PRs with Pets Eating Pastries: An Interview with Aileen White (and Yahra, the Kitten)

Courtesy of Aileen White

Aileen and I used to work together in the late 1980’s, (yes, I know this seems like a very long time ago), so it was wonderful to accidentally connect with her again, last month, through LinkedIn. After we realized that we knew each other and because I love animals, I decided to ask Aileen to speak to me about her career and her role at the Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS).

I met Aileen, and her adorable kitten Yahra, at her condominium, to chat over pastries and find out about her job as Senior Director of Strategic Communications and Public Engagement. It turns out that we caught up and ate all the pastries before we recorded our interview, but at least Yahra, makes her guest-star appearance in the video!

Aileen has worked at the Winnipeg Humane Society for 13 years. When she started, the organization was not broadly known in the city and a feasibility study indicated that the community did not fully support a capital campaign to build a new shelter. Alas, Aileen was brought in with the objective to increase the public awareness and profile of the WHS. Despite its very humble beginnings, the WHS is now one of the top charities in Manitoba. The 40,000-square foot facility, located on Hurst Way, accepts approximately 9,000 animals per year, but in spite of its modern appearance, it remains true to its humble roots because the heart of the community is still the backbone of the organization; with 90 per cent of its funding coming from donations.

Over the years, Aileen’s role has evolved to adapt to the way communications is constantly changing. Her typical week is varied, and for the most part she deals with operations and business functions but if she is not in a meeting overseeing the latest campaign deadlines or developing strategy for operations; she is meeting with donors that pop by the shelter or writing compelling stories for the website and their social media channels.

There is never a dull moment and the favourite part of her role is the See Spot Read Program a unique program that pairs elementary school kids with therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance. It is wonderful to see the impact the program has on children and the nurturing reciprocal bond that develops between them.

Aileen’s path to being a PR professional was not a straightforward one. Her education did not formally prepare her for the job, as she had plans to become a teacher or thought she would have a career in marketing or publicity for books. During her time at McNally Robinson, the Winnipeg based bookseller, she was in a fortunate position to be able to learn-on-the-job, at a time when the business was expanding. She helped to shape its growth and developed some essential business skills that, unknowingly, would serve her well in the future. Now, looking back, she says, “my trajectory makes sense, it took many different pieces or educational steps such as workshops, courses, committees, and boards, to get where I am today.” Her passion for life and learning is evident, as she took advantage of courses in board governance and leadership, to lead her to the next level in her career. She is grateful to have had all the “Pieces and people in-play, to help me accomplish my goals.”

It is important to stay current in the ever-changing PR industry and Aileen recommends reading and absorbing as much as possible. She stays on top of the latest social media channels and apps; as well as, Human Resources; fundraising and operations practices; and any tools that help monitor and collect data, or just plain help her do her job more efficiently.

Writing plays a huge part of everyday and she switches between various styles – reporting, grant applications, letters, and board reports. One of the lessons she has learned along the way is to recognise that there will be days when your writing is not up to scratch and to cut yourself some slack, because it is just par for the course.

I asked Aileen what makes a candidate stand out to her, when she is hiring and it seems that being multi-skilled, is the greatest asset. She needs a person who is trained in media relations, has an even-keel temperament to be able to handle the pressures of the fast-paced environment and to be able to deal with the unexpected, without getting frazzled. She also needs a candidate with strong in-design, writing, and teamwork skills but he or she must also be able to work independently and quickly. Another huge consideration is to ensure the person will fit into the company culture and be successful.

Speaking of candidates, Aileen’s kitten Yahra, might just win the “Cute Kitten of the Year
Award”. (cue the video!)

She is the most adorable and soft, long-haired Calico and is approximately eight months old. Yahra is a shelter Alumni who came into the WHS with two other litter mates. Aileen was not looking to get another cat but it was something about Yahra’s beautiful and loving temperament, that just fit and it was as if Yahra had picked her, and not the other way around! If you are thinking to adopt a dog or cat, the sections, “Are you ready for a Dog?” and the “Cat Matching Program” on the WHS website, can help guide your decision.

Finally, for anyone just starting out in the PR and Communications field, Aileen has Two Top Take-Away Tips:

1 –  Get a Mentor – Develop a relationship with someone you respect in the field but really research what this relationship should be, as you want someone who can guide you, but without overcrowding you. A mentor can help you in situations when you have moments of self-doubt or insecurity and it is valuable to have someone you can consult with on a private level.

2 – Get a Thick Skin – The job of a PR professional is up for criticism, with everyone thinking that they can do better. Do your best and NOT take it personally- take feedback in relation to the project, not in relation to you. This is a commonality amongst the people Aileen has mentored and she stresses that you should not buy into negative self talk. Realize that you may be having an off-day or that you are stronger in other areas or that time-restraints and work-loads mean you must sometimes accept that “good enough, is good enough”.

It was a pleasure speaking with Aileen and learning about her role at the Winnipeg Humane Society and the wonderful work they do. If you wish to get involved with the WHS, be sure to check out their calendar of events. I would also like to extend a special thank you to Aileen and Yahra, for the generosity of their time.

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