Shonali Burke (Washington, D.C.) is an award-winning growth strategist who helps brands bring big ideas to life. One of the most recognized names in international marketing circles, she has consistently been recognized for her work and thought leadership in the space; select accolades include being the first Indian-American woman to be named to PRWeek’s “Top 40 Under 40” list of U.S.-based PR pros; an acclaimed TEDx presenter; and recipient of the prestigious Matrix Award, presented by the Association of Women in Communication, for her contributions to the industry.
Burke is adjunct faculty for the Master of Arts in Communication program at The Johns Hopkins University, as well as an instructor at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. She launched The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub in 2015, to help ambitious social PR pros unleash their inner social PR superheroes. She is also the creator and curator of the #measurePR hashtag and Twitter chat, as well as the founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, a destination blog for, and community of, new, original and international voices in the greater communication space.
Why did you decide to start a career in public relations?
I didn’t. I know that’s not a super-sexy answer, but the truth is that my actual training is in economics (undergrad), and then theater (post-grad), and in my first career, I was an actress. This was back when I still lived in India.
Because I had somewhat of a medium profile (not really a “high” profile, LOL!) back then, people started asking me to “do PR” for them. I figured: how hard can it be? Plus, it was a way to supplement my income from theater (I was also a radio jockey and did a teeny bit of film/TV), and I found that I was good at it.
I moved to the U.S. in 2000. I’d never lived here before (you can learn more of the story from my 2012 TEDx talk), and was suddenly faced with the opportunity to do whatever I wanted, as I was basically beginning my life afresh. To be honest, I just didn’t want to start from scratch as an actress … I’d been there, done that. So I considered a number of career fields, but PR kept “showing up,” as they say.
So I networked my way into my first job in this country, which was with a boutique agency in San Francisco. And the rest is, as they say, history … or maybe #herstory … or my story.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching?
There are so many things I enjoy about teaching, it might be tough to pick just one! For starters, it keeps me fresh and relevant, as I need to make sure that I am providing the most up-to-date content as possible to my students. So I have to do my homework as much as they have to do theirs.
Second, I come into contact with some of the smartest minds, not just in the country, but in the world… and that too, across multiple generations, as my students come from varied backgrounds; some are straight out of undergrad (I teach postgraduate students), some are at the mid-career level, and some are exploring a second, or even a third, career. I learn as much from their research and observations as I hope they learn from me.
Third, even though I’ve been teaching at Hopkins since 2009, I still pinch myself at how incredibly fortunate I am to be associated with one of the best universities in the world! I’ve learned a great deal about instructional design and keeping education engaging and interesting thanks to my work there, and am continuously inspired by how dedicated they are to providing the best possible educational experience to students.
What moment do you consider the highlight of your career?
I’ve had so many great opportunities, it’s really tough to pick just one! And I’m so grateful for everyone who’s helped me at every stage of my career; it really does take a village … particularly when you’re starting from scratch in a completely new country.
So, I’m going to pick three.
First, the work I was privileged to do at the ASPCA, at a really seminal time in animal welfare. Not only did I earn my crisis communication stripes big time (the 2007 pet food recall + Michael Vick animal cruelty case), but we also put in place a measurement program that received a lot of recognition and became an industry standard for smart measurement.
Second, starting my teaching career at Hopkins. As I mentioned earlier, I still pinch myself at how lucky I am, and it was a huge asset to already be familiar with online learning when I launched my own training programs.
Third, the work we did with USA for UNHCR and the Blue Key campaign. At the time, no one was really talking about “influencer marketing,” yet what we created back then (2011) was essentially a very strategic, community-driven, influencer-based program, which really put the organization on the digital map. There was a ton we didn't know, and we were small, and scrappy (!), but we kept our feet moving, and did a lot of good in the process.
How do you keep a personal life and work balance?
I’m not sure there is such a thing as “work-life balance” any more, at least, not in the traditional sense. One of the great advantages of living and working in these times is that, thanks to technology, we have so much flexibility as to where/when we work, as long as we are meeting our deadlines and getting our work done. So if anyone is still looking for a typical 9-to-5 type of job, PR is probably not the industry for you.
As long as you understand and accept that, I think it all comes down to being mindful, being present and maintaining boundaries.
By being mindful, I mean being really thoughtful about what you take on and commit to; because if you commit to it, you have to do it … and do it as well as you possibly can.
By being present I mean giving 100 percent focus to the task at hand, and not giving in to distractions (put the phone away, silence the ringer, turn email notifications off, etc.). Don’t buy into the whole “multitasking” myth (there’s a huge difference between able to handle multiple tasks and priorities, and multitasking).
And finally, by maintaining boundaries I mean not letting work intrude unnecessarily on your personal time and vice versa; so, I suppose this follows from being mindful and being present. Don’t get into the habit of emailing clients at midnight, and/or answering them at 2 a.m. (unless it’s urgent and/or a crisis, obviously). Set your boundaries for what will keep you healthy and sane, and then honor them.
What message do you have for girls who want to pursue a public relations major?
Work hard; don’t expect things to be handed to you on a platter, because they won’t be. But as much as you should have realistic expectations of how your career is likely to start, also don’t be afraid, or shy, of asking for your due; just make sure you can justify your requests with stellar work product.
Please, please, PLEASE don’t buy into the whole “PR isn’t math” myth; it is incredibly important for you to understand, and be comfortable with, numbers and metrics. If you can’t learn how to prove the value of your work, you will be doing yourself, and your clients/employer, a great disservice.
Always be on the lookout for what you can learn, and then learn from the best. This was one of the reasons it was so important to me to earn my accreditation from IABC; particularly because I did not have formal training in the field, I needed to know (for myself), that I was as good at my work as those who actually had studied it in school.
Be of service; if you can help someone, do it, even if (and especially if) there’s nothing in it for you. This is probably the single-most important piece of advice I can give to anyone, and is my personal and professional guiding principle; I always try to see how I can be of service.
And finally, don’t discount the impact of politeness and a genuine smile; you’ll be amazed at how many doors they open for you!
What do you think have been your biggest challenge as a woman in the PR industry and how did you overcome it?
I think my biggest challenge, as a woman in PR, came from within myself, not outside; it was I who, like so many other women in business, didn’t believe in myself or my abilities for the longest time, despite working hard and doing everything I advised above!
Unfortunately, too many women buy into “imposter syndrome,” and I was no different. I certainly had a lot of peers, mentors, etc., consistently remind me of how remarkable my work was, but it was only through working with my second business coach that I was really able to shift my mindset and be OK with my success.
And it is imperative for us to acknowledge, and be grateful for, the results of our hard work – in truthful, non-arrogant way, mind you, without taking it for granted — because if we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else?
What is your advice for PR professionals who would like to start their own consulting firm?
Go for it! But again, be realistic about why you are hanging out your own shingle, and what you expect from it. Don’t try to set things up based on what you see others doing, or how you think they’re doing; remember that you are unique, and your consulting business need make sense ONLY to you.
You may never build a typical agency (I didn’t), but you might not need to, and that’s totally OK. If it allows you to pay your bills, do good work, sleep at night and, most of all, bring you joy from being of service, I think that’s terrific, and you should go for it!
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Written by Gloris Trujillo, Co-VP of Diversity and Inclusion.