Axios’ Eleanor Hawkins on Why PR Should Embrace ChatGPT and How Comms is the Most Important Skill in the C-Suite

Eleanor Hawkins has a unique background for a journalist. She was press secretary for a U.S. Senator, national press secretary for a presidential candidate and helped launch a bipartisan think tank, before becoming senior director of communications at PBS. Then she switched proverbial teams to become a journalist. Today she is communications strategist and writer at Axios, writing the Communicators newsletter, which is well read within Mission North.

I spoke to Eleanor recently to get her story for Mission North’s Dispatch blog. After we bonded over having the same name, we chatted about her experience as a D.C. communications expert, changes in the media landscape, concerns about the use of ChatGPT, and why she thinks communications is so critical for business leaders, in a downturn particularly.

What follows is an edited version of our discussion:

You have had some very interesting jobs in communications before becoming a journalist. Can you talk about why you wanted to go into communications in the first place? 

Initially I wanted to be an English major and become a writer, but I was told that there wasn't much career opportunity there if I didn't want to go into teaching. And so I took a more strategic route and got into communications. From there I thought that I wanted to go into law, but it turns out I really just enjoyed writing. I enjoy defending a position and influencing the way that people think about things and moving the needle with words. I quickly realized that I didn't need to be in a courtroom to do all of those things and to make an impact. Politics seemed like a natural place to go and I started working on Capitol Hill right out of school. I worked with a newly elected senator and helped him shape his narrative and build a reputation. It was a fast-paced, high-stakes environment and I worked with some really smart and influential reporters. I learned quickly the importance of media relations.

It was good training in other ways. When you work in politics, you realize the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to things, whether it’s constituents, lobbyists, lawmakers, or the media. I learned how to reach different audiences, which came in handy when I worked on the campaign trail during a presidential campaign. In politics you always have to be two or three steps ahead and plan for the worst. It’s good to be calm and cool under pressure. Those are things I took with me to some of my other more crisis comms-related roles.

The big tech story for a few months has been the self-immolation at Twitter. Given how important that platform has been for digital marketing and influencer campaigns, what are you seeing happen in the comms space there?

Companies are mitigating the reputational risk of being on a platform like Twitter. Pfizer is an example that comes to mind. They chose to pull their ad dollars from Twitter mainly because they couldn't trust that there wasn't going to be misinformation disseminated about vaccines. That makes sense from a reputational standpoint for Pfizer. I don't know if it makes sense for every company. As smart communicators, the goal is to get your message to your audience. If they are on Twitter, you should be on Twitter. That really should be the driving force.

<split-lines>"As smart communicators, the goal is to get your message to your audience. If they are on Twitter, you should be on Twitter. That really should be the driving force."<split-lines>

Newsrooms continue to take a hit with layoffs at media companies – even Protocol shut down in late-2022. How does all of this change the balance between earned, owned and paid media?

The most recent data I saw indicated that there are six PR people for every one reporter, and I would imagine that the numbers are more lopsided now. It just makes it harder to break through and it also means that newsrooms are starting to stretch even thinner. I worry a lot about local coverage, and that's why I'm glad that Axios is really investing in local; a lot of the main issues that we're dealing with today start at the local level and bubble up. I also think that local coverage helps build trust between readers, communicators and the media. As far as what it all means for owned and paid, I think even if newsrooms weren't shrinking, the places people are going for their information is changing. They're listening to more podcasts, they're scrolling social media more. As communicators, we have to focus on meeting our audiences where they are with interesting, dynamic content.

You recently wrote about ChatGPT and how useful it might be for communications professionals. What’s your take on how much of an impact it could have on communications? 

I think there's definitely some use cases for it when it comes to research, brainstorming and general formatting. However, I don't think that an AI-written press release is going to be any more effective than a traditional press release. At the simplest level, I look at it the same way we view new technology in grocery stores: self-checkout has not completely replaced the frontline workers. AI is not going to be able to do everything— there’s still going to be a need for strategic communications. And if you do use these tools, they can't go unchecked.

<split-lines>"AI is not going to be able to do everything— there’s still going to be a need for strategic communications. And if you do use these tools, they can't go unchecked."<split-lines>

Marketing and communications roles are often among the first areas to get hit with layoffs during economic downturns. Can you talk about what you’ve seen happen since things really started going south last summer? 

I'm seeing a huge uptick in freelance work. One thing I've noticed about communications is it's kind of become a jack-of-all-trades function. In-house teams aren't always going to have a person who can write speeches and other types of specialized content, and they’re embracing freelancers for that. There are financial reasons; it's probably easier and more affordable to get a good, trusted freelancer when you need one, as opposed to bringing on someone full time. I'm also seeing a lot of really great small agencies start to form and that's exciting because the profession is starting to evolve. The more specialized firms you have, the better. Communications is always going to be necessary. It's just a matter of how it's structured and how it's valued.

What advice do you have for communications professionals who want to survive and thrive in today’s volatile market?

I want to flip that line of questioning. I think leaders are safe if they have a communicator by their side to help them navigate the current landscape. Leaders have to rethink how they're communicating with their employees, customers, shareholders, and legislators. I would say that communications is arguably the most important skill in the C-suite, and I would encourage corporate communicators to embrace that and to become more bold in their influence. You can have the best strategy, product or plan, but if you can't communicate it effectively, it means nothing. So, my advice is to just prove your strategic worth. The more that communicators can explain that and show that, the more that executives will understand the value of communications.

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