A candid conversation on the grit it takes to pursue a professional passion to the fullest, and how Whitney’s big-named female mentors have molded her into the woman and professional she is today.
Whitney Kuhn (now Lawson) was a few years older than me in school. She was a sassy, blonde Texas bombshell in my 15 year-old eyes. Little did I know what a femme force of nature she would turn out to be, or that she would come back into my life several years after high school, offering guidance and mentorship as I was coming up through the ranks studying journalism in undergrad.
We lost touch for a bit when my professional course took a different turn than what I had originally envisioned (…like the fact that I never quite made it to New York to be in TV news), and we’ve recently reconnected again after her decade working between Washington D.C., New York City and now Houston at major TV networks and film PR firms. Whitney is back in Texas and we talk frequently. I’m lucky to call her a friend and mentor.
I have been wanting to feature Whitney in this series for about six months, so I’m thrilled to finally be telling her story. I knew she was high-achieving and a go-getter, but this interview has me completely inspired to over-achieve and push myself past my limits in this new year. Whitney is grit and she’s grace, and I am confident that you will be majorly motivated to chase your biggest career dreams after getting to know her better in this candid, larger-than-life profile.
What was your childhood like, and how did it influence your path to working in the TV & film industry?
My childhood was, insert cliché response, practically perfect. I was raised in San Antonio, Texas by two incredible parents who instilled in me from a very young age that hard work wasn’t a choice, it was a way of life. I watched my father work tirelessly for decades at Norton Rose Fulbright as a municipal bond attorney and sat in awe as my mother juggled a teaching career and night school at University of Texas at San Antonio. My parents taught me I could be successful at any career that I chose as long as I put my heart and soul into it. I’m not sure if my upbringing necessarily yielded itself to the television and film industry; however, having the work ethic and multi-tasking mentality both of my parents have, I was definitely hard-wired to work in a capacity where I was constantly moving and challenging myself professionally.
What was the dream career you envisioned for yourself when you were at Ole Miss?
Let’s just say, I really enjoyed myself the first two years at Ole Miss. Perhaps I had a little too much fun (if that’s possible.) My junior and senior year were a tad more productive. I have always loved writing – whether it be hard news, features, poetry, or my personal favorite, creative writing. I knew I wanted to obtain a position where I could put pen to paper daily and with that, I would be happy. I wrote for our school newspaper (The Daily Mississippian), juggled two internships: one at a local magazine (Y’all, The Magazine For Southern People) and the other in corporate communications at FedEx Corporation at their headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, while taking 18-21 hours each semester. I knew career happiness and success would come via writing and communications.
At what point were you introduced to the thought of working as a publicist?
My junior year at Ole Miss. I had a professor, Robin Street, whom I credit with sending me down the PR path. She was a very petite woman, but definitely someone you didn’t want to cross. She always pushed me. Sometimes to the point where I thought I couldn’t take anymore, but she encouraged me to always go the extra mile. From a packed school schedule, to internships, to writing for the paper—she was my biggest champion. I’m not sure she would even remember me, but she, along with Mr. Laird Loomis at Saint Mary’s Hall (my high school in San Antonio), made me fall even more in love with writing and how to hone in on the true craft that it is. My first real “go” in PR was at FedEx where I worked within their corporate communications department alongside an NYC-based PR team from Ketchum. I’ll never forget how much they hustled. I was hooked from that point forward.
As a Texas girl, what was it like to live in New York City and go to work every day at CBS News?
Simultaneously invigorating and exhausting. There’s something about living/working in the Big Apple that you can’t appropriately articulate unless you’ve done it. For my first two years, I woke up at 3:30am so I could arrive at CBS News by 5:30am in order to prepare for that morning’s broadcast. My day generally concluded around 5/6pm, dependent upon the news cycle. Another fun perk was the abundance of politicians, celebrities, athletes, authors, thought leaders, etc. who were constantly in the building. One of my first weeks working, and you’ll have to recall my journalism background for this, but I saw Lesley Stahl in the cafeteria and had to pinch myself. My last three years in NYC, the days were more Dolly Parton 9 to 5 while at Sunshine Sachs; however, those timelines were thrown out the window at film festivals, premiere weeks, etc. In PR, particularly in media, I love that no two days are the same. You’re able to wear a variety of hats, meet people from all over the world, and help spread a positive message.
What did you learn working for some of the biggest names/shows in media (ex: Charlie Rose, Gayle King, 48 Hours, CBS This Morning, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, PBS NewsHour, PBS Finding Your Roots, etc.), and how did those years shape you?
Looking back, I’m humbled and privileged to have worked alongside such noteworthy individuals. Without a doubt, being on-air for several hours a day is one of the most grueling jobs you can have in media. I can’t explain how intelligent, quick-witted, and well-versed someone needs to be in order to have the positions those people do. I watched George Stephanopoulos for years, and still to this day, seamlessly pivot from a hard news piece to a celebrity or cooking segment. The same is equally true for Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, and the dozens of people on set, in the control room, or newsroom, who make it happen on a daily basis without a hitch. The expression “it takes a village” always comes to mind when thinking about my tenure in broadcast. All of the people I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work with have truly had a lasting impact on me – both professionally and personally.
Describe a typical workday in Washington D.C. / New York City. What was your favorite set to work on and why?
This question is hard to answer, mainly because the news cycle, especially within the current White House administration, is non-stop. I feel for current members of the media as there is no shortage of information. A typical work day in D.C. centered on (going to slap you with some breaking news here) politics whereas New York City was a national morning show, so it was more versatile. From the day’s headlines, to technology, to the Dow, to pop culture – we covered all the bases. Although the CBS This Morning set was state of the art and brand new, I’d have to say my favorite place to film was at The Newseum in Washington, D.C. We shot This Week with George Stephanopoulos there and it’s easily my favorite museum of all time. Not to mention, the set overlooked the United States Capitol as it’s a straight shot down Pennsylvania Avenue. Watching the sunrise anywhere is pretty magical, but over the nation’s capital is something that I’ll always cherish.
How did you end up transitioning from television publicity to film publicity?
While at CBS News I had a few reporter friends who knew of a position at a heavy-hitting and well respected PR firm, Sunshine Sachs. Taking their advice, I applied, and received an offer the following week. After a month at Sunshine Sachs I was off to Sundance Film Festival with an HBO documentary on my plate. A lot of people in media, particularly public relations, can be catty and senior staff can often not want to provide a “leg up” or encouragement for those beneath them. I found Sunshine to be one of the best places to work and advance your career within the industry. From interns, to account executives, to senior account directors – everyone is constantly encouraged by the vice presidents and four partners to seek out things that truly matter to them.
In an industry that can be so cutthroat and downright malicious, it was wonderful to be surrounded by likeminded individuals who, at their core, wanted to do good in the world. Almost every project I worked on in my 3.5+ year stint at the firm was something I genuinely cared about. I quickly found a passion in documentary film, and I’m so grateful I was given all of those opportunities to work on countless movies that truly made an impact (CNN’s Blackfish, HBO’s All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, Netflix’s Virunga, etc.)
Now that you are married and living in Houston, what has been a challenge you have faced adjusting to a new city, and how are you working to overcome it?
Whoever said the first year of marriage is the toughest is a genius. I thought, naïvely, that if my husband and I could exist in a tiny New York City apartment for years prior to marriage, we could handle anything. Boy, was I wrong. Marriage is a huge adjustment in and of itself. Add in switching jobs, moving cities and states, purchasing a home…it’s basically like taking that holiday snow globe still residing on your mantel and shaking it until you get carpal tunnel. The first year was rough, but thank you little baby Jesus for shepherding us to the wonderful place we are currently in, along with assistance from family, friends, and a damn good therapist ;).
I moved from NYC to Houston in June of 2016, was married in October of 2016, and I started working at Allied Integrated Marketing in August of 2017. In the year off, I somewhat lost myself. I’ve never not worked, so having that “me” time was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing as I was able to spend a lot of time in San Antonio fine-tuning our wedding and additionally in Houston getting our new house to be a home, but a curse in the fact that I was no longer challenging myself professionally. There’s definitely something to be said for getting up, getting dressed, coming into an office everyday with co-workers, and bringing home a paycheck. For me, the move to Houston posed a lot of “firsts” and it came down to finding balance.
What are you most excited about in your new position with Allied Integrated Marketing?
I’ve been at Allied Integrated Marketing for six months in their Houston office and I absolutely adore my job. It’s a large PR/marketing agency that has 22 offices worldwide. Houston and Dallas work in conjunction to form ‘Team Texas’ and it’s truly such a fun group of people. We all have very different backgrounds, but that’s one of the things I love the most. The environment is extraordinarily creative and diverse. Some of the things that I’ve enjoyed thus far are getting to know Houston press members, devising fun/out of the box publicity and promotions campaigns, and having a front row seat to major studio films weeks/months ahead of time. As a movie buff, that’s a big perk. Allied represents some of the biggest names in the industry, ranging from 20th Century FOX, IFC, and Sony Pictures Classics, to Open Road, A24, and Netflix.
How much have female mentors and friends helped you grow in your career, and what has your relationship with them done for you as both a woman and a professional?
I come from a long line of strong-willed women. Both my grandmothers were incredibly hardworking, my mother has taught inner city elementary school for over two decades in S.A.I.S.D. and my mother-in-law is a small business owner. Given the career path I’ve chosen and how difficult it can be, I’ve been blessed to have had such positive family, friends, and mentors to help usher me along the way. I would be remiss if I did not mention my mentor, Susan Zirinsky, or as everyone in the business knows her, “Z” at CBS News. She has pushed gender lines for decades proving to be one of the best (or the best, in my opinion) producers in the history of television. Z was not only my boss while I worked for her show, 48 Hours, she was a confidant and amazing life coach. She always took the time to meet with me, discuss various career and life choices, and returns every email she receives. I honestly don’t know when that woman sleeps. Her work ethic is so well-known, there was a movie made in the late 80’s about her entitled Broadcast News. She’s a total force to be reckoned with and a consummate professional. Watching her in a control room executive producing a special report for the news or sitting in editing meetings before the weekly broadcast, seeing how her mind works will forever leave me in awe.
My other mentor, and definitely another force to be reckoned with, is Bette Midler. I was lucky enough to serve as her publicist while at Sunshine Sachs and she is absolutely wonderful. Bette has more talent, intellect, and sass in her pinky finger than most will acquire over a lifetime. Not to mention, her philanthropic endeavors when it comes to living green and giving back to struggling youth pursuing the arts are unmatched. Both of these fantastic women coached, mentored, and cajoled me to set a high bar professionally and to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I will forever cherish their advice as I strive to make them proud of me.
If you could have lunch with any woman in the world, (living or deceased) who would it be and why?
Although I’ve met her twice, I would love to sit down with Gloria Steinem. In a year full of monumental progress with movements such as the #womensmarch, #metoo, and #timesup, I think picking her brain would be absolutely enlightening. For decades women around the world have looked to her as the face of feminism, and to have the chance to speak with her, at length, about past, present, and future ideas would be remarkable. To quote Oprah Winfrey, “a new day is on the horizon” and I, for one, am very much looking forward to what 2018 has in store.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.