View From The Outside: Agency, Volunteer Insights

      Teresa Mastin, Ph.D.  (second from left)

If you were independently wealthy, what would you do with your days, what would you do with your life?

During my summer 2010, I often found myself wondering what I would do with my life if I didn’t have to work for a living.  Two experiences in particular were responsible for my contemplating this line of thought.  The experiences took place more than 8,000 miles apart and on the surface appear to be diametrically opposite, but in reality they are almost mirror images of each other.

The common element in both—I was engaged in activities that I’m passionate about.

The first experience: Because of the largess of the late Betsy Plank, the namesake of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, I had the opportunity to participate in a Plank Center Educators Fellowship.  This fellowship made it possible for me to spend two action-packed weeks in the Ketchum Chicago office.

As a PR professional who has not worked as a practitioner since 1994, when I entered my doctoral program at Michigan State University, I was eager to spend time in the fast-paced agency world, but I was also anxious.  Eager in the sense that I wanted to experience a 2010 week-in-the life of a global public relations agency; anxious in that I didn’t want to get in the way of practitioners juggling numerous assignments and deadlines.
Public relations academics and practitioners realize the importance of our working together if we are to ensure that students enrolled in public relations programs are well prepared for entry level positions.  We know that if we work together students are much more likely to be prepared to hit the ground, which will benefit the profession as a whole.  What we haven’t been able to do is to develop a seamless way to make it happen.

Although the life of a pr academic typically moves at a frantic pace, compared to agency folk who must march to the beat of billable hours, we academics have the luxury of a longer incubation period for our work.  Thus, I walked through Ketchum’s doors thinking it was somewhat of an imbalanced exchange.  Would Chicago Ketchum team members perceive that it was to their benefit to take time from their busy schedules to meet with me?  Sure in theory it might result in entry level employees arriving bettered prepared, but there was no direct benefit to those who would meet with me. What, I asked myself, would they get in exchange?

My first day at the Ketchum Chicago office began with a bang. I was invited to participate in a workshop, sponsored by Ketchum University, which addressed their digital strategy.  Every person in the room was fully engaged in learning about and honing the strategy to ensure its seamless application for clients. The culture of inclusion was evident as team members representing numerous experience levels worked together. During that workshop, a vice president invited me to participate in an upcoming team meeting.  That team meeting hummed along like a fine-tuned machine.  I was then invited to sit in on a leadership meeting.  I listened in on a digital jam session streamed from Ketchum Pleon UK.  I talked with Ketchum folks based in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.  I met with Ketchum’s creative guru. And so it went for two weeks.

From my perspective, the Ketchum culture of inclusion permeated every conversation, activity, and event, and speaks to Ketchum’s longevity and continual success.  As noted by a senior staff member, Ketchum is extremely aware of integrating team members.  After someone joins the team, there is a three- and six-month check up.  A large chunk of each check up is taking the pulse of the new member to determine how she perceives she is being integrated.  By being cognizant early on of how team members acclimate into the environment, Ketchum ensures a win-win situation for all involved parties.

Each person I interacted with at Ketchum, from the receptionist’s genuine welcome, to the interns who were disappointed that their summer internships were ending, to senior team members who were seriously interested in the classroom and how practitioners and academics can work together to move the profession forward, it was clear that Ketchum Chicago also found the exchange valuable.

I ended my two weeks at Ketchum Chicago with a deep appreciate for a culture that attracts and  nurtures smart, inquisitive, dedicated people who clearly have a passion for their clients and rising to the opportunities and challenges they face.

Second experience.  Several days after my Ketchum fellowship ended, I boarded a plane and traveled to Kenya Africa.  During my time there, I had two occasions to visit the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul—one group located in Karen, Kenya and the other based in Thigio, Kenya.  Prior to visiting Kenya, I was unaware of the Daughters of Charity.

I first interacted with the sisters at the Karen located at Chanzo house, which serves as their Kenya administrative headquarters.  It was there that I met Sister Arthur who recently celebrated her 50th anniversary as a sister. What struck me was her passion.  Had I not known better, I would have thought her a novice, naively convinced that she could make the world a better place. Sister Arthur has both experienced and witnessed unbearable hardship, yet the vibe that rolls off her is warmth, acceptance, and confidence.

Sister Arthur’s exuberance was mirrored in the actions of the sisters based in Thigio where breathtaking beauty and grinding poverty coexist.  The sisters’ passion shine through as they engage in strengthening a foundation designed to encourage self sufficiency from cradle to grave, staffing both a nursery and a hospice and a range of support services in between.

The Ketchum Chicago team’s passion to service their clients and the Daughters of Charity’s passion to serve individuals mired in abject poverty looked remarkably similar as both are engaged in activities that they are passionate about.

 It will be a long time before images from my Ketchum PR and Daughters of Charity experiences fail to push themselves to the forefront on my mind on a daily basis.  Passion was the common denominator of both experiences.

An examination of what I’m really passionate about, what I do well, what I have to offer to my chosen profession, was not even on the list of benefits I thought I would gain from my Plank Center Educators Fellowship opportunity, but it was the most potent benefit.   A tremendous benefit of the Fellowship is that it’s designed to aid practitioners’ and educators’ desires to work together to move the profession forward.  It is my hope that the Fellowship becomes a part of the fabric of the both the academy and the industry.  The Fellowship could only be strengthened by including a component that makes it possible for practitioners to spend time in academic settings.

Teresa Mastin, Ph.D., is associate professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University, Chicago.  Pictured above with Teresa are Leah, Andrew and Lexa, members of the public health team in Nairobi. 

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