Lauren Lawson-Zilai is an external communications and public relations executive for Goodwill Industries International, a social enterprise that provides job training, career services, such as credentials and certifications, and support services such as child care financial education, youth mentoring and transportation to nearly 39 million people a year, through the revenue from the sale of donated clothes and household goods. As spokesperson for Goodwill®, she is a trusted communications adviser to executive leadership. She has been quoted frequently in the media including the Associated Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, MarketWatch Radio, The New York Times, The NonProfit Times, and USA TODAY. Lawson-Zilai is a graduate of Goodwill’s Senior Leader Program and holds a certificate in nonprofit board education from BoardSource.

Where are you based?

Rockville, MD

Current position/title/company?

Senior Director of Public Relations and National Spokesperson, Goodwill Industries International.

Tell us about your background? How did you get to where you are today?

I started off as a publicity assistant at Penguin Putnam (now Penguin Books USA) after an internship at Simon & Schuster. My love of reading plus my interest in PR led me to my first career. I was responsible for writing press materials, preparing press kits, coordinating author mailings, executing launch parties and book lectures, and facilitating author tours and book signings. This was in the days before social media. I was there for six months before finding a better opportunity at Time Warner Books (now Hachette Book Group).

In 2001, I moved to D.C. with the intent to move from the private sector to the nonprofit sector – despite family’s urging that “Nonprofit equals no money.” While I appreciated their advice, I wanted to fulfill my passion of working for a cause. I worked at LifeLine press, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, which focused on health books; and then for Regnery. I also joined PRSA and WWPR, and it was through my involvement on their pro bono committees that I was able to hone additional skills such as event management, fundraising, partnership building, video production, and strategic planning. From there, I worked at the Association Management Group and the Children’s Defense Fund prior to coming to Goodwill more than 10 years ago. I have been fortunate to find the sweet spot where my skills intersect with my passion.

Take us through a “typical” workday – what does it look like? What are you engaged in?

My role includes leading, developing and executing external and strategic communications, including celebrity spokespeople, crisis communications, influencer marketing, community relations, national media relations, social media for the executive team, thought leadership, and creative services, including video production. Any single day could be focusing on a multiple of items such as providing input on creative for our Ad Council campaign, designing the communications strategy and materials for observances such as back to school, National Thrift Shop Day or Halloween (October is our biggest sales month) for our members (our community-based organizations).

Recently, we launched materials for “Halfoween,” which marks the halfway point through the year to Halloween. Each year, dedicated Halloween enthusiasts celebrate Halfoween to mark this occasion, and we used that angle as a means to launch a micro video, graphics and blogs for our members to celebrate Halfoween as well as launch Halloween materials, including a playbook and a broadcast media outreach guide. I also oversee our public-facing customer service team, which monitors our emails and social media inquiries and calls.

Recently, we launched a chat feature on our website, which had more than 4,615 chats in April. A typical day also includes providing consultations to our members on issues management situations; media training their program participants for interviews; and publicizing our grant investments such as GoodPaths, the first-of-its-kind evidence-based career navigation that addresses talent development and retention challenges in retail; and Operation: GoodJobs, which is the first-of-its-kind program to help military members transition back into society through job training and placement services through individualized, holistic plans not only for them but for their family members as well.

One of the most interesting projects I worked on to date was a mission communications toolkit, as part of an OI – an organizational initiative – which are groups with cross-functional teams tasked with solving an issue. Our group looked at the websites and social channels of more than 140 Goodwill organizations, and found that the focus and messaging was on retail, more so than mission, from an outside perspective. Since Goodwill is one of the most recognizable brands in the United States and around the world, we wanted to equip Goodwills with tools and resources so the public knows us as more than stores or donation centers.

Many have no idea that Goodwill organizations also offer a range of job placement and training services to veterans and military families, youth and young adults, older workers, and others facing challenges to finding employment. The toolkit offers strategies for strengthening communications about mission programs and the measurable impact those programs make in local communities. It includes four categories of content, plus downloadable graphics, to help tell the full Goodwill story, including data and research, graphics, videos, infographics, how to pitch the media, and more. For each topic, the toolkit provides guidance that focuses specifically on mission messaging, and it highlights examples of best practices drawn from member websites and social media sites.

What does your media diet consist of?

I read hard copies of The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Washington Business Journal, and USA Today. I enjoy the Skimm because it not only provides a run-through of current events but you can also listen to the Skimm Notes audio on The Skimm’s app, which provides context on relevant and timely topics. I read a number of PR colleagues and friends’ blogs such as Katie Paine’s Measurement Advisor newsletter and Shonali Burke Consulting – Shonali Burke’s daily newsletter. I also digest a number of nonprofit trade blogs and publications – Beth Kanter, Cause Marketing Forum, GuideStar, Independent Sector, Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Quarterly, and the Storytelling Nonprofit – as well as PR and communication blogs - Mashable, Muck Rack Daily, Ragan’s PR Daily, Social Media Examiner, and Spin Sucks.

What is your office/work setup like?

Since I’m in a lot of meetings, I have a standing desk. My office is surrounded by pictures of family and friends. I also have my industry awards as a reminder that my colleagues in the field acknowledge and appreciate my passion and engagement, which is the best compliment of all.

What is a recent communications/media campaign you enjoyed?

Professionally, one of the most rewarding experience for me was my role in the launch of the Goodwill Digital Career Acceleratorsm, a collaboration between Google, the world’s leading technology company, and Goodwill, the country’s leading workforce development nonprofit. The initiative will mobilize 125 local, community-based Goodwill organizations as they equip more than one million people with expanded and enhanced digital skills training over the course of three years.

Google is investing 1,000 Googlers – Google volunteers – its largest people investment as well as $10 million to empower Goodwill organizations to enhance their job training programs to equip their employees, job seekers and career advancers with the ever-growing demand for new skills in the digital economy. Google volunteers will help Goodwill career trainers with anything from Boolean searches to more advanced digital training.

There is a real need for this as many people are underemployed in this labor market. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are more than 6 million job openings in the United States, and advanced skills such as computer support or programming are increasingly essential for well-paying, in-demand careers for diverse populations across the country.

In terms of other nonprofits, I really liked Dell Ocean Plastic Campaign, which is an entry I judged as part of the CSR category in the Silver Anvils this year. Every year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean, threatening ocean ecosystems and the primary food source for a billion people on the planet, causing major health problems. If trends continue, scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

As part of Dell's Legacy of Good program, Dell's objective in the ocean plastics campaign was to raise awareness and understanding of the global environmental challenges posed by ocean plastics and to also highlight the role businesses and individuals can play in confronting the problem. Additionally, the team wanted to encourage collaboration across sectors.

Dell founded an ocean plastics packaging pilot program on February 22, 2017 at The Economist's World Ocean Summit in Bali, by Adrian Grenier, Dell's Social Good Advocate, and Piyush Bhargava, VP of Global Operations for Dell, and conducted a number of Facebook Live sessions, a launch video, infographics and a #CleanSeas popup experience, which featured The Lonely Whale VR experience, powered by Dell.

How is your communications team staffed/organized and how many people make up your team?

Our overall marketing communications team is comprised of twelve people. I have two people on my direct team as well an outside consultant. In addition, I work closely with a PR and marketing specialist brought on for our Google grant, to help provide direction.

At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to revamp my team with the intentionality of how the PR landscape is changing. With PR, utilizing a particular platform to develop thought leadership and brand awareness means a more sustained effort toward rich media content. As such, I created a PR and multimedia manager and hired someone with a background in news and PR. She is responsible for creating long and short form videos, and infographics and GIFs, which have all become part of the communications industry lexicon. Some of the videos she has developed have taken a unique twist on creating awareness about Goodwill such as videos about the 50th anniversary of the Smiling G logo or the 150th birthday of our founder.  We utilize our varied media platforms to develop our voice and tell our story to consumer and BtoB audiences.  

I also brought on a PR specialist to manage and recruit influencers and brand ambassadors, write materials, pitch media, and track and measure our communication initiatives and projects.

How do you recharge?

I enjoy traveling and watching movies and TV. I just completed the first series of “This is Us,” which is cathartic. Most of all, I enjoy spending time with my 4-year-old daughter and being a kid.  

What is the best advice you’ve received?

It’s hard to narrow it down to one. I attended the ColorComm conference for the first time last year and got a lot of nuggets there:

“Be a mentor and a mentee. There is enough sun for all of us to shine.”

“Fear has no place in your success equation.”

My favorite would be: “Your authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage. Don't submerge that that is not uniquely you.”

Also, at Goodwill, we have been focusing on diversity and inclusion and recently had guest speaker, Sonia Aranza, lead us through a training. She spoke about how the phrase, “Treat people how you want to be treated” is antiquated as “You should treat others as they want to be treated.” Everyone has their own standards and beliefs, and you have to meet people where they are instead of assuming that’s where we are.

Life in public relations is…

Focusing on purposeful, strategic communications that influences perceptions, and decisions for the better good.

What are you reading or what would you recommend?

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek. The book also appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list. I highly recommend watching Simon’s TEDTalk as well. His mantra is about inspiring people to do the things that inspire them – communicating from the inside out – not what you do, but why you do it.

Personally, I wanted to put in a plug for my former colleague, Mandy Mikulencak, who has renewed my love of reading. She wrote a young adult novel called Burn Girl and recently came out with a book called The Last Suppers, which is a complex and emotionally moving story about a woman who works as a prison cook at Louisiana’s Greenmount State Penitentiary during the 1950’s. The book focuses on a myriad of topics, including racial tensions, defying social norms, and the death penalty.

What tools or technologies can’t you live without?

Facebook to catch up with friends and family.

Photo editing tools such as FaceTune, Photoable, Boomerang and Layout.

Instagram because we live in a visual world. It’s the best way to illustrate your brand philosophy. Choosing the right photo, the right filter (if you decide to use one), choosing the right hashtags is fascinating. You also get a glimpse into specially selected moments of someone’s life. It’s a twinkle of their life captured in one picture - the picture that most represented that time, that day, that feeling, that experience. Professionally, as we work with influencers, we’ve found it to be effective.

Asana because it’s the one of the best tools for project management and keeping people on task. It’s also a good way to cut down on email clutter when working cross functionally.

Soundcloud so I can keep up with podcasts such as HBR’s Women at Work or my PRSA-NCC colleagues’ podcast, Serial Moms.

As a mom of a toddler, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention

Homeroom (which allows for sharing of photos in the classroom), and the ABC Mouse and PBS Kids apps.

What is next for public relations? What emerging trends do you see? 

Influencer marketing will continue to become the norm rather than the exception. Therefore, it will be important for clients, especially nonprofits, to work with influencers that truly understand and resonate with their brand’s voice and mission.  I also believe influencer marketing methods and metrics will continue to improve as new measurement capabilities come into play.