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Sheila Consaul: Director, Media and Public Relations, United Way of America, Washington, DC

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Sheila Consaul's journey into the world of public relations began on Capitol Hill, when she served as a legislative assistant for Congressman George C. Wortley (R-NY). From there, she moved into lobbying and, later, into public affairs, finally finding her niche in PR. She began with an undergraduate degree in international relations and along the way completed a master's in communications.

Consaul wound up at United Way after working for two high-tech PR firms. "After the downturn in the tech boom, I needed to look for a new job," said Consaul. "I found this job on a listserv, and I applied." She said she saw the opportunity as a chance to combine a lot of what she had already done in PR, public affairs, and communications and has been there a little longer than two years.

"It [United Way] is a very diverse organization and is the nation's largest charity when you take all of the United Ways combined. We are a system of over 1,300 local United Ways, and we add up to be just about a $4 billion organization," said Consaul. It is the appeal of working for a large organization with significant impact that is still small enough locally to be on the ground working with individuals that she said she enjoys the most.

According to Consaul, the challenge faced by a nonprofit organization is that people expect a lot. "Especially the donors who are giving money. They want to know what their money is going for, and they want to make sure it is making a difference in someone's life. That's challenging to make sure that you are communicating what the organization is doing with its resources and how it is actually benefiting people. It's more involved than communicating other things, like the amount of sales or product," said Consaul.

Although United Way is very well known, it is difficult for people to articulate what United Way does in just a few words or phrases. Said Consaul, "It's a constant struggle to articulate what we do so that other people can talk about what we do."

And as far as the William Aramony scandal of 1992 goes, Consaul said many people are aware that it happened and added, "The good side of that was that it did force us to change a number of the ways that we do things and be much more transparent and accountable in the way that we conduct business. Being the largest charity in the U.S., we are a leader in that sense, and it has trickled down to other nonprofits also having to be very transparent about how they raise their money and spend their money."

Consaul said that she still gets questions and spends time educating the public on that period of the organization's history.
In terms of emotional highlights of her career, Consaul said that some of the things that stand out are the programs she has worked on, such as one that was created in collaboration with The Tobacco Institute to discourage youth from smoking in the early 1990s. The program continues to be promoted by Philip Morris.

"Being on the ground floor of something like that is so important, and yet it has gone on for all these years," said Consaul. "Just being in Washington in my career has been tremendously exciting because there are just things that go on here on Capitol Hill, around town, being the nation's capitol, that you just don't see other places. When the motorcades go through and the heads of state come into town—and celebrities—all kinds of things happen here that just wouldn't happen other places. It's just very exciting. It's a very different place to have a career."

"Every day is different here, and the career opportunities are tremendous," she continued. "There are constantly things going on politically and organizations needing to respond. And it is a very diverse city economically. We have the government, but we have private sector. We have government contractors. We also have thousands of trade associations and membership organizations located here, along with nonprofits and universities. The job market is very good here and provides a lot of opportunities for PR and communications professionals if they are interested in politics or academia or international work."

Q. What CD was most recently in your CD player?
A. A CD featuring the original soundtrack from the Rocky movies. It is very inspirational!
Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. Better Homes and Gardens.
Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. It's not on the air anymore, but it's Frasier. I had an incredible PR success related to that show.
Q. Who is your role model?
A. Some of my role models are people who can really do fabulous interviews in very tough situations.

Over the course of her career, Consaul said, most of the changes she has witnessed in the public-relations field have come via technology.

"When I started in PR, we didn't even have computers," said Consaul. "Certainly in the last five or 10 years when there has been a huge change in electronic communication—now the Internet and those kinds of things—it has made the profession much, much faster because people expect instant response."

Although the pace of the profession has increased substantially due to technology, Consaul said that she believes it has made her more effective because she can reach more people at a faster rate and there is a more accurate "paper trail," so to speak, of the communication exchange. She added, "We were so United States-centric for so long; I think we are getting a better sense of the global marketplace out there because of the Internet [and] because of email and the things that you can do without regards to time zones and traveling."

Consaul said she believes that professional associations bring tremendous value to the profession; she is a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and participates in events with some other organizations. It is really helpful to get out and mingle with PR people in other organizations, whether they work for similar or completely different organizations. Doing this affords opportunities to get out of the rut of doing things the same way and develop new skills while polishing up the routine ones.

"It is particularly beneficial early in your career when you are beginning to network and develop your skills," said Consaul. "The best way to meet other people in the profession is through professional associations, especially if you are kind of a one-man show, which [is often the case because] many organizations only have one PR person."

If she had it all to do over again, Consaul said that she probably would have started in PR a little earlier. "I loved the legislative side, and I loved working on Capitol Hill, but I think my real niche has been in PR," said Consaul. "I probably would have expanded my educational curriculum a little bit. I think I really would have liked to take some more television and on-air media classes and training. That is an enormous medium now."

Her advice for anyone preparing for a career in public relations is to work on those writing skills! "Mainly because there are so many different kinds of writing. I don't think people understand that when they come into PR. Even if you think you can write, writing an annual report is very different from writing a speech, from writing a blog, from writing a news release. So having a variety of writing skills is absolutely critical," said Consaul.

As far as business travel goes, Consaul does do some limited traveling to conferences; soon, she will be heading to Louisiana for a project called Alternative Spring Break. It is a United Way/MTV partnership sponsored by FedEx and GameStop. Approximately 300 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 from all over the country will travel to Lake Charles to help rebuild houses in areas affected by Hurricane Rita. But when it comes to traveling on her own, Consaul considers herself a "rabid traveler."

"I have traveled all over the world; I have been to over 50 countries, and that has been a passion of mine since I was 16 years old. I have got to see the world," said Consaul. "I need to see more of South America and more of Africa." The only continent she has yet to visit is Antarctica.

On the net:United Way of America

Alternative Spring Break


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