Behind the Headlines With Kathy Jeavons
In PR, there’s no telling what trends will last and what won’t, which means PR pros always need to be on their toes.
Kathy Jeavons, senior vice president of public affairs at Story Partners, a Washington, D.C. strategic public affairs firm, is no stranger to the constant change in PR. In this interview, she reveals what it was like to work in the White House, the major communication trends that have affected the PR industry and how to adapt to those ever-evolving trends.
How did you get your start in PR?
Officially, I suppose it was when I joined the Cleveland, Ohio PR firm Dix & Eaton in 1994. It’s probably more accurate, though, to say I started five years earlier when I joined the White House Office of Communications as Associate Director for Public Liaison.
That job involved using all of the tactics in the PR “toolkit” – crafting messages, staging events, engaging influencers and building coalitions – to promote President George H.W. Bush’s policy agenda.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
Probably losing my job at age 30 when President Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. This is the normal course of events when the presidency changes parties, and all of us White House staffers knew it was coming, but it was still a shock. I was younger, a lot more naïve and not really prepared for it.
So in January of 1993 I was out of a job (along with many other republicans in Washington), and trying to convince potential employers my skill set would translate to the corporate PR world outside of Washington.
It turned out to be a lot tougher than I thought, and it was a very humbling experience. I try to remember that on those days when I am feeling perhaps a bit smarter, more accomplished and more invincible than I should.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as senior vice president of public affairs at Story Partners?
I should start by saying I have joined a top-notch group of strategists and client counselors with an impressive track record of success.
I hope I can add value by bringing some new ideas and additional perspectives gleaned from my 14 years at a global PR firm to add value not just to Story Partners’ existing clients, but also to new clients and to the staff. And I hope I can help the firm enhance its reputation nationally and internationally.
What do you think the keys are to protecting a brand’s reputation?
You have probably heard the industry axiom that goes something like, “a brand is a promise; a reputation is a promise kept.” That is truer today, and harder to do today, than ever before.
I think the two keys are transparency – making sure that what you say really is backed up by what you do (because if it isn’t, you will be found out); and engagement – connecting and interacting with your customers on their terms in ways that are meaningful to them.
How has the world of PR changed over the years?
Like so many things in life, it has become much more complicated. In years past – 10, 15, 20 years ago – public relations could be practiced in silos. That is, you’d pick your target audience (say, investors, or customers), you’d develop a narrative and messages to reach and impact that audience, you’d find the right messengers to carry those messages to that audience and you’d monitor for results.
Today, though, thanks to an increasingly fragmented, 24/7 news cycle and the exponential rise of social media and other “flattening” technologies, audiences are more aware, more skeptical and so much more interconnected than ever before.
You can’t say one thing to one audience (say, customers) without other audiences in the “ecosystem” (say, policymakers or investors) knowing about it. And I think this trend is going to continue for a long time. It makes our jobs very challenging, but exciting at the same time.
How do you envision the future of PR?
I think our industry will continue to evolve, innovate and find new and creative ways to use the ever-changing, ever-expanding array of digital and social media offerings available to us.
I do wonder, though, if at some point we’ll reach a tipping point and perhaps revert back to some of the more traditional, “quality over quantity” and “real versus virtual” ways to communicate. I also think it will be very interesting to see how and where PR will continue to intersect, complement and perhaps overtake advertising in terms of ROI.
What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in PR?
First, don’t force yourself to major in communication or something similar in college because you think it will help you get a job. I know I am a contrarian by saying this, but I think college graduates who have a solid liberal arts background and major in something that interests them (like English, history or anthropology), learn how to think analytically and how to develop and support a theory or point of view and communicate it.
Second, be intellectually curious. One of the best things about PR – and specifically about agency life – is that you have the opportunity to work with so many different clients, with different issues, in different industries, facing different challenges.
Third, be open to change and willing to learn from it. If there is one constant in PR, it is change. Many of the tactics and tools we deploy today are vastly different from the ones we used several years ago, let alone decades ago, (I know this totally dates me, but I remember in my White House days how excited we were about the concept of a “blast fax”), and they will be vastly different from the ones we deploy two years from now.
Rapid Fire Round
1. I always thought I’d be…working at an art museum or auction house.
2. My daily newspaper of choice is…The Washington Post.
3. The last movie I watched is…The Big Short.
4. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…knowing that something unexpected will happen.
5. My guiltiest pleasure is…planning exotic vacations.
6. My favorite social media platform is…Medium.
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