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Some Things Stay the Same

Published on April 19, 2017, at 9:03 p.m.
by Briana Borcic.

Public relations has come a long way since 1991, but a lot of the ideas, drive and mission have remained the same. In a recent interview, Cheryl Nelson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Monmouth College, talked about her experience in PR and with political campaigns as assistant to the first lady of Illinois.

Nelson did not originally begin working for Illinois’ first lady at the time, Brenda Edgar; she had to work her way up. She explained some of her first experiences in her fellowship working for the director of Senior Citizens, Human Services and Veterans under the Illinois secretary of state. Comically, she pointed out some of the basic work she did that eventually led into her more serious work for the first lady.

“I wrote reports, press releases, speeches for the director. I also answered the help line where interesting people called in all day long,” Nelson said.

In addition to answering phone calls from the people of Illinois, Nelson modestly explained how PR started to tie into her job. She noted how press releases played a huge role in her job and admitted she was basically writing them in her sleep.

“When you work in government and work for a government official, you’re always wanting to make them look good,” Nelson said. “You’re always wanting taxpayers to understand where their taxes are going and what they’re getting in return. You’re always wanting to promote what the government is doing … PR was woven into everything we did. Press releases were everything. Everything we did was a press release because we had to tell people about it.”

Nelson helped with numerous campaigns for Edgar, who she explained to be very interested in helping children. One of the biggest campaigns Nelson helped run and promote was a campaign called Help Me Grow, which sold teddy bears that raised awareness for all of the government services for children, such as immunizations and keeping children “healthy, happy and safe.”

“The first lady was very interested in children’s issues in the first term of the governor,” Nelson said. “She was also interested in making sure foster kids got adopted and felt special. One thing she heard from social workers and from police officers was that when kids leave their home in a crisis they basically leave with what they have on their back or sometimes they throw their clothes in a plastic bag. She wanted to do something that gave them comfort, so we made teddy bears called PJ Huggabee, which were sold at Marshall Fields. When someone purchased a bear, another was donated to a child in foster care. PJ Huggabee had his own logo, and he had a hang tag around his neck. The tag gave statistics related to child abuse, foster care, adoption [and other children’s issues]. The first lady would then go to Marshall Fields stores and hand-sign the bears.”

Toward the end of Nelson’s time working for the first lady in 1997 was when they began to do campaigns for women’s health, focusing on six major aspects.

“That campaign was called Women to Women,” Nelson said. “We talked about breast cancer, cervical cancer, heart disease, domestic violence, osteoporosis and menopause.”

There was a lot of planning and promotion that went into all of the campaigns that Nelson took part in. She talked about partnering with the Chicago Bears, creating giant coffee mugs that held flowers, sending out PSAs and more. Nelson was responsible for a lot of behind-the-scenes work and only expressed one complaint.

“My least favorite part was revising speeches,” Nelson said. “One time I waited and waited around until 8 p.m., and she changed one word.”

When asked what her favorite aspect of the job was, Nelson said she loved help making people aware of their government and all it has to offer. She explained that a big part of working for a government official was keeping up their appearance. She also gave some advice about the truth and PR.

“An elected official has a huge ego, and you have to be very sensitive to how they appear; you’re controlling their image,” Nelson said. “You have to protect and project their image and their reputation and their everything. So, it is stressful but it’s also fun. I loved it. Plus, you always want to tell your own story; you don’t want to let other people tell it for you. Sometimes you just have an instinct or an appreciation for it and there are other people that don’t understand. Some people call it spin. There’s the truth and then there’s the truth. You can tell the truth without telling the truth; it’s definitely not lying, but it’s putting the best shine on it. Lies always catch up. Don’t ever lie in PR.”

Nelson’s daughter, Kaitlyn Nelson who currently attends The University of Alabama and is studying Collaborative Special Education (K-12), reflected on the biggest lesson her mom taught her growing up.

“One thing my mom always taught me is that it’s better to tell the truth and get in trouble than to lie and get caught,” said Kaitlyn Nelson.

Since 1997, when Nelson finished her role working for the first lady, a lot in the industry has changed. The digital world has taken over and created a faster-paced work environment. Nelson explained how one would have to try really hard to ruin someone’s reputation in the 90s and that everything took time to produce. She jokes about the full-bleed colored posters they would create and hand out.

“I can’t even imagine a 24-hour news cycle,” Nelson said. “I can’t imagine the instant reaction that you have to have with the internet and social media and so many different platforms of social media. You are always playing defense, I would think. It’s harder to get ahead of messages and to be proactive with your messages because it takes no effort whatsoever to get something negative out there. Whereas, when I did it, it took a lot of work.”

PR will continue to grow and evolve, but it will always hold an authenticity and a creative aspect that are much the same. Nelson’s story is proof that press releases may never die and the goal to keep the company’s, administrator’s or celebrity’s image positive will forever take the same approach.

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