In the inaugural episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview alumna Charla Batey (B.A. literary journalism ’07) about her career path and diversity in communications and public relations.
Sydney Charles (0:10–0:11): Hi, everyone. My name is Sydney.
Tatum Larsen (0:11–0:12): And I’m Tatum.
Charles (0:12–0:18): And welcome to our first episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today we are joined by the lovely Charla Batey.
Larsen (1:22–0:27): Charla is a graduate of UCI Humanities and she studied literary journalism. Now, she is a communications specialist at Cox.
Charles (0:27–0:30): Thank you for joining us, Charla.
Larsen (0:30–1:18): So, before we get started and we jump into the interview, we just wanted to do a little show and tell, just so everybody can get to know us a little bit better and we’ll just jump in. I’ll just start first.
I brought a microphone because it was kind of the origin of how Sydney and I got started with our podcast, “Black Fam 2.5,” and I interned a little bit for the news station at our school, “KUCI News.” So this is really central to what I’m passionate about; I’m really passionate about podcasting and broadcast journalism. This is something that was really instrumental in the discovery of that passion of mine. So that’s what I brought today. And what did you bring today, Charla?
Charla Batey (1:18–1:43): I sent you guys a photo of my grandfather. It was a side by side of him when he was in the military and then also when he was older and he worked for the military. And it’s special to me because today —he’s passed away, but today would have been his 101st birthday. And just with the passing of John Lewis and everything that’s going on, I was just reminiscing about just how special he was to our family and how much he overcame in his life.
Charles (1:43–1:48): That’s amazing. That’s really personal. Thank you for sharing that.
Larsen (1:48–2:02): It’s very cool to have idols like that within your life that you can look to for inspiration. Thank you so much for bringing that. That’s very cool. That’s a great photo.
Charles (2:02–2:12): It was a nice photo. So yeah, I guess we can just jump into this interview now. So what do you do at Cox Communications? How did you sort of get into that field?
Batey (2:12–2:41): Sure. I work in external communications, so I do anything and everything, from managing our social media to writing press releases, writing executive speaking points. Just helping various teams with messaging that’s facing the external public — and our public is anyone. We have customers, of course, but we consider the public, government officials, business leaders, students such as yourselves, anyone in the community, and, of course, all of our lovely Cox customers.
Charles (2:41–2:45): And how did you get into that?
Batey (2:45–3:29): It’s been a journey. My journey went from, I was a literary journalism major at UCI. I wanted to be a print journalist. I wanted to write for a magazine, like long-form journalism. And I started there and then I went to Berkeley for journalism school. My parents were super proud. I think I was one of the youngest in that class. I definitely was one of the only Black people in that class. And then a semester into Berkeley, despite the amazingness of the program and the professors, I was like, “I’m not sure if this is the right path for me.”
So I left Berkeley and I started working in the nonprofit area. I worked for a children’s book illustrator and I slowly, slowly started going into like marketing and PR instead of journalism. And I think it was also the nature of the economic climate back then.
Larsen (3:29–3:38): And is that something that you’re passionate about now? Do you find that communications is something that you really gravitate towards?
Batey (3:38–4:00): Yeah, absolutely. I always say my name starts with a “C” and I always say I love community and I love communications because I think they’re so intersected and important. And I think, even just from like day to day, communications with your family are important. But now more than ever, I think it’s really important that people are speaking and sharing their stories and that we’re all learning about each other. There’s a lot of power in that.
Charles (4:00–4:10): Yes, that’s amazing. We want to ask an interesting little question to get to know more about you. What field would you be in or do you think you’d be in if you weren’t in communications?
Batey (4:10–4:40): I’d be an interior designer. I love to try to do what I can around my house, but I just love it. I took one of those work assessments at one point and it was like, “You’re very into aesthetics.” And I’m like, yes, I very much like my house to look a certain way. It works for PR and communications too, and marketing because that’s aesthetically driven as well. But definitely an interior designer. If I wasn’t an interior designer, I would be a dancer —if I was a better dancer.
Charles (4:40–4:44): No way. That is so cool. What kind of dance?
Batey (4:44–4:58): I’m not a formally trained dancer, but I just like dancing. I love music. So I take some cardio dance classes. I take a lot of ballet. I take some barre classes. Again, not formal dance. I like modern dance too.
Charles (4:58–5:00): Cool!
Larsen (5:00–5:16): Nice. In terms of the interior design aspiration, I can tell, because your outfit’s very put together and I see the little decal in the back and I’m like, “She has it together.”
Charles (5:16–5:27): Awesome. So regarding your current occupation, communications, what is your definition of effective communication and do you believe your version of communication is universal?
Batey (5:27–6:19): Communication is different. I mean, I think that all audiences take in information differently. The way my parents, my dad, who is almost 80 years old, and my mom, who is 70 years old, the way they take in communication is different than the way my 12-year-old stepson does. So I think it has to change and I think it’s ever-evolving. I don’t think I’m perfect or know the right answer for it. I just think you have to really think about what your audience needs to hear, what they’re looking for, and try to speak candidly to what their needs are at the time.
So I think that oral communication is going to become more and more important as we’re all in this kind of social distancing world and broadcasting communications, I think, are going to be revived again just by the nature of this. So I think it just depends. And I love all forms. I love podcasts. I love reading. I love watching the news. I love it. I love it all.
Larsen (6:19–6:51): That’s something that’s kind of central to what we’re doing, too, within our own careers; learning how to master different mediums because communication really is so universal and it’s really gratifying to be able to speak to different audiences on different platforms. And that’s why we look at you as a source of inspiration for that. So that’s really cool that you’re doing all of that. Our next question is, have there been any major milestones or pivotal moments within your life or career that have led you to this point?
Batey (6:51–8:17): I mean, there’s a lot of life moments and a lot of professional moments. I worked for a great broadcast journalist named Rachel Harvey Jones at a corporate company a while ago. And at that time, her husband, who was a meteorologist at AccuWeather, passed away suddenly and we were also good friends. And that changed a lot. I mean, I think it was eye-opening to see how precious life was at that time.
And then also,her having to totally step away from her role in this communications department that she was leading very much opened up my eyes to all that she was doing and forced me to grow and take on more responsibilities. So that was probably in 2010 or 2009. And then from a personal standpoint, I think meeting my husband; he had a 15-month-old son at the time, and I became a step-mom, a pseudo-step-mom at 24. He’s turning 12 on Monday. So, you know, like meeting this man that I fell in love with and then deciding, like, OK, well, I’m already in deep. And here’s a child and I’m pretty young at the time. So that was a pivotal change point in my life. It made me grow up really quickly. I’ve had to learn so much from him and my husband about parenting. And now we have a daughter who just turned three and she’s a girl boss. I wanted her to be feisty and outgoing and everything, and she’s all those things. So parenting her in this climate and a seventh grader, it’s definitely challenging, but rewarding.
Charles (8:17-8:39): Yeah, very challenging but rewarding. I like that. I feel like just in general, like especially during COVID, there have been a lot of major changes. You’re talking about changes in your own personal life, but I also wanted to touch on the changes with COVID. I wanted to ask, what are some of the changes that you’ve seen in your career regarding the presence of COVID?
Batey (8:40–9:55): Quickly, our company was really great about having us all work from home. We started working from home, I think the week of March 10th or whatever that day was, and, you know, luckily we’re a telecom and technology company. So we had those capabilities. But just, it’s hard, you know, all of a sudden we were all on Teams or Zoom, more texting, more IM-ing, less kind of water cooler talk, less going to speak to each other in offices. And that was a big shift. And then I work in public affairs. So we’re usually out in the community doing stuff. Part of the team that I am on does a lot of community service and volunteering, and we had to put a halt to all of that. And that was really hard for us all to kind of digest.
And we’re still trying to work around that and how we give back to the community in this COVID era. From my position as a communications person working with the media, you know, the media is doing what we’re doing. They’re doing interviews like this. They’re doing phone calls. Training our leaders to do this kind of interview now instead of going to a studio is very different. So it’s all changing and evolving. But we have such great people who are working at Cox. And I think just in general right now, people, as long as they can be flexible and nimble, I think that we can all make this better for the future of everyone’s career, actually.
Charles (9:55–10:07): Sure. Yeah, I’m glad to hear that Cox has been adjusting in a positive manner because some other companies are not. So I’m glad to hear.
Larsen (10:07–10:10): You know, that’s really great that you guys are being adaptable.
Charles (10:10-10:12): Yeah, it’s flexible.
Larsen (10:12–10:32): Yeah, exactly. Everybody, in a sense, has to figure out how to swim at this point. And in that light, we wanted to ask, have you ever worked on a project that hasn’t panned out the way you thought it would? Did you have to take a different avenue in order to get something done in your personal career?
Batey (10:32–11:31): I think the moment I alluded to before, when I thought I wanted to go to journalism grad school and then the continuation of that story is that I came back to Orange County, I started working, and I was like, “Maybe it’s just like, geographically, I need to be in Southern California. And if I went to a Southern California journalism school, it’d be different.” So then I applied and got into USC Annenberg and I went there, too, for a little while.
And I was like, no, it’s just not that. It’s just, it’s not the right time. It’s not the right thing for me. So that was a big pivot. But when I worked at UCI, I started in the middle or right at the beginning of the 50th anniversary, and I was thrown on this amazing committee with Dr. Thomas Parham and he was leading it. And, you know, I was the first person to hold my position at the library.
And then we were doing this 50th anniversary that’s never been done before. So there’s a lot of pivoting and changes there with the whole team and university. So I’m really proud of all that work that we did and just making it what it was under his leadership and under the chancellor’s leadership at that time.
Charles (11:31–11:43): Again, another adjustment that you very much did successfully. Well, speaking of challenges, we wanted to ask you if you ever experienced imposter syndrome within your professional career.
Batey (11:43–13:23): Yeah, I’ve experienced imposter syndrome. I think I experience it daily, both professionally and personally. People expect me to be kind of sometimes a token for Black people in PR in Orange County. I’m the first Black president of OCPRSA, which is the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. And with that comes a lot of like, you know, questions about that and expectations.
I also put a lot of pressure on myself for being the first Black president. But I also don’t want it to just be about me being the first Black president. I want it to be about me, you know, being a PR professional and an educated person and somebody who has a decent career and all of that. So I think that a lot of times with me at least, I lead with, I have to sometimes lead with my credentials.
I have to present myself in a certain way when I first meet people, or sometimes people think I’m not Black when I’m on the phone, and then they meet me in person and you can kind of see the shift and that gets very tiring. It’s very tiring. And, I guess, I hope that we don’t have to do that forever. My parents did that in their careers and they still do that, too. They also sometimes don’t sound, quote unquote, Black over the phone.
But then growing up, I was considered, sometimes Black kids would call me Whitewashed because I was kind of a dork and I was very quiet. And I liked to read and I played “white sports”, I swam and I did lacrosse. And so I really hope, like in the future, we don’t have these feelings and these labels. But I think when you feel that imposter syndrome, it just gives you drive and it makes you more confident on the inside. And it also makes you more humble. And I think confidence and humility are so important.
Larsen (13:23–13:45): Right. Yeah, and kind of touching on that, is there anything relating to that or not relating to this sense of imposter syndrome or having to kind of fill a narrative within your field? Is there anything within your field that you would change regarding that sense of Eurocentrism or tokenism?
Batey (13:45–14:53): Yeah, I mean, I think my colleagues on the board in all PRSA and a lot of people have come before me have done a lot of good work trying to diversify the profession.
And I think that’s important. I think the generation coming behind us is far more diverse on every level, not just race, but gender, ability, sexual orientation. And that’s amazing. I just hope that when they’re in the seats that I’m in today or that my boss is in, that they don’t have to be, quote unquote, the token maybe transgender person, you know, it’s like, I feel like in our country or in our history, we shift a lot.
It’s like somebody was the token for this group for a while now and now we’ve gotten that group to a different level. So now we’re going to say, for example, the LGBTQ community, we’re going to have a token first LGBTQ president of OCPRSA. I hope it doesn’t have to be like that. I think there is also power in it being like that, because you can, it lets you have a platform to tell your story and share stories similar to yours.
But I just hope those labels aren’t always there and that tokenism kind of disappears as we all hopefully become more united.
Charles (14:54–15:07): For sure. And to that end, on the opposite end of the spectrum, how do you measure your own success or a job well done on your part?
Batey (15:07–16:17): I like to trust my gut a lot. I try to trust how my parents and my grandparents raised me and the values they raised me on when I try to determine what’s right and wrong. I try to take the temperature of my colleagues and my friends. And then for me, for successes, I think that the narrative before me, coming into my career was, you know, women, we really are trying to work to have it all.
And now it’s like, well, can you have it all? And I’m not convinced we can’t have it all. So I try — as my kid comes in the shot. So I’m trying to just look at my day and be like, did I give as much as I could to myself, taking care of myself, but also my job and my kids and my house and my family and my friends? So, you know, just kind of shifting all the time and making it work.
My boss says she “moms so hard.” And when she says “moms so hard and works so hard” or “moms so hard, careers so hard.” And I think you could do both. And I think women do it a lot. I think women of color have to do it; it’s just the nature of the world right now. So, success for me is just if each day I can get most of my stuff done and keep my sanity and children happy and everyone’s healthy, then I’m good.
Charles (16:17–16:21): Yes, that keeping sanity part, I feel like, is especially crucial during these COVID times.
Larsen (16:36-16:57): That balancing act is the hardest thing to do. And to that effect, do you have any advice for future Black journalists, PR people, communications specialists? Do you just have any advice for Black professionals that want to go into this career field?
Batey (16:57–17:54): I think we all have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I think we’re still going to be uncomfortable. There’s many places I go into where I’m the only one and it’s uncomfortable or people say things to me and it’s very much like, you’re just making a general assumption about like how I was raised. You know, an example is, oh, you know, somebody once said to me, “Are you the first person in your family to go to college?” Well, no, absolutely not. I’m like many, many people in my family have gone to college and have advanced degrees. But it’s just like this generic assumption.
So you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, but also maintain grace and poise and calmness and sanity and, yeah, and just learn to navigate kind of that space. And it’s, you know, systematically, the corporate America and journalism newsrooms are not fully diverse yet and it’s going to take a while. So we’ve all got to be patient and just keep moving forward.
Charles (17:54–18:01): Yeah, well, that was awesome. Thank you so much, Charla. Great concluding remarks too.
Larsen (18:01–18:12): Thank you so much for your time and for just making space. We feel like we’re a part of that balancing act. So we just appreciate you giving us that time to us today.
Batey (18:12–18:40): I wanted to tell you, like, I won’t get emotional, but like when I was in the literary journalism program, I think it was myself and one other person. She works in the Humanities, Whitney Young. We were like, I feel like we’re the only two Black girls in it, but maybe not. She might remember better. And so like, the fact that journalism at UCI is becoming more diverse and everything is amazing. So I’m proud of you guys and I thank you for this opportunity.
I think Harper wants to say hello. She’s like a mash up of you guys.
Larsen (18:40–18:43): Hi Harper!
Charles (18:43–18:45): She’s shy, she’s so cute!
Charles (18:47–18:51): Thank you guys for joining us today for that episode of “The Welcome Table.” See you guys next time.
Larsen (18:51–18:53): Thank you, guys. Bye.
Follow Batey on Twitter @charlajbatey.