Insider Interview: Hugo Rojo, NPR | PRSA-NCC
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Insider Interview: Hugo Rojo, NPR

July 17, 2018

In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Hugo Rojo. Hugo is a manager of social media communications at NPR. Hugo holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Texas at Austin. 

PRSA-NCC: You're still relatively new to the industry, but you've quickly risen through the ranks at NPR since starting there in 2015. To what do you attribute your success?

Rojo: I attribute a rapid change in scope of work to a couple of factors. The first is a willingness of leadership to recognize the power of audience engagement and how enhancing our communications efforts helps us do that. We spotted and filled a gap in the communications function about celebrating the listener and who we are through social media. The second is the foresight of my supervisor to identify a growth area and work with me to develop into it. Someone once told me to “find a supervisor who believes you can do more than you think you can.”

The third is an inherent curiosity about the work that we do. I often tell people that NPR is a destination for nerds. Whether it’s news, politics, music or tech, NPR is where nerds unite. It’s fitting that I’m sharing this with PRSA-NCC because I nerd out about our craft. I’m a total communications nerd. I look at most things through the lens of communications and try to always stay in learning mode. A mistake is only a mistake if we don’t learn from it. Throughout setbacks during my time here, I’ve tried to practice resiliency and squeeze every ounce of learning from them. 

PRSA-NCC: You interned at NPR in 2014. How much did your internship impact your ability to secure a role at NPR, and what advice can you give interns today (at NPR and elsewhere) who may want to transform an internship into a full-time gig?

Rojo: I’m a born and raised Texan. I had never left the Lone Star State for an extended period of time until I accepted an internship with NPR at their Washington, D.C., headquarters. I interned with their corporate communications and media relations department the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I read once that internships should be treated as months-long interviews. Every day you show up to work, you’re auditioning for a full-time role—you’re earning your seat at the table. I’d say you (usually) have one chance to make a good first impression.

That was the case when our head of media relations needed to draft up a press release announcing a key hire for our executive leadership team. The media relations team was tied up with several pressing projects and this task made its way to my desk. I had written press releases as school assignments before, but never for a high-profile opportunity like this. It was at the beginning of my internship so I was still learning our style guide and the ins and outs of gathering quotes at a place like NPR. I rolled up my sleeves and delivered a decent first draft that hit the main points we needed to convey. The release ended up generating a positive earned media hit that I wasn’t expecting. My now-boss often cites this as a moment she knew I was someone with a strong work ethic and a willingness to step out of my comfort zone. The story highlights things that are central to getting the most out of your internships: be resourceful, be prepared, and be willing to roll-up your sleeves to get the job done.  

PRSA-NCC: A lot of your job now is managing NPR's corporate social media channels, and a part of that is "experimentation." Can you tell us about an experiment that went really well? 

Rojo: A year ago, NPR was set to announce a new kind of podcast with legendary New York radio pioneers Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia. This was not your traditional NPR podcast with traditional NPR voices. They had a different sound to them. They had a different background than most NPR podcast hosts. I approached the showrunners and our head of media relations with the idea to do away with a press release and think outside of the box for an announcement. We proposed a video-led announcement strategy on social media. Both Stretch and Bobbito had hefty followings and I had a theory that an organic video push would galvanize their followers and get them excited about the program.

When the time of the announcement rolled around, we published the video on YouTube and the hosts shared it on their personal accounts. The result was more than 40 earned media placements about a new podcast even before the first episode dropped. I didn’t have relationships yet with top tier music outlets like Rolling Stone and Billboard, and this announcement was still picked up by them. Not a single press release or pitch was sent on that announcement day.

PRSA-NCC: What challenges do you encounter when communicating on behalf of a news organization?

Rojo: Communicators often think about how their public messages are going to be received by the press. What do you do when some of your employees are the press? It’s a fascinating space to work in because it compels us to be even more responsive and thorough in our public communications and the statements we issue through social media.

There’s a renewed and heightened focus on journalism and the news organizations that produce it. Connecting with our audience is central to NPR’s mission of creating a more informed public. The communications team has the daily opportunity to tell the world about all of the different ways our audiences can engage with NPR. Whether it’s on the radio, online or on social, NPR is where you are.

PRSA-NCC: Since you're a social media whiz, what will be the next big social media platform, or has the industry matured and we're stuck with what we've got?

Rojo: We are seeing a surge in platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat experimenting with augmented reality (AR). Before we pay attention to a shiny new toy, I’m eager to see how social media organizations are retaining the trust of its users. Some are under scrutiny for allowing what some call toxic environments riddled with trolls and online harassment. Others are still reeling from privacy and data missteps.

PRSA-NCC: Not to reveal all of your secrets, but how do you increase fan evangelism? That sounds like something any communicator would want to do for their brand.

Rojo: It’s about listening to your audience and being honest with yourself about your current brand positioning. It’s an existential question for a brand to as itself: What do we stand for? What are we about? Once you define those, the path to cultivating fan evangelism becomes a bit clearer.

When I moved into my current role, I focused on underscoring the public in National Public Radio. As we think about pitching stories to the press or a social media campaign, we run it through questions like: Does this tell the story behind the story? Does this PR opportunity or piece of social content bring the audience closer to NPR? If not, then we nix it.

Most recently, we’ve begun experimenting with selfie stations at our live events. We invested in a ring light for an iPhone or iPad to create a photo booth that lets guests send the pictures to themselves. This was part of focusing on the public of public radio. How can we give our audience the tools to share their NPR experience on their own terms?

PRSA-NCC: Finally, as a former journalist, I think it's awesome that you work at NPR! What's it like? 

Rojo: I am surrounded by insanely smart people all day long. These folks are at the top of their game and bring such a unique insight to the topics they cover. I am filled with pride when I walk around the newsroom and see many teams working together to bring our reporting to all of our platforms. To know that 99 million people across all of our platforms are being exposed to quality, independent journalism … it doesn’t get much better than that nowadays.