The Art of It All: The Smithsonian Institution’s Carolyn Martin on Public Affairs

September 1, 2015

Carolyn Martin
Carolyn Martin

As a child, Carolyn Martin dreamed of being a timpani player in an orchestra. She also enjoyed visiting her grandparents on summer vacations and going to the Smithsonian Institution — the Smithsonian Castle especially resonated with her.

Today, Martin is the associate director of public affairs in the Office of Communications and External Affairs at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and she works in the very same Castle on the National Mall. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities.

She grew up in Mobile, Ala., and after graduating from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in education, she returned to Mobile to pursue TV news at WALA-TV — first as a news photographer shooting and editing 16mm film (and then videotape), before moving in front of the camera as a reporter.

Previously, Martin worked on statewide political campaign communications and for the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce as vice president of community development. After moving to the District, she worked in media relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She then earned a master’s in environmental studies from Antioch University New England and became a newspaper reporter for The Keene Sentinel and a correspondent for New Hampshire Public Radio.

Martin joined the Smithsonian in 2003 and served as head of public affairs at the National Zoo for three years before taking on her current role, where she helps guide media relations and external communications efforts and strategies. She has been a PRSA member since 2007 and recently earned a Certificate in Marketing from Georgetown University.

What do you think makes a good leader?

I’m a firm believer in teams. While there are challenges, there’s a lot of value in getting different perspectives — positive and negative — on an issue. We learn from each other, even when we don’t agree as colleagues. As a leader, my role is to help each person continue to learn and evolve. I want them to excel, for the good of the Smithsonian and for their own professional and personal growth. A good leader listens and is fair, and is not afraid to take risks, make decisions or acknowledge her mistakes. Bottom line: Treat folks with respect and care about them as whole people, not just employees. 

What is the key to implementing a strong, strategic story?

Start with a good story that includes a compelling human element or angle. Think of your target audience — why should they care about this content? Find a good talker or storyteller, add strong visuals, and find the best platform and format to distribute the story that is tailored to the target audience.

When possible, tell a story that’s timely and relevant — it’s great to have a news hook. Always make sure that the story is in line with your brand values and furthers your communications goals and objectives.

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

We try to promote all aspects of the Smithsonian, while also providing value to our audiences by meeting their needs and interests. Some days when there are loads of compelling content, it’s difficult to select what to showcase for our general audience.

The Smithsonian is known for its iconic treasures. We work on showing that it also has active scholars, scientists, curators and experts in art, history, science and culture addressing today’s important issues, such as climate change.

Though we are known around the world, we are challenged to make our presence heard in a noisy media environment that bombards audiences with information 24/7.

Measuring our PR efforts is sometimes difficult because we are promoting everyone here, not directly one museum.

What’s the best way to align, connect and inspire today’s employees?

Listen to them — to their ideas and concerns, and help them grow as individuals and as professionals. Ask what’s working and what’s not working. We all want to work where our ideas are valued and where we can contribute to the greater good of the organization, and develop our own skills.

What role does public relations play in strengthening the Smithsonian’s brand?

The PR staffers in the central Office of Communications and External Affairs are the keepers of the brand; our communications are the voice, face and image of the Smithsonian each day. What, how and why we communicate reflects on the brand — each tweet, blog, news release, media interview, website post and visitor interaction is an opportunity to strengthen relationships with the public, media and stakeholders.

What are some best practices when engaging on-the-go digitally savvy consumers?

Be brief, be relevant, be fascinating, be fun. Reach them where they like to get information, and in a format that’s user-friendly. We pay close attention to what information resonates, and how and when they like to receive it. We use a variety of ways to reach audiences: Reddit Ask Me Anything chats, Google Hangouts, tweetups, Facebook Q-and-As, Periscope broadcasts and emoji tours of our collections. Also, we like to share content that may surprise people and shake up their notions of the Smithsonian.

Is it difficult to reach new audiences and those of various backgrounds?

Our aim in public affairs is to reach new audiences and broaden access to all the Smithsonian has to offer. We strive to do that by reaching out to people of different ages from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

For example, the Smithsonian recognizes the changing demographics and the growth of the U.S. Latino population. We are making an effort to increase the Latino presence within our museums, collections, research and programs. We’ve also increased our outreach to Latino media, encouraging them to cover stories throughout the Smithsonian — from 3-D digitization to the Folklife Festival to new species discoveries.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your 12-year PR career?

“Spin” is a four-letter word — we don’t do it. Also, don’t be afraid to take risks.

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

Learn how to tell a story in a variety of formats (videos, text, lists, Q-and-A, photos, podcasts). Practice your writing skills. Be curious about what’s around you. Use internships to get experience, make contacts and test the water to see if public relations is what you want to pursue. 

What PR trends do you see on the horizon?

The continued integration of public relations and marketing, increased competition for the audience’s attention, proliferation of additional media platforms, continued need for PR professionals to be publishers, flexibility, and ongoing education or training to learn about changing platforms and audience needs.

What’s your favorite thing about working for the Smithsonian?

As a communicator, being an integral part of the Smithsonian’s 169-year-old mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. I can learn something new every day — not because I have to, but because I want to. I get to communicate Smithsonian stories and work with fascinating people who are experts in history, art, science and culture. Working in the Castle on the National Mall is a great perk, too! The Smithsonian’s first secretary and his family lived here in the mid-1800s, bison grazed in the yard and President Lincoln used to drop by. Regardless of the day’s to-do list, I’m proud to come to work each day.


Getting to Know…Carolyn Martin

Any 3 dinner guests, past or present?
Julia Child, Ina Garten and John Besh — for a potluck supper

Favorite movie?
“My Cousin Vinny” or “The Shawshank Redemption”

What are some of your daily sources of news?
NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pew Research Center

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.


Luisana Santana says:

What an amazing article. Loved her insights. Just today I thought of how PR and Marketing are becoming one as I read an article featured in The Journal of Consumer Affairs, also the book "A Marketer's Guide to Public Relations in the 21st Century" explores the concept. Yet, I had not heard a practicing PR professional acknowledge the integration of both fields.

Sept. 8, 2015

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