On Thursday, March 18, WWPR and the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America hosted a virtual Q&A with Ashley Etienne, Director of Communications for Vice President Kamala Harris. This history-making PR professional shared insights into her career trajectory and advice for navigating the high-pressure world of political communications.
When Ashley arrived in D.C., she did not have a job lined up. Instead, she knocked on senators’ doors, pitched them, and worked her butt off once she got her foot in the door. At that time, there were no women of color as communications directors on the Hill – and only one female director.
On Imposter Syndrome:
Ashley didn’t worry too much about imposter syndrome because knowing she didn’t have all the knowledge and skills yet “forced me to work five times harder, forced me to get mentors, to seek out advice, etc.”
You don’t have to be outwardly confident to succeed. In fact, Ashely suggested a quiet confidence – a moderated humble confidence – is more notable than braggadocious one considering just how much overt ego is on the Hill already.
More than anything: Be cognizant of how you treat people. In the end, it’s all about relationships.
On Navigated the High-Pressured Environment:
Ashley led the Impeachment War Room as Director of Communications for House Leader Nancy Pelosi and what made her the team’s secret weapon was, first and foremost, her listening skills. “I like to take a step back and understand the situation.”
Ashely considers herself a calculated risk taker. It is important to understand the dynamics, goals, objectives. Break it down to its individual parts to take it on.
Listening is also key. When writing for your CEO or client, you have to first understand how they think and what they value so you can help them define their voice, their lane, and their priorities.
Be creative with delivering your message by meeting people where they are.
When Ashley worked for the Obama White House, she recalled President Obama went to the Winter Olympics and it was there that he talked about climate change. Climate change will affect winter sports so it was in front of people who care about winter sports that he brought up the subject. Remember: talking about it only to people who already care about the issue will not move the needle. Go to a place where people ARE and talk about something that affects THEM.
What To Do When You’re In the Room – But Being Ignored:
As someone who has been the first woman, first woman of color, and first minority at the table in many situations, Ashley was honest about the hurdles she faced and what is necessary to move forward.
“I’ve been ignored. I had to wait. I’ve been given the job title but not the responsibility…[When faced with that] find a lane for yourself and max out in your lane. Outperform expectations….Find your allies. Sometimes you just gotta create your own table.”
She also reminded us that it is important to know when to leave and take the next step to get out of a situation that isn’t for you.
Three Pieces of Advice for a Career in Political Communications:
- Be pure in your motives. Ashley stresses you should only be in this business if you actually care about what happens to the people you are representing. People can see that.
- Learn to listen. Being an effective listener is the key. You’re not learning when you’re talking. You can’t anticipate what’s coming up next and trust your gut – unless you’re listening and learning
- Treat people well. Give others opportunities. Be intentional about your team. Their success is your success.