PR Pros: Kelly Soderlund of TripActions On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro
Don’t outsource all your media relations to a PR agency. You are the expert in your company messaging and will have greater success by maintaining relationships with journalists.
Have you seen the show Flack? Ever think of pursuing a real-life career in PR? What does it take to succeed in PR? What are the different forms of Public Relations? Do you have to have a college degree in PR? How can you create a highly lucrative career in PR? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” we are talking to successful publicists and Public Relations pros, who can share stories and insights from their experiences.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kelly Soderlund, Senior Director of Communications at TripActions.
Kelly Soderlund is the senior director of communications at TripActions, the all-in-one travel, corporate card, and expense management platform disrupting legacy T&E. A graduate of SF State’s journalism program, Kelly has spent a decade working in-house for innovative and beloved travel tech companies, including Hipmunk and TripIt. An expert in both funding news and data storytelling, Kelly pulls, analyzes, and packages data, working with top-tier journalists across finance, fintech and travel.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had wanted to be a long-form journalist for as long as I can remember and had absolutely no idea I’d end up in PR — though now I can’t imagine doing anything else. At the time, I was looking for (yet another) internship to complete for school, and I saw an advertisement for a data journalist at a cool travel startup that I had actually just seen in the news caught my eye. Most journalism internships didn’t pay and I was excited by the idea that I’d earn some money, so I applied at Hipmunk for a data storytelling internship. During the interview process they gave me a dump of raw data and told me to analyze it and tell a story from it — long story short, I got the job, and then that turned into a salaried position upon graduation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
My very first day at TripActions, I was in the onboarding session when I got a phone call from my CMO: “We’re announcing a raise in a few weeks.” This was right before the Winter Break, so here I was, brand new to this company and needed to figure out how to position the news at a time when we were collectively in the first real winter COVID wave and the idea that “business travel is dead” reigned supreme. Even my PR agency told me that it wouldnt get coverage in that climate.
I used that to my advantage: Why would a business travel company be getting such a massive amount of funding at an increased valuation? What does it say about the market?
Long story short, it garnered pretty fantastic coverage and realy set the stage for the year, which included another (even bigger) funding round, three acquisitions, expansion to Europe and more product launches and speaking events than I can remember. But it was definitely one hell of a ride.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know if it was a mistake per se, but when I first started writing data stories I really didn’t know how to use Excel, and so I did all of the calculations on a calculator and a legal pad. I remember showing my manager at the time a story draft and then said, “Okay, and here’s my work if you’d like to review.” She took one look at that legal pad, looked back at me and sighed: “Oh, my.” She started teaching me Excel the next week.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I love working for innovative companies — one of my big things is that product shouldn’t be made in siloes and I truly feel like most of the companies I have had the opportunity to work for have been open to hearing all my crazy ideas. I love that — that you can walk through a painful user experience and wonder “why are we doing things this way?” and bring it to these amazingly talented engineers or data scientists and they can actually manifest into reality.
TripActions is doing this on so many levels and I’m so humbled by the sheer talent. Think of business travel and expense reporting — maybe the two most painful experiences for employees. What TripActions has done is create an entirely new category of travel and expense (T&E), one that is a single unified solution that eliminates expense reporting and provides this amazing support. As an employee, I find it invaluable, especially in the wake of the pandemic, when we’re working longer hours than ever. Getting that time that I used to spend on back
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- I’m extremely Type-A. I was a straight-A student and I’m a former competitive athlete and I think that carries over, which can be both a blessing and curse. Proper grammar, punctuation, consistency — the small details are important.
- I’m extremely curious. Between travel and expense, I have so much data at my fingertips and that data is so revealing about human behavior — each day is like a sociology experiment. I can tell how confident people are about in-person events, which destinations are becoming more popular, how the economy is doing, which spots will be hot for summer; how much a cup of coffee costs and how that varies by city. I find it endlessly fascinating.
- I’m extremely passionate. I care deeply about my coworkers and the work we do — business is personal, people’s life work is personal. The best part of working with the team at TripActions, for me, is being around these amazingly talented and hard-working individuals that are like-minded and have a singular focus — which is disrupting two very legacy industries: corporate travel and expense management.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you help articulate what the different forms of PR are?
Absolutely. There are so many specialties in public relations: Global Comms; Corporate Comms, GTM Comms (go-to-market), Internal Comms, Crisis Comms, Investor Relations, Analyst Relations, Public Policy, Media Relations, Consumer Comms, B2B Comms — and then there are verticals, like travel, tech, fintech, business that one can specialize in.
Where should a young person considering a career in PR start their education? Should they get a degree in communications? A degree in journalism? Can you explain what you mean?
I am personally a fan of PR people having a degree in journalism — you tend to have a better idea oh how the industry works and how journalists think, which makes it easier to understand how to position yourself as an aset to target contacts.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I love a good event! There’s truly nothing like meeting face-to-face — you just a much better sense of who someone is when you meet them in person and have that additional context. One tip that works: wear something, like a brighltly colored dress or blazer, that ensures people will remember you. If you’re hosting an event, invite a wide array of people for varied backgrounds to ensure lively conversations. Have fun, and don’t expect anything. Most successes in PR — and life — come when opportunity meets proper planning. Pushing people too hard is great wy to burn bridges.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Events, webinars, social media, paid and organic content — and of course, word of mouth is always the most effective form of lead generation. Happy customers tell the world.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. A journalism degree will make your life far easier as a PR pro. Too many complaints from journalists are about PR reps who don’t understand what an exclusive or an embargo actually is. A journalism degree also helps PR pros understand how to frame things/ quickly find the hook that will appeal to journalists.
2. An active Twitter account. You need to be where journalist are to understand what they are thinking about — this will help you take advantage of any timely hooks — but also, remove the word newsjacking from your vocabulary. It’s not about inserting your company into a conversation it doesn’t belong.
3. An understanding of data analysis
4.. Grit and understanding of what the law of averages is.
5. Don’t outsource all your media relations to a PR agency. You are the expert in your company messaging and will have greater success by maintaining relationships with journalists.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I work in travel because I honestly think so much of what’s wrong in the world is a matter of proximity. My friend and best-selling author Shaka Senghor talks about this often: it’s easy to dissociate or make an “otherness” of someone or something if you’ve never had proximity to them/ it. When you spend time with someone, spend time in a place, it becomes far harder not see ther humanity, to see the “sameness”. Travel breeds empathy.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.
PR Pros: Kelly Soderlund of TripActions On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.