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CWC 2: Kevin Anselmo of Experiential Communications

In this episode, Kevin joins to talk about founding a PR firm focused on helping academics and educators communicate more effectively.

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In this episode of Chats with Chip, Kevin Anselmo of Experiential Communications joins me to talk about founding a PR firm focused on helping academics and educators communicate more effectively.

Kevin has a passion for teaching and education. After leading communications for two major business schools, he decided to launch his own firm. His experience spans both sides of the Atlantic, having worked for IMD in Switzerland and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. In addition to consulting with individual clients, he recently announced an online training program for professors and academics.


Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip: My guest today is Kevin Anselmo. Kevin has a real passion for teaching in education. After leading PR and communications for two major business schools, he decided he’d launch his own firm, Experiential Communications in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His experience spans both sides of the Atlantic having worked for IMD in Switzerland and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. In addition to consulting with individual clients, he recently announced an online training program for professors and academics and, he’s also a fellow host on the FIR podcast network. I am pleased to have Kevin with us today.

Kevin: Chip, thanks a million. It’s a real pleasure to be on. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you. This is our second conversation in person. We’ve had a lot of interaction over digital communication but you actually were helpful for me in my decision to go out on my own as you may recall from our conversation last year.

Chip: I do and that’s actually one of the reasons I thought it would be great to have you on is because I’ve sort of been able to follow that progression that you’ve made. Why don’t you start by talking a little bit about what caused you to set out on your own and what the experience has been like.

Kevin: Yeah, thanks for the opportunity to share that story. As you mentioned, I have a number of years of experience working in Europe primarily. Most of my professional career was in Europe. I always wanted to go out on my own. I tried a startup thing back when I was very young and naïve back in 2003, 2004. My idea was to have a publication focused on positive stories of people from around the world. And, as noble as that sounds, there’s really not a buying audience for that. That was kind of a flop. I ended up returning back to Europe and working some more years in public relations and communications, both in the sports world and in higher education. I always knew I wanted to go out on my own. Obviously I needed some more experience and more time. Finally I think the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to do that at the end of last year. I should preface by saying I think it’s a huge jump for someone. I reached out to you and reached out to a number of other people in my network and people who I didn’t necessarily know who had experience doing startups. It’s a huge, huge jump. There’s a lot of fear. I think ultimately, you can’t take a foolish decision but you ultimately have to go for it when the stars align and there’s the opportunity to do that. I had some clients lined up before I made the jump and now I’m just trying to build on that.

Chip: You said that you had obviously a startup before so you’ve always had this bug. What do you think gave you that bug? Were you’re parents entrepreneurs or where did this entrepreneurial bend come from?

Kevin: My father had his own business, he was a plumber and I have absolutely no skills when it comes to being a plumber or any sort of handyman work. I don’t know. I think it might just be something that is just a part of me. I think the thing I really love most about what I do is that I have the flexibility and the creativity to choose the different types of projects that I want to work on, to choose the type of clients that I want to work with. I think that suits me really well in terms of – I lived in a lot of different countries and I thrive on change. I thrive on new experiences and there’s nothing like being out on your own because everyday is a new experience. I think that just suits my personality really well. I’m driven and this is what I love doing so I think that’s part of it. I’d imagine that’s probably true for you to a certain extent as well.

Chip: Oh it is absolutely. I was speaking to a group of students at American University just last week. I said to them “I have friends who went to Harvard and got MBAs and I’ve been running my own businesses for the last 15 years. I have no formal business education but too me, essentially I’ve been paid to get my MBA.”

Kevin: Absolutely.

Chip: It’s certainly a more of a winding path than going to school.

Kevin: You have to be very creative, structured and disciplined but there’s amazing amounts of education that you get by doing something like this. There’s an amazing amount of resources available through podcasts and FIR Podcast Network as well as other places.

Chip: One of the things you just said struck me and that was that you like to be able to pick projects that you enjoy working on. I realize that I’m paraphrasing. How have you found that over the first year or so of your business? Obviously, over the years I have been very fortunate to have selected some great clients to work with and they selected me. On the other hand starting out at business, my experience is you have to take on clients just because they pay the bills. What’s your experience been?

Kevin: I guess I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to choose the clients that, for the most part, they align with either my values or the experience that I’d like to obtain. I think a lot of it has to do with your network and people in your network are aligned, to a certain extent, to the things that you’re interested in. To date I haven’t had to take any sort of project just because I needed the money frankly.

Chip: So no hold your nose clients yet?

Kevin: Not yet, thankfully. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Chip: One day you’ll end up with one accidently, if no other way.

Kevin: One of the things I’m learning in the process is it takes a lot of time to get to the client relationship. I spend a lot of time doing the business development and working on proposals – and some of these proposals I shouldn’t have been working on – so that can be frustrating at times. In general I’ve been very fortunate to work with – there are several clients or projects on retainer or kind of one off projects and the majority of those have been in Switzerland which is great because that’s where I lived for many years and that’s where a lot of my network is. When I decided to come back to the U.S, I always had it in mind that – I came back to the U.S. 3 years ago after living in Switzerland and Germany for 10 years – I always had it in mind that I wanted to keep my Swiss network alive for various reasons and I’ve been able to do that. I worked with a non-profit group that’s very much aligned to my social values. They provide education access to students from low income backgrounds and so that’s very much aligned to things that are important to me personally. I’ve been fortunate thus far that I haven’t had to have any clients just to pay the bills.

Chip: With all your experience in Switzerland, how would you say that communications PR is different on the other side of the Atlantic? Or is it just the same?

Kevin: You have to know your audience. The way you do communications and PR in Switzerland versus the way you do communications and PR in Italy or Germany and in the U.S., those are all slightly nuances and slight differences. I think it’s having the interpersonal skills though to know who you’re talking to and what that audience, group or individual person is interested in. What he or she likes. I think they’re obviously cultural nuances and language barriers at times, and different ways of doing things. But, I think it comes down to basic communications, PR principles in terms of how you relate to audiences.

Chip: Speaking of relating to audiences, and this question comes from a background of someone who has great respect for higher education – I am the president of the American University Alumni Association and spend an almost an inordinate amount of time working with academics for a person who doesn’t do so professionally. With that caveat, professors and academics can be somewhat challenging to work with, I think from a communications stand point and how they relate to broader audiences. It’s fair to say that some of them are fantastic at the research end, and maybe not so much on the public engagement end. It’s certainly not across the board true. I was at the American University Convocation Ceremony last week and the professor that won the scholar teacher of the year award gave one of the best speeches that I have ever heard from anybody – set aside just academics – any of the environments that I have been in. So certainly it can be done. What’s the experience you’ve had working with folks like that?

Kevin: Yeah, you make some great points there. It’s definitely true and I really believe that changes in the digital communications social media landscape, it’s a real opportunity for academics. I did a presentation at the Academy of Management last year. The Academy of Management is equivalent to the Academy awards or the Emmy’s for management professors and thinkers. I was leading a discussion with some other panelists on communications and public relations and so I think there’s a lot of people who are really genuinely interested in communicating to main stream audiences but they haven’t been trained. For example, we asked for a show of hands, how many were trained on how to communicate with public audiences? Not one hand went up because academics are trained on how to write for academic audiences and peer review journals. There’s obviously a barrier there and there’s a divide there. There are a number of professors who have no interest in engaging in any sort of public communication which is a shame and a missed opportunity. There is a number of professors who would like to improve their ability to do that but then there’s kind of the training gap. There’s a lot of professors as well, who are quite strong and good at this and have the ability to both communicate for academic audiences and to then, I like to say, translate that academic language to more main stream audiences. There’s a number of professors who are really good at that too but it takes time and practice and doesn’t happen over night because you’re not necessarily trained on how to do that. Just like for me, if I were suddenly asked to communicate to academic audiences, I’m not trained in that language. I think it comes down to training. I think it comes down to practice and just getting your hands dirty and actually doing it.

Chip: Isn’t one of the challenges that they’re really not truly incented to do it. The way that most academics are evaluated, they get evaluated by things like peer review journals, and things like that and research, and typically not by media appearances or other public communications opportunities. I wonder how much that plays into it?

Kevin: You’re absolutely right. On my most recent episode of FIR on Higher Education, the show that I host as part of the FIR Podcast Network, I had on Michael Nestle. Michael is a professor at Singapore Management University. He’s also provides reports on show and Neville’s show The Hobson & Holtz Report. And I asked him that very question about being rewarded and compensated. And it’s true that a lot of schools do not directly reward professors for taking part in digital communications, external communications activities. However, there’s obviously direct benefits if professors do do this. A lot of professors I know have new consulting opportunities, have been able to communicate in different ways where they are engaging their students, perspective students and even some of their former students in different ways. Also, opportunities that lead to different research products so there are a lot of indirect benefits that may not be directly tied to university compensation and how they are rewarded. At the same time too almost every university has some sort of value that says something to the affect of we want our professors to communicate because it’s for the good of society it’s for the good of the communities in which the schools exist. This is directly related to digital communications, it’s directly related to that value and so I think that’s the reason a lot of professors do that. It’s interesting, a lot of professors, as soon as they write a book or have something really interesting that they want to share suddenly they are very interested in taking part in communications activities. Of course if you already have a presence and have been actively doing that when you launch your book it’s not out of nowhere that you’re building up a presence and trying to create visibility for yourself. I really hope that we get to the day where universities will properly compensate and reward professors for taking part in digital communications activities along with the academic peer review journals.

Chip: I think a lot of that comes into including it as part of the tenure process. Like anything else you learn your habits early on so I think that if in the early stages of your academic career you’re already appreciating the value of public communications particularly in this stage, where you’ve noted, that digital tools make it so much easier and provide so many more opportunities to engage, I think that’s where you address it most by forming those habits early on.

Kevin: The other thing I would say is, the professors that I’ve been in contact with over the years, even the ones who haven’t worked at the schools where I worked at, those that are very good at public communications, doing media interviews, writing blog posts, tweeting and so forth, those professors are very, very strong in the classroom. Why? Because in my opinion they have the opportunity to take complex ideas and simplify them so that way mainstream audiences can understand that. And ultimately that’s what I think what students are looking for as well, the opportunity to learn new concepts and to be able to easily understand them by the way they are presented.

Chip: I absolutely agree with that. I think it is the dual benefit there. You spent a lot of time working with professors and academics to help them improve their communications skills. I was intrigued by the fact that you’ve pre-announced this online course that’s going to help professors communicate more affectively. I know that not all the details are out there yet but can you talk a little bit about what your plans are there and how it might work?

Kevin: Yeah, sure, thanks for the opportunity to do so. I’ve worked at two very good schools, Duke and IMD that you mentioned at the outset. I’ve been in contact and attended, and have quite a peer network of communications directors and public relations directors from the top business schools around the world and I talked to a lot of them over the last couple of months about media training. I think media training, as I mentioned before professors aren’t trained necessarily to communicate to mainstream audiences and it comes down to training. A lot of times the way we do trainings, it’s not necessarily ideal for professors. For example you might do a one off training once a year. Let’s say that training is on a Tuesday at 10 o’clock in the morning and it’s a 2-hour session at the main university’s communications office. Well, you’re not going to get huge participation because professors are really busy people. When they’re not in the classroom they are researching they’re teaching, they’re involved in a whole host of different activities which is number one. Number two, when you do a media training session, you do a one off or you learn some social media principles, if you’re not applying it everyday and if you’re not actually – it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to lose track of this. I guess I see an opportunity to have an online media training resource that first enables university communications professionals to scale their media training. Professors can therefore take part in the training when they want, where they want and so forth. Secondly it’s an on-going resource so you might not have a media interview the day after you do a training. It might not be for 6 months down the road so having the ability and the means to refer back to training resources through an online component I think can definitely fill a void and can be a benefit and value to professors and be that on-going resource. That’s part of the rational to it. I’ve talked to a lot of professors. I’ve done a lot of market research over the last couple of months to see what kind of appetite there was for this type of product and I’m getting very positive vibes. Of course, people can tell you what they want you to hear so I guess I’ll ultimately find out what kind of market there is for this once I launch it. But I wanted to get the announcement out there to let the market know that this is coming. Now over the last couple of months I’ve been doing a whole bunch of research and putting together a curriculum that I think will help professors understand both digital communications and how to communicate on social media as well as how to communicate in the traditional press. I trust that it’s going to be a great resource and be of great benefit to both professors and university communications departments.

Chip: I’m sure it will be. Obviously there is this significant movement towards online education. Can you talk a little bit about the platform or the method of delivery that you plan to use for this? Is this largely video based? Is it interactive? What sort of course is it?

Kevin: I’m going to do everything video. I spent a lot of time researching and taking part in different online courses myself to see what I like learning and seeing how I learn best. I had on Eric Schwartzman who many are familiar with in the FIR community. But Eric’s launched a whole suite of different social media courses for corporations, is his primary target. I’ve done a whole lot of – a bunch of research and interviewed a whole of people on my podcasts and both for the benefit of my listeners but also for the benefit of myself because I learned a whole lot in the process. What I intend to do is create a series of 20 to 25 short videos on different aspects of digital communications and traditional media. The main idea would be that here’s the point, here’s an example and here’s the application for you as a professor. I don’t have the ability to stand in front of the camera and speak monotonically for an hour, and hour and a half and engage an audience. It really has to be done at a high production value. I’m not a professor but what I am doing is incorporating my experience as well as the research and best practice of what other professors are doing. I’m incorporating those as the examples and trying to provide some direct application for what professors can actually do to – whether it’s build a presence on LinkedIn or start a blog and so on and so forth.

Chip: There are a lot of communicators who have looked at the online learning movement and tried to wonder if that’s the kind of thing that might work for them. As you are setting this up are you looking at this as a revenue generator on it’s own? Or is this really more of something where you can cover your costs and use it as a way to introduce yourself to more consulting opportunities?

Kevin: The way I intended is for it to be a combination of both. I intend to offer the program that people can learn and get some of the basic principles and apply those basic principles. After that what I intend to do is offer 3 follow up options. I intend to provide some different on-going learning resources where, if you do the course and then you’re looking to continue your education, that there is some different on-going resources and materials that you can refer to. You also have the opportunity to work with your university’s communications department if that university communications department is able to serve you individually as a professor. The third option is if you want more follow up one-to-one support, I will offer that as a follow up, kind of consulting option for professors. I’ll work one-on-one or in a small group if there’s a group of 3 or 4 professors from a particular department or center. I’ll do everything from assessments to audits to strategy and so forth and even helping them implement to. It’s a combination of both is how I envision it right now.

Chip: It’s great. I think it’s certainly going to provide so real value for your target audience. I’m looking forward to watching from a business perspective to see how it goes and what I can learn from it.

Kevin: Thank you. I had this in the back of my mind a while back. When I decided that I wanted to talk to some different people who had a lot more experience than I do, I identified you because of what you’ve done with Custom Scoop in terms of introducing a product per se. I really benefited from our chat last year where I was kind of picking your brain and you were sharing your experiences and that’s been very helpful to me.

Chip: Thank you. What got you into PR to begin with?

Kevin: Originally my goal was to be a sportscaster. One of the things I wanted to do was be on talk radio. I loved sports talk radio back in my teenage years and going into college. I’ve always liked writing. I’ve always like story-telling and my goal originally was to be a journalist. I had my first professional opportunity was working for the International Baseball Federation in Switzerland. You say baseball and Switzerland it’s very foreign concepts.

Chip: I’m a baseball umpire and I have to tell you and I never think Switzerland – that’s where baseball should be.

Kevin: I graduated college in 1999. All throughout college I had taken part in different sports communications, sports journalism activities. I was the sports radio talk show host as well I did some play-by-play for the football team. I was the editor for the newspaper. This is the kind of path I wanted to go down. I got my first real work opportunity covering the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, working for this International Baseball Federation as kind of like a freelance / “let’s try you out and see if you like working with us”. And, that led to my first role in Switzerland working with the International Baseball Federation which is very ironic because again, you don’t associate baseball and Switzerland in the same sentence. The I.O.C. headquarters are in Lozan, Switzerland and therefore there’s about 25 or so sports federations – everything from the Wrestling Federation to swimming and everything else in between and baseball was on the Olympic program at the time. That was kind of my first real professional experience. Over time, I still like sports to a certain extent, but I realized I wanted to do something else. I think having the opportunity to see the world and Switzerland, I traveled quite a bit to different parts of the world, I wanted to do something outside of sports which eventually veered me into higher education. But I guess the principle is I’ve always liked story-telling. I’ve always liked communicating. I love the fact that I can do a podcast, I can blog and can help clients do the same. I think that’s part of my DNA to a certain extent.

Chip: Do you ever see yourself getting sports related clients or are you going to stick with education?

Kevin: One of the questions that I asked a lot of different people before I went out on my own is, “how much do you focus on one niche versus trying to veer into several different niches?” The common refrain was, if you went out on your own in 1995 you could be the Jack of all trades and you could be the communications expert and you could cross industries. Now today, you really have to be niched as all the competition is fierce. What I’m realizing right now is that I really need to stick to the higher education niche and that’s where it makes most sense. There are times where spots can kind of cross into that. When I was working at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business they did a whole lot with sports through the Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski the famous [Veslar?] Coach and U.S Olympic coach. Coach K had a leadership center there and there was a whole lot of cross over. I think it’s always fun when I can cross sports into my education background. But for now I think my niche is focused on higher education.

Chip: Is your ambition to grow it into a large agency? I talked to someone else recently who said I’m always going to be a one man agency that’s what I want. I’ll hire contractors and I have more work than I can do, but I never want employees. Where are you at on that spectrum?

Kevin: I definitely am where your previous guest is referring to. I already outsourced some things and I want to continue outsourcing things. I could potentially see myself bringing on an employee or two but I really don’t envision myself becoming a huge agency. I love the flexibility that I have with my current setup. I feel like setting up into a real agency type of outfit with lots of employees veers away from that. That’s how I envision myself. I hope that this online training would take my business down this path where it suits being a solo PR pro.

Chip: As you know, and all my listeners know, I always try to keep these under 30 minutes so I will finish with one final question and it’s one of my favorite questions to ask in one of these interviews, and that is, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Kevin: Great question. I think so far for me the biggest learning has been in terms of the amount of time that I spent writing proposals that I shouldn’t have been writing to begin with. I’ve wasted a whole lot of time writing on these proposals. I’d take a good day or so to make sure that I’m putting together something comprehensive that makes sense, that’s well researched. And I feel that sometimes people would say, “Hey, can you write me a proposal?” and I would just do that. I’ve learned that that’s not the best way to do it. I think one of the things that I’ve really benefited from is two things actually. I joined the Solo PR Pro group by Kellye Crane and that’s been a really beneficial sounding board for me to ask questions and through this group she shared a resource, a pre-screening questionnaire that you can ask of your clients. I regret that I didn’t join that group earlier because I wasted a whole lot of time. I guess expanding my network in that way. The other thing that I benefited from was a mastermind group that I had been a part of. I’ve been fortunate that the individuals in this mastermind they have different interests but there are a lot of similarities in terms of they all do to a certain extent online training so I’ve been benefiting from their expertise. I guess I would regret that I didn’t join those groups earlier because I think it would have saved me a lot of aggravation that wasn’t necessary.

Chip: I have to say that the Solo PR group is a great one. I’ve had the opportunity to work with them on some projects, Custom Scoop for example offers a special benefit to Solo PR members. My experience as an entrepreneur is that it’s always good to have sounding boards and people who are in a similar situation who can give you feedback. It’s one of the reasons why, probably the companies where I have had multiple partners have tended to do better because you have other people who are just as invested and have similar perspectives. So acquiring that indirectly through Solo PR I think is a great opportunity because PR, I think, probably more than most industries attracts a lot of solo practitioners who are in need of that camaraderie, that expertise that can be shared –

Kevin: Yes, absolutely.

Chip: – amongst each other.

Kevin: I always try to surround myself with people who are a bit more experienced and have a bit more knowledge than some of the things that I would like to do just so I can learn from them. I think Solo PR Pro allows that as well as this mastermind group that I’m a part of allows for that.

Chip: Learning is a key part of any profession but particularly this one. I have to say Kevin, that I’ve learned a lot from you over the course of this conversation. Hopefully our listeners have as well. I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

Kevin: Thank you Chip. It’s been a real honor.

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