NBC’s Zelenko gives UW peek into “room where it happens”

As senior vice president at NBC News, Ali Zelenko has developed a public relations bible as she represents some of the biggest names in media, and in March, she gave UW-Madison students a peek inside.

Ali Zelenko

Ali Zelenko, senior vice president at NBC News, delivered the Robert Taylor Lecture in Public Relations on March 8.

Zelenko, who previously has worked for such media outlets as PEOPLE, TIME and CNN, is a graduate of UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She presented the 2016 Robert Taylor Lecture in Public Relations to UW students, faculty and staff on March 8.

While Zelenko joked that her career can be hard to explain at cocktail parties, it has given her access to many extraordinary experiences, including the Olympics, the White House and the debut of the iPhone.

It all goes back to basics, Zelenko told her standing-room-only audience.

“I took every writing and reporting class here, and that was what I’ve built everything I’ve accomplished on,” Zelenko said.

Drawing on those accomplishments and experiences, Zelenko has built a collaborative set of rules she calls the “hit by a bus book.” She said with these rules, if someone were to get hit by a bus, everything could continue to run smoothly.

To help students just starting out, Zelenko offered advice straight from her book.

In addition to strong writing skills, Zelenko emphasized the importance of relationships. She said email will never replace fact-to-face contact, and her goal is to have lunch with someone she works with at least once a week.

She told students to maintain professionalism when interacting with high-profile clients. By “avoiding the selfie,” you can gain respect and trust from people within high-profile circles. That, she said, was worth more than any picture you could post on Facebook.

While Zelenko maintained an informal, humorous tone with the audience, she did not shy away from talking about more serious topics.

Life is short, she said, stressing finding a balance between priorities. She learned this lesson after her father passed away at an age only eight years older than she is now.

“The stakes are often high in the things I deal with…but we don’t work for the Pentagon,” she said. “I love my job; I take it very seriously. But at the end of the day when you have your priorities right, everything else falls into place.”

Several students asked Zelenko how they could stand out in the job market. Her answer was passion.

“Just be really good at what you do, and really passionate about what you do, and you’ll be fine.” Zelenko said.

— By Carly Schesel