A professional communicator with more than two decades of experience in marketing, public relations, corporate communications, and journalism, Shonna Keogan teaches “Theory, History & Practice of Public Relations” within the NYU SPS Division of Programs in Business. She currently serves as chief communications officer at the NYU School of Law. Previously, she was senior director of executive communications at New York University, focusing on institutional priorities and crisis response.
Before NYU, she was founder and principal of her consultancy practice, SK Communications, focusing on emerging businesses. Her clients included the University of Albany, GridApp Systems, CoKinetic Technologies, GetMyBoat, NYU Stern in Westchester, the Dwight Schools (International), and Informa Investment Solutions. She has also served as director of corporate communications at Register.com and press secretary for the City of New York.
Tell us about your background and experiences.
My career path has been guided by keeping my ear to the ground and not hesitating when an exciting opportunity has come my way. I started in journalism working for free weekly newspapers. It was a great way to learn both how to write clearly and fast, and how to ask the right questions. From there, I was recruited to work for the mayor of New York City. I was lucky to have some great mentors in government, who taught me how to effectively leverage communications to achieve an institution’s goals.
I’ve worked at NYU on and off for the last 20 years, doing media relations for Tisch, Steinhardt, Arts & Science, and most recently working on institutional, executive, and crisis communications prior to joining NYU Law. In the Office of Public Affairs, I had a 360-degree view of university operations. It was an intense job, and doing it during COVID made it even more so. But I was part of a very strong team, and we worked in concert to communicate to all audiences about matters large and small. It was important work and tremendously gratifying.
How does that differ from your new position at the Law School?
Compared to NYU central, working at NYU Law is like working in a smaller town. We don’t have as many “fires” to put out, and since everybody is involved in legal education in one way or another, NYU Law has a more cohesive culture, which I love. Conversely, the scope of my position is much larger, encompassing not only media relations and issues management but marketing, digital communications, branding, video, and overseeing the production of the highly respected NYU Law Magazine. As a consequence, I’ve had to work completely different muscles and learn a lot of new things quickly.
What made you want to teach at NYU SPS?
I teach “Theory, History, and Practice of Public Relations,” one of the first courses taken by students in the NYU SPS MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications program. I was inspired to teach by a colleague, James Devitt, who had been doing it for over a decade and I saw how it brought a different energy and perspective to his position as managing director of NYU’s Office of Public Affairs.
The first year was absolutely terrifying. Even though NYU SPS provides a lot of training and mechanisms to support new teachers, I felt like I was operating way out of my comfort zone. Some things I tried worked really well. Others failed miserably. But by the end of the semester, when I was so filled with pride at what my students had obviously learned through the execution of their final projects, I figured maybe I did have something to teach the next generation after all!
Now, I can honestly say that I love teaching. It’s a LOT of work, but it’s worth it to get access to such smart young people from all over the world and help them learn what it takes to be an effective communicator.
How has the practice of public relations and communications changed over the years?
When I started as a journalist, we used to receive press releases in the mail! In public relations, we used to fax press announcements to a defined set of media players. Major television networks, large circulation newspapers, and magazines had so much power back then. So many of the things we stressed about are no longer relevant now. Media has become more democratized, and communicators have a much wider field—social media, blogs and vlogs, podcasts, YouTube, which has created many more opportunities but made life much more complex for professional communicators. Given how fast information travels now, organizations rely on strategic communications more and more.
How is NYU SPS educating our students to keep pace with these trends?
The NYU SPS educational experience is rooted around connecting students with successful practitioners in their fields and providing them with exposure into how these jobs are done. In my class, my students not only hear my own experiences, but from the guests who have made their mark in their professions and can talk about that experience in a meaningful way. Last semester, my guest lecturers included a journalist with The New York Times, a publicist for Paramount, and NYU’s chief marketing officer. Another powerful advantage these students have is access to one another. My students deliver presentations almost from day one, and the feedback they get from their peers—who come from all over the world— is tremendous. They are far more prepared to communicate with a global mindset.