Kimberly Spell is one of the most trusted public-affairs counselors in the country. For 25 years, she’s been in the room at the highest echelons of elected office, political campaigns, and corporate America. An innovative leader and broad thinker, she’s known for finessing crises, shielding reputations, and navigating the ever-proliferating media landscape.
Kimberly recently directed communications for the Paley Center for Media, described by Wikipedia as an “American cultural institution,” with offices in New York and Los Angeles. At Paley, she counseled the C.E.O. on reputation management, kept the center in the news, and oversaw an ongoing series of high-profile, high-touch events, including PaleyFestLA, a weeklong TV festival with a significant red carpet and top-tier talent, ongoing exhibitions and archival spotlights. Under her leadership, Paley has earned millions of dollars in media coverage and begun to rebrand itself among the media elite in NYC.
Prior to the Paley, in 2015, she founded One World Associates, a boutique public-affairs agency that caters to the C suite of brands facing intense scrutiny around high-impact events. For example, she helped Lordstown Motors, an electric-vehicle startup, overcome potentially ruinous headlines stemming from a management shakeup and government investigations. She spearheaded this turnaround by shaping and publicizing the story of the company’s comeback. Her efforts delivered not only television interviews where public officials sang Lordstown’s praises, but also a deeply reported profile in Time.
Before opening One World, Kimberly served as the Executive Vice President of Communications at the Partnership for New York City, the consortium that represents the CEOs of the city’s top business firms. As the organization’s chief spokesperson, she distilled complicated issues — including mandatory minimum-wage increases, tax-code reform, and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act — into narratives that shifted the Overton window. She also created much-discussed marketing campaigns for initiatives such as the FinTech Innovation Lab, the New York Digital Health Accelerator, and New York Fashion Tech. Finally, she oversaw groundbreaking small-business partnerships.
From 2004 – 2014, Kimberly served as the Chief Communications Officer for another facet of the Big Apple firmament, NYC & Company. As the City’s tourism, marketing, partnership, and advertising agency, NYC & Company was a full-service promotional arm for all five boroughs of NYC, with 150 full-time employees. This unique entity was created when Mayor Bloomberg merged Kimberly’s then-current employers, NYC Marketing and NYC Big Events, and charged the new nonprofit with what New York magazine called a “wildly ambitious target”: To draw 50 million tourists to New York’s five boroughs within nine years.
Without Kimberly — who led everything from media relations to government relations — achieving this historic goal wouldn’t have been possible. Among her accomplishments: She conceived and negotiated partnerships with a dozen major cities, stretching from Mexico City to Miami to Madrid. She created and orchestrated New York City’s first global press team, a network of 18 offices serving 25 markets around the world. And she trained and supervised a team of 35 employees, consultants, and vendors across multiple continents.
As a result, the City That Never Sleeps gained a rapid-response message machine that kept a worldwide, 24/7 watch on its image. Relationships with reporters, who had treated the City with animosity, became more collaborative. Iconic locations and events, including Restaurant Week, Broadway Week, and Fashion’s Night Out, earned enthusiastic headlines. A metropolis was rebranded as an urban destination without peer.
Kimberly began her career as a print journalist. While attending Meredith College as a full-time student, she not only continued this reporting; she also worked as an assignment editor for a local TV channel and a news anchor for a top-10 FM radio station. Through an exchange program with American University, she also interned at Nightline under Ted Koppel.
After graduating, she found her calling in politics. She became a speechwriter and spokesperson for Jim Hunt, the popular and progressive governor of North Carolina. Yet her work was not limited to Raleigh; on the contrary, she raised the governor’s profile throughout state by developing satellite TV tours across six media markets and first-of-their-kind weekly radio addresses.
On the strength of these successes, Kimberly moved from the state capital to the country’s capital — Washington, DC — where she served as press secretary and speechwriter for Congressman David Price. For the congressman, she continued her principal-elevating innovations: She created a monthly program on cable TV and instituted weekend office hours at grocery stores throughout his district back home. She also crafted a memorable and enduring narrative about the Stand By Your Ad law, which, as every voter now knows, requires candidates for federal office to say, in effect, “My name is David Price, and I approved this ad.”
In 1998, Kimberly returned to Raleigh, where a first-time politician was running for the U.S. Senate — John Edwards. The obstacles were formidable: An incumbent opponent, attacks from outside interest groups, suspicious voters, and skeptical reporters. Yet, as the campaign’s communications director and chief spokesperson, she defended the candidate aggressively, branded him as the People’s Senator, and helped to propel Edwards to both victory and national prominence.
In 1999, Kimberly was tapped by Mariner Healthcare, in Atlanta. This $3 billion publicly traded company, with 55,000 employees nationwide, was undergoing massive change after a series of mergers, and it needed her crisis chops. Her responsibilities as vice president of corporate communications were wide-ranging: She proposed and implemented a cross-country road show for the CEO and chairman of the board. She served as the chief spokesperson for Mariner’s 500 hospitals, nursing homes, and pharmacies. And she directed 300 public-affairs specialists on all manner of communications — internal, external, business to business, business to consumer, and of course crisis.
In 2000, she was recruited to the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore. As deputy communications director, she served as the point of contact for every national reporter, editor, and producer at every major news outlet, including the New York Times, CNN, and ABC. She shaped and delivered the message of the day on the campaign trail, at the Democratic and Republican conventions, and during two presidential debates.
Her tenure, in what became the closest presidential election in U.S. history, is perhaps best remembered for two accomplishments: First, she reconceptualized the traditional notion of media outreach: Instead of focusing only on political media, she helped the vice president bring his message to then-untried venues such as Oprah, the Late Show With David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live. Such stops are now the norm. Second, she built a rapid-response system for use with the traveling press corps of the campaign’s chief opponent. The system became so effective, the opponent tried to replicate it.
After her work with Gore, Kimberly opened her own crisis firm. Spell Communications specialized in fast-paced advocacy for environmental, healthcare, and artistic clients. At the same time, she remained active in politics. For the presidential campaign of John Kerry, she served as the chief spokesperson in New Hampshire, where she executed a multicity tour across the Granite State for the national political press corps. For the presidential campaign of Wesley Clark, she served as the frontline press secretary, assembling and leading a team in battleground states, travelling around the country with the general, and prepping him for interviews ranging from a New Yorker cover story on foreign policy to the Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
Kimberly Spell, Principal
Photos by Julienne Schaer
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