This interview is the first part I of a three part series on Global Public Relations, Mindful Curation and Communities and Engagement with public relations and communication management strategist, Judy Gombita.
I first “met” Judy during a Twitter chat in 2012. I was immediately drawn into a “conversation” with her thoughtful, warm hearted people approach and found myself pulling up my virtual chair for the remainder of the hour enthralled by the conversations unfolding around me.
Since then, Judy has become a vital part of my daily virtual life. As a trusted curator I look to her and her posts regularly for insights on public relations, community building, thoughtful engagement and mindful curation (not only with Paper.li!).
Judy is as generous with sharing as she is rich in knowledge so I asked her for an interview to share her thoughts across a variety of subjects with the community at large.
A short side-note before we begin this three part interview. One of Judy’s strengths is her long-form writing and thinking. This interview intentionally remains in a long-read format.
Describe your background in public relations and communication management, in particular how professional and personal history aids you in being an online information curator and/or community builder.
Regarding how my career has evolved, it’s important to know that earlier in my life I planned to be a journalist. First, though, I wanted to do a liberal arts university degree—I chose a double-specialist program in English and History. The University of Toronto and my various professors had a huge impact on two overarching skills I developed: research and critical thinking. As a BA involves a lot of term papers, writing numerous fact-based yet interesting and creative essays also proved great training for my eventual calling. My program involved a fourth-level “independent study,” where the entire grade was based on one paper. I did have a faculty advisor I met with monthly, but otherwise all aspects were my sole responsibility—productivity, research, original-thesis topic selection and writing, etc.
Although the plan was to pursue a second degree in journalism, I ended up taking a school hiatus (for both a mental break and financial reasons). My first two jobs following university both had as a component newsletters and special events planning for stakeholders and I began to warm to the idea of being an in-house scribe on a permanent basis. I did complete a part-time Certificate in Magazine Journalism from Ryerson University, which was a great program to learn formal project management, copy editing, writing, editing and design and layout skills, which certainly came in handy over the ensuing years.
I was hired to work at a large provincial professional accountants’ association at a junior administrative and communication level and ended up spending a double-digit number of years there. It really was a deep-dive into communication management and numerous stakeholder relationship building in the financial sector, as I progressed over the years to managing or assisting in every aspect of written and spoken (speechwriting, briefing notes and talking points) communication except for the paid advertising. The last few years were when I did full-time public relations.
When I took on editorship of the flagship publication, I introduced several things like broadening its mandate, instituting an editorial advisory board and, for the first time, recruiting permanent columnists as subject experts. (I also worked with different member subject-experts as editor of a great series of information booklets and pamphlets.) Another feature I ran for a few years was called Accounting for Your Spare Time, in which a member would describe a particular hobby or passion unrelated to finance.
It’s interesting that it was only in 2011 that the Edelman Trust Barometer identified internal experts as a trusted resource, as I had appreciated subject-expert from my years recruiting writers.
I wrote about it in one of my two submissions for (Australian) Craig Pearce’s Public relations 2011: issues, insights and ideas ebook, Internal journo and SEO expert; new ‘trust’ calisthenics for the PR pro.
It was what, a year later, that “content marketing” became all of the rage…
Most of my time employed at this association was spent working, often closely, with a leader whose knowledge about and respect for the organization, its membership, employee base and external publics (e.g., the Ontario Government) was unparalleled. This individual is incredibly smart, yet self-effacing, and a beautiful writer and speaker. But what I appreciated the most was his kindness and generosity in encouraging and nurturing me in various communication roles. I spent many after-hours in his office, where we would discuss an incredibly wide range of topics and interests, often unrelated to our association work. He appeared as interested in my thoughts and opinions as I was in his. I still cherish that time and it was one reason I was so incredibly sad when he decided to retire—as were other staff. And the culture of the organization definitely changed with the next CEO, which I’ve come to learn is the norm.
Both my education and work experience help me as a current online information curator and community builder thanks to honed skills and abilities in research, critical thinking, determining interesting subject experts (to profile and/or recruit as writers) and, in particular, building genuine relationships with various stakeholders. It’s gratifying how many past member officials and staff, columnists and profile subjects I worked with continue to send me a LinkedIn invitation.
Has your understanding or appreciation for public relations evolved or changed in recent years? If yes, how and why?
Definitely, in two areas: internal communications and corporate culture (as determined by the current leader at the top).
To backtrack a bit, when I was employed in-house in a “public relations” role, I knew that media relations, although important, was only one area in the relationship building and reputation profile efforts. And for most companies if media relations is not related to a new product or service or some other kind of broadcast announcement, generally it’s on the other side of the equation, an operational or executive-performance crisis or another need for reputation and issues management. It’s rare that media relations revolve around the daily narrative of an organization—as a business editor or journalist would say, “Why should I care about that? Why would our readership care?”
In addition to speechwriting and briefing notes for officials, the occasional media release, new or revised information booklets or other written communication, most of my time was spent on building external relationships and helping to “relate” and grow an understanding about the many ways an organization can assist and interact with various stakeholders and publics in a non-commerce capacity. This may not be particularly newsworthy from a media perspective, but it’s definitely valuable for the organizations and individuals concerned.
It’s also very gratifying work. Some of my favourite publics included the charity of choice Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Canada; a non-government agency that helped internationally trained professionals integrate into their new lives; the young adults accepted into the provincial government’s OLIP program; community tax preparation services; etc.
It was curious that I thought of PR as mainly being external, as one of the first things I did when I assumed the editorship of the major publication at my longest employer (in a communication management role) was a series of articles focusing on each department of the organization, so that the external membership could get to know the actual people on staff better.
Yet when I moved to the PR role, at first I didn’t really think of this important internal public as being a major part of the public relations strategy. This changed, somewhat, when I was a key staff member in a comprehensive branding exercise, in particular when we held very successful “brand champions” workshops for all employees.
What really evolved my thinking was becoming involved with PRConversations and getting to know some global thinkers who focus on internal communication in regards to its external impact. Many of them were the original principals or commenters of our blog.
My influencers measure the results or outcomes in numerous ways to prove value.
Particularly in regards to social media, many marketers like to talk about breaking down silos between corporate communications and marketing, believing the lines have blurred. I’ve actually evolved to thinking the superior disruption is to increase the integration between internal and external communication, so that what is being related outside more closely resembles what happens inside.
And the importance of corporate culture and values that are actually practised are part of this relating equation. It’s why I am so fond of the IBM on Brand video that Jon Iwata did. I’ve witnessed first hand how a corporate culture can change, depending on the leader. The impact is quite dramatic, including general mood, productivity and attrition rate (low or high) of this very important internal public.
Being the public relations lead for a company with a well-defined and differentiated mission, corporate culture and values is quite easy. It’s telling how often it’s a marketing-and-profits-driven culture (stemming from the leader with the big pay cheque and obligations to shareholders first and foremost) where the reverse is true.
You can read the first part of this interview in its entirety on slideshare or by downloading the pdf version, where Judy Gombita answers questions about precision in language, social media concepts that drive her crazy and what constitutes an influencer and “thought leader.”
Make sure you connect with Judy!
Judy Gombita is a Toronto-based hybrid public relations, communication management and social media strategist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning non-profit sectors. She is the co-content editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the global, collaborative blog, PRConversations and also wrote a monthly column on social PR on the Maximize Social Business site for two years. Judy is an editorial advisory board member (and contributor) to The Journal of Professional Communication (JPC) (and also curates its Twitter account and G+ and LinkedIn pages).