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CWC 3: Matt Cookson of Cookson Strategies

In this episode, Matt discusses founding his own public relations firm and the work he does in the high-tech and education spaces.

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In this episode of Chats with Chip, Matt Cookson of Cookson Strategies joins me to discuss founding his own public relations firm and the work he does in the high-tech and education spaces, in particular.

Matt is a man of many talents, and therefore, many titles. In addition to being President and Founder of Cookson Strategies, he is also the Executive Director of the New Hampshire High Tech Council, and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Antioch University. In his free time, he is a member of the board of directors of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, which he helped to found.


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

Chip: Today I am talking with Matt Cookson. Matt is a man of many talents, and therefore, many titles. He is the President and Founder of Cookson Strategies which is a PR firm located in New Hampshire. He is also the Executive Director of the New Hampshire High Tech Council, and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Antioch University. In his free time, he is a member of the board of directors of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, which he helped to found. Welcome to the show, Matt.

Matt: Great to be with you, Chip. Thanks for having me.

Chip: It is really great to have you here. I wonder if you could start out by telling us a little bit about Cookson Strategies and what you’re doing. I know your background is a lot of government and education experience, so if you could talk about what Cookson does.

Matt: Absolutely. Cookson Strategies is a four year old firm. We focus on strategic communications mainly in the areas of PR and marketing. We take a long-term approach to our client works. Most of our clients have been with us for some time. It’s really more of a partnership model than a project model. That’s not because I don’t love doing proposals, but because we really view ourselves as coming alongside of our clients and really working as an extension of their organization. It was founded in 2010, which you know was just a fabulous time to launch a company –

Chip: Absolutely.

Matt: – with three folks. We essentially took a shell of another company from an individual who was retiring, and tied it in with my work at the High Tech Council. I was on the board and was asked to move into the role of Executive Director, and also tied in some of my previous work in higher education, and waltzed in with three people – a couple legacy clients, the High Tech Council, and two universities, and put our sign in the window, and began working. Chip, as you know, New Hampshire is such a highly networked state, and I had the fortune to be in positions where I was the outside person for organizations doing a lot of business development, engagement in the business community. So I developed a strong network in this state, and was able to reach out to folks that I know and network and connect.

Four years later, our little company with about seven people now with about fifteen clients, and continuing to grow. It’s been a fun run, but a ton of work. Anyone who has grown a company and left a large organization where benefits are provided and offices are cleaned knows that feeling of launching your first company and waiting for the mailman everyday hoping he’ll bring envelopes so you can pay your employees.

Chip: It turns out that’s important. That’s actually part of the law that you have to pay your employees. Very challenging.

Matt: It is very challenging. We can’t all have fleets of unpaid interns. It just doesn’t get the job done.

Chip: Well of course, the courts seem to be frowning down upon unpaid interns these days anyway. It becomes even more challenging from that perspective.

Matt: That’s true. I’m not a credit-granting institution.

Chip: How did you get involved with PR originally? What brought you to the field?

Matt: I was on my five-year plan at the University of Connecticut, and about three years into my English major, I was still searching for something to grab me. I went over to the Daily Campus, which was the newspaper, which I had delivered in my earlier years, and ended up doing some copyediting and took news-writing. I really latched onto journalism. This was a daily paper on a college campus. We had a 10,000 circulation, and I just really connected with news-writing and reporting. I ended up being the managing editor and senior writer at that paper.

I came out and said “I’m going to be a journalist”, and wound up in DC, and couldn’t find a journalist job. I ended up going to my congressional offices from Connecticut, and ended up landing a job as a press secretary in Washington. I guess I went rather quickly to what we all call “the dark side” of former journalists. That’s my track and was back in 1987. It’s really hard to believe. That was back when we actually mailed press releases. Doesn’t that sound archaic?

Chip: It does. Yet, I remember those days quite well myself. I remember stuffing the envelopes with the press releases. I still remember the first job that I had where I started arguing with my colleagues and saying, “we need to stop mailing these. We need to start faxing them!” Faxing was this tremendous solution, whereas today, if I suggested faxing to one of my colleagues here, they would laugh at me, and probably ask what a fax machine is.

Matt: Which is astounding at this point.

Chip: Like you I spent time on capitol hill, and I’m often asked, how did I deal with the influx of e-mail while I was up there? I said, “it was quite easy- we didn’t have any!”

Matt: That would solve a lot of problems, wouldn’t it?

Chip: Absolutely, never was an issue for me. Our big thing was postcards. We’d get big stacks of postcards and we’d have to keypunch them into the dumb terminal that we had sitting at our desks so we could send letters to our constituents.

Matt: We are dating ourselves.

Chip: We are indeed. I always tell people that my experience in politics was great preparation for a future career in a broader communications field. Politics is a different animal. You’ve got things like election day, which is a fixed target. Unlike a product release, you can’t say, “I’m going to push that off for three weeks.” It’s a place where you learn tight deadlines, and the importance of every word that you write and speak. Explain to our listeners how your experience there did set you up for the rest of your communications career.

Matt: It was a pretty amazing experience. It was interesting because the member I worked for was on Ways and Means and Intelligence, so we could only talk about taxes, because we could never talk about anything going on in the Intelligence Committee. We were all about taxes. I worked for a member of Congress. After that I ended up at the Hall of the States working for two Connecticut governors.

It’s almost that experience, Chip, that honed the communications skills further, because the Washington offices of governors are completely non-partisan. Their primary goal is to how best create policies that support the home state, to look at possible ways to bring some dollars home, and usually your state delegations come together there. In some ways, that truly, non-partisan role, helped hone my communication skills. In that role too, there were opportunities to write legislation and look for the opportunities that you can see direct results in.

Also in that era, we were very much less partisan. The two parties got along – which was probably more fun than it is today, frankly. That obviously helped. The communications back then – we were usually more positive and less partisan, and that truly helped. One thing that I quickly learned back then, was what’s newsworthy, and what’s not newsworthy. We all come across clients that say, “I want you to write three press releases a week” and I say, “well, I’d be happy to write three press releases a week, if you had three things worthy of writing about.” But we never say, “we are going to produce ‘x’ amount of news and information” because it turns journalists off. It turned them off back then, and it turns them off even more given the amount of clutter that gets sent to them through e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a million other places. I think that experience helped me discern what potentially has legs in terms of information and messaging, versus items that just didn’t warrant it and would clutter up someone’s inbox.

Chip: Absolutely. The quality over quantity debate that has probably been going on well before our time in communications, but I think these days it’s even more pronounced. The challenges that agencies face in working with clients who see all these pipelines you can fill with content, but they forget it needs to be filled with substantive content, not just words to fill the page or the pixels to fill the screen.

Matt: Right. I think the advantage we have now is we can say, “this one is news-release worthy, this one is more internal so let’s just put it on our Facebook page. So at least you’re doing something that appeases the audiences that you have that want you to do something with an item that just doesn’t feel like it passes muster.

Chip: My favorite out with a client who wants to do a press-release on something, but I know it’s not going to get covered, you say, “I think this one might be better for a blog” so you can get it out with exactly the words they want, but you haven’t bombarded a reporter that you’re going to need somewhere down the line on something else that’s more newsworthy at that time.

Matt: RIght. I’ve done a lot of work in higher ed. Let’s try to be politically correct, but a lot of faculty members believed that their works are the absolute “best ever”, “most insightful”, etcetera, but sometimes the subject matter is so narrow it’s just not going to go anywhere. Social media tools do give us a nice alternative.

Chip: Like you, I spent a lot of time in the world of higher ed, but mostly on the volunteer side of things as the President of the American University Alumni Association, but I too work with a lot of professors and have conversations with them about communications. I think one of the biggest challenges in higher ed is translating complex, scholarly research into plain English terms that you can get more widespread coverage and interest in. A lot of times it’s there, but it takes effort to draw it out.

Matt: That’s true. In this day in age too, we get a lot more sophisticated in higher education. Remember about ten years ago, “marketing” was a dirty word in higher education?

Chip: Yes, absolutely.

Matt: It’s not anymore. The level of sophistication that one now has to put into looking at enrollment management, areas of potential growth, and priming stories and information around those areas of growth to deliver that messaging into the inboxes and desktops of prospective students – we never thought that way ten years ago. No way.

Chip: I don’t want to veer this into the higher ed podcast instead of communications, but my hat is really off to the people who do enrollment management for higher education. These days, particularly to when you and I went to college, it’s so easy for students to apply to multiple institutions. I have no idea how they discern who’s likely to attend, versus who’s just putting you on a list of ten schools. The fact that they do such a good job at most institutions of accurately filling the freshmen class each year is really amazing to me.

Matt: There are jobs for statisticians. There’s a lot of math behind that.

Chip: Speaking of higher ed, I think a lot of people when they think about higher ed communications think about the research, the admissions, and all of that. I think people overlook the fact that universities are essentially small towns, or in some cases, really large towns – big cities even. Being in communications in higher ed means far more than just talking about education topics. It really involves the whole gamut of things that any community would have to handle. Did you spend a lot of time on that when you were in-house, or did you get to spend most of your time on educational topics?

Matt: I’ve worked at two university systems, in two chancellors offices at the University of Connecticut, at New England College, a lot of work with New Hampshire Institute of Art. I’ve definitely seen both sides. The New Hampshire Institute of Art only has 500 students, yet because they handle a lot of exhibits, the amount of media work that we do is a lot. It gets picked up. Arts information and news gets picked up, which is fun. Another pleasure of working with an arts organization is that they have great graphics and photos, which is a huge treat from a communications standpoint.

Residential campuses are such a different animal than graduate schools, like Antioch University. You get a whole other element of communications. When I was working at New England College – you’re going to get a student suicide. It’s a horrible fact, but the odds are that it’s going to happen. You’re going to get people doing flaky things. We had our fair share of that. Two or three years ago I was asked by Southern New Hampshire University Paul LeBlanc, to come to a conference where he brings in people who want to be college presidents, and what to expect. I was asked to speak about what to expect from a communications standpoint.

I got up there and said, “so, how many of you have had the experience of calling up a parent and letting them know that their son or daughter has died”? There was this deadly silence. I said, “as a college president, you will have to do that. You will have to communicate that. I could see the looking around. That’s a hard and scary fact in communications in higher ed, or in healthcare – a ton of fields. People think about putting out press releases, this and that, but communications and client work in this area is so much deeper. It’s not only what is said, it’s how it’s said, and what’s not said, which is equally as important.

Chip: I think we were talking earlier about the proliferation of communications tools being asset from an agency side, but when you’re an organization of higher education, or frankly, having to respond to things, it does create additional challenges. Since everyone’s a publisher, lots of things can be put out that may or may not be fully accurate.

The response from higher education is always challenging. Certainly the fact that there are many privacy laws in place that apply specifically to the fields of education or healthcare, do make it more challenging for some organizations to handle this influx of rumoring innuendo, amateur, half-truth stuff. Sometimes not intentionally so, but it’s what happens when little bits of information cycle through social media.

Matt: I think you hit a very poignant point there, because it’s not only the information that comes out, it’s the speed at which it comes out. It’s pretty instantaneous and it takes some time to craft a response that supports, corrects, etc. I taught an introduction to PR class at UNH Manchester for several years. I remember using my traditional textbook in 2007. We went through ethics in history, leaders in PR, audiences, agencies, roles, all of this.

By 2010, I had to throw the textbook out, because it was irrelevant because of that speed to market issue. The case studies got so stale because of the way things are now reported. The many avenues in which one can report. The fact that measurement is absolutely essential now, when some of the textbooks talked about it being an add-on. This world has changed dramatically, and it’s not only how you communicate, but it’s this constant world of monitoring. Going back to your point, you don’t know what’s going to come out, and when. The key need to possibly react before a message that’s incorrect goes viral on you.

Chip: Yes, and it turns out some people even still use the phone to communicate as we just heard there. When you were working with students, how prepared do you think the PR communication students of today are when they have to get into the workforce?

Matt: Great question. Students coming out today – so a 21 year old would have been born in 1993? –

Chip: This is depressing.

Matt: Yes, this is rather depressing. So a student today, we know they will be glued to their technology. We also know that they spend a lot of time writing grammatically incorrect sentences, not using punctuation. We also know, with their devices, they tend to be heads down. What I look for – and I regularly have interns – is, I know I’m going to get the technical skills at a certain level. That’s almost off the table now. It’s the writing. I need people who can be very articulate in writing these days. If they haven’t picked it up by senior year in college, that’s concerning to me.

It’s also the interpersonal skills. Can they work in a group? How effectively can they talk to a client? Can they look someone in the eye? What’s the level of confidence. A lot of those interpersonal skills are very important, but I’m very concerned that a lot of kids are sitting in their rooms gaming with other people, and don’t have those 1-on-1 skills. We still need them. They are really, really valuable. Those are the two that really stand out to me.

Chip: You talk about writing. I think certainly, over the last 15 years, I’ve hired a lot of young people, whether as interns or as full-time staff members. Writing skills I think are incredibly valuable and in relatively short supply – at least for excellent writers. The other thing that’s overlooked is, with the pace of communications today, it’s not enough just that you write well, but you have to write relatively quickly too. I know some great writers, but they are the meticulous write, rewrite, rewrite types. That doesn’t really work in communications anymore, does it?

Matt: No. We don’t have the time for it. Taking it a step further, it’s the tone with writing. When you’re doing what I do, you’re writing for a lot of different clients. You’re writing for individuals too. I know some people think it’s scary that we help craft quotes for people, but what we’re trying to do is rephrase their thoughts into quotes in their own language. Getting that tonality is challenging. That’s a significant skill that can be repurposed throughout one’s life.

Chip: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the other skills I felt I took away from working on capitol hill, where you spent all of your time writing in someone else’s voice. As a junior staffer for a member of Congress, you didn’t write anything for yourself. It was for the member to speak or by-line. You had to learn quite quickly how to read that person’s voice, and how to transpose yourself into them as you’re writing – whether it’s a letter, or speech, or op-ed. That’s a really valuable skill to have.

You certainly get it in other areas of communications. Not to harp on politics as a great starting point, but I think since it’s all you do, I think it’s particularly valuable – sort of “trial by fire” if you will – to decide both whether you can do it, and whether you like to do it.

Matt: Yes it’s very true. I’d add to that. Once you do that, and say you move into a role that I’m in now, which is account work, but it’s a lot of executive management, is that you need to step back every now and then and write that speech or column. Not only in your voice, but for someone else to keep that skill there. You don’t want to lose the writing skills, and sometimes it’s a real treat to spend a little time writing.

Chip: Absolutely. These days, with so many outlets to publish or broadcast through a podcast like this, or do a video. Even if you’re not invited to give a speech somewhere, you still have outlets for it. You’re not simply writing for yourself, but you can get some sort of an audience for it. It’s great to practice that whether you’re still a student or if you have 20, 30, 40 years into the game.

Matt: And putting more than 140 characters into it.

Chip: There is that. Although, I will say that the 140 characters is useful in teaching people to distill a message into its essence. There are a lot of folks who will ramble on quite a bit in their writing. While 140 characters teaches you some bad habits, it does tell you the good habit of condensing your message to its key point.

Matt: That is true. I remember in journalism school we were sent out to write an article using one-syllable words. Do you know how hard that is? It was amazingly challenging.

Chip: I can’t imagine it. But now I may try it this afternoon just for –

Matt: Your next column will be all one-syllable words. [crosstalk]

Chip: We’ll see how that turns out. It may take a while to write, because I’m used to using big words as some people point out to me. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Matt: Being a small business owner. I would have taken economics. That would have been a good idea. Doing it all over, wow. I’ve been very fortunate to have had several mentors over my 20+ year career, and have pulled in a little bit from a lot of people. They talk to young people – having six or seven careers over their lives. I’ve probably had that already in mine. What would I do different? That’s a tough question.

One thing that I would do different is more research, and really using your network to gain more input on various steps that I took. I launched this firm, and as I mentioned, waiting for those envelopes to arrive. But, I had relatively young children, and a fair amount of responsibility. I took a gamble. I think we do need to gamble, but I think our gambles should be measured. There’s a lot of great people out there who are willing and able to provide advice. I think it’s really important to put your ego aside, seek people out, and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions about the challenges that you face. I think entrepreneurship is alive and well, and I’m thrilled and thankful for those mentors that I’ve had over the years.

Chip: I’m thrilled and thankful to have you on the show today. I knew it wasn’t a gamble when I invited you. You certainly did not disappoint. Thanks again to Matt Cookson for being my guest today.

Matt: My pleasure Chip, and I greatly appreciate the time.

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