Lessons from Ragan’s Top Women in Communications Hall of Fame inductees

Learn from Susan Donlan, Marian Salzman and Kathy Krenger.

top women in comms hall of fame

Ragan’s Top Women in Communications Awards is one of our most prestigious programs, saluting the women who embody the past, present and future of the discipline; whose innovations have the power to shape workplaces and employee experience; and whose efforts reach across their organizations and far beyond.

Each year, we honor dozens of communicators, but only three join our Hall of Fame. The inductees into the 2024 Top Women in Communications Hall of Fame aren’t just professionals, but forces of influence that fundamentally uplift the way we interact with and uplift one another. Their extensive experience and unrivaled expertise set them apart as champions to be emulated.

This year, Ragan is honored to induct:

Susan Donlan

Chief Communications Officer at KeyCorp

Marian Salzman

Senior Vice President & Chief Corporate Citizenship Officer, U.S., at Philip Morris International

Kathy Krenger

former Chief Communications Officer at The Kraft Heinz Company

These leaders and the rest of the Top Women in Communications, Class of 2024, will be honored at a luncheon in New York City on Feb. 29, 2024. Read on to learn about the monumental impact they have made on communications and the world.

Susan Donlan: The calm in the storm

Over the course of her career, Susan Donlan’s influence and impact has blazed the trail for women in the banking industry, in which a vast majority of leadership and board roles are still held by men.Currently chief communications officer at KeyCorp, a financial services company with assets of approximately $189 billion and more than 17,000 employees, Donlan launched her career working with the government of Canada in research and international policy, as well as advising multiple ministers. She went on to serve in the Canada Revenue Agency and the Office of the Minister of Labor and Housing, laying the foundation of her communications career.

At T.D. Bank, Donlan used her ability to build rapport and relationships to lean further into corporate communications, mastering internal and external communications, executive communications, media relations and crisis communications while ascending through the ranks to the post of vice president in 10 years.

“I have always valued the ability to listen — actively listen,” Donlan told Ragan. “You learn so much when you listen to how people are saying things, what they are sharing with you and how they feel about it. It connects you with your audience and helps you understand them. That makes you a better communicator.”

In 2018, Donlan relocated to the United States to join KeyBank as chief communications officer in Cleveland, Ohio. Once there, Donlan made sweeping changes to the corporate communications team, including establishing a leadership team and affording senior members of her team with development and leadership opportunities. Since then, she has led the team through worldwide crises and historic challenges to the banking industry.

One challenge, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit shortly after a CEO transition. Donlan developed a reputation for being the “calm in the storm,” steadily leading her team through the pandemic while ensuring all KeyBank stakeholders were supported. Her efforts included a comprehensive internal and external plan, consumer relief, small business and Paycheck Protection Program support and continued support in the community.

Then came the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank in March 2023. The two largest bank failures since 2008 sent shockwaves through the industry, especially for regional institutions like KeyBank. Donlan mobilized the team with an action plan that supplied employees with essential information, ensuring that clients remained confident in KeyBank’s strength and stability. She also addressed numerous media inquiries and positioned CEO Chris Gorman as KeyBank’s voice in the public.

“I’ve learned how important it is to be the voice of calm within the chaos — even if I’m not feeling that calm on the inside,” Donlan said. “Experience has taught me to focus on how we move forward and out of the crisis instead of worrying about how we got there. There’s always time to reflect back and determine how to learn from a situation once the crisis passes, not from a blame perspective, but from the perspective of how we can do better.”

An active participant in KeyBank’s formal mentoring program, Donlan is involved in the Cleveland community, serving as a director on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History Board and as a member of the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation Board.

“The field has changed so much since I began my career,” she reflected to Ragan. “The day of prose memos is long gone — you need to be able to package your content in small, digestible pieces, focusing on what you really need the audience to know.  This can be a real challenge when you are dealing with complex information — the ability to synthesize complexity is a more important skill than ever for communicators.”

She advises other communicators to slow down and take time to appreciate where they are and what they’re working on. “I was always in such a hurry to get to the next thing, like I was running out of time,” she said. “Instead of focusing on the next opportunity or role, now I really try to enjoy all of the things I get to do and learn every day in my current role.”

Marian Salzman: Redefining the future

Marian Salzman’s career has always focused on the future — and she has consistently shaped that future. In the early 1990s, when the internet was still considered the domain of nerds, she founded the world’s first cyber-consultancy — holding online focus groups via her startup, American Dialogue, also known as Cyberdialogue.

It’s no exaggeration to call her a cultural icon: she helped introduce the word “metrosexuality” to the world in 2003, sparking a global media frenzy that ultimately resulted in “metrosexual” being named Word of the Year.

“People radar matters a lot,” Salzman told Ragan. “You can accomplish anything when you surround yourself with the best people, and when you work for and with people who are smarter than you are, and who share your commitment to great work, and good fun.”

And Salzman was a driving force behind #GivingTuesday, which encourages consumers to offset the gluttony of Black Friday and Cyber Monday by helping others and raising tens of billions of dollars for community programs.

In a PR career spanning three decades, Salzman has served as CEO of Havas PR North America and chair of the Havas Global PR Collective. In 2018 she moved to Philip Morris International (PMI) as senior vice president, global communications, to help the company deliver a smoke-free future.

Salzman guides PMI’s communications, media and other stakeholder engagement, forging productive alliances with NGOs, advocacy groups, policymakers and others. The end goal: making it easier for adult smokers to move away from cigarettes and toward the better science-based alternatives now available.

Using her global platform to combat misinformation, promote transparency and advance positive change, Salzman sparks conversations around important issues via her annual trends report, newsletter and PMI whitepapers — including “Hate Is in the Air,” a report that dissects the drivers of hate and challenges companies to contribute to solutions.

She says curiosity and energy are the most important skills for communicators. “If you aren’t in continuous learning mode, you will quickly be left behind.” She lives out that advice herself: Salzman told Ragan that she was taking remote courses in government at Johns Hopkins University when the pandemic began. “This engagement gave me a whole lot of brainfood at a time when socialization was largely screen-based. I developed considerable expertise by going back to school thirty-odd years after I had completed my formal education, and this made me a much better leader and professional. Studenting also knocked any arrogance I had right out of my system.”

As a commentator for a range of global and national media outlets, Salzman has been featured on the BBC, NBC News, Euronews, Sky News and Bloomberg Radio, as well as podcasts like Andrew Yang’s “Forward.” She also regularly serves as a keynote speaker or panelist at such venues as GWPR VOICE, IAA Creativity 4 Better Conference, University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and more, and is the author or co-author of 18 books.

Her advice to rising communicators: “Go abroad frequently, work there feverishly, savor the friendships you made in the early days because at the end of a career, it is the experience collecting, the human relationships, that carry you forward and make you better and more able to face the challenges day-to-day. I also wish I had become addicted to Pilates earlier, had embraced casual dress sooner, and would have dreamed as big as life carried me. I always treasured the journey and picked bosses but never planned my career, so I wish I would have known how lucky I would be — that would have made it easier to relax more, to worry less, and to have confidence that I would never have to compromise ‘me’ to succeed in the world of ‘we.’”

Kathy Krenger: Iconic work for iconic brands

In 2021, as Kraft Heinz was navigating one of the most visible transformations of the decade, its CEO decided to rebuild the company’s communications team from the ground up. The person he selected to lead that team was Kathy Krenger, prompted by her stellar leadership as senior vice president of global communications at Hyatt Hotels Corporation, where she guided the hospitality brand through one of its most challenging periods amid pandemic lockdowns.

“I also watched as our entire industry collapsed in a matter of days,” Krenger said of her experience at Hyatt. “Even now, when I look back at how volatile those first few months were, I can hardly believe it was real. But the work we were doing then was vital, critical, even ground-breaking. People needed our communications. They needed the information we created to survive. And sometimes, the content we were developing was the only thing giving them hope. I know this sounds a little dramatic today, but in that instant it was true.”

Building upon that experience, Krenger joined Kraft Heinz as chief communications officer. Her task: Take what had been a small support function within the company and create a best-in-class global center of communications to serve as a strategic partner to the business.

Two major initiatives demonstrate Krenger’s work boosting Kraft Heinz’s reputation:

From 2022 to 2023, Krenger’s team increased annual corporate media coverage results by 265%. In addition, negative news coverage decreased to 9% (down from 31% in 2021), with 91% of media coverage positive to neutral. Kraft Heinz ranked No. 28 in the 2023 Axios Harris “100 Reputation Rankings,” moving up the list from 2022 (and not making the list at all in 2021).

And when employees reported feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from each other and their leaders. In response, Krenger’s communications team launched a new, mobile-enabled engagement platform, “The Vine,” to deliver timely and easily accessible information to the company’s 37,000 employees. To date, 97% of users have engaged on the platform, and a recent employee survey showed that 80% of respondents have greater trust in information coming from the company.

She told Ragan that an underrated quality for communicators to master is the ability to “read the room… and pivot the conversation based on someone’s preferences or need for clarity. It’s easy to forget that you may have spent the last two weeks focused on this topic, but your audience has not. They need time to absorb, ask questions and understand how this conversation or topic impacts them and if you are able to see their pause as an opportunity bring them along on the journey, be comforted by your understanding of all sides of the issue, you will have a partner and advocate rather than a detractor.”

She also touted the importance of writing skills. “Now more than ever, words matter,” she said. “Connected to words, I believe the ability to influence is a critical skill for communicators. Senior communicators will often find themselves being the one person in the room with a contrary position. Being able to explain your position without sounding like a dream killer is key.”

Thanks to Krenger’s efforts, the team today consists of 55 internal and external communication professionals across 15 countries. The team manages internal and external communications media relations, executive thought leadership, crisis and issues management, creative content generation and much more for the company.

“In an era where everything is about reputation management, and where there are pitfalls and opportunities at every turn, [Krenger] has elevated the communications function to be a go-to partner to guide company actions that span far beyond traditional communications practices,” says Alex Abraham, vice president, global corporate communications and reputation management at Kraft Heinz.

“Know yourself so you can believe in yourself,” Krenger advises. “I spent far too much time lamenting as to why I wasn’t the star of or the best at X, Y or Z. I wish I had really leaned into my strengths more, stopped worrying about other people and what they were doing and learned how to use my strengths as my superpower.”


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.