Today’s FACE of Memphis is a face that most Memphians are quite familiar with — Ursula Madden. For more than 17 years we watched her as co-anchor on WMC Action News 5 as an Emmy Award-winning journalist. In January 2016, Ursula made her way from on the scene to behind the scenes, when she accepted the position as the first-ever Chief Communications Officer for the City of Memphis under Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration. Ursula brings her own unique media experience to the position and is working hard to build an entirely new communications department for Memphis. While her predecessors focused on public relations for the mayor’s office, Ursula heads the communications for the city at large, as well as working with the City Council to get their messages out to the public. We are delighted to welcome today’s FACE of Memphis, Ursula Madden!
Are you a native Memphian?
I was born in Oakland, California, and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I received my degree at The University of Oregon — Go Ducks! It was my application to WMC that brought me to Memphis.
What was your early career like?
I’ve worked in the television and radio news industry since 1993 in various roles — both in front of and behind the camera. The first broadcasting job I had was $5.15 an hour, and I had to have two other jobs to make rent. As far as other jobs, I’ve run the gamut! I’ve worked for a country music radio station and been a bottle counter at a grocery store. I’ve worked in a movie theater and as a staffer for a catering service. I’ve also served as a manager at a mom-and-pop drug store.
What was your most memorable moment from working in broadcasting?
Probably one of the greatest things I was able to do as a journalist was to interview Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children during the 40th anniversary of his assassination in 2008. I went to Atlanta, and we did an hour-long broadcast around the commemoration date. Just talking with them about their father on a personal level, who he was as an individual — and not just an iconic leader of what was right and just — was definitely one of the most incredible interviews I’ve ever done, and I actually saved a copy of that to share with my daughter as she gets older. Everyone knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant to Memphis, the nation and the world, but it was special to be able to share what he meant to his precious children and family. It was a great moment.
Tell us about your transition from broadcasting to Chief Communications Officer for the City of Memphis.
Just moving from the private sector to the public sector was an adjustment. There has also been the challenge of creating a team that handles public relations, media relations, marketing and open records for the City of Memphis as a whole — not just within Mayor Strickland’s office. Because we are doing something new in city government, some of the changes have been met with skepticism, but the team has done some great work and will continue to do so. It’s so vastly different from what I was initially doing, so every day is a learning experience. And there is something new and exciting every day because there is always something going on in Memphis.
Did anything surprise you about working for the city?
The number of complex issues that must be juggled at one time. Also, the number of hard-working and dedicated employees who serve the City of Memphis. The only time anyone ever pays attention to city services is typically when something goes wrong. When services are perfect or close to it, no one ever thinks about the effort that went into making it that way, but that’s when you know city employees are giving their best.
What is a typical work day like for you?
A typical work day is usually 10 hours. It consists of lots of meetings, strategy sessions with various divisions, phone calls, approving plans, employee management, budget management and balancing that with my family life and any boards and committees of which I am a member.
What boards and committees do you belong to?
I am on the Board of Trustees for Church Health, which works to provide healthcare for the under-insured and is one of the largest faith-based organizations of its type in the United States. Currently, Church Health serves more than 58,000 patients in Memphis without relying on government funding. I also serve on the boards of St. Mary’s Episcopal School and the United Way of the Mid-South, and I contribute to the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis.
What are you most looking forward to for Memphis in the next year or so?
There are so many great things happening in Memphis right now! I can’t wait to see the redevelopment of The Pinch District and North Memphis, as well as the reimagining of our Convention Center and South City. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Memphis 3.0 will guide development in all of our neighborhoods. And I’m so looking forward to the commemoration events surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2018 and Memphis’ 200th birthday in 2019.
What are your hobbies, and how do you unwind?
I bake, read and paint — but not as much as I would like! I also like to have an occasional cocktail or a glass of wine.
What’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they visit you in Memphis?
It really depends on the visitor. But I almost always make it down to the Mississippi River, because it’s so beautiful. The last time my mom came to visit I took her to Big River Crossing. She loved it!
What’s your favorite Memphis attraction and why?
This may not be the typical answer, but the best attraction in Memphis is my neighborhood in Midtown. I live next to good people, and I’m only minutes away from the theater, live music and great food. There are wonderful places for children to play, and some of those amenities are city owned. And, of course, I love the river.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
It’s my family. My sweet daughter Laurel is the life of the party, and my husband Bill is my closest friend. We have been married for over 18 years now. And every morning I wake up, I’m still a child of God.
What inspires you?
So many things! My daughter’s vitality for sure. People doing good things.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …
… the ability to read people’s minds.
What are your guilty pleasures?
My husband says I watch a lot of trashy television, but I also like comic books and superhero movies. Batman is my favorite. I’m kind of a nerd — I love superheroes, I love sci-fi. I love the whole concept of exploring a different universe and what that would mean, how life would be different on other planets. I also love baking — I mean who doesn’t love sweet stuff? If I had to choose another career, I would totally open up a bake shop.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t try to imitate anyone else, because the only person you can be is you. And walk the path that God has put in front of you, no matter how scary! I definitely struggle with that, but I believe it.
What are three lighthearted or frivolous things you can’t live without?
Chocolate, music and shoes!
Thank you, Ursula! Learn more about her work with the City of Memphis at memphistn.gov.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Ursula!
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