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Professional Communicator Award

The Professional Communicator Award is a chapter-level award, presented annually to any Springfield-area communications professional who has made a significant contribution or impact to an organization OR who has made an impact in the community as a communications leader, innovator and mentor over his/her career and especially during the past year, with outstanding results.


Michelle Eccles, 2022 Professional Communicator of the Year Award winner

Significant contributions or an impact can include:
  • Instrumental in helping an organization land a grant or increase donations

  • Played a lead role in “getting the word out” to the public about a serious issue

  • Mentored and encouraged others

  • Created visibility and increased sales for a new brand or product

  • Dealt successfully with crisis communications in the public interest


This is open to the Springfield-area public, and not limited to MICA members. A selection committee determines the award recipient based on the nomination form and verifiable data.

Nominations may be submitted by anyone residing in the central Illinois area.

Nominees do not have to be members of MICA to be eligible to win the Professional Communicator Award.

Past Recipients

Michelle Eccles McLaughlin, Horace Mann, 2022

Michelle Eccles McLaughlin is a well-known and well-respected name in central Illinois. If you count her years in high school and college, she has more than 30 years in broadcast journalism. During that time, Michelle was regularly recognized for excellence in broadcasting with numerous awards from the Illinois News Broadcasters Association (INBA) including the Silver Dome Award Winner twice for Best Live Coverage of an Event, Best Broadcast Team and Best Reporter. She has been the recipient of numerous Illinois Associated Press Awards including for Best Spot News five years running, two annual awards for Outstanding News Operation and one year as the Best Downstate Reporter. Michelle also has received numerous Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards, and of note, two for Overall Excellence Awards. Moving from journalism into public relations in 2013, Michelle became Public Relations Manager for Horace Mann Companies in Springfield. She is responsible for leading various public relation campaigns, serving as company spokesperson, working with local and national media, educating stakeholders about the company, and providing various PR support in areas such as social media, videography and community outreach. She also provides grant management for the Horace Mann Educators Foundation. At Horace Mann, Michelle has been recognized for her communication efforts with the acquisitions of Benefit Consultants Group, National Teachers Associates and Madison National Life. But at the same time, Michelle has been the Morning Edition Host for NPR Illinois here in Springfield for the last four years. This means she is responsible for anchoring a 5-hour shift of morning news, starting at 4 a.m., hosting local breaks during Morning Edition on NPR Illinois. She produces newscasts, coordinates/conducts interviews, and writes/edit news stories. During this time, she was named both a winner and finalist for the category Best of Springfield Drive Time Radio Show by readers of the Illinois Times.

Rikesha Phelon, SIU School of Medicine 2021

Rikeesha Phelon is a respected communications leader with nearly 10 years of experience in state government and then work as president and CEO of Phelon Public Strategies. In 2018, Rikeesha was named Executive Director of Marketing, Communication and Engagement at SIU Medicine/SIU School of Medicine where she built a robust team that reworked traditional healthcare communications during the COVID pandemic. Rikeesha led her team in reaching out across our community but also throughout the wide service area of SIU medical school with numerous campaigns about social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing. Various public partnerships took on critical importance and Rikeesha was at the table for SIU. This important work included reaching into communities of color where the effects of the pandemic was felt disproportionately and people not only needed access to the vaccine but also the understanding and confidence to take it. In addition, Rikeesha made time to be a mentor to other communications professionals. She made time to speak to the Springfield AWC chapter twice. This includes the April 2021 program when she chaired an inspiring discussion titled “The Hill We Climb” with 3 other Black communications professionals on the challenges for women of color in the workplace and racial equality.

Angie Muhs, State Journal Register, 2019

At the time she was nominated, Angie Muhs was executive editor/vice president of audience development at -The State Journal-Register where she had been for nearly five years, also serving as the national president of the Associated Press Media Editors. Muhs was a national leader in other areas – she served as juror for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in commentary and chaired the jury for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. Muhs was an early leader among newspaper editors who committed their paper’s participation in a national press effort to respond to the then President’s characterization of news media as “Enemy of the American people.” Prior to the SJ-R’s editorial commentary about this national effort, Muhs wrote a column about the SJ-R’s planned participation as one of about 80 newspapers committed to the educational effort. Many more newspapers and broadcast media outlets joined the educational effort. Approximately 350 newspapers committed to participate. The announcement about the Professional Communicator award was made in May 2019 when the chapter learned of Muhs unexpected departure from the newspaper.

Debra Landis, Springfield freelance journalist, 2018

Debra Landis, a freelance journalist with 20 years as a correspondent for the State Journal-Register, received the Professional Communicator Award. In recognizing Landis, AWC President Melissa Hahn said Landis tackled what was probably her most difficult story as a journalist this year. Just a few weeks after the untimely death of her husband Tim Landis, business editor for the State Journal-Register, Debbie wrote about her own personal experience. Her unflinching piece in the paper about Tim’s death was written so others might learn about undiagnosed and untreated hypertension. Titled “Awareness of the new normal for hypertension could save lives,” the piece ran Feb. 13, 2018. She wrote that she told Tim’s story “to help raise awareness of hypertension and the new normal, as well as the fact many people who have heart attacks had no prior symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath. Tim didn’t.”

Kyla Kruse, Energy Education Council, 2016

Kyla Kruse, communications director at the Energy Education Council, has received the Professional Communicator Award. Kruse has guided and implemented the national non-for-profit organization’s multi-faceted communications program since 2011. She oversees public outreach efforts on electrical safety, efficiency, and renewable energy. She is responsible for two nationwide safety campaigns every year, which received national honors in 2015. Kruse is also a musician and performer with a band that performs to raise money and promote breast cancer awareness. “The caliber and importance of her work speak to her personal commitment and dedication to creating a safer, smarter world,” the nomination said. “Whether through safety communication or through music, Kyla has played an instrumental role in getting the word out to the public about serious issues.”

Kelly Thompson, Ronald MacDonald House of Central Illinois, 2015

Kelly Thompson moved from public relations director to executive director of the Ronald McDonald House. The nomination said she is an example of how multi-talented PR professionals are and how communications is a critical skill for any successful leader. The nomination focused on the successful $1.2 million “Labor of Love” campaign, funding a total remodel of the 28-year-old RMD house. The house is a home away from home for families with children receiving medical care in Springfield, serving about 400 families annually. “Kelly has contributed much to the communications profession and this chapter. But more importantly, she has made our community a better place.”

Dr. Kemia Sarraf, genHkids Coalition, 2014

In 2008, Dr. Kemia Sarraf founded genHkids (Generation Healthy Kids) coalition in response to what she perceived to be a significant need in the community. This volunteer-based, community-minded, public health effort was based on a simple principal – our children, and we, need to eat real and move more. Dr. Sarraf started with a goal to better educate children about nutrition and fitness and developed her idea into a successful non-profit organization. Her knowledge, commitment and most importantly her ability to communicate her mission have enriched the community.

Kathryn Rem, State Journal-Register, 2013

Kathy Rem has made significant contribution to her profession and has been a communications leader here in Springfield, both in journalism and public relations. After beginning her career as a reporter, she moved to the public side serving as press secretary, PIO and communications director for several state agencies. She returned to journalism nearly twenty years ago as food editor and feature writer for the State Journal-Register. The nomination said Kathy has been known as a voice of experience for women in the SJR newsroom and has mentored many young reporters.

Mary Bohlen, University of Illinois Springfield, 2012

Mary Bohlen was recognized for her outstanding work in helping communications students in her profession as a professor in communication at UIS. She also has been a tireless advocate for communications and the role of the media. Mary has worked to protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education and by raising awareness of the First Amendment via exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech and of the press. With experience as both a reporter and a PR professional, Mary has held various board positions with AWC Springfield including chapter President (1986).

Jan Grimes, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2011

Jan Grimes was director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in Springfield when she was honored. She was an active member of the AWC chapter for many years and served as its chapter President (1993). The nomination for Jan described her as positive, approachable and encouraging – with an infectious, helpful and motivating nature. “She shows you can advance in your profession by sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm and by treating others with consideration and respect. The State of Illinois is all the better with her bringing these qualities to the preservation and promotion of our State’s history.”

Nancy S. Zimmers, SIU School of Medicine, 2002

Nancy Zimmers was recognized while serving as SIU’s director of public affairs (1978-2011). An AWC member since 1971, she helped found Springfield’s chapter in 1977. She was chapter President (1979), chaired AWC’s Midwest regional meeting (1982) and held various board positions. She co-chaired an effort creating “Making News in Mr. Lincoln’s Hometown,” a media directory and guidebook first published by AWC and the Springfield Chamber of Commerce in 1991. She was an adjunct communication instructor at University of Illinois Springfield. Nancy also shared her PR and media expertise by working as a volunteer consultant for numerous community agencies. (Awarded as the Communicator of the Year Award for “demonstrated achievement in the field of communication and contributing to public education and awareness”)

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