Kelsey Dodson-Smith is one of those people who stands out. Why? For starters, she was a VP before her 30th birthday–she has natural leadership abilities. She has a definite sense of style–just take a quick peek at her Insta page for proof! And, she seems well-loved among colleagues and friends. Sounds like a rock star to me! Let’s hear more from this all-around dynamo.
What’s been the one thing you’ve done at Cambria in your almost-two-years you’ve been there you’re the most proud of?
Such a good question. One thing I love about Cambria is the ability to be quick, nimble, and adjust to changing times. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all had to adjust our lives in a lot of ways – both personally and professionally. Scaling to the professional side, at Cambria, we (and very quickly) created curated content that we could bring to both consumers and trade partners to offer them value and speak to them at a time when let’s face it, things are uncertain. Reinforcing a message of comfort and that we’re here for them to offer assistance to keep their projects moving. Not every company has that luxury or can move that quickly. There’s something very rewarding about having to react to a circumstance you can’t control and as a team coming together to reprioritize, strategize, and execute a plan to help propel your business and others’ forward.
You were a VP well before you were 30 years old (at Sun Country Airlines)–pretty incredible. Can you talk a little about how you got to such a senior-level role at such a young age?
I’m positively flattered – thank you! Hard work and a little luck (insert wink face). But in all seriousness, determination, perseverance, and the willingness to learn are key components to move forward in your career. You’re going to fail. Get used to it. Embrace it. If you don’t fail here and there, then you aren’t pushing yourself. So buckle up, and take in every opportunity that you can. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end of leadership. It can be a wild ride but if you’re up for the challenge, it is ever so rewarding.
So many people aspire for leadership roles, especially at younger ages. I like to tell people “be careful what you wish for!” Can you share one challenge that you found in working as a VP that you didn’t quite expect?
It may sound harsh but it’s a reality, you will be underestimated. Rather than allowing that to discourage you, use it as a strength. Use it to fuel your success. Know that you have a lot of supporters. I absolutely cherish my time at Sun Country and fast track to leadership. I learned a lot along the way, like to think I left a positive mark on the organization, and I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything in the world.
You were at Sun Country for seven years, during some fairly impactful moments for the airline. What was it like to work for an airline going through arguably its most turbulent time?
We always joked that even Hollywood couldn’t write Sun Country’s history. The airline was founded with an entrepreneurial spirit – a group of former Braniff flight attendants and pilots lost their jobs, went to happy hour to blow off steam and thought “You know what? We can do this. Let’s start an airline.” And boom, Sun Country was born nearly 40 years ago. All to say, the entire history was a bit turbulent. The airline withstood several bankruptcies and always managed to survive. In fact, when I first joined the team, we were still in a bankruptcy. To see it grow from when I started there to when I left was extremely rewarding and will continue to be a highlight of my career.
Caribou, Sun Country. Cambria. You’ve worked for some iconic Minnesota brands. What is it that draws you to these types of Minnesota-bred brands vs. others?
I have been so fortunate to work for some amazing Minnesota brands. Being a homegrown Minnesotan, I grew up in this community and essentially have tater hotdish running through my veins. That being said, being a local has helped me connect in a different way with these brands. Us midwesterners – we have grit. We have determination. We have vigor. We have a down-to-earth humble nature, ease and friendliness. And through my experience, those values translate to the core of our hometown companies.
You’re a former winner of the famed AdFed 32 Under 32 Awards. Given the ever-expanding nature of awards like these, what role do you believe these types of awards have in our industry in 2020?
I mean, no one hates recognition right? Not only do the awards offer value to the recipient, but also provide credibility to the organization that awards them. It’s extremely important to recognize those who are making strides in our industry as they’ll be the ones that will help pass on knowledge that continues to shape the brands of our future.
You seem to have a definite sense of style. Where did that come from? And, I’m sure other women (and maybe men) would like to know: how do you hone that sense of style?
Awww shucks, you have me blushing. Thank you! I must give credit where credit is due, to my stylish momma. She always taught me the importance of dressing with confidence and being mindful that your clothing is one way you convey to people who you are.
Travel has also played a big part of honing in my personal style. That mixed with supporting local artists – local to this community or the community I’m visiting. It’s always fun to meet the person you’re supporting. Personally, I try to buy the age old classics and intermix with fun pieces I find along the way.
All to say, style doesn’t have any rules – own your look and dress for you.
Judging from your Insta feed, you seem to have the travel bug! Two travel-related questions: 1) Most underrated destination you’ve explored? 2) Favorite travel tip for those who may not travel as much?
Your senses are spot on. I LOVE to travel and that bug bit well before I worked for an airline. Although that certainly helped boost the craze. Hmmmm most underrated – probably Costa Rica. There are beaches, there are jungles, there are mountains. Oh and there are chiliguaros (if you’re a bloody mary fan, you’ll thank me). Pura Vida baby.
Best travel tip? That’s a tall order. I’d like to say pack light but I have an inability to do so. I tend to scour Instagram in advance of a trip for fun areas, restaurants, shopping, etc. Follow the city’s travel accounts or local magazines in the area and you can get a lot of great ideas. Also come into the vacay with a few must-dos but leave a lot of room for winging it. That’s when you uncover some of the best things. I often like to find “hidden gem” spots to get a more authentic experience – be sure to ask the locals where they like to eat. Overall, be adventurous.
With unemployment levels rising and more companies big and small furloughing or laying off employees every week, I’m guessing some of these folks are considering the possibility of “freelancing.”
I put that term in quotes because, personally, I despise it. I’ve never called myself a “freelancer”. I think it cheapens the work I do. I think it makes me look like a tactician. That term takes 15 years off my work experience.
But, I get it’s a term people use and for some, it’s definitely applicable. To each his/her own right?
Larger point: More people are going to attempt to try to pick up some work on the side as we get through this worldwide pandemic–no matter what you want to call it.
I was excited to read a post on PR Daily last week about this exact topic. However, the post left me wanting more. Sure, you should get a EIN and set up the legalities of your business. But, the article didn’t really hit on some of the bigger-picture items you should be thinking about if you’re going to try to work for yourself.
So, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this topic. After all, I’ve been getting this question for the last 5-7 years. But, given our existing circumstances, some of my advice would change–a little.
1 – Ask yourself one big question
Are you in this for the long haul? Or, are you “freelancing” as a way to make it through the pandemic. The answer to that question will drive a lot of decisions. For example, if you’re just looking to get through the next year-plus, you may just look for smaller projects here and there. You may not bother setting up a larger brand presence. You may not even bother with a web site (more on that in a minute). But, if you ARE in this for the long haul, I think you think about things differently. You think about some semblance of a business plan. You think about short and long-term goals. You think about product offerings. And, you think about what’s realistic. Start with this question, then go from there.
2 – Reset expectations
If you are going to try this, please keep in mind that you are not doing it under anything remotely resembling normal times. In the best of times, starting your own consultancy is tough. There’s a lot of competition out there. Building something from the ground up is tough! Now layer on a global pandemic and the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression? Yeah, not an easy road. So, set those expectations appropriately. In other words, don’t expect instant success and just assume this is going to be very tough. Set realistic goals–maybe 1-2 clients in the next 3-4 months. Start small, build from there.
3 – Network like your professional life depends on it
I don’t say that flippantly, given the virus. I say it because, professionally, it’s true. Over the last 10+ years, I’ve noticed there are a lot of people in our industry that don’t take networking seriously. Some of those people are going to learn a hard lesson if they’re furloughed or laid off in the coming months. You just can’t start networking when you need something. Networking is an “always-on” proposition. And, if you’re going to try the solo consultant thing, hopefully, you were already doing a fair amount of networking. If you are starting from scratch, see #2 above and adjust even more. Because now the deck is REALLY stacked against you. Regardless, you better start networking like your professional life depends on it. Because, quite frankly, it does.
4 – Focus on being useful–not creating a web site
Here’s the easiest way I can try to explain this strategy. If you create a web site for your business, what is the bulk of that content going to be about? You and your newly founded consultancy, right? Who, exactly, cares about that content right now as you’re starting out? Your Mom, maybe your spouse and your best friend. Three people. Maybe. On the flip side, if you made yourself useful and offered to help friends and colleagues in any number of ways, who would pay attention to those efforts? Virtually everybody. You would win good juju with those you’re helping (read: NEW BUSINESS!). And, people along the way would see what you’re doing (because you’re sharing on social media, of course), and thank you and acknowledge you. If you’re going to be a solo consultant, you do need some kind of online presence, but I would argue right now, in this environment, you’re better served on helping others and being useful before you even think about building that web site.
5 – Determine your niche–don’t go after everything
When you’re working on the agency or corporate sides, there’s a lot of value in being a generalist. You’re a jack or jane-of-all-trades. You can do it all. You save the company money because you can do 2-3 different jobs. It makes sense. But, on the consulting side, it’s the opposite, in my view. It makes more sense to specialize. I’m sure some folks will disagree with me, but I’ve seen far more value in specializing over the years than I have in being a generalist. Clients have specific needs. They want people who can help with those. Plus, as a solo, you’re not an AOR. You can’t possibly meet all of the client’s needs. So, don’t try to. Hone in on 1-2 niches and try to meet that, instead. Remember, you’re not trying to make $10M. You’re just trying to make more than you made in your previous job.
6 – Work with non-profits to build your portfolio
Your first hurdle as a solo will be a big one: How do I build up a portfolio of work? If you’re lucky, you’ll score a couple early clients and that work will serve as your professional solo consulting portfolio. But, what if you struggle to get those first clients? Stands to reason that will be the case given the economy, right? In that case, there is one sector that could definitely use your help right now: Non-profits. As you might imagine, they’re struggling right now. Struggling to get donors. Struggling to find volunteers. Struggling with all of it. And, there are two big areas where non-profits are typically week: Digital marketing and PR. Boom! Volunteer to help your favorite non-profit in one of these two areas. 1) You’ll feel so great about helping an organization in need. And 2) You’ll build your porfolio of work you can then use to find real, paying clients. Win-win!
It was March 13. I was enjoying another lazy day by the pool in Palm Springs. We go each year to see my parents who live in a wonderful golf community. The pandemic was just starting here in the U.S. The NBA had shut down. March Madness was next. People were starting to work from home. And, then I checked my email over lunch. The University of St. Thomas was going to distance learning for the foreseeable future.
And just like that I had to learn how to teach remotely.
Never mind that I don’t really know how to teach AT ALL. I’m an adjunct professor–I’m not a trained teacher. But, here we were, in the middle of a global pandemic and I needed to figure out how to guide this class from my home office (probably for the rest of the year).
The day we got back (Sunday, March 15), I signed up for a class St. Thomas was offering to learn Zoom. I had no previous experience with Zoom but had obviously heard about it, and knew it was going to be my primary teaching tool.
It didn’t seem that tough. Zoom was built right into Canvas, our teaching platform, so things appeared to be pretty easy. I was going to give it a shot on Monday and just jump right in. Now, five weeks in to this teaching adventure, I can safely say I’ve learned a ton. Some of it has been tough. Some, depressing. But, for the most part, I’ve actually found it invigorating! A new challenge. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance to teach through history.
Along the way, I’ve had my ups, downs and sideways glances:
Up: Just start–figure out the rest later
This approach fits my personality nicely. Since starting my business, I’ve really adopted the “test and experiment” mindset. And, that is custom-made for this type of situation. I knew I needed to dive right in on that Monday and just try Zoom out, and see how it went. I had no idea what I was doing. Again–I am not a trained teacher! But, I also know the worst thing I could do would be to over-analyze the situation and try to be perfect. So, I jumped in. Head first. I read a few things about teaching via Zoom and I just started.
Down: Bring (way) more energy on Zoom
Remember Ignite (for you Minnesotans reading)? I remember going to those early events and learning a ton about presenting. No tip was more valuable than watching Meghan McInerny bring an insane amount of energy to her presentation one particular year (for the life of me, I cannot remember the year or venue). My takeaway–bringing a lot of energy can make a substantial difference in how the audience reacts to you. That’s been a big lesson for me on Zoom. Plus, consider the circumstances. Students are living at home with their parents (mostly). They can’t see friends. They can’t go to parties. They can’t do sports or other extracurricular activities. Not surprisingly, they don’t feel great about that. So, they really haven’t been their normal selves in class. Me bringing more energy is almost essential to teaching and getting through to them.
Do everything you can to use video
I’ve been lucky. From the get-go, most students in class have used the video functionality on Zoom. They didn’t have to. They could have just gone audio. But SEEING each other three times a week makes a big difference. Even if we are all wearing sweatshirts and sitting on our couches. That visual communication makes a difference. And, I think the kids sense that. I haven’t forced or asked them to use the video, but I do think you should do everything in your power to make that happen. I can tell you from being on many audio-only calls the last few weeks, seeing people makes a big difference.
Inject more fun into learning
One of the pivots I made when we went to distance learning was to, generally, add more fun to the class. I try to make my class as fun as possible anyway. But again, considering the students’ circumstances (keep in mind, these seniors won’t get to walk across a stage to get their diploma in May), I think adding fun is almost a must. Part of my job, as I see it now, is to keep their spirits up. To pump them up a bit. This too shall pass, right? I keep telling them that! But, I also need to find creative ways to make class more entertaining. So, a week ago, I introduced Social Media Jeopardy! I did my best Alek Trebek impersonation, I found an awesome Jeopardy template online, and we had some fun with it. Was it super bumpy and awkward? Yep. But, did it induce some laughs and smiles from the students? I think so. Totally worth it. And, I’m thinking of other things like this I can do in the last four weeks of class.
How can you help the students even more
One of the big ways I add value as an adjunct is to bring that real-world perspective to the classroom. I’ve done this in many ways this semester: We attended a Social Media Breakfast event in Feb.; and I bring in guest speakers on a regular basis. I had other ideas, but they were derailed when we went all online. Now, with COVID tanking the markets and internships and job prospects for these kids drying up faster than you can say “novel coronavirus”, I knew I had to look for different ways to bring that real-world perspective to them. So, I made another pivot. I suggested we use a bit of class time over three class periods to go over how to use LinkedIn (and social media, in general) to find a job or internship. Then, I offered up my time (above and beyond class time) to help them one-on-one, if they had questions/concerns about the job hunt process for the summer. I’ve already had three of these meetings, and I think they’ve been helpful. We had our first session on LinkedIn last Friday. My job is to teach them about social media marketing. But, it’s also to prepare them to enter the job market. This change in “curriculum” is helping me do that–and, hopefully, add meaningful value to their lives right now.
That’s my quick update on how “distance learning” is going for this adjunct professor. I’ll have a final update after mid-May when class winds up!
With unemployment approaching 2008-09 levels (and some projecting Great Depression 30% levels), finding a job the next few months to a year is going to be something a lot of people are doing.
Even in our industry. Just in Minneapolis, Best Buy, Sleep Number and Regis have already furloughed employees. Many agencies have asked employees to take pay cuts. More layoffs and furloughs are imminent.
But, as people go on the job hunt once again, many will need help brushing up their LinkedIn profile and coming up with creative ways to get their names in front of the right people.
I’m sad to report that most people aren’t regular LinkedIn users. So, when these people start using LinkedIn, there’s going to be a bit of a steep learning curve. We’re all about to see this first-hand on LinkedIn in the coming months. Get ready for it.
Since there are so many LinkedIn experts out there sharing so many tips, I thought I’d spare you the basic suggestions and instead share some “under the radar” tips I think could really differentiate you and help set yourself apart from the competition.
Commenting on local professional super networkers posts
When I was starting on LinkedIn–and even back well before that to Twitter–this was one of my key strategies. And, it worked. First step is to find those people you consider the super-networkers. You know–the people who “know everybody.” Find them, read their stuff on LinkedIn and look for opportunities to add real value. Don’t promote yourself in the comments. Don’t promote content you’ve written. Simply comment and add your thoughtful comment. This way, your name gets in front of thousands (literally) of people and potential hiring managers in your area. Think about it this way–you could make your own post on a particular topic and 50-100 people might see it. Or, you could comment on a super-networkers post and 5,000 people might see it.
Target your profile pic, banner and headline to one open position
Crazy idea, right? But, bear with me. What if your dream job was to work in PR at Target. In that case, could you create a custom profile pic of you wearing the traditional Target red shirt? Could you also develop a creative banner featuring a Target step-and-repeat (or your local Target store). Finally, could you finally customize your headline to make sure it included “Target” and the exact position you were aiming for? Don’t you think that would make an impression on the folks at Target?
Use your summary to tell a creative story
Sure, a lot of people use the summary section to tell their story. But, in many cases, “telling your story” equates to a bunch of gobbledeegook business language that only MBA-level folks can understand. Why not use this area to get creative and tell an actual STORY? Your story. Do it in a fun, narrative-type way instead of writing it like your the CEO of a financial services company. For example, here’s what I would write if I were looking for a job right now:
“Hey, my name’s Arik. I’m a native Minnesotan, but man, do I hate our winters. I’ve worked in communications for almost 25 years. The first 15 of those years I spent hopping from one job to another–I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a lot of direction. But, I learned a ton–from a lot of smart people. Then, in 2009, I started my own consultancy focused on social media marketing. Since then, I’ve worked with more than 70 clients across the country, including Walmart, Walgreens, Sleep Number, Cargill and many other Fortune 500 companies. I write one of the longest-running PR and social media blogs in the country. I co-manage one of the longest-running PR/social media podcasts in Minnesota. But, more importantly, I’ve helped deliver real business value to those 70+ companies I mentioned above. Just ask them. No really–I’ll give you some names and you can ask them. Interested in hearing more? I’d love to talk–firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Create a Pitch Deck about yourself for LinkedIn
If you’re been around a while, you may remember the young woman who created a pitch deck comparing herself to Disney princesses and using it across Twitter in the early 2010s. Fun idea at the time, but the notion of creating your own personal pitch deck is a great one. And, not employed by too many. Why not create this pitch deck and use it in a variety of ways–namely, in the “Featured” section on your LinkedIn profile where you can upload different media. You could then “point” to it in your “About” section, too.
Start a video series focused on one specific niche of comms
Sure, there’s more video content on LinkedIn these days. But, it hasn’t reached over-saturation phase yet. In fact, I can’t think of too many people locally here in Minneapolis who are using video regularly to market themselves on LinkedIn. So, wouldn’t that be a good idea to stand out from your competition? Couldn’t you start a weekly video series where you talk about the area of comms you have the most experience in–or the area you want to be hired for? What better way to showcase your knowledge, your composure and your presentation skills. People are uncomfortable with video–I get that. But, how badly do you want that job?
As the COVID-19 outbreak began last month, I noticed there seemed to be two kinds of brands. Those who went quiet and were going through the crisis communications playbook when it came to content on social channels.
And, those who decided to switch it up, adapt to the new circumstances and take some calculated risks.
It’s been fascinating to watch.
Now, some of these new approaches have been riskier than others. But, the point is these seven brands adapted and changed quickly to their new environments and they acted decisively and knowing full-well they were taking a bit of a gamble.
Let’s look at a few of the more prominent examples.
Steak Umms takes a (big) stand on Twitter
friendly reminder in times of uncertainty and misinformation: anecdotes are not data. (good) data is carefully measured and collected information based on a range of subject-dependent factors, including, but not limited to, controlled variables, meta-analysis, and randomization
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) April 7, 2020
This list probably starts and ends with Steak Umms. But, I didn’t want to have a list of one! But, the brand’s decision to use its Twitter account as a voice of reason in a sea of disinformation during the oubreak was a bold one. I mean, who wanted or needed frank media literacy advice from a frozen steak food? APPARENTLY WE ALL DID!
Coke devotes its Twitter feed to help the needy
Coke made the interesting decision earlier this month to devote its entire Twitter feed to promoting and highlighting its non-profit partners. Makes sense, right? Especially given consumers are looking for brands to take leadership right now. But, still a big move by a monster company who would easily be talking about any number of things right now.
General Mills is using Zoom to interview execs on key COVID-related topics
General Mills’ social team didn’t sit idly around very long–they started interviewing key executives a couple weeks ago around COVID-related topics. Most recently, just yesterday, they interviewed their vice president of consumer insights to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on consumer behavior and food trends.
Domino’s uses Zoom to produce recruiting commercial
This wasn’t a purely social play, but Domino’s was one of the first companies I noticed to use ALL Zoom footage to create a legit commercial. In this case, it featured the company’s franchisees in an effort to bolster recruiting (big message right now with millions of people out of work).
Best Buy shares CEO video message initially aimed at employees on LinkedIn
Best Buy stole a page out of Microsoft’s playbook when it posted a message from CEO, Corie Barry, this week that was initially shared with employees. Very transparent. Very honest. It’s something Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is famous for–sharing employee-only memos on Microsoft’s social media channels. Nice to see a local company doing that here in Minnesota.
Walmart uses employee-generated content to thank front-line workers
Oh, I know: This isn’t all that ground-breaking. But it is when you’re one of the largest companies in the world. Their resources are vast and deep. They could have taken any number of approaches. But, the decision to feature employee-generated content on the Walmart Facebook page was a big one. They also featured many employee-generated snippets in their recent ad you’ve undoubtedly seen by now.
Life Time taking a big-time stand behind its CEO
If you have ever met Braham Akradi, you’re not surprised by the message he shared on his web site (and on the Life Time LinkedIn page) in March about the urgency to get back to some kind of “new normal” and to set a date. As far as I could tell, at the time, he was the only business leader making this claim and outlining a clear plan for what he’d like to see done. Talk about taking a stand.