We are delighted to bring you yet another insightful Comms Spotlight interview. Today, we have Mariama Keita, CEO of Mkinc. and a Strategic Communications expert with extensive consulting experience working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
As a consultant, she has over a 10-year track record of measurable success providing thought leadership in designing stakeholder engagement programs that include world leaders and community heroes. In addition, leading the implementation of communications strategies to tell a compelling story on complex issues for UN agencies (UNICEF, UNAIDS, and UNFPA), the U.S. government (White House), and their partner organizations globally.
She shares from her wealth of experience and knowledge in this interview and we know you will love it.
Can you tell us what you do as a strategic communication professional?
Over more than a decade, I created a career path as a global strategic communicator working as a senior consultant and former development diplomat for leading bilateral and multilateral organizations in the world. This includes UNICEF headquarters in New York and the flagship United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington D.C. as well as overseas USAID Missions Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Haiti.
In contrast to corporate communications, my work in the international development sector required extensive travel to effectively communicate the impact and best message of programmatic work and U.S. presidential priorities such as the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), Ebola Recovery, and COVID-19 investments through the right channels and measured against communications-specific goals.
My day-to-day workload requires advising and communicating on complex issues and multi-sector initiatives; planning and executing high-profile public events; engaging with external stakeholders including the general public, media, foreign governments, and private sector; preparing remarks and briefing materials for senior leadership; and overseeing the production of a wide range of communications products, including digital and social media content, fact sheets and other printed materials, and videos.
As an expert in Communication for Development (C4D), my strategic approach is deploying cutting-edge tactics, leveraging a network of thought leaders to plan and execute high-profile public events in partnership with external stakeholders; the general public, media, foreign governments, and private sector. Lastly, as an accomplished writer, I am passionate about humanizing compelling data and incorporating local context to make cogent arguments clear and meaningful in written and oral presentations.
Key examples of my published social impact stories on the USAID global Medium platform that highlight development activities to an audience of 120 million readers and growing covering Haiti, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Guinea include: Why Ebola Recovery Still Matters, Her Time is Now: The World Expects Balance Across the African Continent, Why Mangroves Are The Most Valuable Species in The World, and the Aftermath: Restoring Trust in Hospitals in Guinea, which was re-purposed on State Department communication channels and translated in seven different languages.
How did you begin your journey in communications and how have you improved yourself over the years?
My journey was very unconventional as my dream job was to be a broadcast journalist that focused on elevating the narrative of Africa Rising exclusively. At the time I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with a B.S. in Communication, in the U.S. market these opportunities did not exist and my only option was to become a general news reporter. As a cultural and creative enthusiast at heart, that was not interesting to me and began the early stages of my career in entertainment and fashion.
Over the course of seven years, I moved back to my native city New York, Los Angeles and worked with brands such as Gianni Versace flagship boutique, managed the public engagements of an on-air personality stars for Black Entertainment Television, and later secured an international model contract where I lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa.
Amid these diverse experiences, my skills and strengths were always writing, storytelling, and strategic communications. The continent of Africa was always at the core of my passions and heart, not realizing then South Africa defined the next chapter of my career journey. When I decided that I wanted to transition into a world of international affairs at the highest levels of leadership in the United States or Africa, I exited the world of fashion, returned to the United States to attend graduate school at New York University, earning a Master Degree in Global Affairs in 2012 and entered the international development sector. In addition, became the first alumna to secure a White House internship as a graduate student, serving under the Obama Administration. This was also my first experience working for the U.S. Government in the Office of Public Engagement, and organized the first ever outreach program with a focus on the U.S. Immigration policy and engaging African community leaders.
Once an intern and now a CEO of MKinc., I still consider myself a life-long learner and consistently identify ways to grow professionally and develop new skills. My professional journey began in communications through securing competitive internships and these opportunities translated into the jobs post-undergraduate and graduate school. To date, I still put into practice what has worked for me over 15 years ago, being the architect of your own destiny, building authentic relationships, and establishing a network of mentors that can support your growth process, moments of failure, and story of success.
You have carved your niche in the international development space. How important is it to have communications professionals in this space?
If you are passionate about public service and social impact, it is rewarding to become a Communicator in international development for experiencing different cultures, customs and people of different nations is truly a career path unlike any other with options to serve under various hiring mechanisms and titles given such as consultant, foreign service officer, and U.S. diplomat.
The field of Communications today remains an unknown career path to many, that is always branded as a soft skill or labeled as just “public relations.” There are many corporate communication and public relations firms, advertising and marketing companies. On the contrary, there are not many Communicators that can communicate the complexities of multi-sector humanitarian assistance, humanize technical jargon and data in a compelling way that ultimately attracts more donor funding.
The inspiration behind my company MKinc, fills a gap of many international, national and local organizations’ challenges to elevate key messaging that inspires action and increases brand awareness that defines organizational success. Our three main areas of services are delivering:
- Communication Workshops: Elevating Key Messaging that Defines Organizational Success.
- Storytelling with Data: Developing Communication strategies and products that win and attract more donor funding.
- Public Engagement and Outreach: Foster Strategic Partnerships that Inspire Action.
What are some of the key skills communications professionals need to have an impact in the international development space?
The ability to speak more than one language that includes local dialects is a tremendous asset, have superior oral and written communication skills as well as gain programmatic or technical experience in one or more of the following sectors in development: global health, democracy and governance, education, women empowerment, food security and agriculture, water and sanitation, and economic growth.
Can you share some of the key lessons you have learned from your professional journey so far?
These are my top five lessons and words of wisdom to share regarding my professional journey:
- Master the 5Ps – Proper, Preparation, Prevents, Poor Performance
- As a communication professional, develop an expertise or a unique skill set that makes you in demand as a Communicator. As an example, the public health sector receives the most funding in international development so the job opportunities specifically in Health Communications are many.
- Identify your greatest opportunities in environments of what can be labeled as chaos but can develop a wealth of experience in local context. The rewards can be life-changing career boosters if you can think outside the box. As an example, as a student, as opposed to doing a study abroad in Europe, explore Asia, Central America, or Africa. In graduate school, I traveled and did research in India and have reporting experience in Czech Republic. To date I have field experience in over 25 countries and more than half are in sub-Saharan Africa.
- As you climb a ladder of success, develop an ecosystem of allies and advocates, allow your performance and track record of excellence to be your greatest weapon to navigate around institutional racism and every other “ism” that applies to you!
- Become more than just your title at any stage of your career and create your own leadership opportunities. Join professional organizations and surround yourself with experts, learn from them and then innovate and add value to what is missing or can be done better. This allows and creates opportunities to create a name and brand for yourself independent of what you were hired to do professionally. As an example, as a gender champion, I volunteered and joined an employee resource group called Women@AID and used this platform and my public engagement skills to organize an external program with former, White House Social Secretary, Deesha Dyer, under the Obama Administration and currently CEO of Hook & Fasten. Her story was inspiring and memorable as she is now dedicated to empowering black women to enter into public service and politics as I am passionate about mentorship and professional development.
What advice will you give to communications professionals who would like to follow your path?
There is no limit or blueprint to what a Communication professional can achieve in a leadership role. The current Administrator of USAID and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, is a woman and former journalist, more specifically a war correspondent. The art of dynamic and powerful leadership is rooted in strategic and effective communications.