What’s Now? SJMC Board of Visitors Speaker Series Covers Key Topics

A flyer for the final What's Now? Event featuring Josh Perkiel of Slack and Andrea Sullivan of VaynerMedia.
A flyer for the final What’s Now? Event

By Emily Knepple

The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Board of Visitors have taken advantage of these tumultuous times and tapped into an extensive line of alumni with interesting and relevant stories to share. Via the “What’s Now: Fall Guest Speaker Series,” in an installment of three parts, four University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni shared their own experiences in the media industry and how COVID-19 has impacted their field of work. Faculty, current students and recent graduates were able to access these sessions and interact by asking questions and hearing from professionals in their prospective career fields. The digital series took place over the course of the fall semester and proved to be a valuable and insightful experience for all. 

The first part of the series, which took place on September 16 was titled “Change Now: Brands and Social Movement,” which included a live Q&A with BOV member Rob Master (‘93) who currently serves as the SVP of Media for Unilever, moderated by SJMC Professor Dhavan Shah Unilever is a multinational consumer goods company and was founded over 100 years ago. Unilever manages brands across all industries, their most notable brands include Lipton, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s, Axe and Dove soap. Master shared his own experience in the industry and how the J-school has helped him get to where he is today. Master also discussed what it means to be a purpose-driven company in the 21st century.

In response to Unilever’s decision to pull all ads from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the rest of the year, Master shared that “corporations have an important role to play in improving society and making a meaningful difference.” Master highlighted that these corporations have a responsibility to monitor where their content goes and who they partner with. He touched upon “freedom of reach,” which refers to the idea that companies must consider how and where their message will be received and the importance of being socially-conscious in today’s fast-paced digital world. Unilever has had strong relationships with these platforms in the past and felt driven to stick with what they’ve always stood for. 

Master shared that Unilever continues to work with these major platforms to make progress in areas where they feel they have struggled in the past. He also discussed the way leadership includes making tough decisions, even more so in our current society. In today’s world, where questions of how to respond to racial injustice begin to sit at the forefront, companies continue to be tasked with firming their position on certain issues. “Brands now have a role in society and cannot sit on the sidelines,” Master said. 

Other topics Master discussed include the role smaller businesses play in these conversations, how timing plays into the impact on certain decisions, and the decision to support and back certain issues without playing into the role of politics. 

The second installment of the speaker series, “Truth Now: Journalism and the 2020 Election,” included a conversation with SJMC Professor Katy Culver and Jeff Greenfield, former Editor-In-Chief of The Daily Cardinal and a Badger alum (‘64). Greenfield currently acts as a Columnist for POLITICO and a Correspondent for PBS NewsHour. This conversation took place on October 21, just a few weeks out from the election. Greenfield discussed early poll averages and how four years ago, the polls left people feeling hopeful for a result opposite the one they got. 

Greenfield spoke about the role that Donald Trump and his supporters played in stability of the polls. He referred to a “locked-in” behavior that has continued to solidify Trump’s standing in the polls, regardless of policy failures. He touched upon the changing landscape of party identification, which once wouldn’t suggest entirely how you would vote but today does. 

He discussed how in 2016, those that were undecided and felt poorly about both candidates, voted  “47% to 30% for Trump.” In 2020, Greenfield shared that those feeling that way today are more likely to vote for Biden, which helped back his “reasonably confident” prediction that Biden will win the 2020 election. Greenfield also discussed the way campaigns are targeting possible voters during this election cycle. In regards to ads run by the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, Greenfield shares that these efforts might work in encouraging voters to not see their vote for Biden but for a vote for the country’s benefit. 

Greenfield also touched upon the idea of “annihilation of truth.” He referenced conspiracy theories and the role social media has played in contributing to damaging and untrue stories. He discussed how the role of the internet has completely changed the idea of gatekeeping and the essence of truth and fact. “The consequence of misinformation appears to be nonexistent,” Greenfield said. 

Other topics discussed included the presidential debate, the role of the Senate, the media’s relationship with partisanship and using the then-open Supreme Court seat as leverage.

The third and final part of the series, “Work Now: The Workplace of 2020 and Beyond,” showcased two speakers to discuss the virtual workplace and took place on November 16. Moderated by BOV Member Lance Pillersdorf, Josh Perkiel (‘00), an Account Lead at Slack, the online collaboration and communication platform, and Andrea Sullivan (‘91), the CMO of VaynerMedia, a modern day communications company that parents many other branches. Both spoke about their own experiences with work-life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and offered advice to students about post-graduation work reality. 

Both spoke about some of the positives that have come out of the changing workplace environment via COVID-19. We’re much better humans now, in some ways, we’re more empathetic, we have to be more understanding of everyone’s situation,” Sullivan shared. Perkiel shared that this time on video calls have humanized everything so much more and has jumpstarted conversations that were a long time coming. It’s given a lot more people a chance to talk to those across the globe and spark connections with those that you might not have spoken with before. 

In terms of the hiring process, Sullivan recognizes that this is both a challenge and opportunity for companies to get creative in finding matches for new employees. COVID-19 has also forced companies to rethink the onboarding process, a new hire has to go through an entirely different process now than when the traditional workplace was available. At Slack, Perkiel shared similar sentiments. The onboarding process has proved to be the most challenging and encouraged students entering the workforce to take that first step. 

“Try and engage with as many people as you possibly can within the organization,” Perkiel said. He also shared his own experience with LinkedIn and how important it is to be up to date and link to your work. 

Sullivan told students to lead generously as people want to help right now. Perkiel echoed this sentiment and encouraged Badgers to note that they are a Badger when reaching out to a Madison alum. 

They shared more advice to recent graduates that included tapping into what your time at school has offered to you. Highlighting your strong suits is something they both see to be relevant and sell what makes you different and relevant to today’s society. 

After three successful parts, the “What’s Now?” series of speakers was inspiring and insightful, as all four alumni offered advice, allowed current students to better understand how the J-School can equip you for a long future in the media industry and helped everyone better understand how companies are responding to COVID-19.