Communications with a Big “C” and Little “c”
I grew up a weather geek. After we moved to New York when I was five, I studiously tracked Nor’easters crawling up the coast, promising a snow day that closed schools, shut down traffic, and grounded planes. For that reason, the aviation industry is less excited about snow or any extreme weather. I know this because I’ve spent most of my professional life talking about weather and airplanes. On paper, an English degree would not lead one to meteorology or aerospace, but that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education from Hamilton.
When I graduated from Hamilton, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It felt like my bachelor’s degree in English could be a potential key to any number of career doors, but it didn’t seem to lead to any particular one. While poking and prodding for viable employment, I contacted a neighbor who worked for ABC News. He got me in touch with folks at “Good Morning America,” and what followed—a job in the videotape library at CNN, unpaid low-tech news and weather reports for a public access station, and an eventual demo tape featuring my “best work”—led me to an unconventional communications career that has taken me all over the country.
Local TV news is hard to break into in the best of circumstances, but even more difficult if you’re not from a school with a noted Communications program. But after sending out more than 100 demo tapes, a small station in Rapid City, South Dakota, took a chance on me. Making $14,000 a year, I viewed the job as Communications graduate school with a small stipend. I lacked the technical skills my colleagues had, but I quickly learned how to shoot and edit video, present the weather, produce a newscast, and marry words to video. I had limited experience writing for news (though my resume suggested otherwise), but armed with my Hamilton education, I realized I knew how to effectively communicate, even if I hadn’t majored in Communications.
I embarked on a journey through small and middle TV markets—Tallahassee, Fla.; Portland, Maine; Albany, N.Y.—until I landed a job at a 24-hour cable station in Seattle in 2004. At each stop, I was the only English major in the newsroom. Along the way, I tackled a three-year broadcast meteorology certificate program to bolster my weather credentials, but my foundation was an ability to write and speak clearly. This would also serve me well in the next chapter of my career.
Seattle is where I got off the TV carousel. I fell in love with the city, the mountains, the water—and eventually a woman. As an investment in Seattle, I began to look outside TV. I was maxing out my potential at the station, and local news was hemorrhaging viewership amid a sea of cable TV options and the explosion of social media. I saw the writing on the wall. Local newsies often found a second act in PR or corporate communications, and luckily I knew a few of them at Boeing. But what did I know about airplanes?
It turns out Boeing didn’t hire me for my knowledge of the widebody market, but—wait for it—my ability to communicate clearly. Anyone can appreciate the grandeur of a 747 taking off, but it takes a particular skill to translate the dense engineering explanation of that takeoff into plain English. Translation is an important—perhaps the most important—component of “Communications” or “communications.”
Once inside a big company like Boeing, I discovered that Communications encompasses a broad array of positions and disciplines. You could write news-style stories targeted to employees (internal communications) or the public (external communications); you might support an executive or even the CEO, providing strategic advice or writing speeches; or you could work in media relations, pitching Boeing stories to reporters or arranging interviews for reporters to write articles on Boeing. In my first position at the company, I was fortunate to tell stories about Boeing’s cool testing facilities, like wind tunnels and the lightning lab, where engineers create lightning in a controlled environment to study its effects on aircraft. One of my favorite assignments: I helped Esquire Magazine stage a fashion shoot in Boeing’s Philadelphia wind tunnel, and as part of the magazine spread, I did a writeup on the history of that wind tunnel.
My story almost had a different ending. In April, I received a layoff notice from Boeing, amid cutbacks and a reorganization within the Communications department. But new positions were also created, and before my time was up, I applied for one of the jobs: writing specialist. I thought I did okay in the interview, but I felt I aced the writing test. I got the job; Boeing Communications hired me again for my communications skills.
When I think of a Venn diagram of English majors, meteorology, and engineering, I picture three retreating circles giving each other the side-eye. But Hamilton prepared me to turn my communications abilities into a Communications career. It’s hardly where a kid who loved weather thought he would end up, but communications skills have legs—or sometimes wings.