This is an installment of a series featuring successful American University alumna.
Kelsey Balimtas sees public relations as a powerful tool for igniting social change. Through her internships and current work experience, Kelsey discovered how strategic communication strategy can make an impact one campaign (or tactic) at a time. As a 2014 graduate of AU’s School of Communication, Kelsey earned a degree in Public Communication with a double minor in Marketing and Psychology. During her time at AU, she served as President of AU’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), worked in several on-campus organizations and held positions in both in-house and agency teams. Currently, she works as an Account Executive at Porter Novelli, a full-service agency specializing in social marketing for various practice areas.
Her Campus American University: How did you develop a passion for public relations?
Kelsey Balimtas: Like many others who end up in PR, I started out wanting to be a journalist. While I still admire journalists, I quickly realized that I liked being the person to pitch stories more than the person writing them. That’s not to say I don’t like writing (I do!), but I was drawn to the strategy and integrated communications behind public relations. My first experience at an agency really helped solidify this, because I had the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats beyond just content creation.
HCAU: What made you want to work at first Hager Sharp and then Porter Novelli?
KB: Both Porter Novelli and Hager Sharp—besides being brilliant public relations agencies—had one major characteristic in common: They were focused on social good. Hager Sharp’s motto, “Ideas That Make a Difference,” was one I fiercely admired. I also liked their independent spirit and the fact that they were founded by two women at a time when public relations was a male-dominated field. Porter Novelli is widely acknowledged as one of the pioneers in social marketing (marketing for social change). Jack Porter and Bill Novelli were some of the first to use traditional marketing principles to ignite positive behavior change. I came here to continue to build that legacy.
HCAU: How did your previous internships and involvement in AU’s chapter of PRSSA prepare you for your account executive roles?
KB: Being president of AU’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter still prepares me! In PR, you’re managing relationships and juggling tasks all the time. Overseeing a team in addition to securing partnerships, hosting events and managing funds are all skills I use in my current position. As for my internships, I was really lucky to have had a lot of agency experience during my undergraduate career. The multitasking I did as an intern prepared me well for my day-to-day work at Porter Novelli.
HCAU: Walk me through a typical day at Porter Novelli. What are your primary duties and responsibilities?
KB: That’s hard, because no two days are alike! Let’s see… I usually try to get in the office around 8/8:15 a.m. and spend the first 15–20 minutes of my day reading my news alerts and answering emails. I’ll have a few meetings—some with clients, some without—and then spend the rest of my day working to get deliverables out the door. Deliverables (pieces of material that are delivered to clients) can be anything from infographics to a website wireframe to a press release. I’m constantly using the skills I acquired in college to help me with these tasks, but a lot you also learn on the job.
HCAU: What is your favorite part of working at Porter Novelli?
KB: Hands down, the people. My coworkers are some of the most intelligent, ambitious and passionate individuals I have ever met. We’re constantly swapping ideas and asking, “What if?” It’s a really inspiring environment.
HCAU: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
KB: One of my greatest mentors once told me, “Skills can be taught; attitude can’t.” You may think you’re not qualified for a position, but the truth is employers would much rather hire someone inexperienced but trainable than someone experienced who’s unpleasant to work with. Leverage your curiosity and willingness to learn, no matter what field you’re looking to enter.
HCAU: What advice do you have for current AU students looking to break into the strategic communication field?
KB: Gain a lot of experience across different types of communications. One of my biggest strengths when I was applying for jobs was that I had worked for a tech startup, a Fortune 500 company, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. It helps to have a variety of experiences to draw from to help market yourself in your applications.
HCAU: How do you think communication can be used for creating positive social change?
KB: The most powerful and fundamental human interaction is communication. What better way is there to influence behavior? We’re also at an amazing time in history where our communications tools—news media, social media, information technology—can amplify our messages to the world. Starting a social movement has never been easier.
HCAU: For students interested in working in the communication for social change space—what positions or job titles should they be looking for?
KB: It can be difficult to find a position or job title in “social change.” My advice for starting out would be to try to find entry-level work in an industry working to change the world. Figure out what issues you’re most passionate about and go from there. Are you an environmental activist? Search for positions working in sustainability communications or environmental policy, at places like Rare or World Wildlife Fund. Do you want to use technology or design to solve the world’s problems? Check out organizations like Frog Design or 1776. For me, I knew I wanted to work with clients solving public health problems… but I wasn’t willing to settle down with any one particular issue or organization yet. If you’re like me, an agency can be a good place to start if you’re still figuring out exactly what types of work you want to do.
HCAU: Can you elaborate a bit with your involvement in WWPR?
KB: Sure! Washington Women in PR (WWPR) is a fantastic group of women from all over D.C. who work at public relations agencies, nonprofit organizations, the federal government and elsewhere. WWPR regularly hosts events that draw together some of the most brilliant and passionate women in the PR industry. Actually, later this month I’m attending a social change panel to discuss cause-driven campaigns. Staying involved shouldn’t stop just because you graduate!
HCAU: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KB: If only I knew… Ideally, I would like to have finished my graduate degree in social entrepreneurship, public health or both. I’m not sure I’ll still be in PR, to be honest. I’m finding myself drawn more to the business aspect of social good. I think there’s something to be said for convincing the private sector that it’s good business to do some good in the world. I think it’s possible to make a profit and make a difference at the same time.
All photos courtesy of Kelsey Balimtas.