Capitol Communicator is running a series featuring profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this “up close and personal” profile we feature Shonali Burke, Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc.,a public relations and social media expert and consultant based in Washington, D.C.; and winner of the 2015 Matrix Award from the D.C. chapter of the Association for Women in Communications. Photography for this series is by Cade Martin, wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson and Janice Kinigopoulos for THE Artist Agency.
Shonali was presented the award at a ceremony at the National Press Club and you can check out more about the award here.
Shonali, can you share with us a bit of your background?
I grew up in India, first studying Economics (undergrad) and then Theater (grad). After realizing that being a “drama queen” wouldn’t necessarily fill my belly, I started taking on assignments in PR. When I moved to the U.S. in 2000, I decided to make that my career.
I’ve been president and CEO of my own consulting firm for six years now. Prior to that, I was vice president for media and communications for the ASPCA, and have several years in the agency world – small and large – as well. I’m IABC-accredited, on the faculty of Johns Hopkins and also teach at Rutgers.
Are you involved in any other organizations?
I was a volunteer with WWPR many years ago, and then served as a volunteer leader with IABC for several years, both at the local – as vice president for professional development and then as president of IABC/DC Metro – and international Accreditation Council levels. I’ve been on the D.C. board of ColorComm since 2012, which is a terrific organization for women of color in communications. While I don’t currently volunteer with PRSA, I am very active in the association through teaching, speaking and presenting. Outside of the industry, for some years now, I’ve volunteered with the Montgomery County Executive’s Ball, which is an annual gala that raises funds for arts and education programs in Montgomery County, Md; and I volunteer through my church at Shepherd’s Table, and am on my church’s communication committee – what a surprise! Finally, over this past year, I’ve gotten quite involved with Gottaswing, and love my swing dance classes!
What are the things you are most proud of?
While I’m proud of many things, please know that is preceded by gratitude. Professionally, I’m proud that I built a career from scratch in the U.S.; that all my business comes from referrals and repeat clients; that I’ve made #measurePR the go-to hashtag for curating conversations on measurement; that the work we did correlating PR outputs to outcomes at the ASPCA won an award from IPR and is considered a gold-standard case study for the industry; and that I’ve been a featured speaker at Ignite – twice – and TEDx. I almost backed out of TEDx – how stupid would that have been?
Who were your personal role models?
I don’t know if you’d call them “role models” so much as mentors. I had exceptional teachers in drama school, but Anamika Haksar and the late Nibha Joshi especially taught me to confront fear, even if I was petrified of doing so, and that it’s OK being “different.” My first boss in the U.S., Charly Zukow, taught me to treat each client as if they were my only client. My boss at Ruder Finn, Nancy Glick, taught me so much about navigating the agency world and managing clients. Deirdre Breakenridge and Patrice Tanaka continue to teach and inspire me, every day, to be focused, calm and joyful. And Katie Paine, who got me started on my measurement journey, whose excitement and passion for the field literally lights up my life.
Did your role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?
I don’t think anyone ever came up to me and said, “Listen. If you want to get ahead…” Rather, it’s been learning by observing and osmosis, and listening to my gut. Every time I listen to my gut, things work out. The best advice anyone ever gave me was from my mom. She told me to treat others as I would want to be treated, which people remember as the Golden Rule. It was boring to hear this as a kid but I think my mom’s Golden Rule, more than anything else, has helped me.
What professional advice do you have for others?
Be honest. Be ethical. Be kind. Be firm. Learn how to say “no” firmly but nicely. Listen to your gut. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Don’t assume you know everything. And, do your utmost and then stop worrying.
What advice do you have on what’s appropriate attire for business?
Since I’m independent and work virtually, there’s a lot of room for interpretation there! Still, I do dress decently every day, reasonable business casual, since I could have to jump on a Skype call at any point, etc. For client meetings or speaking engagements, I tend to err on the side of formal wear; it’s much safer to dress “up” than “down.”
Where do you buy most of the clothes you wear for business?
Express and Macy’s (Tahari) are my go-to places for suits and dresses – plus, a little hole-in-the-wall boutique in New York’s financial district.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
I’m a huge dog lover – we have three rescue dogs! I’m a very good cook. I am a huge Elvis and ABBA fan. And, if I could do only one thing, I would dance.