Emerging Voices: Erica Cooke


Erica Cooke joined Burson Cohn & Wolfe as a Public Affairs and Crisis Intern and was promoted to an Assistant Account Executive in Washington D.C.

Please summarize your professional career and its high and low points. (How did you work your way up the ladder? What have you learned along the way? What factors most contributed to your success?)

I decided I wanted to work in PR when I was about 16 years old, and I chose where I would go to college based off that. Low and behold I ended up at Alabama because of the nationally ranked program. Going into my freshman year, I knew I wanted to do things that would propel me and help me meet my goals – one of which was to one day work at Burson-Marsteller. When I got to college, I was looking to do anything relating to PR, so I got involved with PRSSA. When I was a sophomore, I went to my first PRSSA National Conference, which was where my passion was really set on fire. The people around me inspired me, the energy was booming, and I knew this was it. I then applied to Capstone Agency and the PRSSA executive board. I was accepted to both, and starting my junior year, I did everything. I went to conferences, classes, meetings, group discussions, extracurriculars – everything. I was proud of myself, and I felt unstoppable. When internship season rolled around, I knew I wanted to apply to Burson, and I had never felt more confident in my abilities. Then, there was that fateful day I got the email that I wasn’t accepted to the internship. I was crushed. To be perfectly frank, I felt like I had just been broken up with. I went through a mourning phase because for years, that was my goal, that’s what I was striving for, and I just watched it slip away. Not to mention, I didn’t have any backups. I went home (I’m from Atlanta) that weekend and wallowed. I’m not kidding. My mom started making some calls to people she might know who might know someone else who would give me an opportunity somewhere. It’s a long story, and maybe I’ll share it another time, I ended up interning for the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia. Not as glamorous as I had hoped, but, hey, it was something to put on my resume and something to fill my summer. If I can be honest here, I was kind of embarrassed. I thought of myself as a face of our college and I was a leader, and here I was learning about soil and chickens and working an additional part-time job at Loft. In retrospect, this was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I learned so much, I met so many people, it was THE MOST humbling experience. I came back to Alabama for my senior year rested, happy, humbled, thankful and ready to tackle my last year. As the year progressed and the anxiety of graduation and full-time jobs set in, I kept reminding myself that I was qualified and it wasn’t a matter of IF I get a job, it’s just a matter of WHEN. One day in April, I was at an Alabama PRSA luncheon accepting awards for our PRSSA Chapter (classic), and I got a phone call from a New York number. It was Burson. They were calling to offer me my dream internship in public affairs and crisis in the Washington, D.C. office. I did it. I had been working for this for six years, and I finally did it. I literally cried to Mrs. Sims and Maret Montanari. Now, I’ve officially been working at Burson for nine months, and it’s been a roller coaster excitement, fear, happiness, anxiety, and everything under the sun that adulthood brings, but I did it – and honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am without the INCREDIBLE help of my amazing mentors, teachers, friends and professionals I’ve met along the way. I specifically think of PRSSA, Dr. Horsley, Jessika White and The Plank Center, Pat Ford, Mrs. Sims, and so many others for believing in me and teaching me. My life wouldn’t be possible without you.

According to The Holmes Report, women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, but they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry. Why do you think there is a shortage of women leaders in PR? What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

WOW. Honestly, misogyny and fragile masculinity is real. I see it, and the scary thing is that a lot of the times it’s not purposeful and it doesn’t come from a malicious place. People aren’t used to being held accountable for their words or actions, and that’s a problem. Also, women who tear other women down is real, too. I hate to admit it, and I hate to see it. The “top” is a very powerful place, and sometimes that gets to you. I think there is ample space for women, and just like you, I’m trying to figure out how we can all get there. “Top” role models aren’t enough. It takes every single one of us, especially at the junior level, to recognize talent, say kind words and push others to succeed. Never combat a mean word with a malicious action. If we act strategically and kindly, we will all get there.

What can organizations (and the industry as a whole) do to prepare women for top leadership positions? What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in leadership?

I think networking is a huge thing. I think when you find someone who you admire, they will see the light and passion in you and push you. My manager is an incredible example of that. But, I do think that leadership positions come with a business mindset, so feelings, emotions and empathy can sometimes stall us. I think striking the balance between having the power to stand up for yourself while also having the power to brush off hurtful words and act with kindness is the best strategy. Organizational-wise, find your local philanthropy chapter, sorority alumni chapter, anything that you love, and you’ll find inspiring women there.

 As a role model for women, what advice do you have for women interested in a career in public relations?

Stay true to yourself and act with kindness. That’s been a theme in every one of my answers. Just today, someone tried to accuse me of something I didn’t do, so I said “okay, that must have gotten lost in the wires and there’s a miscommunication, but here is what I actually said,” when referring to that instance. The person didn’t like what I had to say, but I said my piece, I was upset for a little bit, then moved on. People only have power over you if you let them, no matter the level or age or company. Never give someone your voice or your power. Read. Be knowledgeable. Don’t lie. Stand up for yourself. But most importantly, find your allies.

 What has been the hardest thing about being a woman in PR?

From my perspective, everyone should support women. Duh. Like I said earlier, I think misogyny is still here, it’s happened to me when a client told me I wasn’t as good as my male counterpart. But, I don’t think that’s a PR thing, it’s just, unfortunately, a world thing. If anything, because I work in PR, I’m surrounded by a multitude of incredible women who inspire me and remind me of my worth. Being a woman in PR is hard, but just being a woman, in general, is harder. My advice would be to do things that surprise people. When I was in high school I took an auto shop class because I didn’t want to get ripped off by car salesmen when I needed an oil change, which I can do by myself by the way. That surprises people – always do things that surprise people.

What are the three ways you inspire and encourage teamwork among your team?

  1. Relationship building – when people know you care and you are pleasant to work with, people will do anything for you.
  2. Kindness – you get out what you put in.
  3. Stability and loyalty – Always be accountable, in life and in the workplace.

How did you manage the transition from the classroom to the boardroom? What was the biggest shock or surprise during that transition about the profession?

HA! I’m still trying to manage it. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself, but also seriously understand what are your strengths and weaknesses, and tell people. I am NOT creative, but I am good at research and planning, and I have very high emotional intelligence. That’s why I’m always picked to help on new business pitches, because I understand what they want and what they need. The biggest shock would be having to balance personal and professional life. I work a lot. That’s just the truth of being at entry-level at a big agency, but recognizing when I need to step back and have fun, or when I need to have a come to Jesus moment and focus on work. Balance is hard, but we’ll all get there someday.

What’s something you wish you had learned in college but didn’t? What do you do to be an eternal student?

Learn how to do my taxes, how much I should be putting in my 401K, a lot of financial stuff. So, to learn this, I talk to my mom who’s an accountant, I talk to my roommate who’s VERY financially savvy and older than me by 12 years, so she understands how to manage D.C. as a 22-year-old. Reading helps. It always helps. It just makes you a more-whole person and respectful of different people and cultures.

With the myriad of industry changes, what inspires you to stay motivated and encouraged?

My office mate and I are really close, and we support each other during our good and bad days. She gets me, she gets the workload, she gets the stress, so having someone understand and be supportive makes a world of difference.

 What question have you not been asked that you want to address?

What to do when you’re overwhelmed – Since starting at Burson, I’ve become a more in-the-moment person. And by that I mean I don’t get hung up on things that I messed up on a few hours ago or stress about things that’ll happen tomorrow. You learn to be focused on the task at hand, and it’s one of the best skills I’ve learned. But, when I get overwhelmed, I remember that I’m not a doctor, I’m not curing cancer, I’m not saving lives. I’m proofreading something or writing a first-draft of an op-ed. If something’s a few minutes late, it’s okay. That moment of stress, pressure and anxiety will pass, and by the end of the day, it’ll feel like it was years ago. Staying grounded in yourself and knowing your worth will help that.

The Plank Center created the Millennials in PR series for rising public relations professionals to detail their experiences and share messages of counsel with students and other professionals.

Published: March 25, 2019