Karl Robe talks about his career in public relations
and his recent foray into local politics,
guiding Mayor Shawn Reilly’s successful campaign.
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff
Campaign Strategist Karl Robe didn’t get fooled on April 1. In
fact, he spent the entire evening celebrating his candidate’s
victory in the hotly contested Waukesha mayor’s race by a
local attorney Shawn Reilly turn his “No Drama. Just Work”
campaign into a 2,247-vote defeat of incumbent Mayor Jeff Scrima
- and it was the first local political campaign Robe had help
run. Now he’s had several other potential candidates reaching
out for his help, and he’s certainly not complaining.
his communications company Karl James & Company based on his
belief and motto of “above all else, credibility moves people,”
and has spent the past 20 years crafting marketing
communications campaigns for everyone from executives to
startups to multi-national companies.
sat down with The Freeman to talk about how the Reilly campaign
fit into his mission of compelling people in a certain direction
via telling stories.
THE FREEMAN: How did you get involved with the
I’ve known Shawn for a very long time and felt very comfortable
in who he was as a person. Shawn had a very motivated group of
volunteers and people who were helping out, but he felt he
needed a central message to have everyone coalesce around.
That’s why I came into the mix.
Within a day
and a half we had the “No Drama. Just Work” tagline based on the
past four years and what seemed to be part of the conversation
that was happening within the campaign already. We helped him
formulate his message.
A lot of what
we do is focused on the brand. Most people think of the brand as
the logo, tagline, visual representation of what the narrative
is. We were figuring out what Shawn’s brand would be. We knew
there was a strong need or yearning in the community for someone
to get to work, and to provide stability to the community.
That’s what we
do in our business in general: help people tell stories. Great
leaders tell great stories, whether you’re the CEO of a company
or if you’re elected to office. What’s the story? How are you
different? And more than anything, credibility moves people to
action. Whether it’s a company, product or issue.
FREEMAN: Were you surprised with the result?
always anecdotal evidence, but it’s difficult in a local race
when you’re not paying for polling or anything. There was plenty
of evidence that said things were going in our direction, but
you never know until the outcome. I believe that I read Shawn
was pretty confident in the results.
FREEMAN: What else are you involved with?
represent the Montessori School who is celebrating their 50th
anniversary this year and launching a capital campaign. We’re
also working with the Phantom Lake YMCA camp, and doing PR work
for ReCommunity They’re the recycling processing partner for
Waukesha County, and they’re currently in process of doing some
intergovernmental shared services with Milwaukee County. We
handle all 35 of their locations across the country - crisis
worked with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and did some
(speaking engagements) with Haley Barbour and Austan Goolsbee,
who was the chief economic advisor to the Council of Economic
Advisors for President Obama.
FREEMAN: What’s your favorite type of project to
ROBE: The part
I love the most about what I do is that there’s a mix of things
I’m involved in. I’ve learned so much about health care,
nonprofit work, recycling, manufacturing ... . The part I love
the most is the storytelling, and that’s really what you’re
trying to do - tell a great story that compels people in the
direction you want them to move, whether it’s buying something,
voting for someone or following you on twitter. Whatever it may
be. It’s the storytelling that’s the best part for me.
FREEMAN: How has your job evolved with the
proliferation of social media and the Internet in general?
ROBE: One of
the big knocks against marketing or PR is that you couldn’t
really measure the results or the success. What digital
communication is allowing us to do is absolutely measure where
we’re gaining traction, what adjustments need to be made, etc.
The whole onset of digital marketing is a huge win for our
industry in general because you can measure what is and isn’t
FREEMAN: What would be your advice for someone
who wants to follow a similar career path?
curiosity. You’re going to be involved in many, many different
things. If you don’t have natural curiosity, you’re going to be
miserable. You’ll have a client one day in politics and another
day in waste management. You just have to be curious about life
You also have
to have motivation. I can teach people to write and how to do
things in business, but I can’t teach them to be motivated. I’ll
hire motivation over technical skill set every time.
FREEMAN: Anything else you want people to know?
ROBE: The city
of Waukesha will be in good hands with Shawn. He’s a pragmatic
person and his legal and policy background will provide calmer
waters going forward. We also represent the Oak Creek Water
Utility, and with the water issue and knowing what I know from
that, having Shawn in that role will provide the leadership that
I think all partners are looking for.
Name: Karl Robe
Occupation: Founder and principal, Karl James &
Education: University Wisconsin-Milwaukee, bachelor
of arts degree in journalism; First in Wisconsin to
achieve Public Relations Society of America’s
Accreditation in Public Relations (APR), certifying a
candidate’s knowledge of public relations practice,
communications theory, management science and ethics.
Family: Wife Catherine; children Zane, Rex, Phoebe and
Get to know: Karl Robe
Greatest achievement: My family is my legacy to this
world. My actions as a husband and father will shape my
children and generations of their children.
Favorite book: “The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain”
Favorite television show: “House of Cards”
Favorite movie: “The Godfather, Part 2”
Favorite childhood memory: Summer days filled with
whiffs of my great-grandfather’s sweet pipe tobacco
smoke and harmonica hymns
person I most admire: My grandfather, truly my hero
and a self-made man.
Three words people use to describe me: I looked at
testimonials given on our website and drew some words
that seemed representative of the sentiments of clients
who commented on our site: smart, tenacious and
worst job I had as a teenager: At Maple Leaf Duck
Farm, cleaning the end of the processing line where all
unwanted duck parts waited for me after school. Taught
me a lot about hard work and the value of education.
Favorite food: Pizza and sushi.
Favorite hobby: Golf and reading.
goals for the year are: Let my curiosity lead me to
greater knowledge, experiences and client engagements.
Favorite music group: Hard to pinpoint one. Nearly
every genre is on my iPod. Miles Davis to Muddy Waters.
Aretha Franklin to Aerosmith to Amy Winehouse. Journey
to Jerry Lee Lewis to John Coltrane to Janis Joplin to
Johnny Cash. Thelonius Monk to Little Walter to Led
Zeppelin. Buddy Holly to Beethoven to Ben E. King to
Bruce Springsteen. Run DMC to DMX to Kid Rock and
Notorious B.I.G. And many more.
favorite pet: A German short-haired pointer named
Favorite vacation spot: St. John’s U.S. Virgin
Islands and Turtle Lake, Wisconsin