Interview By: Nicole Clark on Feb 22nd, 2016
Kristen Krueger-Corrado is the Marketing Communications Manager for the Grand Rapids Public Library. I was able to visit the library and talk to her back in February. One of the things that interested me most about talking to Kristen was learning a bit about the libraries place in the community, and how Kristen has helped develop that through her work. Plus, I am a writing major, so going anywhere with books is exciting to me.
A Normal Day on the Job
Like many other communications professional, Kristen told me that there really wasn’t a “normal day on the job,” but she did share what she’d been working on beforehand.
“Last week, for example, I was doing a lot of work towards our big event called Taste of Soul Sunday, which is a celebration of African-American heritage and culture. It’s one of our largest events of the year. We have about 2,000 people go through the building in a span of four hours.”
“Lst week, I spent a lot of time doing media interviews, scheduling media interviews, finding people after they flake out to do media interviews. I also make sure reporters have the things they need, which is usually a Dropbox full of images and backgrounders on who they’ll be talking to. I have to make sure the people who are being interviewed will be prepped.”
Kristen explained that she had probably coordinated at least eight interviews in the weeks before to help publicize these events. Something that I thought was interested was that she had to deal with people “flaking” on interviews, although I didn’t find it too surprising. Not only that, but she was also coordinating a popular author visit and working with the Civic Theater a panel about immigration.
Not only that, but Kristen also had to handle all of her everyday duties and make sure normal communications kept running smoothly.
“It was really juggling these three big programs and trying to get the word out, and handling the other routine things that come to my department. We do not only public relations, but all marketing and internal and external communications. I handle all the complaints for the library. I do a lot of advocacy work because we’re a governmental organization. That means that part of my job is working with and informing legislators, too.”
I found Kristen’s description of the different aspect of her job both interesting and exciting. The idea of working in a place where there is always plenty to do can seem stressful, but having variety in my work life is ideal for me.
“For me, I have worked in nonprofits for my entire career. No matter where I’ve worked, I would say that one of my strengths is to be flexible, to turn on a dime, to be able to rapidly problem solve. I think all of those things, and being very open and innovative, are especially important in non-profits.”
I think that Kristen’s answer to this is important because non-profits, perhaps more than regular businesses, can be highly impacted by things outside of their control, like changes in funding or other events. Being able to quickly pivot from working on one problem to focusing on something else not only helps you keep up, but can help you think more creatively as you look for connections in different situations or opportunities.
“I am an idea person; I am not a detail person. One of the things that I have to do is really setting a schedule, meeting deadlines. Because we juggle so many things, we have to keep very close account that we’re not letting any of the balls drop, and that requires a lot of planning and detail work.”
This made me laugh because I think that I tend to get more lost in the details, and will sometimes lose track of the big idea. I think that many people tend to lean one way or the other, and that we all have to work hard to find that balance in order to be successful.
One of the more interesting aspects of getting to know Kristen was learning about how she’d ended up working at GRPL.
“I had actually done my undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary humanities—which will get you far in this world—and I’d intended to work in collections in museums. Most of my undergraduate work was in museums, and after I graduated, I found out that there’s not a whole lot of jobs available in museums. So I had taken a job in my family business in glamour photography.”
Kristen’s job in the family business made me thankful for how much the internet has changed the way that we communicate and sell things.
“I had to sell people their photographs, which they could not see, over the phone. I actually learned a lot about sales, and about human nature. When I left that job, I started working the Grand Rapids Dominican Sisters up on Plainfield and Marywood. I took a position there as a ‘Desktop Publishing Assistant,’ which was essentially an underpaid graphic designer. Through that work, I was able to get my Master’s degree through Aquinas for free because the Dominican Sisters had founded Aquinas College.”
Yes, you might want to read that last sentence again. Free graduate school! Kristen also told me about the different work that the Dominican Sisters did, emphasizing their focus on compassion and kindness to all people. I won’t share the stories here, but you should look them up.
“I started work on my Master’s Degree in Management with a concentration in communications and realized how much I liked communications. It was something I’d never even considered doing. I had an opportunity, one of my classmates had a brother who worked at the Art Museum, and they were looking for a part-time communications person. I had to make a decision: do I leave a full-time job with benefits, that paid more, to take a part-time job in a field that I thought I may be interested in pursuing? And I did. That was a huge, huge risk.”
I quickly found a connection between this part of Kristen’s story and with Krys Bylund’s. Although I am not averse to taking risks, the idea of leaving behind something stable with benefits for a part-time job still makes me feel a little uneasy. However, I can also respect how Kristen kept moving towards her passions and goals.
“I ended up staying at GRAM for five years. It became a full-time job with a promotion and so it was okay. I learned so much at the art museum because I was combining the two things I really love: I loved museums and I loved communications. I got to do things like help build a brand-new building. I got to bring in big exhibitions. I learned a lot about how Grand Rapids as a city operates. That really set me up for the library.”
How did Kristen end up at the library? It was all thanks to a bit of a side hustle, and through the connections she’d made through working for the Dominican Sisters.
“It’s amazing how your career changes paths. While at the Art Museum, I was still working a second job with one of the local Dominican Sisters who ran a business doing strategic planning for nonprofits. For many years I worked with here and I learned a lot about strategic planning, about board management and facilitation—all of those important key elements I hadn’t had just working in a non-profit.”
“When one her clients was the library, she had said to me ‘they’re going to have a position opening up, and I think that you should apply for it. I think you would be great for it.’ I applied, and I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since!”
Like I mentioned, one of the most reassuring things for me about these interviews is the fact that I keep realizing over and over again that I really don’t need to have it all mapped out at this point in my life. As long as I keep looking for opportunities and seizing them when they come along, I now believe that I will probably end up doing just fine.
When Kristen started at the library, she explained that she had her work cut out for her to ensure that other people and organizations in Grand Rapids viewed the library as a valuable asset and resource for all kinds of endeavors.
“I really had to build up the department, build up the library from the ground up when I came in,” She said.
Kristen also tend to have to be creative in how she uses her budget and time. Working for a non-profit often means having to find creative solutions to problems because there isn’t as much wiggle room in the budget.
“With any nonprofit, there’s always money issues—always. There’s never money, and there’s especially never money for marketing. I think that allows you to be really creative and innovative in finding ways to get the word out. It makes public relations extremely more important than marketing, as well as those partnerships and community relationships that you build to really help both organizations.”
However, the biggest challenge that Kristen faced happened in 2014. The library is primarily funded through millages and property taxes. Unfortunately, during the Recession, property values fell, as did the library’s funding.
“We were facing a $1 million shortfall in our budget,” Kristen explained. “It was a $10 million budget, and we had to cut $1 million from it.”
The library ended up doing some intense restructuring, including laying off 14 people. Kristen explained how she had to use a lot of crisis communication work to get the library and its employees through this intensely stressful time.
“I had people striking in front of the library, and I had to be dealing with the media,” Kristen remembered. “It was a terrible time because we were having to let go of our colleagues and our friends. We had to make due with a lot less. It was the most difficult time of my career.”
One of the things that struck me most about this was that, today, the library is doing just fine. While that time was hard, it was essential for the library’s survival.
“We came out on the other side, and we’re in good financial shape right now. The restructuring work, and it did what it needed to do.”
As a student, this type of crisis seems immense and a bit overwhelming to deal with, especially when people’s livelihoods are on the line. However, Kristen also had her education and previous experiences to guide her through, although she had never done crisis communications work before her time at the library. Much of that conflict comes from people disagreeing with how the library had books on all kinds of topics and based on many different points of view.
To deal with complaints about books, Kristen is usually able to stand firm in the library’s purpose and mission, and explain that the library is supposed to help all people from all walks of life.