Julissa Marenco, CMO & Assistant Secretary for Communications and External Affairs, The Smithsonian, discusses the challenges of aligned messaging for different museums under the Institution’s umbrella brand. She emphasizes the importance of soft skills and soft influence in building effective relationships within the decentralized enviornment of the Institution. Julissa also dives into the organization’s creative initiatives to reach people across the nation through digital means.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: JULISSA MARENCO
DOUG: The Smithsonian, is one of our most beloved institutions, currently made up of 19 different museums, and Julissa has a management of communications role for all of them. Can you maybe start by sharing sort of what that role is about and how it may differ, say, from running one of the specific museums?
JULISSA: Sure, hi Doug. First and foremost, thank you so much for having me here today, I really do appreciate it. So, in my capacity, I serve as the Assistant Secretary for Communications and External Affairs & Chief Marketing Officer. And what that means is I have oversight of Smithsonian big brands, if you will. As you rightly mentioned, we have 19 museums in our institution, in addition to research centers and libraries. Each museum unto itself is its own subbrand, if you will, with their own respective communications team. In my capacity, I oversee the big brands from a kind of rounding up all of our museums and all of our cultural centers whenever we need to have a message that’s one for the institution. But then additionally, so, I support the museums and their respective communications teams for their individual needs.
DOUG: How do you go about trying to have an alignment with the different marketing and communications for all of these different institutions that have really strong followings, but are very different in terms of what they’re sharing, what they’re showing, what their researching?
JULISSA: Sure. It’s obviously very hard, right? You have all these different museums, right? A lot of folks will tell you their favorite museum is, let’s say, the Air and Space Museum. Some other people might tell you, oh, my favorite museum is American History. Some art aficionados might say the Smithsonian American Art Museum. So how do we bring all of these brands together? So, there’s a couple of commonalities. As an institution where chartered with our mission, which is that of diffusion and increasing of knowledge. And so, across the board, we work on educational resources, we work on providing visitors, providing folks that visit us online and in person, educational resources, historical context. We bring them the past so that they can better understand the present. And that’s a common kind of lineage across the institution that you’ll see. Our goal is to work on research, science, whether it’s science, research, the arts, or history, at the end of the day, we’re charged with keeping our nation’s treasures. And so, by being able to bring those treasures to their respective visitor, either in person or these days online through all of our digital assets, our goal is to be able to share with them the knowledge of this great country.
DOUG: And now, I guess I don’t know if I should use the word how quickly you can turn such a big ship around, and you touched on changing from the in-person experience to the digital experience that’s been forced on so many due to the pandemic. How do you go about that when you have these 19 different institutions?
JULISSA: You know, I have to tell you, it all starts with leadership. And I like to think of the Smithsonian, in a pre-pandemic world there was one thing that we were clear as part of our strategic plan, one of our goals was to reach a billion people across the world. Now, whether that was more kind of a goal for us to reach that was centered on just aspirational goals, or whether it was actually, one of the things was clear, was that not every individual or person would make it down to the National Mall. We’re very lucky. We’re based here in Washington, D.C. I’m based here in Washington, D.C. We’re very lucky to have these museums as part of our backyard, if you will. But one thing that the Smithsonian is keenly aware of is that not every individual will have that opportunity. And so pre pandemic we were already discussing, how do we reach those people, those visitors that will not have an opportunity? We hope everyone comes to the museums, but what about those that don’t, not just in our country, but across the globe internationally? And so, we were heavily focused on what we call being digital first, ensuring that whatever projects, initiatives we put forth always had a digital component.
And so, in a pre-pandemic world, we were heavily invested and working on developing our digital assets so that an individual, irrespective of where they were, had access to the wonderful collections of the Smithsonian and to our exhibits, to our objects, to our educational resources. Now, obviously, in the middle of the pandemic and in the post- pandemic world, digital and virtual will have even greater importance for our institution.
DOUG: It’s also interesting that so many more people have gotten used to experiencing life in that digital way. So, on one hand, that hopefully will accelerate, acceptance of all the digital offerings you have. Now one thing that people might assume incorrectly is that because you’ve got the huge title, everything you say automatically happens. But you’re dealing with heads of communications for the Air and Space Museum, these huge institutions with very powerful followings. Can you talk a bit about use of soft influence for getting buy in and providing guidance? Can you maybe share some of your tips on how others might be able to use that effectively and how you approach it?
JULISSA: Sure. I think in any capacity, not just in a position like this where you’re working in a highly decentralized environment, all of these museums are worlds unto themselves, if you will, and then we all come together as one big brand. But I think in any environment, irrespective of whether it’s a decentralized environment, whether it’s a more kind of intertwined environment, at the end of the day, being able to have soft skills will help you be more effective, will help you be able to move programs, initiatives, efforts forward. And I think that’s probably one of the skillsets that unfortunately is not reflective in a resume, or unfortunately, you don’t necessarily get taught that in school, if you will. But it’s so important, and I dare say, irrespective of position or organization, it’s very, very important. Some of the skillsets that I have found that have been helpful not just to my person but individually, but also with teams and with folks when I look to hire is just that, is what is a person’s soft skills. So, first and foremost is self-awareness. Are they aware of what they’re capable of, are they aware of what their strengths are as well as their weaknesses? I might argue sometimes it’s more important to know your weaknesses versus your strengths. So, that way you can work around those weaknesses and see how they impact you. In that way, you could also know what you need from team members, or what you need from strategic partnerships. But first and foremost is just that sheer self-awareness. Second, from a soft skill perspective, it’s important that it’s built in transparency. The reason that you’re able to move efforts or initiatives within institutions with the large size of The Smithsonian, or a decentralized environment, it’s built-in trust and transparency. So, if I have a colleague that I work with, if there isn’t trust or transparency, it’ll be very hard to get them on board with something that I want to push forward. And that obviously only comes through time, but it also comes through just your actions and proof is in the pudding.
DOUG: And you can really lose that quickly. I used to say, like one dumb action wipes out about six months of goodwill from a colleague. So, you really have to be careful about that.
JULISSA: Absolutely. What is it they say, takes years to build, seconds to destroy? I know what I look for. I generally look for people, I call it people who are just forces of good, and they’re looking to do good. And if they’re looking to do good, that’s pretty easily identifiable. It’s also easily identifiable to find the people who are not looking to do good. If you’re rooted in that trust and transparency with your colleagues, and they know you’re a force for good, irrespective of whether you make mistakes, irrespective of whether you make wrong decisions, or wrong calls, because that will most certainly happen throughout your career. But if you’re a force for good, at the end of the day, that will help you move the ball forward. And then I think the third thing is just strategic insights, being strategic. One of the things I like to do, I I’ve always said I may not be the smartest in the room, but I will tell you something, I am the most prepared in the room. I’ve always prided myself on being prepared. And when I go into an environment where I’m trying to move something forward, and I don’t know what the outcome will be, I try to map it out, what you call 180-degree mapping, if you will. And I try to think about, OK, what are the questions that I anticipate? And then, oh, by the way, in addition to those questions that I anticipate, what will my answer to those questions and then what will my answers be to the reaction of those answers? And I try to kind of create and map scenarios out so that I could have the strategic insights to know how I would react, and therefore I can craft my answers so that I can have my desired outcome. So, it takes a lot of planning, it takes a lot of preparation.
DOUG: Do you ever get frustrated, because I know some people might be like, let’s say you plot out four, six different scenarios down to three or four levels each, only one of them might come up in a meeting. Is it a bummer that sometimes that you’ve put the time in, or do you feel that learning that can be applied elsewhere and still benefits you?
JULISSA: Absolutely. Very few are the times that I feel that I wish I would have had an opportunity to present scenario X, Y and Z, irrespective, scenario X, Y and Z, if it’s not used this time, it will be used later in some other capacity. The amount of preparation, I’m sure we’ve all been there, and we have a 15-minute meeting for which you prepared for for two weeks, right? In 15 minutes, you can only fit so much, and I have found that while let’s say you have a 15-minute meeting for which you prepared for two weeks, you’re not going to be able to present everything that you wanted to. But I have found that irrespective of that, what you don’t get an opportunity to present will serve you just the same in a different capacity at a different time in a different meeting. I can’t stress the need for overpreparation. I tell people all the time. I have a television background, I used to work on television, and folks would always ask me, we used to have stars, and these stars were our local news personalities, heavily driven by ratings, heavily, heavily driven by ratings, and I would always tell people, I will most certainly always value hard work and preparation over talent. And in the television medium talent is very high ranking. If you have a great star that’s…
DOUG: They get paid the most, the whole bit.
JULISSA: You want to keep them, you want to keep them happy. In spite of that, I will still value hard work and preparation over talent. And that’s hard, and that’s hard because in TV you’re driven by numbers. I would apply that just to any respectable career position.
DOUG: Well, that’s an awesome approach that you have. You’re definitely a force for good. I’ll go out on a limb and say you are the smartest person on this conversation despite of what you said earlier and probably in a bunch of others. Thanks so much for your great advice and tips and continued amazing work, helping to safeguard our nation’s treasures and really getting the word out about that and the research you do, and as the museum comes back to an in-person experience, which we all hope.
JULISSA: Thank you so much for having me. This is a terrific conversation. I can’t wait to see you back at the museums when we reopen. Thank you.
DOUG: Will be there for sure.