She started with a boutique PR agency, then made a lateral move into high-tech PR, and eventually landed in-house. Her corporate gigs tended to be with large companies of the international variety – Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent for example.
Such roles often come with a great deal of change in the way of M&A, and after her third merger, she began re-evaluating her career. The result? She has gone academic, which is perhaps, a chance to give back some of what she has learned along the way.
Today she is the faculty director and assistant professor with the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at Georgetown University. Her program is for graduate degree seekers at a nationally acclaimed university, with deep roots in the communications vertical.
Teaching at a college level, she says, might offer a chance to “influence a change in the profession at the beginning of the career cycle rather than trying to influence that change amongst seasoned executives.”
She is Wendy Zajack and she’s my guest for this latest edition of Off Script.
1) What has changed the most about PR over the course of your career?
Two things really stand out to me: a) How I define the scope of the practice (and what I think the word PR means) and b) the tools and technology available to see how a message is taking hold.
There is no doubt in my mind that when I started in PR – and especially when I was in media relations – I stayed completely in my own silo. Then over time, when I realized the entire process of communicating was really a big puzzle, and that if I could influence or partner across a larger community, my message could have an even bigger impact and be even more effective.
I started to find the mix incredibly interesting and powerful. I also liked leveraging both earned and paid content together. I saw how much they can support each other.
As for the tools – I would have killed to have them when I started. I had a fax machine, a phone and FedEx when I started pitching. Yes – being hung up on was feedback, but in today’s world, there are so many great opportunities to find out if something is working.
I tell my students all the time – the core skills have not changed – excellent messaging and a deep understanding of how to reach your audience (emotionally and tactically) but having so many more ways to do this is a huge opportunity.
2) Do you think PR is becoming more like marketing – or is marketing becoming more like PR?
To be honest I am not really sure it matters. I feel like when I started in PR more than 20 years ago, a Venn diagram of PR and Marketing would have shown little overlap. Once social media started, that overlap started to increase and I don’t think it will stop anytime soon.
What I do think matters is that both disciplines (depending on the industry) are considered by many in the board room to be ‘soft skills’ and therefore not as important as other disciplines – especially when compared to sales, operations and finance. At the end of the day, marketing and communications are a cost center and have to constantly show value.
The more we can work together, the more we can dispel this myth. I think both sides bring a lot of skills to each that can make the individual practices better: PR (broad view of the big picture and great words) – marketing good view of the customer story and a stronger history of measurement models (ROI and KPIs).
I think it is time to bury the hatchet and start working together to be seen as the strategic business resource we are.
Want to be part of the Off Script series?
Boots on the ground interviews with PR, marketing, sales leaders
and the occasional journalist.
Please refer a credible colleague!
3) You’ve spent a lot of time in telecom with Alcatel-Lucent and later Nokia, what is one corporate communication challenge that’s unique to that space, and how did you overcome it?
Communicating using simple, jargon-free language. I don’t think this problem is unique to telecom but to anyone in a technical space working with scientists and engineers.
I remember once I was at a dinner with a bunch of Alcatel-Lucent execs and we were talking about the word ‘latency’ which in networking terms means ‘delay’ – i.e. when you push a button on a game how much time does it take the game to react.
Everyone at my table was arguing that this was a word everyone knew. I said, “okay – let’s ask the waiter if he knows.” So, he came over and I asked what is latency – he was immediately embarrassed and started stammering – because he had no clue.
In any industry, it is easy to become accustomed to a way of talking that is just not easy for people not from that industry to understand. It is something we as communicators need to constantly push against. I always encouraged my teams and those I supported to talk to people outside of the industry to make sure the language they were using was understandable to all.
4) In a large organization, like the ones you’ve worked in, how do you prove the value of communications to the business?
First, you need to understand what your business wants to achieve. This is one area I am extremely passionate about with my students – to be strategic we must understand the business we are working within (the industry) – and also the individual needs of the businesses you serve.
If you don’t understand what your leader is trying to accomplish you cannot show them how good communications can help them do that. This may also mean you need to help them understand why the tactic they know and love – the press release – may work for one situation but not another. So, the first part is listening very carefully, understanding the end game – and then coming up with a plan to help them do that.
The last part is to then measure your results. I will admit for as much as I love to talk – early in my career I made the mistake of not showing enough how valuable the work I was doing was to the businesses I was supporting. This is a constant cycle of listening, responding, measuring and reporting – once you do this consistently over time and become a valuable advisor you can spend a lot less time proving your overall value.
See these related interviews:
Over-reliance on Marketing Automation…Off Script #16: Ted Seward
Marketing Principles Remain the Same; Off Script #15: Jeff Beale
The Pressure for Clicks; Off Script #14: Erik Sherman, Freelance Journalist
5) How can corporate communications get better results from their PR agency?
Like anything else in the entire world – business included – it all comes down to the relationships you have.
My philosophy (for both internal or external teams) has always been you are going to work harder and better for people you enjoy working with. I think the more open relationship you can have with your agency, the more you can share your business and your challenges the better the work they can do for you will be.
I always saw and treated my agency as an extension of my team and did not put up a huge wall throwing them the bits of the work we were unable or unwilling to do.
This ensured a close partnership, seamless handoffs and most importantly a steady flow of creative ideas and problem-solving going both ways. When you are stuck in a mostly internal world – working with an agency is a great way to stay current and get fresh ideas – don’t block them from being able to contribute. If you don’t trust them enough to share – find another agency.
6) As a corporate communicator turned educator, what is the single most important skill you think PR pros need to possess?
Besides the most basic ability that I still think matters – ability to write and crystallize a base message – the other is strategic or critical thinking.
I think this is what separates the worker bees from the queen bee – is the ability to problem-solve quickly as well as make decisions. I find a challenge for my students (and I saw this is the workplace) is fear of making a decision and perhaps even the bigger one – fear of being wrong.
Part of being strategic, to me, is being able and comfortable with making decisions, following how those play out but also being able to move in a new direction if they aren’t working – or put more muscle behind a campaign quickly if it is taking hold.
7) Fill in the blank:
- One company you with marketing you admire is Starbuck: The Unicorn Frappuccino (pure genius)
- Your favorite marketing campaign of all time is: Dove: Real Beauty
- One account you recommend following on Twitter is: @NPR
- One publication or blog you read regularly is: The Daily Skimm
- If you weren’t doing what you do now you’d be: Writing books on a beach
* * *
You can find more from Wendy on Twitter and LinkedIn. She also occasionally contributes her ideas to the web:
- LinkedIn: Choosing the Less Traveled Path Mid-Career
- LinkedIn: When ‘Soft Skills’ Translate into Hard Financials
- Georgetown: What is IMC?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Alpharetta a High-Tech Secret; Off Script #13: GSU EiR Bill Bradford
Photo credit: Flickr, Mr.TinDC, Georgetown from TR Island (CC BY-ND 2.0)