We are so proud that our very own Natalie Smith, APR, has been named this year’s recipient of PRSA Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson Award of Excellence in Public Relations. This annual award, which is the chapter’s highest honor, recognizes the extraordinary achievement of a seasoned public relations practitioner working in the Greater Richmond metropolitan region.

Winners of this award exemplify the best in the profession – and there’s no one who fits that description better than Natalie. From starting her own public relations agency in 1994, to her current leadership as a Senior VP at Padilla, Natalie has had an expansive career producing award-winning work for a wide range of clients. Over the years she’s been an invaluable mentor for young PR practitioners (myself included!), while also lending her time and talents to several non-profit organizations. She is a gifted strategic counselor who has had an immeasurable impact on her clients and colleagues, our agency and the Richmond community at large.

To commemorate this well-earned recognition, I asked Natalie to reflect on her 30+ year career and share some of her top moments, challenges and advice:

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m proud of how much the communications profession has grown in relevance and importance since I first began working in this industry. We’ve advanced from being viewed by many as fluff – and frankly, as order takers – to participating as valued partners in the development of organizational strategy. I have pushed the importance of the communications function having a seat at the table throughout my career, as have many others. It’s great to see that collective effort coming to fruition.

What’s your favorite project you’ve ever worked on?

I have been fortunate to work on a lot of projects that I’ve really loved. But the one that stands out in my mind is work we did for the Virginia Community College System’s Great Expectations program. Great Expectations supports young people who are aging out of the foster care system by helping them to enroll in college and secure housing, transportation and other basic needs. I had the privilege of interviewing Great Expectations participants and helping them to tell their stories, verbally and visually. Many of their stories were heartbreaking, but their resilience was amazing. Nearly every person with whom I spoke mentioned that having just one person who took a genuine interest in them made a positive difference in their path forward. That has always stayed with me. I’m proud of the work our team did for the program and feel lucky to have been a part of it.

What was the most challenging work you’ve had to tackle?

Early in my career, I was working with a shopping mall to help them build and cement their reputation as a community partner in an area that was undergoing a great deal of change. Several weeks into the job, two mall employees were brutally murdered in the store in which they worked. I had limited crisis response experience at the time and was learning on the fly. We were eventually able to restore public confidence, but it was a very difficult journey. I learned a lot about the value of strong media and community relations, and the importance of grace and professionalism under fire.

What advice do you have for those just starting their career in this industry?

A deep-seeded curiosity about the world and the people in it is critical to success in this field. Smart, imaginative thinking comes from having an insatiable appetite for learning more, observing more, uncovering new perceptions and understanding the “why” behind everything. So don’t worry that asking too many questions makes you look uninformed. It doesn’t. Ask and explore away. But keep in mind that while technology is a fabulous tool for learning, pulling information from the internet doesn’t provide the same value or creative spark that uncovering it in the real world does. The nuance, the context, the connection, the realness is missing. Don’t use technology as a replacement for experiencing the world and connecting with others. Take the time to wonder and wander, even if you have to schedule that time into your daily routine. Your work and your job opportunities will be better for it.

Congratulations, Natalie, on this outstanding and much-deserved honor! We are so proud and thankful to have you as a leader at Padilla.

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