You’ve probably heard that the social media platform TikTok has exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 2 billion users, it received the most downloads ever in a three-month period for an app earlier this year.
What you may not know is that a University of Mississippi alumna is part of the global communications team that is playing a major role in TikTok’s continued success.
Kellie Norton, a 2012 graduate with a degree in journalism and emphasis in public relations, is a communications manager at TikTok. Working for the tech firm is fun for many reasons, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native said.
For one, the app is so new, but so hot at the same time, that the conversations she has with people around what exactly the app is can be entertaining.
“When people hear that I work at TikTok, it’s usually met with lots of excitement,” Norton said. “But, also intrigue from people who still have yet to download the app and get involved on the platform.”
Perceptions formed in those conversations can be hilarious when she sees how people view her work.
“I think most of my friends and family think I just play on the app all day as my job, and while that’s not 100% accurate, I do like to set out times during the day to check the app and get inspired by all the creativity and diversity we have on the platform,” Norton said. “It’s a nice little ‘sunshine’ moment of my day.”
She’s not alone in wanting a little more sunshine in her day, it seems. TikTok has grown substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are stuck at home more in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.
It has benefitted from a public hunger for new ways to connect with the world about music, food, shopping, dance and myriad other interests over social media. It has grown in the last few months, with major celebrities and many organizations jumping into TikTok.
The app has been downloaded more than 2 billion times, according to the Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates released in late April.This major milestone, when viewed through the lens of its data, is also a testament of just how fast it has grown.
Just five months before it hit 2 billion downloads, TikTok hit 1.5 billion, and in the first quarter of 2020, the 315 million installs it registered are the most for any app ever in one quarter, Sensor Tower Store Intelligence reports.
Norton’s time there hasn’t been typical, yet. Since she was hired, she’s worked from her parent’s home in Gulfport, which is not what she would have expected. She was spending COVID-19 quarantine there when she got the job and hasn’t actually gotten to meet many of her colleagues.
Once normalcy returns, she will be working at TikTok’s headquarters in New York, the city that has been home for Norton since she graduated from Ole Miss.
Before joining TikTok, Norton started her career working for various PR agencies in New York. From working red carpet galas and nightclub openings to collaborating with clients to launch female empowerment campaigns, agencies were a key to breaking into the public relations industry, she said.
“When you work at a PR agency, you have this unique opportunity to gain skill sets from across different industry verticals,” Norton said. “One minute, you’re planning the launch of a fashion client’s fall collection; the next, you’re producing an event on the top of the Freedom Tower.
“I will always recommend new graduates to look into starting off at an agency setting. The amount of doors that open from that type of experience is incredible.”
Throughout her career, Norton said she always had a goal of working for a company that not only breeds a positive and supportive culture, but one that is focused on a diverse and inclusive workforce.
“I find myself so inspired every day by the people I work with at TikTok – all of their diverse backgrounds and skill sets,” Norton said. “I truly feel humbled and honored to be part of the TikTok team.
“I like to think my big-sky-dreaming, 13-year-old self would be really proud of where I am today.”
At Ole Miss, Norton was a student in Samir Husni’s publishing class, and the professor hosted the Act2 Experience and invited esteemed publishers, publicists and journalists from around the world. The series is not only for networking, but also for students to learn more about the state of the industry and the types of interesting jobs available post-graduation, she said.
“It was because of the Act2 Experience that I was able to network with one of the PR panelists and land my first PR internship in New York post-graduation,” Norton said.
“The way professors would take the extra step outside of lectures and syllabi to be a valuable resource to students by hosting networking events or being a mentor outside of the classroom – it’s that type of dedication to their students that helped push me into a successful career in PR after Ole Miss, and it’s something I will forever be grateful for. “
She credits Husni and Robin Street, a longtime senior lecturer in journalism who retired earlier this year, as being teachers, mentors and friends who have helped her along the way.
Street remembers meeting Norton, who was taking her feature writing class at the time, and recruiting her to public relations classes. She’s kept up with her former student since.
Street – ever the cheerleader for all public relations professionals to focus on becoming the best writers they can be, no matter the career path they want to take – isn’t at all surprised Norton is playing such a major role in the success of TikTok.
“Her success completely fits what I would have guessed for her,” Street said. “Her mixture of outstanding writing talent and excellent organizational skills, combined with her abilities to think creatively and deal with people effectively, provide the perfect combination for a PR professional.”
Street says she took some lessons from Norton.
“Another factor in her favor is her motto that she said in a presentation she sent me to show my class, ‘Persistence beats resistance,'” Street said. “I have taught all my future students that motto from her!”
The presentation, which the instructor kept, is a great example of the kind of dedicated student and professional Norton is, Street said.
“I contacted several former students now working as PR pros, asking them to send me a photo of them at work and a list of what their typical duties were,” she said. “I used the photos and list of duties in my intro to PR class to give students a look at where they might be in a few years.
“Everyone graciously replied, but Kellie, of course, went above and beyond. She prepared an entire PowerPoint presentation and sent it to me. It was full of interesting photos and information.”
Husni, professor of journalism, Hederman Lecturer and director of the Magazine Innovation Center, remembers Norton as a student who stood out in her time at the School of Journalism and New Media.
“Her two biggest traits were her inquisitiveness and passion,” Husni said. “Those two traits together is what set her apart from a lot of other students. She’s also one of the few students I remember whose smile never left her face.”
She understood a simple principle that is central to Husni’s classroom philosophy.
“Teachers are nothing if not facilitators,” Husni said. “The student has to have it in them. Academic success and career success is not a disease we can inject students with; all we do is nourish them and help them move in the right direction.
“When you have students like Kellie who do well in life, it is a delight to a professor’s heart, and to our profession as well. She’s earned it.”
There’s a lesson in her story for burgeoning professionals and students still mastering coursework toward their degrees.
“Stay focused and if it is in you, you will find success,” Husni said. “Inquisitiveness and passion will take you many places, and you should use your professors to facilitate that journey.”
By Michael Newsom