government and the public. I believe PR and public engagement help to bridge the communication gap, ensuring that the public has increasingly more meaningful opportunities to have a two-way conversation. I feel the public sector could benefit from engaging with the public in more effective ways and receiving direct feedback from more than just the handful of constituents who have the time, but to hear from a broader audience to help shape public policy and government decisions. I believe with the advances in communications tools gives us the ability to reach people at their point of discovery, and that a firm who could provide strategy and tactics would have an opportunity to work in communities throughout the state and the nation and really make a difference. That’s really why we work with governments, because public policy impacts how we live our lives and the folks who should be at the table is the public.
What’s your best advice to the new generation of PR professionals?
I’m going to use my mom’s favorite saying:
“Don't be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality. If you can dream it, you can make it so.” – Belva Davis