© Sherrell Steele, 2013. All rights reserved.
10th of October

Capital Communicator

Meet Tina Thomas, Director, Marketing, Communications and Fund Development Division at the Edmonton Public Library. In the following interview, Tina shares her thoughts on being appointed the 2013 IABC Capital Communicator of the Year. She also shares highlights of her career and her marketing philosophy.

How/when did you first learn that you had been appointed IABC Capital Communicator of the Year?

IABC Edmonton former president, Justin Archer called me to let me know I was being considered – which was a total surprise.  It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to know and appreciate that it is a great honor and compliment. There is a lot of great marketing and communications work being done in our city so it is nice to be appreciated and recognized as part of it.

I am also super aware that while I am receiving the recognition, I am only part of the story. I work for a leadership team at EPL that has really embraced what marketing can do to help change the perception of the public library. I definitely have a vision for what I want to see at EPL but I have been given a lot of support and freedom to blow up the boundaries and expectations of traditional library and non-profit marketing.

I am also fortunate to work with extremely talented people as part of my team. I am extremely proud to say that all of the work around EPL’s hugely successful centennial celebrations were conceived, conceptualized and executed in house.

How did you get started in your career?

I had the good fortune of doing the co-op program as part of my BCOMM at the U of A. While I wasn’t a marketing major at the time, the jobs I took led me in that direction. Fortunately for me I was hired by Nortel, one of my co-ops, right out of school and started my practical marketing education right away.

The good thing about working at such a large multinational, dedicated to offering development opportunities to employees, is that I had the chance to experience the full marketing mix across a wide variety of industries and to deal with multiple international markets. I started working in marketing communications for our data networking group supporting everything from a global customer newsletter, technical writing and product launches to planning an international customer event. I ended my tenure after building the business case for the hospitality vertical segment and executing on the international marketing strategy. During my almost 14 years there I had the opportunity to work in market analysis, operations, product marketing and solution marketing across multiple international market and industry segments including healthcare, utilities, education and hospitality

Another benefit of a large corporation is that I had the chance to work as part of an extensive global marketing and communications practice that was supplemented and supported by leading global PR, design and communications agencies. There are certainly pros and cons of big versus small companies, but I could never replace the variety, breadth and depth of experiences I developed at Nortel.

You are now working in the non-profit sector. What differences do you see coming from the private sector?

I have been asked the question about the differences between working in the for-profit versus non-profit several times and I think people often have some stereotypical perceptions of the two. One common misconception is that all corporations make smart business decisions or have all type A employees that work 24/7. Or conversely, that working in a non-profit is an easy workload, or someplace that people go to escape the rat race. Well, after working in both worlds, I can say that I worked for a corporation that made several bad business decisions and I work more hours at EPL than I did anywhere else.

There is definitely a difference in size and funding – which means non-profits often have to find creative ways to stretch budgets or find low-cost or free ways to execute plans. At the end of the day any good organization is driven to achieve meaningful results – whether that is for shareholders or stakeholders of any kind.  We are all are attempting to do the same thing – tell the story of our product, solution, organization, serve in a way that resonates with a group of people and align to our audiences.

This has been a spectacular year at EPL with many celebratory events to commemorate your 100th anniversary. What events have been most successful? What will you do differently at the next library milestone? 

We’ve done so many things it’s hard to say what has been the most successful. I think the free library card campaign and pop up membership drives have been a great way to engage with current customers as well as bring people back to the library. Since we announced free library cards in March, we’ve been out in the community, at over 30 locations in seven months, signing people up for library cards…from Scotia Place to the Edmonton International Airport, to the Fringe, to City Centre Mall, to Free Admission Day at Fort Edmonton Park.

I think we’ve done a great job of celebrating our past and our contributions to our city. But, as our centennial tagline Just Getting Started promises, we’ve also set the stage for the future and highlighted our commitment to continue to evolve our services to meet the needs of our city and our community.

However, thankfully I won’t be around in 100 years so won’t have any of the pressure of trying to figure it out and execute it again!

What are some future plans at EPL?

I am really proud to work for an organization that is dedicated to service innovation solely for the public good.  One area we will continue to focus on is evolving our digital services, both in branch and online, to make sure that Edmontonians have open, easy, convenient access to both the digital resources and training needed to fully participate in a digital economy. From a marketing perspective, our services will lead the focus of our projects.

We’ve also spent a lot of time over the past three years developing our brand; telling our story in a new way and helping people think differently about the library. Our current focus is reinforcing our brand inside our branches. In many ways libraries are retail spaces and there are many retail practices that we can embrace and leverage. We are currently working on a signage and way finding strategies to help customers better navigate our spaces. We are also looking at improving our merchandising practices so that we can highlight to customers the great content and services available to them at EPL.

What are your own future career plans?

I can’t say that I have ever planned my career so I am probably not going to start now. I have stayed in positions as long as I am learning something, I feel I am supported and able to make a difference, and there is an opportunity for me to use my skills and experience to do good work. Right now EPL is the place for me.

Advice for communicators in the field? Lessons learned? Words of wisdom?

I certainly have learned lots of things along the way – some of which are deeply embedded in my brain.

Marketing is not cake decorating – adding some sparkles to the end to make something looks nice. Any successful marketing strategy or campaign must be built on understanding the objective or problem you are trying to solve. Great marketing and great marketing people have equal parts creativity, strong analytics and solid project management. Marketing done right isn’t about making something pretty. No matter how good it looks or how many awards you win, if you don’t meet the overall objectives of the campaign – increase sales, change behavior, improve awareness etc. – you weren’t successful.

Marketing and communications professionals will be asked to “promote this.” Our job – the value we can provide – is to challenge the request to simply take orders and instead position the right mix of messages and activities that will lead to the desired results.

Final words?

Communications, marketing, branding have many meanings for many people. Well-executed marketing campaigns have helped EPL set to double library memberships this year over last. Because of effective communications, EPL boasts over 17,000 Twitter followers – the second largest of any library in Canada. Strong branding is the reason library cards saw a 200% increase in demand when our new brand (along with its smart sayings and bright colors) was launched.

I’d like to share a quote from Simon Sinek from his TedTalk on leadership. He said “the goal is not to do business with people who need what you have; the goal is to connect with people who believe what we believe.” The world is filled with interesting, important, fun, innovative, valuable, bizarre and even useless products, services and organizations. Every day as marketers and communicators, we get to share the story of our organizations and connect with people who believe what we believe.


Sherrell Steele is a consultant in strategic communications and public relations with experience as manager of public relations with the province’s largest professional association. Looking for a communications audit? Communications consulting? Public relations advice? Publication analysis? Website review? Marketing advice? Media relations. Contact her at sherrell.steele@gmail.com Phone (780) 298-6149.

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