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Finding the American Dream in PR

Sofia Chernova

My path to Prosek was a bit unusual. As a Russian immigrant, I grew up thinking there were only three “real” professions that set you up for “The American Dream” - doctor, lawyer, teacher. It’s not a surprise that my mom happens to be a teacher and my dad is a doctor.

Growing up, I never knew what public relations or marketing was. This was mostly because my family is from the Soviet Union and the community where I resided in South Brooklyn also comprised of Russian Jews with the same experience. In Soviet Russia, there was no concept of “PR” or “marketing” because the government controlled the press. People were not given a choice of what products or services to purchase, so there was no need to market any products or services because the government decides that for you.

Not knowing what I wanted to do, I was undecided for my first two years in college. I enjoyed political science and history since I grew up traveling with my parents, but after going to a comedy club and a comedian asking me if I was expecting to receive unemployment papers with my political science degree, I knew that was probably not the right choice for me. So, I went the practical route and decided to major in history and become a social studies teacher.

In the meantime, the career office at my school said there were internships available at the County Executive’s Office. The County Executive at the time (and still is) Steven Bellone. This was basically the mayor’s office in Suffolk County on Long Island. When I went to interview, they told me that they think I’d be a good fit working for the Press Secretary, so I said yes not knowing at all what I was getting myself into. I would sit in the Press Secretary’s office listening to her speak with the local news anchors and reporters about Steve’s daily activities while I cut clippings of his stories in the local papers. My main job was to clip these articles, photocopy them, laminate them and organize them in a binder. I also helped coordinate his State of the County Address, which is like the State of Union. While it wasn’t the most glamorous internship, I loved every second of it.

With this new-found passion for the press and public affairs, I decided to look for an internship in communications the summer before student teaching. I landed an awesome gig working for the communications office at the New York Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The agency is responsible for coordinating citywide emergency planning and response for all types and scales of emergencies including natural disasters, bursting pipes and even terrorist attacks. Thankfully, my summer at OEM was relatively quiet -- my main job was managing their social media pages and drafting tips on how to beat the heat and pet safety. A highlight was meeting Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mike Bloomberg, who was the Mayor at the time. But most importantly, I learned that I really enjoy telling stories and sharing important information with the public.  

Now, back to my teaching career as I didn’t give up on it just yet. I started student teaching, which meant I taught my own classes but had a teacher observe me in the back of the classroom. I was teaching 7th and 9th grade social studies. This was back in October 2012, and if you lived in the tri-state area at that time, you know that was when Hurricane Sandy hit. Since schools were closed that week, I was compelled to reach out to by former manager at OEM and volunteer to help. I had to do something – all of my tips prepared me for this day!

So, I went to the OEM HQ and it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The City’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated, which only happens during large-scale emergencies. It’s the central location for senior officials from City, state, and federal agencies to coordinate response efforts, make decisions, and gather and disseminate information. My job was to monitor their social media pages and answer phone calls in a room along with all the other Press Secretaries whose agency offices were flooded. Since the press line was the only number available on the OEM site, reporters, city officials and regular New Yorkers were all calling that line. I was getting calls from the Guardian, FEMA, the Mayor’s Office, as well as folks looking for the closest shelter or an open gas station. Looking back, it was the most intense week of my life, but I felt so proud having helped my city at such a devasting time.

When I came back to my 7th graders the following week, it was evident that teaching was not for me. I needed to go back to communications, but I had no idea where to start. OEM wasn’t hiring, and I had no connections in PR. The only person that is somewhat connected to PR is my cousin who is a journalist covering venture capital for the WSJ. She sent out LinkedIn messages to some of her PR contacts telling them she had a cousin who wanted to learn about the field. For the next 3 months, I went on countless coffees and held various calls with PR professionals from all over the city. One coffee at the Starbucks in the Empire State Building stood out. We had a great conversation and I gave the contact my resume and she said she’d pass it along to HR. Long story short, she worked at Prosek Partners and I scored an internship at the firm a few weeks later.

This month marks my six-year anniversary at Prosek. I grew from an intern (and even Jen Prosek’s assistant for two weeks) to an Associate Vice President. Every day I help large and small businesses tell their story. I even had the opportunity to work and live in London for a year and half where I helped my clients navigate their message around Brexit and then shortly after that, the US election. My path to Prosek was long and winding, but I can easily say that even though my parents still don’t know exactly what I do, I know they feel I’ve achieved my American Dream. 

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