Member Profile: Valerie St. John
Meet Valerie St. John,
Director of Communications, DISCERN
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Why did you join PRSA and what is one of the membership benefits you enjoy the most?
I joined just a couple of years ago and could have kicked myself for not joining sooner. The webinars and timely educational events help me to stay on top of trends in the field quickly and effortlessly. Given that I run all marketing channels – including PR - for my firm, time is the biggest and rarest gem in my life - so thanks, PRSA!
You have been in PR for many years. Please tell us about your work and how long you’ve been in the PR field?
I’ve been working this rodeo on and off since I was 18. I began with a summer internship at Creamer Dickson Basford (now Havas PR), where I wrote articles about our retail banking industry clients. My job the following school year was in Broadcast Media Relations at Northwestern University, my alma mater. We matched professors’ areas of academic expertise with the news of the day, interviewed them on tape (yes, actual tape), and pitched the interviews to radio outlets across the country. That experience opened my eyes to the universe beyond press releases – a universe which has captured my intrigue since. (Television producer) Mara Brock Akil and I overlapped during our time in this office, as did many other talented minds. Effective PR draws on the creativity in us all, partly why I find it so appealing.
Please share a few ways the industry has changed over the years and where you see it going.
The biggest change I’ve seen in PR is the increasing dominance of analytics. Many of us recall a time when the most important PR puzzle piece was the story. The company’s story, the CEO’s story, the non-profit’s story, etc. I was a television reporter/anchor for ten years, so the storytelling piece has always hit home hard. Just as important today are the modes of digital distribution (of which there are infinitely more), matching those with strategic keywords & target audience segments, and making a good faith effort to measure their effectiveness. A profound change, and it’s happened quite quickly.
Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences with a project.
We relatively recently pivoted from selling a data-driven research product to selling a data analytics software platform.
This changed our corporate story. It changed our brand. It changed our very product suite and, thus, the way we market and pitch. Software development required (expensive) R&D, which meant the need to scale product sales quickly. No longer could we rely on the relationship-based deals we’d always made. Word had to travel fast, and beyond the top-25 funds that had defined our client base up to that point. I convinced our CEO to bring in a marketing automation platform. We use it not only to manage outbound marketing, but have recently begun using it to track certain kinds of press pitches – e.g., which subject lines generate opens, which pitches generate more responses, etc.
I still send quite a few manual emails to the reporters, bloggers and producers I know, but experimenting with automation over the last few months has been fruitful for us as well.
Which industry does the majority of your projects come from and why?
Our company, DISCERN, was founded by finance pros inspired by building better data analytics software for other finance pros. Thus, our projects feed the financial services industry, which is in our DNA.
What’s your best advice to the new generation of PR professionals?
1) As you mature in your career, it will be tempting to hire people who share your worldview, people you find comfortable. I challenge you to consider diversifying your team with smart professionals of varying backgrounds and ages. Variability of thought can boost the likelihood that – whatever the project – there’s always someone in-house who can bring a good idea to the table. Maybe something magical.
2) Be creative. Don’t be afraid to try something new – something none of your peers have tried. Trends change. Audiences change. Be a badass. Try, test, and measure. You may be surprised by what you learn.
3) ABG. Always be growing. Keep your learning hat on, even when (and maybe especially when) you think you know all there is to know about your industry.