Whitlee Lusk — 35 Under 35

35 Under 35 Class of 2018-19
Whitlee is one of 35 professionals, age 35 and under, who make up the Class of 2018-19. These 35 individuals are emerging leaders who are making a difference in school public relations.

Whitlee Lusk
Jefferson County Schools
Birmingham, Ala.

What does leadership mean to you?
The main function of being a leader is to serve. True leadership is selfless and compassionate. I also believe that true leadership is when you not only talk the talk, but you walk the walk. In order to lead, you must model the behavior. From my experience thus far, I have witnessed those who strive to be a servant leader and those who strive to be a selfish leader. I believe it’s important to study both sides of the coin when contemplating leadership. There are many leaders out there, but what kind of leaders are they? Do they put others first or themselves? Do they make decisions with their heart or with their ego? Servant leadership requires enhanced morality, a focus on building relationships that last, deep concern for all stakeholders, and constant self-reflection.

What was the most fulfilling professional moment you have experienced?
When I first began my career in school PR, it was difficult to know if anything I did mattered. It wasn’t until about a year into my service that I began to truly notice the difference in our culture as a school district. Culture is sometimes not something we can see, but it is most certainly something we can feel. Honestly, it was not just one moment that was fulfilling, but many small moments that collected over time. Each one of those tiny moments forces me into a state of total awareness and I always think to myself, “wow, I might actually be making a difference.” Those moments vary from being in schools and interacting with students and staff in hopes to share their stories, to receiving emails filled with gratitude from employees, to listening to a teacher while they held my hand and cried, to receiving the honorable awards of Alabama’s Communicator of the Year and NSPRA’s 35 Under 35 in the same year. Truthfully, I just feel like I am doing my service like I hope anyone else would do if they were in my shoes and while those little moments are beautiful, I would continue to serve in the same ways with or without them.

What are the most challenging and/or rewarding parts about working in school PR?
No reward worth receiving comes without great challenge. We all face challenges, but it’s how we respond to those challenges that determine our character. If I had to define one of the greatest challenges of the school PR profession for me personally, it would have to come down to being taken seriously. Unfortunately, there are some who believe PR is just tweeting all day long. I started in school PR when I was 25 years old. I would go to schools and they would ask if I had a hall pass. I would sit in meetings with district leaders and be absolutely terrified to speak up about the ideas I had to help them because what could a 25-year-old possibly know about anything? This is something that I still struggle with, but by facing fear, I have grown to be braver and by building relationships, I know that people judge me less for my age and more for my passion and dedication to our school district. The rewards of being in school PR are sometimes difficult to see when you are a one-person department for the second-largest school district in your state. It comes down to those little moments when you know you’ve really helped someone and leaning on those who are constantly cheering you on that make it all worthwhile.

What’s your favorite work app and personal app?
When it comes down to day-to-day workflow, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Photos, Google Hangouts and Google Keep ensure that I am always on task and connected. I really enjoy all the Google apps and how they work seamlessly together. My other favorite work apps are video and design related and they are Quik, Spark Post, WordSwag, etc. For personal apps, I enjoy Sky Guide which allows you to see where all the stars and planets are and Alarmy because it makes me do math problems before my alarm will turn off in the mornings!

What book has inspired you professionally?
Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, is something I am currently reading and it has already inspired me. I also really enjoyed Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson.  

How has NSPRA and your state chapter guided you along the way?
I would not know left from right without ALSPRA and NSPRA. The friendships and partnerships I have made within these organizations are indispensable to our profession. ALSPRA is like family for me. We are always there for each other, whether it be for a crisis situation or just to vent about our day. Attending NSPRA’s conference is something I look forward to every year and the knowledge and connections I leave with, are something I cherish. Both ALSPRA and NSPRA make an effort to be constant reminders that what we do matters and continual supporters of making a difference in the lives of our students.

What is a recent communications/media campaign you enjoyed – either one of your own or one you saw nationally?
Our district received a state award last school year for our Redefining Ready campaign which was based off the National College and Career Readiness Indicators. During this era of school choice, A-F report cards for schools and districts, and more pressure on students to get a good score rather than be a good person, I enjoyed developing this campaign for our district because I knew that it could really make an impact on our communities. Our students, schools, and districts are so much more than a score. We have our own stories to tell and a letter grade fails to even scratch the surface of what our students are capable of achieving. I also enjoy any campaign that focuses on diversity, inclusion, and equity and I’m excited to implement a similar campaign in the near future as our district continues to work towards gaining unitary status.

What emerging trends in school public relations get you excited?
As cheesy as it might sound, the number one attribute about school public relations that fuels my fire is not a trend, but a truth. In this profession, we are not just story-tellers, but truth-tellers. We have a very rare opportunity to change the perception of public schools and shift the course of our youth’s future for the better. Yes, we will use the latest and greatest trends to deliver our work, but what it all comes down to for me is sharing stories about truth in order to support the future of public schools and the many opportunities they provide, so that together, we can make the world a better place for all people!