On the surface, Kelly Earnest’s job sounds interesting, challenging and somewhat predictable. As public relations director of The Peabody Hotel, however, her days are anything but. From promoting and traveling with the hotel’s resident ducks to helping decide which barrel of Jack Daniel’s will be the hotel’s exclusive barrel and arranging overnight film and TV shoots, Kelly juggles myriad responsibilities while somehow managing to always look camera-ready herself.
A self-described high-heeled tomboy, this Florida native is an associate (business) member of the Society of American Travel Writers, she serves on the executive committee of Public Relations Society of America’s Travel & Tourism section, and she’s a member of the public relations committee for Historic Hotels of America and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. Welcome today’s FACES of Memphis feature, Kelly Earnest!
Describe your early career. Where did you work, and what were your jobs?
I knew I wanted to go into PR, but was kind of clueless beyond that. Being that this was in Florida where tourism is the number one industry, I ended up with an internship in the PR department of a hotel company that owned nine beach resorts. After a few days spent with a travel show filming on the beach and sailing around Captiva Island, I was hooked! I knew I couldn’t go back to ringing up groceries after that!
Right after graduation, I landed a job as PR coordinator at The Peabody Orlando. My boss there, the PR director, was a great mentor and gave me a lot of responsibility, despite my lack of experience. I learned a lot from her about the kind of leader I wanted to be.
I was super-ambitious then, so after about a year and a half, I left Orlando to do PR for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, where my job was to promote the entire city as a vacation and convention destination. I was there for six years.
What brought you to Memphis?
My old boss at The Peabody Orlando called and suggested I interview for the PR director job at the original Peabody Hotel in Memphis. I reluctantly agreed, thinking I was just doing it as a favor to her, but when I came here and walked into the Grand Lobby of The Peabody Memphis, I was just floored. It was stunningly beautiful and not “just a hotel.” It had so many stories to tell, which is very important in PR!
Ten years later, if I’ve been out of town for a few days and I walk into work in the morning, across the mezzanine, I’m still in awe of the beauty and grandeur of the place. I love all the history.
Your title is Public Relations Director, but at the Peabody, that’s not a typical hotel PR job, is it?
There actually aren’t a lot of hotels with in-house PR reps anymore, so it’s kind of a rare position within the industry. But The Peabody is so much more than a hotel. It’s also one of the top attractions in Memphis, because of the Duck March. And then there is the Lobby Bar, the Rooftop Parties and New Year’s Eve party, and all the rich history and amazing restaurants.
I’d also concede that my job is pretty strange sometimes, even to my co-workers. For example, during a recent snowstorm, all of the other associates were working hard to take care of our guests. Meanwhile, my department was taking pictures of the ducks marching in the snow and building a “snowduck” on the roof so we could share it on Facebook—all in the name of PR. It sometimes seems like a silly job by comparison, but building our brand and image in these small, creative ways IS our job, and it is important to the success of the hotel.
Describe what it’s like to travel with the ducks.
It’s a bit of a traveling circus. The ducks have their own car: The Duckmobile. And they get their own hotel room. They stay confined to the bathroom, mostly the tub, and they get room service delivery of romaine lettuce for dinner. They’ve stayed at some pretty posh hotels, like The Hermitage in Nashville, The Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas and a handful of Ritz-Carltons. Only the best for the Peabody Ducks!
The ducks have a lot of stuff and require a lot of planning, so mainly it’s a lot of planning, organization, and loading and unloading equipment. Not very glamorous, really.
How often do you and Duckmaster Anthony take the ducks on the road?
They will travel out of Memphis a couple times a year, but locally they visit 20 or 30 schools and retirement communities every year as part of our Goodwill Ambassador Program. The real unsung hero here is Cody Willard, our marketing coordinator. He’s the Duckmaster’s right hand in all of this, and does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.
Describe the craziest day you’ve had at work, duck-related or otherwise.
One of the things I love most about my job is that it’s different every day, and you don’t always know what’s gonna happen. You could have a power outage, for example, and suddenly your focus is shifted for the whole morning. There have been several overnight film shoots and a recent episode of “Nashville.” Two movies were filmed within a few days of each other, so that was a crazy week. I just moved in to the hotel.
Most of my crazy stories I’m not allowed to tell because they involve celebrities. That’s hard, because when you meet some cool celebrity, you want to tell everyone or get your picture taken with them and post it on Facebook, but that’s strictly forbidden.
What’s the best part about living in downtown Memphis?
I certainly can’t complain about the commute. But mostly I love living in Harbor Town because when you go over that bridge, it feels like you’re escaping the craziness of the city, but you’re still right there if you want to go out to a show or dinner. It’s like having the best of both worlds—living in the city and the suburbs at the same time.
What do you miss most about Florida?
The beach, of course. But also things like the daily summertime thunderstorms and the smell of the air right before the storm hits. They’re crazy powerful; they’ll melt your phone off the wall, blow up your TV and set off car alarms, but they’re just amazing. I don’t miss the alligators.
What are your hobbies, and how do you unwind?
I have two Great Danes: Huckleberry and Blueberry. They’re 190 and 150 pounds. Giant, lovable goobers. I like taking them for walks along the Mississippi River on Mud Island. Being dragged around by 350 pounds of dog … that’s how I relax.
Where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?
STAX and Gus’ Fried Chicken.
What’s your favorite Memphis attraction, and why?
Definitely STAX Museum of American Soul Music. I just think that, by comparison to Elvis and the Sun Records artists, STAX is less well-known. People know all the music, but they might not know it’s from Memphis, so I think it’s a little more of a surprise for visitors. It tells Memphis’ story of civil rights through music, and they made it a fun experience with the dance floor, Isaac Hayes’ car and all the cool outfits. I love music and history, and it touches both.
If you had a super power, it would be…
… to fly. I think anybody who has the wanderlust understands this.
What ONE word describes you?
What inspires you?
Music. I’ve never played any instruments and can’t sing at all, but my dad played the drums and was in a band, so there was always rock music playing in my house as a kid. And my mom indulged me by taking me to Bon Jovi and Metallica concerts. I think it may be one of the reasons I love Rooftop Parties so much.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Taco night, puppy snuggles and stilettos
Our thanks to photographer Micki Martin for her fantastic images for this article.