JobLink Newsletter April 2014, Featured Interview
This month we spoke with Whitney Parker, former YPFP staff member and current head of digital marketing for Kroll, a global risk consultancy based in New York. We spoke with Whitney not only about her experiences with YPFP and how they have affected her professional development, but also about how she was able to develop her general digital media expertise. Whitney also gave us insight into her thought process when hiring individuals for digital media jobs.
Christian: I understand that you’re a digital media expert; could you provide some background on your education, expertise, past experience, and generally how you gained your current skillset?
Whitney: Sure; I guess there are two aspects to that. One is the tactical skillset and the other is the more general, contextual skillset involved in my role. In terms of my tactical skillset, I learned HTML and web design as a hobby when I was going through college. I did my bachelors and masters in political science and international affairs; programming work was really something that I learned on the side for fun. When I was in college I always thought I would be an international negotiator, so that was my goal when I went to Syracuse for my masters, bringing me eventually to DC. But I also had this side interest in digital medi. Once I got my first job in DC with the Center for Defense Information, I immediately gravitated towards the communications side of things. There was no one really to help them manage digital exposure and after working with them to design their website and launch media campaigns, my desire to work with digital media really just stuck. After that I went to Center for New American Security and helped them to set up their branding and all of their digital marketing. From there I realized that my niche would be digital media, not writing policy papers. You can contribute to the foreign policy field in a lot of ways, and it doesn’t always have to be as a foreign policy analyst.
Christian: Great, I always think that you’re best at what you love so it seems like you made the right professional decision. On the topic of learning programming and digital media skills, how were you able to develop your skills to the point that you were able to build whole website if need be?
Whitney: Well, CodeAcademy is amazing and I wish those sorts of places existed when I was in college, since they do make the experience so much more fun. When I was in college I had few friends who were tech savvy, which combined with basic tech skills I had learned on my own, it allowed me to learn a little bit at a time. I had always been interested in computer skills, so I would sit with them on the weekends and learn how to get websites online (which was fascinating), how web hosting works, and other general programing skills. I took one class in which we learned Microsoft FrontPage, but besides that I generally taught myself by buying some books, plenty of google searching, and taking on projects for friends. One of the first projects I took on was to build the website for Snake River Alliance, which is a non-profit based in Idaho that advocates for nuclear-free clean energy. I was trying to get experience in web design at the time and asked their director, "Hey, let me build your website for you."
Christian: That sounds like a really organic, hands on experience .
Whitney: Yup, we used rotating GIFs and everything *laughs*
Christian: *laughs* Well, you don’t get to see that anymore. So moving on to your work with Kroll, how does your role as a digital media expert fit in the general goal of Kroll as a risk management firm?
Whitney: Sure, so Kroll is one of the largest global risk management companies, worth about $2 billion, with 2500 employees, in 30 different countries, 50 cities, all of whom are phenomenal people. My role is head of digital marketing, meaning that I oversee all the online marketing (of which social media is only one aspect), lead generation, email marketing, etc. I've also recently taken a lead role in all the corporate branding. It’s a very very challenging role, since online lead generation is essential for the company’s revenue stream. But, I have a team of four people who work for me, all of whom are incredibly talented, which is very fortunate for me!
But one of the major challenges of a role like this is that you have to understand the context in which you are working in order to be really effective. So you can’t just come in knowing merely web design, you have to understand the context of the world that you are in. Everyday I’m on the phone with Asia, Latin America, our European office, or our North American locations, which brings with it constant pressure to adjust strategies for the complexities of the regional markets. Also, working in a regulated environment means that you have to be extra cautious of how global events might impact your marketing campaigns.
Another challenge is to understand what your different types of clients will want to hear from you on a day-to-day basis. But you have to know at all times what we can say about it and what we can't say about particular events, clients, etc., depending on the particular context. It's definitely a challenge, but a lot of fun.
Christian: It seems that you’re able to handle such diverse challenges partly due to your synthesis of an IR background with digital expertise.
Whitney: It’s always difficult to pull together so many diverse responsibilities, but having an IR background is super-helpful because it allows you to understand the context of our client's business operations in Mexico in one minute, and then on to China the next. Without this context it is very difficult to be able to respond quickly and competently to varied marketing challenges. Even if you have the technical skills you may not have the diplomatic skills.
Christian: Well put. Could you give me some insight into the particular projects you have been working on with Kroll?
Whitney: The biggest thing I have underway is a complete redesign of the website. The current website is not mobile friendly, meaning that we need to organize information more effeciently, so we're starting from the ground up. Another current trend in web design in towards user-centered experience. In the past, companies might design a website according to how they see themselves, but no we're seeing the need to refocus our content towards how our clients want to find information. That is the biggest change that I am focusing on, in addition to design aesthetics. Another challenge is getting everyone worldwide on the same corporate style. I’m developing a corporate style guide to help unite all the different global offices, giving everyone a shared code base which they can use to build our global sites and corporate portals.
Christian: Wow, that sounds amazing. Moving on to questions focused on the hiring side of the equation, when you are looking to hire someone for a digital media position, what qualities do you look for?
Whitney: Hmm, that’s a good question. I look for people with initiative. One of the most important skillsets you can have is the ability to work independently and find your own work. For me (when it comes to entry level roles), something that is usually indicative of this skillset is a history waiting tables. Because if you say you were good at serving, and are good at serving, then that indicates to me that you are really good at multi-tasking and working under pressure. Marketing is a really high stress, high pressure role, making past experience in similar roles important to look for. Another thing I look for is a positive attitude. Everything is challenge, so if someone comes at you with anger or frustration you have to look at the situation as one where it will be fun to solve the problem. You have to have a good attitude.
Christian: I agree, although that is unfortunately hard to find sometimes.
Whitney: It is really hard to find, nice people who can stick up for themselves is really hard to find, making those who can incredibly valuable.
Christian: Does seeing leadership experience through an organization such as YPFP influence your perception of an applicant?
Whitney: I think it does. I’m the sort of person who always volunteered for everything, so I think multi-tasking is very important. Jobs are intense; you’re going to be asked to do fifteen different things at the same time, meaning that you have to be able to handle it. So if you present yourself as someone who is able to go to school or work full time, take on a leadership role at YPFP, and still be able to handle your personal life, that means something. That indicates that you are someone who is willing to go all in with everything and see what you can do. I think that YPFP provides great experience, they provided wonderful opportunities and I really enjoyed working with them. All those experiences are very valuable because you will be constantly put on the spot in professional circumstances and have to be able to think on your feet.
Christian: What sort of references are the most appealing in your line of work?
Whitney: Work references are the most important to me, not only from your bosses but also from your colleagues. I’ve met a lot of people who managed up very well, who were loved by their bosses. But when your coworkers hate you that a huge issue *laughs*. So I look for people who make good teamates. The ability to work well in small teams is very important despite the size of the company. The truth is that you will always be working in small groups, even when working for a big global company, making references from past colleagues very important.
Christian: Speaking of small environments, you have always had a side business of private consulting. What has that been like? What have you learned?
Whitney: Well, when you’re working directly for clients it is your own name that is on the line, causing you to work a lot harder and more conscientiously. There’s no boss you can blame, it’s all you, no one else's fault but your own *laughs*. You have no excuse, which has really taught me how to rely on myself.
Christian: Great! I’m glad that has been such a fruitful experience. One more question to wrap this up, how has your experience with YPFP shaped your professional development?
Whitney: YPFP has been a very influential group in my life that has provided a lot of friends and colleagues which I still reach out to today. It’s not just a professional organization, but also personal one. Katie Tobin, for instance, who works at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, we’re both cyclists (although she’s phenomenal and wins triathlons). We bonded over our shared hobby and stay in contact to this day. YPFP gives you the opportunity to make those sorts of connections, which can be incredibly beneficial both professionally and personally. In addition, YPFP also provides great networking opportunities in your young career, allowing you to figure out what is out there and where you would like to go by putting you in direct contact with young people who are doing really interesting things. It was really beneficial for me when I was in DC, so when I hire people I really look for that sort of leadership experience since I know firsthand how valuable it can be.