Communicating The Message
Julie Ralston, 51, was communications director for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) in the early 1990s when she found herself helping coordinate Vision 2020, a massive long-range community planning and visioning process that led to the formation of the Regional Leadership Institute and the Regional Atlanta Civic League.
“We had 23 public forums and a TV town hall meeting with three remote locations involving thousands of people,” says Ralston, smiling. “I remember going to the health food store asking them for whatever vitamin they had to give me more energy!”
Whatever they suggested must have worked because Ralston continues to serve as the quasi-governmental agency’s official spokesperson with the same soft-spoken enthusiasm she brought to the job 21 years ago, even though she could have taken her skills and done well, financially, in a corporate setting. “I want to do something that is meaningful to me, personally,” she says. “I don’t say that to be “gooshy’ but I just can’t get up in the morning and go promote widgets. I really wanted to use my communication skills to communicate effectively important things that will either motivate [people] or help them deal with problems that face the region.”
Ralston manages all internal and external communications for the ARC, the official planning agency for the 10-county Atlanta Region. She is point person for media relations, providing background to reporters, and also handles requests from elected officials, community organizations, developers and corporations seeking the most up-to-date data about the region.
She says the breadth of the job can be overwhelming but adds, “It’s so broad, I think that’s why I never get bored working here. You just have to say, “I’m only one person and I have to try to partner with others to get the word out on different issues.'”
Originally from Richland, in southwest Georgia’s Stewart County, Ralston attended the University of Georgia, studying journalism with an emphasis in public relations. She graduated in 1977 and began working at the Plains Monitor, a newspaper whose founding coincided with the election of native son President Jimmy Carter. “It was a great experience,” remembers Ralston. “I had a beer with the president’s brother and visited with Miss Lillian.”
From Plains and newspapering, Ralston made the move to Atlanta and nonprofits, joining the American Cancer Society (ACS)/Georgia Division as communications director in 1978. She moved to the Arthritis Foundation National Headquarters and worked as manager of communications services from 1982 until 1985, when she joined the ARC.
Her interest was piqued when she read about the ARC in the newspaper. “I thought it sounded fascinating; to be part of the organization looking into the crystal ball and determining what’s going to be happening in our city and region,” says Ralston, who admits she didn’t have a clue what she was in for but found her niche. “You work on so many compelling issues that really mean something to people’s everyday lives. Do we have enough water? Is our water clean? Is our air quality going to improve in the future and how are we going to do that? What kinds of transportation options do people prefer, what can we afford, what’s feasible? It’s demanding as far as detail and dealing with so many different constituencies and their interests, but it also feeds your sense of curiosity.”
Drawing the community into the process poses another challenge. “We work with planners who can be very technical,” Ralston says. “We take a lot of technical information, determine what it’s saying and what points will matter to my neighbors down the street. We try to draw from the public what they’d like to see, how they’d like to see the region develop and what are they willing to do to help with a given issue.”
As issues morph, Ralston looks for other ways to communicate to more people, including developing a television show to disseminate information. “The Shape of Things to Come,” can be seen on all city and county cable stations, Comcast, WPBA-30 and on the ARC Web site.
“We’ve done four shows so far, livable communities, aging, air quality, regional overview,” Ralston says. “It’s just another way to communicate the message.”