PR Imperative: Manage Good Relationships and Don’t Burn Bridges 

By Keala Bilbao 

Public Relations thrives on building and maintaining relationships with different publics. Melody Cowan knows this firsthand thanks to her wide-ranging career. 

Melody, the culprit behind the viral and media attention of Patti Labelle’s famous sweet potato pies, says maintaining her unique experiences and relationships helped her navigate her public relations career. 

It was Melody’s relationship with her community and her peers at work that help take advantage of the opportunity to amplify the attention on Patti’s sweet potato pie that went viral. Melody was the only black woman working for Golin during her time at the company.  “Even the White House wanted Patti Labelle sweet potato pie after the viral attention,” said Melody.

“When I got into the practice over 10 years ago, multicultural work was not even on the table.”  said Melody. However, the agency and client relationship with the accounts Melody worked on benefited from her connection with the African American culture. It was Melody who recognized a story taking place on a multicultural media outlet. She said, “I was literally at my desk and ran in the room to tell her colleague about it.” However, she humbly credits her team and many others for helping amplify story with the African American audience. 

It’s important to know when Melody started her career, she had no knowledge of a press release despite landing a job at Burrell Communications. She had a degree in African American studies, and she had not yet attended DePaul’s PRAD program where she enrolled after beginning her career at Golin. 

“Because I had such a good relationship with my first supervisor, another woman of color, she knew I didn’t know anything and was failing miserably at everything,” Melody acknowledged.  “My supervisor would stay after hours for an hour and a half to help me understand the structure of a press release. She educated me in a time when the peers in my opinion a). didn’t care and b). because I was failing so bad it was easy for me to be the bad person on the team that keep the attention from their bad work because she was really, really bad.” Today, anyone can find Melody love and wedding story on the front page of the New York Times style section.  If you’re wondering, yes, she made it happen! 

Melody has grit, she manages relationships, she works smart, and she brings solutions to problems. She is a huge Ron Culp fan and loves reading his blog, which she says was helpful as she navigated her career. Melody would also humbly tell you that God’s grace has helped her though the challenges and ordered her steps in her career. 

Melody takes maintaining relationships in all areas of life very seriously in any place she has been, whether good or bad. “You never know what’s going to happen in life, and you don’t want to ruin a relationship,” Melody insists. “It’s part of character building and it is also validates you as a communication person. Frankly, I don’t know, how you can say you are a communication professional if one of your priorities is not relationship management,” said Melody. 

Her unique career experiences helped sharpen her skills in the public relations industry. Her good and no-so-good experiences helped her communicate complex things and adjust as needed. Melody said she was baptized by fire into different communication roles. IT put her in a position to fail or learn fast, and it was her relationship with others that helped her. “PR is hard, and it has many challenges. Relationships I built that help me tremendously,” She noted Melody tailors her communication to each individual in way to get the job done. She clearly loves being social with other people, but she also puts in a lot of effort to help achieve her communication objectives. 

Underscoring her communication style, Melody still sends Christmas cards, noting it is important to stay in touch. She believes it is important to let people know your time with them was not a meaningless exchange and it brough value to you. Listening to Melody’s story, she reveals the secret sauce to client and agency communication: building good relationships with people. 

As Melody knows people have different communication styles, and it’s essential to be flexible and adjust communications to get the job done. Her advice: Strategically tie goals with results to bring value to your client and don’t ever burn bridges.

Keala Bilbao is a second-year grad student in the Public Relations & Advertising program at DePaul University. She is PR chair of the United Nations Association of Chicago.

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