Making an Impact: Georgetown CSIC’s John D. Trybus, APR, on Social Change

July 1, 2015

John D. Trybus, APR [maria holsopple]
John D. Trybus, APR [maria holsopple]

“To be able to influence the profession of public relations broadly, and the social impact industry specifically, through CSIC is a humbling responsibility that I treasure,” says John D. Trybus, APR.

As the deputy director of the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) at Georgetown University, he leads and manages its day-to-day operations, including research, curriculum and partnership development, outreach and communications. It’s the only applied research and academic center of its kind that is dedicated to increasing social impact through the power of communicators.

Trybus, whose childhood dream was to become a National Geographic photographer or an explorer, is a graduate of Georgetown’s masters in public relations and corporate communications program and served as a CSIC research fellow, where he created the award-winning multimedia series “The Social Strategist Project.” He was also an alumni instructor in the program’s signature cause consulting course. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from George Washington University.

Previously, Trybus served as a communications strategist at the British Embassy, communicating about the special relationship between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. He was also a member of the social innovation practice at Waggener Edstrom, where he advised clients on CSR program design, cause marketing and shared value partnerships, nonprofit branding, thought leadership and executive platform development. He began his career as the personal traveling PR aide to Dr. Jane Goodall.

How did you get your start in public relations and communications? And how did you come to work for Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication?

I’m amazed at where my career has taken me! The common thread running through is a dedication to harnessing the power of communication and marketing to increase social impact in the world, across sectors and world issues.

My career started in a full-time capacity in the most incredible way imaginable. I was hired as the personal PR adviser to environmental rock star and United Nations Messenger of Peace Dr. Jane Goodall. Yes, the famous chimpanzee lady! This once-in-a-lifetime role had me strategically planning and implementing Dr. Goodall’s perpetual global advocacy tour, which had her traveling more than 300 days per year, and me about half that time. I created and advised on her speeches, media appearances, corporate partnerships and engagement with celebrities and influencers as part of her global nonprofit, the Jane Goodall Institute. To say that the experience forever changed my life and career would be an understatement.

From there, I spent time in the social innovation practice of Waggener Edstrom. In this role, I appreciated the challenge of being in PR as a business and working to strengthen the social impact of big brands.

After some time as a communications strategy lead at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., working to promote the “special relationship” between the U.K. and U.S. through things such as visits by members of the royal family and other dignitaries, I took on the role as director at Georgetown CSIC. Now, I wear the multiple hats of researcher, trainer, professor, new business development lead, fundraiser, organizational strategist and mentor. 

Describe your personal leadership style. Also, what makes a good leader?

My leadership style is based on collaboration, transparency and authenticity. I believe a good leader understands that they are only as successful as the collective strength of their team. Strong leaders help build a culture of collaboration where personal and team goodwill takes off, innovation is sparked and results are materialized.

A dedication to transparency by sharing the good as well as the behind-the-scenes challenges is essential to creating authenticity. I’ve seen too many so-called “leaders” overly sugarcoat tough situations, and then are never able to regain respect among staff because they are no longer perceived as being authentic. 

What are your daily sources of news?

I watch “Good Morning America” in the morning, “World News” at night and a lot of social impact trade press and influencer news in between.

What are some challenges you face in your day-to-day job as deputy director?

There are so many topics within social impact communications that we want to research, but to produce projects that are applied in nature and of high quality takes time and resources!

Overall, I see my job as one huge opportunity to make an impact. For example, thanks to the help of CSIC, Georgetown’s PR students donated the equivalent of $1 million in pro-bono services to nonprofit and socially responsible business clients as part of their final capstone course during the past spring semester alone. The power of communicators giving back is strong.

How important is public relations to the Center for Social Impact Communication in encouraging social change and innovation?

It’s very important, but we also have an informal mantra: Embrace the blur.

Less important to us are textbook definitions of public relations vs. communication or marketing. Rather, we advocate that skilled practitioners in our field must use all available tools in an integrated, strategic fashion to reach target audiences.

It’s a great time to be a communicator within the social impact sector. By using those “blurry” skills of public relations and marketing, practitioners are helping to fuel real change on issues such as hunger, conservation, the empowerment of women and more. We help PR change-makers fuel impact through our applied research, custom trainings and programs.

What are the keys to implementing strong, strategic storytelling?

Building a culture of storytelling in an organization is the key to implementing a sustainable storytelling program that works. We have many tips for how to do that in CSIC’s latest research, “Stories Worth Telling.” But two of the most important ways to build that culture are to have an executive champion outside the PR department who sees why stories matter and organically integrate a storytelling mindset in easy ways. For example, start each meeting by having a team member share a story they witnessed or experienced that was a result of your organization’s work.

What are some best practices for engaging on-the-go consumers with so many digital stimulants out there?

Go back to the basics: face-to-face, interpersonal communication. There is no substitute to spur consumers or other key audience groups to action than making a human connection in a non-digitally fueled way.

You’ve been a member of PRSA since 2008. Why do you think it’s important to be involved in organizations that focus on networking and continuing education?

Any opportunity to be involved in an organization like PRSA that advocates for continual professional development is a good one. Our profession can only benefit through increased knowledge, and of course, personally, we can too!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during your career in public relations so far?

The power of the human connection — which I learned from Jane Goodall. In our age of information overload and nonstop technological advances, the ways in which people and organizations communicate with each other are increasing daily. But this has also created deafening noise, which makes it hard to break through and spur action.

There is no substitute for face-to-face communication and for organizations to connect with key audiences in human and direct ways. This is more important than ever before. People connect with people — not amorphous organizations or technology.

What advice do you have for those looking to break into public relations?

Go on what I call a “listening tour.” Connect with people whom you personally and professionally admire, even if you don’t know them. Ask questions, but more important, listen to what they’re saying. Connect for no other reason than to learn from those who are smart — not to ask them for a job.      For every major career move I’ve considered, I’ve gone on a listening tour, and I’ve gained clarity into my situation by hearing about the journeys of others. Those contacts form the backbone of my network and I’ve been able to benefit their work, and vice-versa, many times through the years. The PR profession can seem like a small one at times and personal relationships are everything.   

Next, take a 360-degree view of what skills you need to work on in public relations. Hint: It’s not just about the hard skills of media relations or social media strategy. Understanding how to support and further larger business or organizational goals through public relations is crucial, as are the leadership and interpersonal skills needed to relate and collaborate with others. Take advantage of any opportunity — volunteer, paid or otherwise — to burnish that wide range of skills necessary to be a forward-thinking, effective PR practitioner. You have to start somewhere.

Also consider more education! It’s exciting that our profession is getting more academically trained in public relations. I think that trend will continue to increase and in fact, become expected of practitioners. 

What trends do you see on the horizon for public relations and for the social impact sector?

In both public relations and the social impact sector, I see an increased need for razor-sharp strategy, measurement and better alignment with organizational business goals as the megatrends on the horizon. These are not new trends, but they do have new importance.

The good news is that there has been an upward move toward social consciousness among consumers for a while now, which is creating unprecedented opportunities for nonprofits and responsible companies to benefit while helping solve real societal challenges. Look no further than the Chipotles and Warby Parkers of the world and you can see that “doing good” is also good for business.

But the flip side is that where there is honey, there are always bees. There are many competitors and there is so much “stuff” out there, which results in both content and cause fatigue. To help their organizations operate in this reality, smart practitioners must create micro-targeted strategies that connect with the right audiences, measure what matters and always prove the case why public relations matters by linking its outcomes to larger business goals.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

There’s no decision until there’s a decision. In other words, don’t fret the potential outcome of a stressful situation until things play out. That is sound advice from my mother!


Getting to Know John D. Trybus, APR

Favorite movie?
“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Any three dinner guests, past or present?
Jane Goodall, Hillary Clinton and Nelson Mandela

Favorite thing to do in your downtime?
Good coffee and a book

Best place to travel?
My hometown of Chicago and wherever my next trip will take me

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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