Troy Blackwell, Director of Press Relations and Spokesperson for the Peace Corps, explains how he navigates public relations and storytelling for the agency. He dives into the importance of having open and inclusive conversations. He also describes the impact behind the ‘Bold Invitation’ campaign and how the message is reaching audiences of all backgrounds.
Troy Blackwell is the Director of Press Relations and on-the-record Spokesperson for the Peace Corps, an independent agency and program of the United States government that trains and deploys volunteers to provide international development assistance. He was appointed to the post by President Biden and the White House. In his role, Blackwell serves as the principal point of contact for news media and the public, both domestically and in over 64 countries. Since joining the Biden-Harris administration, Troy has overseen the media relations for several milestone events including the safe return of Volunteers to over 54 countries, the historic arrival of Peace Corps Volunteers in Viet Nam, the MOU signing between the Peace Corps and the Korea International Cooperation Agency, and the agency’s new global climate initiative that was announced at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City. Additionally, Blackwell is the Treasurer of the Diversity Action Alliance Board of Directors; a member of Google/PRWeek’s Changemakers Council; and the Chairman of the Big Apple Performing Arts (BAPA).
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DOUG: Since the early 1960s, the best and the brightest have wanted to serve at this organization that Troy works for. And Troy, can you just jump in, maybe explain your role at the Peace Corps?
TROY: Yes. So as the director of press and spokesperson for the agency, I’m the principal point of contact for media. So, I oversee all of our media relations both domestically and internationally. Peace Corps has about 64 posts. These act as many bureaus. So, we are in frequent coordination with select embassies and communications staff on the ground. And pretty much my role is to generate coverage both for our agency director and for the agency as a whole in all of the countries that we are in.
DOUG: Obviously, that’s a huge responsibility. And like many organizations, and especially since its founding, the Peace Corps has changed. The public perception of it has changed. How do you navigate that change, especially with all these different markets where there may be different perceptions?
TROY: Well, we’re navigating a change a couple of different ways. I think the first for us is what we call map language. Map language is really about DEI and inclusive language in our communications. You know, Peace Corps is present and, you know, historically has been present in 64 different posts, different bureaus. We interact and share things across cultures, and language can vary. So, for us, we try to be more inclusive. We’re modernizing the language we use. We’re being more mindful of how we talk about service, how we talk about the work that we are doing, particularly volunteers on the ground. Something that’s really important for us is to make sure that our work does not sound savioristic right? You know, we are coming in to select countries as a thought partner, we’re coming in to work side by side, not necessarily to lead on our own accord. So, I think that’s really the most important step that Peace Corps is doing in terms of navigating the brand identity. And I think the second, as part of that change is our storytellers, our volunteers, right? Our volunteers, our best asset. They go overseas, they serve for two years. They’re integrated into their local communities. Again, they are working side by side with those partners and they come back and they’re able to share the great stories. So, we use our returned volunteers as validators and ambassadors for the program, and they’re able to speak, you know, to how the program has changed on the ground, how things look different, right. You know, operationally and just some of the countries we served in have grown. Things look very different from the way they did in the 60s. Things also look very different currently than they did, you might as well say 2 or 3 years ago, pre-COVID, right? So that’s even changed the way we navigate service, and we navigate our work and how people interact in this space in terms of volunteerism and public service. The third is, is that we go through a continuous renewal, specifically in marketing. I’m happy to say we’ve just launched our new marketing campaign called Bold Invitation. So, we released an anthem video. We had an augmented filter lens for Snapchat. We did an ad takeover with Spotify. You know, we’re getting out there and talking about this campaign, but our goal really is to increase and recruit 5,000 volunteers over the next year. And so just being able to integrate the work that we are currently doing, the stories and that, you know, map language into our current campaign is really how we keep the brand fresh and new and exciting for potential applicants and folks who just want to support the Peace Corps as a whole.
DOUG: Yeah, one of the things that you would think with all this talk about young people wanting meaning in their work, you would think they’d be running and it’s overwhelming, maybe just fending off the candidates to join. But, like other organizations, it can be challenging to get those people. You touched on some of the tactics, but what is it that you’re trying to communicate and maybe what can other organizations take from how you’re trying to reach those people with a message of meaning?
TROY: Yeah, I think it all comes down to the value of service. That’s really our core message. You know, Peace Corps is all about, again, it’s about working side by side. You know, we go to countries at the request, the invitation of host country governments, and we pretty much do an assessment if it’s right and the appropriate time for us to go to select countries. And I think right now, specifically with young people, with Gen Z, even with some of the younger millennials, folks are looking for work that is impactful, that has a social impact lens and Peace Corps has that. And specifically, when you look at where we are right now, for example, Peace Corps was present in the Ukraine due to the invasion, we did have to evacuate, but we launched a pilot program called Virtual Service. Virtual Service is a pilot program that Peace Corps launched approximately two years ago. And the way the program works is that returned volunteers can provide donor hours and provide assistance to host country nationals virtually. So, for example, after the invasion of Ukraine, we had to evacuate volunteers from physically being present on the ground. However, they were still able to coordinate with schools and facilities that they worked with, virtually. Very similar to Ukraine, we had virtual service, you know, volunteers, program participants that were doing similar work in Sri Lanka because we were not able to be present in the country for a period of time. And so really this closed the gap for those who wanted to serve, but maybe for personal reasons, health reasons or even reasons like what we are seeing in the Ukraine, cannot be physically present in country. And so that’s just another way that we are presenting the Peace Corps to folks of all ages, but particularly Gen-z and millennials, and explaining just the value of service.
DOUG: Yeah, that’s really fascinating that you can really open up Peace Corps involvement to older volunteers and even have some flexibility with the time that they put into it. But sort of the core is really that best and brightest, youthful, the Gen-z, the college grad. How do you reach out to folks in colleges? Many organizations are really trying to tap into that to get the employees they need.
TROY: We have something called Peace Corps prep programs, and these programs are official programs that we have at different universities. We usually sign MOU’s with select universities and through the Peace Corps prep program, college students, mostly undergrad, will be able to go through a training. They’ll learn about the work. They’ll pick up particular skills related to international development. Once they complete the program, they’ll get a certificate, and they get a competitive edge when they apply to the Peace Corps. And so that has been really a huge selling point for us, particularly with college students. We’ve been really present about increasing our Peace Corps program at HBCUs, which are historically black colleges and other minority serving institutions. So that’s been a real key driver for us. And the second is our marketing campaign, right? You know, just launching this brand-new marketing campaign, talking about the value of service, explaining to young people the ways that they can contribute and just all the tactics that come with it, making service, interactive and fun, allowing folks to be able to access some of our work across different platforms. And it shows that the work we are doing is emotionally resonating with people.
DOUG: Yeah. You know, one of the things that’s interesting and when I do these interviews and it’s great talking with you, I love to share things that can be applicable to many organizations. Many have branding challenges or opportunities. One of them is when the public perception is different from reality. One of the things that you face, whether it’s good or bad, is that people don’t necessarily think of you as a government organization. They might think of you as an NGO. Is it important to clean up those mischaracterizations and how do you go about doing that effectively?
TROY: It is important to clean up any mischaracterizations. I think for us we are in a particular unique spot. Peace Corps is a federal government agency. We do enjoy bipartisan support. We don’t engage in day-to-day politics, although we are a federal agency. And I think for us, it’s really the work that we do. The value of service. I think Peace Corps volunteers are, you know, the best diplomatic tool that folks have. Right? Because for many people in most countries, when we go, a Peace Corps volunteer is probably the first American that they’ve ever met. Right. And volunteers are there for two years. They’re living in the community. They’re working side by side with partners. And that just helps build a mutual understanding between the United States and the country that are volunteers serving. But it also humanizes people, right, because you get to see someone also in a personal capacity over those two years. So, for many folks, we view the Peace Corps as a really great diplomatic tool. And in terms of being mischaracterized sometimes as an NGO or a nonprofit, you know, we do clarify that we are a government agency. There are certain rules and regulations that we have to follow that might be different from a C3 organization, but at least in our position, we still have the luxury of promoting volunteerism and public service and that doesn’t change, right? So, we do a lot of collaboration and work with foundations. We do a lot of collaboration and work with leading nonprofits, particularly in that space. But the way that we approach our work is just a little bit different on the back end.
DOUG: Sure, it’s been great for you to shine the light on the great work that you and your colleagues are doing, and in fact, we’re going to put a link under this for people if they want to find out about applying to participate in the Peace Corps, they’ll be able to do so. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.
TROY: Thanks for having me.