“Hard Hitting” Interview with Steve Burkhart, New Head of The Hoffman Agency U.S. Operation

Steve Burkhart recently joined The Hoffman Agency as U.S. general manager.

The news release shares the facts.

This Q&A with Steve probes the intangibles.

Nicely deflecting the tough questions, Steve manages to tell stories and still stay on message.


Q. Consider this an official welcome to the team.

A.   Thanks. I am very excited to be joining the team. To me, it’s like coming home. While I was a consultant with Hoffman, I immediately felt at ease with the people, with the culture, with the agency’s mission. I was struck by the willingness to embrace fresh ideas – even my sometimes seemingly off-the-wall ideas. I am proud to call The Hoffman Agency home.

Q. When you started consulting to the agency back in November, I was immediately impressed with your hands-on passion for communications. What fuels that passion?

A.   I love being creative. I think that is a big part of what fuels my passion for communications. I love coming up with solutions that perhaps no one else could have seen. Just writing a headline that makes people think can be a source for passion.

I also love the people component of communications. In my career, I have been fortunate to work with some of the great minds in PR.

Q. How would you describe your style?

A.   I would describe my style as one that fosters a sense of teamwork. For me it’s never about individual glory, but always about the success as a team. My style is to listen, to teach, to challenge … to engender a culture of teamwork so there is loyalty, care and concern for clients, for the agency and for one another. When esprit-de-corps finds a soul mate with talent, greatness happens.

Q. As you know, we’re huge believers in applying storytelling techniques to our client programs. Did you ever have a light-bulb moment when it comes to storytelling in PR campaigns?

A.   Well, very early on in my career, I noticed that many PR people tended to do things the same way: Regurgitate corporate speak, revert to jargon and forget that audiences were really breathing, thinking, emotional human beings, not just end users or potential revenue. I also didn’t like what I saw as deadly boring bylines, press releases, speeches that sounded like badly written brochure-ware.

The light-bulb moment for me was when I first started to pitch the media. At first, I tried my own version of corporate-speak with journalists, and they kept telling me to take out an ad. I knew I had to change my ways, and soon. That’s when it occurred to me that I must draw on my own experience as a journalist to write powerful stories, grabby headlines and powerful leads that the media’s audiences would want to read. When I made this change to storytelling, I found my success rate improved dramatically.

Q. Where does your inspiration for storytelling come from?

A.   Great poets such as Keats, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare and Donne inspire me with their precision and power of language. Master novelists such as John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Balzac and Virginia Woolf inspire me for the beauty and vividness of their storytelling. I also find that reading science fiction helps me think about stories in new and creative ways.

Q. You didn’t mention Elmore Leonard and classics like “Get Shorty.”

A.   No … although Travolta wasn’t bad in the film adaption of “Get Shorty.”

 Q.  OK, moving on. I know you spearheaded a storytelling initiative at Microsoft. Tell us a little about this effort.

A.   Microsoft was very serious about connecting with its audiences on a more human level. To achieve this, the company sought a global storytelling framework that was more than theoretical – they wanted to make it actionable in the real world of business. They wanted every marketing, PR and senior executive to put storytelling to work in their everyday work lives, whether it was creating a pitch for the media, or writing a speech or talking to customers in person.

What I did was de-construct all of the great principles of storytelling and then built out a step-by-step process of how to create great stories that advance business objectives. I also created a storytelling worksheet, so even those who were not natural storytellers could pick up the principles and put storytelling to work in their business lives.

Q.  How did Microsoft measure the effort? Were there tangible signs that it worked?

A.   More than 600 PR staff and Microsoft marketing executives from India to the UK to Redmond participated in the storytelling workshops; then hundreds more studied the online version. Microsoft didn’t officially measure the outcome of the storytelling, but anecdotally, my Microsoft clients told me it improved the quality and quantity of news coverage and fundamentally improved how Microsoft engaged with audiences.

Q.  After heading operations for mega shops like Weber Shandwick and Edelman, how do you see our opportunity?

A.   I love the opportunity at The Hoffman Agency. The agency has been in Silicon Valley for 25 years and has earned a sterling reputation for doing great work not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia as well. When I mentioned to a Bay Area COO that I was going to work for The Hoffman Agency, he instantly recognized the name and said it was a firm with a great reputation.

I believe we’re at the right place at the right time to capitalize on the massive amount of innovation coming out of Silicon Valley and across the globe. Of course, there is intense competition for this business. But I think we have a clear advantage when you look at things such as the depth of thinking, tech experience and the ability to execute on great ideas.

Q.  I’ll take that as a positive sign that you believe we can continue to compete against the big guys.

A.   No question.

Q.  Anything we didn’t cover through these questions that you’d like to share?

A.   I am an avid bicyclist and have been for many years. I love riding for fresh air, scenery and relaxation – and for the sense of community I feel with other riders. I particularly like riding on the roads that lead into the mountains because that is where the most dramatic scenery can be found. But in reality, I love riding just about anywhere relatively free of cars. It is so rejuvenating for me, and there have been times when I have come up with great campaign ideas while riding a bike.

 Steve Shast Bunny Flat

Q.  Let’s make it happen.

A.   I am ready to roll.

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2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Sandi Gustafson June 3rd, 2012 9:42 am

    So proud to be your sister. Awesome interview and not one surprise in any of your responses. I have known you for a long time. Enjoy the ride.

  2. Lou Hoffman June 3rd, 2012 9:47 am

    Sandy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    If I missed anything important about Steve’s style or background, feel free to add.

    P.S. As a sucker for double entendres, great closing line.

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