Kimberly Abbott

VICE PRESIDENT OF COMMUNICATIONS & MARKETING | WORLD LEARNING

What do you do at World Learning?

I am Vice President of Communications and Marketing at World Learning, a global NGO.  I am part of a nine-member senior management team providing strategic direction for the organization. We work in 60 countries through a host of programs to empower people, communities and institutions. Our mission is to create a more peaceful and just world through education, development and exchange.

A big part of my job involves telling the incredible human interest stories of people around the world who participate in our programs, which are literally changing lives. These include stories of triumph over tragedy, problem-solving that overcomes challenging circumstances and personal development of young leaders in emerging countries, who are working to make their communities a better place. 

We are doing development work such as civil society strengthening, social justice promotion and education training in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Malawi, Burma, Kosovo and Pakistan. We also engage in people-to-people diplomacy in its truest sense: we are bringing people here from around the world -- everyone from students, teachers and journalists to scientists and farmers -- to exchange ideas with their counterparts in the US, and sending young Americans around the world to do the same.

Our work is about finding our commonalities, and breaking down the barriers that lead us to see people as “the other.” That’s what we need most in the world right now. We are countering negative narratives and stereotypes and learning to see people for who they are. We are offering opportunities for human connectivity – and we know that the more we learn about others the better policy decisions we make. My role is to promote all of this using multimedia storytelling.

Do you have a specific take on it as a former journalist?

I believe that the work international NGOs are doing is very important to the journalism industry because there are so few foreign bureaus remaining. Journalists are parachuted into a region for a breaking news story, but because they aren’t based there, they can sometimes miss that critical ground truth – the ability to see, hear and feel change happening on the ground. That’s what foreign journalism was built on, but there is less and less of it, which is troubling to me. A lot of NGOs and think tanks are filling that gap by virtue of their work around the world. They were never meant to be journalists and there are certainly differences in their work and mission, but because they are on the ground they are able to tell stories that traditional news outlets are simply not reporting. That’s a subject that I’ve been looking into since 2005, when the big shifts in journalism first started.

What do you look for in people you hire on your team?

We really have to act like an agency. NGOs that put communications and marketing at the core of what they do are smart.  I have seen so many NGOs doing incredible work, yet nobody knows about it because they are only talking to people within their own sector, using language only they understand. They are talking to each other, rather than reaching out to new audiences. The biggies like CARESave the Children and Oxfam have been doing smart comms for a long time, but many other groups have not.

I’m trying to build that within World Learning because, even though it is an 83-year-old organization, it is better known in the field and for the individual brands in its international exchange portfolio. People identify with an individual or specific program –and we have dozens - but they don’t necessarily know the connection to World Learning.  As we expand our reach, diversify our funding, and partner with corporations, we have to strengthen our brand and talk to different audiences.

I’m hiring people with specific skillsets that a PR agency might have: an interactive designer, a digital media director, a copy editor, a marketing director etc. I’m looking for people who are really talented at what they do but who also understand all of the other pieces, so that we can operate like a little newsroom or ad agency within the organization. I look for people who like to stretch, who are energized by creativity, who are energized by collaboration. People who constantly come to the table with new ideas and feed off of each other. That’s where the magic happens.

You are currently working in marketing for an NGO but you started your career as a journalist, how did you make the move?

I worked in local and international journalism and then I worked for CNN for seven years. I was always attracted to stories about people, and about the NGOs that I encountered while covering disasters and conflicts. If we went to a plane crash or an earthquake, I saw the great work these NGOs were doing on the ground, but the people there were not communications specialists. They were relief workers, or food, water or sanitation experts and they didn’t know how to speak the language of journalists. I realized that NGOs needed effective communicators from the inside and that’s why I made the switch.

I felt like there were so many stories that were not being told, or not being told completely.  That’s been a mantra of mine for a long time. We need the context; the beginning, middle and end of a story.  What happens after a big foreign policy decision, or when a natural disaster is over or a conflict situation diminishes? I think it’s really important to give people a voice to speak about the impact of these things on their lives. Otherwise you get an incomplete picture.  We have breathless coverage of conflicts in Bosnia or Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan, and then nothing. There are satellite trucks and live shots from Haiti after an earthquake or when girls are kidnapped by Boko Haram, and then nothing.  Don’t you wonder how people are managing, how or whether they picked up the pieces, what they have to say now?  There are so many stories where we just don’t have the whole picture, and understanding that whole picture influences future decisions and perspectives.

It took some time to transition in my own mind and to get out of that pace of breaking news. I hear that from a lot of journalists, that if you were raised in a newsroom, you always have that work style and you always need that adrenaline rush. In the NGO sector, though, you are working on new projects, you are working in an innovative space, doing things that nobody has done before, and you can get the same kind of adrenaline rush.

What skills did you carry over?

Knowing how to find a story, conduct an interview and get the best information out of people. Also networking - I’ve been able to draw on the contacts that I made in my journalism career, whether it’s bringing a panelist to a program or finding a subject matter expert.

In terms of specific skills, writing is key. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in: if you are a good writer, it is going to translate.  Project management has also been really important- the ability to keep multiple big projects on track, pay attention to detail and also see the big picture. I’ve also been able to produce a lot of videos in my NGO work, so I still get to go on shoots, work with photographers, write scripts, etc. I a lot of media training, and that comes directly from my time as a journalist.

Another skill is looking at how your work is going to feed into the news narrative. Many groups think their white paper or report release is enough of a peg, but that’s not the case. You need to look for the news hooks, know how that reads, know how that translates into the wider news cycle, otherwise it’s going to fall flat.

Having that sense of what the news is, knowing how to push the narrative forward, and predicting when the information about your NGO or your report or your think tank is going to catch, understanding your audience… That’s a really important lens to look through.

What was your favorite thing about being a journalist?

It’s cliché but you have a front row seat to history. You get to be a part of so many big stories and have access to so many incredible people – from global leaders to village elders to rising stars. They all have stories to tell, and bearing witness was an honor and a big obligation.

What were your favorite stories to work on?

After the war in Bosnia, I went back to the country because I believed that we hadn’t heard the whole story. We had this obsessive news attention on the conflict and then it just vanished. And I think that led to a false perception that that everything was fine, or somehow over.

I wanted to hear the stories of the people that were impacted, and I worked with the NGO War Child on a story in Mostar. I went to the Pavarotti Music Center, a music therapy center for kids caught in the conflict. It was funded by Bono and Pavarotti. They wanted to create a safe space for these kids, where they could hang out and connect through music, or work with music therapists who helped them deal with their trauma through the arts. We filmed their first concert, which had kids from all three ethnic groups, and talked to the kids about what it meant to be in a band with someone they were in conflict with just a short time earlier. I eventually got a rare interview with Pavarotti, who told me why he funded it and why he thought this work was important.

In the end, I was able to give some attention to the important work War Child was doing, and offer a glimpse of what it is was like for kids to rebuild their lives after war. The piece ran on all the CNN networks multiple times so I was really proud of that.

The most difficult story to work on was probably 9/11. I interviewed a lot of the families of victims, and that continues to impact me in the way that I see people and the way that I tell stories. I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and that sticks with me. I don’t know if you are ever able to move beyond it.

After CNN, you worked at the House of Representatives. How was it working there?

It was very eye opening. When I was leaving CNN, I did informational interviews to figure out what I wanted to do next. I thought I’d always be a journalist, I never considered anything else. I was attracted to what NGOs were doing but there were very few communications jobs at the time.

I knew that if I was going to work for an NGO, I needed to understand advocacy. Really seeing how things worked from the inside helped me in my next step. I don’t think I would have gotten my next job had I not had that experience.

I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t where I wanted to make my career but I did learn how advocacy was carried out and how it looked from the other side and that was really important going forward.

What’s your most important skill?

There are a lot of things that you have to be able to do but I don’t think one is more important than the other. Writing is certainly important. The networking piece I can’t underestimate. You have to have great relationships with journalists to be able to tell your story but you have to be innovative.  I like to come up with new creative ways to do things that nobody has done before. About ten years ago when I started at Crisis Group, that innovation came through forming partnerships with traditional news organizations that had not partnered with NGOs before. It just wasn’t done or it wasn’t talked about.

We did a lot of pieces with big news outlets like 60 minutes, Nightline, Vanity Fairand People magazine on stories from Sudan, Congo and Northern Uganda. These were stories that were not regularly leading in the big news outlets; they weren’t ratings pleasers or sexy enough. But I believed that there was an audience and I knew that the work we were doing was important.

For instance, with Foreign Policy MagazineElizabeth Dickinson and I had the idea for a list of the top 10 conflicts to watch every year. We put it out on New Year’s Eve. It was just one piece, but now it had become a signature piece for both Crisis Group and Foreign Policy. That was the result of us brainstorming about how we could be partners. It sounds very simple but that kind of partnership was rare at the time.

I’m working on some innovative programs now at World Learning through our partnerships with the private sector.  For example, we are working with JP Morgan and UBS to send young men of color abroad. There aren’t enough minorities in our diplomatic ranks and young people need to be able to see themselves represented in these jobs.  This is part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. We are taking kids from inner city Chicago, New York, LA to South Africa and India to study public health and human rights, and helping them develop skills to become leaders in their own communities. They need the opportunity to shine and we’re helping them get there.

This is a long term investment changing the way our foreign policy and diplomatic corps will be represented 10/15 years from now.

An advice I get a lot is that you should change jobs often. You were at CNN for seven years and at Crisis Group for nine. What’s your take on this?

I think perhaps that is a generational thing because it didn’t use to be that way – people stayed at the same organization for a long time. My time at CNN actually seems rather short in retrospect! And there were a couple of reasons I stayed at Crisis Group for a long time: I loved what I did and there wasn’t anything else that I could imagine myself doing. I loved my colleagues; we were a small, tight knit group. We did a lot of great work. What we were doing was really innovative and I was never bored.

I learned something new every day so I didn’t see a reason to move. The work was constantly evolving because it was a new organization. When I started, it was only 10 years old. It is a Brussels-based organization and my job was to build the media presence in the U.S. Had I seen something out there that I thought would bring me as much growth and joy and satisfaction, I might have reached for it, but I didn’t. That’s one piece of it.

The other piece of it is that in the middle of my career at Crisis Group, I had a baby. That changes everything, so the work life balance piece is something that can’t be underestimated. I had flexibility at Crisis Group; I knew the job and it meant something to be at a place with people who knew me and understood me and knew my work.

I did pass up a couple of dream jobs during that period that would have required me to be away from my son for long stretches. It was really hard to do, but it was the best decision for my family. It has taken some time to let go of that, but I do think that there will be other equally great opportunities in the future.

Work life balance is a hot topic, how do you manage it?

I have a flexible partner who is all in. We take turns travelling. We have to be carefully organized and know that someone is always present. I have a flexible schedule. I telework a lot, and I do a lot of my writing early in the morning and late at night. Creating your own schedule and having some flexibility is important. For a long time I was afraid that after Crisis Group, I wouldn’t find anywhere else that offered the same level of flexibility. I’ve learned that you just need to ask for what you need, and I think that you will know pretty quickly with the reaction whether it’s an environment that’s going to be right for you. A lot of women are afraid to ask because they think they won’t be taken seriously or that they won’t be considered for an opportunity. I’m finding that that’s not necessarily true. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reaction that a lot of people have. It’s not easy, it’s always a juggling act and there are days when you feel like you are not doing well at either thing, but I have a very fortunate situation, a great partner and a dedicated team at work.

NGOs employ more women than other foreign policy sectors. What’s your experience of gender equality?

At World Learning there are more women in the leadership than in many other places but it’s because they have been deliberate about it and made it part of their work culture, and they want to make sure women are represented. At Crisis Group, there were a lot of former diplomats, who were primarily men, but I think they did make an express effort to ensure there were women on the panels or that they hired women analysts. In many countries it was much better to have a female analyst  because they could access 50% of the population that men could not, and could paint a more complete picture of what was happening in that country.

I do think there are more women in the NGO sector because there is more of an effort to make it that way - it doesn’t just happen. It’s because there are a lot of people who are thinking about this issue and are making sure that when there is an opportunity to create gender balance, they take it.

You’ve mentioned networking as a skill a few time. How do you build it?

I do love making connections and connecting people. You need to make sure that you are offering something and that you are not just asking people for things. When you are getting great advice or mentorship, you need to make sure that you are giving it back to someone else as well. My best contacts are from early experiences where we were working hard together, on breaking news, overnight, or we were out on assignment together. I did a lot of overseas fellowships early in my career, and the bonds you make when you are travelling with someone are pretty unbreakable.

That said, it would be easy to let things fall away when you come home, so you need to make a deliberate effort to keep in touch with people and to be genuinely interested in what they are doing. Help them in their career, celebrate their successes, open doors for them when you can. Take the time to have a conversation or make a phone call on someone’s behalf or give them advice. Investment in people takes time, but it pays off.

Some of the networks that I built earlier in my career are very strong. One of the units I worked for at CNN, the booking unit, was all women. There were a lot of women who had been there for years, and when they brought on this new generation of young bookers, they made a concerted effort to mentor us and give us advice, and we worked really hard together. I can call those women 20 years later and know that they have my back, and I have theirs.

In terms of pure networking, it’s very important to get out there and see what other people are doing, to get into other sectors, to see what’s happening so that you can make those connections to your own work, and look at your work through a new lens. Get out of your bubble.

My last question, what’s your advice for girl or young women who would like a career similar to yours?

If they are young, they need to get out into the field, whether it’s in journalism or the NGO sector. That’s where they are going to build their expertise because they can be true witnesses to what is happening on the ground and make the connections that they need. That will translate in whatever capital they land in. People are much more interested in what’s going on in the field.

If they can get out to the field, even without a particular job, there are lots of opportunities to freelance. Find a network of strong women that you can count on, people who are always willing to be your cheerleader, be your champion, provide advice and help you open doors. There are many women who will do this.  I take mentoring young women very seriously and I think it’s an incredibly important thing to do.

Kimberly Abbott | Vice President of Communications & Marketing | World Learning

22 years' experience

CV in brief

Studies BSc Journalism and French at Boston University

Previously worked as Communications Director, North America atInternational Crisis Group | Communications & Media Manager/Director atInterAction | Communications Director at the US House of Representatives | Journalist at CNN 

Find Kimberly online LinkedIn | Twitter | World Learning profile

Inspired by Kimberly's career? Here are some related opportunities:Employment at World Learning | Employment at International Crisis Group |Jobs and internships opportunities at InterAction | Employment at the US House of Representatives 

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, May 17 2016

  Conducting an interview on a panel at Futures Without Violence Open Square Summit

Conducting an interview on a panel at Futures Without Violence Open Square Summit

  Conducting an interview on a panel at Futures Without Violence Open Square Summit

Conducting an interview on a panel at Futures Without Violence Open Square Summit

  Reporting for CNN

Reporting for CNN

  Media training at Central European University’s School of Public Policy in Budapest

Media training at Central European University’s School of Public Policy in Budapest

  Conducting an interview at World Learning for the State Department’s Women of Courage Awards

Conducting an interview at World Learning for the State Department’s Women of Courage Awards