A Passion for the Profession: DePaul University’s Linda Blakley on Storytelling and Higher Education

April 26, 2016

Linda Blakley
Linda Blakley

Linda Blakley has worked in higher education for the past three years, but the appeal of her job hasn’t subsided.

“I’m jazzed every morning when I come in,” she says.

That enthusiasm, coupled with Blakley’s extensive communications background, has led to her appointment as the new vice president for the Office of Public Relations and Communications at DePaul University in Chicago. Previously, she was the assistant vice president for the 15-person office.

Prior to DePaul, Blakley accrued more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications and public relations in the retail, manufacturing and public utilities industries, and has held positions with GolinHarris, WalMart and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Blakley, who started her new role on April 1, spoke with The Strategist about her robust career, the importance of mentoring and giving back to the PR profession.

Your career has taken you from the corporate world to agency life and then on to higher education. Can you talk about some of these transitions?

I spent a large chunk of my career at Sears, Roebuck & Co., happily working with folks with the courage to be merchants. Agency life is fast-paced too, but with different drivers. With new clients and projects, you have to get up to speed quickly and show return on investments, because the value of your work is enumerated on that retainer form.

Over the years, I’ve found that a key to successful transitions is being open to understanding an organization’s culture and seeking out guides to help you do so, if you need it.

What are some of the challenges for communicators in higher education?

The role of a communications leader in higher education is not altogether different from what I have experienced in other segments.

We promote and we protect. And I’ve discovered that here at DePaul. It seems that every leading trend or social movement finds its way to a college campus.

Discipline issues management will help prevent crises outright, or it can help to mitigate the outcomes. Crisis readiness, of course, is also on this short list. So preparedness training should be a part of the department’s ongoing agenda.

Higher education is a competitive environment. I think the way to win is aligning all the communicators across campus around one strong narrative, and telling it well.

You majored in journalism at Northwestern University. Growing up and in college, did you have a dream job in mind?

I grew up in Philadelphia. The paper there had a slogan: “In Philadelphia, everybody reads The Bulletin.” And that was certainly the case in my house growing up. “60 Minutes” was must-see TV in my house as well. I grew up wanting to follow in Ed Bradley’s footsteps.

You then went on to earn a master’s in integrated marketing communications. Would you recommend an advanced degree, or do you think it’s necessary for executive-level professionals to further their careers?

After my son was born, I decided to go to grad school to layer on some additional professional training that would help me prepare to be a communications leader.

Northwestern’s IMC program really did help prepare me for work in a large corporate setting. An understanding of balance sheets and consumer behavior, and learning to work as part of an effective communications campaign team helped me get ready to mix it up with the marketing guys and deliver for my new employers.

What advice do you have for other executive-level PR pros to help keep their skills sharp?

I like to set aside time for regular upgrades to [my] skills portfolio. The tools we use are constantly changing. And workshops and conferences with peers provide opportunities to share best practices as well as to network. But today, continuous learning can also happen at your desktop through webinars and podcasts. I’ve also been known to use the train ride home to check out a TED Talk. I commute from DePaul to Evanston, Ill., and they are a wonderful way to pass the time.

A lot of senior-level practitioners talk about mentoring and giving back. Have you had experience with that yourself?

Reaching back is necessary. It’s also nurturing on both sides. I find that when I’m with my mentees, I think we’re both learning. It’s a terrific profession, and I want more young people to consider it, especially young people of color. So I’m happy to answer yes when I get a call from folks.

This has been a very rewarding profession for me. In terms of giving back, in addition to the mentoring, I continue to work with not-for-profit organizations, providing communications counsel. I started working on boards early in my career. And one of the reasons I did so was that I wanted to have a practice field away from the watchful eye of my manager. I found in those settings that I learned to contribute on a number of dimensions. I found my voice [and] that made it easier for me to advance, I believe, because I had that practice time off the clock.

You officially started your position on April 1. What are you most looking forward to in this new role?

We have a small, but very talented team, and the partners we have across campus are deeply experienced and experts in what they do. So I’m looking forward to integrated communications campaigns that help the university story be told often and well.

At the end of the day, you want to feel at home. And for me, it certainly helps when you really have passion for the organization and its position.

Renée Ruggeri
Renée Ruggeri is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. Originally from Warwick, N.Y., she has bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from the University of Richmond and a certificate in publishing from New York University.


Jan Drummond says:

Great article -- probing questions and thoughtful answers that are a gold mine of advice for those planning to take on leadership roles in strategic communications.

May 2, 2016

Melissa Hill Ford says:

Great advice from an accomplished and wise communications professional. Thank you for sharing your story!

May 2, 2016

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