Veteran PR Pro’s Guidance: Write Persuasively, Learn Continually, Digest But Don’t Always React

[Editor's Note: When we heard veteran communicator Heather Knox was available for an interview, we jumped. There are few communicators whose background includes domestic and international positions at Microsoft, Amazon, Nissan and Renault. Knox's most recent post was SVP, head of communication, at Footprint, the environmentally-conscious materials science company.

Among the takeaways we gleaned from her is the need for communicators to be life-long learners, particularly about business and labor trends. In addition, she touts the importance of persuasive writing and preparation for myriad scenarios, including crisis. Combining crisis and writing, she cringes when company messages during a crisis sound like robots crafted them instead of humans. She also spoke about communicating with employees who lack electronic devices and the importance of budgeting for data collection, among other topics.

Her responses were lightly edited.]

PRNEWS: When you assess young communicators coming out of colleges and universities, what do you look for? What do you think is missing most?

Heather Knox

Heather Knox: I'm shocked at the lack of writing discipline. If you go to Amazon, you are required to write so many internal documents that sell an idea, that defend an idea, that provide reporting for your quarterly. You're constantly writing business documents and communication that are seen by cross-functional people. And there's a very set style and kind of template for those typically. [But] if you can't write, you will not last.

And, as part of the hiring process, they do a writing test. It sounds old-fashioned, but it's shocking how many communication people…cannot effectively make a case for something.

The other thing is the belief that you are a business person first and a communicator second. If you don't know how to read a financial statement and you don't know the difference between an IPO versus SPAC, well.

And you've got to stay current with trends. You've got to know how your company makes money, and where the blind spots are and the pitfalls could be.

PRNEWS: What else?

Knox: And then what can you help me with? My kids are in their early 20s. And I spent two years with them and some of their friends during COVID. I had a commune of 20-year-old professionals living and working under my roof. It was like a grad school course for me. The way they communicate, the way they think, the tools they use, the technology they use, what they don't use.

As much as I’m looking for business-savviness, writing skills, calm under pressure, an ability to deal with ambiguity, it’s also what can you teach me? And how can you supplement what I need?

PRNEWS: You’ve been with many big companies. How does a big company keep its communication feeling human and personal? Even internally, how do you make sure employees don't feel like a number?

Knox: That's a great question. Fortunately, most communication channels these days have a two-way mechanism. So, you can get real-time feedback.

One thing a lot of companies don't understand, though it’s basic, is there's a budget component of measurement and social listening. They don't always factor that in.

Investing in the ability to listen [and find out] what's working, and what's not, that has to be part of the DNA of the team. And the ability to have the data to do that is super important. But there's a price tag that comes with it. Mid-sized companies, small companies, and even some big companies just haven't invested in [measurement] tools.

The tools are still pretty fragmented…you can't really do everything with one tool that I'm aware of. And some big companies I’ve worked at had large projects to try to get a global system for PR measurement. And it's super tough.

PRNEWS: What are some of the issues?

Knox: How much is automated versus human-coded? How much do you want to spend? Is it data that's looking in the rearview or looking ahead? [Measurement] still is one of the challenges. Getting to a point where there's a magic bullet, but also just defending that need to spend and to understand what's happening so that we can make informed decisions.

PRNEWS: Let’s say I’m at a small company and I’m its only communicator. I don't have money for a custom-made tool. How should I gauge what communication is working?

Knox: Internally, you can use Survey Monkey [for basic measurement].

PRNEWS: Externally?

Knox: Initiate a discussion about what’s possible with your agency, if you have one. Ask about its tools, and get some pitches from measurement vendors to learn what’s possible. Consider what measurement matters to you and what you can prioritize financially to judge impact.

PRNEWS: How do you reach employees who can't access surveys?

Knox: I spent almost all of my career in tech. I really had never given a lot of thought to how you would reach a manufacturing worker on the shop floor who has no email and can’t access the corporate network. And this worker is super critical to the company because he is building products.

PRNEWS: So, what do you do?

Knox: You've got to get creative.

I remember the first time I went to Morocco for Renault, where we have a big manufacturing plant. And I was shocked to see that the communication team was responsible for putting tape on a whiteboard and writing things up there physically to communicate with people on the shop floor.

Fortunately, people respond really well to old-fashioned incentives. They like tee-shirts; they like gift certificates. We do a lot of that, even at Footprint, to engage people.

PRNEWS: Can you give us an example?

Knox: Footprint became the title sponsor of the Footprint Center, which is the arena of the Phoenix Suns. So, we thought of ways to reach our production employees. Again, we use tee-shirts, but we also use the [Phoenix Suns] gorilla.

We have the gorilla walk around on the shop floor, shake hands, do selfies. It's little things like that that people love. I wouldn't have said this five years ago, OK, in five years I'm going to be worried about what day we can get the gorilla to come to the campus. And so, it can really vary how you engage people.

PRNEWS: When you see others doing crisis communication, what sorts of things make you cringe?

Knox: The day-to-day communication that lacks sincerity or texture, those are cringe-y. You can tell when the lawyers have been really involved in the message. Sometimes it’s overly-sanitized messaging that doesn't necessarily sound like a living person wrote it. And that's not always resolvable.

I love our lawyers, but, man, in a crisis, it can be tough.

It's very difficult, especially as something is breaking, and your competitors or your peer companies are making statements, to get something decided and to get it stress-tested fast enough to be authentic.

PRNEWS: Is the speed of communication not comparable to when you started in the business?

Knox: Absolutely. I did an interview in 2017 at a conference in Europe. I said that as a communication person, you have to have the stomach to be able to digest and not always react.

[In 2017], you still had the luxury of taking a little time to evaluate a situation before you dove in. I'd like to think that's still true. But I just don't think you have the time now…things can snowball so quickly.

PRNEWS: So what do you do?

Knox: You have to do the pre-work and have a mechanism in place for bringing the right people around a small table to make quick decisions with as much information as you can possibly digest. But, first, you have to make quick decisions about whether or not you're going to react.

Second, really assess whether your company will communicate as a brand or through an individual first. And, as we said before, sometimes brands communicate during a crisis without [sounding like] a person.

There are always exceptions, but in general, when something's gone wrong, take accountability and respond. You can't just have a voice in good times. You've got to be prepared and think through what it’s going to feel like when you're in a crisis.

PRNEWS: What communication lessons or other takeaways do you carry with you? Things that transcend the companies where you’ve worked?

Knox: That there are many communication formats for reaching employees, which is an especially big lesson. Reach people where they are and think about how they access communication.

For example, at Footprint there are a lot of employees who run a machine but don't know that we're producing sustainable products that help billions of people get out of plastic. So, you put a QR code on the machine where they work every day. It will pop up on their phone and give them an explanation. That was a cool workaround, a creative tactic we came up with.

PRNEWS: What else?

Knox: I'm going to make the same point but from different angles. One is labor issues. At Amazon, I was the spokesperson for the union contest in Alabama. I really had never worked in an environment before that had the potential for union organizing. And so that was something that made me think a lot about my skill set, my portfolio and experiences. You have to go deep into things that you might not have had any background in.

So, are you a communication professional? Sure, but all of a sudden you have to become an expert in US labor law.

And then the other angle on that is international. I'd never had experience with international labor issues. What transcends are some basics around people and understanding context, balancing and weighing information.

You realize you need to understand how governments work, how labor law works, how people get paid and taxed. Sometimes in our bubbles, especially as Americans, we aren't necessarily exposed to these things. As communication majors you might not be exposed to them.

But these are things that as communication starts to go at warp speed, you need to know and draw on those other areas of knowledge that you have to bring forward in order to make an informed recommendation.

PRNEWS: So, being a non-stop learner is key in helping communicators be useful business advisors. And you need to pivot a lot, or at least be prepared to.

Knox: Yes, absolutely.

PRNEWS: Last question. There’s inflation, talk of recession, supply chain issues and COVID still lurking. What are you thinking about in this moment?

Knox: You have to have your ear to the ground. Decide what are the categories that are most likely to impact your business. Supply chain and the ones you mentioned are a great set of macro categories.

What transcends all of this are basic principles about how to prepare for a crisis–that hardly anyone ever does, they're busy with other things. But this is one of those times where you're right, it's the perfect storm where any one or five of these could happen. How will they affect our business?

Make sure you know who the point people are internally and who are the decision makers. I've experienced a few different models for decision making. The ones that are best for me are when you know exactly who makes the final decision, who's willing to take the risk. It's rarely the lawyer.

And sometimes you're in the middle as the communication person, but if you know who is ultimately the final decision maker that'll be super helpful.