Kari Bjorhus Q&A

August 2, 2021
Kati Bjorhus reflects on 40 years in communications.

“I  went to my Columbia class reunion a few years ago and the vast majority of my  classmates had left journalism some time ago, mostly to make more money. The newer grads were having trouble finding jobs with career progression — many were stuck generating social media content with no upward mobility. The field of journalism does not offer the career opportunities it once did and that is really a shame both for people who want to be journalists and for society as a whole. We need a healthy fourth estate.”

You’ve spent four decades with Bristol-Myers, Hill & Knowlton,  Shandwick, Coca-Cola, and Ecolab. What was important to you when you decided to take each job?  

In considering career moves, my first criteria was whether I could feel proud about being part of the organization. Did the company hold itself to high standards? Did I support the company’s mission? Would my time and energy help advance something positive and important?

Second criteria was the potential to learn and grow in my profession. Would I get to do new and interesting work? Would I work with great colleagues who could teach me more? In the case of the two corporate jobs, did they value the role of communications in driving strategy and growth? Could I have an impact? And would I work with great colleagues?

Third criteria was whether I liked the people. Did they seem to have a sense of humor? Were they optimistic and excited about the future? Did they seem broadly curious and interested in the world beyond their company’s operations? Would I fit in?

I have been particularly lucky when it comes to finding great colleagues. I worked with outstanding people during my agency days early in my career and I was highly motivated to earn their respect.

Of course you have to consider pay and benefits, scope of responsibilities and work/life balance concerns. But those alone are not enough for career satisfaction without the first three in place.

You’ve worked both at an agency early in your career and later on the corporate side. Did you feel starting your career at an agency was good training for your later work?

Yes, my 13 years in agency life was terrific preparation for my later corporate roles, and I highly valued agency experience later on when I was hiring for roles on my teams. Working with clients teaches you how to listen, synthesize information and clearly understand the problem you are trying to solve. It develops your counseling and persuasion skills.  It focuses you on driving for tangible results — value that the client will be willing to pay for.  You also learn the value of your time and how to make the best use of it.

In an agency, because you are working for many clients, you can rather quickly gain experience in a broad range of business situations that would take you many more years to acquire in a corporate setting. You learn how to work with a variety of personalities and styles. And honestly, since growing agencies are often short-staffed, if you are willing to stretch, you get a chance to do work that would be outside your turf or above your pay grade at a company, where boundaries are more rigid.

When you got your master’s in journalism from Columbia, did you initially want to be a reporter?

I did want to be a journalist. No one in my family had ever worked in business and I didn’t know anything about corporate communications. I graduated from Columbia in 1981, in the middle of a recession and at a time when two-newspaper towns were turning into one-newspaper towns. I wanted to stay in NYC and I had a hard time finding a job despite my diligent resume-mailing efforts. So I started freelancing for magazines, writing articles for the paltry sums that a no-name beginner could command.

There was a thick book you could buy back then called Writer’s Market and I used it to try to find other freelance clients. I sent a letter to Bristol-Myers, and they called with some writing work for their annual report and internal publications.   They paid well and after a few months they offered me a full-time job. Given that I was living on ramen and eggs, I thought I should take it. And  suddenly I was in a different world, on a different track, and left freelancing behind.

Later, I co-wrote a column with the great Dennis McGrath for the now defunct publication Corporate Report. That was fun and gave me a chance to draw on my journalism education. In fact, those reporting and writing skills — and knowing how reporters think — have been incredibly valuable throughout my career.

I went to my Columbia class reunion a few years ago and the vast majority of my  classmates had left journalism some time ago, mostly to make more money. The newer grads were having trouble finding jobs with career progression — many were stuck generating social media content with no upward mobility. The field of journalism does not offer the career opportunities it once did and that is really a shame both for people who want to be journalists and for society as a whole. We need a healthy fourth estate.

What is one business book that has stuck with you in your career that all of us should read?

I rarely read business books; I would rather read about other topics, which generally I think are more mind-expanding. But I did read one business book that made an impression: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. A really great read about what really captivates and motivates people.

In a career of highlights, what is one accomplishment that rises to the top?  

For around seven years at Coca-Cola, I worked on issues and crises. One of our biggest global issues during that time was the allegation that the company was draining aquifers in India and depriving local people of much-needed water. This issue sparked global protests and boycotts at hundreds of college campuses around the world and was having a terrible impact on the company’s brand and on business results. Although many of the allegations were not factually correct, the company was not managing water as well as it could have been. I led communications for the global team that worked with a well-respected Indian NGO, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and a mediator on an audit of The Coca-Cola Company’s water management practices and recommendations for improvement. It was a highly contentious issue with complex  communications challenges and stakeholder relationships, and our efforts to manage the issue ultimately led to real and lasting changes in how the company operated. Today Coca-Cola is a true leader in corporate water stewardship, and the driving force was the water crisis the company faced in India and the public commitments made through the TERI audit.

Can I mention another? I am very proud of the work my team has done at Ecolab, partnering with the sustainability team, to build Ecolab’s reputation as a global leader in water stewardship. We worked together on a thought leadership strategy over the course of 10 years that has really positioned the company well for future growth and positive impact.

What’s next for you?

My husband told me that it’s hard to think about one song when you’re singing another. I’ll be fully retired from Ecolab on September 1 and then I’ll have time to ponder the future in more detail. Some of the plan is in place — we’re going to spend our summers on Lake Sylvia here in Minnesota and live the rest of the time in our new home in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

I’ve been the board president of Northern Star Council for the last two years, and I will continue to volunteer to support scouting. Other volunteer work will be in the mix —and more time for friends and family, reading, paddling around the lake, skiing, gardening and generally enjoying this precious life.