Alison Melson's infectious smile, friendly demeanor, positive attitude and dedication to her career have become renowned among those in Little Rock's public relations community.
But those attributes instead were almost put to use on cruise ships by the former Watson Chapel High School majorette.
"Growing up like a lot of kids in the '80s, we watched a lot of TV," Melson explained. "I wanted to be a cruise director, just like Julie from The Love Boat. I was about to graduate from high school, and so I called the only cruise line I knew of, Carnival Cruises. I wanted to know what it took to be a cruise director. They said you have to know multiple languages and be able to entertain the crowd. They said if you can't do that you probably don't need to be a cruise director. I thought, well, I speak English, one language, and I didn't really think anyone would enjoying watching me twirl the baton."
So, Melson shifted gears. Since she enjoyed journalism in high school, she decided to focus on that in college with the intention of making a move to the public relations field later.
And that's exactly how it played out. Melson began her professional career with the Arkansas Democrat and switched to public relations two years later. After a few stops along the way, she reached what some would describe as a pinnacle in her field. She's finishing her first year as manager of corporate communications for Entergy Arkansas Inc. She was recently awarded the Crystal Award by the Arkansas chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, a high honor for excellence bestowed by her peers.
"At the PRSA event there was someone there from everywhere I ever worked," she said. "That touched my heart."
Jessica Szenher of Little Rock recruited Melson to her first public relations job at Arkansas Children's Hospital. She said Melson's success is no surprise.
"She has a special spark," Szenher said. "Once in a while in your career you have a chance to hire someone you know is going to be better than you. I knew from the beginning she was going to be a leader. Public relations well suited her. ... The people who work with her continue to be her friends."
Mary Alison Miller Melson was born March 23, 1967, in Pine Bluff to Johnny and Wanda McClain Miller. She was named Mary after her paternal grandmother who died when her father was young. But she has always gone by her middle name, which she received from Mia Farrow's character in the 1960s TV show Peyton Place. She said she and her older sister, Dana, grew up in a loving household with a dedicated stay-at-home mother and a hard-working father.
"My friends used to say we had the TV family," Melson recalls fondly. "My daddy worked as a foreman at the paper mill in Pine Bluff. He had this incredible work ethic. He would come home stinky and tired. He would say, 'It smells like money' or 'It smells like a college education.' We were surrounded by a community of people who watched out for each other. My mom always had a smile on her face. She was probably the kindest person I knew. It was an ideal childhood. I loved it."
She said her father was supportive of whatever career path she desired, but he made it clear that she needed to have a plan. Whatever she studied, her father wanted her to know what she would do with her degree. It was advice she took to heart while she pursued a degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Her senior year, she called a top ad firm in Little Rock to get advice on how to get started in public relations. One of the executives at the firm agreed to meet with her and advised her to get a job at a newspaper for two years and then get experience working for a nonprofit agency. It was yet another example of early advice she received from mentors inside and outside her family that paid off.
After graduation from college in 1989, she was hired by the Arkansas Democrat to write for the High Profile section. Her boss was Phyllis Brandon, the now-retired longtime editor of the society section. (The newspaper became the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1991.)
"It was absolutely the best first job I could have," Melson said. "Phyllis absolutely loved her job and she was a great role model for me. I learned from her that if you love your job you will never really have a bad day at work. She was very kind to me and gave me opportunities she normally wouldn't have given a 22-year-old."
She said she was privileged to have written features on UA Athletic Director Frank Broyles and Jocelyn Elders, the Health Department director who would go on to be the U.S. Surgeon General.
Her work with the Democrat led her to writing an article about Arkansas Children's Hospital. It was through that experience she met Szenher, which "changed my whole life." She was hired to produce internal communications at the hospital. Later, when Szenher received an offer to work at the Stone and Ward ad agency, she took Melson along in 1993.
"She taught me the entire public relations field," Melson recalled. "All the do's and don'ts. Always tell the truth. Don't put spin on things. It's all about relationships. You communicate things people need to know at the time they need it, in an accurate way, and be as very upfront as possible."
Szenher recalls Melson being "really great at building relationships. Alison is always authentic and people trust her."
Cultivating genuine relationships has helped Melson throughout her career, including at her next stop, Acxiom, the data management firm in Conway and Little Rock. After seven years at Stone and Ward, a client, Dale Ingram, took a job at Acxiom and recruited Melson to join him. Two years later in 2002, when a public relations job came open at the Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute, Ingram encouraged her to apply, saying she could "help make the world a better place."
She was in charge of communications and marketing, including coordinating CARTI's big annual fundraiser, the Festival of Trees. She thought she would stay there for three four years at most. But it ended up being a 15-year gig. She was all in. She worked on numerous events and with social workers involved in helping families of cancer patients. She even helped pick out the art in a new facility. She wanted Arkansas artists, not the typical doctor's office factory art.
"It was a gift to get to work there," Melson said. "I absolutely loved what I did, working with people. It was so mission-based. Everyone there had one focus, to take care of the patients. Our job was to help somebody. Any time someone in my hometown would get cancer, my momma or daddy would say, 'Call Alison.'"
She was close with fellow employees. "We had children together," she recalled fondly. When she left, everyone at CARTI gave her a goodbye photo compilation with about 200 faces of friends from CARTI. "They will always be my people, my family," she said.
But Melson said that after 15 years she started thinking she needed to try something different. She was 50 and thought that if the right thing came open she'd be open to a change. She put some feelers out and soon the job at Entergy came open. She wasn't sure though. She had been so focused on the mission at CARTI and wondered what the everyday goals would be if she worked for an electricity utility.
She soon learned that everything at Entergy is mission-based. When there are power failures, the entire staff, from the executives on down, are completely focused on getting the power back on. Electricity drives the economy and makes health care possible, she said. She was convinced and started in her new gig in September. Her 24th floor corner office in the Simmons Bank building in downtown Little Rock came complete with fantastic views of the state Capitol to the west and the quarries to the south.
"Change has been very good, but change is also hard," Melson said. "I've been super appreciative. I've done public relations for a long time, but the utility field and health care are two different fields. I'm learning this industry, and I'm surrounded by people who really know it, which is good. I have a great time here. It's a smaller team than [at CARTI], and they are great in helping me understand the industry. Laura Landreaux, the new president, has been wonderful explaining the terminology. My goal is to get in here and learn the business and do whatever I can do to help tell Entergy's story. It's been a good fit culturally."
Sandy Alstadt, a recently retired Entergy employee, worked with Melson on Lean In, a group that aims to help mentor professional women.
"She's the kind of person you love being around, the right combination of soft and tough," Alstadt said. "She was a little nervous about learning the utility field, but I told her that every job she had was leading up to this one. She's been like a sponge."
Melson acknowledges she can be a little too focused on work at times. She's glad her husband, Tom, a graphics artist, keeps her grounded. The couple met at a gas station in Maumelle one night after she and a friend got off from their summer jobs as lifeguards at Wild River Country. Melson told her friend he was cute, and he spotted her doing so through the anti-theft mirrors in the store.
"Otherwise, he says he wouldn't have had the nerve to come up to me," Melson said. "We started talking and the next day he came to Wild River Country. We got married in 1990. We were young and stupid and somehow it all worked out. We grew up together."
The couple has two children, Sam, 17, a senior at Catholic High School, and Owen, 14, a freshman at Central High School. The family lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock. She loves spending time with her kids, going to the ballgames and taking them on outdoor road trips.
"I was born to have boys," she said. "I was kind of a tomboy growing up. I don't like to shop and I'm not that big into makeup."
Shelia Vaught, a CARTI foundation board member, has known Melson for 20 years and will be forever grateful for her help when her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I had a really hard time with that, but she was by my side," Vaught said.
A friend since her days at Stone and Ward, Tim Stephenson shared a similar story, about Melson's empathy and help while he suffered through eye surgeries.
"During recovery for each surgery, I had to stay face down in bed," Stephenson said. "Being face down for eight to 16 days at a time when you don't know if you are going to lose your vision or if there is an end to the cycle of surgeries is extremely depressing. That was a dark time for me. And Alison was there. She was a working mother with two young kids. But she was there with her upbeat spirit, keeping me from sinking completely into that darkness."
Seeing what cancer patients and their family go through while working at CARTI, going through the death of her mother (at 63 from heart disease), and enduring a miscarriage of twins has given Melson a valuable perspective on life.
"It makes you realize that life is too short to get all wound up about little things," she said. "It taught me you need to live life in the moment, which is kind of who I am anyway."
• DATE AND PLACE BIRTH: March 23, 1967, Pine Bluff
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME: Imitation of Life.
• MY NICKNAME IN HIGH SCHOOL WAS: Big Al, which was given to me by my dad and it stuck with all of my friends.
• IN HIGH SCHOOL, I WAS VOTED: Best All Around
• I ABSOLUTELY WON'T EAT: Olives
• FOOD I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT: Peanut butter
• MY SECRET TALENT IS: I can twirl the baton.
• ALMOST NOBODY KNOWS: I like Justin Bieber's music.
• MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY GUESTS WOULD BE: My mom and two boys. It would be great for her to be able to see them at this age. My fun one would be Michael Jordan, Elvis Presley and Ellen DeGeneres.
• AN UNUSUAL CHILDHOOD MEMORY: My parents took us to see Elvis in concert when I was 9 and when I was 10, my family visited Graceland when we were in Memphis. All the way home we sang Elvis songs and never turned on the radio. My best friend called when got home and told me that Elvis had died while we were there. So I was at Elvis' house the day he died.
• WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Genuine
“Always tell the truth. Don’t put spin on things. It’s all about relationships. You communicate things people need to know at the time they need it, in an accurate way, and be as very upfront as possible.” - Alison Melson.
High Profile on 08/26/2018
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Entergy communications manager Alison Miller Melson