Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Learning Lasting Lessons | Hall of Fame 2018 Inductee: Shelley Morrison

Shelley Morrison, Founder, Shelley Morrison Associates

Not many professionals can summarize a decades-long career in one sentence, let alone in three letters, but Shelley Morrison has never been one for convention. “You know the ABC scene from Glengarry Glen Ross? ‘Always Be Closing’? Well, my philosophy is ABL: Always Be Learning,” she says with a laugh. “I have a passion for lifelong learning. It’s one of the great things about communications and the intercultural field; I learn so much from my students and clients.”

Reflecting on her time at the University of Washington, Morrison says the School of Communications found her, rather than the other way around. “I was a biology major, then art, then English, and then I decided that I wanted to be a hotshot copywriter in San Francisco,” she recalls. “I’ve always been really keen on messaging and fact finding. I love understanding communication channels, and my courses in those subjects, like mass media and magazine writing, were excellent.” In addition to her coursework, Morrison says that her time as the Advertising Manager for The Daily was hugely valuable. “In that role, I was responsible for revenue, but I had never sold anything before. Going down to the Ave [University Avenue], convincing local merchants to buy ads, and then dashing back to the Daily office to write the copy, do the layout and meet the deadline, are skills that have stayed with me.  In fact, a lot of what I teach today about business communication goes back to my days of going door to door for The Daily.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Morrison started out in radio at WHWB in Rutland, Vermont.  “I love the art of radio, and the challenge of creating visuals with words and sound,” she explains. Her first on-air job was as the “Horoscope Lady,” where her copywriting skills came in handy, and she later had a regular announcer shift. “At a time when there were almost no women on the air, I had the advantage of having a very deep voice and almost sounding like a man. I have been a tenor since the age of ten,” she laughs.

Morrison came back to Seattle and auditioned for a year trying to get a job in broadcasting, but to no avail.  She was undeterred, and eventually got her big break after deciding that she wanted to be a sports broadcaster; she was inspired by an article in Sports Illustrated (SI).  “A month or two after the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ [the sensational 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs], Sports Illustrated wrote an article expressing the need for female sportscasters. They cited the problem of having Rosie Casals as a commentator for the match.” Casals, Morrison explains, was a “great tennis player, but a very inexperienced (and somewhat crass) broadcaster.”

Covering Wimbledon Tennis for NBC, 1978

A former UW varsity tennis player, Morrison recognized this as an opportunity to break into the field. “Later that year, the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTDNA) held its conference in Seattle. The attendees were all staying at the same hotel, so I went down and had the desk clerk put my resume and cover letter in 60 mailboxes. In my letter, I quoted the SI article and said that the incident with Casals had been to the great embarrassment of CBS, and that the outrage of viewers demonstrated why the networks painfully needed female broadcasters.”

That night, Morrison received her first phone call in response to her letter; it did not go as anticipated. “One of the CBS affiliates said, ‘I hear you’ve been down to the conference, but I think you’ve made a mistake. It was ABC, not CBS.’” Horrified, and half-convinced that her career was ruined, Morrison called the hotel and had the remaining envelopes pulled from their mail slots. She spent the next hour writing a new letter, which spoke to the agenda of the conference. In particular, she focused on one of its workshops, “Errors in Communication: Can They Be Corrected?” She noted, in the second letter, how the situation “was not to the embarrassment of CBS, but very much to the embarrassment of Shelley Morrison.”

1976 profile of KZAM & FM Disc Jockey, Shelley Morrison

Hours after she had delivered the new letters, Morrison’s phone rang. The caller identified himself as Jim Holton, President of the NBC Radio Network, and then he started to laugh. He asked Morrison when she had first realized her mistake. She sighed, “About this time yesterday?” Holton, who had received the first letter, stated that he had been very impressed with Morrison’s initial effort, but that her public correction of the error was what made him pick up the phone. Three months later, Shelley Morrison started as a sportscaster with NBC Radio, based in New York.  “PR is about making lemonade out of lemons,” she explains. “My willingness to correct my mistakes is what started my exciting and challenging career.”

There were only a few women in radio during the mid-seventies in the United States.  When Morrison returned to Seattle, she faced sexism and unfair professional pressure.  “I was hired by KIXI to cover news and sports and was fired in a week.  My boss said the phone calls were running 2 – 1 against me.  (There were 6 phone calls and the negative calls were vitriolic about having a woman on the air).”  It took a while to get another job and she ended up as a disc jockey and Promotion Director for KZAM & FM, which was one of the most enjoyable jobs of her career, despite getting paid less than the men.  In 1977, NBC Radio called again and offered her the opportunity to be on the Olympic Coverage team for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  She moved to the UK to work at the London NBC bureau and studied Russian.

ABC Sports Media Credential, 1988 Olympics, Calgary

Morrison’s next move offered many more adventures (and misadventures) in communication. When the U.S. pulled out of the Moscow Olympics, NBC Radio sent her to cover the guerilla war and independence elections in Rhodesia [modern Zimbabwe].  On the day of the country’s first-ever independence elections, she went to a rural village to get a “real” story, but could not get back to her office in Harare in time to file her stories.   “To get a radio story out, you had to use ‘alligator clips’ to attach your tape recorder to the wires of the mouth piece of a phone receiver, and because of sanctions your phone call had to be booked 24 hours in advance.  There was no way to send my recorded pieces and interviews from the village.”

Working as an NBC Radio Correspondent in Zimbabwe, 1979

Morrison says. “I made up for it over time in Africa, but I never forgot that; when it mattered the most, I was in the wrong place.”  Morrison points out that her experiences in Africa gave her a deeper understanding of cultural differences, particularly in relation to how people communicate.  “Living and working on three continents presented me with opportunities to explore cross-cultural communication.”

At the age of 54, Morrison went back to school to pursue a master’s degree at Seattle University (SU) in teaching. By this time, she had worked as a Marketing Director for One Reel and the Seattle SuperSonics. She had also served as the VP of Advertising for Starwave/Disney, where her team launched many of the first websites, including ESPN.com, on the public internet.  Morrison returned to radio in the virtual world, as VP of Media and Distribution sales for RealNetworks, the creator of streaming media. After graduating from SU in 2004, she helped create the Learning and Development Department at Real, and started to create and teach courses on interpersonal and intercultural business communication. “While I was at RealNetworks, I noticed that many of the employees were not born in the United States,” she explains. “And although they were trying to become ‘American’ in their own style, their managers were not given the opportunity to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the company’s workforce.”

Morrison with Rwandan Interns, Salma and Vestine

Once more sensing an opportunity, Morrison founded Shelley Morrison Associates in 2008, which “provides consulting and training in communication, negotiation, and intercultural relations for corporate, non-profit and higher education clients.” She also pursued a second master’s degree, this one in Intercultural Relations, from the University of the Pacific and the Intercultural Communication Institute. Although she likens the process of writing her thesis to the scene in The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn drag a battered steamboat through leech-infested waters, she admits her degree and thesis opened multiple professional doors. “There are many companies that have made costly mistakes when going into a new region,” she says. “My work is to teach people how to predict misunderstandings that stem from not being able to understand different cultural values and communication styles. In fact,” she adds, “I don’t think that any students looking to go into the communication industry can afford not to be culturally competent. They should understand how to adapt in order to be effective with diverse audiences.”

In everything she does, Morrison explains, she measures success by how deeply her students, clients, or consumers engage with the content she produces and shares with them. “I always ask: are people responding? Do the students show up and interact with the material? Is there demonstrated learning? Was there an ‘Aha!’ moment?” She describes one exercise where everyone receives a bag of 20 different colored M&M’s.   They students are instructed to collect as many of the same color M&M’s as possible.

Morrison Receives a Varsity Letter and Blanket, 4 Decades After Graduating from the UW

Inevitably, Morrison reveals, everyone competes with each other, failing to reach the goal. It is only later when they reflect on the scenario, that they realize they should have collaborated and worked as a group. “I love the creativity of teaching.” She laughs, “I would be really bored if clients did not let me do some pretty bizarre things.” Morrison’s students share her enthusiasm for learning in unique ways. Students who took COM 294A from her last winter praised her “insightful and enlightening course.” One participant noted that “although it was only three sessions, I learned such crucial information that I can apply, as well as look for, in my everyday life […] you’re amazing.”

In addition to being culturally competent, Morrison says it’s important for students to be authentic. “When I first started at NBC, I tried to sound like what I thought a male network announcer should sound like. One day my producer took me out to lunch and said, ‘Shelley, this is how I want you to sound on-air: like you’re talking to me right now; one person talking to another over a beer.’ Being yourself leads to being self-aware, which is huge.” She continues, “I think we quite often don’t know how we come across, because we use these channels where it is difficult to understand tone. If you want to be a good communicator, you have to understand your own style and your own preferences.” She also stresses the importance of taking risks. “For me,” she says, “there were so few opportunities that I took whatever came along. Now, I find that a lot of young people are so overly concerned about making the wrong decision, they don’t even get started.” She’s often told her students how, even after “analyzing the options to death,” they’re not likely to find the perfect job. She admonishes them instead to “Jump in! Build on what you learn, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.” A smile breaks out as she says, “I’ve had plenty of them, and I keep learning.”