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January 9, 2024

Being Blunt

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As a seasoned communications professional, Traci Otey Blunt has helped shape the public messaging of some of the biggest names around—among them, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the juggernaut that is the National Football League. And she has done so with an approach that runs counter to much media spin these days, which often seems to want to obscure the facts.
Rather, she’s adopted a direct manner that reflects her last name and its original definition of being plain and forthright. “Honesty and transparency are at the top of any communicator’s checklist,” says one of The Network Journal’s Top 25 Most Influential Black Women in Business. “If you’re that face that’s representing an organization and talking to the media or talking to the public or talking to other stakeholders and you haven’t given them all of the correct information, it just lends for someone not trusting your word—and that’s all you’ve got.”
That philosophy guides the boutique consultancy she launched last year (the website announces, “It’s Time to Talk Blunt”) after a successful 25-year career in politics, business and entertainment which culminated in her “dream job” as senior vice president of corporate communications at the NFL
If being a straight shooter is foundational to success in the communications world, then developing good relationships is the next building block. “Relationships are critical—you never know where people are going to be in the future,” she says. But they have to be based on genuine interest in the other person, not just for what you hope you might be able to get out of them one day.
“What you see is what you get,” she says of herself. “I am the same Traci talking to Secretary [of State] Clinton that I am speaking with the bus driver at my daughter’s school. It’s about being authentic and making sure that you stay in touch because that’s the right thing to do.”
“Honesty and transparency are at the top of any communicator’s checklist.”
Asking questions
Blunt had to be a fast learner. One of her earliest communications roles was with the National Association of Attorneys General, handling two high-profile issues—an antitrust suit involving Microsoft and taking on the giant tobacco industry. After stints with two PR agencies and serving as Deputy Communications Director & Director of African American Media for the Clinton campaign, she went on to spend a decade working for BET Networks founder Bob Johnson. Starting as head of communications for his RLJ Companies investment initiative, she later served as president of the Urban Movie Network he founded.
Blunt offers some keys for anyone looking to be successful in the world of communications and public relations. First, really understand the business you’re in, and recognize that can take time—a full year. “A lot of people will get in on the first day and have all the answers,” she notes. “But if you don’t know the culture, if you don’t know what the brand is or what the person is about…”
Next, get to know people across the organization. “One size doesn’t fit all. If you’re working across different industries within the organization, get to know someone in marketing, get to know somebody in sponsorship. You have to understand everybody’s role in order to communicate that message.”
You also have to understand who the audience is, those the organization is trying to reach to achieve its goal. “Listen and learn as much as you can,” Blunt says. “Ask questions. Do not be afraid to ask what you don’t know.”
And finally, own up to a mistake if you make one. She cites a time when she accidentally sent some internal messages helping prepare Clinton for a debate to a reporter, whom she swiftly contacted to sort out the problem, calling on the relationship she had previously developed with the journalist. “Deal with it,” she says. “Bring it up. Figure out how to fix it and keep on going.”
Some people are afraid to deal with the media, but you have to, “even if there’s a hostile reporter,” Blunt says. “It may be they’ve had a bad experience, but you have to pick up the phone and call and at least find out where they’re coming from, what they’re looking for.
“If you don’t tell your story, or at least try to tell your story, they’re going to tell the story for you. And so it behooves people to pick up the phone and have that conversation.”
Speaking up
Blunt’s time at the NFL coincided with some challenging days for the league, navigating its response to heightened racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “I think I was there at the right time,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, I believe, and to be there during America’s social awakening, in the middle of a pandemic…
“I had a seat at the table. I got to have a voice at the table. There’s no point sitting at the table if you’re not going to use your voice.”
Blunt was able to speak into everything from two distinct perspectives: first being Black, then as a woman. “I was fortunate to be in the communications department at a time when words and messages that came out of the league were important,” she says.
“I was able to impart part of my Black experience. I used to say, ‘I can’t speak for every Black person, but I’m definitely more qualified to be talking about whatever this instance is than some of the folks sitting around the table.’
“It was exciting, in the sense that outside of the communications department, I was brought into other meetings where I necessarily would not have been,” where “I could steer a conversation or what our plan was to do something.”
When she arrived at the NFL, she knew some questioned a woman being in the role: “I had to remind people I’m not here just because I like football. I’m here because I know how to do the job.”
“There’s no point sitting at the table if you’re not going to use your voice.”
Then, when the racial storm broke, she leveraged her own unique experience. “I took the fact that I was a woman and made that an advantageous position, in that I was able to invoke empathy in getting people to look at what was happening from a different standpoint.”
Having worked her way up to the top of the communications world, what led her to leave her NFL desk and become an entrepreneur? Their nine-year-old daughter is Blunt’s priority with her husband. “After the pandemic and seeing how kids were responding and were affected by it, I knew I needed to be home and have a more flexible schedule,” she says, “but still take all of the skills that I had and put them to use through my firm.”
Blunt has taken her varied experiences and focused them in her new business on three competencies—strategic communications, strategy and public affairs—and in three arenas: sports, politics and entertainment. “Within that, there’s always an overlay of diversity,” she adds. “I’ve always been interested in ensuring that the Black voice—and now we look broader: Black, brown, sexual preference—is always included.”
At the heart of all she does is the attitude that “if there’s a problem, I want to try to fix it.” It’s something instilled in her by her parents, who raised her to believe that “if there’s opportunity and you can make a difference, it’s all about trying to make a difference… going in there and doing that.”
Traci Blunt: My WayMakers
My dad was the one that said, “Be curious and get out there and find out what all you can be.” My mom was the one that said, “If there’s a door of opportunity, my job in raising you as a young woman is to kick that door open and walk through it.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.