Strategically crafted narratives to motivate change
Q&A with NAACP public relations leader Aba Blankson
Aba Blankson serves as senior vice president of marketing and communications for the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country. In her role, she oversees internal and external plans related to brand management, public relations and marketing.
“Much of the work we do is related to policy advocacy and driving people to take actions that will affect change and legislation at the national, regional and local level,” Blankson said.
Blankson recently spent three days at Moody College of Communication as the invited executive in residence for the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations. She visited, lectured and engaged in multiple classrooms during her in-residency stay.
She has nearly 20 years of experience in non-profit communications, and also worked in marketing, communications and technology for east coast colleges and universities. Blankson said a component of any public relations career is thinking through strategy to motivate others to act, as well as creating narratives that inspire action.
Aba Blankson Q&A
Your college degrees are in math and computer science. How did you end up in public relations? I went to school at a time in the early 2000s where computer science was about web design and different kinds of programming. When I was in college, I was in the math club and also yearbook. So always, in every job that I’ve had, there has been a component of math and creative.
At Cornell University, I was the webmaster for admissions and enrollment. I helped redesign the website. Even in that information technology role, part of my job was in communications and PR, talking about IT to folks who didn’t always understand IT.
What interpersonal skills are important for your field? One of the things I value most is relationship building, getting to know people in an authentic way. When you’re doing communications and PR, your ability to hear people is important. Sometimes, it’s not about talking, but empathizing and connecting.
How do you think through strategic messaging for your brand? With anything, you’ve got to think about the end user. Ask yourself, “How might they perceive this?” It’s important to stand in their place.
Some of things we handle are very complex – policy and legislation, things we need people to do. They may not understand every component, but if I tell a particular story, or if I frame it in this way, it will be better resonate.
How has the increase in digital platforms affected how you do your job? Going from print to digital has changed a lot. But for the audiences that I deal with, we still have a lot of folks who are connecting with newspapers, black newspapers. For African Americans and a particular demographic, that is the trusted source of news.
We also can’t we forget things like radio – the places where we started. In my current job, we do tele-town halls, these big conference calls where we talk about particular issues. People love it, and it’s just a phone call.
Sometimes we lose sight of the things that really connect people and the things that help you communicate your message effectively, all for the sake of using the new technology.
What kind of experiences and work opportunities should students pursue that will translate to a career? I think people should seek a variety of experiences. The things that spark your curiosity, those are the things you will really learn from. If you do something just because someone has told you these are boxes you need to check, you’re not going to be as engaged.
For students who are wanting to enter marketing, branding, PR, it’s important to observe, to take in information. It’s also important to not be afraid to speak up. The folks on my team, the people I value the most, are people who challenge thinking.
In everything you’re doing, take it as 100 percent. Assume this is the thing that’s going to get your first job, your next job, your first client, your next client – and give it your all.
The folks who thrive and move far are those who take things seriously, are prepared to contribute and who are not afraid to speak up.