The Social PR Virtuoso: Shonali Burke on Digital Strategy and Engaging Audiences

April 1, 2016

“As a young child, I was painfully awkward and shy. So dreams, other than those of the fairytale variety, weren’t much on the horizon,” says Shonali Burke. “As I grew older, I got involved with theater and wanted to be an actress. I did see that dream through, and that was what I did, and who I was before I moved into public relations full time.”

Today, she owns her own eponymous social PR consulting firm, which helps businesses take their communications from “corporate codswallop to community cool.” She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso, an online training hub for ambitious professionals.

A veteran of small and large PR agencies, Burke was an early adopter of social media in the PR space. Career highlights include leading the ASPCA’s communications during the 2007 pet food recall and Michael Vick case, as well as putting its award-winning measurement program in place and leading the now-textbook digital strategy for USA for UNHCR’s Blue Key campaign.

Burke teaches at both Johns Hopkins University and Rutgers University, and she founded and hosts the monthly #measurePR Twitter chat.

How did you first become interested in public relations and get your start?

In my aforementioned previous life as a thespian, two things were clear: I loved what I did, and knew my income was not very stable. I was a bit of a middling-size fish in a middling-size pond. So, I got a project-based event management job that I could use to feed my dramatis personae. That led to my working in public relations in India — first for a financial services firm, and then for the PR division of Ammirati Puris Lintas in Kolkata. I didn’t really commit to public relations as my full-time gig until I moved to the U.S. in 2000.

At the time, we lived in the San Francisco Bay area. After a few months, I started getting restless. I dropped the theater and legal industries as career options. Since I had a sense of how public relations worked, I decided that’s what I would do.

My husband’s family had their annual reunion in San Francisco that year. That’s how one of his cousins, after hearing I was looking for a PR job, introduced me to her good friend who was in the profession. She invited me to a networking luncheon, where I sat next to an executive with a boutique agency that did — drum roll — public relations and marketing for Bay Area engagements of Broadway shows. She passed my résumé on to one of the principals, who thought I was worth an informational interview. A couple of months later, I got the job, which was my first in this country.

What are some challenges (and exciting things) you face in your day-to-day role?

The business-building side is always one of the most challenging, but also one of the most exciting. Finding time to do everything — now there’s a challenge! Also, when you’re independent you’re always “hungry,” so it can be hard to turn something down. Most of us in public relations are people pleasers. I have to remind myself that not everything is a good opportunity, and saying “no” politely doesn’t make me a bad person.

Look at the time we live in. We get to take slim metal devices with us wherever we go that connect us to each other at the press of a button. We can work untethered. We’re connecting with people from around the world all the time, and in the blink of an eye. What’s especially exciting is when I’m able to help others do something better. Whether it’s my students at Johns Hopkins, the workshops I do, my own training programs, clients or people I meet on a Twitter chat — that’s what I love the most. Every day is an opportunity to make someone’s life better. And that makes my life better.

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

If it’s the only thing you do, be useful. There is absolutely no other reason for anyone to pay attention to you. Yes, if you’re snarky or aggressive, you can command their attention for a while, but that gets old quickly. So be useful.

Also, be respectful. No one owes anyone anything. So if someone gives you their time or attention, show them why it was worth it. And if they decide to take their attention away, then don’t throw a tantrum. Get over it and move on — and maybe, in the future, they will reconsider if you show that you warrant their attention again.

What are the challenges of reaching new audiences and those of various backgrounds, cultures and languages?

We have all sorts of communication gaps that come about because of our different cultures and heritage. Even if we speak the same language, a word or phrase can have significantly different meanings in different cultures. And when we’re communicating online, these gaps can become even wider because we don’t have the advantage of seeing the other person’s body language.

So a good way to get started is to assume absolutely nothing. Don’t assume they “get” your story, or the rationale for it; different cultures can react to one storyline in vastly differing ways. The more you research and educate yourself on the audience you’re trying to reach, the greater your chances are of doing so successfully.

This is partially why we’ve become emoticon junkies. Yes, they’re fun, but they also help to express the underlying emotion in our communications. That can help take the edge off language that might otherwise come across as overly strong or even rude.

What are the keys to implementing strong, strategic storytelling?

Every great story has a point. So strategic storytelling needs to have a point, too. Then, you have to have strong characters, conflict and resolution. Any memorable story has these elements. Note: “Resolutions” aren’t always “happy endings,” but they do drive home the point of the story.

Your message has to be very clear. This doesn’t mean it has to be boring. But if you know your premise, and you have strong characters, then you have to make sure your message is conveyed powerfully, yet clearly.

I love stories that have a twist. That technique is powerful, and it doesn’t always have to be a Stephen King-type of twist. As long as there is an element of the unexpected, you have the makings of a great story because that is what makes life interesting.

Most important, your stories have to evoke emotion, and you must know what emotion you’re trying to evoke. If you do that well, you will move your audience further along from Point A to Point B — from being an uninterested bystander, to an intrigued audience member, to an engaged community member. And those are the people who will ultimately act, which is what we need our audiences to do.

What are some best practices for influencer outreach in the blogosphere?

  • Do your research. Know your influencers like your family. What makes them tick, professionally and personally?
  • Be respectful and build relationships over time. I don’t care how many apps and companies tell you they have “influencers on tap,” it just doesn’t work that way. No influencer worth their salt auctions off their time or talent.
  • Give before you ask.
  • Take “no” for an answer, if that’s the answer you get. But if you feel strongly about your ask, then go back and ask again after a little while — but again, respectfully. And be prepared to hear “no” many times before you hear “yes.”
  • Be nice. This goes a long way.
  • Don’t ignore up-and-coming influencers. Especially if you are new to your space, they are the ones far more likely to try and help you, if your program or product is aligned with their audience and goals. A middling influencer who’s interested and excited about what you do is far more likely to motivate her or his audience than a top influencer who’s inundated with requests, and will likely ignore you.

How would you describe your leadership style and what makes a good leader?

I’m extremely collaborative and get input from everyone on my team. But once a decision has been made, I expect everyone to pitch in. If someone sees something going off the rails before I do, and they raise a red flag, that tells me they’re invested in the work. I don’t mind showing you how to do something 100 times. And, I don’t like to hover. So once you tell me you know how to do it, then I expect the job done — on time and under budget.

I would hope all of that makes for a good leader! Also, good leaders —regardless of their style — are quick on their feet, empathetic and compassionate.

Why do you think it’s important to be involved in organizations that focus on networking and continuing education?

Regardless of how sterling an education you may have received, it’s impossible to replicate the real world in the classroom. The additional learning we get from other professionals, who’ve walked our path before us, enhances our work. Professional development organizations and programs curate these, so that you can be confident of the quality of instruction being delivered.

As far as networking goes, I don’t think we’d survive without human interaction (or with our sanity intact). The more people we come into contact with, the broader our worldview is. That, in turn, makes our work more considered, strategic and holistic.

What advice do you have for new pros looking to break into communications?

Work hard at getting to know who’s who and what’s what. Get on their radar, and stay there by building your relationships. Keep abreast of trends and technologies. If you have technical skills, then showcase them via a blog or some sort of online presence.

Volunteer with a professional association or nonprofit organization. Maybe you’re a great photographer or videographer, or you have other skills. See how you can put these to good use while serving your peers. Not only will you build your résumé, but you will also be a living, breathing version of your résumé.

If you’re a good writer and editor, then that’s wonderful! If you’re not, then work very hard at improving your writing. It never goes out of style. You don’t have to be able to do everything. Do some things really well. There will always be other people or team members whose skills complement yours —except writing. You do have to be able to write.

Make friends with smart measurement from the get-go. And make sure you know what a “measurable objective” is. It will make your life much easier!

What trends do you see on the horizon for PR and social media in the coming year?

Integration is becoming more common, mobile is becoming more prominent because of apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat, and there is even more of a focus on analytics, which is great. I also see some smart PR pros and organizations starting to use best practices from email marketing, which is really fabulous. And media relations will not go anywhere, but continue to be a prized skill.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your 20-year PR career?

Do the absolute best you can, even if no one is watching.

Getting to Know… Shonali Burke

Any three dinner guests — past or present?

J.K. Rowling, Julia Child and Mother Teresa

Favorite movie?

“The Sound of Music”

Favorite downtime activity?

Anything outdoors — walking my dog, working on my garden, reading, hanging out — as long as it’s outside and the sun is shining, I’m happy!

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.


Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

It doesn't matter how many times I read something about Shonali Burke or listen to a presentation by her. I ALWAYS come away saying, "Wow! That is one amazing communication professional."

Feb. 15, 2018

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