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After a storied career of 22 years – and countless stories – communications leader Pam Lepley is retiring from VCU

In high-profile moments and internal strategy, she elevated the university and health system to audiences big and small, far and near.

Woman in yellow sweater sitting on yellow adirondack chairs Pam Lepley is retiring from VCU after more than 22 years in key leadership roles. At VCU, she said, “there is a story around every corner.” (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Joan Tupponce

A career of defining moments. A simple statement for the anything-but-simple 22 years Pam Lepley has spent in advising and strategic communications roles at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Those two-plus decades have been laced with promotions, friendships and a plethora of communications crises, both good and bad – from VCU’s medical care for a D.C. sniper victim to a professor winning a Nobel Prize, from the chilling murder of a student to the basketball team’s historic run to the NCAA Final Four.

Lepley’s work has been complex, hectic and ever-changing, yet she has met every turn with grace and gratitude. Now, with her pending retirement, she is setting her sights on the next chapter of life – and grateful that her passion for communications remains firmly in place.

“Everyone at VCU feels that passion,” she said. “I have never had a boring day at VCU.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., recognizes Lepley’s broad impact at the university. Lepley has served as senior advisor to the president since 2021.

“Pam’s dedication and commitment to VCU have always been a model for our team,” he said. “In her role of leading VCU communications and marketing as vice president for university relations, she was a tremendous asset to the institution and contributed richly to VCU’s tremendous national rise. As senior advisor, her advice and support have been valuable in the president’s office.”

And Rao noted the personal connection, too.

“As a colleague and friend, Pam’s sincerity and warmth have been unmatchable,” he said. “It has been a true pleasure to work with Pam for the past 15 years, and Monica and I wish her and her family the very best in her well-earned retirement.”

Woman standing next to man in graduation outfit for a professor

Pam Lepley with VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “As a colleague and friend, Pam’s sincerity and warmth have been unmatchable,” Rao said. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Establishing strong connections

Lepley, who has a degree in journalism from Penn State and a graduate degree in public administration from VCU, joined the university in 2002 as director of communications and public relations. She had worked as assistant news director at WJAC-TV in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and later as deputy press secretary for the governor of Pennsylvania before moving to Richmond in 1996, serving as vice president for public relations with ad agency Siddall Communications.

“Pam is very engaging and brilliant in terms of professionalism. She is a leader in whatever she takes on. She is well-studied,” said Mary Ann Davies, who worked with Lepley at Siddall and is now VCU’s director of strategic operations in the Enterprise Marketing and Communications division. “At Siddall, she built a team that went on to do amazing things for our clients. She is very inspiring. Her team loved her.”

Mike Porter first met Lepley when the two worked at WJAC-TV.

“It’s interesting to be on the bookend of her career,” said Porter, now VCU’s associate vice president for public relations in Enterprise Marketing and Communications. “Pam was assistant news director, and I was a young reporter. I’ve known her as a young professional and a senior professional. I’m fortunate for being in that position.”

Lepley’s passion and compassion in everything she does has impressed Porter over the years.

“She is intense, kind and generous,” he said, recalling the typewritten notes Lepley left on his WJAC desk complimenting his work and providing feedback.

When Porter came to VCU, he worked for Lepley once again.

“She is tiny in stature, but she has always played a supersized role,” he said. “She really cared about her team. I remember she said something to me early in my time at VCU that has stuck with me. It was, ‘Always tell the truth. You can remember what you said if you tell the truth.’”

Porter was with Lepley’s family in 2011 when she received The Public Relations Society of America Richmond chapter’s prestigious Excellence in Public Relations Award.

“She was really living that moment,” he said. “It was a happy, special time for her, and that made me happy, too.”

Shaped by early tests

Just three months after Lepley started at VCU in 2002, she was tossed into the national and international spotlight. In the span of two weeks in October, VCU had a Nobel Prize winner — chemistry professor John B. Fenn, Ph.D. — and was thrust into the D.C. sniper frenzy when a man who was shot walking out of an Ashland restaurant was transported to VCU Medical Center.

“I was so new to VCU, I had to call Joe Kuttenkuler, at the time bureau chief for VCU Medical Center, because I didn’t know my way around the medical campus,” Lepley said.

Having the two high-profile events back-to-back was unprecedented for Lepley and VCU.

“It was three months with no sleeping. It was ongoing, even after things settled down,” she said, adding that “people at VCU let me do my job, there was no micromanaging. It really let us be responsive and work with the medical team and patient’s family, who feared for their own lives and further harm.”

What made the story so complicated was that the family “wanted their privacy and their identity protected from the media,” said Cynthia Schmidt, retired chief of marketing for VCU Health. “That was Pam’s job, to respect their privacy. It was a huge undertaking, but Pam was so the right person for that job.”

Handling such a crisis helped Lepley secure more resources and devise a protocol for dealing with future emergencies of that magnitude.

“It helped to build a truly professional communication operation across both campuses,” Lepley said. “I am so proud of what the divisions have done and how they have come together. If we didn’t have that infrastructure, COVID would have been more of a crisis. As a communication team, we were solid. There was so much collaboration and expertise. We became one big team. I will hold that dear forever.”

‘Communicate with a purpose’

Over the years, Lepley has been a “smart, strategic and no-nonsense communicator,” said Anne Buckley, who worked with her at VCU for 11 years and is now chief communications and marketing officer at University of California, San Diego. “Watching her operate taught me the value of strategic communications. Not just to communicate but to communicate with a purpose — communication as a means to an end in a way that is ethical, authentic and honest.”
One of the first big stories Buckley worked on with Lepley was the disappearance and murder of 17-year-old VCU student Taylor Behl in September 2005. The manner in which Lepley handled communications showed her humanity.

“It became national news,” Buckley said, noting the concern that the incident would spotlight VCU in a disparaging way. “Not in Pam’s mind. The goal was to find Taylor. She said, ‘There is no other goal.’ I remember being struck by that. It was, let’s find this child.”

Working with Lepley was a “master class in strategic communication,” Buckley said.

VCU was once again in the national spotlight in 2011, when Lepley headed communications for the basketball team’s meteoric rise to the NCAA Final Four.

“The eyes of the world were on us. It was ours to lose. We could leverage it or not be responsive and end up having it be a negative,” Lepley said. “That was the first time our website almost crashed. That led us to strategies for good academic and research stories on the homepage, emphasizing all our messages.”

Before the Final Four game against Butler University, Lepley got a call from her counterpart at the Indiana school, which reached the championship game for the first time a year earlier (and would beat VCU in 2011).

“I will never forget it. My counterpart said, ‘I want to tell you some of the mistakes we made so you won’t make them,’” Lepley recalled. “That was grace – to take the time to so graciously offer up their help.”

VCU’s fairytale ride was exciting and exhausting but “a lot of fun,” she said – and a marketing milestone for the university.
“A lot of the metrics didn’t fall off after the game. We had more applications and requests for information,” Lepley noted. “It was a turning point for the university.”

Group photo of people smiling

With Pam Lepley, “her team came first,” said former colleague Cynthia Schmidt. “People wanted to work for her. She was approachable, fair and kind.”(Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Embracing stories, offering support

One of Lepley’s favorite things to do over the years is attend commencement. She takes great satisfaction in knowing that she and her team have been part of the students’ journey.

“Our young people are launching their lives,” she said, adding that whenever she feels stuck on an issue, she walks across campus. “VCU is a city within a city. My love has always been telling the story, and there is a story around every corner. There is something every day I can go home and talk about. I say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what I learned today, what I saw.’”

Lepley has always been supportive of the communications team.

“She is a phenomenal colleague,” said Grant Heston, who succeeded her as vice president for university relations and now leads the EMC division. “She is insightful. She will give pushback when needed. I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to VCU when I started than Pam.”

Lepley met Heston for breakfast on his first day of work.

“That set the tone for a productive partnership,” he said. “When I came into my office that first day, there was a giant whiteboard with a nice message on it from Pam. I looked at that a long time when I first got here.”

Davies, the strategic operations director in EMC, sees Lepley as a “servant-leader, someone who is appreciative, purpose-driven, a great listener and has the highest level of integrity.”

“She really treated everybody well. She had a great feeling for inclusivity and diversity,” Davies said. “She was such an inspiration. She was a star, and I will miss her.”

Schmidt, the former VCU Health marketing chief, praised Lepley as a great mentor and sounding board.

“As a boss, she was incredibly fair. She always stood up for her people. Her team came first,” Schmidt said. “People wanted to work for her. She was approachable, fair and kind.”

Lepley believes she has become wiser over the years in how she approaches a situation.

“I learned I can take a deep breath and be more strategic, cover my bases even more,” she said.

Taking the next step

A grandmother to 4-year-old Eddie and 8-month-old Lucy, Lepley is already preparing for babysitting duties. She hopes to volunteer in the community and travel with family and friends. And “I would like to take piano lessons again and set up a company so I can do some consulting,” she said.

Lepley emphasized that her family has been instrumental in her career. “You can’t do a 24/7 day job for 22 years without having the support of your family, and I couldn’t have done it without my children, Gene III and Sarah – and most of all my husband, Gene.”

And while the moments that have defined her career are now shadows of the past, her colleagues – and VCU itself – will remain front and center in her mind.

“I am going to miss them. Nothing can beat the people,” she said. “I will miss the ambience of the campus. There’s nothing like it. It makes you feel young. This job has forced me to keep up with life, what’s current. I will miss that easy access every day.”