Katy Kenealy | The Innovator 25 North America 2020

Katy Kenealy 

Senior Vice President

Method Communications  
San Francisco

“We’ve had to stay one step ahead of the news cycle, working closely with our clients to develop thoughtful, relevant and bold narratives and perspectives.”

Method’s Katie Kenealy has struck partnerships with top-tier Silicon Valley clients — Quicken, Workplace from Facebook and Vivint Smart Home among them — based on her track record for delivering exceptional earned media results. Her success in doing so is the upshot of her innovative approach to media relations, which includes fostering robust relationships with key journalists that go well beyond pitching stories. Her hallmark internal efforts include The Method Media Watch, a weekly roundup of journalists’ job moves, and the firm’s Covid-19 newsletter, a resource for clients, prospects and friends of the firm alike.

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
It’s critical to have a strong understanding of the media landscape, and what it takes to successfully tell a company’s story in today’s environment. You have to take into account evolving newsrooms (especially considering the significant industry layoffs this year), increased competition (especially in tech, where we focus at Method), and the major news trends impacting every industry.

Companies must go beyond understanding these newsworthy topics — which currently include a pending election, a pandemic, racial inequality and police brutality, rising unemployment and more. Companies must also consider the impact they will have on their organization and stakeholders and determine how to articulate their perspective. Being able to effectively communicate with reporters and tell your story through earned media channels remains as important as ever. But these new challenges present an urgent need for innovation in strategic media relations and storytelling. At Method, we are squarely focused on ensuring we are on top of these important trends so we can guide our clients through this uncharted territory.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines? About the same as other marketing disciplines

How have the events of 2020 impacted the the industry's innovation?
More innovative. News moves incredibly fast in 2020. If you blink, you’ll miss half a dozen important stories. The pace of the news cycle paired with the overarching narratives of the pandemic, the economy, racism, the election and the power of big tech, have driven significant change in the world of media relations. Knowing that the media are busier than ever trying to keep up has forced PR pros to innovate. We’ve had to stay one step ahead of the news cycle, working closely with our clients to develop thoughtful, relevant and bold narratives and perspectives.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Content creation

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
From my perspective, innovation is all about collaboration and teamwork. The best ideas I’ve seen come to fruition are always the result of a group effort — both in developing the initial idea, and in seeing it through to the finish line. Building and maintaining trust is the foundation needed for successful teamwork. A lot of this collaboration happens when you’re in the office — walking up to a colleague’s desk to bounce around ideas, or hosting brainstorms in the conference room. Those moments are valuable, but at Method we’ve also found that being in an office isn’t the only place for us to innovate. We’ve discovered you can still engage and build trust while working remotely, and achieve innovative results by communicating frequently, setting aside time for collaboration and celebrating wins along the way.

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?

2020 has changed nearly everything! As a result, there are two big challenges comms teams must wrangle with: a lot of things are out of our control, and the news cycle is moving faster than ever. Given that a lot of (often times unpredictable) things can happen in a short amount of time, we need to be willing to adapt to the world around us. This sometimes means pushing ourselves (and our clients) out of our comfort zone. There’s a fine balance to strike — you must remain true to your company’s ethos. But there’s a real opportunity to push outside the traditional box and authentically engage on relevant topics and issues. To do this successfully requires enlisting voices within the organization that you may not have turned to previously.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
I really loved #SharetheMicNow, an initiative to magnify Black women and the important work that they’re doing in order to catalyze change. The goals were clear and timely. The idea was simple, yet thoughtful and powerful. The organizers not only garnered the support of a strong network of leaders and celebrities, but created an authentic moment and brought attention to an important societal need — to amplify the voices of Black women.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
This year has taught me the importance of flexibility. In our personal lives, we’ve all had to put plans on hold, and at work we’ve had to overhaul marketing and comms campaigns and events. PR is a profession filled with expert planners, and not having control can be uncomfortable. But I’ve discovered that flexibility leads to creativity and also gives us room for more empathy and grace.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
When COVID-19 hit, it quickly became clear that this was no normal crisis. We saw that our network was hungry for information about what this meant for the news landscape and for their role as communicators within their organizations. Our CEO, David Parkinson, had the smart idea to put together a weekly newsletter, so we could help keep them up to speed. But we were no longer seeing reporters in person at events and interviews, so we had to figure out a way to replace the insights we typically would gather from those experiences. Our solution was to kick off Method’s virtual media mingle program, an opportunity to hear directly from reporters about how the pandemic has changed their work, what they are focused on and what they are looking for in sources. We’ve been able to capture the moment from a tech comms perspective by pairing our experiences with the reporter’s direct feedback. Clients have told us that this newsletter has become a hugely valuable resource for them and something they share with their entire marketing department. It’s been an exciting opportunity to provide strategic advice that they didn’t have access to elsewhere.

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life during Covid-19 that you hope to carry with you when the pandemic subsides? 
I’ve really appreciated taking the time to cook and be more intentional about knowing where my food comes from. We started getting weekly CSA boxes from a local farm, and I’ve taken to the sourdough bread craze. It’s incredible how many things there are to learn about food —  a core piece of daily life. As someone who loves eating at San Francisco’s many wonderful restaurants, I’ve been inspired by local chefs' efforts to support their local farmers and vendors, even as they deal with their own crises and shift business models. It has really expanded my horizon and I hope to keep engaging with the food community long after the pandemic ends.

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, inclusion and equity? What is the biggest roadblock standing in the way?

Our role as PR professionals is to help companies engage with their stakeholders and communities. Given this charter, we are in an incredible position to challenge companies to demonstrate empathetic and bold leadership to drive meaningful change when it comes to DE&I. It’s our responsibility to share best practices with our clients, and show them why an investment in DE&I will have long term benefits for the organization and society. In the tech industry where we work, one of the biggest roadblocks to making significant progress is filling the pipeline with diverse talent. It’s something that we all have to collectively push for and not let up the pressure until real changes are made.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
I’m thinking a lot about the mental health of my teammates. Being in PR is a stressful job on a normal day, during a normal year. The pressure is even more intense once you pile on any combination of the other stressors 2020 has thrown our way. It’s important that we look for opportunities to slow down and check in on each other. There’s never been a better time to amp up thoughtful and supportive behaviors.

Bold prediction for 2021 
We’ll all be doing more crisis comms. Consumers are discerning and that continued pressure on companies will uncover new and important issues. Additionally, new societal challenges will arise once we better understand the long term impact of COVID-19 on our health and the economy. Companies will need to prepare for these challenges, and be ready to respond if/when they are in the wrong.