As a child, Melissa Vela-Williamson, APR, loved animals and dreamed of being a veterinarian. She decided to build a career in public relations instead, but she has found opportunities to work for animal welfare.
Last year, she had the chance to support the local humane society’s 70th-anniversary campaign, along with her firm MVW Communications in San Antonio, Texas. “Public relations can intersect with any passion you have,” she said.
Vela-Williamson was the April 27 guest for Strategies & Tactics Live, PRSA’s monthly webinar series on LinkedIn. A columnist for PRSA’s award-winning publication Strategies & Tactics, she is also the author of the 2022 book, “Smart Talk: Public Relations Essentials All Pros Should Know.”
“Most people’s career paths are not linear,” Vela-Williamson told John Elsasser, host of S&T Live and editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. “I built my career brick by brick, slowly, figuring it out along the way.”
She works with students who, like herself, are the first generations in their families to obtain university degrees. Her mother worked as a cashier in a grocery store while raising five children, and eventually earned an associate degree in dental hygiene, but “it was not easy for her,” Vela-Williamson said. As a high school student, “I knew that if I had the opportunity to do my best, I should. Because not everyone has that opportunity.”
Encouraged by her teachers, “I knew that I was a good writer,” she said. In college, while studying English and communications, she learned copywriting. “I was a published poet and a published essayist and a published photographer. But none of that added up to a stable career.”
During her last semester of college, Vela-Williamson saw another student’s presentation about public relations as a possible career. During a PR internship, the student had helped arrange a newspaper story about a nonprofit that helped people with missing limbs learn to waterski. The experience “really inspired them and empowered them to do other brave things in their lives,” she said.
Vela-Williamson realized that public relations “is work that matters. It was something that I could really get excited about.”
‘Somebody knows somebody’
To break into the profession, start asking “the right people quietly, but strategically” whether they know anyone in public relations they might introduce. “Somebody knows somebody,” she said. “It’s always that referral that’s going to get you that shot.”
In her case, a spin instructor at the gym referred her to his wife, who owned a boutique PR firm and took on freelancers. After a few months, they offered her a full-time position. “It was the break I needed,” Vela-Williamson said.
Too often, she receives messages from working PR professionals who “have never spent the time to build their own professional network of allies that can vouch for them and refer them on,” Vela-Williamson said. Throughout careers in communications, “we all have that responsibility, for our organizations and clients, but mostly for ourselves. The only way we can really add that safety net around us throughout our career journey is by having those relationships.”
Vela-Williamson also “really wants to push the profession forward in thinking about, ‘How do we intersect public relations with DE&I principles?’” she said. “Because that’s what humanity needs.”
You can watch the playback of the conversation on LinkedIn.