Landing a C-Suite Role: Q&A With CMOs Who Began in PR

[Editor's Note: Esther-Mireya Tejeda is CMO of Anywhere Real Estate, parent company of Century21, Corcoran, Sotheby’s, and others. Kelly Calabria is Chief Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.

In a recent Q&A, PRNEWS spoke with the two executives about the convergence of PR and marketing, how their earlier roles in communications benefitted their careers and what PR pros with C-suite aspirations should be focusing on.]

PRNEWS: As a CMO with a strong PR background, what do you think unifies the PR and marketing industries?

Esther-Mireya Tejeda, CMO of Anywhere Real Estate

Esther-Mireya Tejeda: The truth is that marketing and PR are about one thing—compelling, relevant storytelling that sparks a human emotional connection. It used to be the case that PR and marketing were divided by channel, with PR leading on earned media and marketing leading on paid and owned media. Today, those lines are blurred and largely irrelevant. As the business of marketing evolves, we must approach storytelling in a channel-agnostic way, and instead focus on delivering a holistic and integrated experience for the audience.

PRNEWS: What’s your best advice for those PR folks seeking to land a CCO or CMO role? Do you have any thoughts on how best to make this transition?

Kelly Calabria, CMO and CSR Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC

Kelly Calabria: Know your business. That might sound straightforward or simple, but it is so critical, understanding the nuances of whatever business or industry you're operating in. It became clear to me early on that if I was going to be successful and find opportunities to move up, I had to know my client's business better than my client, if possible. It ensured that I would consistently have a seat at the table.

As marketers or communicators, if we want to bring those relevant strategies to our partners or to our clients, we have to be able to hang in the bigger, broader conversations and understand the nuances of what they're talking about related to the business, and add value in those conversations.

Understand the connection between reputation and brand, and then how that then leads into marketing. When I came into my role as a new CMO in my organization, I spent a lot of time [creating] definitions. Sometimes as communicators, we assume people understand what branding is, or reputation and marketing. So I've spent a lot of time—even at the C-suite level with my counterparts—helping [people] understand what this means. I read this somewhere and it really resonated with me: reputation is the voice of the company. Understanding the issues that matter to the business that we need to either mitigate or navigate so that we have the standing to do the things that we want to do in the marketplace.

I often boil brand down to an emotional connection. Why does someone want to engage with you as an organization? How do you make them feel? With our younger audiences, it's going to be more and more important that you stand for something and they can see themselves in you. Having a PR background as a leader sets you ahead of the game because you have the ability to understand reputation and all the components that go into building and protecting your reputation in a much deeper understanding than if you just came up in a traditional marketing role. Spending time on how the two connect and feed into each other is an important differentiator for you as a candidate.

Stay focused on the consumer. At the end of the day, we're all laser-focused on the consumer. What are we trying to articulate? What are the connections we're trying to build to drive whatever action or mindset? The more we can get out of our heads as communicators about the track that we came up versus thinking about the consumer front and center… is really important.

PRNEWS: What about transitioning to a marketing role specifically?

Tejeda: Rely heavily on your experience in storytelling and narrative development, as this is the foundation for marketing strategy across branding, content marketing, creative development and digital marketing. A great storyteller will be able to work across channels to deliver a compelling message that drives consumer behavior and business outcomes.

Know your customer. Focus on customer insights to build the stories that will resonate with your audience. Become a subject matter expert on the customer and learn who they are, what they do and why they do it. Having a deep understanding of the audience will drive sound marketing strategy that will fuel business growth.

PRNEWS: What should PR pros be focusing on in their career if they have C-Suite aspirations?

Tejeda: Be a business leader first and foremost before you are a function leader. Use your subject matter expertise in communications to drive the overall business strategy and connect the work happening on your team to the broader business goals. Understand the business from all angles, including how the revenue and financials work and what the competitive set looks like. Integrate the work of your functional area into the CEO’s agenda and vision for the organization and think of the operation holistically.

PRNEWS: How can PR pros manage the influx of new tasks, and the bandwidth that this requires?

Calabria: It depends on the setting that you're in. If you’re on the agency side, you have to push yourself to be more of a jack of all trades and—not to use cliches—but be that chameleon that can evolve. That was something that I focused on early in my career so that I could have an opportunity in any setting. I wanted to be able to wear enough hats and go deep enough that I could [contribute to] any conversation.

If you're more on the client-side or internal-side, depending on how your organization functions, it's more about the relationships that you're building with your partners. A lot of times, if comms and marketing aren't together in one group, you can see some competition, or [they don't do] as good of a job working together. But the more you can push for that collaboration, [the better]. We all have the same goal here. How do we coordinate our content strategy, our integrated plan to support the business? It's less about where you sit versus how you are building that integrated plan to drive results forward.