Bernadette Adams Davis pretty much always knew she wanted to work in the media industry.
She began her career as an aspiring newspaper reporter, securing an internship at the Atlanta Journal Constitution before becoming a daily reporter in Greenville, South Carolina, not far from her hometown. Bernadette went on to hold positions at print publications like the Orlando Business Journal and worked as a website producer at a TV news station before deciding to make the jump to PR.
Now a veteran of the industry for the better part of 25 years, Bernadette has held PR-focused roles in a variety of institutions, including the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Florida A&M University College of Law and Walt Disney World Resort.
Her job at Disney was the last traditional employment she had before moving to Texas with her family and started a new adventure as a solo PR pro.
This move would become the catalyst behind the forming of Bernadette Davis Communications, the boutique communications agency she currently owns and operates with the assistance of one other full-time employee and anywhere from eight to 12 contract workers depending on the client load.
We sat down with Bernadette to discuss how her background in journalism impacted her career in PR, how she struck out on her own as a solo PR pro (and grew both her client and employee roster) and how she’s using her PR skills to help prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion practices at her local PRSA chapter.
Pivoting from journalism to PR
When reflecting on her decision to transition from working in journalism to a career in PR, Bernadette explained it was more of a slow burn than a sudden “a-ha” moment.
At the time, the PR profession was just starting to become more widely known. The more she read about the PR industry, the more opportunity she saw there.
“I knew that journalism was changing,” she said. “I thought that this career move would be an opportunity for me to branch out and do something different, and that there might be more opportunities than in the journalism industry.”
Her experience in journalism certainly helped propel her career in PR, though.
Aside from having a passion for storytelling and a knack for journalistic writing, her time as a reporter trained her in key transferable skills, including the ability to stay agile.
“One of the pieces of feedback I’ve gotten is that I can turn around messages fairly quickly,” she said. “A lot of that comes from my background as a reporter where often it's, okay I didn’t know about this an hour ago, but you want me to write about it? Sure, I can do that.”
Despite some of the similarities between the two professions, Bernadette remarked that she was surprised by how different and vast the public relations industry really is.
“People tend to think of PR as just one thing, but it’s so much more,” she said. “It’s doing a lot of different things in partnership with other functional areas and forms of communication, like marketing and advertising.”
Starting as a solopreneur
When she first moved to Texas, Bernadette didn’t set out to create a PR agency right away.
In fact, she was looking forward to an opportunity to take a pause from the traditional 9 to 5 lifestyle in favor of something with greater flexibility, so she could focus on caring for her family.
“It was great to take a pause,” she said. “I really had been working probably more than 40 hours a week, and trying to manage my personal life at the same time, including caring for my children and an aging parent. I needed a breather, and I thought that freelancing would give me something to do while offering a little more control over my time.”
As she began her search for freelancing opportunities, she received an email from an old college classmate in need of some PR help for a startup he was working on. This former classmate would become Bernadette’s very first client.
“They were the very first check I received,” Bernadette recalled. “I didn’t realize at first that they had written it to my business name, not my personal name. I hadn’t even opened a bank account yet! So I had to hurry up and open an account just to cash this check.”
Today, Bernadette Davis Communications is a boutique agency that helps clients to extend the capacity of their corporate communications team. Without adding additional employees to their roster, clients can receive senior level support for multiple communications needs, including assistance in developing and maintaining their diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
Today, the agency has clients from entertainment brands to senior living organizations to museums, but Bernadette has always been focused on slow and steady growth.
In fact, she didn’t bring on her second full-time employee until October 2020, about six years after starting the business.
Aside from her experience in PR and journalism, she credits a lot of her success to her growing network of other solopreneurs.
“I did a lot of asking around and using groups like Solo PR Pro, which I joined probably the first year after starting my business,” she said. “There was a lot of, ‘hey, how do you guys do this?’ and learning from their experiences.”
She also encourages other solo PR pros to spend time building those relationships, because you never know what they might lead to.
“Relationships are so important to growing a solo PR agency, because we’re small,” she said. “The best situation, I think, is when we are brought in by people who already know us and can vouch for our work. If you have people who can get your foot in the door, that’s helpful.”
She encourages solo PR pros to start building their network as soon as possible, saying it will likely be the foundation of the future of their business.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within PRSA and beyond
Throughout the past year, protests over racial injustice in America have put a spotlight on the need for better diversity, equity and inclusion practices.
People within the PR and journalism industries in particular have been working diligently to foster open conversations and active storytelling about the experiences of different types of people, as well as increase diversity in positions of leadership.
Bernadette’s home PRSA chapter in Dallas has been hard at work on this topic as well over the past few years, and recently asked her to step into the role of vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, a position she was excited to accept.
“We have a very diverse board of directors already, because there were people before me who stepped up and did a lot of the work,” she explained. “I wanted to come in and build upon that.”
She’s already working with her committee on a new initiative to better understand Dallas area PR agencies and what they’ve been doing in the realm of DEI in the last year. The goal is to identify what additional needs they have and how her PRSA chapter can be a resource for them, whether they need assistance hiring more diverse candidates or figuring out their communications strategy.
As part of this effort, Bernadette is spending time talking to university relations contacts to get directly in touch with graduating students just entering the PR industry.
“That new generation wants to see what companies are doing, they want to talk about it in their interview,” she said. “And I want to know about that and take that back to these companies and say, ‘hey, we’re asking you these questions and so is your workforce pool.’”