[Podcast] Reputation Matters: Episode 3 | Bernadette Davis

December 20, 2023
Bernadette Davis: Helping Make Disney Communications Magic

What’s it like to work behind the scenes at “The Happiest Place on Earth”?  Bernadette Davis, founder and chief strategist of Dallas-based Bernadette Davis Communications, shares her experience as a communications professional at Disney and reveals how that experience helped her tap into the secrets of smart and strategic employee communications. Also in this episode, a thought-provoking conversation about the critical roles of diversity, equity and inclusion in modern business practices.

Bernadette Adams Davis, APR is a corporate communications consultant whose career spans more than 20 years in public affairs, communications and media. She founded her agency in 2014 to provide counsel in the areas of executive and internal communications, media relations, issues management and crisis communications. Her team has worked with clients in the entertainment, technology, real estate and senior living industries. Before relocating to Dallas-Fort Worth in 2014, she was a member of the Public Affairs division at Walt Disney World Resort and held roles in internal communications, executive communications, editorial and media relations. Her experience includes communications roles at the Florida A&M University College of Law, Cox Enterprises, an advertising agency and newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina. Bernadette holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Central Florida. She has completed a certificate in social media and digital communication from SMU. Image



Crayton: Welcome to “Reputation Matters.” I’m Crayton Webb. Our guest today has spent over two decades in public affairs, public relations, communications and media. She worked for Disney for over eight years before she started. Bernadette Davis, Communications in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. She is an icon in all things reputation. Bernadette, thank you for joining us here today.So I can’t think of a brand that is more iconic, more synonymous with image or pristine reputation, even in good times and bad. What did you do for Disney?

Bernadette: Well, first of all, Crayton, thank you for having me.

Crayton: Thanks for coming.

Bernadette: When I was at Walt Disney World in Orlando, I actually started there on the internal communications team. I had a great friend who worked on that team and asked me if I’d be interested in joining the team, and I said yes.

Crayton: So when you say internal communications, employees-

Bernadette: So employee communications.

Crayton: Cast members, as they say.

Bernadette: Cast members there, Walt Disney World. It’s a very large cast population there, and so employee communications is so important. One of the lessons that I learned while I was there is everyone has a role in the show, and if you prioritize employees and communicating to them, it helps them deliver better on their role in the show. So even if you don’t see guests day to day, you’re playing a role in their experience, which means you’re playing a role in the business and influencing people to come back to Walt Disney World. So taking care of employees is very much a part of what we were supporting as part of the internal communications team.

Crayton: Well, and lesson number one for anybody who’s got an employee base needs to talk with them. You may not be in a show like a Disney show or a park, but everybody has a part to play.

Bernadette: Exactly.

Crayton: So communicating with your employees is important. What did you do after that?

Bernadette: After that, I ended up supporting the executive communications team. I worked on the editorial team. So there’s a newsletter, a print newsletter that’s a great newsletter done at Walt Disney World called Eyes and Ears. So I worked on that for a time. So I did a number of different roles and I even had an opportunity to work in operations, so supporting one of the four theme parks there. And so I had a lot of fun doing that. And I will say communications is a part of the business, and I think that’s a key lesson that I learned, that was confirmed for me there, that communications contributes to the business. So doing communications for all those different functions really helped me learn and grow my skills.

Crayton: So oftentimes, and perhaps you have the same experience, you meet colleagues or peers or even friends, clients who work for these amazing brands that have good times and bad, but you’re disappointed when you start hearing about the inside scoop because it’s almost like the cobbler’s kid has no shoes and it’s not all that it seems. What was it like working for Disney?

Bernadette: For me, one of the best things about working for Disney is to see a world-class operation up close. So I still think of it as a world-class operation. So even being there and on the ground and seeing things, that’s still how I think about it. So to see the amazing things that that team does on the ground with events, and communicating to stakeholders in the community, I really learned a lot. And it’s really cross-platform communication, so as in even internal communications, but all the communicators there are doing things in print, digital, video, and you really have to grow your skillset to be able to do that. So I still have great memories there.

Crayton: So in your roles, what is it that Disney has done in your opinion that you’ve seen both as a fan as well as an employee that has allowed them to protect its image for so long?

Bernadette: From my personal perspective, I think a lot of it is employee communication. What I was impressed by, I would say I was a Disney fan as many people are before I went to work there, but I wasn’t a super fan. I wasn’t a person who knew Disney trivia, but you meet so many employees who are super fans and who really love the brand, and your employees can often be your very best ambassadors in the marketplace. And that’s true for any company. If your employees love it and you have a large employee base, the company has to benefit from that because employees go to the grocery store, they go to church, they have children in school, so they talk about where they work, and there’s a difference in my memory and my opinion of the way Disney cast members talk about it in such a positive way. And so I think that is one of the things that they do so well to protect the reputation.

Crayton: Yeah, it’s kind of a litmus test, isn’t it? Right. It’s that first view and if the employees are happy, obviously it’s a sign that the emperor does indeed have clothes.

Bernadette: Have clothes.

Crayton: So is there anything now that you have your own business that you learned from Disney, that you pass on to your clients, that as far as, “Okay, look, this is what Disney did to protect and enhance its reputation no matter what, good times or bad, here’s the lesson?” Or is it Disney-specific?

Bernadette: Some of it is Disney-specific, but not all of it. I would say one of the key 30 lessons that I use a lot is to start a conversation with clients and even with my team when we’re working on a project, was talking about audiences. A lot of communications, less so now, but is focused on we’re reaching out to the media or the general public. Break that down into who your audiences really are. It’s your employees, it’s community organizations, it’s your local elected officials or national elected officials. It’s people who buy the product. It’s people who don’t buy the product but see it and have an opinion about it.

So when you break that down, it helps you develop better messaging because you aren’t just developing for a generic listener. You’re thinking about what do those listeners really care about and what part of this message do we need to emphasize with this particular audience?

Crayton: Everybody wants a little inside baseball. Is there anything you can tell us about working at Disney that would surprise people?

Bernadette: I don’t know that this would necessarily surprise people, but one of my 30 favorite things is being able to work with my team when I was supporting Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You work so hard and you can with your team, have moments where you really celebrate and recognize them. And the way you recognize them is we might go in and have lunch inside the park. There are just things you can do even as a leader of teams that will be harder to do somewhere else. My team at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we would have Cupcake Fridays. They had specialty cupcakes from the bakery there themed, and so we would decide, “This is cupcake Friday, we’re going to try the new cupcake.” And having a cupcake strategy is just not something you’re going to have everywhere.

Crayton: Yeah, but not a bad idea.

Bernadette: Not bad at all.

Crayton: So as I understand it, you did some work when you were at Disney around communications around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is that correct?

Bernadette: Correct.

Crayton: Yeah. Tell us what you can, what was that like at that time? We say DEI now and everybody knows what we’re talking about, but that may not have been the case when you started, or am I wrong?

Bernadette: I think there are a lot of people who have learned more about it in the last three years since 2020, but there were a lot of professionals who were already touching DE&I. And so when I was at Disney, I had a number in my last role there on the external comms team, and external communications team, I had several internal clients, and two of my internal clients were the diversity, equity, and inclusion team and the supplier diversity team, which actually turned out to be a learning that is still beneficial to me today because I learned so much about those two functions, diversity, equity, inclusion, and supplier diversity, that has really helped me be a stronger professional and grow my business.

Working with those teams, I saw how companies can work on workforce representation, how they can endeavor to spend more money with diverse-owned small businesses, and to see how that worked, why certification of those diverse businesses matters. I think for people at Walt Disney World, Disney had been doing that work for a long time, so it was not as new to them as it was for a lot of companies in 2020.

Crayton: As part of Bernadette Davis Communications, DE&I communications and initiatives is a big part of what you do in advising your clients. Let’s back up a second and just set the table for us. Why is DE&I communications as not even a movement, but as an initiative, important in this day and age?

Bernadette: So that’s a great question. So as I think about it, even a few years ago, before 2020, if you go back and look at some of the reputation crises that companies went through, I started looking at those really from my own edification, how are they managing this crisis? But many of them had a foundation that was based on inclusion. So an employee said something to a customer and this became something viral that was on video or a policy change, and employees were looking at that, but you would look and they would have some factor related to inclusion, of race, of gender, of sexual orientation. And the company is then thrown into a reputation crisis, even a social media crisis. And I thought this is something that communicators need to really understand because these reputation crises are becoming communications crises that they need to respond to, and it’s affecting the company at a high level.

So I think diversity and inclusion is important because we should do the right thing. It is also a business imperative in terms of if your employees are not feeling that they have an inclusive environment, if you are not spending more widely with a broader range of businesses, you’re putting your company’s reputation at risk.

Crayton: Right. So it’s not even about increasing market share. It’s also about image protection, reputation protection, but also doing the right thing so that you have diverse voices at the table, different perspectives.

Bernadette: Absolutely.

Crayton: You mentioned the last three years, and of course it hearkens back to the murder of George Floyd from a timeline perspective, when it seems like from a mainstream perspective, that may be a poor choice of words, but where you see people, more people than ever talking about DE&I beyond the Disneys. And maybe you’ve already answered this, but you’ve talked about in some of your blogs and other writing inclusive language. Why is this so much more important now or has it always been important?

Bernadette: I think it’s always been important. One thing that makes it feel more important now is I think language is evolving much more quickly. Our language and how we referred to communities and to people has changed over time, but now things are moving more quickly. So it’s not a 20-year time span when a term changes. It may change within six months, a year, two years. For communications professionals, when we think about things like the Associated Press Stylebook. So we use that a lot and we’re used to seeing terms change in that stylebook and then altering our style to pick up the latest from AP style or if you’re using Chicago. So we can do that with terms that refer to diverse communities, and I really believe it’s a matter of respect. You are not always going to get it right, but the effort matters a lot.

The other thing communications professionals can do is to ask that community or the actual audience that they’re speaking to, “What is your preferred term? How would you like for us to refer to this aspect of culture?” It’s a sign of respect to do that. And again, with the style guide example, we make those changes all the time in communication so we can keep up with the other 30 types of style as well.

Crayton: Well, and I think that’s such solid sage advice because you also want to get advice. So if you’re doing something that you think is good from a reputation perspective, you don’t inadvertently step on toes or shoot yourself in the foot. We told a story recently of the National Football League that for Hispanic Heritage Month put a foreign language, a squiggly line over the N in NFL as a signal of support to the Hispanic community. But of course, in Spanish, National is foreign language, and it’s not spelled with an foreign language.

Bernadette: Right.

Crayton: Right? So it caused a huge backlash had they only just asked someone or the right people. So whether it’s that or something else, what’s the number one challenge clients come to you with or that you are seeing your clients deal with when it comes to DE&I comms?

Bernadette: I think probably the number one challenge is internal buy-in. They want to be able to make sure that their employees and leaders buy into the work that they’re doing. And it’s a question of how widely can they tell the story. How are they telling the story so that people get behind this idea and support it. And sometimes it’s just people don’t know what the company is doing, and sometimes people know what the company is doing and don’t think that they’re doing enough. So it’s communicating, figuring out the right way to tell that story, repeatable messages that work with the internal audience. There’s also a consumer-facing aspect, but again, I really believe if you have your internal audience on board, that helps you so much externally.

Crayton: Yeah, myriad stories every single day, almost right now, of a national brand that seems to have backlash from one audience or another, whether it’s Pride Month, you name it. I won’t ask you to get into the politics of the why, but as you are advising clients, what’s the number one piece of advice you find yourself giving over and over again?

Bernadette: Align with your company values. So your DE&I strategy should already be aligned with the company’s values, and it should be clear to employees. If you have, for instance, “Here are our five company values,” you should be able to talk about why DE&I matters to the company using those values. And if you tie it to the values, you don’t always have to come up with a new message. You can say, “We value and respect all communities because we have value and respect as a part of our company values.”

Crayton: And that was already there.

Bernadette: Right. That was already there, and stick to it. Decide that you’re going to stick to it. If you believe in it, stick to it. And sometimes that’s going to be very difficult. That’s going to mean tough conversations, tough video, but stick to it because employees and consumers are watching. And someone told me when I worked in newspapers, those letters to the editor, there’s a squeaky wheel feel to them. The people who write are the most riled up, but they’re not necessarily most of the people. And I think this is true with some of the things we’re seeing around DE&I. Many people are being quiet and watching, but they will remember.

Crayton: Yeah. And it’s interesting when you see brands apologize for causing offense, but you’re asking yourself, “Okay, wait a minute, are you apologizing for taking a stand around inclusivity?” Because the apology itself could backlash or could backfire as well.

Bernadette: Right. Who are you apologizing to? What are you apologizing for? Did you not believe it? And also, was it so thin that one video, one social media rant made you say, “Oh, nevermind. That’s fine. We won’t do that anymore.”

Crayton: Yeah. Just to continue the conversation, I think we give a lot of advice around be prepared, right?

Bernadette: Yes.

Crayton: It’s great that you’re being proactive and maybe even that you’ve launched a major marketing campaign, but don’t do it. And this would be anything without being prepared for someone being upset at some level at some time, and you need to have an answer going in. I’m shocked at these brands that seem so surprised. It’s almost like they had no idea it was coming. It’s like, really?

Bernadette: Exactly. That’s why it matters who’s in the room? Someone needs to be in the room and say, “This is great. Just so you’re aware, 10% of people think that this is over the top, too far, or we should have a message prepared or we should be prepared because we’re seeing backlash around many things. We have to prepare our locations, our offices to respond to this.” And sometimes that preparation just means, “Do we need additional security? Do we need to prepare the team? This launches on May th, please be ready for this.”

Crayton: Yeah, don’t do it in a vacuum.

Bernadette: Exactly.

Crayton: Okay. When it comes to reputation and personal branding, let’s talk about you for a little bit. So in an interview last year with PR Daily, you mentioned making sure that you are seen as a challenge you face throughout your career. You said, “It’s easy to be overlooked if you have your head down working all the time.” Anyone with a work ethic would say, “Do the work, keep your pencil sharp, keep your head down, and you’ll be noticed. And good things will happen to good people.”

Bernadette: Yes.

Crayton: Yes?

Bernadette: And that is really what I thought as well, and I think that’s true. You should work hard. You should keep that work ethic, but the challenge is you can be missed. If you are not coming back and saying, “Here are my results, here’s what our team is doing.” Because sometimes it’s you as an individual, but sometimes it’s your team and you need to make sure and represent your team’s results to leadership so that they are aware of what your team is doing. People love to get the work done, love for things to be done smoothly, but it’s easy to forget who did it, what was involved in it. And I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt like, “Oh, we should…” Seeing someone do it very well, “We should be doing that because they had an entire presentation about how they got that project done, and they’re going to get more recognition, kudos and opportunities.” And we may have done the project, but we didn’t do a presentation about, “Here’s the great projects that we did.”

Crayton: Okay. So motives matter and perceptions matter.

Bernadette: Yes.

Crayton: How do you promote yourself without being a self-promoter?

Bernadette: I’m still working on that, but it’s finding that middle ground between saying nothing and being too boastful. I would say, and you could ask my team because they push me a lot, I’ve hired a team that pushes me to do more, talking about the work that we do. I still struggle with it. I think it’s figuring out what is the right way for you to do that? I like to promote our work, but I also like to highlight the work of other people who I think are very great business people, great communicators, and that’s putting our name out there as well. Is that fine… Not a fine line, but finding the middle ground between doing your work, promoting others, highlighting others, and promoting yourself. And then it doesn’t feel as boastful in my opinion, because people will see, “Well, you also are doing things for other people.”

Crayton: Yeah. I say as a leader, surround yourself with outstanding people. Let them shine and push them forward and they’ll make you look good. But if you’re early on in your career, you’ve got to tell your own story because no one else is going to do it.

Bernadette: Exactly.

Crayton: So it’s finding that middle ground. So as a small business owner, as a consultant, what do you do to enhance and bolster your own reputation and the reputation of your firm?

Bernadette: Well, I’m doing more writing, so doing bylined articles to put my perspective out there, so that helps. I like interviewing great folks who have expertise that I’d like to highlight. Even having the right questions is a way of showing your own expertise. So that’s a good in for me. We’ve started doing some presentations about our work. We presented to PRSA’s Icon Conference last year. So finding ways to show expertise that are really comfortable for me, because that’s the other thing communicators have to remember. Not everyone has the same comfort level with every platform.

Crayton: Right.

Bernadette: Find your lane and then stick with that lane. And then sometimes it’s having great team members and putting them forward.

Crayton: Fantastic. Okay, lightning round. Are you ready?

Bernadette: I’ll try.

Crayton: Okay. Okay. Well, a few of these are just for you.

Bernadette: Okay.

Crayton: Because they have to be. All right. Favorite Disney Park?

Bernadette: You’re going to make me choose?

Crayton: I am.

Bernadette: I would say Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Crayton: Favorite Disney ride?

Bernadette: Favorite Disney ride? Pirates of the Caribbean, even though that’s not in Hollywood Studios.

Crayton: Okay. Disneyland or Disney World version of Pirates? There’s a difference.

Bernadette: Disney World.

Crayton: Okay. What’s your favorite Disney movie?

Bernadette: Marvel Studios, Black Panther.

Crayton: Favorite Disney character?

Bernadette: Princess Tiana.

Crayton: What was your favorite subject in school?

Bernadette: English Literature. I’m a very bookish person.

Crayton: What did you major in in college?

Bernadette: I have two degrees in literature.

Crayton: Wow. Favorite holiday?

Bernadette: Favorite holiday? Thanksgiving.

Crayton: All right. Favorite hobby?

Bernadette: Favorite hobby is probably reading or watching films.

Crayton: Favorite guilty pleasure?

Bernadette: Favorite guilty pleasure, desserts.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite brand?

Bernadette: My favorite brand, I’ll say my favorite brand other than Disney is Target.

Crayton: Favorite movie? We said Favorite Disney movie. So this widens the scope a little bit.

Bernadette: Favorite movie, Love and Basketball.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite day of the week?

Bernadette: Oh, definitely Saturday.

Crayton: Why?

Bernadette: I love quiet Saturday mornings. I love having some fun things to do and sometimes just binging on a Saturday morning, but Saturday’s right there in the middle of the weekend. You don’t have to go to work the next day and you have some fun time.

Crayton: What’s your hidden talent?

Bernadette: My hidden talent?

Crayton: Or superpower?

Bernadette: My superpower is planning.

Crayton: If you could pick one person alive or dead that you could meet for dinner, who would it be?

Bernadette: One person I could meet for dinner, James Baldwin.

Crayton: Why?

Bernadette: When I was in high school, I read some of his novels and I was really struck by them and I actually had a dream, a goal that I would one day meet this author. I just felt he really captured the American experience and was really challenging me to think differently about America. And I really wanted to meet him and I was inspired that he had moved to France and was living in France. I had always wanted to live in France and had been preparing for that, and so I would love just a dinner with James Baldwin.

Crayton: Fantastic. Bernadette Davis, you are clearly an expert on all reputation matters. Thank you for joining us. Appreciate you being here.

Bernadette: Thank you you for having me, Crayton. It’s great to talk to you.

Crayton: Thanks so much. We’ll see you next time.