Consultants: Strive To Be BOLD With Melissa Vela-Williamson: Podcast #316

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Embrace the essence of boldness. In this episode, we have Melissa Vela-Williamson to discuss the art of being BOLD. Get ready to unlock the secrets to standing out in your industry and fueling business growth.

In this episode with Melissa, you’ll learn how to:

  • Elevate your brand to stand out in your industry.
  • Capitalize on your name recognition and relationships to fuel business growth.
  • Expand your client base by leveraging events and conferences.
  • Attract new clients through featured content in online publications.
  • Build trust and authority by participating in podcasting.
  • Make strategic decisions about your workforce, choosing between hiring contractors or employees.

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In this episode, joining Michael is Melissa Williamson, who is a PR expert, author, facilitator, and national columnist. She’s the Chief Communication Architect of her unique boutique firm MVW Communications, where she’s led professional workshops for clients like the Department of Veteran Affairs, Spurs Sports & Entertainment, the San Antonio Zoo, and many more.

Melissa chose to keep her business quite small and intimate for her clients. Whether you’re looking to grow a small boutique firm like Melissa’s or a giant company, going it alone is lonely and can be difficult. That’s where the team can help you. They are offering a free, no-pressure growth session call. On the call, here is what we are going to tackle. 1) We’re going to dive deep into what makes your situation unique, have a real talk about your goals, and whip up a success plan that’s tailor-made for you.

We’re going to help you dodge those frustrating, costly blunders and save you from the headache of trying to figure it all out on your own. Lastly, you’ll get the ongoing support and accountability you need. Plus, you’ll join a buzzing community of successful consultants like you. Growing a business by yourself can be pretty tough. To book your one-on-one Consulting Growth session call, head over to ConsultingSuccess.com/Grow.

Let me tell you a little bit more about what you’re going to learn in this episode with Melissa. You’re going to learn how to elevate your brand to stand out in your industry, capitalize on your name recognition and relationships to fuel your business’s growth, expand your client base by leveraging events and conferences, attract new clients through featured content and online publications, and build trust and authority by participating in podcasts. Also, how to make strategic decisions about your workforce, choosing between hiring contractors versus employees, plus so much more. Here to share with you her insight and story is Melissa Williamson. Enjoy.

Melissa, welcome.

Michael, thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk with you.

I’m looking forward to our conversation here. Let’s get started. If you could share briefly so that everyone knows and hears in your words what does MVW Communications do?

MVW Communications is my boutique public relations focus consultancy. We’re an agency based out of San Antonio, Texas here in the US but we serve clients across the nation, depending on what the communication goal campaign will need. Sometimes under MVW, we operate very agilely or nimbly. I can be a straight one-on-one consultant to a client. I can coach them up for a big public speaking event or a big interview.

I coach teams and host workshops and trainings to shore up some skills that maybe internal communication or the PR marketing team might need. We put together strategic comms plans for clients and sometimes that’s that do-it-yourself guidebook we’ll put together for your team to bring over the course of a campaign. We do professional done-for-you-type services like a lot of public relations agencies do. That can run the gamut of strategic comms planning and then activating and making sure that campaign comes to life.

That can be focused on one part of communication like media relations, PR strategy, or people’s first point of view on all assets and the marketing suite in general. The work is very diverse and it has been since I started it in the field many years ago. What I love about it is it is something that evolves and changes along with society. I find that public relations are so important because it’s about building mutually beneficial relationships that are good for everyone and hopefully are built to stand the test of time.

Before you started your PR consultancy, what were you doing? I’m wondering how that led you to decide one day, “I should start my PR consultancy.”

Thought leadership is very powerful in terms of shaping and influencing your own brand. Click To Tweet

I started MVW in 2015 and before that, I had been a traditional employee. For the majority of my career, I’d been a traditional employee. I was someone else’s employee. While I love that, I love the natural mentoring that’s available in workplaces. One of the reasons I spun off and started my firm was a matter of happenstance.

I find that a lot of consultants or solopreneurs, independent practitioners, or big firm business owners start in a way that’s non-linear like that. I’m a working mother. I have two young children. Keeping up and being a leader in public relations in a space that’s quite dynamic can be quite volatile at times. It’s always different. The unprecedented we get here usually comes from the mouse of PR people.

Take me back for a moment to your days as an employee. Were you working deeply in public relations in those roles as well? If so, give everybody a little bit of background. What were you doing inside of those organizations before you went out on your own?

My career spanned all the major types of organizations you could work for in the PR realm. I had started this very small micro boutique agency, much like mine. That was a very Hispanic or Latino-focused agency. We were culturally competent and sensitive. We tailored for that community and all the PR marketing work we did. That was agency first.

I went in-house at a nonprofit, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas, a big region in our area. We had ties to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and did a lot of the recruiting, marketing, PR-type work, and media relations, though there’s certainly been a thorough line of PR throughout my career. In a lot of my roles, I had to do everything. I transitioned from that into a corporation privately held here in Texas, an H-E-B grocery company.

H-E-B is fantastic at tailoring for different customers. Segmenting and understanding multicultural groups and preferences is big there. I worked in diversity and inclusion at H-E-B. I connected the dots for the employers to see the multicultural marketing and PR efforts. I used to recruit volunteers. More Hispanic or Latino Big Brothers to the nonprofit organization strategies would be helpful in the corporate setting as well. Sometimes if you look at your career, every piece can be a building block if you think about it.

The reason I’m asking is because you have worked in roles before you started your PR consultancy. You had some PR, marketing, and recruiting so you weren’t pure play like very focused only on PR. You had a lot of different experiences. I bring this up because when a lot of consultants go out into consulting have a similar backstory. They’ve worked in many different companies and industries. They have different skills and areas of expertise. It can be very challenging to decide what to focus on and build a business around.

Consulting Success Podcast | Melissa Vela-Williamson | BOLD

Can you take us back to that time and hit the rewind button? What made you decide to focus on and build a PR consulting business as opposed to a more general marketing business, communications business, and diversity inclusion business? You could have gone a lot of different ways. What made you decide to focus on public relations?

From H-E-B, I went to the largest agency in our area and that was a PR-focused type agency but all of it together. The world is multi-passionate. There’s a multi-factor to everything. In PR, it’s the same thing. Public relations to me is a specific point of view where you’re thinking about people and goodwill first. Everything else can be the umbrella underneath all the communication disciplines and tactics. For me, that was always been my point of view, no matter what role I had. I was looking to start my business because I needed to move locations and not have an office downtown in my city. I needed to be remote closer to my kids’ school.

This was before the pandemic when everyone was remote.

Thank goodness I was ready for that. That had trained me up. I started my remote business in 2015. I was remote from clients. You come in person when it matters. Otherwise, I’ve got time. I can save commuting time to do the work. I focused on PR because that is such a passion point for me. I’m known for that so my brand is naturally tied to public relations.

It integrates well with diversity, equity, and inclusion, and with marketing principles, tactics, and strategies. It integrates well with a comprehensive plan, which would include advertising, social media strategy, and paid social media buying. It was more about that point of view and the principles-led type of work that I resonated with and that I was attracted to. Naturally, clients of that nature came to me.

To your point, a lot is to do a lot of everything because you want to or you have to. You’re a generalist. Over time, you’ll find that you’re uniquely valuable in one area of your work or another or that you start developing that specialized viewpoint or ability. You become a specialist. For me, the fact that I’d worked in employee communications as well as D&I was very different than most of my peers in PR.

Most of them only did external comms. They were always talking with the public but never to the employees. When I was at H-E-B, that was 90,000-plus employees with very diverse educational backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, and preferences. That made me very unique. I was able to identify that and put that in my talking points. As far as a brand differentiator, that makes me special.

We have to be very logical. Click To Tweet

When you decided in 2015 to launch the business and go out on your own, you made that decision from a lifestyle perspective based on the family. Prioritizing those things makes complete sense and is very common in terms of why consultants go out on their own and start a business. Where do your first few clients come from? You’ve decided, “I have this diverse set of experiences but I’m going to build a PR consulting business.” It’s you to begin with. What did you do? Take me back to that day. Where did the first 2 and 3 clients come from?

My very first client was the employer I had at the time, KGB Texas. KGB was a wonderful place to work. I wasn’t looking to move on but life happened. My kids needed to move to schools in my side of town and I knew as a PR leader, it would be very hard for me to make it to their daycares and schools on time from where I was officed. As a matter of talking with the agency owner at the time, it’s like, “We can keep the consistency here for your clients. I have your email. We have cell phones and we can transition from that traditional employee to contractor.” Agencies often work with a lot of different independent pros and contractors. I’ve seen and learned from their backgrounds and lifestyles and said, “I can still do great work. I just need to not always be here.”

At that time, the community wasn’t quite ready for more remote-type workers and leaders. That was the compromise we made. I was able to continue their good work and work with them. As soon as I was essentially out on my own, I started sharing your story. I had done a lot of deep work with trade associations in my space. I’m a very active member of the Public Relations Society of America. I’m a national columnist for them so that helps with lead generation but at the time, just locally. People knew my name and reputation outside of any workplace I was at, which is too smart for people.

You had all these relationships that you had been investing in over time, which is very powerful. It can be very effective. Your first client was a previous employer, which we’ve seen in our studies, that’s the case 50% of the time when people go out into consulting. I’m wondering, what did you do? You had these relationships and the first client as a previous employer but to get the second client, third client, fourth client, and so on, it sounds like you did something with your network. You didn’t just wait for people to come to you.

Did you send an email, make phone calls, or go to events and tell people? I’m asking for the position for those who might be in the earlier stage. We’re going to have consultants reading this who are much further along running multimillion-dollar businesses and so forth but for others who are in the earlier stage or maybe opening up a new market, share with us what you did so that it could maybe help them.

Especially if you transition with an employer and they become your first client, you want to honor them and be careful about how you do that. Essentially, hit the ground at the very next professional event. I sent emails from my newly established brand email to the non-compete type leads. With friends that I knew in the business, I’m like, “Michael, it’s so great to see your kids on Facebook. I’m out on my own. Here’s information about my firm. Here’s my website.”

While I was preparing to go off on my own, I gave my employer a couple of months’ notice and then I prepared behind the scenes. I got my website and brand ready to go. I didn’t want to be a white-label type pro, meaning I didn’t have my brand identity. I know how important that is for clients when they’re making their considerations of, “Can you advise me?” “I have to at least look the part and look like I have that experience in my portfolio.”

Consulting Success Podcast | Melissa Vela-Williamson | BOLD

The website is your home base. Make that first so that you can share that via email. Once you are out on your own, you can send an email to your network and post something on social media, especially LinkedIn. Have those coffee talks and coffee Zoom. Go to industry and events. It’s not only for your industry but for those who could use your help and don’t have a pro like you.

I also went to marketing association and advertising association-type events. They were all marketers but they didn’t have a PR pro. We can partner together. There’s a lot of B2B partnering that happens too, where they have a skillset or a sweet spot, and I do too. We can come together like Avengers and then break apart when the campaign no longer needs that partnership.

You write a column for the PRSA, the Public Relations Society of America. Share a little bit about how that came to be. I’m thinking about everyone who’s joining us who might be in manufacturing or pharma. Essentially, every industry has its trade association or professional group. If your ideal clients are reading those publications or they’re members of those groups, it could be a very interesting or effective way to generate leads, create more conversations, and build your authority. 1) Has that been a good way for you to build your business? If not, why do you do it? 2) I’m wondering, how’d you go about landing or securing that regular column?

I would highly advise anyone to give it a try because thought leadership is very powerful in terms of shaping and influencing your brand. No matter what size your company is or isn’t, it all starts with the human who started the company. What is your reputation? What do people know about you? Part of that is showing your work. Thought leadership is creating content that shows that expertise.

I reached out to the PRSA, raised my hand, and said, “I’ve noticed you’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for several years. You are most highly regarded in the public relations space. I learned from you each month as a member but no one looks like me. There’s no Latino or Hispanic representation in terms of your columnist that has regular peace in your magazine and can share learnings with other practitioners.”

I was inspired during the pandemic to be bolder, because if not now, when? I could die from COVID. Let me go ahead. Instead of complaining behind the scenes, I raised my hand and said, “I’ve got a body of work. You can take a look at it.” I came to PR as a published creative writer. The writing helps me and continues to help me with the clients.

I wanted to be that representation. I wanted to inspire others. I do want to be very clear that often we don’t get tapped, particularly if you are different than the majority in your community. We’re different in any way. You may not be naturally thought of. You have to be a little more courageous and say, “Let me give that a try.”

It was very clear that our community needs advisors and counselors during the pandemic. They need real guidance and how to communicate something. Click To Tweet

What happened? You sent the email, which is first of all great that you took the initiative to do that. I love that idea of being bolder and going for things that maybe typically you wouldn’t. Hats off to you on that. It’s fantastic. Was there a response right away or did it require multiple follow-ups? What did that look like?

The editor emailed me back. He was probably happy that I sent a note with a solution versus a problem. We’ve all been around council culture long enough to know that most people are complaining. I said, “I’m happy to write for you.” He said, “That sounds great. Can you write a piece about how you’re dealing with everything during the pandemic?” My very first piece was the personal side of public relations during a pandemic. It was very much behind the curtain of I’m having moments where I’m wondering how I can handle all this too. I had a son in kindergarten who was learning on Zoom, a daughter, and PR clients who were asking me, “What do we do?”

The pandemic was a time when my business took off and started thriving. 1) I got bolder because I was afraid something might happen. 2) I felt like it was very clear that our community needs advisors and counselors during this time. They need real guidance in how to communicate something that’s so vitally important that people could live or die based on their interpretation of the information. I love marketing and advertising but they don’t have that kind of guidance that real credited PR pros live by. That stuck out to me as we got to double down on PR principles to make it through this chaotic time and calm things down in a very noisy and raw.

You published that first piece. What happened? Did the phones start ringing off the hook?

As far as PRSA, they followed up with me and loved it. “Can you try another piece?” I wrote something. There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Hispanic and Latino communities in the US and beyond. I dug into data and gave an update on terminology in this space as a pro. They asked me and invited me to be a regular columnist for the next calendar year and I’ve been such since but I have a lot more autonomy.

I had the autonomy to name it. I call it cultural strategy because I want to flex within how to work with different types of people in a lot of different ways. I started getting a lot of inquiries, requests, and followers on LinkedIn pretty much instantly. People resonated with my story or point of view on things in my writing. Pros were coming out of the woodwork from across the country.

Before, I had not had such a great reach out of San Antonio or my home base. Oftentimes in public relations, people think about media relations, which is working with journalists and building relationships there but it’s only one aspect of our work, certainly a specialty and it is challenging. I’m known for that too but that’s only because I’m people-oriented. I’m good at building relationships.

Consulting Success Podcast | Melissa Vela-Williamson | BOLD

Normally, if you’re a media relations pro, they’ll think, “When I need something in Chicago or San Antonio or where you live, we’ll contact you.” That limits your market share and work availability. Once I had this column, people saw me, connected with me through LinkedIn, and started to follow me on different social media platforms. It was so affirming that the representation did matter to people, a different point of view was helpful, and being strategic in where you place yourself and put your time can help your business.

Is there anything else that you’re doing from a marketing or lead generation perspective that you feel is making a big impact and helping to grow the business currently?

I have a podcast and that one I set up very carefully too, to be a series. That way, as the host and the funder for it, initially, it could have a nice bookmark open and close date. Each series is a season. We finished season six. If I don’t publish another one, it seems complete. It wasn’t an open-ended thought. That’s been helpful in terms of authority. It’s been surprising and I’m sure to you too. You’ll run into them and they’re like, “I listen to your podcast.” You won’t know if the listener downloads the data but the intimacy in that channel is very powerful. You’re in someone’s ears. That trust-building seems to leapfrog sometimes.

The other one I am excited about, as you can see a little subtle marketing back here, is I published a book and it’s called Smart Talk: Public Relations Essentials All Pros Should Know. I’m sure you see it in the news every day where you’re at, Michael. People do some funny things and funny not haha. They do some impulsive things. When you’re a top leader or a business owner, there’s no room for impulsivity in good work. We have to be very logical.

When emotions get high, whether that’s because it’s a little too late at night to be posting on social or maybe you’re angry or you got a terrible review or a terrible customer incident or you’re having a personal life drama, we have to be strategic and disciplined as business owners and leaders to think before we act before we post, say anything, or read anything because the whole world’s a stage. Everything’s a broadcast tool, even our phones. We have to respect the world we’re in and evolve with that. As a PR pro, the greater the reach and the more timeless the advice, I’m going to go far there. I love the teaching aspect of this work.

Your business is positioned from an outside perspective. You’re a key part of the brand. You look at the website. It’s about you. I’m wondering why structure your business that way. There’s no right or wrong. Everyone does what is right for them, what model they want, and what they want to create. Some people choose and they’re very intentional about building a team from day one or making it much bigger than what they can provide as a solo consultant. That’s the model that you’ve gone with in terms of the brand. Take me into that thinking to better understand why have you structured the business the way that you have.

I did it with intention. Everything we do should be thoughtfully done. I did it with my initials MVW because starting right out, I wasn’t trying to be a big bad agency or firm. I didn’t want a lot of overhead. I just wanted more location flexibility in the beginning. As I get a little bit older, my kids get older and want more of my time and need a little more time flexibility. If it’s built on me, I could always trust myself because no matter where I worked, I was often very fast, trustworthy, very creative, and had big ideas. I knew that I’d come with it.

If you have a good reputation, you’re willing to do the work to keep that reputation going. Click To Tweet

The pros that I wanted to hire, I wanted to be a contractor-only model. I had flexibility. When the pandemic hit, we lost a little bit of business but I doubled down on, “Here’s how we pivot and reimagine your events. Here’s what we do. Follow me.” It was like the Pied Piper. People followed along. I want contractors who are in it because they’re experts in what they do. They care about the work.

They don’t need me micromanaging them. They want to come together, do great work, and move on when it’s organically timed. I appreciate that. It’s a very accessible way for anyone to start a business. If you have a good reputation, you’re willing to do the work to keep that reputation going. If that aligns with your personal life too, and I will be clear on that, you’ll have a very solid foundation.

As a solo consultant, you bring in contractors for projects and so forth as you need them. One of the challenges that some people will face is that you can’t create more time. There’s a lot that needs to often get done. Are there any best practices, a model, or a framework that you use to make decisions about how you spend your time inside of the business so that you’re not necessarily held back by things you end up doing because you’re looking to be productive but those don’t necessarily add value for the business? What do you think about the relationship between working on the business and the time that you have available?

That’s certainly a growth opportunity for everyone. I continue to learn, read more, and listen to podcasts like yours to get better at that. My book launched in October 2023. I have a pretty consistent contractor team. They’re loyal and supportive no matter what their IRS information or filing number is. I said, “This book is like a new baby. I need to nurture it and give it the support that we would advise any client.” You put that work investment into it and make it worth something.

I’ve been tinkering about how I can optimize things and put together that systematic approach on different tools or even documenting everything. Here’s our approach to how we do media relations and we always follow these key steps. Here’s a framework for putting together even recaps for clients. Those can be very important in our work of what we do and don’t do. Documenting the heck out of everything and leaving behind all the breadcrumbs are easy to find.

For me, it’s looking for what kind of intellectual property can I create that’ll live beyond me, one, so it’s helpful to people in the future but two, that it’s a little more scalable. That is where the book came from. I was often asked for advice and I didn’t have a lot of time for that one-on-one coaching all the time for pros who didn’t want to tell their employee and didn’t know how to do something or weren’t unsure about something. They wanted that guidance but they didn’t have a large budget like a larger client would.

I’m looking at creating a digital course. The workshops that I’m doing in person in my community, I’m being flown out to another market to do it but that’s a lot of lift for different organizations to pay for, especially in this economy. Can I make something that’s a little more asynchronous that you can do from home or at work and that lives beyond me? I filmed it and got it perfect. That front load is heavy but after that, it’s an easy lift. We promote it. I am considering that too. Looking at how you monetize some of your skills and thought leadership in a way that systematically is rinse and repeat and refine would be helpful.

Consulting Success Podcast | Melissa Vela-Williamson | BOLD

You’ve been in the business since 2015. As you think about the business, you share how you position or go about making decisions around allocating your time within the business of where you spend it. You’re a mother of two children. Any rules that you’ve set for yourself or guidelines that you’ve instituted to find that balance between? Not that it has to be any kind of balance but I’m wondering, how do you think about working inside the business and still being a mother and being present? Any rules that you use that you’ve found to be helpful in setting that structure?

If I don’t like it and I hate it or it bores me, I don’t do it. I have no poker face. You know exactly how I’m feeling. I’m very energetic and passionate and people enjoy that. If I don’t like it, my brain will not retain the information. There are some sectors I’d love to do more work in but it is like, “No.” If it bores me, I don’t even try. If it doesn’t excite me, I refer it on but I figured out a way also to have a referral-type model with different partnering folks so that if they can benefit from it, great. Maybe I get a little percentage of that as a finder fee. That’s great. It’s a little something.

I think about integration. How can I add this to my life? How can I add my kids to the work I do? I tend to work with a lot of family-friendly type organizations or brands. If there was a way to involve my daughter who’s the eldest, she could shadow me, support me, or go onsite. She’s learning the business while I get an extra pair of hands. I have the model for this photo or the video. I can use her as part of an asset that I can provide a client. She’s learning and growing. I look for that integration.

Writing the book was a huge challenge. A lot of it I wrote while speaking to talk to text while walking the dog. I was taking care of my exercise and fitness and getting a little me time as a mom and quiet time as well as taking care of the creative thoughts I had. The hardest part was editing it where you have to sit down and have some computer desk time, which my husband helped me with, watching the kids on weekends and stuff. I try to think, “Is this something that I’m proud of, that helps others, and that I feel good spending my time on?”

We do have leverage as business owners to think that way once we’ve got that brand reputation and specialties down. You’ll also notice that you attract different types of clients based on how you communicate or what they see excites you and what you’re good at. At this point, we’ve figured out at MVW that the specialty sectors that we can help the most are nonprofits because we love that work. It’s very mission-driven and values-driven people.

We love educating clients because we feel like that is a root solvent for a lot of issues in our communities. It can be very democratizing for folks. The more education they get, the better off they do. We’re behind that, as well as for-profits who want to do some good. If you’re selling a widget and you want some PR for it, that’s great. Buy some advertising. You’re not going to earn any media relations for that widget unless there’s some resourceful, helpful nature to that product or widget.

I’m able to be authentic because people see consistency in what I talk about or show that I care about both in the work type and right positioning that I do and also the personal live channels that I hold. I’m very thoughtful about my engagement on social media as well because what we do online, whether or not we’re on the clock or off, is the same for people.

You attract different types of clients based on how you communicate or what they see really excites you and what you’re good at. Click To Tweet

It’s so important to be very clear about what kind of work you want to do and, at the same time and more importantly, what kind of work you don’t want to do or what kind of people, clients, or organizations resonate with you and those that don’t. I like your point about integrating and bringing your kids into the picture. I was working on selling real quick and I said to my two daughters, “Do you guys want to maybe record a little something with me?”

It didn’t work but we still had a good laugh about it. I look forward to doing more of that as they get older as well. Melissa, I want to thank you so much for coming on here and sharing a little bit of your story. I know people can learn a lot more from the different resources you have and your podcast, your book, and all that stuff. What’s the website address for people to go to so they can check it all out?

You can learn about me and the work we do at MVW360.com. I call it 360 because we take a 360-degree approach to any communication challenge or problem. I appreciate what you’re doing, Michael, in introducing and unpacking this type of work for society. More than ever, being your own consultant and boss is more accessible than ever. You want to make sure that you put together the right package, credentials, and efforts so that you do that in a very smart, strategic way.

Thanks so much, Melissa.

Thank you.

There you have it for this episode between Melissa and Michael. If you enjoyed the show, then be sure to hit the subscribe button wherever platform you’re using. If you want to help support this show, you can do so by sharing this episode with a friend or colleague. That’s the end of the line for us in this episode. We’re going to be back with another episode. Until next time.

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