How one PR seer expertly reaches people when others can’t.
“The most successful people are those who accept and adapt to constant change. This adaptability requires a degree of flexibility and humility most people can’t manage,” famed former NASA designer Paul Lutus once said.
Public outreach visionary Katherine Padilla not only manages flexibility and humility, but she’s also made an art of constant change and success, while maintaining sharp focus on what matters most in life. Founder of Pasadena, California-based Katherine Padilla & Associates (KPA), Padilla and her firm provide strikingly effective, somewhat nontraditional communication outreach (everything from bespoke bus tours to door-to-door walk audits to a youth art contest for transit), and public relations services in multiple languages, including Korean and Tagalog. And they’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years. A certified Woman, Disadvantaged, Minority, and Small Business Enterprise (WBE/DBE/MBE/SBE), KPA specializes in delivering perceptive and compassionate communications solutions.
Though that wasn’t Padilla’s focus initially, her background almost seems designed for where she ended up. “I went to school as a journalism major, but I married an architect,” Padilla muses. “I decided to help his business, so I took on drafting. Then I started pulling permits and interacting with his clients,” she shares. “I was always good at math, so I changed my major to business and focused on marketing management, research, strategy and communication. Then, I opened my own business.”
Oddly, her first clients were politicians running for office. Because of her exceptional writing skills, she commenced public relations campaigns that city officials noticed, and she was hired by the City of Azusa. Next, she transitioned to a planning and communications firm as a project manager. This proved pivotal, but not how she had expected.
“It helped me really see the tangible value of marketing. You can have the greatest plans and designs, but unless you can communicate their value, those efforts can fail. So combining technical excellence and target-sensitive marketing became my creed.” That’s when she created KPA. Given her diverse background—she added an MBA to the mix—Padilla knew that simply helping governmental entities facilitate community meetings would never be enough. She wanted to take outreach to another level. And she did. Today, Padilla and her team deliver messaging through any means that works, whether its attending festivals or hosting pop-ups. But even that doesn’t satisfy her.
“Previously, firms just translated materials into the target demographic’s language, usually Spanish. Though well-intentioned, that’s culturally insensitive, not to mention ineffective,” she says. “You’ve got to develop culturally sensitive materials that convey real benefits and then deliver them effectively. A great example of that is the project we did for the Port of Los Angeles.” There were considerable issues between the port and the communities surrounding it. The port was a huge economic driver, but the communities that hosted it saw little benefit. In fact, they suffered from considerable pollution, noise and traffic. There was serious animosity on both sides that needed to be addressed. But the key here was identifying and convincing community leaders of the port’s sincerity and bringing everyone to the table together.
“So, that’s what we did. Working closely, they reduced harmful impacts, increased economic benefits, and the port gained an invaluable, local, talented workforce pool. It was very rewarding.” Padilla’s success goes beyond her outreach philosophy. It’s also very much about her people. A small, but diverse group with predominantly women in leadership roles, most are first or second generation with immigrant roots from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Korea, and the Philippines, as well as Kansas and San Diego. And most have been with her for more than a decade. One staff member she’s known since she was 14 years old, when Padilla mentored her. There’s a reason why her people stay.
“No one gives you loyalty. You have to earn it. So, I always make sure there’s enough work for them. Part of that has been taking advantage of every opportunity as an MBE/WBE/DBE/SBE and I’m grateful for that support,” she shares. “But slow periods happen. You have to prepare. When things are slow, we turn inward. We train and improve ourselves through education, research and professional development. I’m always looking for new opportunities and I want my people doing that, too…Of course, COVID-19 was a real test.” More than 10 projects were lined up with transit agencies, cities and metropolitan planning organizations when COVID hit and all of them were put on hold. “We had to pivot, and fast. For three weeks, all we did was research and development. Then, my team reinvented outreach for the COVID age, providing critical guidance to our clients for virtual outreach. I am so proud of them.”
Padilla believes that COVID has changed outreach permanently. While in-person efforts will return when COVID passes, certain elements will remain online. But she also sees another lasting change in her field. “The stakes have changed since the George Floyd killing, Black Lives Matter movement, and the pandemic. There’s been a change in consciousness, and social equity will drive much of what we do, as it should. Outreach has fundamentally changed, and everything must be seen through that prism from now on.”
Every step of the way, Padilla is proof that Lutus was right. While essentially reinventing outreach almost on a regular basis, she has made an art of adapting to change and succeeding.