mp_501 May Robinson

What does love have to do with it? The Power, Privilege, and Responsibility in Communicating with May Medallada Robinson

What does it mean to show love in the work of our agencies? What does it mean to nurture those who come after us in the communications field? May Medallada Robinson joins us to demonstrate how personal purpose can lead to professional progress.

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Welcome to this first episode of season five of the Mission Forward podcast. We come together this week in the spirit of love, with a provocative conversation on the love we have in our work, shared with one of our favorite people.

May Medallada Robinson is a communications and marketing consultant and she has spent her career at the intersection of communications and equity. She is a professor at Towson University, a Senior Strategist here at Mission Partners, and she is a deeply involved and engaged member of the community.

Let’s set the stage with May’s purpose: "to use communication, education, and multiracial experience to bridge gaps and increase empathy, humanity, and love in the world."

Notice any words in there that you might not find on the standard comms CV? We did, too. And those words are at the heart of why May starts the season with us this Valentine’s day week.

We ask each other — and each of you — what does it mean to show love in the work we do, the work of our agencies, and for those who come after us in our field? What does it mean to employ our love of this work toward love of one another in such a way that nurtures those around us, that lifts those beneath us, and heals divides rather than creates them?

We are navigating challenging seas together as we help our clients to tell their stories and educate our communities through our words, our pictures, and our campaigns. If there are better ways to operate that contribute to a more inclusive and multiracial society, we’re lucky to have May with us to share her experiences toward that end through her own love of the field, with lessons we may use to lift all our boats together.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Welcome to this first episode of Season 5 of Mission Forward. We are so excited to be back with you all, and the thrilled to be kicking off this season with May Medallada Robinson, a communications and marketing consultant who has spent her career at the intersection of communications and equity. She is a professor at Towson, a senior strategist at Mission Partners and a deeply involved and engaged member of our community here in Montgomery county, Maryland. I love May for a lot of reasons, and one of those is how clear she is in her purpose. May’s life purpose is to use communication, education and her multiracial experience to bridge gaps and increased empathy, humanity, and love in the world. That is really at the heart of why we wanted to kickstart this season with us today on this Valentine’s day week. If we hearken back to a conversation that we had on this podcast, a couple seasons back with Edgar Villanova, we talked about our role as a trusted advisor with our clients. And our need often, maybe more often than not these days, to speak truth to power with love. That work extends to how we think about running our own business, rooting and understanding and acknowledging the white supremacist norms in typical agency culture, challenging those norms, thinking about why agencies run with certain norms in place. And if there are in fact different and better ways to operate that contribute to a more inclusive and multiracial society. And that brings us to today’s conversation. May, welcome to the show.

May Medallada Robinson: Thank you so much, Carrie. I’m so excited to be here. Some of you listening might know that Carrie and I worked closely together on the first two seasons, I believe of Mission Forward. So it’s amazing to see it now in its fifth season and I’m excited to be a guest today. Communications has always been a natural fit for me. Just something that I feel like brings us all together no matter our backgrounds. It’s just a powerful tool as you’ve kind of delved into in recent seasons of Mission Forward. It’s just very powerful bringing us together. So I’ve always had that at the core of who I am, but coming into, I think my 20s, I really started grappling with my multiracial identity and something that I’ve written about recently talking about balancing both the pain and privilege of both holding a white identity, as well as a brown identity in one person. And what that means and how maybe I can use that to understand the experiences of both sides, as well as use communications to bridge some of those gaps. And then naturally education fits into that piece just because I feel like that’s also one of the powerful ways that we bridge gaps and bring people together. So yes, in everything that I do today, whether it is as a senior strategist at Mission Partners, or as a professor at Towson, I try to really merge those three areas in everything I do. So communications, equity and education.

Carrie Fox: You know, better than most on this season show, we are digging into the power of communications. And when we think about that, I’m thinking about the inherent power, and you’ve just named it that we hold as communicators, what we do with that power and then how we disrupt some of those norm along the way that can lead to even greater outcome and impact for the world around us. Just this morning, I was talking with someone around the harms of urgency and agency work and how that in and of itself is a white supremacist norm. That when we start from a place of urgency, we, number one, can’t ever expect to feel good at the end of the process. But number two, we lose the ability to gather different perspectives and insights and work styles. And this is one thing that I think you have brought so deeply to the way we think at the agency and the way that we operate in just a couple years. We are by no ways doing everything right here and an expert on this, we are learning, but very intentionally learning along the way and challenging when we see things. But you and I have both been in many agencies in our careers. And I’m curious as we get into this conversation, this issue of urgency, that seems to be always rearing its ugly head in agency world, how does that sit with you as you come into conversation?

May Medallada Robinson: I think it’s something that early on in my career, I really didn’t think that we had the power as employees or as agency team members to really question the practices of PR. It kind of was just always thought to be like, this is way things are done, especially in a client-driven business. And I know that was one of the biggest conversations that we had here at Mission Partners because, you’re right, I’ve been along the journey and grateful to be along the journey with Mission Partners and really breaking down some of the white supremacist cultural norms that show up in all businesses. They had been showing up in Mission Partners. And that was one thing that I think all of us struggled with was that issue, like you said, a sense of urgency. Some of the other norms were a lot easier to break because they were that maybe we controlled ourselves and we knew how to get ahead of some of those things and get around them. But with urgency, it’s often these clients that will come to us and of course we pay our bills because of the clients. So clients will come to agency sometimes with unrealistic expectations of timelines and work and maybe even undervalue the work of communications and public relations. And I’ve seen this probably at every agency that I’ve worked at, where clients will come and want things that we know if we were to really execute it in a way that is true to the quality we can provide to these organizations, it might take us several months, maybe six months to really put together a very thoughtful research process and campaign and implementation. And one of the anti-racist norms would be fostering collectivism and collaboration. So creating those collaborative spaces with members of our team, as well as members of the organization we’re working with, that all takes time. And when we have that sense of urgency and just say yes to every project that comes our way, even though they say, I need this big strategic plan in three weeks, then we lose that opportunity for collaboration and lose that opportunity for thoughtfulness and research and quality. And there are actually a lot of agencies, and I do tell my students this, to be wary of the agencies that are focused on quantity. I see them as focused on how many billable hours can we bill, but we don’t really care if we’re giving a unique strategy or solution to our clients. We just want to put out as much work as possible, build people for it and make money, which is not the way that communications or public relations should be and it’s not providing the best outcomes for the organizations either. I think we need to challenge that more, both as agencies, but even as employees, because I think that might have been the start maybe. And you could correct me if I’m wrong, at Mission Partners, of maybe noticing that some of our employees were really getting burnt out and overwhelmed with some of this work that if a client sent an email and said, I need this tomorrow, we would work until later into the evening to put it together. And if our team members were unavailable to, management would take that on. Because again, that’s just the way we were kind of trained that public relations practitioners operate to always say yes to the client. The client is never wrong. You just got to do what you need to do. I even remember working, not at Mission Partners, at another agency and getting a client call on Christmas eve while I was shopping. And my boss was like, well, you’re going to have to stop shopping and come in because we have a media opportunity and you need to prep the client. So I had to leave my family and go in this newsroom on Christmas eve. And it’s like, is that really how our world and how our industry should operate? We need to think through that and think through how we can, I think as an industry, pushed back against it.

Carrie Fox: I can think of so many experiences like that early on. That it was expected, May that we would take those calls and we would do that work because when you’re just starting in a new job, that’s how you cut your teeth. That’s how you prove your value to move up. But that idea that we are being told we must work in a certain way at a certain pace, that that is not the way that most people work well. In fact, I would challenge if that’s the way that anybody works well in the spirit of racing, racing, after something. Perhaps those who are listening, I might challenge you think about what kind of pace do you operate at inside your own organization? And have you ever thought this person on my team is not working out because they’re not cutting it, they’re too slow? Are they in fact working at just the pace they should be and maybe things around them are moving too fast? So there’s a lot here that I think inside the agency environment, it’s about time for agency leaders to think about different ways of operating and providing their service. Of course, understanding, as you said, we are in a service model. Our job is to be in service of the work, but that does not mean that we are at the beck and call all hours of every day for the client at their whim. But we got to set those precedents and those shared commitments at the top of the work if we expect that to be a core part of our culture,

May Medallada Robinson: Going back to, this might be more of like historically why this is a white supremacist culture, this sense of urgency and this idea of time and timelines, is because at the beginning of this country, black and brown bodies were modified. It really was like, how much output can you put out, that’s your value. So then that got transferred into the way organizational operations are, is yeah, your output is your value. So if we think back, some of our early career performance reviews, like you said, it was all about how much do you put out? How many deliverables were you able to produce? How many press releases did you write? How many this or that. It was very quantifiable, but sure somebody could have written hundreds of strategic plans, but were all of them high quality? That should be the question that we’re asking instead and challenging some of the listeners to think through, that we don’t want to focus on that output as quantity, but more so quality and yes, rest and recharging and giving those opportunities for learning and processing and collaboration will often lead to a better outcome. I’m sure you can even think of times in your career too. I can think of many times where we agreed to this short timeline, produce something and then the client wasn’t happy. So it’s like we kind of wasted those efforts of that three weeks or whatever, rush time, because at the end of the day, the client didn’t get what they wanted and now we’re burnt out and kind of defeated because we feel like we didn’t deliver our best work too.

Carrie Fox: This show today is about what does love have to do with it? What’s love got to do with it. And love has everything to do with it. That idea of we need our rest. We need a chance to reflect. We need a chance to learn what worked and what didn’t before we run into it again. I was listening to someone today talk about how this idea of postmortem after a project finishes, and then you reflect back on what did we learn from that so we can put it into practice in the future. That’s just fine, but what about the idea of a premortem? Before you get into something, to set those ground rules and understandings for, this is how we’ll work together as a team. This is what we’re expecting of one another and what we believe we can do collectively. But if we change that frame and do it from a place of, if we are good, then the work will be good. But if we are being asked to operate at a level that is not human, it’s not good for our mental wellbeing and so much of our work depends on our mental wellbeing, then we can’t expect the product to be good. And that’s a lesson that I think extends far beyond communications and really into everyday professional work and work in general.

May Medallada Robinson: It impacts so much. Not just maybe that one client project, it’s going to impact your relationships with your colleagues, your relationships with your family and friends. It’s going to impact other work that you’re doing. Because like you said, especially in communications and public relations, we often need that space, that quiet space and to feel whole, to feel well mentally, physically, spiritually, everything so that we can put through the best creative ideas, the best words on paper, the best, whatever it is we’re trying to create. And there have been so many times in the past where I’ve been like, man, I’m just so defeated, so run down, so tired. So of course the things that I’m delivering are not making sense or are not reaching the goal that we want to reach.

Carrie Fox: There’s been a lot, at least on paper. I’m not in the tech sector, so I can’t speak to this directly, but there seems to be a lot of conversation these past many years around the culture and challenging the culture in Silicon Valley and in the tech sector. But I’m curious what you see both from your professor point of view, and as you’re talking to students who are entering the workforce, but broadly, if we reflect on this, do we see any of these conversations happening yet in the communications sector or in agency world, this idea of broadly challenging some of the norms that we operate by?

May Medallada Robinson: To be very honest, of course I haven’t done like a study on every single communications, their public relations agency, but based on conversations that I have with students or peers that work at other agencies or within other communications departments, I don’t know that we’re having the conversations that we need to have. And I don’t know if it’s just that again, going back to that idea of people being so bogged down with client work, they feel like they don’t have the timer space based on, like you said, embedding this idea of love within their organizational culture, within how they interact with their clients. I used to look at PR agencies and communications agencies too, from a marketing perspective. And I think we also noticed this too earlier on with Mission Partners that we create such great work for our clients, and then we look at our own marketing and our own blogs and our own, whatever we’re producing and we kind of put it on the back burner. And I do notice that happening a lot too with employee communications and creating this culture of love. It’s like, that’s a great idea. We know it would be great, but we don’t have time for that because we need to continue [inaudible 00:16:44] and putting out this client work. One of the things that I do want to talk about that I have noticed is this idea of fair pay also and how we think about students and agencies in general. A lot of times we think about like the power structures of agencies. And again, how I said, some agencies are concerned with how billable they are. They kind of hoard all that money at the top. They hire these very junior level strategist or account executives to take on this work. Like you said, when you and I were fresh out of college, we were kind of scared to not just go along with the norms of, okay, I [inaudible 00:17:25] work at all hours of the day, I’m going to have my email on my phone and respond to every client. They hire these people fresh out of college because they don’t have the experience or maybe confidence to say no. And then they’re underpaid, overworked, often putting out most of the work. You touched earlier on how, I forget the phrase you used exactly, but it was just kind of what we did to, I guess, pay our dues. And I actually remember early on in my career asking, and this is a question a lot of my students ask, they say, well, how do I build that confidence? How do I build those skills? And how do I learn how to be a PR practitioner? A lot of these jobs are saying, I need one to three or years of experience out of college, where do I get that experience? And I remember some professors early on and even people in the field telling me, oh, well you take internships and they’re most often unpaid, but that’s how you pay your dues. We all do it. We all have done unpaid internships. So you have too, you have to fit it into your schedule somehow to get the experience. And the reality is, especially with today’s students, we say that we want diversity in our agencies, in the field of PR, in higher ed. Well, we are getting more of that diversity in higher ed in terms of black and brown students, non traditional students, students that are parents. But with that also comes the fact that this traditional internship model is very unrealistic for them. Because a lot of times my students are saying, that’s great. I’m glad you’re sending me these internships. Thankfully, now they are required to be paid, but some of them pay like barely minimum wage. And these students are saying, well, I have a family to support. My parents might have gotten laid off during COVID. So I’m actually helping them out. Or I have a child that I’m supporting, and outside of class time, I work. I work a full time job. I don’t have the capacity to take on an internship. One specific student comes to mind who came to me and she said, "I have to make a choice Professor Robinson." And she’s a stellar student. She’s a great writer. She’s going to be an amazing PR practitioner when she graduates. And she says, "I either apply for this internship that’s paying like $10 an hour, or I continue my job at this pharmacy that is unrelated to what I want to do, unrelated to my long term goals, but it provides me health insurance and I’m getting paid a livable wage." Those are the choices our students have to make. I think that’s another question that I want to challenge our agency listeners, as well as just any organization that’s leading a team, who are you hiring? How are you treating or compensating your junior members? How are you fostering an environment of learning and development, but also making sure they have the resources to be well.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, I agree so deeply with you there. If anyone listening, whether you’re in an agency or working inside a nonprofit or working in government or in any sector, if you have employees, volunteers who are not getting paid, please address that. Because I am certain to a person listening to this conversation would not feel good about doing anything without getting paid for it. And so why are we asking are junior, most members of the team who are coming into the workforce to take that on themselves? I agree. And I think there’s actually a lot of that steeped inside some of the other norms and agencies too. I’m thinking about one of the policies that we changed in large part because of some really great insight we got from someone on the team that said there had been a reimbursement policy. And so if you’re going to take on an expense, you can go take a continuing education class for instance, and then we’ll reimburse you for that. And we thought that’s not very fair. What if someone doesn’t have the resources to go pay for that class and can’t wait to get reimbursed? And so we changed our policy that there is never an expectation or an understanding that anyone at any level would need to take on a personal expense. That is why either folks have their own credit cards, their own company credit cards, or they can ask to access one of the leadership team members, but that the idea that we are asking anyone on the team to front resources for something when those resources might not be there.

May Medallada Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. And thinking too, in terms of the, I guess it’s kind of like a, not a joke, but just the image of the intern who like runs out and gets coffee for everyone. And often at a leadership level, they might not realize like, oh, to the executive that it’s like a $5 cup of coffee for a few people. Oh, it’s not a big deal, but to that college student or 20 something year old, or really anyone we don’t know what their financial situation is, that could be a lot. And so, I did really appreciate and notice that Mission Partners made that change. And it was kind of interesting because we’re current doing a service project with blankets and we’re donating them to a local nonprofit. We have team members all over the country, so not all of them can drop them off locally and then you could mail it back. So I think Jess from our team, she’s really leading that charge. And so she reached out to me and she said, "Hey, I’m just coordinating how folks are mailing these blankets back. Do you have access to a printer? If not, let me send you a label for this." And I remember making a comment like, "Oh, it’s no big deal, Jess. It’s like 30 cents for me to print out a label somewhere or even to pay the postage", because I do live in Montgomery county close to the place that we are shipping it to. So I’m like, oh. In my mind, I’m like, it doesn’t weigh very much. Maybe it’ll be like $10 or less. But again, I am thinking through it in terms of my lens. And I think that’s another thing we need to think about as we’re challenging agencies and each other is, even when we look at just the field of PR and communications and how we learn about who are the godfathers of the industry and know we always like godfathers, we think about like Edward [Brennas 00:24:09], Ivy Lee, Arthur Page, even Harold Buron and Daniel Edelman and many people like that, that we learn about. And they’re all white men. And so you have to think that even as I’m telling you this story, through my lens, everything that they developed in terms of how we work in PR, it was through their lens as white men. And then we continue to carry that on. And not very many people have challenged it. Like you said, so many have reimbursement policies and probably don’t think twice about it because it does seem fair that, oh, we’re paying them back. But to your point, sometimes you have to wait, especially in terms of, I’ve worked on like government contracts. They have such crazy processes where it’s like, sometimes you’re waiting several months. And to someone, if they wanted to take a professional development course that, let’s say is $500, they cannot wait on that $500. That might be half of their rent payment or various utilities.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. So maybe what does love have to do with it? I’ll come back to here again. Again, love has everything to do with it. But if we come into our, as you’re listening to this and reflecting on your work and the role that you have and the power that you hold inside your position, what opportunities do you have to look through the policies that you keep and the way you operate your team, at what pace you operate your team, what might it look like if you took a fresh look through the lens of love? And what I mean by that, and what we both mean by that is deep care for your employees. And imagine just for a minute that if your primary responsibility was not to make your senior most leaders proud, but to make your junior, most leaders proud. To create the space that allows for everyone to thrive. And that I think is the opportunity. It’s a huge opportunity in the agency environment. But again, as we said at the top, this is really a message that works across a lot of different sectors. So we are coming to the end, May. I wish we were not, but I’m going to ask you one final question as we wrap up. And given that you spend so much of your time in a classroom with aspiring professional communicators, I’m curious if there’s anything that’s sticking with you, anything that you are feeling called to learn more about or do more about, or that might just be an interesting thought to leave us with today.

May Medallada Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of want to go back to that idea of where do they get these practical experiences? Because again, we know, I think many of us can say that public relations and communications education, sometimes depending on the institution you graduate from is really lacking in those practical experiences. We’ll teach them a lot of the great foundations, but students need to get those experiences from somewhere. I think we’ve really need to center more of mentorship, rethinking the internship model and how are we growing and developing our next generation of PR professionals? Because similar to your point about bringing love back and centering our junior most team members, the students are going to step into those junior level roles. So we also, I think, want to teach them early on that they should feel comfortable and confident in challenging things and that they should work for an organization that cares for them, that gives them the appropriate resources and time to do what they want to do. And just a quick story that I want to share is that one of my students, again, this is a different student, also a really amazing writer and will be a great PR practitioner. She came to me once and she said, "I’m so excited that you’re my professor", because she is Filipino-American woman and she said, "I have never had a Filipino professor. And I never have seen a Filipino in public relations." Me, being that I worked and lived in San Diego for a while, I’m like, "Oh, there are plenty." But the thing is that brings us to this idea of representation too. Our students often, when we you think about black, brown and immigrant students, not only are they not getting these opportunities for learning in terms of internships and the accessibility to internships, they aren’t seeing themselves in the fields because she’s straight said, "I have never met or seen a public relations professional who is Filipino." And I took it upon myself to kind of dig more into that. And it’s true. I guess the latest statistics say that PR is 89% white. And then leadership of course is even more, so 95% or 98%. That is so something I want to leave everyone with and thinking in terms of how are we increasing representation within our agencies and organizations, not only at every level, but including leadership so that these new professionals will see themselves in these roles and want to apply for these roles and see that they have mentors they can reach out to. And then how are we removing barriers and making either internships or rethinking the internship model, maybe as more of an apprenticeship or something of that nature so that we can get more black, brown and immigrant students prepared and feeling confident and ready to succeed in the fields.

Carrie Fox: Well, in the spirit of an amazing PR practitioner, that is what’s called a teaser, because there is more to come on what May and I are putting our heads together and advancing inside Mission Partners. And May, if you are up for it, I would love to have you back towards the end of the season. And perhaps we could give folks a more detailed overview of what we’ve got in the works that can address some of those issues that you just so perfectly outlined.

May Medallada Robinson: Awesome. I would love to come back and I’m sure we’ll have more research and details to share at that point, but thank you so much for having me on and addressing some of these really important issues that I hope are getting folks thinking about what they can do to bring love back into their organizations and team.

Carrie Fox: I love this conversation. Thanks May. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM, engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, I hope you will consider doing just that for this show. The best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or a colleague. Thanks to your support, and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.