Spotlight on 2021 Thomas Jefferson Awardee Natalie Smith, APR

Natalie Smith, APR, is the 2021 Thomas Jefferson Awardee for Excellence in Public Relations. She is a senior vice president at Padilla and former PRSA Richmond president. The award recognizes the extraordinary achievement of a seasoned public relations practitioner working in the Greater Richmond metropolitan region.

Describe what receiving the Thomas Jefferson Award means to you.

I am truly honored – and humbled – to have received the TJ Award. So many of the past recipients are professionals who I look up to and who shaped my view of what constitutes excellence in our profession. This profession, in combination with our other communications partners, has the potential to make life-changing connections across organizations, people and society in general. The TJ’s focus on public service and supporting/mentoring others is particularly important to me, and as a young professional, I learned so much from past TJ recipients about what that looks and feels like. Honestly, joining the ranks of this group is a little overwhelming. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that my colleagues thought enough of my work to nominate me. It’s an honor I’ll never forget.

When you look back on your career, is there a particular highlight or definitive moment that comes to mind? Feel free to share a few.

Great question. There’s not one defining moment I can think of, but rather a series of moments over the years that were firsts or where I felt that work that I was involved in made a difference. My first on-camera interview with then-TV 12 reporter Bill Ogelsby. Involvement in multi-media traffic safety campaigns that contributed to decreasing traffic fatalities in Virginia. Watching my CRT colleagues flawlessly lead a week-long national celebration of the Centennial of Flight. But some of the best moments have been the small moments – like when a client reaches out to thank you for helping them think through the right thing to do in a difficult situation. Or when a client team that you’ve been coaching plans a surprise (virtual) happy hour to tell you how much you’ve helped them grow as a team and individuals. That’s priceless.

We’re sure a number of people look up to you as a mentor. Who do you consider to be your mentor, and why?

I can’t name just one person; I have been fortunate to have learned from many people I respect and admire over the years. From a professional perspective, Kim Farlow pulled me into PRSA and had a big influence on me. The founders of Carter Ryley Thomas – Mark Raper, Brian Ellis and Mike Mulvihill – all taught me how to run a successful, client-focused, people-led business. I consider Mike to be a personal mentor; he always felt that elevating individual strengths vs. fixing perceived flaws elevated engagement and brought better results for the work, the clients and the company. I learned so much from him and have always appreciated his support and friendship.

In your mind, what are the benefits of PRSA Richmond to the Richmond PR community?

PRSA Richmond provides enormous benefits to the professionals in our community and to the community at large. The chapter offers great opportunities to learn more about the profession, provides leadership development opportunities and supports the community in a wide range of ways. From a personal perspective, PRSA introduced me to smart, talented professionals who I was fortunate to learn from and am lucky to call my friends and colleagues. I truly don’t think I would be where I am today without my involvement in PRSA.

What advice would you share with young professionals starting out in the PR industry?

I’m often asked what I think is the most important quality for success in this profession, and my answer has remained consistent: curiosity. The more interest you have in the world and the people in it – especially those with different perspectives – the better the stories you’ll create and the connections you’ll make. Don’t worry that asking questions makes you look uninformed. Questions make you look smart, so ask away. Seek out others who you’d like to learn from at all levels. In my experience, people are generally willing to share what they know about the profession they love to support the next generation of professionals.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

We are so fortunate to live and work in a metro area that houses so much talent. I’m in awe of the smart, creative and inspiring work I see coming from communications professionals supporting organizations of all types and sizes. Your work does make a difference – and you can’t ask for a better profession than that.