Tax Season: H&R Block’s Gene King on Public Relations and Strategic Communications

April 1, 2015

Gene King
Gene King

Gene King wanted to be a motocross racer, motorcycle cop or the next star on “CHiPs” growing up. “I’ve always told stories and enjoyed writing,” he says, “so, I parlayed my writing abilities into a corporate role in marketing communications.”

After he was “bitten by the marketing-communications strategy bug,” King found a way to “combine my reporter’s nose for news and thirst for knowledge with strategic communications and consumer insights for H&R Block.”

As the director of corporate communications at H&R Block, he has led PR strategies and execution for seven tax seasons. King oversees H&R Block’s corporate, consumer tax and financial services media relations strategies and activities. He also leads thought-leadership and brand-reputation strategies for the consumer tax division and The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

Previously, King managed marketing communications functions for DST Systems and oversaw marketing communications strategies for the energy sector of Black&Veatch. He has worked in public relations for 14 years and has been a PRSA member since 2009.

A former newspaper reporter, King earned a bachelor’s in journalism and a master’s in integrated marketing communications, both from the University of Kansas.

How did you get your start in public relations?

All through my junior and high school years and into college, I wrote for the school paper, which led me to pursue a degree in English and journalism and ultimately to teach. That path veered slightly when I was hired to be a stringer on the newspaper in my college town. Being a newspaper reporter was a much more natural fit. However, after several years into my professional newspaper career, I realized I wanted to use my storytelling abilities in a different setting.

Talk about your role as director of corporate communications for H&R Block.

Handling communications for an iconic brand like H&R Block has been a highlight of my career. The role is one that is as close to my daily newspaper role as any other job I’ve had. Daily — even hourly — deadlines drive much of the day-to-day work. But what sets this apart is the people I interact with — they inspire me to make sure we always keep the consumers’ needs first and foremost in our communications. I also help drive our thought leadership strategy, positioning the company as a leader with stakeholders in Washington, D.C., and across the country. The quest to improve means I am continually driving us to consider the outcome as much as the output. We measure everything we do. And it may surprise many, but the job doesn’t end on April 15.

How would you describe your personal leadership style? What makes a good leader?

As the youngest of five boys, I learned that it is difficult to treat everyone equally. We all have individual wants and needs, but you can treat everyone fairly. It’s best to lead by example. I strive for two-way communications with everyone on the team. It is important to keep an open dialogue. I believe in being a strong advocate for anyone on our team. I approach all my meetings with the same question, “What can I do to help you?”

What challenges do you face in your day-to-day job?

H&R Block is unique in that it has an extremely short peak season that drives its annual revenue. This makes year-round communications even more vital to build and enhance our overall brand reputation. In addition, tracking, measuring and reporting are integral to our success. During the busy chorus of a tax season, we must remember to capture our communications activities regularly and analyze the measurement to help us improve daily, weekly, monthly and even season-to-season.

How important is public relations to what H&R Block is trying to accomplish?

Public relations has never played a larger role than it does now. Our executive leaders have embraced the integrated approach to strategy to set the stage at a national level. They lead by example, regularly taking part in a variety of PR activities. With 10,000 retail locations nationwide, there is tremendous opportunity to use public relations locally that sets our company apart from competitors. We integrate all of our communications through a variety of paid, earned, shared and owned media channels and events.

Is this time of year particularly demanding or eventful for the company, as it’s considered “busy season” in the accounting world and Tax Day is April 15?

Our national and market PR professionals will field hundreds of calls from media in the days leading up to, and including, April 15. This is one of the single largest financial transactions many consumers will have in a given year. We work to ensure that consumers are armed with the right information at the right time.

Also, Earth Day is April 22, which brings CSR to mind. How does H&R Block display its socially conscious mindset to customers year-round?

H&R Block is mindful of its corporate social responsibility to our U.S. and global customers and host communities, and we sustain this focus year-round. We express our commitment in multiple channels, such as environmental programs, human capital development and community-based initiatives. The H&R Block Dollars & Sense initiative provides curriculums, online resources and educational games in high school classrooms across the country because we believe financial literacy is a necessity, not a luxury.

Why is it important to be involved in organizations that focus on networking and continuing education?

Never underestimate the value of investing in the most important asset you know: yourself.

Networking and lifelong learning are two important building blocks that help pave the way to professional and personal fulfillment. Many people I’ve met along the way professionally have become life-long friends, work colleagues or  provided business or associate referrals, and I’m glad I can do the same for them.

What advice do you have for those looking to break into corporate communications?

Write as much as you can. Write for work. Write for pleasure. Like any other activity, the more you do it, the better you become. If you have a certain profession in mind, understand the economic drivers, consumer needs and reputational pitfalls. 

What trends do you see on the horizon for public relations?

Everyone is a reporter now. A client overhearing something in an office can communicate that to the world with a 140-character tweet, a video on Vine or a post on Facebook. The consumer is empowered like never before to engage with a brand. Authentic, two-way dialogue and making sure you have the right message to the right person at the right time are key to improving the brand and client experience. A company’s brand reputation is a valuable asset. One way to protect and enhance that reputation is to ensure that organizational decisions are viewed through the communications lens.

Getting to Know… Gene King

Favorite movie?
“The Princess Bride” — Any movie that has Andre the Giant rhyme has to be one for all time.

Any three dinner guests, past or present?

Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and Jack Bauer

Best place to travel?
Florence, Italy

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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