Alumni Spotlight: Nicole Garrison

Creating a Compelling Employee Brand and Culture
Nicole Garrison

Nicole Garrison (B.A. ’02) is the senior director of employer brand and workplace marketing at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). Beginning with her time in Murphy Hall as a professional journalism major, Garrison has worked across sectors–in journalism, public relations, marketing, and advertising. Garrison credits her versatile Hubbard degree–and a healthy amount of persistence and resilience–as key reasons she’s been able to seamlessly move between industries.

As early as the 4th grade, Garrison knew she wanted to be a writer. She moved from Texas to Minnesota to pursue a journalism degree at the Hubbard School, working full-time as a server and at a mail order catalog call center to afford the out-of-state tuition while taking a full course load. As a print journalism major, Garrison took courses ranging from Arts Reporting and Reviewing at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis to Media Law with Jane Kirtley–a course that prepared her to understand reputational risk and to thrive in her roles in the PR sector.

Today, as the Senior Director of Employer Brand & Workplace Marketing at the Royal Bank of Canada, Garrison leverages her diverse skill set to bring RBC’s culture to life in a way that enables the nearly 160-year-old company to attract and to retain talent.

Earlier this year, Garrison and her team launched RBC’s very first “employer brand.” Different from consumer or enterprise branding, employer branding is an emerging discipline characterized by a helping to market the attributes of a workplace to top talent. It involves a mix of communications, storytelling, digital marketing, and traditional advertising.

“This whole notion that you need a separate brand to retain talent is fairly new, and is rooted in storytelling,” Garrison said. “Hiring and retaining talent is a challenge, and my team uses storytelling to help the business solve that challenge by crafting and delivering a compelling narrative around why people might want to work at RBC,” Garrison said. “It’s not just about pay, but about articulating how the totality of what we have to offer is better and more unique than anywhere else. It’s about engaging employees and making our employee experience stickier.”

All of that work is rooted in the art of journalism, she says. “We’re essentially telling stories to prospective employees and talent: ‘Why do you want to work here?’ It’s advertising but it’s storytelling–we need to tell a story with a motive!”

After graduating from HSJMC, Garrison spent a number of years as a reporter at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and St. Paul Pioneer Press before moving to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, U.S. Bancorp, and on to the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

Even 20-plus years post graduation, Garrison continues to expand her skill set. As head of Employer Branding, she leads paid recruitment media, which involves placing ads in digital and social media spaces and on billboards and getting up to speed on marketing terms like “pixel tracking.”

“We use a lot of granular marketing terms in this team, but at the end of the day, I still need to know how to tell a good story that connects with my audience,” Garrison said. “This is true in journalism, PR, strat comm, advertising, and marketing. That is why my time at the Hubbard School was so great–because that’s one of the things I learned early on that has enabled me to bounce within all three disciplines.”

Resilience and an ability to face change and uncertainty with a growth mindset have also helped paved the way for her career. Garrison has faced a fair share of challenges throughout her life that helped her develop those skills. Most notably, during her junior year of college, Garrison’s mother was diagnosed with cancer back home in Texas. Before remote work was the “norm,” Garrison worked out an agreement with her professors to complete her junior year coursework remotely in Texas so she could be home with her family. At the same time, Garrison knew it was time to find an internship–so she “pestered” the managing editor at her hometown newspaper.

“I called him every day,” Garrison said. “He kept telling me, ‘I don't do internships, I can't help you.’ He finally said, ‘I'll give you a job if you stop calling me–if you’ll be this relentless, you'll be a good journalist.”

During the second semester of her junior year, Garrison was able to stay and work in Texas until a couple of months after her mother passed. She returned to Minnesota the next fall to complete her degree and landed an internship with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Upon her arrival in the Pioneer Press newsroom, she found herself responsible for helping cover the events of September 11, 2001.

“The towers had just gone down, and it was terrifying,” Garrison said, noting that she was nonetheless eager to help however she could. “Before long, I was sent out to the Mall of America to talk to shoppers when they thought that would be the next target.”

Garrison continued to lean into industry headwinds as a journalist covering banking and finance, working long hours through buyouts, layoffs, and the Great Recession. When she decided to pivot from journalism to PR, she notes that her transition was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

“I remember talking to some of my newsroom friends, crying, and saying: ‘I’ll never love a career as much as I love this one,’” Garrison said. “But that wasn't true. My role now is a perfect combination of journalism, strategic communication, advertising, and marketing. It’s an uber exciting field, and I’m having as much fun if not more than I did as a reporter.”

In addition to her professional achievements, Garrison has served UMN over the years as a member of the Hubbard School Alumni Board and as HSJMC’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) Chapter Professional Adviser. She’s also served on the boards of various Twin Cities organizations including Twin Cities United Way, YMCA Downtown Minneapolis, and the Children’s Museum.

When asked to give one piece of advice to Hubbard students today, Garrison challenges them to “choose a track–but don’t pigeonhole yourself.”

“One of the reasons Hubbard is so great is because of the variety of classes you can take,” Garrison said. “Mass communication is a broad universe. Don’t limit yourself. Open your aperture to see the full scope. When doors open along the way, even if you don’t have enough understanding, step through them. You may choose a different path–and it may be the best thing you’ve ever done.”

By Allison Steinke (Ph.D. '22)