January 28, 2013
Renee Kopkowski is the vice president of corporate affairs for Mars Chocolate North America, which manufactures and markets six of the country’s top 10 chocolate brands. She leads the corporate social responsibility, government affairs, internal communications, issues and crisis management, and public relations and social media functions for the organization.
She says that the best part of her job is, “working with so many talented professionals on iconic brands and important associate communications, and getting to do so many diverse things on any given day.”
Prior to this, Kopkowski was the director of public relations for Mars North America, and she was co-owner of Wonder Public Relations, a boutique communications agency near Atlanta. She has also worked in television news, as well as in media relations for Florida Hospital and Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center.
Kopkowski graduated from Clemson University with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English. She is formerly the president of the Georgia Chapter of PRSA and lives in Marietta with her husband and two children.
Though Mars is busy year-round, consumers particularly enjoy buying chocolate around the holidays and Valentine’s Day. “Whether it’s a romantic gift, friendship exchange or fun family gifts — Valentine’s Day is about sharing with those special in your life. Mars offers a wide variety of gift options. M&M’s and Dove are top-selling brands for Valentine’s Day,” she says. “My favorites are the DoveHeart Tins and the Dove roses. I buy them for my kids to give their teachers each year.”
How did you get your start in public relations and why did you transition from health care to the food industry?
I worked as an intern at a TV station in college. I loved writing and working with news media and quickly realized I could get the best of both worlds by working in public relations. I had a great manager at my first job out of school (as an employee communications writer at Florida Hospital). She encouraged cross-training. It was there that I found my love of media relations — both proactive and reactive.
The switch from health care to food came during the 8-year period in my career when I co-owned a boutique PR firm. We took on clients in both arenas — and a few others to boot. I’ve always believed you can serve any industry well if you bring strong PR capability to the table. That’s the foundation. Then, you just need to take the time to learn the new industry so you apply it appropriately.
What are some of the day-to-day challenges you encounter in your job?
The biggest challenge I see is the proliferation of communication vehicles and the hunger for more and more information from all audiences. We, as communication professionals, still must [choose] how much we serve up and how we do it so that it makes the right impact and cuts through the clutter. That’s becoming harder to do in a world of information overload.
Describe the relationship between the corporate affairs department and the C-suite.
I have been fortunate to have had a valued role as counselor to senior leaders in every role I’ve held in my career. Today, I am a full member of the senior management team at Mars Chocolate North America and report to the president directly. That is the norm for corporate affairs across divisions at Mars, Inc.
Personally, I feel we must have that type of relationship to be strategic and provide the best counsel. While it hasn’t always been a direct reporting relationship throughout my career, I’ve never had to fight to prove the value of the function anywhere that I’ve worked. I’ve found that all it takes is the ability to manage one crisis effectively or successfully raise product awareness through public relations or launch an internal strategy well.
Good work demonstrates value and opens doors to the C-suite.
Are you particularly busy at this time of year with the holidays and Valentine’s Day?
The seasons are a fun time because we get to celebrate with innovative new products as well as the traditional seasonal products consumers know and love with our iconic brands, like red and green M&M’s at Christmas or the Dove chocolate rose at Valentine’s Day. Halloween and Easter are, of course, big seasons for us as well. That said, our products are enjoyed year-round so we stay consistently busy all year.
Do social sharing platforms help drive audience, engagement?
We are active in social media platforms. Our products have a very active fan base, on Facebook in particular, where brands like Snickers, M&M’s, Milky Way, Twix and Dove have millions of fans. We have found all of these platforms to be valuable in extending the brand experience for our consumers and for building community among them.
How do public relations and communications help raise the profile of the company?
Public relations plays a large role in building the Mars Chocolate brands in North America. Each brand team has a PR co-pilot and agency support as part of their core team. They include public relations in all strategic integrated marketing planning from day one of any new initiative. Overall, external communication works on a number of levels for Mars, building brand and corporate reputation.
What particular skill sets do you look for in new hires?
Writing is becoming a lost art. I always look for someone who can write well on the fly. That’s a basic requirement. Beyond that, I look for a foundational understanding of communication’s principles and planning, a strong work ethic, an ability to deal with change and ambiguity, and a willingness to take risks and try new things.
What’s the most valuable business or leadership lesson you’ve learned?
That manager in my first job who made us cross-train to become generalists set me up for success by helping me learn and adapt in my field. She also taught me to always train those under me to be ready to take my job at a moment’s notice. You can’t move up easily if you don’t have a successor. Developing others is a win-win for everyone. Those lessons have guided me my entire career.
Managing Editor Amy Jacques interviewed Renee Kopkowski for this month’s member profile.
What’s your favorite type of candy?
M&M’s peanut chocolate candies
If you could have any three dinner guests — past or present — who would they be?
Walt Whitman, Katherine Graham and David Bowie
What’s your favorite place to travel?
What’s your favorite movie?
“Broadcast News,” “Field Of Dreams,” “Rocky,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”