Three MU alumni make it from Columbia to the District of Columbia
The three have worked high-ranking press relations jobs in the government.
Aug. 01, 2013
What do the press secretary of the U.S. Attorney General, the press secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former U.S. House communications director have in common?
They’re all MU journalism graduates. And since their time on campus, they’ve worked their way up the public relations ladder to fill some of the most coveted positions in the industry.
Adora Andy Jenkins
For Adora Andy Jenkins, the eldest of the three alumni, her success as the spokesperson for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came after a decade of work on two sides of public relations.
Before graduating with honors in 2003, Jenkins was set on a career in journalism — she worked as an anchor and news producer at KOMU, wrote for The Maneater and was elected vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Ale Chapter. It was only after a flirtation with public relations that she changed directions.
“I had an internship while I was at Mizzou the summer before my senior year at Fleishman Hillard in St. Louis, and I fell in love with PR there," Jenkins said.
But that internship came after three years of experience and work toward a degree in broadcast news. It took a conversation with her mentor, Gerald M. Boyd — the first African American managing editor of The New York Times and an award-winning member of the NABJ — for Jenkins to decide that she would stick with journalism before trying out public relations.
“I think having the experience of being a reporter first, (and) in my case, a TV news producer, certainly gives you a level of credibility with reporters when you deal with them regularly," she said. “In my case, it was better to stick with journalism for a couple of years, get a couple years under my belt and determine whether or not that was something that I really wanted to do before I switched gears.”
That year, Jenkins went on to work in Memphis, Tenn. as a producer at a local ABC affiliate. There she oversaw nightly productions and covered the 2004 election, writing and producing segments on local debates and candidates.
She left the station in 2005, returning to the world of public relations as the press secretary for one of those candidates, now-former Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., D-Tenn. on his 2006 Senate campaign.
“I always had a love and interest in politics growing up and had a love and interest in news,” Jenkins said. “Doing the work I did for Harold Ford, Jr. on the campaign was a beautiful merger of the two.”
Though Ford was not elected to the Senate, Jenkins was hooked on politics. After the campaign, she moved to Decatur, Ga. and worked for two years as the spokesperson for the DeKalb County District Attorney.
But her real moment of opportunity came in 2008, when she was offered a position as a spokesperson for then senator Barack Obama during his campaign for the Democratic primary. She toured six states for Obama and then headed to Florida following his nomination.
“I was fortunate enough to get to work in the most coveted space in Florida, which is the I-4 corridor, where all the swing voters live and where the most attention was being given,” she said. “That was the place to be in 2008. The candidates were always there, the media (were) always there and always interested.”
Jenkins spoke on behalf of Obama up until his election that November. Jenkins saw unintended perks along the way: one being her husband, whom she met on the campaign trail.
Though, like any political campaign, Obama’s came to an end, leaving Jenkins jobless — that is, until March of 2009, when he appointed her to serve as the national press secretary under EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
In her stint as the spokesperson for the EPA, Jenkins dealt with a press ravenous over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 — and providing post-spill damage control, she said, was one of her greatest professional challenges.
“There was a lot of uncertainty," Jenkins said. "We didn’t know how much oil was spilling out into the gulf at the time, and people wanted answers right away. And it was something that was very difficult to ascertain, because it wasn’t like you could send a human being down to the bottom of the ocean to measure the flow rate.”
And after the oil gusher was finally capped, Jenkins still had to contend with reactions to its effects on the Gulf of Mexico.
“It was tough for so many people down there,” she said. “I think I went down to New Orleans (about a dozen) times, and I was down in some parts of the Gulf — Pensacola, Dauphin Island and all these places along the Gulf Coast — just to get a sense of what the government was doing, to make sure that we were being as responsive as possible.”
For her efforts during and after the spill, Jenkins was promoted that August to an advisory role within the EPA, working alongside Jackson to develop agency responses to later crises, including Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.
And later that year, Jenkins was offered yet another position — this time with the Department of Justice, as press secretary to Holder. To her, the position was only natural given her past experience with the DeKalb district attorney in Georgia.
“I saw it as a great opportunity to return to work that I was also passionate about in the criminal justice field,” she said. “I saw it as a great opportunity to continue to contribute to the success of our president by working for another agency and (furthering) our mission to protect the American people.”
Since starting her work in government, Jenkins has come to MU in the past to speak to journalism students about her experiences in public relations and broadcast media, relaying the advice her mentor gave her a decade ago.
Alisha Johnson followed a path dissimilar from Jenkins, who mentored her during Johnson’s freshman year. Yet now she sits in her mentor’s former office as the national press secretary of the EPA.
For Johnson, her career started in 2002 when she first came to MU and met Jenkins through the Minority Advancement Program, which gives young minority students the chance to learn from their older peers.
By her senior year, Johnson was heavily involved on campus. She was a Summer Welcome leader, a student supervisor with the Mizzou Annual Fund, a member of United Ambassadors and a mentor in the same program that introduced her to Jenkins.
“And every once in a while, I went to class,” she joked.
And like Jenkins, she was a member of the Legion of Black Collegians. The organization nominated her for 2005 Homecoming Queen, an honor she went on to receive as the third black Homecoming Queen in MU's history.
But Johnson’s primary focus and passion throughout her MU experience was her work in media, so much so that she forewent an opportunity to graduate early. Instead, she worked an additional semester toward a second degree just so that she could stay on with KOMU.
“I wasn’t ready to leave Mizzou just yet,” she said, “So I decided to take on a second major in sociology, and stay and work at KOMU while finishing up my second degree.”
But it was around that time, she said, that her aims shifted toward public relations as opposed to work in broadcast.
“I had the opportunity to intern with the Boys & Girls (Clubs of America), while I was in school at Mizzou, doing public relations for them and really enjoyed that experience,” she said. “I was a big advocate for their cause.”
The catalyst for the switch, Johnson said, came from the impact she helped that organization make.
“I thought that they were doing great work, and they thought an organization like theirs could really benefit from having somebody who was actively advocating to build awareness for their efforts and reach the community with local media,” she said.
After finally leaving KOMU the summer after graduation, Johnson set out to work full-time in public relations. Her first experience in the private sector was with Fleishman Hillard, where she interned for six months in the corporate reputation department.
She later landed a position with HughesLeahyKarlovic, the St. Louis public relations firm. While working there as a public relations manager from 2007 to 2010, she was given an offer to work with Obama for America by Jenkins, who was then Barack Obama’s campaign press secretary in Florida.
But Johnson declined.
“When she offered me that job, I was very involved with what I was doing at Hughes,” she said. “I was really enjoying the work, and I was advancing pretty quickly through the ranks there, and I wanted to continue to pursue opportunities there. So the timing just wasn’t right for me.”
Johnson spent the following two years at HughesLeahyKarlovic, but was again approached by Jenkins — this time to work in the federal government.
“Once I was hired by the Obama administration in 2009, I was finally able to woo Alisha over in 2010 and get her to come work for us at the EPA,” Jenkins said.
And so Johnson did. But for her, the switch from corporate to governmental public relations was abrupt.
“It was a big transition," she said. "Working in the private sector, you spend a lot of time pitching and hoping that reporters will take your calls and actually run your story. And working in government is very different, where I spend a lot of time fielding dozens of calls every day from reporters and trying to get back to everybody.”
Johnson cited a higher volume of pitches, more controversial issues and greater investment of the tax-paying public as major departures from her work at firms like Hughes. But difference, she said, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have supervisors who have invested in me, and they’ve really taught me a lot,” she said. “I found that I really took a liking to environmental issues, and I think that being passionate about the issues let me put everything into what I was doing.”
Since taking up her position with the EPA in 2010, she’s been promoted twice: first to deputy press secretary in 2011, and then to Jenkins’s former national role in January. And her place in Washington hasn’t gone without notice. Earlier this week, she was named one of the Capitol’s 10 most beautiful people by The Hill, the congressional newspaper, in its annual ranking.
But she hasn’t forgotten her MU roots.
“I was able to come back for our 100th Homecoming in 2011, which was really cool,” Johnson said.
Ashley Gammon is where Jenkins and Johnson intersect. Now an account supervisor at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, she’s spent equal time in government and corporate public relations.
A member of the same class as Johnson at MU, Gammon was a student coordinator for Diversity Peer Educators and worked as a teaching assistant for Cynthia Frisby, who was then an advertising professor with the School of Journalism.
Gammon initially aspired to major in broadcast journalism, but those plans ended sooner than her peers’.
“I started to learn a little more about what life looks like after college, and just decided that it wasn’t for me,” she said.
Instead, Gammon decided to move into strategic communication, which was the closest alternative to public relations offered by MU at the time, and began a series of internships to round out her public relations background.
“I had some great opportunities as an intern,” she said. “I feel like I definitely learned a lot in my internships and came back the next school year better prepared.”
After graduating in 2006, Gammon found her way to HughesLeahyKarlovic, where she worked as an assistant public relations manager. In her time there, she brought Johnson onboard, but left in 2008 when opportunity knocked in the form of Jenkins.
“Alisha and I kept in touch over the years, and when I was on the Obama campaign I tried to hire her away from her firm,” Jenkins said. “She couldn’t leave at the time, but she recommended her friend Ashley, who was also a Mizzou grad.”
Yet at the time, Gammon was considering other career options.
“I was deciding between a job at Howard University in their communications department and had the opportunity, at least a temporary opportunity, to work with the Obama campaign,” she said.
But Jenkins called Gammon down to her office in Florida for an interview, and the campaign won out.
“Adora convinced me that the Howard job would always be there and that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gammon said. “And she was absolutely right.”
Gammon went on to work as a press assistant for Jenkins for four months, attempting to sway moderates in what Obama and McCain’s campaign members knew was the nation’s least predictable swing state.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “It was probably the scariest and the most rewarding so far in my career. And I don’t think that I got that experience in the more traditional jobs that I had before working on the campaign.”
But like Jenkins, she was out of a job come November.
“It’s one of those funny things," Gammon said. "After the campaign was over, everybody (went) out to find out what they (were) doing next."
Luckily for her, a contact she had met through the campaign recommended her for a job in the Obama administration as a media affairs specialist in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and she began work in March 2009.
“If I hadn’t worked in the campaign, this position would not have been available to me at all,” Gammon said.
She went on to work at HUD for nearly three years. Her tenure came in the aftermath of the Great Recession a year before, testing her crisis management skills in communicating with the public.
“It was definitely very fast paced," she said. "It was one of those positions where you either love it or you hate it. There wasn’t a lot in between."
She cited the position’s national scope, at the very least, as a plus.
“I traveled to a lot of great places all over the country that I will probably never see again,” she said.
In October of 2011, Gammon left HUD for a position on Capitol Hill as the communications director for Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. It was a change of pace from Gammon’s agency work — the burden of writing press releases, op-eds and media pitches fell on her shoulders, and she had to work in Bass’s offices in both Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.
“It gave me some experience that I wasn’t able to get working in such a large agency like HUD, because I was the only person doing communications,” Gammon said. “You’re a one-man shop. It’s a lot of long hours, and you have to constantly be on.”
A year into her work for Bass, Gammon decided to move back to corporate public relations with her current position at Edelman, which she’s held since October. It was a shift she saw coming.
“I didn’t think I was going to be in political communications forever,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily a long-term career path for me, and skills that you may have on your résumé don’t necessarily translate all that well outside of the Beltway.”
Gammon still does much of what she did while working for government with press releases, op-eds and remarks continuing to be a part of her daily routine. But with Edelman, she also worries about positioning her clients inside the Beltway — something she didn’t have to concern herself with when operating at its center.
While Gammon enjoys her success in the capital, she expressed interest in eventually coming back to her alma mater to speak or even teach.
“I wouldn’t have gone to any other school,” she said. “It’s the best up there. If I ever move back to Missouri, or a little closer, it would be something that I would definitely do.”
All three women got to where they are now in press relations based off their skills and connections from MU.
“All of this (comes) from the relationships that I (built) — that we all (built) — at Mizzou,” Jenkins said.