Matrix Awards Winners Share Advice

Earlier this week, New York Women in Communications (NYWICI) celebrated its 50th anniversary by honoring an all-star group of media leaders at its annual Matrix Awards. Although it was held virtually due to the pandemic, following suit in iconic Matrix Monday spirit, the event emceed by Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning and Editor-at-Large, O, The Oprah Magazine was nonetheless inspirational, still highly motivating and electrifying.

Past honorees of this prestigious recognition have included Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Meryl Streep, Anna Wintour, Nora Ephron, Halle Berry, Geena Davis and Padma Lakshmi, for example. As part of the 50th anniversary, NYWICI will once again award scholarships to high school, college and graduate students pursuing higher education studies in communication.  The nonprofit has invested $1.7 million in the education of 340+ women since 1998.

We caught up with three honorees for their words of wisdom.

“Refuse to stay in your lane”

Linda Yaccarino, chairman, advertising and partnerships, NBCUniversal, emphasized the importance of diversifying your skills.  

“Creative, technical, and interpersonal skills are important in our industry. But too often, people—and especially women—are reduced to one thing. So my advice is to build a skillset as multifaceted as you are. You must constantly broaden your mind, and refuse to stay in your lane. Stay curious and remain a lifetime student. Because I cannot stress this enough—turn to others around you for help and inspiration. Because we should rely on a lot of people: the trailblazers, mentors, peers who can we can listen to, learn from and form our own opinions.”

Yaccarino started her career as an intern at NBCU and said the journey “from Intern to Chairman wasn’t a straight line; it was a winding road.”

As in, literally. “When I was starting out, I drove all over the country for years, selling different kinds of programming to grow emerging businesses—from Syndication and Cable to Streaming. I was literally driving change.”

Her secret to success? A 360-degree perspective. “You don’t want to be typecast as just one thing, or in just one role. By working across the business, I had the opportunity to be many things. I learned how to diversify revenue, build new business streams, and, ultimately transform a legacy organization like NBCU. My route to the C-suite wasn’t the traditional one—and I’m so grateful for that.”

To her younger self en route to corner office, she would say, “Relax and enjoy the ride. You’re putting in the work, and you’ll be just fine.”

Yaccarino added, “On International Day of the Girl (and every day really,) I’m encouraging everyone to shine a light on the women who’ve made a difference in their lives. So get out there and post a woman who means something to you and use #ShesMy to describe the role she plays in your life!”

On October 11, International Day of the Girl, she kicked off a new campaign, #ShesMy, to celebrate and honor women in our lives and who they mean to you. You can do that by finding a picture of an impactful woman in your life, sharing it on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or LinkedIn, using the hashtag #ShesMy to describe who she is to you, nominating others to recognize special women in their lives to join the online celebration!

“Fear is like fuel”

Ask Susan Zirinsky, President, CBS News about journalism and her passion shines through. She began her career as a desk assistant answering phones two weeks after the Watergate break in. “I’ve had every job – I got to work on Evening News, Morning and weekend news, breaking news specials, 48 Hours, documentaries on 9/11 and the CIA, entertainment specials.”

“We are in a media evolution. It’s exciting, it’s historic. You will, however, get to watch history being made in front of your eyes. Journalists at CBS NEWS have said — and today Norah O’Donnell, Scott Pelley, Lesley Stahl all continue to say…democracy can not exist without a free press. There are so many platforms and opportunities to have a voice. The challenge is how do you break through the cacophony of options and platforms that make up the new media of today. As a journalist – there is one simple fact – you seek the truth – you cannot be distracted by the noise — even coming from the most powerful voices of the government.”

Possessing multiple skills is key in today’s media landscape. “Journalism is not a vocation it’s a calling. But you have to understand that the medium demands many things. Every journalist today must write, often shoot and edit video and be able to transfer video files for use at the mothership. (Think of yourself as a character on Star Trek.) Seriously, the responsibility of a journalist today is profound – but you must find your platform – you must find the way to have your unbiased voice stand firm. Can you have an impact – absolutely.”

As for the top three skills, being able to bring words to life via writing is essential. Zirinsky said, “If you’re writing for television – screen your material – allow the video, film and stills to set the scene for the stories you want the world to see.”

Then, there’s openness. “Allow yourself to see all sides of the story, listen to people, research the facts, let the story take hold of you. Allow yourself to take everything in and then outline the evolution of the story and the sound that creates the journey that the viewer will not want to miss.”

As for how to succeed, she indicated, “You have to be driven; obsessive compulsive is an admirable trait in this business.” Zirinsky also emphasized finding your voice to be authentic regardless of the specific platform you use.

“The one thing the news business does better than most is screen for authenticity. You can’t make it if you aren’t trusted, and you can’t be trusted if people feel you are trying to manipulate them. Don’t fall for the race for likes….stay credible and authentic.”

As for lessons learned, she added in her e-mail interview, “I will share this – the most important lesson I learned after years of suffering from unspecified dread as a journalist– going to war, covering the White House – covering law and justice and working on documentaries…. EMBRACE YOUR FEARS – TAKE THE RISKS. YOU CAN BE SCARED OUT OF YOUR BODY- BUT DO IT. FEAR IS LIKE FUEL.”

Lastly, noting an experience earlier in her career, the executive known as simply “Z,” stated, “I was once fired but not allowed to leave CBS News – but I learned so much from that man who turned my life upside down. I vowed that I will – for the rest of my life – take a call from someone who has been fired. I will always take the time to talk to someone who has been let go.”

“The show must go on”

Barri Rafferty, Head of Corporate Communications, Wells Fargo, said new, emerging areas to pursue within media are virtual events and social impact. “Despite social distancing, the show must go on. Sitting on long Zoom meetings can be exhausting, but we crave interaction. From polling, to virtual white boards, to watching live streaming events with friends, communicators must find new ways to engage audiences.”

As for your skill sets to possess and polish, Rafferty recommended embracing data, communicating visually and leveraging soft skills. “Communicators often shy away from numbers, but data has become a powerful tool in reaching target audiences in the right channel at the right time with the right message.  Technology and AI are changing the industry at warp speed and helping communications to become a business driver.”

Considering the human attention span has decreased to merely a few seconds, she said communicators need to “create content that is simple, eye-catching and tailored by outlet.”

And never underestimate the importance of soft skills. “A 2019 survey by Morning Consult showed that the ability to listen, pay attention to detail and use clear, concise communication are all soft skills that are in high demand by employers. Since the pandemic forced social distancing, people are also craving empathy and humanity from even the most serious brands.”

Prior to her current C-Suite role at Wells Fargo, Rafferty was global CEO at Ketchum. She indicated, “I used to keep an old Monopoly card on my desk that a client had given me. It said, ‘Get out of jail free.’ Everyone deserves the benefit of doubt. You have to take risks in this industry in order to be successful. Not everything that you or your team tries will work, and when it doesn’t, it’s important to have compassion and support for them and for yourself. Learn from your failures and move forward.”

As for parting words of wisdom, putting your personal needs and family first doesn’t mean your career trajectory has come to an end.

Rafferty stated, “Earlier in my career, I decided to leave my position as head of global brand marketing at Ketchum for a role that required less intense travel and hours, as I had two young children at home. I had worked hard to get my global position and some people questioned my decision and felt assuming my new role leading Ketchum’s Atlanta office was a step backward. I trusted myself and have never regretted it. I was able to spend time with my children and broaden my skillset as a profit center leader. When the time was right, I used those newly acquired skills to lead the agency’s flagship New York office and was eventually named global agency CEO.”

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