Q&A with Hispanic PR Pro Deborah Charnes Vallejo of Bromley Communications

Deborah Charnes Vallejo is Vice President/Director of Public Relations for Bromley Communications.

Tell us about your educational background?
As a college freshman, I dreamed of being an international reporter. My school’s journalism program didn’t allow me to take any journalism courses until my third year.  In the meantime, within Liberal Arts & Sciences, I began to drift toward social anthropology and linguistics – both areas that were previously unknown to me.  Debby Charnes Vallejo Photo

Through that discipline, I was able to study in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, and chart my own path.  I did field work on the island of Trinidad analyzing mass communications.  I conducted research on Spanish language variation in Mexico, Colombia and Chicago.  I was a DJ and public affairs director at my college radio station.  As a result of the heavy coursework and independent study projects, I graduated in three years.  After graduation, I stayed in Mexico City teaching English and writing freelance for ComputerWorld de Mexico. Teaching English taught me more about English grammar than all the English classes I was forced to take as a student, combined.

In hindsight, all those experiences were crucial to shaping my background and preparing me for a life in international and multicultural communications.

What advice would you have for young people exploring Hispanic or multicultural PR careers?

Sometimes, Hispanic or African-Americans are assigned to work on multicultural accounts simply because of their color or surname.  Just as practitioners develop expertise in healthcare PR, investor relations or public affairs, one becomes a Hispanic or multicultural PR professional out of experience plus passion. It is a niche. For some, a very narrow niche, for others, an opportunity to delve deep into a culture as diverse and broad as our continent.  It must be a choice rather than an assignment.

Much of my career has been focused on national Hispanic communications. I have lived in three major US Hispanic ADIs and have traveled the country (and Latin America) extensively. My cultural anthropology background has taught me to open my eyes everywhere to understand the nuances that are different from one barrio to the next, that ultimately help a PR professional to design a campaign that is relevant and hard hitting.

Last year, I spent several weeks in a small impoverished New Mexico town conducting door to door canvassing and placing telephone calls on behalf of one of the political campaigns.  I walked one end of the town to the other, several times over, and knocked on doors that were opened by drug dealers, ex-convicts, the unemployed, small business owners, senior citizens, the god-fearing and multi-generational families living in shacks or trailers.  Talking to the people inside their homes, I saw many differences from their big city counterparts.  Yet there are always commonalities.

Young people entering Hispanic PR need to understand that the Hispanic world is vast and diverse. I encourage my staff to read the Spanish-language newspapers from all over the country, and not to ignore the farandula. We also encourage Bromley employees to hang out in the barrio and talk to people there as much as possible, whether in their hometown or while traveling.  Every day can be focus group day.

Tell us something about you that would surprise even many of your closest friends?
Sometimes I think I’ll retire and work at the grocery store check out line.

What is one of the best lessons you learned from your parents?
My mother always said, “If you are going to do it, do it right.”  She was a freelance writer, so I grew up seeing loads of rejection letters, and few published pieces. I also saw unending series of edits. While I felt her frustration, her joy in each individual placement made the effort worthwhile.  Additionally, my siblings and I all became solid writers as a result of her “redlining” our written assignments with a real red pencil.  That personal coaching was far more effective than anything I learned in a classroom.

Describe the most effective PR campaign you’ve ever worked on and what made it special?
I’ve been in this business far too long to be able to select one campaign. For the most part, I judge effectiveness by solid data to prove success was due to PR.  Unfortunately, many of our clients do not engage in sufficient pre- and post-research to isolate and confirm the effect of PR.  There are two campaigns that come to mind that had solid proof of success.  Each won numerous PR Awards.

The first was an awareness campaign conducted for Boy Scouts of America among Hispanic boys and their parents in Texas. A Galloway Research survey indicated a 104 percent increase in unaided awareness three months into the program and a 50 percent increase in ‘top of mind’ awareness.

The other was a general market assignment to rally support of a bond passage. Basically, we were asking residents to vote for $214 million in general obligation bonds to cover 113 projects.   Since no one likes to increase taxes, and it’s impossible to understand 113 projects, we created an aggressive grassroots campaign to educate voters on key aspects of the bills. Ultimately, all propositions were passed.

Beyond the quantitative results, one of my most memorable campaigns is also one of my first. It was a nationwide Hispanic Heritage children’s art contest for McDonald’s.  I still vividly recall the chubby girl from Corpus Christi and the shy third grader from Arizona who were sent to Washington, D.C. with their teachers and their families during Hispanic Heritage Week. We unveiled their art along with that of the semi-finalists at a children’s museum and then presented President Ronald Reagan with the winners’ art at a Rose Garden Reception.

What do you believe helps differentiate your agency and how big is your PR team?
Our agency is owned and run by a former self-acknowledged “research geek.”  We don’t just create big splashes or wild creative.  Everything must be grounded in strong insights. We strive to understand the Hispanic market better than anyone else. It is our livelihood and we need to live it every second of the day, so that we can predict and prompt our consumers’ responses.

I have been with Bromley Communications since 1998 and we have always maintained a very lean PR team.  Beyond the dedicated PR staff, we work closely with Bromley account planners, creatives, production and account management teams.  Additionally, we have select freelancers with longstanding ties to the agency that we rely on to ensure top quality service and results during those frequent peaks.

Who are some of your agency’s top Hispanic/multicultural PR clients and what is the most exciting campaign your team is presently working on?
Earlier this year we completed exciting campaigns for both Coors Light and Western Union.  The Coors Light and Western Union bulls eye targets vary dramatically and those are good examples of why we must understand all facets of our consumer.

What’s in the works at Bromley for continued growth and expansion?
As is the case with many agencies, we are expanding more into the social media arena.  While many aspects of digital fit within PR, at our agency we are trying to ensure that interactive becomes a part of all disciplines.

What is the biggest challenge your agency has encountered in the midst of the prolonged recession?

It’s a changing world: from the media to the corporate side to the agencies.   Budgets everywhere are being slashed and agencies are asked to deliver more for the buck.

What is your agency’s annual Hispanic PR marketing billings?
While we cannot disclose figures, our agency is almost entirely focused on the Hispanic market.

What is the most important business habit you have?
We are in a service industry and we must be available at any time to our clients, and respond quickly to any call or request.  I rely on a Blackberry, and when I go on vacation, I don’t disconnect.

What book have you recently read?
I am currently reading An Island Called Home by Ruth Behar.  Behar fled Cuba with her family at the age of four, yet has returned many times to uncover what she cannot remember.  She is a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, but also an accomplished writer, filmmaker and a MacArthur “genius.”  I saw her introduce her documentary Adio Kerida about Jewish (Sephardic) Cuba many years ago at a Latino Film Fest and later provided pro bono support to a conference of MacArturos (the Latino MacArthurs).  Last month I attended one her book readings at a Macondo Foundation event.

Who do you believe are today’s innovative Latino leaders/influencers (in general)?
Any educator, school counselor or community leader that can help to motivate today’s youth to excel in any area that they choose.  I have come across many talented, successful Latinos that were not always the most likely to succeed.  Beyond test scores, oftentimes it is the personal attention or encouragement given to students that leads them to success. Yet these influencers are not recognized as they should be.

Going back to my McDonald’s art contest, I recall the teacher of the grand prize winner explaining how the little girl had “messed up” her drawing.  Rather than rip it up and start again, as she was thinking of doing, the teacher prodded her to fix the “mess.”  The result, she covered up the error with a three-dimensional cut-out that gave her artwork s very unique and special feel that likely earned her the space at the White House.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
I welcome challenges. I think it keeps us on our toes.  Traditionally, in Hispanic PR we are challenged with budgets that are a fraction of the general market expenditures, yet we have similar goals, objectives and strategies, and oftentimes need to have much more compelling results than that of general market.

If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
I’ve struggled with work/life balance, as I think have many in our industry.

What was your childhood ambition?
Although I was somewhat shy, I yearned to be a singer or actress.  Now, I just take them on media tours.

Tell us about three people that you admire and why?
Given what’s in today’s news, Ted Kennedy, JFK and Barack Obama.  The Kennedy brothers shaped our present day country, and Obama is on the path to ensure an even better future for our residents. All three are/were extremely positive thinkers for whom no challenge was too great.

What is your favorite quote?
Imagine.

What is the biggest Hispanic marketing cliche you would love to see go away?
Hispanic Heritage Month, Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre?

Tell us about your agency
Bromley Communications was founded in San Antonio in 1981 as a Hispanic full service marketing communications agency.  It has always used ground-breaking techniques to attract diverse Hispanic audiences. It was one of the first agencies to run a Spanish-language advertisement on an English-language television network, incorporate non-traditional media and was among the first to create culturally relevant Spanglish ads that capture the unique ‘voice” of Hispanic markets.
———————————————————————————————————
AGENCY NAME: Bromley Communications LLC
ADDRESS: 401 E. Houston, San Antonio, TX
AGENCY PRINCIPALS: Ernest Bromley
PR BILLINGS: NA
AGENCY FOUNDED: 1981
EMPLOYEES: 150
TOP 3 HISPANIC PR CLIENTS: Western Union, San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, Coors Light
WEB SITE: www.bromleyville.com
———————————————————————————————————-