Meet Judy Williams: the woman behind the campus emails
by Ryan Guinee
As the spokesperson of the campus, the manager of Communications, and deliverer of all news to the UALR family, Judy Williams makes connections as simple as responding to an email.
Like many current students, Williams came back to college as a non-traditional student. As a young mother, she saw the need to postpone school, marry, and go into the workforce. Returning to school with one more son on the way, she earned a degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. After spending her time in various marketing and public relations roles in the state over the span of two decades, she made her way back to UALR in 2007.
Since then she’s been the familiar friend in your UALR Mail inbox. She keeps you updated on the goings-on of our piney campus from huge successes and new buildings to the more solemn parts of our campus activity including crime and unfortunate passings. She’s been called a mom, a wife, a boss, and a friend. Of the many names and roles she’s held in her career and life, there is but one name to whom the UALR student body affectionately refers: Judy.
Williams is an ’89 graduate of UALR, and is certainly a Grad@Work proudly speaking for UALR and overseeing the communication efforts for the entire university. From first contact made with high school students to the email announcement reminding you of Grad Fest, Williams considers the fine details of messages being sent inside and outside the school over the course of an audience’s “university life cycle.”
“Lately it’s been about getting a good communication flow in terms of what the university’s brand is,” Williams said. “What’s the reputation? How do we lift it up? How are we transparent?” As a state institution, the university has to carefully consider these matters.
However, she explained it hasn’t always been about the university brand. “We’ve been called many things: information office, news bureau, media response office, and so on. There wasn’t a great need in the beginning to market the school. Initially, we were a growing junior college. We couldn’t build buildings fast enough to accommodate students!”
Perhaps a good problem to have. It’s a growth statistic the university hasn’t seen in many years though. In times of enrollment drought, there are more careful and targeted measures that take place to secure top-of-mind awareness of UALR when Arkansans think about college. “Now, in the past ten years with increasing competition we have to answer ‘Why UALR?’ We certainly help influence choice. We answer marketing questions like who is our audience, what is our mission, and how do we support the brand and mission through communication,” she said
Much like storytelling, Williams said the Office of Communication finds characters and a plot. Then, it tells stories through the various mediums.
“The digital department tells stories through video, websites and social media. Media Relations people tell stories through interviews with professors and students through writing. Print, Production, and Graphics team tells stories through print material and art. Robin [Mizell], the Advertising Manager, focuses on storytelling. People relate to stories, because through stories we relate to people.”
The advertising campaign Grads@Work, which can be seen across the campus, has been wildly successful for the campus and community. Earning first-place awards from organizations such as the Arkansas Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, the campaign sought to tell these stories in a way that would relate to people. “It began with ‘I don’t know what UALR does.’ A focus group with high school students, parents and businesses in the community was held where we asked ‘What stories do we need to tell?” she said.
Grads@Work was at a time when the economy was in recession. In tough times, people will find ways to augment their resumes to improve their futures. “We had to spend money wisely to tell enough stories that resonated with enough people. We told the story of a nurse, a school teacher, a programmer, and so on. We looked for majors at UALR that we felt good about holding up because it meant jobs after that degree,” Williams said.
It took the power of an agency to pull off this big campaign. A small team in a building on the corner of campus managed well.
Williams works with a team of people that do many of the behind-the-scenes type of work to ensure UALR students know what’s happening and, ultimately, enjoy their college experience. “What I love is making connections with real people and holding those real people’s story up. I love storytelling. We’ve grown the office and hired really talented people [to help do that].”
While Williams heads much of the projects, she also relies upon a group of communicators to help support the mission of the Office of Communications. Seeing the growing need for digital relevancy, Williams hired experienced digital marketer and analyst, Dan Shisler, from Dilliard’s, Inc. to manage the campus’s digital strategy. Also, recognizing the need to expand storytelling, Williams hired Keli Coburn Jacobi as Senior News Writer/Editor. An award-winning journalist, she previously served in the Office of Public Information at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Jacobi is also an ’89 graduate of UALR, earning her bachelor’s degree in mass communication.
Reflecting on previous positions, Williams explained that this kind of communication work has its differences. What she calls “organizational communication” when referring to UALR, she fondly remembers her time as a corporate communicator for Doctor’s Hospital, Aerospace Education Center and Stone Ward, an advertising agency. Throughout the day in Williams’ office, it seemed like the phone’s never stopped ringing. A sign of busy to many, it aroused questions concerning crises. UALR has seen its share of troubled events and tragedies, and dealing with them as the spokesperson can be stressful. It’s not something for which Williams is unprepared; however, she says, “each one is a little different every time.”
While working as the marketing director for the Aerospace Education Center (the original IMAX theatre for those who have lived here a long time), Williams saw one of the most severe tragedies to happen to Little Rock.
“At AEC, there was an airliner that crashed at the Little Rock Airport, now the Bill and Hillary Clinton Little Rock Airport. I got a call from my boss early in the morning saying the airport was going to use us [AEC] to bring people from the crash for hospitalization. In a crisis situation you don’t want people coming in to the airport – you stage the area in a separate place. In this case, the place was us. I had to jump out of bed from Maumelle and work all night and through the next day to deal with reporters and media and airline companies and distraught families.”
She remembers it was a rainy night that night.
“Families came in with clothes all soaked. The red cross was called while we tried to find clothes and food. There was a gift shop that had sweatshirts and t-shirts, and I remembered we yanked those off the racks to hand out to replace the wet clothes.”
While at Doctor’s Hospital, they occasionally tested the communication departments by running drills. She said, “We had many drills that were patient related. For example, we would get a brief like “A tornado comes through town and people get injured. Fifty unexpected patients are brought to the hospital. What do you do?’ So, we were given things to consider. This really happened: A baby was kidnapped from the nursery the day before I got to DH. That said, the hospital was considerably prepared for crises, and I had good people to model after.”
For we students, we rarely see the planning and implementation behind the Office of Communications. Something as simple as our weekly emails from Williams can often have considerable planning and careful measurements in place. “When I first came here, there was a funny story. There are controls over what is acceptable and not. The Chancellor and I have access to the two major listserves directed to all employees on one and all students on another. Well, for the longest time I used my personal name as I do now. Then, I asked ITS [Information Technology Services] to create a new firstname.lastname@example.org address. For a month or so it was used. I finally realized it felt cold. There was no human face behind it. So, I said ‘I’m not gonna do it.’ We took it away, and now it’s Judy again.”
Something as simple as an email coming from Williams rather than Communications makes all the difference for students. While many cannot put a face to the name, it does not stop the student body from rejoicing when Williams tells them school is closed due to the weather. It does not stop the student body from casually thanking Williams when she reminds them about that student organization meeting. If anything, students feel warm and welcomed.
“When I send out an email to all students and you email me back with a question, either I will answer or send it to someone that will know,” she said.