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New Council Chair Embraces Challenge of Changing Profession

New Council Chair Embraces Challenge of Changing Profession

October 2023

Very early in his career — while still a broadcasting and communications major at Norfolk State University — Roi Ewell worked in television production and as an on-air personality for a jazz station in Hampton Roads, Va. “During a shift, I was doing the popular Top 40 technique of talking over the beginnings and endings of songs when going from tune to tune or in or out of a commercial break,” the New Jersey-raised Philadelphia native recalls.

“And the music director at the station practically yelled at me to never, ever step on the intros and outros of those recordings. He told me that with jazz music and with other genres, intros and outros are personal statements, and you must respect every note of the musicians’ story before and after the melody.”

The council’s new chair, elected at the Fall Board Meeting, Oct. 16-18, learned a lot about effective communication and role clarification from the early days in his career. “I learned that, with jazz, my role was to be a knowledgeable facilitator of content,” Ewell says. “Being an on-air personality needed to be secondary to the presentation of the song, the artist’s story and the era of the music.

“The other learning from my time in radio was understanding the need to deliver value in that case, based on the ‘ears’ of the audience. When programing jazz, you must know what you are talking about, because if you get anything wrong — like exactly when the recording was made or who, maybe, were the personnel on a particular track — jazz fans will call you on it. Knowing your subject matter and your audience has been a foundational thread in all my endeavors and roles. I also learned to respect what the musicians put down, to listen to others, and to respect what they know. I learned that real influence and leadership impact is not about what you know or what you happen to be responsible for at any given point; rather, it should be about delivering the best outcomes based on your station at the time.”

Engagement and Integration

The founder and principal of Ewell & Associates, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm specializing in business strategy, organizational effectiveness and reputation management, Ewell begins his term as Council chair at what he calls “an exciting time for the profession — one in which the very definition of what we do as public affairs professionals is broadening and deepening.”

As companies and associations face greater reputational and political risks, Ewell says, “our work now includes government affairs, policy communications, risk management and social impact. This is a challenge that calls for an integrated approach to managing issues, engaging stakeholders, advocating on policy matters and serving the public interest.”

Recognizing this reality — and embracing the opportunities it offers — doesn’t mean all public affairs executives “need to redo their organization structures,” Ewell says. “But it does mean we need to make sure we are taking an integrated approach to these functions that all too often can seem separate rather than connected.”

Deep Connections

Ewell, who for 25 years held senior leadership positions with Anheuser-Busch Cos. and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Inc. before forming his own firm, emphasizes the importance of striking key alliances and partnerships with leading industry associations.

“In 2010, a colleague suggested I attend the Council’s [Public Affairs] Institute, and I was immediately impressed with the credentials of the presenters, the nonpartisan nature of the Council and the caliber of the participants. The three-year program offered an atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas and the development of deep connections between the other participants, so that in future years — when facing similar challenges — you can draw on each other’s insights, experience and wisdom. Fourteen years later, I am still in touch with some of those people, and those relationships have been immensely rewarding personally and professionally.”

In the intervening years, aside from his work at Anheuser-Busch and SeaWorld and his busy client roster, Ewell has been a longtime trustee for Golden Gate University in San Francisco — where he earned his master’s degree in personnel administration — and has taught business leadership courses at the University of California San Diego and media-related courses at Hampton University.

He has also served as co-chair of the Council’s Social Impact Committee, which was established over a year ago to provide “counsel and programmatic guidance on business sustainability and social equity frameworks in support of membership needs and interests,” as its charter reads. In that role, Ewell has seen participating business leaders reach a deeper understanding of the issues involved, which he calls “very encouraging.”

As chair, he looks forward to applying his 10 years of direct experience with the Council to help amplify the expertise and insights of membership to position the Council for the future.

Priorities for Year Ahead

Ewell’s term in office will focus on three major priorities that he is quick to point out are “the priorities as defined by the Council’s leadership and input from recent membership surveys and program evaluations. These are our priorities, and I am delighted to have a role in helping shepherd the ‘next level’ series of impacts on behalf of the Council.”

One key priority will be to promote and leverage the broader definition of the public affairs function during a time when the political winds are so strong and divisive. Ewell adds, “Programmatically, the Council’s team is built to embrace the big changes occurring in our profession and to effectively respond to a growing set of reputational and political risks affecting the full reach of organizational stakeholders.

“With all the political and social controversy experienced by nearly every industry sector, I feel that it’s important to stress the key role the Council could and should have in helping organizations navigate these impacts on the public affairs field. That’s why, as our new strategic plan makes clear, we will need to double down on advancing a more comprehensive definition of public affairs,” he said in his incoming chair remarks at the Fall Board Meeting. “The Council remains the only major association that consistently focuses on best practices for integrating all these vital functions, and we will continue that tradition in the months to come.”

Another priority for 2024 is to expand program offerings for senior-level public affairs executives without, as Ewell emphasizes, “losing sight for even a moment of our focus on professional development for new and midlevel professionals. We’ve made great gains in this area under the leadership of my predecessors Karen Himle in 2022 and Mary Moore Hamrick in 2023 with the creation of the Public Affairs Board Exchange and the launch of the first Master Class next month, both to serve the needs of top executives in our field.”

The third priority for the coming year is to continue to deliver best-in-class membership value through relevant and innovative programming. “We plan to deepen the distinctiveness of the Council’s current and future programs as we provide best-in-class value for our members, at all levels of their careers,” Ewell says.

This priority “will require me put on my membership and marketing hat,” Ewell says. “With the expansion of the definition of public affairs and the challenges we face in such a divisive time in which reputational risk is so high, it is essential that the Council continually demonstrates the sustained value and relevance of our program offerings. The Council is the best of any organization at what we do, and we need to drill down in the coming months to promote our expertise in professional development and providing insights for issue management. We need to do even more to promote the amazing network of our 12,000 members representing 750 companies, associations, nonprofits and universities.

“As the Council’s new chair, I am honored but also humbled to be able to work with such impressive people — members and staff both,” he says. “That’s where the magic is.”

During the Fall Board Meeting, Oct. 16-18, in California, the Council also elected the 2023-2024 Executive Committee and Board of Directors.

Ewell begins his term as Council chair at what he calls “an exciting time for the profession — one in which the very definition of what we do as public affairs professionals is broadening and deepening … This is a challenge that calls for an integrated approach to managing issues, engaging stakeholders, advocating on policy matters and serving the public interest.”

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