‘PR Stands for Personal Relationships’: Scott Higley on Strategic Storytelling, Trends and Branding

February 1, 2016

Scott Higley currently serves as the senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He joined the Chamber in January after more than six years overseeing marketing, communications, and community and government affairs for the Georgia Aquarium, one of the world’s largest aquariums.

His service to the aquarium followed nearly two decades working for some of Atlanta’s most successful commercial real-estate developments, including Lenox Square, Atlantic Station, the Mall of Georgia and the property now known as Buckhead Atlanta.

Higley graduated from Kansas State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, mass communications and marketing.

Here, he talks about how he got his start in public relations, important lessons he’s learned during his 20-year communications career, strategic storytelling tips and the evolution of the PR profession.

What was your dream job as a child?

I grew up watching TV shows in the 1970s, which was the glamour era for “the news” and reporting in popular entertainment at the time. So I always imagined I would work in a TV newsroom, like Lou Grant from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

How did you first become interested in public relations and get your start?

It’s been a roundabout process. As a college freshman, I chose public relations as my major. Subsequently, I discovered a love of writing, so I changed my major to journalism and mass communications with a minor in marketing.

I never became a reporter or producer, and I didn’t practice any of these skills I learned in college during the early years of my career, but as my career path evolved and my work experience mounted, it became more apparent that an ability to understand and execute against a marketing and communications plan — as well to write strong, clear materials — was critically important to support any marketing effort for any organization. For years, I’ve overseen integrated marketing and communications teams, which support each other integrally. So you could say that my professional interests and focus were always pulling me back to public relations.

What were some challenges (and exciting things) you faced in your day-to-day role at the Georgia Aquarium?

One of the most exciting and fulfilling things about working as a communicator at the Georgia Aquarium was being able to work alongside some of the most learned professionals in their fields — marine biologists, scientists and veterinarians who are caring for animals in the living collection, and also producing an extraordinary body of work through study and science. We take that information and we’re able to impact animals in the wild around the world. And as a communicator, I have the opportunity to take that very dense body of scientific information and translate that, so that our public will understand the extraordinary work that’s being done here behind the scenes.

Everybody understands having a fun day with the family, but we want them to leave with important information about the work that’s being done for animals in their natural habitats. We have an obligation to communicate that to the public, and that’s exciting.

What are some best practices when engaging on-the-go consumers with so many digital stimulants and social media platforms out there?

Everything is integrated today, which makes our jobs both easier and more difficult. The trick is seamlessly marrying traditional public relations with the online world. Communicators must never stop paying attention to the constant evolution of social and digital platforms — we’ll never be “done.” Always remain aware of where your target audiences are online and of what they are saying. Invest in monitoring tools that can help you adjust your messages to ensure that they continue to resonate with those audiences. And understand the difference between monitoring and listening. Monitoring is knowing what is being said; listening is understanding why it’s being said and responding accordingly.

What are the challenges of reaching new audiences and those of various backgrounds, cultures and languages?

The first challenge is making sure that the products and services we’re offering and representing have appeal to the different segments. Are those of different ethnic backgrounds actually a target, or do we just want them to be? Once that’s resolved, there have always been specific media, which target different audience segments; but today, digital channels are making it easier to target different segments more effectively. For example, while some are wringing their hands over the death of organic reach in social media, I think things are just getting good!

What are the keys to implementing strong, strategic storytelling?

Storytelling is more important than ever — it makes the news we have to share more relatable and appealing — but attention spans are shorter than ever, which means that the stories we craft must be succinct.
First, talk to yourself as you craft your story pitch. Tell your story to yourself out loud, as if you’re speaking to a friend or colleague, and listen — it really works. Second, consider the audience. The story you’re telling must appeal to multiple audiences, which is an opportunity to craft more than one story from a single piece of news, specific to a journalist or audience. This approach gives our stories more legs.

How would you describe your leadership style and what makes a good leader?

I often say that I’m not an expert in any particular arena in which I work, but I do have one awesome talent: I find great talent and I hire well. And while doing so, I assemble and encourage a dynamic environment in which all individuals contribute. I like an informal work environment — I believe that it encourages productivity among the teams I manage — and I encourage personal and professional growth, both on the job and outside of it. I am always personally invested in the future of my team members and hope to send and keep them on a path for success — it’s incredibly gratifying in a personal way.

Why do you think it’s important to be involved in organizations that focus on networking and continuing education?

In any profession, employees can become stale if they’re not connected to like-minded colleagues across the spectrum. The same is now truer than ever for PR professionals, with the constant and dizzying evolution of methods, means and channels for optimal communications strategies. Networking promotes brainstorming and idea sharing among colleagues, which only supports the ongoing success of our vocation. In other words, we’re stronger standing together than we are working separately.

What advice do you have for new professionals looking to break into public relations?

Be willing to do anything to get a foot in the door. Work every possible personal connection through friends, family and colleagues. Join professional organizations like PRSA, or even professional networking groups within your local community. And craft yourself as a subject matter expert.

Many senior communications professionals are looking for young, energetic team members who are trend-spotters — so make yourself one of them. Finally, take all of this and hone your “elevator pitch” about yourself. Tell that story in 20 seconds or less — it will become the basis for your personal brand — and practice it. You never know when you’ll be standing next to a hiring manager with an opening that fits your skill set. 

Also, the best piece of advice I’ve ever received is that every situation has a positive side. Find it and make the best of it.

What are some trends you see on the horizon for public relations in the coming year?

The most obvious trends that we’ll continue to see are the rise and continued evolution of digital communication and how we do what we do as communications professionals. The number of digital channels will continue to grow, the different types of platforms will continue to change and evolve, and how we adapt as communicators will be everything to our success in the business moving forward. Traditional public relations will not go away, but the number of channels that we have to communicate and the number of ways in which we have to communicate with new and different audiences continue to expand — it’s a very exciting time in communications overall.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during your PR career?

The first or the most important tip that I got from a veteran communicator when I first started in the business was that you simply can’t push information out and expect people to pick it up. Communication, by its very definition, has to be a two-way dialogue. And the fact that we are putting out and disseminating so much important information as communicators means that we have to focus on the dialogue that we have with our public, assignment editors and those who play a role in making sure that the information gets out there. It’s about relationships — it always has been. The most successful communicators have been the ones who have built relationships along the way.

Talk about the evolution of the PR profession you’ve seen over the past 20 years.

We’ve seen dramatic change in the PR and communications profession. Things were fairly static for decades, and then, digital communication came along. All of a sudden, this wasn’t a one-way communications channel anymore — we had dialogue with a lot of people. And the rise in social media has changed a lot about what we do.

But I’ve found that the basics in communication continue to be the same. Now, more than ever, we have to be able to develop relationships with our audiences, who are often members of the traditional media, assignment editors, reporters and journalists.

I think PR stands for personal relationships. It’s no longer public relations and it’s no longer press releases — it’s all about the relationships you could build with traditional media. As there seem to be fewer channels of traditional media, those relationships will become more important. And we’ll find that the coverage that we get out of those relationships will pay us.

Getting to Know… Scott Higley

Any three dinner guests — past or present?
David Sedaris, Truman Capote and Dame Maggie Smith

Favorite place to travel?
The world! I wasn’t raised with a wanderlust — it came to me later in life — but now I cannot get enough of new places.

Favorite downtime activity?
Cooking — I’ve become a pretty fair cook by watching my favorites on the Food Network.

Favorite movie?
“To Kill a Mockingbird”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


No comments have been submitted yet.

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of three circles) + (image of seven circles) + (image of six circles) =



Digital Edition