Seasons greetings: Communicating the Hallmark way

April 29, 2011

Steve Doyal, senior vice president of public affairs and communications, has been working at Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards, Inc. in a variety of roles since 1974.  Doyal leads the company’s communications, public relations,  government affairs and community involvement programs, among others.

“That makes me a bit of an anomaly in the PR landscape — at the same company for the duration of my career,” he says. “Although I’ve had a variety of assignments, it’s a company and brand that I have great passion for  — and a career path that has offered me a lot of personal satisfaction and growth.”  — Amy Jacques

How did you get your start in public relations?

The choice of career path probably started before I got out of journalism school at the University of Missouri. I loved gathering, organizing and packaging information, but I found it difficult to do some of the hard news stuff  — and intrude in the privacy of people’s lives, a necessary part of being a successful journalist.

Those skills took me into pursuing corporate communications — and my Army assignment was corporate communications in nature. From internal communications at Hallmark, it evolved into product publicity, which then broadened the horizon of  PR framework into a marketing framework, and then I went back into a broader public affairs and communications role. It was a passion for words and information — and a little bit of enjoying knowing it first and then sharing it with others.

How has your role at Hallmark changed through the years?

I was a publications editor — I’d joke and say I was “Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter” starting a corporate career. I wrote publications that helped our field sales force understand our products [and] how to sell, and recognized accomplishments of people in the field.  And we [helped our retailers] understand how to display, sell and promote products in stores.

The next stop was a product publicity role working with external media.  Then, I moved to a real estate subsidiary we have, Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation, here in Kansas City. Essentially, I was the marketing services director in that organization. I did that for about eight years and then returned to headquarters in a traditional media relations role.  I have been in this current assignment since 1995 — running the public affairs and communications group for the company. I probably am one of the longest-tenured people in that kind of a slot in American business today!

What is a typical day like for you — or is there one?

PR professionals know that a typical day is one that is filled with ambiguity and is difficult to schedule. But my time and effort are divided equally between running the area of responsibility that I have, and being engaged in the decisions, strategy and execution of the broader enterprise plans.

What advice do you have for others who are interested in a career track at a corporation?

When you’re in a corporation, it’s important that you accept personal responsibility for your career.  You have to know what you want to do.  You have to demonstrate that you do it well, but then you need to work it.

Make sure that you are passionate about the business and understand the business of the corporation. Represent that first and then represent your discipline second.  Young professionals often are so passionate about the profession, that they advance the profession more than they advance the strategies of the business in internal discussions. 

Your colleagues want to make sure that you know the business, understand what makes the business work and [know] how you can add the greatest value to the organization.

What role does public relations play in building the overall Hallmark brand?

We take a very integrated approach to how we present ourselves in the marketplace. Public relations is an important and vital part of that overall integrated mix, but it’s part of an integrated and carefully aligned mix. 
What social media initiatives is Hallmark employing and how successful are they?

We are experimenting in a number of ways. One of the areas that has been of interest to us is blogger outreach, and the relationships that we have developed with bloggers who follow topics that are important to our consumers.

Our core consumer is a mom with kids at home. There are a lot of mommy bloggers and they provide valuable insight to us and, hopefully, we have developed a good partnership. We bring bloggers into our company so they can see how it works.  We engage them in helping us assess products and use that relationship as a way to open dialogue.

What’s different about public relations today than 10 or 15 years ago is it’s a conversation with the consumer as opposed to a push.  When I started, we pushed information. Now, we welcome consumers into conversation and dialogue. 
How do you remain competitive with so many free digital card ser-vices out there and reach on-the-go consumers with the changing mobile technology?

Hallmark is a lot more than just greeting cards. That’s how people know us best and it is a component of our business. But against that backdrop, to remain relevant throughout the 101-year history of our company has required us to evolve and succeed at a variety of levels.

So we have embraced technology — it is a convenience factor for the consumer.  We know that technology-based, mobile-based, digital-based services enhance and develop relationships at one level; and then the actual item that you choose to get in the mail or gift you choose to give to someone you care about serves a different purpose.  Technology is broadening the circle of people who stay connected over longer periods of time — and that represents opportunity for a brand like Hallmark.

What should people know about the Hallmark Channel, movies and online efforts?

They should understand that Hallmark’s purpose is to inspire meaningful connections, enhance relationships and enrich lives. Greeting cards is [how] we are best known but the Hallmark Channel — which does original movies that are family friendly — tells stories intended to enlighten and inspire.  We believe our brand plays an important role in bringing people together and we think there are a lot of ways to do that.

Talk about the “Life Is a Special Occasion” brand.

The Life Is a Special Occasion campaign is an opportunity to help people broaden their perspective of the Hallmark brand. People know us for holidays and special occasions, but the insight that we derived from conversations with our customers is [that] all of those special occasions are important.

In their hectic lives, [everyday] occasions and small moments that they would like to pause, capture and savor are important — and they struggle with finding ways to do that. It is our intent to offer products and services that will help to recognize your kid winning a basketball game, the first tooth coming out, the first school dance. There are a lot of things in life worth hanging onto, and we can offer goods and services that will help people accomplish that. 

Is there a particularly busy holiday for Hallmark, and how do you prepare for that?

Our biggest holiday is a birthday. It happens every day — every single person in the country, every single person on the planet — and we hope to be in the middle of that celebration in a variety of ways: cards, wrap, gifts, ideas, entertainment. But if you look at it from a traditional seasonal lens, like almost all retailing holidays, fourth quarter is the busiest time for us — and in the breadth of our product offering as a wholesale business as well.

What’s the company culture like at family-owned and operated Hallmark?

From a PR standpoint, being a privately held company offers me flexibility that some publicly traded companies don’t have because our consumer and Main Street are our most important constituents —  Wall Street doesn’t follow us. It allows us to make decisions that sometimes can be on a longer time frame because we’re not looking at quarterly reporting — although we are results oriented, and financial performance is important to Hallmarkers.  We work at a different rhythm and as a result, our priorities can be different than some of the dynamics that publicly traded companies face.

By being family owned and third-generation led, the values of the family are deeply ingrained in the organization.  The family embodies the brand, sets the tone for the culture. Our principal attributes find their way into our commitment to quality and excellence, people and creativity, ethics and integrity, and being good corporate citizens.

What are the challenges of trying to reach such a broad audience?

We don’t try to reach everyone.  We have great brand recognition, but in our marketing and PR efforts, we focus on those things that align with our core consumer: moms with kids, grandmas and moms with kids who no longer are at home.  That’s sort of the sweet spot of our consumer target. But we realize there are other broad-based audiences. It’s not at the exclusion of other audiences, but we are pretty targeted.  We have a clearly articulated strategy and our PR and communications work is all aligned in support of that strategy.

What is the best part of your job?

I work with a terrific team in my own group — public affairs and communications — and with the leadership team of the company.  You might be able to tell from talking to me that I am an off-the-chart extrovert. Having an opportunity to work with a talented group of people is what I find most energizing. 

Getting to know Seve Doyal

Favorite thing to do in your downtime? Turn the iPod to great classical music and take a long walk with my two best buddies, our wheaten terriers, Finn and Lili.

Favorite movie? Current movie:  “The King’s Speech.” Classic movie:  “Bringing Up Baby”

Favorite holiday? Other people’s birthdays — it’s great fun to make other people happy.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received? It came from my grandmother and is best summed up in a quote attributed to Will Rogers:  “Don’t let yesterday use up too much of tomorrow.”

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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