With a dynamic blend of creativity, passion and strategic thinking, Ashley Rea has made her mark as a public relations leader in the poultry industry. With Ashley at the helm as Senior Manager of Communication at Wayne-Sanderson Farms, work never feels like work but a thrilling adventure full of possibilities. Join me in getting to know Ashley Rea, a true rockstar in every sense of the word.
We caught up with Ashley and talked about what truly sets her apart.
Below are the highlights of the interview:
Tell us about yourself, highlighting your professional tenure and signiﬁcant achievements in the niche.
I am the senior manager of communication at Wayne- Sanderson Farms, a vertically integrated poultry company with a diverse portfolio of products. As the third largest poultry producer in the nation, Wayne-Sanderson Farms employs more than 26,000 employees in operations spanning seven states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.
As an editor and writer, the public relations campaigns I have been a pivotal contributor to have earned over 120 public relations and advertising awards across the local, state, regional and international levels of competition, including awards bestowed by the Public Relations Association of Mississippi, Southern Public Relations Federation, American Advertising Federation of Jackson, Mississippi, American Advertising Federation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Hermes International Creative Awards. This year, I was recognized by the Mississippi Business Journal’s 2023 Top 40 Under 40 list, joining 39 other accomplished professionals recognized within the state.
In 2022, I was named a Top Woman in Public Relations by PRNEWS and the William E. “Bud” Kirkpatrick Practitioner of the Year by the Pine Belt chapter of the Public Relations Association of Mississippi. Two years prior, I was also named Copywriter of the Year by the American Advertising Federation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Aside from my duties as an editor and writer, I am responsible for identifying and executing strategies related to the company’s approach to media relations, corporate communication and advertising. I work closely with media organizations to further the long-term interests of Wayne- Sanderson Farms and the poultry industry. In 2018, I was named a recipient of the International Production and Processing Expo’s 30 Under 30 award, which is awarded to the next generation of young professionals who work for companies directly involved in the production and processing of poultry and other meat or the production of animal and poultry feed.
In addition to spearheading the company’s communication efforts, I ensure adequate internal communication is maintained amongst the company’s more than 26,000 employees spanning 23 processing facilities in seven states. I began my career with Wayne-Sanderson Farms, formerly known as Sanderson Farms, in 2013 as a summer intern before being hired full-time as a communications trainee, a position I held until being promoted to communication manager in 2015, manager of communication in 2017 and senior manager of communication in 2023.
Enlighten our readers about your source of inspiration to venture into the industry.
Growing up on a horse farm, I was always engrossed in the agricultural industry, with my love for horses beginning at a very young age, even before I could walk. When I was a baby, my Dad hung my bassinet on a nail in the barn while he ﬁnished building it; therefore, you can reasonably say I was “raised in a barn.” I am fascinated by agriculture’s impact on our society, from feeding the world to producing essential products that many take for granted daily.
As a young public relations professional, I knew I wanted to work in the agricultural industry because I wanted to help tell the stories of the unsung heroes, our farmers and food producers, and to celebrate how their contributions make it possible for people all around the world to have a safe, nutritious and aﬀordable food supply. Being a natural-born communicator who loved to speak, write and organize presentations, the public relations profession essentially chose me. I knew right away that public relations and communication was the right path for my career. I have not looked back since, even after over a decade of working in the agriculture and public relations industries.
Tell us more about your company and its mission and vision; how does it thrive towards enabling advancements in the dynamic business arena?
At Wayne-Sanderson Farms, our vision is to be the amazing poultry company. By being a partner of choice for our coworkers, farmers, customers and communities, we produce chicken that makes an amazing difference in the lives of all that encounter it, whether it be the employee who depends on their job as one of the largest employers in their rural community or the farmer who can spend time with his family daily while working on the farm and providing for their future by growing a sustainable and affordable food crop.
As the third largest poultry producer in the nation, our company thrives by embracing continuous improvement such as identifying and implementing best practices, measuring opportunities and adopting a process-focused culture. As a company, we have a sense of urgency and passion for what we do.
This allows us to engage employees creatively, recognize their success and build trust through open and honest communication. The latter aligns with my values and vision for public relations and communication for any organization or company, regardless of their size, industry or unique business proposition.
Enlighten us on how you have impacted the niche through your expertise in the market.
Good communicators and public relations professionals understand that only authentic, consistent and transparent communication with an organization’s various publics will make a meaningful impact on the success of your organization or the mitigation of potential risks that could negatively impact the organization. Therefore, generic, vague and guarded messaging rarely is successful and is quickly recognized for exactly what it is in this modern era of citizen journalism and discerning consumers.
By implementing a personalized, honest and unique communications strategy, I can ensure my organization stands out amongst the remainder of the market simply because we take the time to show how and why we care about those we communicate with, regardless of the circumstances. Technology, best practices and public relations strategies constantly evolve with speciﬁc niches and markets, but strong relationships, compelling stories and candid communication rarely go out of style.
What fundamentals do you implement to drive betterment within your organization’s work culture?
As a communicator in the poultry industry, our biggest challenge is engaging a workforce that is constantly changing, spread across a signiﬁcant geographic footprint and unconnected from typical workplace communication channels such as email and intranet accessed primarily by employees working in an office environment. Much of our workforce does not have regular access to a phone, computer or email, so we must be strategic and creative with internal communications to ensure our employees are informed and engaged in their roles and with the organization.
With this goal in mind, internal communications strategies that drive improvements to work culture include pairing essential human resources functions such as pay statement access, beneﬁts elections and vacation requests with company communications to ensure employees adopt the speciﬁc communication channel and are regularly engaged with that channel.
If employees have the opportunity to be exposed to internal communication that they normally wouldn’t be engaged with had it not been delivered through a channel that they regularly trust for essential information such as pay and beneﬁts, the company leverages an existing and engaged audience that will ultimately recognize the value of strategic and engaging company communication because it helps them be more successful and knowledgeable in their roles at work.
Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.
The work culture that drives Wayne-Sanderson Farms is an individual commitment to our common goal of making chicken amazing by empowering each employee to identify and execute what being amazing means to them.
Whether volunteering their free time at a local community organization or helping to identify a new recycling strategy for breakroom food waste, being amazing starts with every one of our more than 26,000 employees, enabling our company to make an amazing collective difference for our customers, consumers and communities. Our company believes that individual commitment to a common goal generates consistent results that make a lasting impact over time on an organization and the people that depend on it for continued success.
Undeniably, technology is playing a signiﬁcant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?
As communications and public relations professionals, technology is key to success and ensuring communication solutions are resourceful and engaging to all impacted audiences. For example, even the most inspiring and engaging communications will fail if they are not delivered in the audience’s preferred format for delivery, and ineffective technology can even render the communications solution useless as the message never actually reaches its intended recipient.
Utilizing artiﬁcial intelligence and data analytics to craft carefully considered communications solutions helps eliminate repetitive research and campaign evaluations. It also allows public relations practitioners to leverage the insights of millions of public relations campaigns worldwide. By delivering intelligent insights and insightful feedback on keywords and overall message strategy, artiﬁcial intelligence and data analytics help us learn from the successes of our peers without ever having to pick up the phone, schedule a meeting or attend an industry conference.
What, according to you, could be the next signiﬁcant change in your sector? How is your company preparing to be a part of that change?
The most signiﬁcant change in the public relations sector is the prevalence and inﬂuence of artiﬁcial intelligence in campaign creation. This comes as no surprise to my peers in the sector. It is a positive change as it adds another resource to the already resource-limited public relations practitioner’s tool belt.
However, no opportunity comes without risk, and the same can be said for blindly trusting the recommendations of artiﬁcial intelligence when creating a message strategy.
Public relations practitioners still have to understand one of the basic tenants of the public relations practice when employing the insights offered by artiﬁcial intelligence research, and that is to know your audience. Know when something is out of character for your brand or organization and understand what resonates well with your audience and what doesn’t. Fortunately and unfortunately, there is no substitute for sound public relations strategy and good old-fashioned human intuition.
What would you like to advise the budding aspirants willing to venture into the modern business arena?
Always be willing to learn, don’t shy away from hard work and remember to be patient with your career trajectory. It will take you much longer to get to where you ultimately aspire to be in both the modern business arena and the public relations practice, and that is okay, despite how it feels in the moment.
Each step in the journey is essential with opportunities to learn and grow for the next role. Never stop growing, never be willing to accept mediocrity and ensure you stay one step ahead of the cutting edge in your industry, and it will ultimately all pay off in the end.