We caught up with Neely Dockins, Vice President, Crisis and Risk Communications in our Washington, D.C., office to discuss how she found her way to crisis communications and how she stays calm under pressure.
How long have you been at Edelman?
I've been here five years this past October. I moved here from Dallas, Texas and worked at Weber Shandwick prior to Edelman, so I’ve always been in the agency life.
How did you first get introduced to crisis communications?
Crisis comms was not something that I planned to go into. I majored in public relations at Baylor University and knew the agency route would be good, just to get exposure and learn about client service before getting too segmented in one industry.
I took an internship at Weber Shandwick in Dallas right out of school, and I ended up getting hired to the American Airlines labor team. A few months after I was hired full-time, American declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. So that upped the pressure for our team to communicate what that process meant to employees, and then the merger with U.S. Airways came about a year and a half after that. So for most of my time there, our team functioned as a de facto crisis team, and I was hooked!
What do you find the most interesting or stressful thing about crisis communications?
It can be stressful, but it's also really rewarding. I feel like the work we’re doing for our clients really matters – and that’s not to say that other work we do for our clients doesn’t matter – but I think being in the moment, in those really make or break moments for clients, is what I find rewarding about it, and helps balance the stress. It can be a lot of late nights, long hours, weekends. I would say we only get crises that are major, major, major things, maybe once a year. But when we do – those are the good ones.
How has your background and experience equipped you to manage a crisis communications team? And what advice do you give to someone who is first starting out about succeeding in this kind of high-pressure environment?
On the crisis team, our work is industry-agnostic, so we get to touch on travel, technology, healthcare, finance – you name it. The variety keeps the job fresh and allows you to collect a wide breadth of knowledge while becoming an expert in certain areas. Nothing replaces that day-in and day-out experience, and ultimately that’s what provides the foundation to help manage our team.
I think for people starting out in crisis, being able to use data to drive insights and ground our work is important. To know where to look for things, how to look for things, and just being enterprising in that way. If our junior folks are monitoring or doing research, and their Spidey-sense goes off, we encourage them to go down a rabbit hole, be curious, and explore all those avenues to find things that could make our work so much more insightful rather than to simply do the bare minimum.
How do describe what you do for a living, to your family and friends?
It's funny. Working in D.C. and working in crisis, a lot of my friends call me Olivia Pope, which I don't mind. But having worked on some pretty big crises over the years, sometimes my mom or a friend might text me and say, "Oh, I read about this in the news, are you working on it?"
That's interesting, and that's part of what Edelman brings to the table as the largest agency in the world. We get to work on really cool, really high-profile things.
What do you like most about working at Edelman?
I love the people. The structure of our office has changed pretty significantly over the past five years, but I think generally the culture is the same and remains very transparent. Leaders are willing to answer hard questions, give frequent financial updates, and none of that is ever shied away from. I think that’s something unique about Edelman, and it’s the culture, transparency, collaborative-ness that I really like here.
The crisis team has always been really close-knit too, and I think that’s probably by nature of the work. Being in the trenches together, we've always had the mentality of having each other’s backs.
What do you like doing, that you do every day?
I really like that no day is the same. Some days it’s working on a simulation, writing microsite content, doing research – and maybe the day gets partially or entirely derailed by a new issue that popped up for a current or a new client. That sort of day doesn’t stress me out – I enjoy rolling with the punches and don’t mind reshuffling if needed. I also find higher ed really interesting because it’s different than working with companies. There are so many different stakeholders with current students, prospective students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, board members and so on. And then you have layers like public or private universities, religious affiliations, etc. So higher education is challenging and fun for me.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in his or her career?
I think just being hard working, eager to help. Attitude goes a long way. That is ultimately what sets people apart – their willingness to put in the time to get things done and be an asset to the team. Those soft skills are really important in addition to more technical skills, but being a team player, being a kind person – that is what makes working with your teammates enjoyable.
What's your biggest achievement to date, personal or professional?
Professionally, it would probably be for a crisis client that I was embedded with for several months during the height of their issue. The most rewarding, and challenging, part was getting to be in a daily steering committee meeting with the company’s top executives – mostly old, white men – and typically being the only woman in the room was pretty impactful. It was intimidating, but also empowering to be in that position and actually have a literal seat at the table to help navigate the company’s crisis response.
What do you read and access every day?
I try to read a few daily newsletters to get the news for the day. I read The New York Times daily briefing and Morning Brew for business news. I also have news alerts set up for a number of things – some client-related, others just for breaking news updates to aware of, especially for crisis work.
What's the best book you've read recently?
Well, I'm in a book club that exposes me to books I probably wouldn’t normally read. We just read a book called Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, which is a novel in verse. It was really different and a great read! Outside of book club, I also recently finished Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.
What's your favorite D.C. restaurant?
I'm a big Italian fan, so one of my favorite restaurants is Lupo Verde, on 14th Street. Really, really, good Italian.
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