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PR Rock Stars: Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Sara Mulder

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I first met Sara Mulder at a client meeting. Turns out, we shared a client (Sleep Number). At times, meeting the bigger agency folks who work with clients can be a little stand-off-ish–with competitiveness and all. But, I didn’t sense that at all with Sara. And, I came to discover quite the opposite. Sara was open, honest and open to new ideas (not that she really needed any!). She turned out to be a wonderful new connection that I’ve tried to keep up with long after she left Fleishman Hillard and the Sleep Number account.

Let’s hear more from this long-time Rock Star.

Q: Tell us more about your current role at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

A: I was attracted to healthcare because of its complexity. I’m a problem solver at heart so complexity equals opportunity in my mind. And so far, I haven’t been disappointed. Currently, much of my time is devoted to Medicare as there is quite a bit of change in what the federal government allows for plan options for Minnesota’s seniors this year. It’s been described as a once-in-a-generation shift in how Minnesotans get their Medicare benefits and its really unique compared to the rest of the country. I also manage the Trailblazer Tour which showcases noteworthy innovation and collaboration that is moving health forward. It’s a way to shine a spotlight on what’s working in hopes of accelerating the pace of change.

 

Q: Many would say media relations is dying. At the very least, its role in the marketing/communications mix is evolving. What would you say about media relations’ role in the mix at Blue Cross? How does it play into your plans and how does it impact results?

A: I certainly don’t think media relations is dying, but the shift/fragmentation of how we receive information and who we are influenced by underscores the importance of developing a sound strategy. Twenty years ago, media relations wasn’t the silver bullet to all communication problems just like social media isn’t a silver bullet today. Despite the evolution of how we communicate,  the basic tenets of persuasion are the same. So situation analysis, research and strategy development still lead our planning to identify the most effective tactics. At Blue Cross we know that many of our key stakeholders (members, agents and regulators to name a few) respond to what they see in the news so our relationships with media are key to managing corporate reputation. And how well we communicate via mass media can greatly impact the degree to which an issue affects the business.

It reminds me of the saying, “Start with a specialist and you’ll get that specialist’s solution of choice. Surgeon = surgery.” It’s why I keep going back to the roots of my professional strength: understanding the psycho-social underpinnings of communication. The basics can be applied to any medium.

 

Q: I worked in the accounting industry for five years, so I know how seemingly “boring” industries can actually be pretty darn fun and interesting. How has that played out for you at BCBS? How has insurance becoming interesting and fun for you?

A: I absolutely love the challenge of distilling complexity into personally relevant information. I love learning and discovering “why.” Most complicated things are complicated for good reason: there are (and should be) exceptions to rules. Very few things in civilized society are black and white and I find the details fascinating.

 

Q: What’s the one thing about your current role that you love the most?

A: The people. I work with fair, kind and reasonable people who give me room to be creative and contribute to the business.

Q: You’ve had a slew of interesting roles at interesting companies over the years. Any career highlights that truly stand out?

A: My first year contracting at General Mills supporting Yoplait was fantastic because we were really paving the road right in front of us in regards to using social media to promote a brand. It’s right up there with proving that an American Standard toilet can easily flush a bucket of golf balls at a tradeshow.

Q: Many of those companies have been larger agencies in town. In fact, you’ve almost worked for ALL the big PR agencies in town! What would you tell others about what it’s like to work for some of those larger PR shops in Minneapolis?

A: Agency experience is extremely valuable. Working for a larger agency gets you variety, volume and rigor. I specifically valued my most recent agency experience for their approach to planning and how much they invested in training me. The best (seemingly) “out-of-the-box” thinking is really process driven – and therefore more arguably inside of said box. I’m a big fan of asking “what if we could…” or “why?”

Q: You’ve also had the unique experience of being an on-site contractor (with General Mills) and a solo consultant. What was your experience like? Challenges and things you enjoyed about both?

A: I loved being a contractor for General Mills, especially year one when we were creating something new. Some of my other experiences being a contractor weren’t as great but I think that was because I was using it to bridge to my next opportunity. I have found that being a full time employee gives me an opportunity to be fully entrenched in the business versus trying to balance the selling with the doing.

Q: When we met, we talked a lot about the challenges working parents face in today’s “always on” job scene. As we chatted, we both admitted we struggle in different areas. At the same time, we both also agreed we’ve found ways to make it work. What tips would you give to would-be parents about managing full-time work and being a mom?

A: The best advice I have – for anybody, in any situation – is to stop wasting your time feeling guilty. Spending time in your own head constantly going over something you did/said/didn’t do, etc. makes it more about YOU than any harm that may have come of the “transgression.” If you said something and regret it – call the person and clear the air. If you don’t feel good about where you are spending your time/energy – change it. Focusing your energy on something in the past is self-indulgent “poor me” behavior. Forgive yourself for not being perfect, make some changes if necessary and move forward – it’s what we want our kids to be able to do to, right? This is especially important with working-mom-guilt because it is so counterproductive.  Good parenting happens in a zillion different ways, find the way that works for you and your situation.

Q: You also mentioned when we met you had been doing some voice-over work on the side. How did you get into that work? And, why do you make time to do it?

A: So I mentioned earlier that I love to learn and as such, I tend to be a “project person.” I decided to take on gardening a few years ago to reverse my “black thumb” tendencies and now I grow plants from seed under grow lights in my extra bedroom. I got laid off a few years ago and was only working part time as I worked to find my next opportunity so I decided to take on a new project: voiceover work. Back in college, a professor had encouraged me to pursue it but I didn’t have confidence to start cold-calling agencies and figuring out how to get into that line of business. That was also before the days of GTS – google that shit. So I did some research, found a coach, bought some equipment and dug in. I’ve even booked a few gigs but I admit it is tough to find the time to keep my skills up – it’s straight up acting and there’s nothing easy about it. But learning new things is just part of who I am.

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PR Rock Stars: Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Sara Mulder

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