NEW YORK: The Public Relations Society of America has hired Linda Thomas Brooks as its CEO after a lengthy search and recruitment process, the organization said on Monday.
She is set to start in the role on January 19, based in New York. Thomas Brooks will take over from Philip Bonaventura, also the organization’s CFO, who assumed the role on an interim basis in July 2019 when Joe Truncale stepped down.
The search for a new CEO began in earnest in 2019 after recruitment firm Russell Reynolds was hired and identified 12 candidates. Its initial goal was to name a replacement before the PRSA annual conference in San Diego that October. The search restarted early last year, only to be paused due to COVID-19.
Part of the attraction of the job, Thomas Brooks said, is PR’s potential to take a leadership role in marketing and communications as technology platforms emerge and amid trends like branded content.
“The industry is growing like crazy, and it takes a special skill set to pull all pieces together and combine the capabilities of tech and various platforms,” she explained. “People in the PR discipline are well positioned to run the table on those sorts of things.”
The job is especially intriguing because of the central role communications plays in the topics being debated in society, Thomas Brooks said on Friday, two days after rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
“PR is involved with these issues and how we inform one another not only in business but in society as a whole, especially this week,” she said. “[This position] is an unbelievable opportunity to step into that.”
Thomas Brooks faces a series of challenges when she takes control of the organization. As of November 5, 2020, PRSA had 1,824 fewer members in 2020 compared to 2019 and 1,130 fewer student members, according to a document posted to the group’s website in December.
PRSA’s total income from January to October of 2020 was $7.1 million, down 39.1% from the same period of 2019. Counting earnings from operations and investments, PRSA saw a net loss of $1 million for the period, compared to a net gain of $579,645 for the same period in 2019. PRSA declined to provide Thomas Brooks' salary or the details of her contract.
“If I had said I was only going to a company or organization that didn’t have challenges and that was growing, I’m not sure there was anywhere I could go,” Thomas Brooks said. “A lot of the challenges PRSA is having are not unique, but that doesn’t mean they are not serious and we have to address them.”
The organization should be OK after the pandemic, she added, if it stays true to its mission.
“It’s important to have a financially viable organization and have a sustaining future for PRSA,” Thomas Brooks said. “The wonderful thing about being a trade organization is you’re not trying to beat last year’s earnings. It is so important how we are serving members and meeting their needs and if we do that well, the finances should work out.”
The group’s 75-year legacy of serving members and providing professional growth is proof that it’s important to the PR community, she added, and the organization has to be ready for when the pandemic is under control and people begin attending conferences and in person events.
PRSA has traditionally done a good job surveying its members, Thomas Brooks said. She added that she’ll review that data while getting to know the people in the organization virtually to ensure the group is “calibrated for the future in the right way” and to “address its issues and tactically figure out where we go.”
In recent years, volunteer leaders, like 2021 chair-elect Michelle Olson, have taken on a more prominent role while Thomas Brooks’ immediate predecessors, Truncale and Bonaventura, tended to work behind the scenes. However, Thomas Brooks sees a more public partnership with Olson.
“I see it as much more of a partnership, maybe a tag team,” Thomas Brooks said. “We are both inclined to be out there a little bit more, and when I was running [the Association of Magazine Media], I gave literally hundreds of presentations out in the industry a year...That was always helpful to me going out to share information, and in every outside meeting I had always learned a lot, formally and informally.”
Thomas Brooks was president and CEO of the Association of Magazine Media from 2016 until December 2019. She consulted and held an interim MD position in the Media and Publishing Divisions of the Software and Information Industry Association before agreeing to join PRSA over the holidays.
She has also served as EVP and MD of General Motors Mediaworks, a media strategy and investment unit of the automaker and was president of Ingenuity Media at the Martin Agency, the PRSA said in a statement.