Q&A: Shallot Communications cofounder Tim Granholm

The Obama and Biden administration alum on why the government needs strong private-sector partners and what makes effective healthcare comms.

Granholm has served in two Democratic administrations.

As a communications staffer in the Department of Health and Human Services during both the Obama and Biden administrations, Tim Granholm worked on hot-button issues like the Affordable Care Act and COVID-19. 

Now Granholm and Teal Pennebaker, who also worked in HHS under Obama, are applying their experience to a new challenge: launching Shallot Communications, a boutique comms firm that helps executives with issues such as thought leadership, employee communications and media relations. 

Here’s a Q&A with Granholm, who is also an alum of Boeing. 

What did you learn about how leaders can communicate effectively from your time in the Obama administration?

Certainly a lot. My first job out of college was working on the Obama campaign. I think many people recognize him as a very persuasive person and a great communicator, and I view a lot of what I have done throughout my career through a little bit of a political lens because in the case of a political campaign and a presidential campaign, what you're trying to do is persuade people to get on board with a shared vision that's really specific and very clear.

I found that there are a lot of parallels. Whether you're working in a corporate setting or for a nonprofit, really it's trying to help leaders be clear about what their vision is.

What role did you play in communications regarding the Affordable Care Act?

I was working in support of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. One of the roles that I played was helping her get out around the country and meet with people to talk about what the piece of legislation was, what the goals were and trying to rally support for that. So going out to different congressional districts, hosting events, roundtables, townhalls. So really a lot of on-the-ground event planning, messaging around the key elements, both the insurance elements, which I think people widely understood that this was trying to expand healthcare to more people, but also around some of the consumer protections, the ability to stay on a parents’ plan until you're 26 or not being denied insurance because of preexisting conditions. 

Obviously the Affordable Care Act wasn't well-received by everyone and faced opposition from Republicans. Do you think that there was anything that could have been done differently to have it be more well-received people on the right or just across the general population?

I think one of the challenges initially was that a lot of the benefits of the legislation didn't kick in immediately, so it's not like as soon as the president signed the bill, certain provisions went into law or there was a massive expansion. It was phased in, and a lot of things were state by state, and health care is a very complex topic. I think just the lesson that I draw from that experience is just trying to really treat people with respect and treat them in a way that assumes good intent and trying to be as straightforward and direct with people as possible. 

And not saying that the Obama administration didn't try to do that, but just kind of a reflection is to focus on the most important things. In that case, what we're trying to do is improve the healthcare system for everyone. And when we got better at it, we got really specific about what exactly that means for your life and for your family and your bottom line. 

What role did you play in communications about COVID?

What I did at the department is help coordinate across the different HHS agencies. I was working for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O'Connell, and she helps coordinate the department-wide response. So really just partnering with different communicators across the agency to try to bring an integrated message to the American people and the media and other stakeholders about what our priorities were on COVID.

What inspired you to start your new communications firm?

I have been working in communications for about 15 years, and I have had the benefit of working in some organizations that I believe in — in a presidential campaign, working at the White House and government agencies — and then I also had a chance to work for about eight years at Boeing. And one of my favorite things about being in communications is the opportunity to partner with senior leaders and help to be a thought partner and strategist, in addition to being a communications adviser to them, to think about how they make sure their messages are heard. 

I was really interested in seeing how I could take all that I learned in the private and the public sector and apply that with a broader set of leaders and organizations. I had the opportunity to partner up with a former HHS colleague, [Pennebaker], and just started chatting about what starting a business could look like.

We're very fortunate to come out of the gates with a handful of clients that are from a range of different industries and different sizes.

Who were some of those initial clients?

I'm not in a position to give you by name because I haven't cleared that with them. But I can talk about the types of clients. We're working with a smaller health startup in the DC area that works in the broadband, telemedicine-type space. We’re working with an HR and recruiting technology platform that's trying to make hiring a diverse group of software engineers easier. We are working with a nonprofit client that's based in Colorado.

Do you have a target market for your agency?

I think our sweet spot is helping senior leaders in developing their communication style and approach. I see a lot of opportunity around the employee communication space. Both my business partner and I have backgrounds working in employee communications. When I was at Boeing, the last role I had was leading global internal communications for the company. That’s something that I really sought out or would have had on my list of jobs that I most desired at the company, but an opportunity came up, and I really found out that I truly enjoy the employee communications. 

I think all of us have seen during the pandemic, the rise in the importance of employee communications. There are distributed workforces, more people working in hybrid and remote environments and just a lot of different employee movement across organizations and between companies. The importance of employee communications has never been clearer, so we're seeing a lot of interest from current clients and potential about around how we can bring those experiences to bear for them. 

One of the things I think about when someone moves from the public to the private sector is: is it possible to find the same motivation, the same inspiration in working for the private sector as it is in working in government?

I think the opportunity here is twofold. One is the opportunity to build something with somebody that you admire and respect. So my business partner is somebody that we have similar values and similar experiences, and we genuinely want to work hard to make each other successful and the organization successful. So that is one of the big motivators.

The second thing is just the opportunity to select which clients we work with. Obviously, I really enjoy public service. That's something that I have enjoyed twice in my career, and it's something I would consider in the future again but also recognize that in order for the government to do what it needs to do and for the country to do the things it needs to do, we rely on strong, vibrant, contributing private-sector partners. So we have an opportunity in the way we set up our business and select our clients to work with organizations and leaders that we believe in.

So is it just a gut feeling? Is there a specific criteria you use in deciding which clients to work with or how do you make those decisions?

It's just ongoing conversation between Teal and myself. I won't say we have an elaborate criteria yet. We are very fortunate just to be having a lot of conversations with a lot of different organizations based on our networks and referrals. As we get into it more, we will probably mature that process and maybe we will notice themes or criteria that we might apply to the future, but right now, it's just a very active dialogue.

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