This week I have been lucky enough to interview Jason Rzepka.
Jason is currently the VP of public affairs at MTV. Prior to joining MTV, Jason was the director of communications for the Pop!Tech Institute.
Adam: You have had a stellar career so far. What do you think has motivated you to achieve so much so quickly in such a tough business?
Jason: I think the big thing is I've not been focused on achievements — I've just run towards the work I most enjoyed, was good at and passionate about. I've been lucky to work with some amazing people along the way who have pushed me and who I've learned invaluable lessons from. Hard work and timing have also been key.
Adam: What led you to choose a career in public relations?
Jason: I actually feel like public relations chose me. In college, I planned to pursue a career in marketing and advertising. My first gig after school was as a marketing coordinator at a dot com start up. I hated it. But then I found an awesome PR firm in the San Francisco Bay Area — Atomic PR. I'd always been a media junky, I liked to write and I liked to talk. And Atomic was really ahead of the curve — they didn't believe in the hierarchy of traditional PR firms and deeply understood how PR was fundamentally changing in the late 90s. The time I spent there felt like strategic communications grad school and definitely catalyzed my career.
Adam: What attributes do you think are needed to help you get ahead in the PR world?
Jason: There are several ingredients that make a successful PR professional. The first is strategic thinking, which I view as absolutely critical. Second, you must be a GREAT communicator with the ability to effectively deliver complex ideas. Lastly, you have to be extremely diligent.
You can be a stellar strategist and a great communicator, but if you lack diligence, you won't reach your full potential. As an example, there are lots of PR practitioners who can write a great pitch and build an awesome media list, but after they send the pitch e-mail, they'll often settle with leaving a journalist a voice mail. After 10 years of PR experience, I can probably count on one hand the number of times journalists have returned a voice mail. I would sometimes call my highest priority media targets 50 times — never leaving a message — and never giving up until I got them on the phone. And this is how I placed some of the biggest stories of my career, from TIME to NPR to The New York Times to ABC World News Tonight.
Adam: You have been involved in think tanks and with the Pop!Tech Institute. Do you think that this type of collaboration is worthwhile and should it be more widely encouraged as a tool?
Jason: Think tanks play an important role in generating breakthrough ideas, but to really be effective, I believe they must exhibit two critical characteristics: embrace multi-disciplinary collaboration, and have a mechanism to translate great ideas to action. In my experience, the best ideas are born when you have people with very different perspectives, backgrounds and skill sets — who don't often talk to each other — sitting around the same table, focused on a difficult challenge. Further, it's essential that think tanks have connections to best-in-class organizations that can help actualize great ideas. Otherwise, what's the point?
Adam: You have been outspoken and not afraid of covering a whole variety of issues and causes. How easy is it to gauge if your take on a subject has gone too far?
Jason: At MTV, we know we aren't experts on sexual health, the environment, poverty or politics — so we always align ourselves with the foremost authorities in those fields, who ensure our campaigns are technically accurate and sensitive to the issue. We force ourselves to innovate, push the envelope and find new ways to partner with young people on these issues — empowering them to effect positive change — and our expert partners ensure we don't go too far.
That said, sometimes "too far" is highly subjective. When we launched "Darfur is Dying," an online, student-developed video game to help stop the genocide in Darfur, some critics said the concept went "too far." Three years later, the game has been played over four million times, led 50,000 to take action to help end the bloodshed and been praised by college students, holocaust survivors, Congress and dozens of influential journalists, including Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
Adam: The influence of MTV on society has been enormous. Does this bring extra pressure to your projects?
Jason: At MTV, we feel a strong responsibility to "use our superpowers for good." We know we reach a large youth audience and we're committed to empowering them to have an impact on the greatest challenges they face as a generation. We've learned a-lot about what works and what doesn't when engaging young people on social issues, and while we always feel the pressure to outdo what we've done before, we relish every opportunity to partner with our audience and address the issues they care about most.
Adam: You have had a fairly long tenure at MTV. Which projects are you most proud of?
Jason: I'm most proud of working on mtvU's Sudan Campaign, which I can honestly say transformed me as a person. With that campaign, we've given college students a powerful megaphone to raise national and international attention for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been displaced. Unfortunately, the situation in Sudan is still terrible, but we feel proud that through partnering with college students, we've been able to help change the dialog and generate significant attention for this genocide in slow motion.
Adam: Where do you see your career going over the next 5 years?
Jason: I feel incredibly privileged to head up the Public Affairs group at MTV, and truthfully, I can't imagine anything I'd enjoy more — at least for the foreseeable future. That said, I hope to use the rest of my career to work for social justice and to effect positive change.
Adam: Getting young people to vote was a huge and relatively successful endeavor during the last Presidential campaign. What else do you think can be done to make sure that people start to engage with the process?
Jason: The 2008 elections generated one of the largest youth voter turnouts in U.S. history. It was exciting to see young people so engaged — and it's another example of what's possible when our audience mobilizes around the issues they're passionate about.
Our guiding philosophy for engagement on any issue is simple: involve young people in the process, speak to them in their language, offer multiple ways to get involved and celebrate youth who take action and have an impact.
One example is Serve.MTV.com, a new tool we launched to make it super easy for any young person to connect with volunteerism opportunities in their local community. We're leveraging the power of our most popular shows and relationships with some of the biggest names in pop culture to alert our audience to the tool. And we'll soon use our on-air and online platforms to highlight young people who are getting involved and making a difference.
Adam: You are very involved in educating young people to take action to change their lives as well as the lives of others, what else do you think needs to change to enable this process?
Jason: We know most young people want to get involved and make a difference, but it can be difficult to know where to start. So we always go to great lengths to make it as easy as possible to get involved. We also always offer multiple levels of engagement, so there are ways for everyone from hard-core activists to sunny day volunteers to take action. Storytelling is also a powerful tool to help incite action. If you can reach someone on an emotional level — through powerful human stories — that individual is more likely to understand an issue and be motivated to get involved.