10 takeaways from PRWeek 40 Under 40 honorees

Advice and goals for the future from the new wave of PR leadership.

 Clockwise from top-left: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, Foot Locker's Sarah Houseknecht, the FDA's Lauren-Jei McCarthy and Facebook's Monique McKenzie.
Clockwise from top-left: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, Foot Locker's Sarah Houseknecht, the FDA's Lauren-Jei McCarthy and Facebook's Monique McKenzie.

Communications professionals have had quite a ride over the last year, from a pandemic and racial injustice to economic hardship and a turbulent election. 

Even the work landscape has drastically changed with Zoom meetings, virtual events and the loss of one-on-one interaction.

But there are lessons to be learned from hardship, a group of PRWeek 40 Under 40 honorees said at a panel on Thursday. 

Sarah Houseknecht, senior director of public relations and influencer marketing at Foot Locker; Lauren-Jei McCarthy, public affairs specialist at the Food and Drug Administration and Monique McKenzie of Facebook commiserated about missing commutes and setting goals for the future. 

Here are 10 takeaways from the virtual panel: 

1. Communications teams have evolved to work at a breakneck pace. "All of our divisions had been very siloed in the past, and we really only worked together when we needed to. That need became something that amplified overnight and connecting that messaging and making sure we were consistent and concise and championing the same message across the globe is something I think 100% is going to stay into the future." -Sarah Houseknecht, Foot Locker

2. Companies should continue to collaborate across departments, even when not in a communications role. "It's extremely important that corporate affairs, advocacy, alliances and government officials are all working together and looking toward establishing plans that not only support the company but support employee comms, which at some points during this pandemic were more important." -Lauren-Jei McCarthy, FDA

3. Comms teams have shifted what they focus on for external messaging. "The stories I told at the beginning of the year have shifted dramatically. The disruption has sparked innovation and inspired people to step outside their day-to-day roles to drive positive and impactful change. We should be thinking about how our companies can show up for our communities." - Monique McKenzie, Facebook

4. Brands must go beyond words to focus on actions and bring about change. "During my time at AstraZeneca at the aftermath of George Floyd murder, my Black colleagues were defeated. A message from our CEO came out, and it helped shift some of the feeling around what had been happening. I hope other health organizations continue to invest in strategies to promote better health in Black communities and other communities of color because health is wealth." -McCarthy

5. Listening to the younger generations can help lead policy. "Our mission at Foot Locker is to inspire and empower youth culture. A lot of the change we've seen over the last year has been led by the youth, so investing in that community is something we stand true to. That also means investing in Black communities through agencies we work with, talent we choose and our internal associates." -Houseknecht

6. Clients must hold their agencies responsible to be suitably diverse. "If you look left and right, and folks sitting next to you look just like you or think just like you, you don't have enough diversity around the table. As PR professionals, we must bring that thought to every table we're sitting at. We have to bring that diversity we're not seeing to the discussions. -McCarthy

7. Career paths need to be developed for Black PR pros. "It's not just enough to hire Black professionals, we have to retain them. We have to mentor them and help them grow their careers. In agencies, you often hit a threshold and then you see this shift of Black pros going in-house, and we leave agencies in droves. I hope this moment is a catalyst of change." -McKenzie. 

8. There are a variety of PR disciplines that need excellent communicators. "As a healthcare communicator, I want to say there's a whole world out there that isn't entertainment PR, and it's really fun. We must get those coming up who aren't sure where to go and expose them to more disciplines within public relations." -McCarthy

9. Marketing and advertising colleagues should be educated on the function of PR. "Sometimes I think there's this lack of understanding of what the function of public relations really is. This feeling that “PR” means “it's free.” From a resource and investment perspective, PR can be under resourced. I'd focus on education across our marketing counterparts and show that proof points around earned media and having trust is important and not just advertising." -Houseknecht

10. Comms pros must adapt to changing technology. "Our understanding of how technology will be driving PR forward in different ways is important. How are we investing time and talent in understanding technology and how is that shaping the world of PR differently? One tweet might do more damage than an article in The New York Times, and the speed at which we must respond to it is different now too." -McCarthy

Go here to view the 40 Under 40 ceremony and this panel on demand. 

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