By Marissa Twite, Intern
After 30 years in the public affairs industry and 12 years of service with Katz & Associates, Joe Charest, our Vice President, is retiring and embarking on the next journey of his life. I am new to Katz & Associates, just starting over three months ago, and at first I was at a bit of a loss of what questions to ask Joe about his career for this interview. But then, I learned more about the work Joe has accomplished. Over his 30-year career, Joe developed and implemented multi-disciplinary communication programs for a wide range of projects, built strong and lasting relationships with clients and coworkers alike, and has left a lasting legacy at Katz & Associates. Joe’s commitment to not just communicate answers, but to find actual solutions, conveyed to his clients that the message “helping others communicate effectively about things that matter” is really the core of our company’s values. He brought heart, humor and camaraderie to every relationship. It is clear that Joe has been an invaluable player for the Katz & Associates’ team; he will be sorely missed. And today I had the honor to sit down with Joe and reflect upon his time with us.
Marissa Twite: What was your first position at Katz & Associates?
Joe Charest: I came in as Vice President because I had many, many years of experience in other firms. So, I was able to step in pretty quickly to pick up some of the workload.
MT: Did you find the environment at your last agency different from the environment in this office? Or was it a pretty smooth transition?
JC: It was pretty much the same. One of the things that I find with agency employees in general is that they enjoy the work in a way people in corporations may not see the same way. I always say that what people in other communication fields see as stress, we see as a challenge. The variety of work here is what makes people like agency work. I think it’s something that you like or you don’t like, and if you don’t like it, you can move on to something else where you can relax a little more.
MT: You’ve worked on dozens of projects in this office alone. Do you have any favorites you worked on? Do any stand out?
JC: Well, there have been a lot of good ones. The Mid-Coast Trolley project is a project we are taking from start to finish. Way back in the beginning, we were working with the prime contractor in the design phase. Now, we are working on construction and, eventually, we will have a grand opening. I had the same experience with the Mission Valley East project, which was another trolley project for my former agency. I started with public meetings in the environmental review process, worked all the way through construction, and then had a grand opening for the first couple of train rides. That took about 6 years. It was very rewarding to see that done.
MT: How were you able to convey the message “helping others communicate effectively about things that matter” to clients? Is there any specific message you like to emphasize to clients?
JC: Well, I think you used the main word: message. The messaging we do is the key focus for every project. We focus on which message our client needs to convey to their various publics. If they are looking for approvals, how do they need to communicate that information? If they are looking for community acceptance, what are those key messages that talk about benefits to the community and the needs that will be filled by this project? We are in an industry that often finds people opposing or at least being concerned about a project until they get the answers that make them comfortable with it. So that critical stakeholder outreach remains our focus.
MT: That can be pretty challenging, I imagine.
JC: It is (laughs). But, it can be very rewarding. Another client I still work with is in the avocado industry. I’ve worked with both the California Avocado Commission and the Hass Avocado Board since 1993. I started working with them on crisis communications. They were concerned that avocados from Mexico would be allowed in the United States and would contain bugs that would damage the crops here in California, the heart of the avocado industry in the United States. We fought that battle for 10 years and now, Mexican fruit is accepted but with strict safeguards against importation of pests. That started as a crisis communications project, but we ended up doing a lot of consumer promotions and a lot of other things along the way
MT: It is very exciting/interesting that when you first start a project it is something completely different when you finish it.
JC: What Katz people do very well is build really strong client relationships. The longer you have a client, the more likely it will be to get additional assignments that may have nothing to do with where you first started. That’s a really good outcome and a really rewarding thing for both the client and the agency.
MT: I have noticed, while working with different account executives, that there is a very strong relationship between our agency and clients and I really admire that. But, when it comes to relationships with coworkers while working on a project, what was the most important message you tried to pass on to them?
JC: I think teamwork is the key thing. We don’t stand on titles here. I think mentoring young people is critical and also one the most fun things a manager can do to help someone break into an industry that interests them and help them grow. That teamwork aspect is terrific. This has always been a terrific environment for collegiality. I have seen many great people that have come in as interns grow and flourish over the years. I’ve been here almost 12 years now and there are many solid professionals still down the hall who are now in mid-manager and senior positions, doing really well. That’s a tribute to the agency that people are here for such a long time.
MT: I have noticed that, too. I’ve been working on-site at the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department. The staff there started as interns as well and then stayed on with K&A.
JC: Yes, Sarah Rossetto is a great example, she is going on ten years and Tania Fragomeno even longer, Greg Parks, Sandra Wellhausen, others: good people staying a long time.
MT: Throughout your career, did you ever feel stuck or unmotivated? How did you overcome those feelings and has your strategy changed over the years?
JC: I’ve had times in my career where I didn’t feel the direction we were heading was going to be successful. That caused me to want to change, so that’s what I did. Generally, I think what makes good agency people is having a drive that keeps them going. It’s like they say, “if you have a job you really like, you don’t work a day in your life
MT: What is the biggest lesson you learned? What lessons would you like to pass on to others?
JC: I think it’s [the importance] of relationships, both internally and externally. The stronger relationship you have with clients, the longer they are going to be with you. The more you build internal relationships to help people grow, the longer people are going to be here and the more successful you are going to be as a team. That is number one for both sides of the business.
MT: What do you have planned next?
JC: I have a few plans, not too many, I don’t want to be busier in January than I am in December (laughs). But I’m looking at a few nonprofits in North County, where I live. I’ll start doing volunteer work there and that will kind of expand my circle of acquaintances in my home area. I’m going to do a little bit of travelling. I like going to jazz and blues festivals; I’ll do some of that. Probably some long distance driving to see a little more of this great country up close. And I’ve got family and three grandkids that I can spend more time with right here close to home. Maybe I’ll even get to do some freelancing for Katz & Associates along the way.
MT: What will you miss most about Katz & Associates?
JC: Absolutely the people and the relationships. The people I know here, I consider sincere friends. We have good, close relationships here. A number of those will continue after I leave the day-to-day work. If you are in an environment where the culture is one of cooperation and teamwork, that is a pretty good environment to be in All you have to worry about is client challenges and there are plenty of those.