Eleanor Hawkins on Bringing Visibility to Smart Communications
Mixing Board Studio Session
Mixing Board member Eleanor Hawkins is both a communications strategist and writer at Axios. She authors the weekly Axios Communicators newsletter and covers topics and trends that impact how leaders, brands and employers communicate. Prior to joining Axios she held various strategic communication roles within government, politics, public policy and media.
In this Studio Session, Eleanor and Mixing Board Founder Sean Garrett talk about why Axios is covering ‘communications 2.0’, why we need to rethink how communicators measure success, what to do about those who lie in comms, and why every leader needs to master good comms.
SG: How did you find yourself in this unique role at Axios?
EH: Becoming a reporter was never part of my plan. But like most people with our job, I read Axios every day so when they reached out about this opportunity, I was very interested particularly because they were looking for somebody to cover “communications 2.0” — how the profession has evolved.
As a news organization that is trying to reach people with information, Axios leaders understood the true strategic nature behind comms, but felt it was being largely ignored.
What we’re hoping to do with Communicators is peel back the curtain. My colleagues in the newsroom report on breaking news, and by the time it reaches them, there has been some sort of communication strategy executed. My job is to examine and explain how and why these issues or news items are breaking through and flag what to watch for next.
SG: What were you doing before Axios? How did Axios find you?
EH: I moved to D.C. right out of college and started my career in politics. It was a really great training ground for communications because politics is fast-paced and high stakes, plus you have access to some of the most influential leaders and members of the media.
After my stint in politics, I pivoted into policy and helped launch a bipartisan foreign affairs think tank. In that role, I learned how to build a leadership team and establish a brand in the super convoluted, spinachy policy space.
Most recently I managed communications for PBS, where I had a hand in a lot of different projects. It was everything from the fun stuff — like leading the 50th anniversary campaign, to executive positioning, to events — but there was also a good bit of crisis management, federal funding issues, and station communications too. Most notably, though, it gave me a lot of street cred with my toddler who thought I worked with Cookie Monster.
In general, I like building or reinventing things and that has been a common theme throughout my career…and it’s especially true now at Axios as I create this new comms “beat.”
SG: If you look at what you’ve learned in the last six months, talking to all these experts and what you’re covering, what would you have done differently in your previous work? Has it changed the way you think about comms?
EH: It hasn’t changed the way I think about communications, but I do see some opportunities that communicators are missing– namely embracing data. In politics we relied heavily on data and polling, but I don’t see that as much in corporate settings.
We also need to take a step back and rethink how communicators measure success. It’s tricky because other business functions can easily show their ROI, which isn’t always the case with communications, but comms departments shouldn’t be afraid to try.
One source I spoke with said that many CCOs don’t want to know the data because they would rather be an unknown success than a proven failure. I want that sort of thinking to fizzle out and die. Operating blindly hurts the entire industry, and I don’t think leaders with that mindset can train new comms talents to be any good at the job. Comms teams need to rethink how they’re measuring their success, and they should not be afraid of using data to inform the decisions they make.
SG: To add another layer to this onion, you’re also doing comms and writing about comms at a media company. How does that create nuance to your job?
EH: As a publication, Axios was founded on effective communication… on breaking through the noise. Because of that, all three of our founders very much value communications as a strategic weapon. Internally, they’ve done a phenomenal job of creating a very transparent, aligned workplace due in part to the way we communicate as a company. As Axios continues to grow — we’re hoping to double in size by the end of 2023 — the internal communication strategy has to stay the course. And externally, we are focused on being the smartest, most trusted news source both nationally and locally…and my newsletter is part of that effort.
SG: What has surprised you most about covering comms?
EH: I’ve been most surprised by the response. People are very hungry for real coverage of this profession and are happy to see a mainstream outlet take notice.
The other thing that’s been surprising is how press shy many comms people tend to be. As communication professionals, we stand to the side and are trained not to become part of the story. Because of this, some of the best communicators are a little uneasy with the spotlight but I’m hoping to win them over.
SG: I’m on Team Loud, for the record. In terms of response, why do you think that you’ve filled some sort of vacuum? What was missing?
EH: I’m trying to cover communications in a serious way that examines trends and how comms fits into the larger business plan and news landscape. Because I’m in such an active newsroom, I’m able to peel back the curtain on whatever news of the day there is and find that strategic comms angle. For example, my audience isn’t looking to me to tell them about crypto currency. They’re looking to me to tell them how FTX’s narrative spun out of control, examine the strategy behind it, explain how it got to this point, and anticipate what’s coming next.
SG: Is there one piece that you’ve done that has resonated the most? Or one where you’ve been surprised by how much it resonated?
EH: Very early on, I did this piece on reactionary communication. I partnered with Axios’ awesome data visuals team and created a flow chart of things to consider before responding to an outside event, whether it’s a geopolitical event or a social issue.
That’s the piece I hear the most about, and I think it’s because so many leaders or brands are being pressured to respond to issues outside of their traditional business scope, and they’re not necessarily comfortable doing that. So, the uneasy ones step in it by saying something inauthentic, staying quiet or issuing a super delayed response. Modern communicators understand that silence is a demerit, so they often find themselves stuck in the middle because they know something needs to be done, but leadership might not be on board for whatever reason. The flow chart served as a resource of sorts.
Plus, by writing about it I was able to point out that this was a challenge every communicator was dealing with. We’re all trying to be smart in our response and do what’s best for our organizations.
SG: It’s great for comms people that this is being covered on a serious level and it’s validating to a lot of people who do serious jobs. But the next level of this is how do you also educate the buyers of comms — the executives who hire the heads of comms, the VC partners, the private equity people, who maybe see comms in a way that is a little bit dated? How do we penetrate that force field?
EH: I think about this a lot. Communications is so much more than drafting a press release or booking a media interview. My goal is to show that communications is a critical skill, no matter what you do or where you sit in a business. If you’re a leader who isn’t a natural born communicator, the person you should lean on the most is your head of comms, because you could have the best plan, the best strategy, the best product, but unless you can communicate it effectively, it doesn’t matter.
The past three years have highlighted the need for communicators to have a “seat at the table,” and my goal is to help them stay.
SG: That’s a great articulation of our purpose at Mixing Board.
Oftentimes when a company has a big business strategy issue, they’re going to call upon Bain, McKinsey, or BCG to help them figure it out. But I know from lived experience, that if you get some really smart comms people working on the same strategy issues, I can guarantee you that it’s going to be just as thoughtful, if not more thoughtful on the path to a solution. And it’s probably going to be more opportunity-centric versus reductive problem-solving. It’ll also have a few less slides for a few million dollars less.
Nothing against those traditional consultants, they do a great job at what they do. But to me, this is the opportunity of this decade. How do comms strategists fill that vacuum? Is that something you see and that you’re going to be able to articulate in your newsletter?
EH: It’s definitely something I see and want to articulate more in my reporting. We’ve seen a lot of this in real time with ESG efforts. We’re seeing communication shops take on sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and culture when usually those would’ve lived elsewhere. We’re also seeing Chief Communication Officer titles morph into “Chief Impact Officer” or “Chief Corporate Affairs Officer” — because they’re absorbing all of these functions that were traditionally more strategic or operational. But stakeholders want to know what you’re doing internally, how you’re spending corporate money, what your procurement looks like — and those things now fit within the general corporate narrative.
You could be doing all of the right things and making major progress,but unless you’re messaging it correctly, it doesn’t matter…which is why I think we’re seeing more communicators take ownership.
Oftentimes communications is brought in at the last minute to say, “Does everything look good here? See any red flags?” I’d like to see comms be there from the jump, and help create the strategy, not just execute it. It’s something that a lot of communicators are thinking about, particularly in this tough economy: “How do we show our importance and show that our guidance can sometimes be better and more affordable than bringing in outside people to do the work?”
SG: The terrible pitch meme has existed as long as the internet has existed. But it exists, and it’s not a good thing. On another end of the spectrum, you have the people who are willing to work with unsavory characters or countries. You hear people say, well someone’s got to represent them, someone’s got to help them — but sorry, we’re not lawyers. What is your take on covering the less good side of the industry and how should that be appropriately contextualized?
EH: No matter what the industry is, you’re going to find people who are willing to work as hired guns. But in communications, your personal credibility is everything, and I believe it’s really hard to be good at your job if you don’t believe in the mission and agree with what you’re saying, or who you’re representing.
Now, the media’s perception of PR “flacks” is one I’ve seen firsthand. I knew the reputation was bad, but now that I’m in a newsroom I see just how bad it is.
Responding to the awful emails has become a little side project of mine. If I get a terrible pitch, I try to reply with constructive feedback. I’ll say, “Hey, I don’t cover this, but maybe try this person,” or, “I wrote about this topic last week, why should I cover it again?” or “What’s the news here? Tell me in two sentences why it matters…” But most reporters don’t do that and at some point just view pitches as spam.
SG: I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I had always said that comms people don’t lie. But I’ve been shocked in the last five years about how I’ve been proven wrong. In recent years reporters have come to me with direct examples of people lying on the job. I’ve been really disappointed by that, but I’ve been more disappointed by the fact that nothing much has happened to those who do. What’s your read on that?
EH: The breakdown between PR professionals and reporters is a real issue, and it’s something that I’m watching. I know for a fact that a PR person lied to me in an interview yesterday and it led to a rather combative conversation when it didn’t need to be.
I’m from the south, I grew up learning that you attract more flies with honey than you do vinegar. No one wants to work with a jerk and that goes for both reporters and communicators.
There are some bad reporters who will approach a story with an agenda. In that situation, communicators have to work extra hard to make sure the facts shine through.But in my experience, I’ve found that most reporters want to get it right — so if their angle isn’t based in reality, it’s a communicators job to help them see the full picture. But that’s hard work, and some would rather dodge the media completely by going to Twitter or echo chamber platforms.
We’ve seen some public figures get in trouble there too, though. From a communicator angle, I’m super interested in the evolution of media training… It used to be that you’d train a principal if they had an upcoming appearance or media hit. Now if you own a phone, you need to go through media training because you could send something out on a whim or tweet misinformation that could directly impact your business or your brand (ahem, Elon).
SG: What are you excited about in 2023?
EH: In 2023, we plan to pour gasoline on all that we’re doing with Axios Communicators — really light it up. I’m so impressed with the audience that Axios has been able to build, and I want to keep engagement high. One of the ways we’re going to do that is with events…getting in front of people, getting to know our audience personally, and building a community around the content. That’s so important in the field of communications and it’s one thing I love about Mixing Board.
We’re full steam ahead on Axios Communicators, which is very exciting for me, but also for everyone in this field.
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