Karen Hughes, Hall of Fame 2020


worldwide vice chair, BCW Global

Karen Hughes is a leading communications strategist, specializing in strategic messaging, crisis communications and executive communications. Since joining Burson-Marsteller in 2008, Hughes has provided strategic communications counsel to many high-profile clients.

She was senior strategist on the team advising the first U.S. hospital to diagnose a patient with Ebola. She helped develop the strategy to differentiate Ford in the aftermath of the auto bailout.

Before these roles, Hughes served as counselor to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, acting as strategic adviser to the president on policy and comms.

What would your advice be for a young person entering PR in 2020?

Go for it! Go to work for an agency or company (or a political candidate or cause you believe in because they’ll give you as much work as you can handle, and you will be given more responsibility faster than almost anywhere else). Be flexible, volunteer to work on as many different clients as you can, always be willing to take on new things and never stop listening and learning from clients and colleagues.

What role should the industry play in combating COVID-19 and racial injustice?  

In our role as client counselors, we have a responsibility to help them be credible, consistent sources of information and agents of positive change. During a time when information from political leaders has too often been contradictory, confusing or inconsistent, many people rely on our clients — their employers — to provide ongoing communication to help protect their personal health and safety.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted inequities in many things, from access to healthcare and education to the ability to work from home. Our industry and our clients can help address these social issues, as well as the complex issue of racial injustice. We need to seek out and listen to different voices and points of view, work to understand, then join the conversation with humility and grace, and make meaningful commitments to bring about a more equitable future for all.

How are the founding principles of PR relevant in today’s fast-moving and febrile comms environment?

The channels of communication have changed dramatically over the course of my career, but I believe the fundamentals are basically the same. I call them the five “Cs” of effective communication: clarity, conviction, compassion, consistency and credibility. Clarity and consistency are especially important given the short attention spans we are competing for today, and the effectiveness of the communication often depends on the conviction and credibility of the messenger. By compassion, I mean make your message relatable to people’s lives and experiences. During this time of disruption and unrest, the context, content and tone of our messages are especially important, and you must reevaluate those every day because they are changing so quickly.  

How important is the 2020 U.S. presidential election?  

Every presidential election is important because the outcome has a vast impact on the direction of the country and often the world. The 2020 election feels especially important because it comes at such a chaotic time when our country is facing the multiple crises of a global pandemic, massive economic disruption and unemployment and deep-seated issues of racial and social injustice.

What keeps you excited about working in PR?

The variety and the opportunity to learn something new every day. I love grappling with the complex issues that executives are wrestling with that have such significant impact on people’s lives. I love working with clients in so many different sectors of our economy and learning more about their industries as I work to help them make wise decisions and communicate them effectively.

How do you relax?  

I love to cook and host friends and family for dinners and parties at my house (our current inability to do so is one of the things that bothers me most about this strange time of COVID-19). I also love to garden, swim, read and spend relaxing evenings with my husband. 

Favorite sports team?   

The Texas Longhorns. I didn’t go [to the university], but I’ve done a lot of work with them. My husband and son both went there, and we all bleed orange.

Favorite drink? 

A tie between morning coffee and evening chardonnay.

Favorite bands?  

I’m from Texas so of course I’m a Willie Nelson fan, and (dating myself here) I love to listen to old Peter, Paul and Mary songs.

Which three people, living or dead, would you like to host at a dinner party?

Rosa Parks. I’d like to ask her if she had any idea the impact her brave act of dignity would have. Jesus Christ because he changed the entire course of human history. And my husband because I love his company.

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