March 1, 2020

Ep. 06 — Kelly-Anne Suarez - Break Into Public Relations

Kelly-Anne Suarez is the assistant manager of communications at the Crayola Experience of which there are two locations: one in Easton, Pennsylvania, the home of Crayola, and Orlando, Florida at The Florida Mall. She’s worked in the communications industry for more than 10 years and got her start as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

What is the Crayola Experience and describe your role as assistant manager of communications.

Crayola Experience started as a non-profit organization when it was known as The Crayola Factory in 1996. It was founded, in part, to revitalize downtown Easton, the home of Crayola for more than a century. Needless to say, the organization cares about its community. It grew from that one-room discovery center that welcomed visitors to the city to a four-floor colorful family attraction complete with 25 hands-on activities in 2020. Because Crayola’s mission is raise creatively alive kids, the brand decided to launch a second location in Orlando — the place millions of families have made the most visited destination in the U.S. In 2020, the third Crayola Experience will open at The Mall of America in Minneapolis. Activities include naming and wrapping your own Crayola crayon, painting with melted wax, bringing your photo to 4-D life to starring in your own coloring page.

As far as her role, Kelly-Anne is the “public relations everything,” which is to say the marketing department in Easton is very small (three people, in fact). Two other folks handle marketing duties which leaves PR duties on Kelly-Anne’s shoulders. That includes media relations responsibilities as well as managing social media.

You were a former journalist. Talk about your aspirations in college and your time reporting the news.

Kelly-Anne attended the University of Florida but didn’t know what to major in initially. No degree program was particularly appealing but she knew she loved to write. It was the first day of classes that she decided on journalism. Unlike her peers who may have changed majors during their time in college, Kelly-Anne knew she found the one for her.

“I think I found a passion that I didn’t know I had.”

She focused her studies on magazine writing, and a professor advised her the best way to excel in that medium is to work at a newspaper first. These are the facts: newspaper reporters are always on deadline which forces them to produce copy accurately and quickly; they’re voracious in their actions; and they’re resourceful by necessity. This professor was Ted Spiker, accomplished book and magazine writer having produced articles for O, The Oprah Magazine, Fortune and Men’s Health among others.

“He said, ‘There is so much value in newspaper journalists in the newsrooms of magazines. You’re just going to be giving yourself a leg-up.'”

Kelly-Anne took an article she wrote for a class about a doggy day care to UF’s college newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator, the largest independent student-run newspaper in the country, and got it published. From there, she climbed the ranks from staff writer to copy editor to desk chief on the copy desk to entertainment and arts editor. Through that experience, she developed a love for print journalism, but more than that, a love about telling stories.

Upon graduation, she decided to pursue newspaper writing with the idea that she would pick up her magazine writing interest down the line. That was when, as she puts it, fell into a fellowship at the Los Angeles Times. There she was mentored and exposed to many aspects of news reporting such as the police and crime beat as well as the arts and entertainment desk.

“I remember sitting at the desk and thinking: ‘I work for the LA Times. I could call anyone and they will listen to me!'”

Knowing you have this power as a writer, it’s about determining what story you want to tell.

“I think, to come full circle to public relations, I think it’s that skill set of what story are you telling that is hugely relevant in our field because that is the role of a newspaper, of a broadcast news outlet. … The spirit of journalism is recorded history and it’s to tell a narrative; it’s to tell people about what’s happening in their community. That was something that I loved about journalism and it’s something that I love about PR.”

What did you not enjoy about news reporting?

Kelly-Anne said that while she loved the people she worked with and writing stories, it didn’t click 110 percent.

“I was never a ‘reporter’ in the true archetypal sense of the word in that ‘there’s a fire downtown and the real reporters are grabbing their notebooks and their tape recorder and they’re excited.’ … Breaking news is the heart of journalism and every time that happened I’d be like, ‘Aw man!’ I did not want to do it. The struggle bus was pretty epic in the newsroom.”

She said she still experienced the thrill of assignment reporting and breaking news against deadline, and said it felt great to be part of an industry that makes such a tremendous impact on the world. Even still, breaking news wasn’t her thing, which is funny because in her PR role, she still experiences it albeit from the other side.

What led you to public relations?

Kelly-Anne was at the Los Angeles Times for nearly two years when the paper’s parent company, Tribune, informed her she’d be assigned to The Morning Call publication in Allentown, Pennsylvania for at least a year covering the municipality beat. She was able to transition to the features desk which was a welcome change. After about two years there, in 2020, Kelly-Anne was among the many staff members to be let go as newspapers across the nation were downsizing their newsrooms.

“Journalism was all I had ever done and I was at a loss.”

Being that The Morning Call was the third largest publication in the state, there weren’t many situations locally to apply her trade. Instead, Kelly-Anne performed communications-related jobs including development associate at Pennsylvania Youth Theatre where she managed fundraising, media relations and social media, as well as marketing coordinator for a real estate company. Neither of those were a perfect fit, however.

Two years prior to this interview, Kelly-Anne interviewed for a social media role at Crayola. While she did not get it, six weeks later the recruiter contacted her to present a bigger opportunity. In this newly created role, Kelly-Anne would manage public relations and social media for the Crayola Experience and said it’s a perfect fit.

Looking back, she remembers reporters in the newsroom being so concerned with placement: attaining a column one or front page story. That never mattered to Kelly-Anne, she said, explaining it was more fun finding and telling the story versus where it was found in the newspaper.

“As a PR professional, I get more of a rush when I land A1 on this side.”

Kelly-Anne cites the exchange between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters in “When Harry Met Sally.” Sally mentions she wants to be a journalist to which Harry replies, “Oh, what, so you can report on things that happen to other people?” And that always stuck with her. In a way, Kelly-Anne says she’d rather be more involved in the story she’s telling.

Even though she represents a brand, Kelly-Anne explained she plays a role in changing the lives of children and families, and that’s incredibly meaningful.

You’ve moved quite a bit in your career. What advice can you give to a person who’s apprehensive about moving somewhere else for a job?

“I know that change can be scary. And moving to a city where you know no one can be terrifying. But it can also be completely exhilarating.”

The reason is because it forces you to step out of your comfort zone. This can be especially concerning for a journalist or PR practitioner. So much of what makes an individual successful in either field can be owed to the relationships that are created and nurtured over time. But when you’re in a brand new community where you don’t know anyone, you feel more compelled to meet people and be involved in the community, she said. She compares it to being nose-blind — a situation where you don’t decipher the smells around you because they’re so familiar. New surroundings heighten your senses again and the same thought process applies to moving to another locale.

It’s also a chance to grow as a professional because no two media markets are the same, and each presents its own set of challenges. In that sense, your job skills stand a chance to improve by going somewhere else. And what you learn in Market B that you never would have learned in Market A can be applied there too.

“And remember: everything is temporary in life.”

Think of it like this, she says: you may not want to move for an opportunity to advance your career. If you live in Miami and afraid to take a job in Chicago, keep in mind that Miami isn’t going anywhere. There’s always the chance to take what you learned — in Chicago, for example — and return to Miami with that knowledge and experience.

“I think when you leave and when you come back, you come back sharper and hopefully more savvy than when you left.”

How can writing for a blog, for instance, be helpful in helping to land a job in public relations?

“To me, writing is so integral to everything I do.”

It’s important to always keep in mind who you’re writing for, Kelly-Anne said. If you’re pitching a reporter, chances are that person prides his/herself on being articulate and succinct. And practice makes perfect, as they say, with writing being no exception. The more you write, the more effective of a communicator you become.

Kelly-Anne said that being a blogger shows you’re able to develop and create content which is extremely important in the public relations industry. Ultimately, you’re crafting a story that is relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach, which is what PR is all about. And that’s achieved by delivering your message with words.

How do you lean on your news reporting experience in your public relations role for Crayola?

“‘Lean on’ is the understatement of the century because I cannot imagine doing this job without having a journalism background.”

Kelly-Anne goes on to say that while she understands many publicists don’t need that experience to be successful, he finds her time in news reporting “completely invaluable.” She draws on that when pitching a story. Since she’s been on the other side and received pitches from PR professionals, she innately knows what constitutes a good and bad pitch.

She’s also committed to never “sell a false bill of goods,” to always understand what a reporter is looking for and provide value first and foremost.

“When you gain the respect of a reporter, they listen.”

When the relationship between a publicist and a reporter gets to the point where you no longer have to draft formal pitches and the journalist can call/email at a moment’s whim and ask, “What’s going on?” you’ve done your job.

“I think there is never a better look behind the scenes than actually working ‘in the scenes.'”

What are the hard and soft skills one has to have to be successful in PR?

Grammar is the first hard skill that comes to mind. Second, learn to say more with less. If a word(s) doesn’t advance your agenda, it’s unnecessary. Get rid of it. Ultimately, get to the point.

Also understand the hierarchy and structure of a news organization. Don’t email the news editor a features pitch, for example. This is another example of knowing your audience. Always know your audience.

As far as soft skills, develop a voice that is “human.” That is to say speak in a language that is relatable and speaks beyond your brand. While at the core, you’re always pushing an agenda and representing your organization, you never want it to come across or feel that way.

“You always want to be driven by the emotion and the news of whatever you’re saying. So if that can float to the top, that will serve you best.”

And be sure to be prompt and responsive. If a reporter contacts you at 2 p.m. and you don’t reply until 5 p.m., that publicity opportunity has likely passed you by.

“If there’s ever an email that needs to be answered, it is a journalist’s.”

What tips do you have for journalists who want to do as you did and transition to public relations?

“I will say if you’re a journalist looking to jump into PR, congratulations!”

Kelly-Anne has found that countless business professionals for whom she has worked for find it valuable that she comes from the news industry. Her first tip is to make this fact crystal clear starting with your cover letter. It is such a unique selling point, and especially for a someone with no formal PR experience, that you need to lead with that experience. It’s especially useful if you’re looking for a PR job in the same market because your contacts from the news industry will pay dividends for you and the organization for which you are applying to.

“To have the journalist’s eye when creating a press strategy automatically gives you an edge. It just does because you know what works and what doesn’t.”

When you break it down, all a business wants is publicity — in the newspaper, on TV, etc. If you have the ability to give them that, you can work in this industry.

If you’re a college student studying public relations, consider interning at a news organization such as a local TV station or newspaper. The experience you gain will be immensely useful in your role as a PR professional as well as be an attractive quality when prospecting for that first job out of school.

“Try [journalism] because you’re going to find that your life is going to be infinitely easier in the end.”

Is there a book you want to recommend?

Rather than recommend a PR-related title, Kelly-Ann advises you to read the newspaper, magazines and trade publications. And to that end, take note of bylines, sections and columns and determine if they vary day to day or month to month. No book will be able to help you better or faster than knowing what’s happening in your world and industry.

Related Article: Ep. 09 — Why You Should Consider a Career in Public Relations - Break Into Public Relations

Just as you would cold call a journalist, make a pitch to an aspiring public relations professional and explain why PR is the career for him/her.

Discover what you’re passionate about and apply public relations at that company or industry.

“Think about the power you have to champion an organization [that you believe in]. … Think about the message that you have the ability to deliver to millions of people and how you can deliver that message in a way that is not only effective but also a ton of fun.”

Related Blog Post: Ep. 12 — The Various Forms of Public Relations - Break Into Public Relations

Do you have any final advice?

It’s natural to ask the question “what am I going to be when I grow up?” no matter your age. Kelly-Anne believes the secret to life is not being afraid to continually ask that question. And if you approach life with the mindset to never stop learning, your life will be much more fulfilled and likely to be considered a success.

“And take a moment to be creative in your life today.”

Related Blog Post: Ep. 05 — Roy Reid, APR, CPRC