‘Credibility moves people’
Robe discusses Reilly campaign, how great leaders tell great stories, more

By Sarah Pryor - Freeman Staff

April 16, 2014

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

WAUKESHA - 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 significant margin.

Robe helped 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.

Robe founded 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.

Recently, he 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 Reilly campaign?

KARL ROBE: 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?

ROBE: There’s 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?

ROBE: We 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 communications, etc.

I’ve also 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 work on?

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 working.


FREEMAN: What would be your advice for someone who wants to follow a similar career path?

ROBE: Natural 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 in general.

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

Age: 44

Occupation: Founder and principal, Karl James & Company LLC

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 Louis.

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

The 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 accountable.

The 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.

My 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.

My favorite pet: A German short-haired pointer named Boots

Favorite vacation spot: St. John’s U.S. Virgin Islands and Turtle Lake, Wisconsin


Email: spryor@conleynet.com