Chapter Chat: Karen Cole

Karen Cole defines storytelling in one word: magic.

She is inspired by the business storytelling approach of one of her favorite writers/storytellers, Ann Handley – a brilliant painter with words and digital marketing pioneer.

“Stories surprise and delight us,” writes Handley. “They put flesh on the dry bones of data. They add narrative to your messages and presentations, making them memorable. Stories give your business to-business ‘solutions’ a heartbeat and pulse.”

A longtime PRSA Georgia leader, Karen has a history of bringing her own style of magic to the Chapter, as well as her career promoting a variety of major global brands, including UPS, Georgia-Pacific and her current role with IHG Hotels & Resorts.

She is also well-regarded for volunteerism, serving on the executive leadership team for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Georgia Chapter, a labor of love that earned her one of PRSA Georgia’s highest honors: the George Goodwin Award.

This edition of Chapter Chat, a member-focused series featuring candid commentary along with industry insights, spotlights PRSA Georgia’s incoming president for 2021 and her vision for the Chapter. 

Let us dig in deep and get to know more about this professional communications magician, maker of stories and defender of reputations in her own words.

Question: Please describe what you do in your “day job” as Communications Director, Marketing, Commercial and Technology for IHG Hotels & Resorts?
Answer: I’m responsible for developing and driving internal and external communications strategies to support IHG’s Global Marketing and Commercial & Technology teams. Day-to-day, that can involve crafting business-critical messaging for senior leaders, coordinating town halls that deliver important team priorities or preparing our Chief Commercial & Technology Officer for media opportunities.

Q: As incoming president of PRSA Georgia, what is your vision for the Chapter moving forward?
A: First, I’m honored to lead this incredible Chapter and follow in the footsteps of some of our profession’s brightest leaders, many of whom I consider mentors. As a trusted source for nearly 800 professionals across the state, PRSA Georgia has long enjoyed the reputation as a “go-to” industry organization. At the same time, we are at a profound inflection point for our collective society, and our Chapter’s future. Despite the impacts of 2020 and unpredictability of 2021, I’m confident we’ll continue thriving despite the obstacles. We’re adjusting our strategy to reflect current realities and leaning into change, which will enable us to boldly transform and sustain our Chapter for the long term.

Our vision to is continue evolving PRSA Georgia as a nimble, forward-thinking and inclusive organization that helps develop trusted communications counselors, strategic thinkers and sought after leaders throughout all career stages.

Q: What is the professional accomplishment that you are most proud of?
A: It’s not one stand-out moment, per se, but a collective experience I’ve gained leading teams for more than 15 years. I’ve learned to lead with empathy, which allows me to connect and motivate people. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m always striving to be better, but this year I’m most proud of building my team’s trust and supporting them personally and professionally throughout a very difficult time – despite having little to no in-person interaction with them.

Q: When and why did you join PRSA Georgia?
A: I was president of the PRSSA Chapter at Georgia State University when I was getting my Masters in Mass Communications and PR, so I always knew that I would join the Georgia Chapter as soon as I could. As a poor grad student, I was so excited to learn that my new employer would pay for my PRSA dues! That was 17 years ago.

Q: How do you relax or spend your leisure time when not working?
A: I like to stay active with my family – we love to take hikes, ride bikes, anything outdoors. Working from home for the last 9 months has also reinvigorated my cooking. Last weekend, I made a three layer chocolate cake with frosting completely from scratch and a delicious seafood paella in the same day. That would have never happened pre-pandemic! I also have larger pants.

Q: It looks like you joined IHG right before the pandemic. Can you describe your experiences  working in a sector like hospitality that has been hit so hard by COVID-19 and how it tested your crisis communication skills?
A: I joined in January and by the second week in March, I began working from home as the pandemic hit the US. Our colleagues in Greater China and hotels in the region were dealing with the very first waves of Covid-19 much earlier, so we could see what was coming to a certain extent. That allowed us to share knowledge with other regions and start to develop consistent communications and a resource hub.

No one could have predicted the magnitude of devastation caused by the pandemic. The hospitality industry has been one of the worst hit and it’s the biggest test our industry has ever faced. Even still, I feel positive about the future despite the challenging road ahead. From a communications standpoint, it has reemphasized how critical transparency, adaptability and authenticity is to everything we do.

Q: Do you have a favorite PRSA Georgia memory and if so, can you tell us the story?
A: There are so many! However, being honored with the George Goodwin Award in 2019 was a huge standout moment. I was incredibly humbled to be recognized by the Chapter for my years of volunteerism and raising funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. My best friend, who is a survivor, is my inspiration so sharing my passion for this cause with 300 of the brightest PR minds in one room is something I won’t forget. And, receiving an award tied to Mr. Goodwin’s great legacy of civic-mindedness and love for Atlanta is beyond humbling.

Q: What is the most important lesson you have learned this year?
A: Really focus on the things that “fill your bucket;” say no to things that take away from it. Also, take the trip, eat the damn dessert, get the puppy and say “I love you” often.

Q: As a woman in leadership, how do you feel about our country having its first female vice-president elect – and an all-female senior communications team?
A: How many synonyms for amazing do we have space for? I’m thrilled, hopeful, relieved, excited, energized, teary-eyed. As my seven-year-old says – all that times infinity!