Interview: Kristina Hendrix, Director of Communications | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

Kristina Hendrix and I worked together at Marshall Space Flight Center from 2006 to 2010. At the time, she was the events coordinator. Since then she’s gotten a Master’s Degree in Journalism with a strategic communication emphasis and has taken on increasingly more responsible positions within the aerospace and defense community in Huntsville, Alabama. She has been on the talking and extroverted side of sharing technical information. It was great to get back in touch with her and to learn about her current role.

Bart Leahy: Let’s start with something silly, like…I know you’re Kristina Hendrix. And you’ve got an Alabama logo on your wall. Excellent. What is your current title and what are your primary responsibilities and products?

Kristina Hendrix: Thanks, Bart. I’m the Director of Communications at an aerospace and defense contractor in Huntsville, Alabama. I’ve been with the company for nearly five years. As a Director of Communications, my job is to manage internal comms, external, social media, community relations, the graphics for proposal development, all of our advertising and marketing, and any special projects and crisis communications that may pop up whenever needed. And obviously this year because of COVID, my crisis communication tools have been sharpened tremendously.

BL: Yeah! So if there is such a thing, what’s a typical day or a typical week like for you?

KH: I think a typical day for me would be starting out with a ton of meetings. I’m really trying to make sure people understand who we are as a company and the programs that we support. So we really do our own investigative reporting each day, finding stories that we could possibly put out. Because most of our programs are in the developmental phases, it does take a while. We have to do a lot of research and writing, then we have to get approval, not only from our parent company and from the government customer, but it may take a while. I think people just assume that the news that comes out from companies should be timely and fast and efficient, but most of the time it takes a while for those things to develop.

BL: You’ve galloped right into my next question, which was going to be how many filters do you have to go through to put something out?

KH: Fortunately, we have a strong relationship with the project office internally, so we work with them first to make sure that their message is actually what they want to convey about their program. Of course we have to go through Contracts and we go through Security to make sure that everything is taken care of from a contractual side and without saying anything that could put us in a bad situation. And then of course from there we go to our parent company and they approve a good portion of our work as well. And then after that we get approvals from the government customer. So it takes a few steps. It just kind of depends on who and what the product is. So if the product really has to do with public outreach when it comes to community relations, that might not be as difficult an approval process as something that is as big as a multi-million-dollar program.

BL: When you’re doing your outreach, you have specific target audiences in mind. So like for a media release—do you have a specific audience in mind? Does it depend on the outlet it’s going to, or does it just go out to “the world?”

KH: Usually we do have a particular outlet in mind. Let’s say it’s space-related. We know which outlets we want to reach with that. Plus we want to make sure that we’re hitting all the correct messages with the customer. We don’t want them to be blindsided by anything. We try to make sure that our messages are coordinated with their messages, so that helps them to amplify what we’re saying even more. They can’t always promote what we do, but they can like it on social media, or they can amplify it. They can’t just come straight out and take our messages and say, “Look what this company has done for us,” but they can say this is what the company’s doing for the program.

BL: Okay. So how many channels do you try to put your messages out through? I remember when we worked for NASA we would use Twitter, Facebook, and the blog or the website. Is that similar for you?

KH: Yeah, it’s very similar. As I tell everybody, you have to have a home base. And for me, our home base is our website. We want everything to reside off of the website, so if you don’t have a strong website that’s easy for people to navigate through and easy for you to actually use, it doesn’t do you any good. We look at our website as the home base and then our social media platforms—Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—are amplifying platforms. But then also our parent company uses the same tools to amplify as well, so they may want to amplify on social media. And then of course it depends on if there are other products out there that we want to develop. So if there’s a podcast we might want to put together or if there’s a video that may go along with an infographic or a press release, we use those as supplementary tools that go along with the written word. I think that the written word is a whole lot stronger sometimes. I think people sometimes get a little confused on that, especially in this day and age where people will say, “Well, we’ll just make a two-minute video and we’ll put that out.” But a lot of people don’t have the time, the patience to sit there and watch a two-minute video. They will skim a quick, well-written article. So we can put out a well-written article and then put in an infographic or video to supplement it, then it makes that product even more strong.

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BL: So what’s your strongest channel? What gets the most attention?

KH: That’s a good question. I would say right now our LinkedIn page does extremely well.

BL: Really?

KH: I guess because a lot of people are looking for a job and they go there and see the type of work that we’re doing. So they can get that bite-size information, and then that makes them want to apply. When I started there, I think we had less than 6,000 followers on LinkedIn, now we’re hovering towards 25,000.

BL: Wow!

KH: We’ve really put a lot of emphasis on growing that particular channel. I would say Twitter also. Twitter does well for us because it is that quick in and out. And people can make lists of who they want to reach on there, so I think Twitter does well for us. Facebook is really about family. We know we do well when we say we’ve hired someone or we’ve given someone a promotion and of course all the shares are going to be from somebody with the same last name.

BL: Gotcha. So in the pre-pandemic world, you were actually talking to reporters, right? I mean, that’s part of your job?

KH: Yeah.

BL: Okay, so how do you prepare for that? The introvert here doesn’t do that, so…

KH: You know, pre-pandemic and post—I mean, we’re still in a pandemic—but they are still kind of about the same. You know, we’re so used to doing things in person and going to have a coffee and going to trade shows and meeting with people from time to time, but we really do try to keep that dialogue going. So if that means having a Zoom chat on a Friday morning when we know things are slow, we’ll set this up and just say, “This is off the record, we just want to do this just to keep the conversation going so that you know what we’re doing. I don’t have any news to share with you, but I want you to understand where we are right now in the process of whatever is happening. And that seems to go well because a lot of these reporters don’t have to get on the phone, they don’t have to fly all over the country, and they’re fine with, “Let’s just do a little check-in from time to time.” That’s gone well. I think before the pandemic everybody was expected to already have a story written, pitched things, and now people are just kind of like, “I may not be able to pitch it today, but I’ve got something I think you might be interested in. Let’s work together on it.” And I think more and more news rooms are open to that concept because they want good content to come out, they don’t want something rushed. And they understand that the public, at this point because of the pandemic, wants good content because we’ve all got COVID fatigue.

BL: “We’re stuck at home, give us something interesting.”

KH: Yeah.

BL: Okay, so your company has just rolled out the SpaceWidget 4000. You’ve got to put out information. How do you go about getting your information? Are you talking to the program manager, the chief engineer? How does the back-and-forth work?

KH: Pretty much everyone you listed. We get the perspective of multiple views. So the perspective of people with boots on the ground, the ones who’ll be turning out the work; those engineers. We get the perspective of the leadership of the program or of the division. And then of course we want our executive perspective as well because when put all three of those together, it helps people understand why we have decided to move forward with whatever it is and who is with it day to day that has to work through it. And I think that helps us all as communicators to understand. I can say I’ve got the backing of my executive leadership team and they can explain why the company has made this decision to move forward with whatever it is. But then also you have the perspective of the people who have the boots on the ground who can say this is what we’re doing every day. It helps to have a better story.

BL: Okay. So…I recall how we did things with public relations at NASA…do you consider yourself Public Relations? Public Affairs? Does that matter?

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KH: Yeah, I still think it’s Public Relations. I know that there is a constant battle within the world of PR and communications because everybody feels like, “Oh, we need to get rid of the title of public relations and just go to communications or digital or whatever.” It still is public relations. It still is that umbrella. And then of course you have different disciplines underneath that umbrella.

BL: Okay, so SpaceWidget 4000 comes out and the program manager wants to get out his [or her] information. Do you have things that your department specifically wants to get out?

KH: What we typically do is we’ll work with an executive on that and we come up with…obviously we write a strategic communications plan, which is going to have key messages in it. It’s going to have all of our strategies and tactics. And we really do target particular outlets with key leaders. So let’s say we’ve got a list of five spokespeople for one particular strategic comm plan. Each of those five people is going to have a different role. If someone is an executive, they’re going to have something that’s very big picture. Someone who’s a chief engineer type may actually be talking about the day-to-day operations. But we do work with them on what needs to be shared because we want all the messages to be coordinated. We want them to be consistent so it sounds like we’re speaking with one voice. I know sometimes people think oh, it all just happens organically and it just happens. It doesn’t happen like magic.

BL: It’s always complicated. And I guess what I really wanted to ask was do you have to push back on the engineers occasionally? Because we know the engineers love their “stuff.” They love talking about their tech. Do you say, “Okay, bring that down a level.” How much push-back are you allowed? Like, “This doesn’t make sense to me, it’s not going to make sense to my audience.”

KH: I’m glad you brought that up because we really have to do that. I think they are very eager and we always applaud their eagerness and we tell them that. But you have to remember that the general public or an audience might not be ready for that just yet. An example I give to a lot of our executives and to our engineers and other is, you have to think about when it’s game time. You brought up Alabama. Nobody cares about the national championship and what plays you’re going to run in the national championship when you’re playing in September.

BL: Right, right.

KH: You’ve got to get us to January. Let’s get through September, October, November, December, then get to January. And it’s the same thing in our job. Let’s get through this particular milestone, if it’s building a building that’s going to house a particular piece of hardware, or if it’s going to be testing an engine or whatever, like let’s really cheerlead and amplify that particular milestone before we get to launch date or delivery date or whatever else it is. Because people—their minds aren’t wrapped that way. They’re not prepared to talk about something that’s going to happen in 2025. They’re ready to talk about something that could happen today.

BL: Sure, okay. That makes sense. Last question: What’s the most important thing you would want a student or young professional who’s thinking maybe public relations would be a good technical communications job for me? What’s the most important thing someone should know about your profession?

KH: Good writing is always important. That you always have strong, succinct messages and don’t look for the fluff. Don’t look for something that really doesn’t matter. Like it’s not a “gotcha” moment, it’s really more about making sure that you’ve got communication skills and strong writing skills, because that’ll carry you. Everything else is brand new. It’s cyclical, things are going to change. Social media—there was MySpace, now there’s Facebook and Twitter. And there used to be other platforms that were out there. And so as long as your writing skills are strong and you’ve got the theory behind what you’re going to pull together, then it will make your products even that much better. And you’ll be lasting at that point.

BL: Cool!

This content was originally published here.