Back-to-School (Tuition-Free)

For someone who graduated from university more than a few years ago, I seem to spend a lot of time on college campuses.

Every summer, I travel the country decorating dorm rooms in my work with Bed Bath & Beyond. 

And since my father is a retired professor at my alma mater - Harding University - whenever we visit him, I get to catch up with friends who now work at the school.

Last week, I had the pleasure of once again being on campus at Harding.  Dr. Jim Miller and Dr. Jack Shock always invite me to spend time with their communications classes (you can see us below speaking to the Intro to Public Relations class).

The students impress me with their energy, enthusiasm and curiosity about their prospective careers.  They are much more connected and are more knowledgeable about what's going in the world than I was at 18 or 19.  

I also admire their ability to stay awake in a 2 p.m. class - a feat I could never accomplish.

We have now reached a point where I see the generational divide with the students: one of the students in this class is the daughter of two of my college classmates.  Which did not make me feel old.  At all. 

Leading Ladies: Shayna Varner

As someone who started my career working for a United States Representative on Capitol Hill, I know first-hand how the fast pace of government can prepare you for a variety of careers. 

Shayna Varner has moved effortlessly between the public and private sectors, putting her skills to work for a variety of in-house and agency clients.  She has also enthusiastically seized the career opportunities that have come her way - a great lesson both for recent grads and those a little more advanced in their careers.  

Let me introduce you to...

Shayna Varner

What do you do?

I work as a Public Relations Account Supervisor at the Karma Agency - a strategic content and communications agency - located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Where do you live, where are you from and where did you go to school?

I live in a small loft apartment in Old City, Philadelphia - just a block from Benjamin Franklin's final resting place, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the first United States Post Office. Pretty cool, no? :) I'm originally from Moundsville, a small town in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle. I graduated from Harding University in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in public relations and from West Virginia University in 2013 with a master's degree in integrated marketing communications.


What was your career path to your current position?

A few weeks after I graduated from Harding in December 2009, I started working on my master's degree and working with the Community Connect Foundation as the Project Coordinator for the Foundation's Statewide E-Government Project. As project coordinator, I worked with high school teachers to connect social studies and government students with elected officials at the county and local levels to develop sustainable, informative and professional websites for every county and incorporated municipality in West Virginia. 

A few months later, I was contacted by Beyond Marketing, an integrated marketing and communications agency in Wheeling, West Virginia and the agency where I completed my college-required internship, to join the team as a communications specialist for a local two hospital health system. In this role, I oversaw all public relations, marketing and advertising functions for the organization, developing marketing plans for various community education events and hospital programs and services, and led all media relations and crisis communications efforts.

Two years into my role at the hospital, Beyond Marketing hired me as part of its full-time staff which allowed me to expand my communications experience in to a number of different industries including government agencies, sports and entertainment, community non- profit organizations with an emphasis in healthcare communications.

After a few months, I took an Account Executive position with Charles Ryan Associates, the largest (and only women owned) integrated communications agency in West Virginia located in Charleston - our state's capital city. At CRA, I balanced the integrated communications, branding and advertising needs for a variety of different accounts including those in the tourism, entertainment, workers' compensation and oil and natural gas industries. 

A little over a year into my time at CRA, I was recruited to join Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's communications team as Deputy Press Secretary. Eight months later, I was promoted to Press Secretary. During my time in the Governor's Office, I had the honor and privilege of crafting critical messaging to advance the governor’s initiatives through day-to-day media outreach and crisis communications. I also served as the primary speechwriter for the governor's annual State of the State address. 

In July 2016, just a few months before the end of Governor Tomblin's final term in office (he is limited after serving two consecutive terms), I moved to the City of Brotherly Love and joined the Karma Agency's public relations team as an Account Supervisor where work with B2B clients in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and chemical spaces.


What inspired you to pursue a career in government?

My father. For 20 years, he served as a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. For sixteen of those years, he served as Majority Whip. Growing up, I remember my mom loading my younger brother and I up in our family minivan and traveling to Charleston to spend a weekend or a few days with him while he was working. I was fascinated by all of the sights and sounds and the inner workings of state government. I didn't realize it then, but I look back at all of those moments now and I see something much bigger - all of those late nights spent crouched over his desk and weekends spent at the Capitol were to make West Virginia a better place for my brother and I and all West Virginians to live, work and raise a family. I have always been proud to be his daughter. After spending three years under the dome and to have the privilege of seeing how the work he accomplished made a real difference, I'm even more proud to call him my dad.

How did you get your job in Governor Tomblin's office?

I had worked with Charles Ryan Associates for a little over a year when I got a phone call from Governor Tomblin's communications director asking me to join his communications team as Deputy Press Secretary. I visited to the office, sat down with the team and a week or two later, I walked in to the State Capitol as part of the governor's staff. 


What was a typical work day like in the Governor's Office? What about in your new agency position?

Every day in the Governor's Office was different, but our communications team always started the day with a strong cup of coffee and a morning briefing to talk through any hot topics that popped up overnight and develop a communications strategy for how the governor might respond when asked about those issues. With whatever time we had left, we'd talk about what briefings, talking points or formal speeches may be on the horizon and get a better handle on everyone's workload. To be honest? That's where the typical-ness of each day ended. By the time we wrapped up our briefing, the day had already started and so had the madness. The governor's Communications Director (now Chief of Staff) Chris Stadelman and I used to joke that no matter what craziness or nonsense the day might bring, we could always be sure of one thing - we come to work, we get interrupted, we go home. Although we used to laugh about it (and I still do), it's so true on so many levels.

I would say that agency life is very similar! I work with a super talented and great team that juggles the integrated communications needs for some major, internationally known players in the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and chemical industries. Each day starts out with a plan and deadlines (which we always find a way to meet), but sometimes there are a few detours along the way!

What inspires you?

Traveling. For me, there's something incredibly inspiring about experiencing new cultures, falling in love with places you've never seen and people you've never met, and learning to see the world in ways you never expected.


What are three books you've read this year?

"The Speechwriter" by Barton Swaim, "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes, "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.

What tips would you offer people who want to work in government or politics?

Be a good listener. It's okay to be the youngest person in the room, and it's okay to not have all of the answers. There is always room to compromise - in fact, I would argue better policy and better government comes from compromise. And learn as much as you can from everyone you can, even those who may have a different political affiliation than you. 

What advice do you have for people who want to transition between the public and private sectors?

Look for opportunities that will help you blend what you already know with the skills you want to learn. It will make you better in the long run!

Many people who read this are in the midst of or are looking for internships. What can they do during their internships to best position themselves for a later job hunt?

Take your internship seriously - my summer internship landed me my first 'big girl' job. That summer, I was one of three interns that worked alongside Beyond Marketing's account staff and I took every opportunity to ask questions, take on new responsibilities and I never turned down the opportunity to join the senior account team for client meetings. Getting that type of hands-on experience and being part of developing a strategy from brainstorming to execution helped me understand how the industry worked and my role in all of it.


What advice would you offer to new grads starting out their careers?

Keep your head up! It's okay to feel a little overwhelmed the first few weeks of your first job. That overwhelming feeling is usually a good sign - it means you're learning. 

Thank you, Shayna!  You can connect with her via LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.

Have a great week!


* All photos courtesy of Shayna Varner.

Leading Ladies: Michelle Pugh

Now that Labor Day is in the rear-view mirror, it's back-to-school and back-to-work!

That means it's also time to resume our Leading Ladies series, which took an unplanned hiatus in July and August as I traveled around the country doing back-to-school segments.

If you need bit of motivation to get back into the work mind-set this month, Michelle Pugh may be just the person you need!

Let me introduce you to...

Michelle Pugh


What do you do?

I am a brand manager for Eric Rob & Isaac, a full-service marketing firm in Little Rock, Arkansas. I plan and execute comprehensive marketing-communication plans for clients, some of which are Mountain Valley Spring Water, First Security Bank, Saline Memorial Hospital, University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Heart Hospital.


Where are you from, and where did you go to school?

I am from a small town in Arkansas called Wynne and attended school at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.


What attracted you to working in advertising?

When I was in high school, my mother encouraged me to join the yearbook staff. I did and quickly fell in love with the tasks required to put together a publication. I worked really hard on the staff, eventually becoming the editor my senior year, and went on to be named editor of the year by the Arkansas Scholastic Press Association. When I decided that I was going to attend Harding University, I immediately got in contact with the yearbook advisor to inquire about positions on the Petit Jean yearbook staff. The advisor at the time was quick to let me know that he did not allow freshmen on his staff. Being an overzealous 18-year-old, I scheduled an appointment with the advisor, took my portfolio and resume with me, and insisted that he hire me to the staff. The advisor told me that he was not sure what position he would have available but decided to go ahead and hire me for the staff.

Long story short, after a year working on staff, I sat down with one of my other advisors to discuss options for my major, and she shared with me that she too had always wanted ‘yearbook’ to be her career. She said that an advisor had encouraged her to go into public relations, as many of the skill sets needed to make a publication are also used in public relations jobs. I switched my major and never looked back.

How did you get your job?

An advisor at Harding told me about a position open at Eric Rob & Isaac, so I decided to apply. I was asked to an interview but did not hear anything for a couple of weeks after the interview. My husband and I were committed to moving to Little Rock for him to attend school, so I decided to start applying for every communication job available. That very day, I received a call from Rob Bell at Eric Rob & Isaac offering me a job as an account executive.


What your typical work day like?

Every day is a little different when you’re working for an agency. Some days I wake up at 5 a.m. and get ready for an all-day TV shoot in a hospital, and other days I’m preparing to present a marketing plan to a bank or university. Still other days I spend all of my time responding to emails or helping clients solve marketing problems that arise. Every day is a little unpredictable but it’s fun that ways.

Advertising is an ever-changing industry, and when you’re working for an agency, you’re expected to be on the forefront of the trends. There are many times when I work a long day and then come home to take an online class or read articles in order to stay in front of my clients’ needs.


Are there any myths about working in advertising that don’t match up to reality?

There are definitely a lot of extremes that aren’t quite true, but many of the ideas you see in shows like Mad Men or Scandal are actually a reality on some level. At the same time, there are many days when I describe myself as a professional emailer because I spend the whole day responding to client emails and just making sure everyone has what they need when they need it.

What are your five favorite movies?

To be honest, favorites stress me out. Ask anyone that knows me; I do not have favorites. And now with Netflix, I watch a lot more series than movies. Some shows that I like right now are Scandal, Grey's Anatomy and The Walking Dead.

What inspires you?

There are a lot of things that inspire me, but from a professional standpoint, I’m definitely inspired by success. And not just success in my professional life but success for my clients. I have the opportunity to truly help my clients grow their businesses and be the best companies they can be, and that inspires me. I get to work with a lot of different industries, and every day I get to help tell their stories of success, whether that be through a social post, digital ad, TV segment, employee newsletter or print ad (yes, we still do print ads).


What advice would you offer to new grads starting their careers?

I’m kind of a long-winded tactical person, so it’s hard for me to give one piece of advice. However, I’ve found that it all boils down to working really hard and being passionate about everything you do. Passion is contagious, and if your employer or, in my case, clients can see passion in your work, then you’ll be successful in whatever you do. 

Thank you, Michelle!  You can connect with Michelle on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.

Have a great week!


* All photos courtesy of Michelle Pugh.

Back-to-School (No Books Required)

Going back to college as an alumnus is awesome.

All the fun, with no tuition or finals.

Yesterday, I put on my teacher cap for the day, speaking to four Communications classes at my alma mater, Harding University.   Thanks to Dr. Jack Shock (pictured) for inviting me and interviewing me in his PR Campaigns, Research and Intro to PR classes, and to Dr. Jim Miller for letting me crash his News Writing class.

Photo by Abbey Watson.

Photo by Abbey Watson.

Photo by Brooklyn Billner.

Photo by Brooklyn Billner.

Photo by Brooklyn Billner.

Photo by Brooklyn Billner.

In addition to speaking, I had the privilege of watching two seniors do presentations in the Research class.  I can't wait to see what the future holds for these talented students!

Up in the Air: Dallas & Little Rock

Several years ago, I started the tradition of visiting my dad each February.

Once my Valentine TV segments wrap, I usually have about a week of office work to catch up on, which I can do from anywhere.  I actually visit several times a year, but this is always an easy time to schedule.

So, I stock the fridge with a few dinners for Scott to heat up while I'm gone, pack my carryon bag and fly South for a few days.

Not only do I see my dad, but since he lives in the Arkansas town where I went to university, I get to see friends who now work on campus.  I also have the pleasure of speaking to public relations classes, something I always look forward to doing whenever I am in town.

As is usual when I travel, I take the earliest flight possible - which is generally 6 a.m. and, when you fly American Airlines, probably connects through Dallas.  Even for an early flight, I still get to the airport ridiculously early, so I always have time for a quick stop for coffee and a scan of the New York Times and New York Post (confession: usually just Page Six) before boarding.

Today's early wakeup was rewarded with this view of frozen New York rivers, snapped during the takeoff from LaGuardia.

02-15-16 Frozen New York.jpg