Q&A With New PRSA CEO Linda Thomas Brooks

February 2021
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A version of the article first appeared on PRsay on Jan. 11.

Throughout her accomplished career, Linda Thomas Brooks has worked at the intersection of technology, consumer behavior, data analysis and the media, a combination of experience that led to her new role as CEO of PRSA.

Thomas Brooks has served as president and CEO of MPA — The Association of Magazine Media. Her résumé also features innovative leadership roles, including as executive vice president and managing director of GM MediaWorks, the stand-alone agency of GM, and as president of Ingenuity Media for the Martin Agency. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the Ohio State University.

PRSA introduced Thomas Brooks as its new CEO on Jan. 11 following a months-long executive search. Ahead of her first day on Jan. 19, Thomas Brooks talked with Strategies & Tactics about the appeal of working at PRSA, the opportunities ahead for the profession and the importance of collaboration.

Why was PRSA an appealing opportunity for you?

It represents the culmination of a lot of things that I’ve done. I’ve worked at agencies, in technology, in broader communication strategy and a more narrow media focus. I’ve always been adjacent to this [PR] world.

In the past few years, I’ve seen a growth in — people refer to it in different ways — brand journalism, branded content, native content. All of this growth in the communications infrastructure, and the communications ecosystem, is squarely in the purview of people with strategic communications backgrounds — and that’s PR people. I don’t think there’s anybody else in the broader ecosystem with the ability to take this on.

On top of that, consider what is happening with communications in our world — the push for truthful, contextually appropriate and adequately fact-checked information. These are critical issues. We must get this right. And, for me, that’s why this was an exciting opportunity.

What are your early perceptions of PRSA?

In my limited exposure so far, I’ve been able to see the incredible commitment of time and energy from the members. I have been part of other trade groups and associations that were focused on staff time and had much more limited member engagement. I’m sure the PRSA member energy is going to be contagious!

I’ve mostly met the Board of Directors at this point, but what I’ve heard about the individual members and local Chapters — it’s amazing how involved they are! They see PRSA as such an important part of their professional life. And that’s fantastic.

What is your vision for PRSA?

PRSA is an amazing legacy brand. And the future of the business looks exciting. So how can we build on that legacy to future-proof the organization? Hopefully, we’re all coming out of [the pandemic] at some point in the foreseeable future. The profession is going to look different, and the workplace is going to look different. And so how do we help people and provide the services, information and programs for our members in this new work world?

Also, just being part of this rapidly growing communications ecosystem where people are today — PR professionals can, and should, be playing a part of this. PRSA is well-positioned to be the center of this universe.

How do you define your leadership style?

I’d say collaborative. I love working in teams… and the benefit that you get with everybody working together. I’m open to sharing ideas and information, and I fully expect people on my teams to push back. So, hopefully, sometimes their reaction is, “Wow, Linda — that was a great idea.” However, most often, the feedback is like, “There’s a nugget of something good here. And if we add this person’s perspective and this person’s perspective, then we make it better.”

I’ve also worked with my teams in a very transparent way. So occasionally, the feedback they have to give me is like, “Wow, Linda, you should go have some more coffee! That [idea] was dumb and never say that out loud again.” That’s OK. I want that feedback and that honest information because that’s how we all get better.

What are the challenges of being a leader during the pandemic?

In this past year, I’ve counseled a lot of senior leaders and corporate executives. In most companies, their employees really figured out how to be successful with this quick change to a work-from-home environment. Sure, there were some stops and starts and tech glitches, but, for the most part, people were able to make that transition.

People took existing teams that already had workflow and relationships in place and said, “Go work from home.” That’s different than hiring and onboarding, and figuring out how to make changes in this environment.

This will be a challenge going forward. What does that hybrid workplace look like in the future? I don’t think we’re all going to wake up and go back to the office 9-to-5 every day. As a leader, how are we going to share information and make this work? 

What are your interests outside work?

I start most days by running — that’s when I do my best thinking. I’ve completed a handful of marathons. My goal for 2020 was to run 1,000 miles during the year, and I overachieved my goal — I got to 1,150! I love to go outside as much as I can, and run on some trails and get some fresh air. 

I have a family. I have two boys — one in college and one high school. My husband teaches, so we’re a high bandwidth family because everybody is either doing schoolwork or teaching school from home right now.

You’ve described yourself as a hockey mom.

Both my sons played hockey; one still does. And my husband still plays in a recreation league. I’ve spent an enormous amount of my mom time in hockey rinks. There are many good hockey metaphors for life, including having to take a check.  

What are you looking forward to most as CEO of PRSA?

The chance to be part of a profession that is so critical right now. The problems that we need to tackle as a profession are problems that matter to the world. And I love doing something so meaningful and important. I think that’s exciting. 

Industry Recognition for Linda Thomas Brooks 

  • Women to Watch — Ad Age
  • 100 Leading Women in North American Auto Industry — Automotive News
  • Top 100 Executives — Folio: Magazine
  • Hall of Achievement — American Advertising Federation
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