In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Kenneth Hess. Kenneth has worked for the Navy in a public affairs or strategic communications capacity since 1999. Presently, Kenneth is director of communications and outreach within the Chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division. His focus is communicating new and accurate information about energy and environmental programs to the media and other key stakeholders.
PRSA-NCC Insider: In your career with the Navy, you’ve communicated about many challenging issues, from how sea mammals are affected by sonar to chemical contamination on bases. What is your guiding principle for communicating effectively on these potentially volatile issues?
KH: From my perspective, communicating on these types of issues requires the PR practitioner to have the discipline to dig down into the science and understand it, and then the courage to ask what may seem like simplistic questions of the technical experts. Although it can be time consuming, you need to be armed with that information to craft effective messaging for these types of topics. Risk communication training is also a big help.
PRSA-NCC Insider: D.C. is full of government communicators. You’re a successful one, leading a broad array of communication initiatives, from ghost writing for leadership to messaging at large-scale public events. To what key skill do you attribute your success?
KH: A good communicator has to be a chameleon in some sense—you have to rapidly adapt your style and approach based on the personality and “information processing habits” of the senior leadership folks you’re deal with internally and the publics with whom you are trying to build and maintain relationships. I try to be flexible in that regard, and sometimes I succeed.
PRSA-NCC Insider: What do you think is the most effective communications platform for military or government communicators today?
KH: I can’t identify a single communications platform that will be most effective in all situations. I do think social media and other online information sharing channels have opened the aperture for reaching people with customized content, and that’s an advantage for PR practitioners, but it also segments our audiences and saturates them with content in ways that make it harder than ever to have our messaging absorbed.
PRSA-NCC Insider: Your formal education background ends at McDaniel College, where you graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s of the Arts in communications. You’ve seen success, but do you think a master’s degree is necessary for achievement in the communications industry today?
KH: I believe a master’s degree can be helpful, but isn’t essential. I have continually developed my skillset as a PR practitioner over the years via seminars, workshops, graduate school-level courses, and other means, and am now pursuing my APR + M certification through PRSA.
PRSA-NCC Insider: How does your experience in the private sector—with organizations including Hewlett-Packard, Citigroup, Eastalco Aluminum, and Network Solutions—impact your work in the military?
KH: Working for a diverse set of clients gives you perspective, because you’ve faced many different problem sets. As examples, I’ve had the chance to work on internal employee recognition programs for top sales performers; instructional videos for environmental compliance; business-to-business print collateral for industrial products; and marketing campaigns for online hosting services. Some of those private sector project approaches have directly crossed over into my ability to support military clients, and some less so, but all of them taught me something useful.
PRSA-NCC Insider: For the communicators just starting out, which soft and hard skills are in greatest demand but shortest supply?
KH: From a hard skills perspective, I want people who are polished writers. I find they have the most potential to excel. Almost everyone in PR thinks they’re a great writer, but my experience has been that many people overestimate and oversell their writing prowess. Vital soft skills would include the ability to take criticism without getting ruffled, quickly adapting to corporate culture—which can be a steep learning curve for supporting military offices—and a can-do, ego-free attitude.
PRSA-NCC Insider: Finally, most would agree that the quality of external communication is only as good as a communicator’s ability to listen. What are your favorite tools for listening to both external and internal stakeholders, which let you create great communications initiatives?
KH: For internal stakeholders, I like to seek out the delta between what people say or react to in meetings, and what they say afterwards in a one-on-one or small group setting. That delta, or lack thereof, speaks volumes about how aligned people are with the organization and the nature of the underlying challenges they’re facing. For external stakeholders, I think online survey platforms with analytical tools built in can offer great insights, but you obviously have to ask the right people the right questions.