Q&A with LaToya Evans, VP of communications at Bank of America

LaToya Evans is vice president of communications at Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina. She previously worked at Wal-Mart as a senior manager for corporate communications. Evans started her communications career while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, writing for magazines such as People, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job at BOA and her transition from journalism to public relations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?

A. I am a vice president of communications at Bank of America’s corporate office in Charlotte. I do both reactive and proactive media for the company, specifically covering the Northeast region and also some smaller markets throughout the U.S.

My typical day starts fairly early, and one of the first things I do is check my email, calendar and social media as that can dictate what my morning will look like. I spend a lot of my day pitching media, counseling executives and local banking employees about media initiatives or issues, discussing strategy and giving direction to the PR agency that I work with on a daily basis. I also spend a good amount of time writing and chatting with reporters about potential story angles.

I’ll work on something in New York in one hour and something else in California the next. It could be an issue at a local bank in one of the geographies that I cover or it could be the company donating a mortgage-free home to a veteran. Sometimes, I’ll go to media events in the evenings or other events that the bank sponsors, whether they be conventions or formal events. It’s a sincere range of things that never gets boring or old.

Q. You previously worked in public relations for Wal-Mart. How is it different working in the financial sector? Are there similarities?

A. I’ve worked in a variety of industries as it pertains to PR – business to business technology, consumer technology, retail and now banking. In my opinion, the skill set in PR doesn’t change much because it comes down to having the ability to ask the right questions to understand a reporter’s true motive and story, build relationships, manage difficult situations, work one on one with senior and c-suite executives, establish trust and be strategic enough to not necessarily get the most coverage, but the most meaningful coverage that pushes ahead a company’s reputation.

So there are many similarities, but I would say as an organization, I covered six different areas of business at Wal-Mart. So if there are any differences, it’s only because the subject matter has changed.

But Wal-Mart was a great experience that taught me a lot about crisis and reactive media because of the nature of the business and also that it is a company that people frequently wanted to attack. That makes for the best training ground for PR professionals – the more difficult the climate is, the more you really learn in the long run.

Q. You started your career writing for magazines such as People and Glamour. What was it like to make the transition from print journalism to public relations?

A. It wasn’t as tough as it probably could have been, looking back on it. I came out of undergrad during the financial crisis. I was very fortunate to receive offers from magazines, PR agencies and also client-side corporate communications.

I chose to go to IBM for corporate communications, and within a few months, I was also doing media. I think the company took the chance on me because the original role I took was very writing-intensive, which I had the background for. But having the media knowledge and the contacts helped me early on when I didn’t necessarily know PR yet, but knew what stories worked where.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever love PR as much as I loved seeing my name on bylines in places like Cosmopolitan as a writer. Seeing my name in print gave me chills.

But when I got into PR, there were television interviews and spokesperson duties, which also gave me chills. My career is one of the most rewarding things in my life, and I am genuinely in love with my profession.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering a career in public relations? What are your keys to success?

A. I’d have quite a few pieces of advice. Strengthening your writing skills will help you across the profession in general, and internships are a must.

When assessing internships, consider paid and unpaid opportunities, because it’s the value of the experience that counts and not the money. If finances are an issue, there are plenty of grants and fellowships that will help you pay for living expenses while doing unpaid internships.

Start defining what your personal brand is right now, and don’t let your in-school status stop you from achieving your goals. I started my freelancing writing business when I was 19 and still a student at UNC. Had I listened to naysayers, I might have passed up a lot of good experience.

Also, it’s great to understand social media, too, but I always caution students to learn traditional PR practices as well, mostly because someone can easily find themselves pigeon-holed into jobs that are only about social media. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but because social media PR roles are so new, a path to advancement in those areas hasn’t necessarily been built yet in a lot of corporations, making it harder to get to do other things or get the first promotion.

Lastly, it’s important to build and nurture your relationships. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a lot of friends at Bank of America, and it’s made working there that much more fun. Across the public relations industry, it’s important to remember that everyone knows everyone. So the industry becomes very small, very quickly.

Follow LaToya Evans on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.

Q&A with Richard Stradling, co-author of “Where the River Burned”

Richard Stradling is co-author of “Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle To Save Cleveland.” He is also deputy metro editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Stradling discusses the origins of the book, how he and his brother researched and wrote it, and how he balanced the project with his daily duties at the N&O.

Q. How did you and your brother decide to write “Where The River Burned”?

A. The project dates back to 1998 when I took a year off from newspaper work to do a mid-career journalism program at Ohio State University.

I had always been interested in the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 and the mythology that had grown up around it and decided to make that the focus of my master’s thesis. I wanted to explain why this relatively small fire had become so well-known while many previous fires on the river had long been forgotten. I did a lot of research and thought maybe I had enough for a book, but by then I’d gone to work for The News & Observer as a reporter.

I was talking it over with my brother David, who is a historian at the University of Cincinnati, and we agreed that we’d work on it together. Pretty early on in his research, David suggested that we broaden the scope of the book to look at all the environmental problems facing Cleveland at that time, not just the fire.

Q. How did you go about researching and writing this book? What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?

A. David has a history professor’s schedule and propensity to do research in archives. He made numerous trips to Cleveland to go through the papers of Carl Stokes at the Western Reserve Historical Society, as well as other archival material.

whereriverburnedI focused more on interviews, including ones I had already done while at Ohio State. For example, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Bailus Walker, who ran the rat control program in Cleveland in the late 1960s and had moved on to teach at Howard University.

David took the lead on writing most of the book, with some exceptions, and we traded drafts back and forth. Distance was one obstacle. We made some trips together to Cleveland, but mostly we worked remotely — David in Cincinnati and me in Raleigh. That slowed the process down but also may have made it more deliberate and thoughtful. We could think things over before responding.

My main obstacle was having a more-than-full-time job at The News & Observer. I became an editor in 2005, and 10-hour days are normal. I had to carve out time to work on the book at night and on weekends.

Q. How was working on this project different from your work as an editor and reporter at The News & Observer? What were the similarities?

A. It was different in that for a long time there was no deadline. It became a little more pressing after we got the book contract from Cornell University Press. But for the most part we worked at our own pace. As a history project, the story wasn’t likely to change as it would with a contemporary story.

Aside from the depth of the research, the project was similar to journalism: deciding what we wanted to know, looking for the sources of information, asking the right questions and sifting through all the material, deciding what to use and how to organize and present it. The scale and timeline are different, but those are the same things we do in journalism every day.

Q. What was it like working with the book’s publisher and being edited?

A. The editing process was really very easy. We had four outside readers — two chosen anonymously by Cornell and two of our choosing — in addition to the editor at Cornell, and none of them made suggestions that we thought we couldn’t easily accommodate and in fact made the book stronger.

Q. What advice do you have for journalists who have ideas for nonfiction books like yours?

A. Pick a story that you won’t grow bored with, because you’re going to spend a long time with it. Set lots of small goals; focus on getting an interview done or answering a question, and eventually everything will come together.

And consider taking a leave of absence to focus on the writing, though that’s not always possible in the environment we work in now. I was fortunate to have a partner with a more flexible schedule.

Buy “Where the River Burned” and follow Richard Stradling on Twitter.

Q&A with Laurie Beth Harris of the American Press Institute

Laurie Beth Harris is editorial coordinator at the American Press Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Among her duties there is to write and edit the Need To Know email newsletter. In this interview, conducted by email, Harris discusses her role at API and how she puts together the newsletter.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. As editorial coordinator, my job is to manage the editorial direction of API and our website. The biggest part of my job is curating and writing API’s morning newsletter Need to Know, so I’m also always staying up to date on what’s going on in the media industry. Working on Need to Know, it sometimes it feels like I get paid to read the Internet, which is the dream job for a lot of people.

The production of Need to Know frames the schedule of my workdays. I start my day by working from home to write Need to Know and send it out to subscribers, and I come into the office later in the morning. I spend the afternoon at the office keeping tabs on what people are talking about on Twitter and what stories are being published.

In between that, I’m working on the other projects, such as writing and editing posts for our Good Questions series, social media outreach and supporting the research API does, such as our fact-checking journalism project and in-depth reports.

Q. How do you go about putting together Need to Know?

A. I read a lot. We have some great RSS feeds of media blogs and news sources, as well a Twitter list of people in media and journalism. My go-to sources include Nieman Lab’s What We’re Reading feed and Mediagazer, which aggregates the day’s trending news stories.

I read a lot more articles than what ends up in NTK each day, and a big value of the newsletter is that we do the work for you and tell you what’s of importance so that you can get back to doing your job, hopefully armed with information that helps you do it better. Some of my favorite newsletters have been days where big, breaking news happened, such as the release of Columbia Journalism School’s review of the Rolling Stone article or Vox Media’s acquisition of Re/code, and I sorted through the noise to make sense of what was going on for our readers.

While I’m in the office during the day, I’m reading Twitter and scanning our RSS feeds in between meetings and other projects to get a feel for what news is happening and what people are talking about. I collect links by dropping them into a Google doc, sometimes with notes about the most interesting part of the story or something related that we’ve written about before.

In the evenings, I take a few minutes to sift through what I’ve collected, read through anything I didn’t get to and make a rough outline for what will go where in the newsletter. Need to Know is organized by each story’s utility to the reader, rather than by topic, which is a big part of what makes Need to Know unique and more useful to readers.

I wake up around 5:30 a.m. and immediately start writing that morning’s newsletter from home. I start my mornings by catching up on what news happened overnight that might need to go in the newsletter and revising my outline of the newsletter with those links. By 6:30 a.m., I’m writing the headlines and blurbs for the main stories in each section, working my way back around to the supplementary links in each section and finishing with writing Off the Top, our take on the big story of the day. Around 7:45 a.m., we’ve started editing the final version of the newsletter, and Need to Know shows up in subscribers’ inboxes by 8:30 a.m.

Q. Before coming to API, you were a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. How was that job similar to the one you have now, and what are some differences?

A. My job at API and at Southern Living are radically different in a lot of ways.

At Southern Living, I was “in the trenches” of the day-to-day production of a monthly magazine. At API, I’m more of an onlooker to the industry, recognizing what’s being done well in journalism and identifying ways we can do better. In some ways, working at API feels like being back in journalism school, because we have the time to think about new ways to do journalism better and watch what other people are doing in a way that can be hard to do when you’re caught up in production cycles.

The biggest similarity between my job at API and being a copy editor at Southern Living is that I’m still utilizing my editing skills, but I’m now using them to edit my own writing, not just someone else’s.

Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there are you using today, and what are some new ones you have picked up since graduation?

A. Like I said, working at API is a lot like being back in journalism school — we’re thinking about the lot of the same ideas my journalism classes were talking about when I was in school.

I’m most thankful for classes where we discussed the state of news industry and what we could do better, because those classes were what really prepared me for my job now, as well as giving me a lens through which to think about what a traditional news organization like Southern Living could do better. I’m also thankful for News Writing every morning as I write the newsletter — it taught me to write concisely, cleanly and pretty fast!

As far what I’ve learned since graduation, networking is so important. As a new graduate, I felt like the media industry was huge, but it’s really not. Everyone knows each other. Maintaining those relationships with your professors, internship supervisors and classmates can lead to great opportunities.

Follow Laurie Beth Harris on Twitter, and subscribe to the Need To Know newsletter.

Q&A with Katie Quine, reporter and digital assistant at Our State magazine

Katie Quine is a writer and digital assistant at Our State magazine, which covers North Carolina’s culture and history. In this interview, Quine discusses how she generates story ideas and researches them, and how the magazine balances its print and digital presence. 

Q. Describe your job at Our State. What is your typical day like?

A. What I love about working as a digital assistant and writer at Our State is that no two days are alike. I travel around the state several times a month to report on various assignments.

In May alone, I interviewed North Carolina’s longest married couple, wrote a piece about urban beekeeping in Durham and started working on a story about a community mailbox at Sunset Beach. It’s been such a privilege to learn about all of the incredible people and places in our state.

When I am in the office, I spend some of my morning planning and monitoring our social media content. I also dedicate a sizable portion of my day to editing articles from our contributing bloggers and working on stories of my own. Another big part of what I do is restructuring content that appears in the pages of our magazine so that it is Web- and SEO-friendly.

Since our digital department is relatively new and has just four staff members, my job’s range of duties requires a pretty diverse skill set. It’s great because I feel like I’m learning something new every day, and I love the challenge that comes along with writing content that ranges from 140 characters to 1,200 words.

Q. You’ve written a series of posts under the label of The Curious Carolinian, looking at the quirks of North Carolina’s culture, history and geography. How do you come up with ideas for these posts, and how do you research, write and edit them?

A. The Curious Carolinian has been such a fun pet project. Every post starts with a question about our state that isn’t easily answered, such as “Why is North Carolina called The Tar Heel State?” or “Why are there two styles of NC barbecue?

When we come up with ideas for these posts, we’re thinking of content from a search-volume standpoint. For some ideas, I’ve simply typed “Why is North Carolina…” into Google to look at what the suggested searches are.

Once I’ve thought of the question I’d like to answer, I research the topic as thoroughly as I can, reading reference books, digging up old newspaper articles and reaching out to experts on the subject matter. At Our State, it’s our goal to be the definitive experts on anything pertaining to North Carolina culture, so I try to differentiate our content from that of other websites by writing the most comprehensive article I can.

There’s research out there to suggest that humans’ attention spans are getting shorter, but the feedback we’ve received about The Curious Carolinian series has taught me that people still love a good, long backstory if you make a point to have fun while telling it. Readers are only as engaged as the content is engaging.

Q. How is Our State different online than in print? How much collaboration is there between the two aspects of the magazine?

A. The editorial and digital departments are constantly collaborating with each other. As the editorial department plans its story calendar for the coming months, the digital department works to create content that complements what appears in the magazine.

What might work well in one medium might not perform the same way in another, so we make a point to think about how content can be repackaged in different ways. For instance, if the magazine features a personal narrative in which an author explores his or her love for a particular North Carolina town, the digital department might come up with a supplemental day-trip itinerary for those who wish to visit the area. When it comes to collaboration between online and print, making use of alternative story formats is crucial.

Q. It sounds like you have a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students who are looking for jobs like yours?

A. I think I have a pretty good gig, too! Thanks.

I suggest that students should always look to tell stories in unexpected ways. What resonates deepest with your audience can surprise you, especially on the Web.

For instance, as a journalist, I consider myself to be a writer first and foremost, but what actually helped land me an interview with Our State was a video I produced, which featured one-second clips from every day of my senior year at UNC. The video started out as a little project that I hoped my friends would enjoy at the conclusion of our senior year. But not long after I posted it on YouTube, I got comments from alumni I’ve never met who told me it made them tear up 30 years after they graduated.

All that is to say, every skill you learn in the j-school is important, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time it’s taught to you. You never know when you’ll need it down the road.

Follow Katie Quine on Twitter, and read her articles on the Our State website.

Q&A with Will Doran, reporter and beer columnist for The News & Observer

The tap room at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.
The tap room at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. Its Devil’s Tramping Ground ale is among Will Doran’s recommendations. (Creative Commons image)

Will Doran is a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to covering town governments in Wake County, he is also the newspaper’s beer columnist. In this interview, conducted by email, Doran discusses his roles at the N&O and his prior journalism experience.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

I cover three towns in western Wake County: Apex, Morrisville and Fuquay-Varina. They each have very different personalities, but growth and traffic are the main concerns for residents in all three, since the area is exploding in size. I’m in charge of reporting on the town council meetings, writing some enterprise stories about the area, and also finding cool people or businesses to write features about.

I usually come into the office around 10 or 11 a.m. and stay until 7 or 8 p.m. I’ll generally spend a day doing tons of interviews but very little writing, followed by a day in which I just type away at my stories, and on and on.

Q. In addition to your reporting duties, you are also now the N&O’s beer columnist. How do you see yourself in that role?

A. How do I see myself as the beer columnist? With blurred vision.

No, on a serious note, beer is important to me and the paper for one reason: People like to drink it, talk about, Instagram it, and all that, and what good is a newspaper that isn’t serving its audience?

The Triangle has a very vibrant craft brewing scene, and it’s incredibly exciting for me to have the chance to dive into that scene. I get to go to bars and bottle shops and meet the people behind craft breweries, who are almost always fascinating. It’s a great gig.

Q. Before coming to Raleigh, you worked at another North Carolina publication, The Sanford Herald. How did the experience there lead to your current job? What did you learn?

A. The Sanford Herald was a great experience for me, both as a North Carolinian and a reporter. I grew up in Florida and then went to school in Chapel Hill, which is definitely in its own little bubble.

Then a week after graduation, I was just 45 minutes away in Sanford, but it was like a whole other world. It straddles the urban-rural divide that defines so much of North Carolina’s people and politics, and it taught me a lot about the kinds of places, people and problems I never thought much about as a college kid.

In any given week I’d be reporting on both a drive-by gang shooting and the newest program at the local agricultural extension. As a writer, it was exciting because it was so varied. It was also stressful because there were only two reporters putting together a daily paper (with the help of a few excellent editors, too). It meant I got to cover basically anything I wanted, and it was like a journalism bootcamp in terms of learning to write quickly and report efficiently.

I’d like to think the writing skills I learned there help a lot in my current job, which is also slower paced. And the opportunity to write about anything meant I had some pretty decent clips to include with my resume.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. What skills from your college years do you use at work now? What new ones have you picked up since then?

A. lot of the intro-level classes cover basic skills because, well, they’re the foundation of everything else. The introductory reporting class helped get me out of my shell with cold-calling people and selling myself as someone that a potential subject would want to talk to.

And I don’t need to tell you this, but with so many cuts to copy editors now, reporters have to be very careful because there’s often not as many double- and triple-checking as before. So developing a careful eye turned out to be very important.

I wish I had taken more classes on photography and computer-based reporting. I take photos for probably half the stories I write and wish I had some formal training. That’s one skill I’ve definitely picked up on the job. And with so many opportunities now to comb databases or make interactive maps and things like that, I wish I knew a little bit more how to create and attractively present that kind of reporting. Those are skills I still want to pick up, through MOOCs or blogs or anything else.

Q. Back to the beer. What are some of your recommendations, particularly from North Carolina breweries?

A. If you like high-volume beers, Devil’s Tramping Ground from Aviator in Fuquay-Varina is an excellent ale. For dark beer, try the Thrilla in Vanilla Porter from Double Barley Brewing in Smithfield.

Both have great names (always a plus) and with the Thrilla in Vanilla, if you’re feeling crazy, throw in a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make yourself a beer float. I don’t know if the brewers recommend it, but I do!

As for less intense beers, I mentioned in my inaugural beer column that Top of the Hill’s Blue Ridge Blueberry Wheat is a classic. I’m also a big fan of the Scottish ale from Raleigh Brewing Company, which they call Blatherskite and I call best served in a pitcher with friends.

How Scientology tries to silence journalists

Scientology’s headquarters in Los Angeles. (Creative Commons image)

I recently watched “Going Clear,” an HBO documentary about the Church of Scientology. It’s a hard-hitting look at the organization, told largely through the testimony of former high-ranking members.

Much of “Going Clear” is familiar to me because I had an encounter with Scientology in the late 1990s. At that time, I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my then-wife had taken a teaching job at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. After a year as an adjunct instructor, I too was hired as a tenure-track professor.

One evening, we received a phone call from my sister-in-law. She had recently graduated from college and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She told us that she had a new boyfriend who had introduced her to Scientology. They were both taking classes and working for the organization, and she said how much she was getting out of it.

But there was a problem, she said: Her sister and I were journalists. This fact apparently emerged during an “auditing” session in which Scientologists are interviewed about their personal lives. For her to advance in the organization, my sister-in-law would need a letter from us promising that we would never report or write about Scientology.

We declined to provide such a letter even though we had no intention of writing about Scientology. In fact, we were grateful that Scientology’s paranoia had provided us with leverage to help get our relative out of an organization that we viewed, in the words of Time magazine, as a “ruthless global scam.”

That exit happened suddenly a couple of years later, after we had left Louisiana for North Carolina. After not hearing from my sister-in-law for some time, she called out of the blue and told us she was planning to leave her boyfriend and Scientology as soon as possible. She was frightened. Could she stay with us, where the organization couldn’t find her? We said yes.

When my sister-in-law arrived in North Carolina, she told us about the organization’s dark side. For example, her boyfriend once dragged a former member off the street and into a car to take him back to a Scientology center. She worried that they might come for her too. Thankfully, Scientology never tracked her down, though they did call her parents asking about her whereabouts.

The entire experience showed me that Scientology is scared of scrutiny. As “Going Clear” shows, the organization’s public-relations strategy is to attack not only its critics, but also neutral observers who examine its practices.

The central role of the news media is to act as a check on government and powerful institutions. That includes organizations such as Scientology. Let’s hope that the Tampa Bay Times, HBO and other media continue to shine a light on its operations.