Behind the Headlines With Susannah Malarkey
Convincing your audience to take action is no easy task. If you don’t share the stories that they want to hear, they won’t pay attention to you – and you certainly won’t motivate them.
Susannah Malarkey, senior advisor at APCO Worldwide, says you have to start by telling an authentic story. If you are genuine, your audience will be more likely to listen to you.
In this interview, Susannah discusses the importance of listening carefully to those around you, why you can’t rely on guesswork when developing a communication strategy and how learning about your audience will improve your communication.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as senior advisor at APCO Worldwide?
We are living in times of transformational change, and the broader Northwest tech community is a major force in creating that disruption. At APCO, I am focused on connecting the tech community to APCO Worldwide and to the unique services we can provide to them as the sector continues to grow and evolve.
What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
It is a lesson I am still learning and will continue to work on throughout my life. The lesson is to listen carefully and be truly present when I am with others and even when I am alone with myself.
We are so distracted much of the time and so often miss important moments because we are thinking ahead or thinking of the last conversation or checking our smart phone or waiting for our chance to talk. Listening carefully takes energy, but it pays off in spades.
You were in your previous role as executive director of Technology Alliance for 20 years. How has the public affairs industry changed since you started that organization?
Twenty years ago, almost every company of any real size had an in-house public affairs staff. If I wanted to pull together a task force to address an issue, there were company-based government affairs or community relations professionals I could call.
Now it is only the largest companies and the regulated industries that invest in in-house teams. Some companies are now beginning to realize that just having a contract lobbyist may not be enough, but it usually takes an issue really blowing up before companies see the need to invest in public affairs.
What role does social media play in your job?
Social media is part of how the world communicates today, and it is infused into all of our communication services. In short, it’s integral to everything we do.
How does research inform your communication strategy? What else is involved?
I am a huge believer in research as the basis for any work I do, and that was one of the reasons I was drawn to APCO. APCO Insight is our in-house, full-service global opinion research firm and plays a role in almost everything we do.
Clients these days don’t have the luxury of guessing; they want a partner who does its homework and serves its clients with well-researched recommendations. Learning new topics and gaining new insights is what makes this kind of work endlessly challenging and super fun.
How do you develop a communication strategy that inspires action?
It has to have a story that people want to hear and create a “need to know” on the part of the listener. Once you have caught their attention, and then gained their buy-in and belief in the story you are telling, you have gone a long way towards inspiring action.
But it all has to start with the truth. It has to be authentic and come from the heart. And you have to accept that you cannot motivate 100 percent of the people to action 100 percent of the time no matter how compelling you are.
What advice do you have for organizations looking to improve their communication strategies?
Begin with doing your research. Find out what your own people think of you and listen to what they know to find out how you are actually being perceived. Try to learn the surprising things and the difficult things that you may have no clue about as the leadership group.
Talk to your customers. Get a 360-degree view of how the world sees you and then take a hard look at it and say “Is this really us? Is this the story we want to be telling about ourselves? If not – how can we change who we are now to actually become who we aspire to be?”
If you are truly being misperceived, then you can begin to address that. But you cannot create an effective strategy without first facing the truth.
Rapid Fire Round
1. I always thought I’d be…a I actually started out as a preschool teacher many years ago and believe me, learning how to effectively wrangle a group of 3-year-olds is a skill I have found extremely useful in many other settings since!
2. My biggest pet peeve is…people who jump up in the middle of a meeting with no forewarning to take care of something that is now clearly way more important than you, even though they may have asked to see you rather than the other way around. I know sometimes it is unavoidable, but I really appreciate it when someone says “I need to warn you that I currently have a client in crisis so I may have to excuse myself from this meeting briefly to handle it.” Then, when the interruption comes, I know it is for something truly important and crucial, and you get my empathy rather than my resentment.
3. My daily news source is…The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and Geekwire, our online regional tech business news source. I read a lot of other stuff too, but those three I read daily.
4. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…the chance to learn new things and contribute to this region I call home with a team of super smart and creative people. You can’t do better than that.
5. If I could have lunch with anyone, it would be…Hillary Clinton. I would love to help her hone her innovation strategy as she heads into the craziness ahead.
6. My hobbies outside of work include…my newest hobby is ceramics, which I absolutely love. There is nothing more engrossing than taking a lump of clay, putting it in motion on a wheel, and, through hard effort and trial and error, turning it into a bowl or a cup or a vase.
It requires lots of concentration and puts me into the “now” in a way that is like nothing else I have ever done. It can be joyful and frustrating, and is always super challenging. I just started throwing pots a year ago but I know it is going to keep me engaged and learning for decades to come.
I am also a gardener and grow vegetables in raised boxes on the parking strip in front of my house. And no—no one steals my vegetables, although I admit I grow my tomatoes on my back deck! I also love making jams and chutneys for friends and family – I have to brag that my apricot jam is really the best thing you could ever put on a toasted English muffin.
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