“Don’t judge people. You never know their story. You have no ideas what they are dealing with.” ~Patricia Watts. Advice that my mother gave me growing up has resonated with me throughout my career, which truly is a reason why I am so good at this profession. I had asked my mother why she was friends with some of the people that she hung out with. To me, they were not good people. As I got older, I realized that they all had things going on that I did not know about as a child. Some of their stories gave so much context to some of the behaviors that I saw as devious or even criminal. These women were dealing with issues from sickness to domestic violence and substance abuse. The greatest takeaway has been actualizing my superpower when it comes to public relations. It’s the story behind the story that holds the most valuable gems.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonya McKenzie, Founder of Sand & Shores PR and Leadership Firm.
Tonya McKenzie, born and raised in San Jose, California and Alumni of California State University, Northridge has spent the bulk of her career in the marketing and public relations industry. Over her career, she has been elected or appointed to important leadership positions such as the Contra Costa County Youth Commission to her current positions as a Los Angeles County Commissioner, Vice President of Black Public Relations Society — L.A., and Board of Directors for the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. She is the founder of Sand and Shores Public Relations & Leadership Firm, helping civic organizations and nonprofits tell their story, build brand awareness, and manage their reputation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have spent over 20 years in sales, marketing, and public relations. I took an advertising executive position at Southland Publishing when I first moved to Southern California. They were not utilizing as much technology as we had available. So, I launched my own company, Sand and Shores and published Real Estate Agent Magazine. I handled the advertising sales, PR, and marketing while also growing my business network. I realized that I love public relations but not real estate. Since it was my company, I decided to pivot the industry that I served to organizations that I am comfortable with, familiar with, and understand their communication needs. Because of my upbringing, I have a lot of experience with law enforcement, different civic agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Specifically, we help them understand how to identify and communicate with their target audience, which is usually the communities that they serve. Showing them why and how storytelling can be pivotal in the connectivity between the agencies and communities has become essential in my practice.
During the Covid shutdown and social unrest due to the George Floyd murder, it became more apparent to businesses and these civic organizations that a need for strategic PR, communications, and reputation management is apparent. Sand & Shores was positioned to deliver the results that these businesses and organizations needed.
In addition to operating the consultancy, I hold multiple leadership positions in Los Angeles County, and I am a national fellow for Everytown, speaking on Gun Violence and Gun Safety laws and regulations, and a 26-year member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. I chartered a graduate chapter in Northern California. Most importantly, I am a child advocate understanding that our job is to leave this world better than we got it.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
In a time where people are calling to defund the police, I am working to get people to understand local department structures, their responsibilities as a resident and how to properly enact changes they wish to see made. Most people don’t understand city funding vs department and services funding. I am using my platform to exhibit transparency in police departments showing how they function and operate. Most importantly, it’s pivotal to show the uniqueness of different law enforcement departments.
As a public relations and communications professional, my primary job is to tell stories and elevate important messages and voices. My podcast, My Morning Coffee, may be one of the first to have an official partnership with a Police Department. This ensures that, no matter what events take place or brings about a media craze, they will always have a platform to elevate their message. For officers to tell their individual stories, share their experiences, and talk about who they are in and outside of the badge, take an elevated level of vulnerability and trust that we will handle it with respect and dignity. During the peak of the social chaos of 2020, during the “defund the police” movement, “Blue Lives Matter” movement, and “Black Lives Matter” marches, nobody was giving voice to Black police officers. My own podcast cohost of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department was absorbing hateful messages from those around her. We provided a platform for the first Chief of Police that denounced former Officer Derek Chauvin’s actions, to talk about why he felt compelled to do that. We also held a three-part series of black officers in Blue. With no subject off limits, African American officers, a panel of no less than six, answered questions and spoke on what it was like to be Black law enforcement officers from various different departments across this country. As a public relations and leadership consultant, I know that content matters and I will always work to provide a platform for under-exposed stories to be told and content to be shared even if that content isn’t popular or very controversial.
I also launched the Empowered Podcast Network with a small number of podcasts that put out quality content that empowers the listeners personally, professionally, and emotionally. We partner with brands that embody the lifestyle, quality, and superior service that we stand by.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the most hilarious moments in my career thus far has been a special issue of The Argonaut that I produced a few years back. I was responsible for the cover story for the Special Health and Wellness issue. My client, Krav Maga expert, was the cover story. I was in charge of the photo shoot and the editorial content. I had absolutely no clue what Krav McGraw was. During this shoot, my client pulled out a gun. I immediately took off running. I had no idea that it was fake, and that he also taught self-defense classes, teaching people how to disarm someone if they are held up. By the time he looked up, I was already gone. He eventually called my phone to ask me where I had run off to and we cleared it all up. When I got back, we all had a good laugh. But it definitely let me know that I need to do my research and have a full understanding of what my clients do and how they do it. You cannot tell a robust story without all of the details.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My husband, Ray McKenzie is my most impactful business mentor. He was the first of us to leave corporate America and launch his own tech firm, Red Beach Advisors. Ray learned and taught me things about owning a business, scaling, and essential operations to ensure a positive client experience.
Michele Brown is an amazing real estate professional that I can get excellent leadership advice from. She is a fitting example of being a diligent business owner while also being a leader in the community, serving on various boards and other positions. Her advice is priceless. She leads by example and knows how to create raving fans.
LaTashia DeVeaux also serves as a mentor and advisor. Being a Black Woman business owner while balancing clients and serving in leadership positions can be stressful. It helps to have somebody in my industry to talk through strategy, client issues, priorities, and balance. Her guidance is priceless and is often used to correct course if I am unsure if I have gone in a wrong direction.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Social media has been a great disruption for the marketing, PR, and communications industry. Obviously, it allows for us to connect more frequently, in real time, and with larger audiences. The news now gets reported faster on Twitter than it does waiting for a breaking news report to show up on a TV station that we might watch. For those that depend on that news, it’s a great thing. There is a high level of immediate gratification. Social media has disrupted the news industry in a way that allows for us to get information faster. Unfortunately, this same tool, social media has broken some norms and devalued high quality customer service. Social media has allowed for business owners and professionals to believe that conversation via a social media channel is all that they have to do to check the box of customer service. It’s important to recognize that high touch, high quality customer service still takes a personal touch. It takes a phone call, sometimes. It takes in-person communication. Networking, as much as you can do it on a social media platform, it still does not compare to networking in person. The dynamic is different. The need for situational awareness is higher. Human interaction and connectivity have definitely been disrupted by social media. It is the perfect example of disruption, positively and negatively, in business today.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- “Control your schedule. Don’t let your schedule control you.” ~Ray McKenzie
As an entrepreneur trying to launch and grow a successful startup, you are determined to make it work. You give all of yourself and are always ready to try something new, sacrifice your personal time and be as accessible to clients and potential clients as possible to make ensure that you don’t miss or lose any business opportunities. You want to give your venture the best shot at being successful. The problem with that is the fact that we often don’t take breaks, cause chaos in our personal lives, deplete out mental and physical health, along with developing tunnel vision. Because my husband was the first to launch his startup, he learned first-hand how easy it is for your time management to spiral out of hand and cause unnecessary chaos in your life. There is a better way. Carving out time for the grind and time for personal affairs was the key. It was great advice and a lifesaver once put into practice.
- “You are done when the job is done.” ~J.C. Watts
My grandfather was a business owner, a great employee for Ball Construction, a club owner, and a community leader. I always tried to understand how he did it all. He was a master construction worker. His work product ranged from projects like the New Orleans Superdome, churches in the south and houses in the Bay Area. His wife was a beautician. At one point, I would watch my grandfather leave to work while it was still dark outside, get off work, and proceed to build a beauty salon onto his home (for his wife). I watched that project day after day, week after week until it was complete. My grandfather lived his words, always completing whatever he started. That resonates with me as an entrepreneur, a parent, and a civil servant.
- “Don’t judge people. You never know their story. You have no ideas what they are dealing with.” ~Patricia Watts
Advice that my mother gave me growing up has resonated with me throughout my career, which truly is a reason why I am so good at this profession. I had asked my mother why she was friends with some of the people that she hung out with. To me, they were not good people. As I got older, I realized that they all had things going on that I did not know about as a child. Some of their stories gave so much context to some of the behaviors that I saw as devious or even criminal. These women were dealing with issues from sickness to domestic violence and substance abuse. The greatest takeaway has been actualizing my superpower when it comes to public relations. It’s the story behind the story that holds the most valuable gems.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
My next move will involve publishing another book and empowering the next generation of leaders. Being able to work with Lieutenant Gia Neal from LA County Sherriff on our podcast, My Morning Coffee has been eye-opening and validating at the same time. We are quite different in age, parental status, and lifestyle. However, there are many things that I have believed when it comes to people of color and law enforcement. Gia has been able to validate many of those things and open my eyes to statistics and facts that I never knew prior. Working with Captain Jon Naylor from Redondo Beach Police Department has been a journey through perspective. Seeing situations from the eyes of another and having the capacity to empathize allows for you to grow mentally and emotionally. None of this could be possible without honesty and openness in all conversations. When we look at some of the most complex issues in our society, law enforcement, and the communities that they serve, the fix can be as simple as getting to and extracting the leadership in each young person and empowering them with the knowledge that they can be the difference.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women as disruptors usually do their most impactful work in male dominated industries. It requires a level of though-leadership that not only displays a unique way to solve a problem but requires that they do it better than anybody else in the space. Women have to find a way to soften a stale way of thinking or harden her own stance. Many times, it’s both. Women have to not only show that they belong in the space but that their capabilities are superior to the men in the room to get the respect needed to change status quo. Women must show an important level of leadership to command the respect needed to disrupt any industry. Female disruptors face many different challenges but consistently overcome to make the changes needed for progress.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Patti Labelle, Don’t Block The Blessings was an impactful book for me. As a gun violence survivor with over 21 addresses by the time I graduated from high school. I recognize that I lived a tumultuous childhood. I could have let that destroy me. It certainly equipped me with plenty of excuses in the case that I could not get life right. Reading Patti’s book showed me that even the people that we look up to have been through some horrible things. Ms. LaBelle weathered through multiple death in her family while carving out a life that she loved with such audacity and determination. She was unique, fun, funny, and adventurous in her pursuit. This was great confirmation that we can have a fun time and enjoy life while accomplishing hard things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
L.L.E.A.D. the Way! That’s the movement. Leadership has become a part of my personal brand. It has gotten me through trauma, drama, social upheaval, and uncertainties to a place where my opinions matter and my voice is heard. I would like to see more women and young people LLEAD. Step into the space that empowers them to be a change maker while they embrace their opportunity to fully live, love, and leave a legacy.
Look the part.
Leverage your experience.
Elevate your voice.
Acknowledge the problem.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can never be too kind.” ~Karen Mathis
No matter what the situation, kindness always wins. People can be nasty, inconsiderate, consumed in their own problems, and just lack empathy. In my personal life, it has helped me to be a better wife and mother. In business, it has helped me to deliver great customer service to my clients. It feels good to give more than expected. Most importantly, I am kind to myself. Selfcare can be lifesaving.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!