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Member Profile: Holly Houston

Meet our members!  We will periodically feature veteran and new PRSA San Francisco members, and tell the story of their public relations career.  If you would like to suggest a PRSA San Francisco member for a profile, please send an email to



Holly Houston, APR
Director of Communications at UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay

How did you get started in public relations/communications and what has your journey looked like?

I turned to public relations after spending 12 years as an award-winning television news reporter, anchor and documentary producer working in Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles, respectively. My first PR job was as a media relations manager in the Los Angeles field office of AT&T in 1990. After two years of fieldwork, I caught the eye of senior management and was summoned to national headquarters in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Over the last 23 years, my PR journey has been filled with variety. I’ve gone from telecommunications to contact lenses, and from women’s rights to health care.

What do you like the most about your career in public relations/communications?

Problem solving. I like the electricity emitted from the activity that swirls around a crisis. I thrive on being calm in the midst of the storm and making lemonade out of lemons.

Tell us about a memorable moment in your career.

It’s referred to as the “Focus Incident” and it was my introduction to crisis communications. While there have been many other moments in my career since then, the Focus Incident will always be the most memorable. Perhaps it sticks out because it has all of the elements – race relations, politics, community affairs, employee communications, media relations, government relations, and a challenge to my ethics.

In 1993, AT&T had 300,000 employees and an employee magazine called Focus. On the back page of the September issue there was a cartoon of a globe promoting its international long distance service. On every continent there was a person speaking on the phone, but on the continent of Africa there was a monkey on the phone. All 300,000 copies of Focus were in the mail before anyone at headquarters recognized the racist cartoon. In fact a reporter with a leading New York radio news station pointed it out to us. I actually got the first call after one of our offended employees faxed the cartoon to the station, and the reporter phoned me for comment. Within an hour we were in full damage control mode. Unfortunately, we stayed in that posture for weeks.

The NAACP and the Urban League called for a boycott of AT&T. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton led pickets in front of AT&T’s New York offices. Derogatory stories ran in the newspapers, on television and radio for days.

The media barrage was kicked off with a front page story – complete with the cartoon – in the Washington Post on the Friday of the Black Congressional Caucus weekend, when thousands of African-American leaders were gathered in D.C. to discuss national public policy. All of AT&T’s African-American PR and government relations headquarters staff were dispatched to Washington to quell the story that AT&T was racist. We were AT&T’s ambassadors – telling anyone who would listen that the cartoon was the result of negligence, not malice.

Before I could go to Washington, I had to be sure it was negligence. Actually, before I could conduct any radio interviews after the very first one, I had to be sure. You see it was imperative that as an African-American woman I was not being used to blindly sell the company line. My credibility was everything and I wasn’t going to be a sellout. So for approximately two hours I refused to field radio inquiries until I could speak to the editors of Focus and get personal assurances that they did not approve the cartoon. This action almost cost me my job. I was reprimanded.

Once I was convinced that the racist cartoon was the result of a freelance graphic artist gone rogue and a negligent in-house editor, I defended AT&T with all of my professionalism and media relations skills. I stood in front of the yelling pickets in New York for live TV news stories; I did live radio interviews and I schmoozed with politicos at the Congressional Black Caucus weekend.

As a result of the Focus Incident, AT&T established a diversity advisory board to review its magazine during development. I helped create an ethnic media relations specialty within the PR department. And AT&T realized that spending money in the Black community is not enough to overcome acts of racism.

Why did you join PRSA and how does your membership benefit you?

I joined PRSA for the power of its networking. PRSA has a tremendous reputation for having an accomplished membership with the highest ethics. I enjoy being associated with the best.