Emerging Voices: Sonny Franks


Sonny Franks is a Marketing Specialist on the Vendor Partnerships team at Meijer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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?)

My first job out of college was in merchandising as a business analyst managing product flow of fresh bakery items into more than 200 stores across the Midwest… It was far from what I had imagined for myself as a student studying PR and Marketing! However, I had fallen in love with my company and knew I wanted to start my career there and that merchandising was the only way in. After about a year, I made the switch to marketing. It was a bit of a risky move as I had to take a half step down the ladder into a more clerical coordinator role to get there, but I knew it was necessary to get the exposure I needed in the marketing area to reach my long-term goals. I worked hard and in less than six months was promoted to marketing specialist, and am finally getting to do what I had imagined in college! As a marketing specialist, I drive marketing strategy to best serve our vendors, our customers, and our corporate growth. It is creative, exciting and challenging work and I couldn’t be more proud that the risks I took to get here paid off!

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?

Women need more than mentorship to ascend to the highest levels of leadership, we need sponsors. Unfortunately, women are less likely to receive sponsorship than men, according to the Harvard Business Review. I have only been able to move into the role I wanted so quickly because I had mentors who were willing to also be my sponsors by advocating for me in conversations where I wasn’t present to advocate for myself. This is especially important at the highest levels of leadership where women may still be seen as the “risky” candidates by virtue of the fact that they’re simply different than their predecessors.

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?

Organizations can invest in programs that provide leadership opportunities early on in a woman’s career. For instance, I was appointed leader of my company’s young professionals group, “YoPro,” which gave me the opportunity to build my formal leadership skills while holding an entry-level position in the company. It continues to give me an avenue to develop a reputation as a leader amongst my peers and superiors from an early stage and it exposes me to areas of the business with which I wouldn’t have contact in my everyday role. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without my role in YoPro.

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

Never forget that your career path is not linear. Communications skills play a huge role in every industry and role out there, so don’t be afraid to take the unconventional route to get to your goal. The more hands-on business experience you have, the better communicator you’ll be! Don’t shy away from the path less traveled just because it isn’t what you had imagined or it isn’t the path your friends are taking…. Also, get all of the writing experience you can!

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

As a young woman in the corporate world, it can be difficult to assert yourself. It took some time for me to get comfortable enough to speak up in meetings and share my opinion on business decisions. Once I found my voice, I started receiving really positive feedback from my peers and managers. Remember that age and gender do not equate to value. When you have something important to share, speak up! Ask the questions that no one else is asking and don’t be afraid of looking silly.

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

I have found that positivity and courage are the two most important characteristics in a team player. I maintain positive team morale by modeling a “can-do” attitude, even when a situation is daunting. It can take a bit of bravery to decide to take on a task head-on, but it makes handling the task so much easier than approaching it from a place of apprehension. I also find that fostering a culture of feedback and appreciation goes a long way. I ask for consistent feedback from my peers as well as my managers and try to return the favor by offering constructive advice as well. I also LOVE thank you notes. Putting in the time and effort to write a quick “thank you” makes it even more special to the person receiving it.

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

One of the most difficult things I had to learn in transitioning from school into the working world was how to manage ambiguity. In school, rubrics and class schedules help you prioritize your workload, but once you begin your career, there is much less clarity on what to do by when. I have learned that it gets easier with practice, and when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask your manager for advice on how to balance your time. Another thing that made my transition from college to the “real world” tough was the lack of extra-curricular activities in the office. I was very involved in many organizations outside of the classroom in college, so it felt weird to spend my entire day doing one job then just going home. Fortunately, I found ways to incorporate my passion for extra-curricular activities into my day-job by getting involved in my company’s young professional group, which I now lead.

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

One of the skills I am most thankful to have learned in college that I know many PR students don’t get to learn is basic graphic design. It is such a useful tool in the communications profession and having the ability to whip up a quick flyer or graphic in Adobe has come in handy at my job in my extra-curricular organizations. Because I technically work in Marketing, not PR, at the moment, I put in a lot of effort to maintain my ties to the industry and stay up to date. One way I do that is by listening to podcasts. There are so many great industry-related podcasts out there that have helped me keep my finger on the pulse of the industry from afar. I am also a huge fan of podcasts for developing interests outside of work. You can find a podcast about anything! They help me feed my curiosity and open my eyes to different viewpoints, which is always beneficial as a communicator.

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

I am so excited to have the opportunity to begin my career now in the midst of such huge changes for the industry, but what excites me most is knowing that I will have the opportunity to influence the industry over the course of my career. One of the things that excites me most about the future is the opportunity to be a mentor to my peers and younger generations as a way of instilling my values and passion for communication in others.

What question have you not been asked that you want to address?… less of a question, more of just a statement I wanted to put out there:

Start building your network now! You never know when the day will come that you will need help getting where you want to go, and a strong network of supportive women and men from across the industry and outside of the industry can make all the difference. But don’t only call on your network when you need something. Relationship management is a give and take, so be sure you are as supportive of others as you hope they would be of you.

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