PR Pros: Mary Guiden Of KNB Communications On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro
An Interview With Kristen Shea
Capitalize on your strengths. As a follow-up to my previous tip, you will hopefully choose a career that highlights your strengths. The job market is highly competitive and it’s important for you to set yourself apart from the competition.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Mary Guiden.
Mary Guiden is an award-winning writer and media relations manager at KNB Communications. She has worked in public relations and communications since 2005, following a career in journalism. As a reporter, she covered women’s health, healthcare, health policy, and music in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Denver, and Seattle.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My move into PR did not follow a straight line, but I learned a lot along the way while trying to find the best career for myself, given my skills and interests. I wanted to major in English in college, but my parents said I would never find a job, so I majored in economics and French and worked for several French companies in Chicago after I graduated from DePauw University. It only took me a few years to realize that business was not the realm for me. While pursuing graduate studies in education at Indiana University, I wrote news stories for The Bloomington Voice and continued writing for alternative newsweeklies when I worked at JHPIEGO, an international nonprofit health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I took an evening writing class at Hopkins and successfully pitched a story to The Nation, which was a real lightbulb moment for me about what I should do with my life. I will never forget when Katha Pollitt, a poet, essayist, and critic, called me to talk about my story and asked: “Who are you?” since I had never been published in a national publication. I subsequently landed my first full-time job as a writer at age 30, working for the National Conference of State Legislatures in D.C. and Denver, and as a reporter for Stateline, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. I made a personal decision to relocate to Seattle and worked for several years as a freelance reporter. While in the Emerald City, I covered music for The Seattle Times, healthcare for the Puget Sound Business Journal, legal issues and features for Washington Law & Politics, and local news for the South Seattle Star. I eventually grew tired of struggling to make ends meet as a freelance writer and made the move into PR and communications. I started my new career with a healthcare nonprofit before moving into higher education, and eventually back to healthcare when I joined KNB Communications, an award-winning PR and marketing agency specializing in health tech, in Feb. 2022.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting part of making a move into agency life at this point in my career has been the new (for me) emphasis on deliverables and metrics. Quite honestly, I love that aspect of working at KNB Communications, even though it puts pressure on all of us. In my previous positions, there was some attention paid to metrics, but it wasn’t ingrained in everything that we did, and the outcomes often suffered as a result. But in agency life, we have a Scope of Work that our leaders develop with clients, and we always know what is required of us. I realize that might also sound a little scary, but the teamwork at KNB is very real. If I’m struggling to place a story, I can reach out to my media relations colleagues or my boss, and they’ve helped with brainstorming and reaching out directly to their contacts. I don’t ever feel alone, which is great.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
KNB Communications uses Google Docs for developing content that we share with our clients. This process makes it easier to share with the team and make edits, and it’s a helpful way to see previous comments and versions. I’m used to drafting stories and taking notes in Microsoft Word, and decided to complete an assignment in Word, with a plan to drop the content into the Google document. I neglected to tell my account lead and, on the day the assignment was due, she thought at first that I had not done any work at all. She was, not surprisingly, quite stressed. As soon as I dropped my work into the Google document, she said: “you are amazing,” since what I’d done hit all the right marks. But in the meantime, I a) thought I was in big trouble and b) learned a lesson about communicating with my account lead. If I decide to go rogue in the future, I will certainly let my teammates know.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The clients I’m working with at KNB Communications are doing fascinating work that is already changing healthcare in specific and positive ways. I’ve learned more about Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing, and how this technology can help identify patients with cancer, even if their visit to a hospital was for a completely unrelated medical condition. I’m also working with clients whose organizations or companies are working on or promoting new non-invasive medical devices to test for sleep apnea and less cumbersome ways to treat that condition. All the clients I’m working with are passionate about what they do, with an aim to improve the US healthcare system.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The character traits that have been instrumental to my success in PR are creativity, courage, and integrity. During my days as a reporter, I covered healthcare, health policy and music, writing previews and reviews for bands and musicians including Taylor Swift, Rufus Wainwright, The Chicks, and Coldplay. I loved covering music and discovering new bands, and it helped my writing to explore my more creative side. Courage and integrity often intersect in my work life. I’m not afraid to speak up in a meeting with C-Suite executives or physicians and other leaders, and to be frank about how an interview went or the options for media training. People that I work with know that I’m honest and that they can count on me.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you help articulate what the different forms of PR are?
The different forms of PR include earned and paid media, internal communications, executive communications, crisis communications, public affairs, and community relations. I’ve worked in all these realms, except for paid media.
Where should a young person considering a career in PR start their education? Should they get a degree in communications? A degree in journalism? Can you explain what you mean?
That’s a great question! While my career into PR was round-about, it’s a good idea to major in communications or journalism. By studying news or communications in college, you’ll have a lot of great opportunities to improve upon your writing, learn new skills at the college TV or radio station, and take advantage of internships to help plot your career path. Prior to joining KNB, I worked at Colorado State University and had the opportunity to work with a young alum, Dillon Thomas, a multimedia journalist and anchor at CBS Denver. He was an intern at CBS Denver while he was a journalism student at CSU and his career has come full circle. And, having said that, I made my way into PR despite not studying communications or journalism in college, so if that’s what you’d like to do, it is still possible with hard work and dedication.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
Being genuine and being yourself, while also being strategic, are good starting points for being successful at networking. Joining an organization that allows you to meet and interact with people in your profession from around the world is also helpful. I’m a former member of the Association of Healthcare Journalists and currently belong to the National Science Writers Association. When I lived in Seattle, I was also a board member of the Northwest Science Writers Association and being involved in these organizations throughout my career helped me meet writers and media relations experts I may not have met otherwise. One other strategy I have used to network is helping a reporter when it may not directly benefit me or my organization. If a reporter reaches out and I don’t have an expert for them, but I know a great source outside of my company, I offer that person’s name and contact information. It goes a long way to help a reporter on deadline.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Through my work in PR, some of the strategies I’ve used to generate solid leads include pitching editors and reporters on stories, which helps raise the visibility of a company, thought leader, or an organization. Writing and distributing press releases and media advisories can also help boost the profile of an organization. I’ve had donors contact me after reading some of my stories and I’ve come across potential donors while reporting on stories. Attending work-related events, whether it’s for social purposes or a conference, is also helpful in generating leads and making new contacts.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need to Create a Highly Successful Career as A Public Relations Pro” and why.
My five tips for creating a highly successful career as a public relations pro include to:
- Believe in yourself. My career in PR would have never happened if I didn’t believe in myself and my skills, and if I hadn’t also worked hard to get where I am today. When I was making the move from journalism into PR, several people I interviewed with said that I had the “wrong” writing skills, and that they weren’t looking for someone who could write like a journalist. I knew that my skills were highly transferable, and I was fortunate to find a healthcare nonprofit in Seattle that believed in me. Today, it’s commonplace for journalists to move into PR. Does that make me a trendsetter? (wink)
- Capitalize on your strengths. As a follow-up to my previous tip, you will hopefully choose a career that highlights your strengths. The job market is highly competitive and it’s important for you to set yourself apart from the competition.
- Tap into your networks for career advice and help. As part of the job search process that brought me to KNB Communications, I reached out to numerous contacts and friends that I had worked with in some capacity, even if we hadn’t talked in a long time. Without hesitation, all of them quickly set up a time to talk with me and offered excellent advice, sharing tips on interviewing and skills to focus on as I applied to jobs. I was touched by that response and feel blessed to have worked with such amazing people and count them among my friends.
- Be bold. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a PR idol or possible mentor for advice, networking, or just because. When I was a journalist in Washington, D.C., I was obsessed with Christopher Hitchens, a British-American author and journalist who, sadly, died in 2011. Hitchens was a contrarian who wrote for Vanity Fair and The Nation, and he was a regular on Meet the Press. I heard him speak at events, including a talk on the British Monarchy (he was not a fan) at one of the Smithsonian museums. After the talk, I introduced myself but neglected to talk with him about my writing. I was — dare I say? — starstruck. I subsequently contacted him for advice about my writing and he responded to my request to meet, which was astonishing. That experience made me realize that you shouldn’t be intimidated by people doing amazing things because you can learn from them.
- Support and mentor others. When you get to the point in your career where you can be a resource to others, it can be rewarding to step into that role. I served as a writing mentor for Alia Sajani, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in immunology at Dartmouth, through the National Association of Science Writers and I hope to take part in this program again. You can also be a mentor on the job. I’ve worked at organizations where the interns have very little guidance or training on the job and implemented a mentor program while working at Stateline. When I’m working with interns, I try to provide coaching when they have questions, and provide help when they ask for it. Interns can do amazing work with the right support.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
While I’m not the first to say this, I would love to inspire more people to rescue animals when they decide to get a pet. I have a 6.5-year-old rescue pup, Sam, and while it’s been a lot of work at times to train him and take care of him, he brings so much joy to my life. Sam made living through the early years of the pandemic easier because we always had each other, and he gets me out and about on our walks every day. We always meet someone new on our walks, too: both dogs and people. If you want to feel inspired on the rescue dog front, check out @wolfgang2242 on Instagram. Steve Grieg adopts senior dogs and has up to 10 of them at any given time. He also has a turkey, pig, chickens, and rabbits at his home in Denver. He’s written a children’s book about his experience; the stories he shares about the dogs and the adventures they take — even when it’s a weekend breakfast burrito run — are inspiring and heart-warming. I would love to one day be able to adopt more rescue dogs.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.