Hispanic PR interview with Melissa Smith, EVP of RLPR

Melissa Smith is executive vice president of RLPR.  She manages the New York office of RLPR which is headquartered in Los Angeles under the leadership of Roxana Lissa.

What was your childhood ambition? Melissa Smith - RLPR

I was a moody kid with a big personality – not too dissimilar to who I am today! I loved to socialize and dance and I loved telling everyone what to do. I don’t remember thinking too much about a future career – I was too focused on the me and the now – at least that part has changed a bit!

Tell us about three people you admire and why?
My father. He grew up in Brooklyn with two siblings and was not an academic kid. He enlisted in the army and came out a focused man. He attended college while working as a bank teller, and retired as a high-profile banking professional. He is driven and serious, but always balanced his life with love and play. (My mother was one of his high school girlfriends who he lost touch with when he went to the army. After running into her on the subway when he became a civilian, they were engaged within three months). I try to structure my life with my father in mind.

My husband. Somewhat similar to my father, my husband struggled as a student and became a Marine out of high school. He recently went back to school at night to complete his bachelor’s degree. He, like my father, values balance in his life, and works hard to succeed at work (at the UN), at school, at his friendships, with our family and with his health. He is one of the most disciplined people I know, if not the most. He is a real inspiration and example to me of how to have it all.

My boss. Roxana is the reason I went into Hispanic PR. I have had few female mentors in my life and she is definitely the most significant one of them. How a young woman could have so much passion, commitment and vision about her business – and achieve such success, while also having a family and being so loving to all who know her is really admirable, and I am honored to be in her circle of love.

What is your favorite life or business quote?
Persistence pays off.

Besides your firm, what are you really passionate about outside of work?
Wine, food, friends, family – specifically, my new son. Not necessarily in that order!

Tell us about your educational background.
I am a product of the NYC public school system, although I had a stint in private school from 6-8th grade because my Brooklyn accent was so severe my mother could not understand me. Apparently the words “shirt” and “shorts” were coming out the same.. .
I attended Washington University in St. Louis and graduated with a degree in English Literature with a minor in Drama and Anthropology. There were no PR classes at that time!

What is one of the best lessons your parents taught you about life?
To be independent, to be responsible, to enjoy life and to be financially secure.

What is the most important business habit you have?
I still write down a weekly to do list on a legal pad.

What is the best book you’ve recently read and why?
As a new mother and a fulltime professional, I will admit that reading books has fallen way off my list of priorities. I do however read this great book called “Cookies: Bite Size Life Lessons” to my son almost daily and it’s full of meaningful advice for all ages – such as sharing means giving your friends cookies, and content is when you enjoy just sitting on the stoop eating cookies with friends. It’s become a nice reminder for me on my values and priorities every day.

How did you start your career in PR and where has that taken you?
My first PR internship was with Creative Time, a non-profit arts organization in NY that installs art exhibits in public places. It made me feel strongly about non-profit work, and led to my first full-time position in the PR department of the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, which unfortunately showed me some of the problems with non-profit work when I got laid off. After that I worked for a couple of small PR agencies run and owned by women. I experienced a lot of drama, but I learned a good deal about many different industries and became a PR generalist. I took a pay cut and a title demotion to join GCI Group in 1998 as a SAE. Finally in a structured environment, I excelled, but I also lacked for real mentorship which I felt I needed after my boss Susan Patton left the agency. I was managing one Hispanic account by default and became passionate about the work. I met Roxana in 2000 and also felt passionate about her and her agency. When she offered me the opportunity to open her NY office in 2003 I jumped at it. I was a Group Vice President of the Consumer Marketing Practice by then and felt I had hit the glass ceiling. It was time for a change, and for the right change. Almost 6 years later I could not be happier with the decision I made.

What advice would you have for young people exploring Hispanic or multicultural PR careers?
I believe there are not enough young professionals entering this field, so to those interested I would say definitely explore this opportunity because niche businesses set you apart from your peers. I would recommend becoming familiar with the media most followed by different audiences, and also thinking about the core touchstones that are meaningful to different populations.

Tell us something about you that would surprise even many of your closest friends.
I am not a good sleeper – that is a pretty well known fact by most. But on the nights I cannot sleep, I replay my wedding day and my honeymoon in my mind… all of the little details of both occasions. I am a true romantic and thinking about these times with my husband calms me and helps me relax.

What do you believe differentiates your agency and how big is your Hispanic-focused PR team?
Our core focus IS the Hispanic market. So we all work on this business. I think though that what sets us apart from our competitors is our unique position as an independent agency that is run by a visionary and entrepreneur and a woman to boot! You can feel and see Roxana’s influence in everything that we do and it is because she has faith in her people and instills confidence and pride in everyone that we are who we are. Additionally, we boast the only Latino Sports PR division in the country – Sportivo, which helps brands connect with Latinos sports fan in the U.S.

Describe the most effective Hispanic marketing campaign you’ve worked on and what made it special?
The Cover Girl My Colors of Success program was a real stand out in my career. It addressed a true need in the community – providing scholarships and guidance to high school Latinas who were at the time winning the dropout race. The program was a great PR success, but it also really affected young woman around the country. For years after it ended, both Roxana and I stayed in touch with scholarship winners and young women we met through the program. They are now in college or are recent graduates. It is a benefit to our work to know that we made the client happy and brought some life-changing experiences to young people in this country.

What are some of your agency’s top Hispanic/multicultural PR clients and what is the most exciting campaign your team is presently working on?
Heineken USA, Verizon Wireless, Nike, Clarins USA.   I think the most exciting thing we are working on is the 2010 Hispanic PR plan for Heineken USA, but you will have to wait until next year to see why!

What is the special challenge of working for a Hispanic PR agency when you are not Hispanic?

If I had a penny for every time I had that question, but of course it is a good one.  Roxana and I both believe that passion and commitment will lead your abilities, and will be the foundations of your success. In fact ,we hire people with no PR experience, or who are new to the US and are not yet knowledgeable about the dynamics of the Hispanic market in the U.S. as proof of that belief.  Yes, when I began my work with RLPR I took Spanish classes and had a tutor.  And yes, I understand much of what you are saying when you speak in Spanish (as my staff knows!), but no, I am not comfortable speaking the language.  It is definitely something I hope to overcome, but in the meantime it has not caused a barrier for me at all. And in fact, dare I say it, I feel that being a non-Latino sometimes help clients and potential clients who are also not Hispanic feel a little more willing to learn and understand the Hispanic marketplace. They think – if she did it, so can I.

What adjustments has your agency made to overcome some of the challenges of the current prolonged recession?
Fortunately, we have not had to make any significant changes. We are more aware of our vendor contracts and out of pocket expenses because we want to ensure our client’s dollars are spent properly, but we have not had to make any staffing changes. In fact we have had several promotions this year!

What’s in the works at RLPR for continued growth and expansion?
We have evolved our Hispanic social media practice and are servicing most of our clients with social media initiatives. From reaching out to blogs, to developing Hispanic-relevant content on Facebook and YouTube, we are assisting our clients in areas that are new to them and new to the market.

What is the biggest Hispanic marketing cliché that you would love to see go away?
That a translated press release is a Hispanic PR campaign.

What are the top dos and donts about marketing through Hispanic social media?
1) Know your target. Depending on their level of acculturation, language preference, age, hobbies, etc., your target will follow different social media outlets, blogs, etc.  Just because it’s a “Hispanic website” does not mean it is touching or influencing your target.
2) Think about being “in culture” and let the language part follow. We often say that cultural relevance is a strategy and language is a tactic.
3) Balance your campaigns. I do not believe that there are enough quality social media outlets reaching Hispanics in the U.S. right now. To be effective, you need to balance a social media effort with some traditional opportunities that work such as community outreach, grassroots or traditional media relations.

What are your three favorite sources to find out what is going on in the US Hispanic world and what do you look for in these resources?
Hispanicad.com, The Pew Hispanic Center and Juan Tornoe’s blog.  I look for fresh content and news, new research and also what other brands are doing in the industry.