Ellen Murphy: Storytelling and Branding at the YMCA

Ellen Murphy didn’t plan to pursue a career in communications. In her early twenties, while working at Barnes & Noble College as an Operations Coordinator in 2001, she was tasked with writing their newsletter, Ops Weekly. In the newsletter, she included operations updates as well as strategic content. The missive caught the eye of the CEO of Barnes & Noble College, who approached her in her cubicle one day. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘Did you write the last Ops Weekly?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That was fantastic! It was the best newsletter we've ever had.’”

It was a defining moment for Murphy. Shortly thereafter, she transitioned to managing internal communications at Barnes & Noble College. Since then, she has worked on communications and PR at brands as well as agencies – including working with football star and spokesperson Joe Montana on a healthcare PR campaign.

Always curious about the new frontier in communications, she decided to enhance her knowledge by enrolling in the graduate program in Strategic Communications at Columbia (now the Executive M.S. in Strategic Communication program). She graduated in 2008.

In 2014, she became the youngest female Vice President of Communications at the YMCA of Greater New York and recently won the New York Nonprofit Media 40 Under 40 Rising Stars award last November. She credits Columbia with giving her the skills and confidence to successfully tackle challenges in her role as a communications leader.

We spoke with her at her office at the West Side YMCA. When we asked her why she loves what she does, she told us that she loves building a stronger, healthier and connected New York City, and “it’s easy to tell stories about an organization that has a positive impact on so many people.” “Plus, I’m a Y mom,” she said. “It's easy for me to tell a story that I live.”

How has the program helped your career overall?

It helped me gain a deeper understanding of the different aspects of communications. That helps me when working across departments and disciplines to develop strategies. For instance, I often refer back to my market research class to help derive insights from our analytics, I’m well-versed in that – and that's thanks to the program.

The program has helped me gain personal credibility. It means a lot when you have a graduate degree on your resume, especially from a university like Columbia. That credential definitely helps when people are looking at you in a leadership position. It helped me grow more confident as a person.


Can you tell me about the YMCA and the kinds of projects that you promote in your role?

When you think of the Y, you might think swimming lessons and basketball – and that’s great, but there’s much more to our organizational DNA. The Y is a leading organization for social good in New York City that helps individuals reach their potential to create a healthier, and more connected City. From babies to 99-year-olds, we offer different programs and services that help New Yorkers achieve positive change through support and community.

At the core of it, the YMCA is committed to youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. We are an integral part of the physical fabric of New York. We have a citywide presence that puts us in a unique position to respond to the local needs of our communities.

We are the largest provider of after school care in the City. We serve 12,000 kids in YMCA facilities and in New York City public schools. Our after school programs allow parents to work – because we can take care and enrich the lives of their kids after 3:30 p.m. For many single parents and working parents, we are their partners in raising their children.

Another program that demonstrates the Y’s commitment to improving our city is Y Roads. Y Roads is for young people who have dropped out of high school and who are unemployed – youth who are disconnected from opportunities. They come into Y Roads, and we use a 360-degree case management approach. Maybe they need housing or mental health services or resume writing help or computer skills. We work with them to help solve some of their social or emotional issues to get them on the path to self-sufficiency. There was a feature about it in The New York Times. It's pretty fantastic.

What's your favorite part of working at the Y?

My favorite part of my job is definitely my team. We work on corporate communications, including media relations, executive publications, annual reports, email marketing, and we manage all things digital. I love working with a team of such talented individuals and motivating them to step outside of their comfort zones to try new and creative ways to tell our story.

I'm also a Y mom; my daughter has been at the West Side Y since she was six-months-old. I credit our dedicated, tenacious and compassionate staff with building her into the confident, curious, and kind 5-year-old that she is today. The story of the YMCA is a great story to tell, and I believe in it. It's easy for me to tell a story that I live.

Anything else you wanted to add about your work here or your career overall?

As a communications professional, you need to be in a mode of continuous improvement no matter what level of your career you’re in. Complacency is a killer. You have to stay on top of the trends and the news in your industry no matter what – and graduate school is a great way to do that.

For instance, I think everyone really needs to understand the power of social media and what it means for our society and how it changes how we interact. You really need to dig in and understand how things work, and that will empower you to tell your story and your message in a better way. Never stop learning.

Learn more about the Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication.