Ronna Charles grew up surrounded by storytellers. Her great grandfather, maternal and paternal grandfathers, and uncles told amazing stories about driving through the South during the Jim Crow era. About serving in the military in Cold War Germany. And simply surviving the swamps of Florida and Texas as Black men.
Each story made her feel like she was there, with them. Feeling the speed of the car, the fear of being chased by dogs after sundown, and the cautious steps to avoid gators and water moccasins.
Fast forward to when she landed as a public relations specialist at parcel delivery giant UPS and the company’s leadership displayed a similar penchant for storytelling. Wild tales of intrepid drivers, conveyor belts, and heroic saves – making package delivery sound like an action movie.
The yarns were so deftly spun, members of the news media didn’t even know they were being pitched. That’s when it clicked for Ronna – she knew how to tell a story, she simply had to look for the heart and go from there.
After a lengthy stint rising through the ranks with UPS, a brief stop-over at Carestream Dental, and more than a half-decade in marketing and communications for Atlanta’s esteemed Morehouse School of Medicine, these days she guides the plotlines for one of metro Atlanta’s leading healthcare systems – no small feat during a pandemic. So, this edition of Chapter Chat, a member-focused series featuring industry insights mixed with candid commentary, spotlights the storytelling and relationship-building acumen of Wellstar Health System’s director of marketing and communications.
Let’s get to know more about Ronna Charles’ story in her own words, shall we?
Question: What has your experience been like working in marketing and communications for a health care system in the midst of a pandemic?
Answer: The pandemic has been a big time of transition for how we communicate and serve our patients. More than anything, we have had to connect patients with the resources and information they need to make decisions about their health.
Q: How has COVID-19 tested your crisis communication skills?
A: COVID has shown the benefit of connecting with all areas of our communications organization to share updates and changes, so everyone from social media to media relations are speaking the same language.
Q: Where do you find creativity and inspiration?
A: I honestly have to disconnect. I started these #COVIDadventures with my kids. We have been exploring all the waterfalls in North Georgia since the pandemic began. We grab our masks, pack food, and enjoy the world around us.
Q: What’s your secret for connecting Wellstar’s subject matter experts with local, national and trade media so that your brand is featured in print, online and TV stories?
A: Going from business to business to healthcare media pitching was the wildest transition for me. People really want to hear these stories. Healthcare is personal. Either you have experienced it, or you know someone that has or might. So, the key for me is making it personal and positioning subject matter experts as what we call “experts with heart.” They know the science and medicine, but they also speak to each individual’s experience.
Q: What is the professional accomplishment that you are most proud of?
A: It took me a minute to decide on this one. I’ve hit my media hit goals and managed projects with huge budgets. But, when the project is done, it’s all the relationships that mattered the most. I have all these colleagues and friends. Reporters, marketers, researchers, producers, engineers, doctors, and PR executives. Honestly, executive assistants, custodians, and shipping managers are the real lifesavers. Those relationships are what matter most in the end.
Q: When and why did you join PRSA Georgia?
A: I joined PRSA Georgia in 2002 when I was at UPS. Our VP Ken Sternad thought it was important to connect with the industry and continuously sharpen your skills.
Q: Looking beyond the pandemic (optimistically), what are your hopes and aspirations for the PRSA Georgia chapter?
A: I sure would love to have one of those Maggiano’s luncheons! LOL, the food is great, but I learn so much hearing how others survived the most challenging project ever and came out successfully.
Q: What can you tell our readers about your involvement in the PRSA Health Academy and what that entails?
A: I went to my first PRSA Health Academy in 2017, I think. It was so cool to connect with a conference room full of people that speak your language. From there, I was hooked. I spoke at last year’s conference and then joined the board. Having a shared experience during the pandemic has been a lifesaver for ideas and sometimes just venting.
Q: How do you relax or spend your leisure time when not working?
A: I love to travel, so I was pretty disappointed when I had to put plans on hold this year. I’ve leaned on my love of music and food. I enjoy cooking, eating, and music while doing both. Two months into the pandemic, I had to lay off the eating in favor of more exercise, though. I just completed day 100 of the Beachbody100 Day Morning Meltdown and lost all my COVID pounds.
Q: What part of Georgia do you live in, and what’s your favorite aspect of living there?
A: I live right outside East Atlanta. It’s the best of both worlds, a little urban with great restaurants and bars, then driving five minutes back to my suburban-looking neighborhood with unique and diverse neighbors, while our kids get to play together. We have trails and a wonderful green space, too.
Q: You earned an MBA from Mercer University – how has this degree helped you, and how does it relate to Public Relations?
A: The MBA was like the “red pill” for PR professionals. It opened a world of business strategy that is essential to effective PR management. My Mercer MBA gave me the hows and whys of business, so I could better develop a sound strategy for success. I also think I did it at the right time in my career to use it most effectively. I knew just enough to put it into action.
Q: What’s your best piece of advice for practitioners that are new to the PR industry?
A: Shut up and listen. Diversify your perspective. Read, watch, and listen to news from everywhere. The world has more similarities than differences. What you learn can help both you and your business grow. Find a mentor, or a few, and build a stable relationship. It’s the best way to navigate your organization and the industry. Experience is the best teacher, and the right mentor can save you from a few scrapes and bruises.