Meredith’s Jill Davison: ‘No better time for us to have an impact’

The PR and communications veteran shares insights from her career with the audience at Ragan’s Future of Communications Conference. Despite the challenges, her outlook is optimistic.

It’s time for PR pros to own their power, according to the vice president, corporate and brand communications, for Meredith Corp.

As a top executive for one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, Davison has a front-row seat for all the changes that have swept both the news media industry and its PR counterparts. For her, the shakeup has been “fascinating.”

“I think it is extremely positive for PR people,” she told the audience for Ragan Communications’ Future of Communications Conference in Chicago.  She shared her insights in a fireside chat with Ragan Communications’ CEO Diane Schwartz.

There’s “no better time than to show the importance and significance of good PR,” she says, whether it is helping to tell your authentic story, raise awareness in your community or combat misinformation.

“It continues to have an important seat at the table,” she says.

Softening the blow

Meredith Corp. has seen significant changes in recent years, whether it was the acquisition of Time Inc. for $2.8 billion in 2017, or the continued optimization of its portfolio as it downsizes or sheds publications to adapt to a turbulent media market.

All that change has come with personnel costs. The company has laid off staff and sold off storied publications such as Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Time. Staff members affected by the changes haven’t been silent about their feelings.

For Davison, these painful moments can be an opportunity for a company to reveal its true nature.

“It’s always important that you are connected to the stakeholders really early,” says Davison. “Transparency is key. Everybody knows it is painful.”

She advises that companies facing cuts work in “a humane respectful and dignified way as much as possible” and that this approach “gives a company an opportunity to show that they have feelings.”

She says anticipating where the story will go, which reporters might call and what employees might say on social media can be an important tactical advantage in such a crisis.

It starts, she says, with bringing in all the stakeholders, from employees and managers to HR reps and communications staff. She adds that her team works hard to carefully and expertly prepare leaders to speak to stakeholders.

She also says you have to anticipate that some employees, as soon as they are told, will go to Facebook to vent their feelings. She tries to imagine what those sentiments might be so she can get ahead of journalists who will pick up the story from social media feeds.

“We never go to the press until we tell our employees,” she says.

Get outside your department

Davison says connecting with people in other departments is essential.

“Not everybody in the company understands how PR can help the overall goal,” she explains. “By reaching across the aisle to data folks, marketing folks, salespeople, you have the ability to learn about the business.”

She stresses that its not enough to be a PR expert; you must also be a business expert.

“Right now, I’m trying to talk to our data folks,” she says as an example. “I think we have an interesting story to tell about how we are working with data.”

Meredith, with its web traffic and subscription base, holds plenty of information about its customers. As many industries grapple with data security, best practices and privacy concerns, Davison says, there are interesting stories for companies who are taking early measures.

“It’s an opportunity to get ahead of reacting but maybe also acting proactively get out ahead of these laws,” she says. “We should have a proactive message about how we handle that data and what we do with it.”

Some people can be more helpful than others, but Davison argues that once you start to produce results you can get plenty of internal cooperation.

“Once people see the fruits of your labor, you get much more buy-in,” she says.

An evolving news environment

Davison isn’t as worried about changes in the media landscape and shrinking newsrooms when it comes to getting Meredith’s message out.

“There are a lot of media beat reporters,” she says. She admits that she sometimes misses the old-school journalists with fact-checking and other resources that used to populate newspapers. However, she believes that reporters and content producers can be found with a little extra research.

“There are a plethora of outlets,” she says. “You just have to do your homework and find them.”

She also points to the ability for brand managers to tell their own stories online with native advertising and brand journalism. Meredith believes deeply in this model and has a “brand studio” that helps organizations tell their own stories.

“We have a whole division that works with various clients that will do video that will create websites and create magazines,” she says.

“It’s a big—to become bigger—part of the company.”

‘Writing should improve’

Even if you are working for a media conglomerate, you get a lot of bad pitches. Davison says one way PR pros can help their pitch stand out is to step up their writing.

“Writing is so important, even though a lot of writing has gone downhill,” she says. “Writing should improve. Writing is really important.”

She also advises that it’s crucial to package your content and tailor your pitch for a national outlet, such as one of Meredith’s properties.

She gives an example of a company that has done a home makeover for a military family. While the hometown hero angle might work for a local outlet, the national outlet needs a national angle, either by tying in families from other cities as well or looking for national trends.

She also advises that PR pros looking for coverage in a national outlet continually pitch to develop a relationship.

“You’ve got to think long term,” she says. “You want this to be the beginning of a longer-term connection. Journalists go back to some of their best PR contacts and say, ‘I’m looking for ideas; let’s go out for coffee.’”

What kind of communicators does Meredith like to hire?

“First and foremost, I look for people that are real go-getters,” Davison says. “I want to hear how you are going to make this happen. I like a team that comes from a place called ‘Yes.’”

That means being able to handle rejection and overcome obstacles. Someone who gives up after the first “No” wouldn’t be a good fit for Davison’s team.

She also prioritizes an upbeat attitude. “I look for people that are generally happy,” she says.

Battling misinformation

For Davison, fighting false reports is nothing new for PR pros.

She says a large part of her job is correcting mistakes in stories, even from reporters that she works with all the time.

“It’s not the most pleasant part of the job, but I spend a lot of time trying to get things changed,” she says.

What kind of stories are worth her time to push back on? Davison says she is willing fight against the wrong adjective that misrepresents what the company says or does. However, she admits that some corrections are a bigger priority.

“If I have to go to their editor, I will go to their editor,” she says.

Though, she says that’s getting harder and harder to do as news aggregators make it hard to discover where the reporting is coming from.

“There are certain outlets … I don’t know who to call because when you click through you don’t get a news source,” she says.

How does her team catch all the brand mentions to make sure the right message goes out? Despite all the new technology available, Davison says her team still does a lot of old-school media monitoring. In short, they read a lot.

“We read quickly, but we have to make sure that when articles come out, they are 150% accurate,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Davison isn’t apocalyptic in her views on the future of the PR industry. She says she is hopeful about the future of communications.

“I think that our roles will only continue to be more influential,” she says. “Clearly, it is a good place to be.”



One Response to “Meredith’s Jill Davison: ‘No better time for us to have an impact’”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Those who go to Ragan conferences get five advantages, some of them not obvious.

    .1. At the sessions you learn things—at least a few and perhaps many—that can help you do better work, and being even slightly better can be what decides whether one gets or doesn’t get a choice job or promotion.

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    .3. Gaining knowledge isn’t the only advantage of going to conferences so you may look forward to emotional and perhaps other pleasures from interactions with others you meet socially at the conference or at the hotel bar. Often many people at such events are looking to make new friends.

    .4. People you meet may get back to you weeks or months later with news of a job or a major media opportunity. After the army, a guy I worked with called me and said: “Ron, I’ve just interviewed for a job that pays a LOT of money and can lead to a lot more soon. But the boss would drive me crazy so YOU take the job Ron—you might actually like the guy—and you can drive HIM crazy.” That call launched a lovely career, not just money but exceptional HAPPINESS.

    .5. When a Human Resources exec is choosing between similarly qualified candidates, the nod often goes to the candidate who has taken courses for continuing improvement. It’s evidence of motivation, like here’s someone who clearly does extra work to learn about creating better results.

    By the way my army buddy who referred me to the great job was wrong about my driving the boss crazy. Actually, the boss was already crazy. I accepted this, others didn’t, so the boss and I worked together very productively. That was until I pulled out to be even more productive and more happy elsewhere.

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