Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian
SPEAKER: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated college?
SPEAKER: Oh that’s a lot of math! My current job title is communications and professional development manager at Smithsonian affiliations. Been there for 10 years, and I graduated in 2001, so that’s what, 17 years since college [laughter]?
SPEAKER: Right. And how long have you been in this field?
SPEAKER: Wow this field – forever. This is the field that I knew I was going to be in, so I started interning and volunteering in museums when I was in high school.
SPEAKER: Great, great. Can you provide a brief description of what your primary job functions are?
SPEAKER: So, that’s an interesting question when you talk to people who work in a quasi-governmental situation because we have many hats. So my primary responsibilities would basically be to provide consistent messaging for the Smithsonian to our Smithsonian affiliate. So that’s in different cities or states where we have affiliates, it’s clear what their relationship to the Smithsonian is and there’s no brand confusion. So I also get to tell stories about how the two organizations, or all the organizations, work together to enrich local neighborhoods. So I do a lot of storytelling online and offline.
SPEAKER: Great, thank you. Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing – zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50, 50 to 75 percent, or 75 to 100?
SPEAKER: 75 to 100 percent. That’s pretty much what I do.
SPEAKER: Great. What forms are kinds of writing or documents do you most often complete in your job?
SPEAKER: Mostly they are– so I do press releases, I do blogs, I write newsletter copy and marketing material. I also write project proposals and things like that. So it runs the gamut from sort of conversational writing and blogs, to more focused journalistic writing, to more sort of commercial business writing. So it’ s a lot of different things.
SPEAKER: Great. And so for those kinds of documents, who would you say typically are your primary audiences?
SPEAKER: So I have two primary audiences – one is in an internal audience, which is the collective Smithsonian, to raise awareness of what we do and how our affiliates are; and then our external audience is to our Smithsonian affiliates and potential affiliates, so those organizations that are in partnership with the Smithsonian.
SPEAKER: Great. And the purposes are goals for those kinds of documents with those audiences?
SPEAKER: So the purposes or goals f or talking to affiliates is to make sure that they know what resources are available to them from the Smithsonian, and how important their collaborations are and how they impact local communities.
SPEAKER: Great. Could you perhaps walk me through the process of one specific recent project or kind of project, starting from a writing assignment or task is given to you, what kind of preparation you do, and then the steps you take from the beginning of the project to completion?
SPEAKER: Sure. So the biggest thing that I have going on actually coming up this weekend – it starts about a year in advance and said it’s called Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day. And for that there are a ton of organizations actually involved in it. So the best part of it is that I get to tell stories about a bunch of different things on a bunch of different platforms. So not only am I writing a press release, I’m also planning social media, and I’m doing that both for internal and external people. So I always start out writing an outline of what I want to talk about, and why I’m writing, and who I’m writing for, because sometimes it can be very different. So we usually do two kinds of press releases. S o one will be sort of one from our office that says, “This is what we’re doing and it’s very exciting and this is when it’s happening. ” But then there’s a template that I have to write that can be used by our affiliate organizations where they have to fill in information that I can’t fill in. So I have to write it with blank spots and make sure that it still makes sense at the end of it. And so that I lay out in sort of her very different way than planning a social media strategy, which is definitely more conversational, so in that way I try to identify the most interesting stories that I can find that are going to happen on that day, or around the topic and things like that. And then I map it out on different days, and try not to overlap themes, and then I go into the creation of actually writing the spots and drafting or, you know, scheduling them.
SPEAKER: Great. So how did you know or how did you learn how to do this kind of writing?
SPEAKER: So the public relations with press releases I sort of learned in college My minor was mass communications, so I did, you know, the minimum required to say that I had a minor in college. So I had taken a few classes on public relations, but as an art history major I knew that I loved writing, and you know, everything was basically an essay, so I knew how to write things. It wasn’t until my first job after grad school that I actually was hired as a public relations officer, and I got to actually produce and write these kind of things, and talked to journalists and pitched stories and everything, and that was back in the day when there actually wasn’t really– nothing was being done on social media or really online, so you actually had to take, you know, people out to lunch and write these things and submit them in person or mail or anything like that. So I had to learn on the job for a lot of that, and then it just sort of grew from there. For social media, that was absolutely being forced into something [chuckle] because we didn’t have anyone else to do it. So I had to learn as I went along and I feel like I’m still learning that.
SPEAKER: Great. So you know, you’ve talked a lot about learning on the job, especially you know, sort of in the advent of social media and how that has affected, you know, your job now. Can you think of a specific time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer at work?
SPEAKER: Oh my gosh yes. I still feel that way sometimes. I think it’s always a learning experience and you know, things change all the time. So with social media it’s just it changes so quickly, and the fact that you have to be clever on the spot is something that I’ve had to really get used to, because I’m used to drafting and redrafting, and checking and making sure everything makes sense, and you don’t have that luxury a lot of times when you’re doing stuff on social media.
SPEAKER: Great. So when you find yourself in those moments where you’re kind of learning or adjusting or feeling unsure about you know, these new kinds of writing, what do you feel is productive in terms of overcoming those kind of challenges? What’s your strategy in those situations?
SPEAKER: Research. I look at what other people are doing. I hire interns because they usually have a, you know, a hand on the pulse of what’s going on because they’re much younger and they’re just living it every day. And I try to go to meetings with– we have a central group of social media people and learn from them and really just try to read and research as much as I can to try to understand it.
SPEAKER: Great, great. Does anybody formally oversee your writing?
SPEAKER: Yes, yes. I do have an associate director that will review things and which– actually I get more than one person to review i t because it’s always good to have different eyes on it.
SPEAKER: And so their title associate director – could you briefly describe what their role is in the organization?
SPEAKER: So she oversees our day-to-day operations and make sure that we are following the organization’s goals and strategies. So she is right underneath our director, so she helps us with our day-to-day work.
SPEAKER: Great. And so you mentioned sort of accuracy there. How else would you say she judges the success or quality of your written work?
SPEAKER: Well I think sometimes she has a better viewpoint on the bigger picture. I’m usually a lot of times working on a specific project, so I know that project in detail, so sometimes that’s how it connects to a lot of other things. She helps bring me that kind of viewpoint to mix in to what I’m writing
SPEAKER: Great. So how long do you typically have to complete a writing project from start to finish?
SPEAKER: That’s a tough question because it really depends on what I’m working on. So, you know, if it’s a press release, depending on where it’s going to go, I try to do those a couple of months in advance. The farther out I can schedule social media the better, but sometimes that’s the day of. And I’m working on some project proposals right now that are probably due in a few months, so it really just depends on the project.
SPEAKER: Sure, sure. S o you mentioned, you know, some essay writing in art history and stuff like that. Are there other specific kinds of writing you remember being asked to do as a student? And if so in what ways do you think your college writing experiences has prepared or did not prepare you to write in your job now?
SPEAKER: So it’s funny. So when I was in grad school I had to write a dissertation and I’d never written anything that long in my life. So learning how, you know, how long that took and the research involved in writing something that is like a book was tough. And so when I got my first job, I knew how to write academically but I had to learn on the job how to not write academically, and be more concise, and in public relations training you gotta get to the point ‘ cause nobody wants to read an academic paper. So I had to adjust to that. And then when I started working in social media you have even less space to work in that you have to adapt to. So I think that was huge for me as well.
SPEAKER: Great. What do you think would have been most useful for you to do or learn when you were a student that you think would have kind of helped you ease that transition into your job now?
SPEAKER: Wouldn’t it have been really nice if I could see into the future and know that social media was coming ‘Cause it just didn’t exist [laughter]. So I think being able to better anticipate how seeing the immediacy of everything now where, when you’re doing public relations, everything happens online first. You don’t get that luxury of preparing a statement, you’ve just got to be ready to write something. You know, I think that would’ve been great to learn is some sort of crisis communication because we did, but you know, you had time [chuckle].
SPEAKER: Sure, yeah. So I mean this kind of leads us to our next question and you’re talking about the immediacy of public relations in the social media sphere – what’s at stake then with your writing, particularly when you think about the immediacy i n which you need to kind of churn out a message?
SPEAKER: Oh you don’t have time to fact check as much as you’d like, and you know, sometimes you are wrong and you have to address it. So having your facts straight beforehand or having a really solid social media plan is really important, and because that’s not a primary sort of goal in our office, we wing it a lot of times, and so we have to be really careful that we have at least looked into the facts of it and s o that we don’t have to go back on and say, “Just kidding! “
SPEAKER: Right. And so for your non-social media writing that you do, what are the sort of best case scenario results for successful writing versus the consequences for maybe unsuccessful pieces?
SPEAKER: So I mean, best case is that it gets to the Smithsonian secretary’s desk if he sees– he read something about the impact the Smithsonian is having in a local community because of our affiliates. And the worst thing is when I get something wrong and I have an affiliate call me and say you know, “This is a great story but you’ve misrepresented what we do, ” and that has happened to me before So as much fact checking as you can do, sometimes people just get it wrong
SPEAKER: Sure. Do you feel in those sort of circumstances that either your organizational or your personal reputation is sort of stake with writing?
SPEAKER: No I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way, I think of it as a learning experience more often than not. I’m not in a position as a journalist or anything like that where my reputation could be at stake. It’s more of a for me, a client relationship that I don’t want my affiliates to think that I was either making something up or trying to show them in a light that they’re not in or anything like that. So I feel more probably upset that our organization may look bad more than it affecting me personally, if that makes sense.
SPEAKER: Sure, sure. What do you think the most difficult thing is about writing in your particular position?
SPEAKER: I have too many people that have to review it so it takes forever [chuckle]. But really I think it’s determining which audience I’m really writing for, because we do have a lot of stakeholders. So sometimes I have to write for multiple audiences in one document and that gets hard.
SPEAKER: Oh yeah, definitely. That’s great. So what are you most looking at in order to make those kinds of decisions when you have so many people reviewing your writing, or so many different potential stakeholders? What are the kinds of things that you think about before you put pen to paper?
SPEAKER: Well I’m always thinking of the end goal – why am I writing it, what’s the ultimate outcome I want to see, and who am I writing for? And usually if I can get those things down and put the content in there, most of my editors are really just reading it to see that it flows well and there’s no grammatical errors or I haven’t turned too conversational, because sometimes that happens, in that I’d be used to writing a blog then have to go write something else and I get too whimsical.
SPEAKER: Sure [chuck le]. Has anybody hoped you with your writing formally or informally since college?
SPEAKER: Oh sure, yeah. I try to get out to a continuing education class, I’ve taken a couple in public relations over the years, some marketing classes, social media, just to– because I don’t assume that I know everything and you know that things haven’t changed. So I need to go in there and get refreshers in a lot of things. I do some sort of updating online because you have to.
SPEAKER: Sure., that’s great How do you believe that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career so far?
SPEAKER: I’ve learned to be much more concise. I think the biggest feedback ever got in college was that I was very descriptive and I could write, you know, a super long essay about something and finally get to the point, and that was fine for some things, but for business writing and for public relations writing, a lot of times I need to get to it in a page, and so I’ve had to learn and it’s been really helpful in a lot of the things that I do to be concise and get to the point.
SPEAKER: Great, thank you. To what extent do you think that writing is valued in your particular organization and in your field as a whole?
SPEAKER: I think it’s huge. I think it’s an incredibly important piece especially in our organization, because we have to tell the stories of the Smithsonian’s impact in local neighborhoods to basically make sure people know the worth of our program and that width through all of our affiliates. We are definitely engaging people that may not ever engage with the Smithsonian in their own hometowns. And that goes for people outside of the Smithsonian as well as inside, because we are not a museum, we don’t have a collection, we don’t create exhibitions. Our product is the people and the things of the entire institution. So, you know, we have to be able to be good storytellers and to really write persuasively to get Smithsonian people to want to work with us, and to collaborate with our affiliates, and to make our affiliates feel special when things do go out there, that we are telling the right stories about their communities.
SPEAKER: Great. And you feel that that’s consistent across public relations as a discipline, too?
SPEAKER: It probably varies. I think a lot of other people at the Smithsonian, you know, they are more specific to one organization or one exhibition and theirs is more probably project focused, mine usually is more general and talking about the sort of whole state of our affiliate network.
SPEAKER: Great, sure, sure. So last two questions here. First, how did you define successful writing when you were a student versus how you define success for writing now?
SPEAKER: That’s funny [chuckle], that’s a great question. In college I got an A or I passed, and my paper didn’t come back bleeding with corrections – that’s how I knew, you know, when I finally got a paper back that kind of looked like how I turned it in. So that was nice. And in the business world it’s sort of similar actually, in that when I have to have it reviewed, everybody writes back and just says, “Good to go. ” I mean that’s ideal is that I’ve nailed it the first time so things can move quickly and I’ve gotten the message across as clearly as possible.
SPEAKER: Great. And would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?
SPEAKER: Do I consider myself?
SPEAKER: Yes. Do I consider? I would say like 80 percent of the time because the sort of unfortunate situation in my office is that we all wear a lot of hats, so I don’t get to really focus on one thing. So a lot of times I don’t have as much time to devote to writing the best stories and I’m really just trying to do something as quickly as possible so that we have something out there. If I had more time I would have loved to be able to write more and tell better stories.
SPEAKER: Thank you. Thank you so much.