August 9, 2023
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Pono Suganuma presented with Hōkūpa‘a Young Public Relations Professional of the Year award

USU JCOM alumna receives prestigious young professional award 

By Bobbee Russell 

Five years after earning her bachelor’s degree from Utah State University, an alumna was presented with the Hōkūpa‘a Young Public Relations Professional of the Year award by Hawai‘i’s chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. 

Graduating in 2018 from Journalism and Communication with an emphasis in public relations, Pono Suganuma, was ecstatic when she heard the news.  

Suganuma was nominated for the award by her colleagues at Bennet Group Strategic Communications, a Honolulu, Hawai‘i-based public relations firm. 

In a video that premiered at the awards ceremony, her client Jay Ana, Young Brothers President, said she’s “never folded in the face of adversity and always up to the challenge.”  

Another client, Suzanne Young, Honolulu Board of Realtors CEO said she has grand ideas “and Pono never shoots them down. As a young professional, she is so confident.”  

Suganuma didn’t hear what her clients said until the ceremony. Her team added an element of surprise to the ceremony with posters congratulating her. 

“People were standing and clapping, and my mouth just dropped,” Suganuma said.  

She summarized the night as an “overwhelming and surreal experience.”   

With all of her excitement, she informed her USU JCOM professors. "I wanted to make sure they knew the impact they had on me in and outside of the classroom. I still feel connected even though I’m 3,000 miles away,” Suganuma said.  

She says each professor taught her something different. She’s grateful for Steve Reiher who taught her the importance of knowing the audience and key messages.  

Matthew LaPlante taught her how to write a compelling argument and conduct herself professionally. "It's a lot of tough love but that’s the real world,” Suganuma said.  

She also wants to thank Dr. Candi Carter Olson and Dr. Debra Monson who advised her capstone and supported her for important events. “They really shaped me as a person and taught me the ins and outs of PR plus communication in general. I can’t put it into words,” Suganuma said.  

Suganuma also credits Brian Champagne for her multimedia skills. “[Those are] my distinguished skills at my firm. That’s what they turn to me for,” Suganuma said.  

She’s worked at Bennet Group for four years. She handles issues management and crisis communications for affordable housing, real estate, nonprofits, education, and inter-island transportation.  

“The work we are doing has real impact on the community here in Hawai‘i. We are trying to shape Hawai‘i for the better,” Suganuma said.  

Suganuma describes her team at Bennet Group as “small but mighty.” Her boss, Joan Bennet, values promoting and uplifting the team and providing them with growth and professional development opportunities. She worked her way up from the title of Account Executive to Senior Account Manager.  

“It’s not common for me to have the title I do at this point in my career. Even if I look at other agencies in Hawai‘i [my team and I] would not be at this level without the mentorship and leadership of Joan Bennet,” Suganuma said.  

This is the second year in a row Suganuma received an award from the PRSA Hawai‘i chapter. Last year, she earned two awards for ant NHPI COVID-19 Collective Awareness and Prevention Campaign, which strived to protect the health and well-being of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities during the pandemic through culturally tailored messaging. This year, she also received five awards for media relations strategy, multimedia content, and a set of brand and communications standards she helped produce.