The path to a long and impactful career in PR and communications looks a little different for everyone. For Yolanda Stephen, APR, her first foray into the industry came at a time when her future literally was up in the air. ”
After I graduated college, I worked as a flight attendant for five years, playing into my desire to see the world,” she recalls. “I got laid off following 9/11, moved back home to Columbus, Georgia and unexpectedly came across a communications specialist role at Aflac. The rest is history!”
Now, nearly two decades into her esteemed communications career, Yolanda’s post-flight plan includes staying grounded while furthering a culture of learning…and continuing to learn herself. As the director of PR for the Troup County School System, she oversees programs that impact the district’s more than 12,300 students and 1,800 employees. The former broadcast major and aspiring TV show host (“I thought I was going to be Oprah”) now lends an open ear to daily conversations with everyone from principals and parents to bus drivers and cafeteria workers – dialogue that’s become even more important to answer questions and reinforce campus safety in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond serving as an impactful community voice, Yolanda also is helping the next generation of aspiring PR leaders reach rarified air. A proudly accredited APR, Yolanda joined PRSA’s Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) earlier this year and additionally serves as a member of its communications team. Her mission is simple – give back to a process that she highly values by recruiting, training and accrediting outstanding PR pros, all while continuing to leverage the “research, implementation and evaluation process that never leaves you after you’ve been through it!”
In celebration of April’s APR month, this installment of Chapter Chat catches up with one of the APR program’s greatest success stories and proud ambassadors. Read on to learn how Yolanda navigated one of the most unusual and challenging years ever in the academic space (or really, anywhere), what advice she’d give to anyone considering pursuing an APR…and why criminals in hiding should fear her!
Q: How did you become involved in education PR?
A: I’ve been in my current role for nearly seven years, but before that I never even processed that school systems had their own PR people. A former colleague alerted me to the position when she joined the Troup County School System, and I had to dig a little deeper to learn what communications would even look like in that role. In the end, it worked out great. I loved the challenge of trying something new, but I also wanted to do something that more closely aligned with the schedules of my two kids.
In reality, my current job requires a compilation of the skills I’ve learned in my previous roles. When I started at Aflac, I got my feet wet in corporate PR and communications and worked on publicity campaigns for the company’s diversity, philanthropy and sponsorship programs. My time at Goodwill Southern Rivers brought me more into internal communications and launching some of the organization’s first website refresh and social media campaigns. And even my time as a flight attendant instilled a sense of adventure that has never left me!
Q: Obviously education was one of the industries that saw its routine most disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you and your team navigate the uncertainties of the last year?
A: The argument around when and how to return to school is very politicized, even now a year later. Nevertheless, our communications efforts (and really our overall efforts) centered around our core promise – how can we provide the best environment for all of our kids to learn? That not only includes instruction but ensuring that our kids are fed and have access to WiFi and other essential tools.
Last summer, we began our Back to School Troup County communications campaign to build to a safe return to the classroom. We had to evaluate every single arm of the school system – things like do we have enough nurses and nursing/quarantine stations at each building? How are we cleaning our facilities? Do we have the right supplies for every scenario? We also arranged a partnership with the City of LaGrange to provide software and tech support that would allow us to conduct online board meetings. We also had to tailor messaging to parents, employees and the community to reinforce our commitment to safety while also promoting a common theme of bringing everyone back together. It was a massive undertaking, but our planning and attention to detail ensured it turned out for the best. We reopened our classrooms with safety protocols in place and with a virtual option for those who wanted it in August.
Q: What communication tools did you find most effective in making the Back to School campaign a success?
A: The most effective tool was, and still is, our employees. As Troup County’s second largest employer, we have a built-in reach that extends far and wide. We talked to our principals, cafeteria staff, lunchroom staff, teachers, bus drivers – anyone who is connected to our schools and could help spread the message. We also found that some parents were more in tune on social channels while others paid more attention to email, so we had to ensure that our efforts covered multiple platforms. It was very interesting to see how it all played out.
When we first opened our classrooms back up in August, we had 65 percent of our students on site and the rest virtual. Communications helped our parents and students gain trust in how we were handling our operations, and that number rose to 82 percent.
Q: What would you say was your greatest learning from your work during the pandemic?
A: What sets the Troup County School System apart – and what made my job easier and more fulfilling – is that we have a great and supportive leader who believes in the value of communications, planning and giving you the room and support to do what you do best. There are nuances to what we do, and not all leaders truly understand what communications is. It’s more than just posting something on a social page or a website. Essentially, we learned how to work together and support and trust each other, which in turn became the key to building trust across our community.
Q: How did you become involved with PRSA Georgia?
A: When I was working for Aflac, I attended a PRSA event in Atlanta and it opened a world of opportunity for me. I didn’t realize there was a whole network of PR people who talked like me, thought like me, even told the same quirky jokes as me! I was blown away in talking to individuals who shared the same goals as me, even though we were approaching them very differently. It was powerful and enjoyable for me to see how easily everyone bounced info off each other and sought to build their networks and share connections.
When I moved to Troup County, I became involved in the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) and had to step back from the Chapter a bit. I’m still involved with NSPRA and currently serve as its vice president of Diversity and Engagement, but I found I needed something more hands-on. I would listen to PRSA’s on-demand webinars while I was in the car or working around the house and gained valuable information on topics that were important to me. That inspired me to rejoin again.
Q: You’re now one of the APR program’s most passionate ambassadors, but getting there required your own accreditation. Tell us about how and when you decided it was time to pursue your APR.
A: When I went to my first NSPRA conference, everyone was talking about the APR program. All of the APRs got to present at the event. And I had no idea what an APR was! Eventually, my colleagues at NSPRA encouraged me to pursue it myself, and I began studying, I found that the knowledge and scientific meaning behind the process and curriculum all made sense. In fact, it was all things I’d already been doing. I look at our audiences, identify what our problems are and how I can solve them. I put in strategies and tactics and outline objectives. These are things you’re supposed to do if you want to see results, and that gave me even more confidence to move forward. I started studying in 2014, but had to put the process on hold to tend to a family matter. In 2019, I decided to pick it back up again and even set a deadline to complete my APR before the annual NSPRA banquet in the fall. The organization acknowledges APRs at the event, and I wanted to be a part of that!
Q: What do you remember about the APR process?
A: If you’ve been out of school for a while, it can be hard and even intimidating to convince yourself to start studying again. It took me a little to get going again after I started and then had to take a break. I remember my panel review went well, but I psyched myself out on the test and failed. It just seemed like the questions dragged on and you only have so much time to complete them. No one wants to hear that they failed, but the screen let’s you know quickly and boldly in big red letters at the end that you didn’t pass. I walked out and said, “I’m going to come back here in a month and pass this.” Really one month was all I had ahead of the banquet. I changed my study habits, came back and passed, and earned my pinning at the ceremony.
Q: Why do you consider the APR process so valuable? What might a future candidate gain most from the certification?
A: For me, it was about mastering the education and scientific process so I could become more confident in what I do and share with the leaders of my organization. My colleagues look to me for guidance, and I want to be able to say why we’re doing something a certain way. When I began studying, it was about further committing myself to the industry and my career and saying that PR is something I want to continue doing. PR is in me – I walk it, I talk it and here’s how and why I do what I do.
Q: What advice would you give to PR professionals who either are considering or uncertain about pursuing their APR?
A: The best piece of advice I can give a prospective APR candidate is to go at your own pace. Everyone’s journey is different. Some people will encounter challenges in their professional or personal lives like I did and have to approach it over time. Some people think they can do school and APR at the same time and find it difficult. Others may need more of a push to get started. There’s no one path to an APR, and that’s okay.
I’d also recommend that anyone who’s interested network and talk with people who have taken the classes. They can offer unique perspective into what is required and what the program truly looks like. Just because you work in PR doesn’t mean that earning an APR will be easy. The scientific methods behind it are very different from what we do on a daily basis, but still connect back and bring it all to life.
Above all, even if you haven’t stepped in a classroom in a while and think “I’ve been working in PR for 15 years. Why do I need an APR?”, it’s a game-changer. I don’t care what level you are in the profession – it will help move your knowledge and capabilities along.
Q: What would you say are the greatest misconceptions about the APR program?
A: Two immediately come to mind. The first, again, is the idea that the program is easy and that anyone can sign up, go in and fly through. You need to talk to others who have gone through the program and be prepared to study and work hard. You need to take some time to understand the process, get your research plan down and think through how you are going to complete the course. The second is the notion that it costs too much to earn an APR. Yes, you may have to invest a little up front to purchase books or register for study classes, but you may be able to get some help on the back end. Some businesses will provide professional development resources to support employees who pursue programs like this. If you’re willing to fight for yourself, you may find some extra help.
Q: When you’re not launching Troup County Schools’ next great communications program or reviewing APR presentations, what are you most likely doing?
A: I love to travel, which is still in my blood from my flight attendant days. I just like to go places and see new things. During the pandemic, I discovered a passion for going to places around me. Anywhere I can drive to within six hours or less is fair game! It’s been really interesting to see what’s close by, and what we have to offer throughout the U.S.
I’m also a huge Investigation Discovery (ID) channel nerd and you can find me watching crime and murder mystery shows on repeat. I enjoy pulling the puzzle pieces together and finding out who did it – it reminds me a lot of the strategic thinking we do in our business and everyday lives.