Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Mollie O’Dell Interview: How Millennials Are Shaping the Future of PR, Communications, and Measurement

Mollie O’Dell serves as the Vice President of Communications and Media Relations at the National Restaurant Association, and she loves to dine out!

At the National Restaurant Association, Ms. O’Dell is responsible for developing and implementing communications strategies to advance the restaurant industry and working with restaurant owners and operators to help them continuously improve the dining experience for their customers.  Her first job in the restaurant industry was at Jason’s Deli as a teenager, joining the ranks of the 50 percent of adults who have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives.

Ms. O’Dell has more than a decade of experience in public affairs and media.  Prior to joining the National Restaurant Association, O’Dell was the Vice President of Communications at the National Propane Gas Association. In that capacity, she worked closely with state partners and member companies to increase the use of propane and educate policy makers and members of the media about the role of propane beyond the grill.  Additionally, she has extensive experience in grassroots public affairs and served as Deputy Press Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush Administration.

A native Texan, Ms. O’Dell is a graduate of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and holds a master’s degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

—The Measurement Standard: Hello Mollie! Welcome to our Measurement Life interview. We’re focusing on the next generation of PR and communications leaders this month—how the workplace is changing already, and how Millennials are shaping it for the future. We’re glad you could join us!

Let’s start off by letting our readers know a little bit more about you—other than the fact that you are a millennial. How has your career path in communications unfolded?

I would love to say that the path was obvious and free of obstacles for my entire journey.  The reality is that the next steps have never been immediately obvious until right before it was time to make a decision.  I have been fortunate to get to work in a lot of different communications settings: corporate public affairs in a firm, political work in a Cabinet agency, and now in a trade association.  Along the way, mentors have challenged me to get outside of my comfort zone and give 10 percent more at the end of every day.

—TMS: What course of study did you follow? What would you recommend for today’s students?

In college, I majored in Political Science and minored in International Studies. The attacks on September 11, 2001, occurred five weeks into my freshman year, and I became acutely aware of the tenuous balance of international affairs. For today’s students, I would first urge them to follow their passions.  There is dignity in all work.  If they are passionate about communications, then learn how to write. Well written communication is incredibly powerful and gives the writer a platform to accomplish anything. 

—TMS: Given your career path, you’ve likely worked with multiple generations—including baby boomers, Gen X—and of course other millennials (and maybe even some Gen Zs). Everyone seems to focus most on the negatives—the challenges of an intergenerational workplace. What do you see as the primary benefits coming from having this mix working toward a common goal?

Each generation adds different perspectives to the workplace.  In my experience, the strongest teams include members from every generation, who help us check our motivations and provide a different accounting of how the situation might unfold.  It might feel risky to invite other opinions into the conversations, especially ones that differ from your own.  But it is absolutely critical to include varying people, groups, and cultures, as it provides the best product for the client.

—TMS: We started with the positive, so we might as well ask: what challenges have you seen that have arisen from a multi-gen workplace?

It is far too easy to make assumptions about someone based on their age.  Fifty years ago we did the same thing with gender in the workplace.  Our challenge is to dig a little a deeper and find out what is really happening in lieu of falling back on a convenient answer that satisfies an unconscious bias that may be present in our own lives.

—TMS: What workplace changes have you seen that make a positive difference in getting generations aligned, and what changes would you like to see? Is the PR/Communications industry leading or lagging behind in adjusting to a changing workforce?

Generational alignment appears to be happening organically. Workforce research reveals that baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer as younger generations work alongside them. This benefits everyone incredibly. Encouraging cross-generational teams produces benefits for employees and ultimately a stronger product for the client. The PR industry is leading the way in this arena because our clients demand it. For many clients, a pitch that does not include representation and acknowledgement of how all of the target audiences consume media is a losing pitch.

—TMS: One of the core issues that communications, as an industry, struggles with is really quantifying what success means in a PR program. Over the course of your job roles, how have you seen PR success defined?

During my career, I’ve experienced success by drawing attention to potential problems and advising on how to shift audience sentiment.  One of the most reliable ways to measure sentiment is through opinion polling.  If the resources are available, a pre-campaign benchmarking poll should be conducted, followed by a mid-campaign progress report, and a final one at the end to measure results.  When executed properly, polls are a reliable, scientific way to see if a message resonates.  Today, we have many additional metrics through digital platforms that allow us to measure everything from how long visitors stay on an issue landing page, to the number of tweets that include a certain word or phrase.  What is most important is to work with the client and agree upon how success will be measured and then to surpass their expectations!

—TMS: Staying on that topic, does the way we define success in communications projects need to change, particularly considering how much the way we communicate has changed—and continues to change?

It is incumbent on us as communication professionals to always evaluate our strategies and shift our tactics as needed in order to be successful.  This includes staying current on emerging communications tools and how to effectively employ them.  Our success is tied to the success of our clients.  Strong relationships where both parties can begin a conversation about what works and what could use improvement is the foundation of a successful campaign.

—TMS: Millennials consume news differently than previous generations; they not only get it through different channels, but they also consume news from more sources. This has caused a shift in both strategy and tactics for PR professionals—do you see this as a continually evolving process?

Absolutely. And we should not blame millennials for the change.  PR professionals in the baby boomer generation had to contend with the shift from long-form newspaper articles to shorter segments on the nightly news. What is different about the present environment, and perhaps not something previous generations had to address, is the need to maintain integrity in the way we present information as news.

—TMS: Where are PR, measurement, and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?

I’m technically a millennial, but an older one.  I would have to ask my Magic 8-Ball where measurement is headed.  It reports, “Outlook good.”  The calls for measurable results and greater audience insight will continue.  This is great news for PR professionals because it means we can get better at our jobs by understanding more about how our audiences receive and process information.

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