Behind the Headlines with Poppy MacDonald

Taking advantage of opportunities, honing your skills, and following the needs of customers to craft your strategy are just a few of the vital ways to make your way in the communications field.

In September, Poppy MacDonald joined POLITICO U.S. as their new president. As a veteran who helped to launch POLITICO PRO, she was excited to rejoin the company after spending time as the publisher and president of the National Journal.

Uniquely poised at the helm of this political publication in a time of turmoil, Poppy sat down with us to discuss her experiences, the political communication industry, and the available opportunities for growth and impact in today’s environment.

How did you get your start in communications?  

My first role in communications was serving as press secretary for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. I had been hired out of college as a legislative correspondent, drafting responses to constituent mail. When the press secretary role opened up in the office, I made a case that as a constituent and someone who had spent the last year writing in the Senator’s voice and getting to know his policy positions, I was equally qualified to applicants with actual experience serving as a press secretary. I was fortunate that the Senator and his chief of staff decided to take a chance on me and gave me the job.

What do you like most about working in the communications industry? What do you like least?

I most like the opportunity to take a complex idea or concept and figure out how to simply and effectively communicate it back to an audience in a way that resonates. I least like that it can be viewed as a part of the organization where it is hard to quantify the return on investment.

What are you most excited for in your new role as POLITICO president? What insight do you feel you bring having been at POLITICO before? 

I am most excited for the opportunity to join POLITICO on the eve of a historic election. POLITICO has experienced record traffic during this election year and is growing at a time when other media companies are shrinking, but I truly believe we are just in the early stages of our biggest editorial impact. After the election, people will be looking to POLITICO to explain what the outcome will mean for the country, who the new leaders will be in the cabinet and in Congress, and how it will impact policy. 2017 will be another defining moment for POLITICO to dominate coverage of politics and policy, and continue to be the most indispensable source of journalism in Washington.

I’m also excited about the next generation of POLITICO leadership running the company as we enter our second decade. POLITICO has recently named a new editor,  a new General Manager and VP for Audience Solutions, and a new Chief Technology Officer. Also, Playbook co-authors Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer have brought a fresh perspective to our flagship product and have made it an even buzzier, must-read email for the current and next generation of Washington influencers.

The insight that I am able to bring to POLITICO is that the strength of the organization is the people behind the brand. I’m so fortunate to work with a team of smart, driven people who are passionate about their work. The energy of the team is palpable, and I felt fortunate that in that aspect, the organization, while far larger in size and scope and now sitting in a gorgeous new space, was the same as when I worked here before.

It has been said that you are both inventive and a master at listening to the audience of your publications. How did you gain those skills and how do you best hone them in your leadership positions? What do you feel is most important to being an effective leader? 

Listening is a skill I picked up early in my career as a press secretary. Although before I had the job I would have assumed it was all about putting a message out, it was clear to me that understanding how to relate that message to your audience, whether directly to a specific reporter or through a press release targeting a larger audience, would be the key to my success in the role. That ethic continued in my career as I learned how to listen to a customer to understand how to effectively position and sell a product, how to create or modify a product to best serve their needs, or how to address their concerns through a service or product solution. I continue to hone these skills by ensuring I’m constantly interacting with our customers and prioritizing client meetings to stay sharp on our market. Ultimately, I would be leading the organization in the wrong direction if I wasn’t always bringing our strategy back to the needs of our customers and potential clients.

What has been your favorite moment or accomplishment in your career thus far?

Launching POLITICO’s first paid subscription product, POLITICO Pro, is certainly a favorite moment. When I joined POLITICO there was an early idea for a vertical based subscription, but I had the opportunity to be involved at the ground level of conducting one-on-one interviews with potential subscribers, hosting pre-launch dinners with notable influencers in the Washington community, and ultimately being the first person to take the product to market. Shortly after I began building a sales and account management team, and my third hire, Bobby Moran, is now running the Pro business, which has grown to over ten times the size when it started five years ago.

What is the largest difficulty or hurdle you’ve had to overcome, and how did you come back from it? 

When I began my career, I looked very young for my age. In most cases, I had to work harder for people to take me seriously; but in one specific case, a client phoned my boss and demanded I be taken off a new account and asked for a more senior partner. My boss refused, even if it meant losing the account, and gave me the advice that I needed to go back to the client immediately to address her concerns. I have never faced a meeting I dreaded more, but I found when I addressed her concerns directly, outlined my experience, my success with other clients, and my early observations of her organization and how I could help her achieve her goals, we were able to move past her initial concerns and work productively together for several years.

What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in the communication field, specifically political communications?

My advice would be to get your foot in the door, in any job (whether answering phones, mail or volunteering) and leverage that opportunity to not only prove your work ethic and passion for the job, but also to learn from those around you. There is always far too much work to be done whether on a campaign or in a Congressional office, and you will get opportunities to learn and grow just by presenting yourself as a capable person, willing to help with any task, at any hour of the day.

Rapid Fire Round! 

  1. My ideal day off would include…a long hike and a glass of Oregon pinot noir
  2. My hero is…Eleanor Roosevelt
  3. If I was going to sing karaoke, I would sing….I Feel Lucky
  4. If I could only eat one meal for the rest of my life, it would be….sashimi
  5. The best gift I have ever received is…my grandmother’s charm bracelet
  6. If I could master one skill I do not currently have, it would be…eye-hand coordination

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