Political Science in Public Relations (feat. Kara Alaimo)
Alumni Aloud Episode 11
Kara Alaimo is a global public relations consultant and assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University. She earned her PhD in Political Science at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Kara talks about her transition from international politics to academia, and how being able to engage audiences outside of academia yields unexpected rewards.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give to students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: Kara Alaimo is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the Department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations at Hofstra University. She is the author of the newly released book, Pitch, Tweet or Engage on the Street: How to practice global public relations and strategic communication. Kara earned her PhD in Political Science at The Graduate Center. Prior to taking her academic position, she worked in executive-level communications for the United Nations and the United States government. In this podcast, she talks about her transition from politics to academia, how her experience in international affairs has helped prepare her for the rigors of the tenure-track and why being able to engage and promote her work with audiences outside of academia yields unexpected rewards. Could you tell me your name and what you do for a living?
KARA ALAIMO, GUEST: Sure I’m Kara Alaimo, Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Hofstra University
WALLACE: How did you come to do the work you’re currently in?
ALAIMO: My background is as an political communicator. So I started my career working in the Bloomberg administration and I was a spokesperson for the City of New York for almost five years. During that time I got my first Master’s degree at the City University of New York in Urban Affairs. But I knew that I ultimately wanted to work on global issues and so after that I moved to the United Nations. And I was Global Media Coordinator for the UN Millenium campaign, which promoted the development goals which were the world’s plan for ending global poverty at that time. And after that I went to work for Pete Peterson at his newly formed foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. I was his first press secretary. From there I was appointed by President Obama in 2011 as spokesperson for international affairs in the US Treasury department. So my portfolio was global economic diplomacy and initiatives. I spent almost a year and a half practically living on airplanes.
And in that capacity I was also the media advisor to Jim Yong Kim after he was appointed by President Obama to be the US nominee to lead the World Bank. So we traveled around the world to build support for his candidacy and was elected to be president of the World Bank, he’s the current president. After that I returned to the United Nations as Head of Communications on the high-level panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which was a group of heads of state and other eminent thinkers convened by the Secretary General to write the world’s next plan for ending poverty. By that point I was just finishing up my PhD at the City University of New York. I did my second Master’s and my PhD in Political Science. And so I ended up teaching on a tenure-track for a year at St. John’s University while I was working on my dissertation. And then the year that I finished my dissertation, a position opened up at Hofstra University which is my current role as an Assistant Professor there and also as the Associate Chair.
WALLACE: That’s an incredible background. Certainly not just academic but as you said on the practical side. These were policy and political initiatives broadly across the board and your area in those was the communications, public relations side of that.
ALAIMO: Exactly, yes.
WALLACE: Yeah, interesting. And you were doing your PhD at the same time as you were taking on these roles?
ALAIMO: I was, I did three graduate degrees while working full time. Growing up, my mother used to say that if you need something done you should give it to a busy person. Because I just had absolutely no time to procrastinate. I think back to Jim Kim’s campaign for the World Bank presidency and during that last week of the campaign, I did not sleep in a bed for an entire week. We would sort of rest on planes and travel to a country, meet the head of state do an immediate interview and get back on a plane to the next country. Even that week, I was reading books on airplanes instead of sleeping to get ready for my comprehensive exam. You just sort of steal time wherever you can. Yeah it was a really crazy time and now it makes everything else seem a lot easier in life.
WALLACE: Well you talked about your academic background and you had three graduate degrees. Can you talk a little more about that? What sort of led you on the path to wanting to continue your studies?
ALAIMO: I always knew that I ultimately wanted to be a professor so that was one of the key drivers of my decision to pursue my graduate degrees but in addition to that I now teach communication and I always tell my students that what worked for me is not only being an excellent communicator in my career but also being a policy expert. And actually understanding the nuance of the topics I was communicating on and I think that’s what made me rare. So when I went to work in the Obama administration, I think part of the reason why I was an attractive candidate was because I not only did I know how to communicate but I knew how the global economy worked, I knew how the G20 worked, I knew how the World Bank worked from all of my work at the UN. And so I think that’s what gave me a huge advantage in my career. I was one of very few spokespeople who hadn’t worked on the Obama campaigns so I was a political appointee but truly hired for my skills and competence which felt good.
WALLACE: So you have that ability to dig into the issues which is rare it seems like in communications.
ALAIMO: I think very rare yes. Unfortunately.
WALLACE: Well you’re currently an academic so that’s familiar to many of our listeners who aspire to be in academic roles. Can you talk about what a typical day in the office is like?
ALAIMO: There’s no typical day as a professor which is actually one of the things I like most about being a professor. When I was at The Graduate Center, one of my professors said to me that, “being a professor is like being an entrepreneur without the risk.” And that’s something that I absolutely love so in terms of research which takes up a lot of my time, it’s pretty cool that you can dip into an area that interests you, work on a research project and then move on to something entirely different. So two summers ago I decided I was going to study how Bordeaux wines are promoted in China and I got a fellowship and went to the south of France for a month, it wasn’t too terrible. So a typical day definitely involves some research. I’m now at the stage where, so my book was just published. The book is called Pitch, Tweet or Engage on the Street: How to practice global public relations and strategic communication. And I spend a lot of times these days promoting the book. So the book breaks the world down into ten different cultural clusters and explains best communication practices in each of them and it’s based on the results of my interviews with senior communicators in 31 countries.
So if you asked me about a typical day, you know, two summers ago it was spending sixteen hours at my dining room table writing this book but now that the book is out, I’ve been trying to speak to a broader array of audiences. So students but also practitioners. I delivered the keynote speech at the Public Relations Society of America conference on Tuesday, I’m doing a couple of upcoming events for the International Association of Business Communicators. So a lot of my time is sort of spent organizing these speaking engagements or actually doing them. Doing these kind of book talks whether it’s the library or Columbia University or talking to groups of practitioners. So that keeps me quite busy. And as part of that I’ve been writing columns about the book for, you know, everywhere from The New York Times to communication trade publications.
ALAIMO: And then of course I teach. So my load is three classes a semester at Hofstra, mostly graduate classes. And then the other part of being a professor is service. So I am currently the associate chair of my department and I spend a lot of time working on different committees. One of the big committees I’m on is the Internationalization Task Force which is working to expand Hofstra’s engagement with the rest of the world. I also serve on the Advisory Board of the Calico Center for the Study of the Presidency at Hofstra, so I’ve been incredibly involved in that. As you know we hosted the presidential, the first presidential debate this year.
ALAIMO: And I worked on a lot of events surrounding that. And currently as part of the Calico Center I’m working on organizing a symposium on the role of social media in the last presidential election.
ALAIMO: So we’ll look back on sort of the role social media played in determining the outcome of the election. And then I serve on lots of other committees but those are more boring and I think less interesting to your listeners.
WALLACE: There’s a wealth of fascinating aspects that you just raised of your work. But thinking more about distilling this in ways that listeners could think also things that might apply to their situation. A lot of your activities are bridging academic and public or private sector aspects of communication.
ALAIMO: Yeah I think that that has also given me a really advantage in my career both as a professor and as a practitioner to sort of be able to straddle both worlds. Because I find that a lot of professors tend to be perhaps overly professorial and theoretical and so I think it’s been an advantage for me to be able to teach the practice of communication and public relations as well as these kinds of theories. And I think that no matter what field you’re in, it’s worth getting that experience as a practitioner in the field as well as on the academic side because it makes you so much more attractive on the job market. I served as acting Chair of my department last year and we did two job searches and I know first-hand how difficult, believe it or not, it is. The fact that we have a tight labor market in academia, when you’re on the hiring side I actually found it really difficult to find people who had both professional and academic experience in their field. And so I think that that gives you a real advantage. And I also think it deepens your research because you know the kinds of questions to ask, you have the contacts to pull things off.
WALLACE: Professionalization and being able to really speak to broader publics than just academic communities, that’s something we’re really keen to help students develop as their capacity and their savvy for doing that. If you could distill down, what is it about your work that you find the most satisfying?
ALAIMO: For me it’s really cool to be able to make a difference in students’ lives. I started teaching as an adjunct at St John’s University back in 2010 and I’m still in touch with students from that very first cohort that I talk. And I in fact even interviewed some of my former students for my book. So it’s cool to be in a position where you can help launch peoples’ careers, shape the way that they think. And I’m quite passionate about public relations but I think that what I bring to the classroom is perhaps a less typical experience. A lot of practitioners focus on the corporate side, how do you promote Coca-Cola or something like that. I focused on political and public advocacy relations so I look at how you strategically communicate in order to achieve political or policy goals. And I think it’s been a revelation to my students that you can do things that are not diabolical in public relations. But I think that’s really important and so I think it’s cool to be at what I consider to be the forefront of research on this subject. How do you achieve your policy goals through strategic communication? And it’s been cool to change the way that my students think about these subjects and to help them think about and launch their careers and get them interested in facets of the field that perhaps they didn’t even know about when, you know, at the beginning of the semester. So that’s why I love what I do.
WALLACE: Yeah, that makes sense. Public relations and communications, in the best of cases maybe you are just teaching people really how to see the world in a slightly different way.
ALAIMO: Yeah one of the things I found quite sad when I did the research for my book is that in many parts of the world, PR practitioners won’t call themselves PR practitioners because it’s such a dirty word and I think that’s really unfortunate. So I’m on a mission to change perceptions of my field.
WALLACE: What do you find the most challenging or frustrating if there is something about academia?
ALAIMO: I think the hardest thing about working in academia is probably time management and the fact that you can’t control the outcome of a lot of your efforts. And so first of all, I have found it to be an incredibly large workload if you want to really, really be successful as an academic. In my first two years at Hofstra I published five articles for academic journals, wrote a book, served as an Acting Chair for a semester, served as Associate Chair, was involved in tons of activities and taught overloads most semesters. I was working seven days a week so I think you have to love what you do or this isn’t going to work for you at all. The trick for me at least has been to get started super early in your tenure clock. I went sort of above and beyond in working seven days a week and sort of cranking out my research so that if I was rejected by a journal there was so much time to still submit to other journals. And I think that that’s been key to my success in terms of being on a good track to get tenure but also sort of making the job more manageable is really sort of working ahead. And so I think that that’s a good trick. And so I think that it makes sense to just overwork and frontload things so you spread stuff out before you go up for tenure.
WALLACE: That sounds really smart advice. And you said how much work it is being in the early stages of an academic career. It also sounded like your previous work was a ton of work what with flying everywhere on no sleep. But it’s different kinds of work.
ALAIMO: So I’m so glad I had the experiences I had in the my twenties, whether it was living on airplanes or I worked in the Obama administration or some of the more sort of high-pressure jobs that I had at the United Nations. I also think that being a professor despite being incredibly, you know, it’s an incredible amount of work. I also think that it’s nice to have some degree of control over your life. And so even though I certainly work more than forty hours a week, I also go to Zumba class at 9:30 in the morning many days. And I read research which finds that one of the most stabilizing things is not having control of your life. So I think that it’s really nice as a professor to be able to set your schedule and maybe work a little bit harder on the weekend but you can meet a friend for lunch.
WALLACE: Oh just to clarify, you said one of the most beneficial things…
ALAIMO: One of the most de-stabilizing things is to not have control over your life which is certainly how I felt when I worked in the Obama administration. So being a professor, even if you’re working more than forty hours a week, which you almost certainly will be, I find it really nice to be able to stop and have lunch with a friend in the middle of the day or to get to a gym class and then work later you know at night or on the weekends. And I think that that makes for a much healthier and more manageable life over the longer term. So my quality of life has drastically improved despite how hard I’m working.
WALLACE: Let’s see, what do you miss about working in the, I wouldn’t say private sector, you were in politics. What do you miss about that?
ALAIMO: I miss being there when big things happen. Sometimes I read the cover of The New York Times and I think, “oh gosh what would it have been like in a room, in a situation room or you know in a treasury war room as this was going down.” I still consult for the United Nations and for other organizations and I actually think as a professor that’s something that’s really important to do because it keeps me at the forefront of best practices in my field. And particularly in the field of communication, it’s remarkable how quickly they change. So that’s been really positive for me as well. And I think that you know again, the flexibility of being a professor is that you can work on these kinds of projects, which I find to be really fulfilling personally and professionally.
WALLACE: And how would you say that finishing your PhD has helped you in your career? You’re in academia so obviously it’s required I suppose.
ALAIMO: No it’s actually a good question because I work in a field where some professors don’t have a PhD and come you know, sort of to the profession having been professional communicators. And I think that this gives you a huge leg-up. So I had so many colleagues that wanted to work full-time as professors and are sort of still adjuncting because they don’t have that PhD. And so I think that particularly being on the younger side, you really want to have that insurance that you’re fully qualified for your career over the longer term. I know a couple of people who have, you know, been complaining for fifteen years to me that they can’t get hired full-time and I keep thinking if you’d just gone and started your PhD you’d be a full-time professor by now. So my philosophy has always been to sort of do a little bit every day and it’s sort of remarkable what you can achieve over the longer term.
WALLACE: Yeah, that’s great. What about the reverse? You were studying and working. Was it beneficial for people to know that you’re on the academic side as well and you have this credential, these degrees? Did that play out also in places like the UN and government where people would look at you or treat you with a certain difference in that regard?
ALAIMO: You’d be surprised, I think sometimes actually having a PhD in the field can be considered a liability because the mark of a good communicator is being able to explain things really simply. And so there’s this stereotype that professors are really wonky and theoretical and won’t ever be able to communicate well. I think we do need to change that stereotype of our profession and I’m certainly working on it. But even when I was working on the cover of my book, they didn’t put PhD after my name on the book cover. And a very senior practitioner recently said to me, “that’s probably a good thing because it probably makes it more likely that practitioners will purchase the book.” So it’s interesting how this plays out, I mean I certainly think that the things I learned were incredibly valuable and helped me understand global affairs. And that was incredibly useful in my career but you do come up against these stereotypes in the professional world.
WALLACE: What specific skills and knowledge did you gain in grad school that helped you prepare for your current work?
ALAIMO: So I think partly because I was working full-time, I found grad school to be incredibly self-directed. No one ever sat me down and taught me how to write a journal article. No one prepared me for the comprehensive exams, I kind of studied on my own and passed them. And I think more than anything, the experience taught me how to take huge, huge, huge volumes of information and think about it and synthesize it and create meaning out of it. And I think that that and sort of the time management and go-getter skills that you learn are incredibly valuable skills for life. I actually think that that’s kind of more valuable than some of the theory I now understand. And it was really interesting because after I finished my PhD I used to be a voracious reader… After I finished my PhD it was really hard for me to resume reading for pleasure. Because I take a book and I tear through it and I get the main points and I put it down. It took months and I’m finally in a book club and back in a place where I can sit down with a great work of fiction and just appreciate it. Not time it, and not try to get out of it quickly. But I also think that those skills, being able to analyze information and synthesize large volumes of information and talk to other fields is just an incredibly valuable life skill.
WALLACE: Are there skills that you would recommend current GC students who are interested in your field, say communications, that they might hone? Skills that they might cultivate not necessarily that might not necessarily be the first thing on their radar.
ALAIMO: Yeah I think definitely think about your writing skills regardless of your field because one of the things I have found is that it has been really good for me as an academic to be able to translate my research to broader audiences. So yes I publish in academic journals, yes I wrote a book but I’ve also written for The New York Times, I’ve written for the Atlantic, I just submitted a piece to the Harvard Business Review. So I think acquiring those skills can be really valuable and can give you a lot of influence. You know I got more emails from people around the world from that New York Times article than I probably have for the book. And I took Peter Beinart’s classes at the Grad Center, which I found to be helpful in that respect. I also think it’s worth learning pedagogy, learning how to be a good professor. Because that ultimately is what’s going to get you tenure. Although I wasn’t able to do this myself, I think it’s worth taking advantage of any of those sort of one credit or zero credit classes that are out there on how to teach. Because it’s kind of remarkable that we become subject matter experts and we never learn how to teach a class. I kind of taught myself and I’ve gotten quite good at it but I think that sort of that training would be really useful.
WALLACE: What do you now know that you wish you had known as a graduate student?
ALAIMO: I think that a lot of graduate students wait for things to happen. And I think that… I think it’s important to know that there’s no one that’s going to come around and teach you, here’s how to write an article, here’s how to submit an article, here’s how to get a job. You just kind of have to figure out for yourself. And I sought advice from my professors, from my peers, from the career center. I read things online. But I think that it’s really sort of worth grabbing your career by the handles right now and being rather aggressive. Start publishing now. And the job market is so competitive. Start publishing now, start learning how to do a job talk, because this stuff doesn’t kind of naturally happen. You have to be incredibly aggressive in terms of going out there and getting information and looking up grants and things like that. And this process doesn’t kind of naturally unfold, you’ve really got to own it.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That’s all for this episode of the Alumni Aloud podcast, coming to you from the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at The Graduate Center. check out our Facebook, Twitter or website for event announcements and updates. Also be sure to stay tuned for more perspectives from alumni across fields who are working in academic and non-academic jobs. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud and you’ll automatically be notified for each new episode. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
This entry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.