Washington Women in Public Relations named Christina Mazzola Nicols, MPH, MS, MS, senior vice president and director of strategic planning and research at Hager Sharp in Washington, D.C., its 2015 Washington PR Woman of the Year at a ceremony on Nov. 13. (The two other finalists were Carrie Fox, president of Fox Communications, and Lisa Throckmorton, chief operations officer at Speakerbox – and you can check out their profiles in Capitol Communicator’s profile series.)
Capitol Communicator asked Nicols a number of questions about communications and our Q&A session follows:
Christina, how has communications changed in recent years?
I’m sure we’ve all noticed the explosion in channels available to us in the digital space, particularly in social platforms. And public preferences in using these channels seem to change by the nano-second. As communicators, that means we need to reassess channel selection with increasing frequency. That’s a lot to keep up with, and it requires specific skills in digital tracking and evaluation. So, I think this trend is driving a reconfiguration of communication teams, with a greater need for team members who can effectively manage digital presence in a very rapidly changing environment.
When I was a graduate student in the College of Communication at Boston University in the late 1980s, we used to talk about Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message.” Given the proliferation of digital media channels and the need to tailor content to these channels, you could argue his theory is now more relevant than ever.
However, I am also seeing an interesting evolution in “the message” in recent years. People have become more resistant to marketing messages – young people in particular, as they have been primed by campaigns like Truth (anti-smoking) to be skeptical of marketers. This means communicators need to be more authentic in messaging. And to achieve this, I think we need to take a more interdisciplinary approach to communication, starting with a more rigorous subject matter expertise. We need to have a much deeper knowledge of the topics and sectors we are working in and communicating about. We also need to tap other disciplines – psychology and cognition, sociology, behavioral economics – to get a better understanding of what will make a person pay attention to and act on a particular message.
What skills will it take to be a success in the coming years?
Because communication is becoming more interdisciplinary, I encourage young communicators to study and develop additional skills in statistics, psychology and anthropology; particularly for those who have an interest in research, strategic planning and evaluation. Communication and behavior-change theories are grounded in models from psychology; qualitative methods in research are based in anthropology; and of course, quantitative methods in research require a working knowledge of statistics.
In addition, I think we have an opportunity to incorporate behavioral economics into communication efforts to be more successful in behavior change. Knowledge of how people use technology is also important for meaningful engagement and effective dissemination of content. And I want to stress the importance of developing subject matter expertise. For the past decade or so, I have focused on public health, pursuing an MPH degree and now teaching at the Public Health School at George Washington University. The MPH degree has certainly been helpful, but it’s just a starting point – to be authentic for campaigns and clients, I have had to dive much more deeply into specific health topics such as diabetes, heart health and vaccine behaviors. I think the demand for specialized knowledge will only increase over time.
What lessons have you learned that you want to share with others?
Be a lifelong learner! Given the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of communication, the learning opportunities are virtually limitless. I think this makes the field much more exciting and relevant.
Who are your role models?
I had the privilege of working under the late Frank Mankiewicz when I was at Hill & Knowlton in the late 1990s. It’s been about a year now since he passed away, and I still think about his integrity and idealism, his humor, his willingness to give people the benefit of a doubt, and his superb ability to get support for any number of causes from the most unlikely sources. I also really miss our conversations about baseball.
If you didn’t go into communications, what field would you have gone into?
When I was nine or 10, I wanted to be a writer and/or a college professor. I haven’t veered too far from that aspiration – I write a fair amount in my current work, and the book I co-authored/co-edited on health communication is coming out as a second edition soon. I’m also happy to teach as an adjunct professor in the Public Health School at George Washington University. So, what I do now bears some resemblance to that youthful ambition.
In college, I had a double major in English literature and art/architectural history. I got into a graduate school of architecture after undergraduate school, but decided not to pursue it because I wasn’t confident in my ability to create structurally-sound buildings based on my love of the visual arts. The studios at the architecture school looked more like engineering than art to me. But I find that I still need a creative outlet in art and design. If not for my career in communications, I could see myself working in graphic design.
What I love best about my work in communication research is psychology – understanding what motivates people to think and feel a certain way or do a certain behavior. I also enjoy statistics as applied to market research. Given my interest and facility for these two areas – psychology and statistics – I could see myself as an occupational/industrial psychologist or a school psychologist. Standardized testing and assessments are important for both of these professions, and I think that is something I would really enjoy.
Of course, if I had a better facility for science – which I don’t – I would chuck everything else and go for Neuroscience! Now, that’s an interesting field….
What are the things you like to do when not at work?
I love to make jewelry. It surprises me that “DIY jewelry” is so trendy right now. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade at this point, and I’ve put a fair amount of time into workshops to develop skills. I have learned wireworking, silversmithing, kumihimo, chain maille, loom work, and a variety of techniques and stitches in bead weaving. I have also explored making glass beads in a kiln and with a torch at the wonderful glass studio at Glen Echo Park. I love incorporating various techniques into a piece of jewelry, and I would love to carve out more time for this.
But most essential of all is enjoying time with my husband, Spiros, and our mini golden doodle, Oliver – we love outdoor adventures! Oliver is happiest on the path alongside the C&O Canal, which is conveniently near our house.
Anything else we should know about you?
I have a great passion for and a fair amount of knowledge of popular music from the 1930s through the 1970s – everything from Billie Holiday and Lester Young to Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens and the Allman Brothers Band. I also love root music – blues and spirituals. And I love to hear Pavarotti singing arias and traditional Italian songs – his collection of Neapolitan songs is my favorite. I have an extensive music collection, and I purchased my last car largely because of the quality of the Bose sound system. I think of my car as a rolling stereo. It’s really important to me – I think I love music even more than art and literature.