By James Shackelford
JOE: I serve as CCO of AXIS Capital, a global leader in specialty insurance and reinsurance. My responsibilities include oversight of all external and internal communications across AXIS’ 30+ offices throughout 16 countries and four continents. Before joining AXIS, I led comms for KIND Healthy Snacks and, prior to that, served as an SVP at MWW where I worked in both the corporate communications and brand marketing practices. I am a past PRSA National Chair (2014) and am also President-Elect of PRSA Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated solely to advancing diversity and inclusion within the profession. I also happen to be married to a comms pro, Jaime Schwartz Cohen (SVP and Director of Nutrition at Ketchum), and we recently celebrated the birth of a newborn son.
Where are you based?
I’m based out of AXIS’ New York office and I live in my home state of New Jersey.
Tell us about your background? How did you get to where you are today?
I followed an unconventional path and the connective thread across my work experiences is that I gravitate toward jobs where I can be a builder. During college I worked professionally at an emerging hip hop and radio station and, during my formative years in communications, I was part of a team that helped grow MWWPR (then MWW) from a relatively small firm into a player in the comms industry. One of the benefits of working at MWWPR during the early years was that I was able to gain experience in both corporate communications and brand marketing while working closely with incredible leaders like Michael Kempner (MWWPR CEO) and Carreen Winters (MWW Chairman of Reputation and Chief Strategy Officer) and my longtime client Jon Harris (now Con Agra CCO). Similarly, when I first made the move to go in-house, I was privileged to be part of a team at KIND that helped grow the company to be a disruptive force within the snacking category and the purpose driven spaces – and I had the opportunity to work closely with KIND’s brilliant CEO Daniel Lubetzky. At AXIS, I’m part of a terrific organization where I am working closely with CEO Albert Benchimol, Chief Transformation Officer Linda Ventresca and our international leadership team to help grow AXIS’ position as an innovator with a rapidly transforming category. I absolutely love my job at AXIS and find that I am frequently drawing from past experiences that I’ve gleaned from across every stage of my career including my tenure as Chair of PRSA.
Take us through a “typical” workday – what does it look like? What are you engaged in?
I’ll begin with the standard comms cliché that every day is different. On most days, I wake up early and catch up on news and emails from overseas as we have a strong presence in Europe and a growing presence in Asia. In addition to helping care for our newborn, I’ll typically commute into work via bus with my wife (we work three blocks apart from one another) and we’ll together read our daily e-blasts – mainstream news, Comms industry news and – for me – the insurance industry news.
The minute I walk into the office, it’s non-stop until the minute I leave. Days are filled with strategic meetings with leaders from across our global businesses, internal programs and town halls, media and influencer meetings and briefings, and integrated sessions with our partner functions – marketing, HR, finance, IR, and legal, among others.
The day ends with my wife and I heading home together, taking care of our baby and then going back online to get through unfinished business and also see some of the other news and inquiries as they come in from other time zones. And then I go to bed, wake up (sometimes with baby interruptions in-between) and do it again.
What does your media diet consist of? (i.e. what do you read? What apps you check?)
I’m a big reader of e-blasts. My favorites are New Times, Politico, The Skimm, PRSA and PRWeek, and the core Insurance trades.
What is your office/work setup like?
I’m a bit of a neat freak and I get teased for having a consistently spotless desk. I also have pictures of my family, my degree from the Newhouse School at Syracuse, a framed picture with classic R&B, funk and soul records (paying tribute to my DJ days) and a framed piece commemorating the launch of the PRSA MBA Initiative, a program I helped launched in 2010 to incorporate PR coursework into business schools with current PRSA Chair Tony D’Angelo, Professor Paul Argenti of the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and the late Ray Crockett, a former Director of Communications at The Coca-Cola Company.
What is a recent communications/media campaign you enjoyed?
We are currently leading an enterprise-wide transformation campaign to future-proof our organization by, among other things, helping the company better leverage big data so that we can work smarter, faster and more efficiently. The Comms function is playing a key strategic role in driving forward the program. The work is fascinating, cerebral, challenging and fun – and I believe we are making a significant impact in advancing the business, which is deeply fulfilling.
How do you recharge?
Spending time with my wife and son and, when I can, exercising and binge-watching TV. As of lately, I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
Earlier in my career, I received a great piece of advice from my client, a former vice president at Sara Lee Corporation named Jim Ruehlmann, and I frequently share his wisdom when I speak with new professionals. Jim told me that when evaluating your job, look at three factors.
First, consider the actual paycheck. This is sometimes perceived as the key consideration factor for a new professional, but it shouldn’t be. It’s important to be fairly compensated, but the reality is that with an entry-level job, you start at the bottom.
The second factor is the emotional paycheck. Finding satisfaction and fulfillment in what you do is essential. You spend most of your waking hours at work, so you want to find a job that you enjoy (at least on most days).
Finally, make sure you are gaining experience – challenging yourself to continually grow and learn is essential, particularly in an industry as dynamic as ours.
Life in public relations is…
What are you reading or what would you recommend?
Twenty years after it was popular, I very recently read the Harry Potter series and absolutely loved it.
What tools or technologies can’t you live without?
I’m a fan of YouTube and use it to watch news shows I missed, clips from my favorite shows, and music videos.
What is next for public relations? What emerging trends do you see?
As we are all seeing, the current media, economic, political and social environment is volatile and this is having a profound impact on all categories, particularly comms. A few trends related to this:
- Companies are under increased pressure from both external and internal stakeholders to have a position on political and social issues. It is becoming expected that companies will take a stand on issues – which brings great challenges as it is generally impossible to please all stakeholders
- While external comms has not diminished in importance, I’m seeing much more of an investment in internal comms as employees are demanding more information from their companies, particularly (as noted above) when as it relates to the organization’s viewpoint on topical issues. And the stakes are high as employees now have a louder voice through social media.
- Within the financial sector, I’m seeing corporate purpose become more of a priority. This movement is largely being driven by the need to combat negative public perceptions about the financial sector and to help attract top young talent who are looking for purposeful careers.
- Consolidation appears to be on the rise. I am continually hearing how challenging the current agency environment is, and this may lead to increased M&A activity with the recent Burson-Cohn & Wolfe merger as the most visible example.
- The profession continues to become increasingly globalized and we are heading towards a profession where it will be table stakes for senior-level comms pros to have at least some degree of international experience.
- Efforts to increase diversity and inclusion and tighten the gender gap seem to be growing. Our ability to counter both challenges will rely on our industry coming together to launch unified efforts. There is growing collaboration between the leading associations, and I’m optimistic that we will see steady progress on both fronts in the coming years.
James Shackelford serves as Chair of the PRSA Corporate Communications Section and the National Diversity & Inclusion Committee. He is the President & CEO of communications, marketing, and creative agency SomaComm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to James and PRSA for allowing Culpwrit to share this great interview.