Published on Nov. 28 at 4:01 p.m.
by Trinity Hunter.
I met Overton in the middle of September while traveling in New York City with the National Millennial and Gen Z Community, an organization formed to facilitate engagement across generations in the professional communications field. The organization is led by Bill Imada and IW Group, and one of the organizations that we spoke with was the Ad Club of New York. During the panel, our group spoke with multiple PR and advertising professionals, one of them being Overton.
Fast forward to October. When I formed my questions for our interview, I knew that I wanted to know about her career, her personal business and any advice she had for a life in public relations. However, in the moment, I decided it would be best to start at the beginning. Who is Cheryl Overton?
A winding road to PR
The world of public relations was not on the horizon for Overton. Originally, the PR professional was intent on attending law school, taking the Law School Admission Test and crafting her application. After graduating from Barnard College of Columbia University with a degree in political science and sociology, Overton decided that she would no longer pursue this path, switching her postgraduate studies to journalism instead of law and attending Temple University. Though she entered the program with an inclination toward broadcast media, such as working for CNN or CNBC, her prowess for writing and editing led Overton to ponder a career with a women’s magazine.
However, it was in an elective course in the journalism program that Overton found her love for a different field: public relations.
“I really credit the PR elective course with me shifting my focus to enter this industry,” Overton said. “It combined my love for the analytical perspective alongside writing. From there, I knew this was the career path I wanted to follow.”
Taking the PR world by storm
Overton’s career is one that spans across the wide breath of the public relations field. She has
served as a vice president for multiple public relations agencies and firms, including but not limited to PMKBNC, UWG and Edelman. Additionally, Overton worked as senior vice president of Ogilvy, a marketing, advertising and public relations firm. It was there that she met Adam Pietrala.
Pietrala, who currently sits as a partner in the global business development sector at FleishmanHillard, credits Overton with his personal and professional growth within the field. According to Pietrala, he and Overton immediately connected during his time in the Ogilvy internship program.
“I met Cheryl the summer before my senior year at Penn State,” said Pietrala. “Above anything, I remember being taken by her presence, drive and intelligence. All of these things made it easy for me to follow her to Edelman where we worked on the Starbucks account for years.”
After working with Edelman, Overton continued to move throughout the industry, yet the focus of her passion shifted about a decade ago. At the time, she was working at an agency that was in the process of adding an office in New York. According to Overton, the benefit of the move was a chance to build the New York branch of the company from the ground up; there was quite a bit of autonomy and opportunity to grow the organization through her own vision.
However, everything changed when her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Overnight, the “go-go-go” role that she had grown to love paled in comparison to her personal life. Moving beyond this job, Overton began to lay the groundwork for what she refers to as the “first iteration” of her company.
The groundwork for her own business began with referrals from five former colleagues, and this “on-the-ground” outreach led to her consulting between the Philadelphia and New York communities. Putting a pause on the growth of her company, Overton transitioned to serve as the executive vice president of Zeno Group, a global integrated communications firm. Her work in the consumer marketing practice division of the company drew the attention of the EGAMI Group, an integrated multicultural marketing and communication agency. In 2018, Overton left Zeno to serve as the first president of EGAMI, and she remained in this role before stepping down to place her full focus on the “second iteration” of her entrepreneurial venture toward her own company.
The challenges and triumphs of entrepreneurship
During our interview, Overton expressed how beginning her own business was a leap of faith that left her with one question: Was she ready?
The health concerns for her mother heavily affected her ability to perform in the “service-based industry” of PR, and Overton could not be sure if she was in the correct headspace to come back to the field. She credits the first iteration of the company with its later success; while she did not have time to create her own branding campaign, the impact of word-of-mouth and referrals from her colleagues gave her the necessary experience and credibility to move forward.
Though the foundation had been laid nearly a decade prior, the second iteration of Cheryl Overton Communications was met with its own fresh set of challenges. Overton left EGAMI in 2020, officially turning her attention to managing her own business. Needless to say, she could not have expected the unprecedented events of the next few months. From the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic to the global call for racial reckoning, this time period was marked as a period of unparalleled uncertainty.
One of the difficulties for Overton was the business development step of growing her own organization. In our discussion, she reminisced on how she wondered about the ebbs and flows of the company, as well as the importance of taking time outside of the office to witness the trajectory of the field.
“One of the more difficult parts of this time period was that I had to police myself; establishing and maintaining a work-life balance is crucial when you’re a natural work-a-holic,” said Overton.
Even through the fog, Overton was able to clearly visualize her goal. Though there was apprehension, she attributes this time period with being critical to her continued success.
“What I learned during both iterations of my business is that this idea of mine could work,” Overton said. “I had been able to build such a strong network of people that I knew I could find mentors and peers who were in similar positions as me.”
Navigating the new age of DE&I
Throughout her career, Overton has held a spotlight on the importance of diversity, equity
and inclusion. This work has made her a standout in her career, and Overton has earned applause from both PRWeek and AdAge for her insights that guided award-winning PR campaigns. From spearheading “The Talk,” an Emmy-winning anti-racism commercial from Procter & Gamble, to sitting at the head of “Go Red for Women,” under the American Red Cross, as well as the “Real Beauty” campaign from Dove, the Overton name is etched in the PR history books as a trailblazer for DE&I.
During our conversation, I circled back to a question I had asked Overton a couple weeks prior during our first meeting in New York: How could an individual tell which companies were genuine in their approach toward increased DE&I?
Above all else, Overton explained that she needed companies to understand that a true change through a DE&I lens takes “action, decisiveness and a willingness to change.”
“There must be an investment from the company in seeing these adjustments,” Overton said. “Who is advocating for this internally? All of the work can’t be done from outside the organization. There must be a champion for the cause on the inside too.”
Being two years removed from the summer of 2020, I asked Overton her opinion on where the industry could move forward from here. Her response was simple: Continue the conversations that have already started and be bold in digging deeper.
She highlighted how, while the gender ratio in PR is skewed toward women, there is a disproportionate number of white men sitting in the core leadership positions. To Overton, this trend cuts out important groups from being “thought leaders” in the profession. By looking at the data and recalling her own experience, she is confident that her emphasis on DE&I both externally and internally is an essential part of meaningful change in the field.
“In an industry where we are purveyors of culture, this is living art that we are giving to people,” Overton expanded. “I want to make sure that there are diverse perspectives behind the camera. I want to see different people contribute to these cultural meals that we feast on.”
Overton believes that brands and companies should look beyond the typical thresholds of DE&I and invites them to introduce intersectionality to the conversation of inclusion. She points out that the LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and disabled communities have historically lacked a seat at the table. Overton believes that one way of accomplishing the goal of increased intentional DE&I is by engaging those in mid-level roles throughout the company, not just the C-suite. Her innovative approaches for engaging young people in the industry continue to set her apart amongst her peers.
Cheryl Overton: A career of influence and impact
As I closed out my conversation with Pietrala, I asked him what he views as the most defining characteristic in Overton. He explained that although she has acute skills in media relations, crisis management, creative direction, strategy and more, what makes Overton stand out in her career is her resilience.
“To wade through a ‘no’ and find a ‘yes’ is the definition of resilience,” Pietrala said. “I admire the way that she sees the big picture and crystallizes her vision. She is persistent and tenacious; what sets her apart is that she is a visionary.”
According to Pietrala, Overton’s approach to mentorship and camaraderie has influenced his life the most. He continues to reach out to her when discussing his career and the parameters around his role. Her work emboldening young women, particularly young women of color, continues to shine through in everything she does. Just this year, Overton spoke about the her work with Hologic and Mary J. Blige, another effort to push visible female-led diversity to the forefront.
“When Cheryl speaks, people listen,” Pietrala said. “She has the power of presence in any room she walks into. The most notable thing about her is that she uses this power to positively influence the lives of those around her. You can’t learn something like that; you either have it, or you don’t.”
After speaking with Overton and Pietrala about the illustrious career that led to Cheryl Overton Communications, I feel more than confident in saying that Cheryl Overton certainly has it.