Insider Interview: With Lauren Lawson-Zilai | PRSA-NCC
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Insider Interview: With Lauren Lawson-Zilai

June 12, 2017

In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Lauren Lawson-Zilai, senior director of public relations and national spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International. Her role includes leading, developing and executing external and strategic communications, including celebrity spokespeople, crisis communications, influencer strategy, national media relations, social media for the executive team, thought leadership, and creative services, including video production. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: Under your leadership, your team has won the Silver Anvil Award of Excellence and the PRSA-NCC Thoth Award Certificate of Excellence. Throughout your career, you’ve earned a number of awards, including the PRSA-NCC Diamond Award, the PR News’ Top Women in PR Award and the PR News’ PR Professional of the Year: Nonprofit/Association Award. You are also a Washington PR Woman of the Year Honoree through Washington Women in Public Relations. Obviously, you’ve had a successful career. To what do you attribute this success?

LLZ: I’ve been fortunate to find the sweet spot where my skills intersected with my passion. Making a transition to the nonprofit sector and finding a career that is personally rewarding has been very significant for me. Work is an important part of human identity. It’s imperative, in my opinion, to find a career that combines your passion and engagement.

PRSA-NCC Insider: You are actively involved with the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and Washington Women in Public Relations. Please share the value of belonging to these groups.

LLZ: I joined PRSA-NCC and WWPR after moving to the area from New York City in 2001. I wanted to fulfill my passion of working for a cause. Prior to joining both organizations, my background was solely in media relations. Through my involvement with PRSA and WWPR, I was able to garner skills that would apply to me professionally including event management, fundraising, partnership building, video production, and writing strategic plans. I also bolstered my understanding of nonprofit organizations as my previous experience was strictly in book publishing.

As an example, I served on the board of WWPR as pro bono chair, a position I held for four years. I had the opportunity to build my portfolio through volunteer work, while at the same time impacting the lives of others. Our pro bono client at the time was Doorways for Women and Families. Doorways was undergoing a re-branding, a name change, a capital campaign, and tearing down and rebuilding its more than 20-year-old shelter. We had a contract with them for three years and provided communications services pro bono, valued at $290,000. For the first time, Doorways was able to receive national exposure for its work, staff and issues. By leveraging that profile, I was gaining skills to apply to my nonprofit career transition.

I then served as vice president, president and past president. It was during my tenure as WWPR’s past president that I launched the Emerging Leaders Awards, a program specifically designed to recognize up-and-coming young women in the PR field who have not been recognized either due to age or experience.           

With PRSA-NCC, I have served in various capacities including the Thoth Awards Gala chair, secretary, vice president, co-chair of the opening night gala for the international conference, and on the association/nonprofit committee. Currently, I am a vice president and pro bono and community support co-chair for PRSA-NCC’s pro bono client, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA). 

The support from PRSA-NCC and WWPR has been immeasurable. I have, what I call, “tough love” mentors, or those professionals with more experience than I who provide support and growth opportunities. I also have colleagues in the industry who provide advice and counsel, leads for vendors and resources, or help in areas that might not be my strong suit. It’s important to build your supportive network or “super network.”

Both organizations gave me the tools to face challenges and creatively problem solve, and also to challenge myself, and advance as a leader both personally and professionally. In addition, I’ve learned valuable lessons regarding holding people accountable, and motivating and leading a team. I’m especially grateful that I’ve been able to build lifelong friendships through these two organizations. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: According to an article written by Jennifer Risi, the head of media relations at North America at Ogilvy Public Relations, there is a gap between the number of men and women in CEO-level positions in the industry. What do you think can and should be done to narrow the gap?

LLZ: Barbara Annis is a thought leader in the field of gender differences and diversity, an author and a global practitioner in the area of improving gender relations in the workplace. I completely resonate with what she has to say about evolving organizational cultures to best serve men and women—it’s not just about good values and sound PR, but a business imperative that boosts the bottom line. Companies won’t be able to speak effectively to their audiences without women at the table. Barbara also emphasizes that men and women are hard-wired to innovate and approach situations differently. Companies should realize that such diversity is an advantage in order for them to solve problems.

In order to close the gap, women must network, join professional organizations, find more senior women to connect with inside and outside of their organizations/companies, put themselves out there in the community and create a strong network. We often hear the reference, “old boys club.” We need both a women's network and a gender-integrated network.

This hits home for me because at Goodwill®, we’re consciously trying to narrow that gap. We have 162 autonomous organizations that operate the donated goods retail, job placement and training, and community-based services at their local levels. Of those 162 organizations, only 53 have female CEOs. We realize that the leadership development pipeline needs to be more diverse. We are working to create training within our executive development and senior leader programs, as well as crafting a results-based action plan to address that issue.

PRSA-NCC Insider: There are many excellent women professionals who work in public relations and public affairs throughout the Washington, D.C. area. Do you think these women are receiving the help and guidance they need to reach higher levels of leadership?

LLZ: It’s important for women professionals to receive guidance from their senior leadership to develop their skills and recognize their talent. It’s equally important for them to continue to grow their worth and marketability. Women professionals should be intentional and thoughtful about their professional development, which includes taking initiative, and seeking out opportunities such as classes or seminars, or contributing through consulting to area businesses, serving on a nonprofit board, or being involved with local government commissions. This involvement, including the connections and resources, will expand their awareness and provide a foundation for improving their communications and interpersonal skills. I believe this is vital for leadership success, and fine-tuning their leadership voice and executive presence.

As a personal example, one of the biggest take-aways I realized after receiving the Washington PR Woman of the Year honoree distinction was that I needed a dedicated mentor-mentee relationship. In listening to my fellow honorees’ answers via the promotional video, I realized that while I have several leaders in the PR industry that I have sought out and leaned on for guidance and counsel, I have never had a formal mentor/mentee relationship. Following that, I reached out to a former PR Woman of the Year winner, someone whom I admired and hoped to learn from, to establish formal meetings.

The world’s most successful women have the skills but equally as important, the drive. They know if they really want something, they must remain determined—even in the face of obstacles. It takes discipline to achieve and maintain success. It’s also important to stay focused on the areas that will have the biggest impact—from both a leadership perspective and a career management perspective.

PRSA-NCC Insider: If new professionals were reading this interview, can you share two or three pieces of advice that would help them grow in their careers.

LLZ: I have five.

1. Be a lifelong learner. Keep up to date on the latest communications trends and technology, and utilize organizations like PRSA-NCC for professional development and continued improvement.

2. New communications professionals should know communications and public relations principles and media protocol, and continue to hone their skills but they also must possess the ability to work cohesively with diverse groups of people, and relate well to others, both individually and in group settings. This requires a commitment to using and growing people and emotional intelligence skills. To have these skills is a leadership competency and a competitive advantage in the workplace.

3.Develop and hone organizational and project management skills. In managing a campaign or initiative, a professional must have a comprehensive understanding of communications concepts, including understanding an organizational goal, targeting specific audiences, building communications plans, measurement, and crafting the right messages, as well as managing a team to keep items on tasks, assessing risks and making concrete decisions.

4. Feedback is essential for continued growth and job performance. Professionals should continue to seek out feedback and look for mentors both in their company and industry to provide feedback. Mentor-mentee relationships are very important.

5. When I gave the commencement address in 2012 at my alma mater, Lycoming College, I told the incoming freshman class that nearly 70 percent of the jobs in this new century have not been invented. We may have a sense of what industries will be the strongest, but the precise jobs don't yet exist. That is why it is critically important for professionals to be flexible and open to change, and continually enhance their skills. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: As a mother of a toddler, how challenging is it to adequately balance the work life and professional life? 

LLZ: We’re in a 24/7 world. Work-life balance does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. When your professional life is also your passion, there is not always a clear divide between your personal and professional life. There is no “one-size-fits-all” balance that someone should be striving for. At the core of an effective balance are two key everyday concepts that are relevant to each of us. They are daily achievement and enjoyment, ideas almost deceptive in their simplicity.

Achievement means pride, satisfaction, happiness, a sense of well-being, and for me, being able to serve as a voice for people with disabilities and disadvantages.

Communication professionals should ask themselves when was the last time they achieved AND enjoyed something at work? Not only achieved, but also reflected in the joy of the job.

If nobody pats you on the back, pat yourself on the back and help others to do the same. If you’re a professional that not only gets things done, but also enjoys what you’re doing, that will attract people to you. They will want you on their team and they will want to be on your team.

PRSA-NCC Insider: Where do you see your career heading/five years from now?

LLZ: I would like to continue in the cause space and help an organization advance its mission. I’m interested in working more intimately at a local level with a nonprofit and handling community relations as well as getting to see the mission in action. At some point, I’d like to focus on my APR and admission into the PRSA College of Fellows but realize that may not be realistic within five years.

PRSA-NCC Insider: When you are not working, what are some things you and your family like to do? 

LLZ: Given (my daughter) Kiley is age 3, we love to take day trips. In D.C, we’re at an advantage, as there are many activities to explore within a short driving distance. My husband Justin and I are both from New Jersey, so we enjoy going to the shore during the summer. Also, fun fact: Justin’s family started a kettle korn business 20 years ago. He’s an accountant by day and does kettle korn on the weekends, so you will often find us at festivals and fairs throughout the tristate region from the months of May-October.