When MU News Bureau Executive Director Mary Jo Banken first started working at MU as an administrative assistant, she quickly began looking to take on more responsibility. She asked Mary Still, the director of the News Bureau at that time, if she could start writing press releases.
“She said, ‘Mary Jo, I need for you to do the job that we’ve hired you to do. And if you do that job well, maybe at some point if there’s an opening as one of the information specialists, we’ll move you into that,’” Banken said.
When a position for information specialist became available, Banken was promoted. But she didn’t stop there. She moved her way through the positions of operations manager, co-director, interim director, director and eventually executive director, the highest position at the News Bureau. Now, come December, she will retire from her 28-year career.
“You are too smart to not get a degree.”
Banken hadn’t always planned on working on in a university setting, but MU has always had a presence in her life.
“My dad had been to college at a time when most people didn’t go to college,” Banken said. “I remember that he was so highly respected in our small town in southeast Missouri because he did have a degree from Mizzou. I had always held that in my mind growing up that I would love to be able to eventually move here.”
However, Banken didn’t think about attending a university until she was 28 years old.
“It wasn’t a real aspiration of mine to even go to college,” Banken said. “Really, my goal was to have five children and get married and live happily ever after keeping the house, because that’s what my mother did. It was only after I got in that situation that I decided that just was not for me.”
Banken raised a family in Clarksville, Tennessee while her then-husband was stationed at Fort Campbell, in Kentucky.
“When I was 28 years old, I decided I wanted to be more than a mother,” Banken said. “I loved being a mother, but I didn’t feel like I was completely using my intelligence and my brain.”
So Banken got a job as an administrative assistant at Austin Peay State University, in Clarksville, and eventually started taking classes after her boss encouraged her.
“I remember he came to me one day and said, ‘Mary Jo, you are too smart to not get a degree,” Banken said. “You are never going to be able to fulfill your potential until you go back to college. Take a class, take one class a semester. Start your degree. Please do it.’”
Following his advice, Banken took a class on mass media.
“It changed my life,” Banken said. “I got really interested in journalism and writing stories and how you could get to know people by interviewing them. That gave me an exposure that I had never experienced before.”
During that time, Banken divorced and decided to move herself and her two daughters back to Missouri. She said it was at that point that she knew she wanted to finish her degree and work in a university setting. In 1988, Banken moved her family to Columbia.
“She wanted to move back here to make a better life for us,” Banken’s daughter Laura Lindsey said.
“She knew that she had the ability to run the News Bureau”
For a short period of time, Banken worked as an administrative assistant for the School of Library and Informational Science. When an administrative assistant position opened at the News Bureau, which was where Banken wanted to work, she applied.
Banken worked in that position while she took journalism classes. While in this role, Banken learned more about how the News Bureau worked.
“She’s always been interested in communication and media relations,” Lindsey said. “I think she knew that those were her strong suits, and so when that position was available, she felt that this was her way to get her foot in the door so she could learn everything she could.”
As an administrative assistant, Banken’s job wasn’t to pitch stories to reporters, but to make sure that the pitches physically went where they needed to go.
“When I was an administrative assistant we had this huge story,” Banken said. “One of our doctors, through his research, had discovered that it doesn’t really matter if a woman gets ultrasounds or not.”
The department tried to get the story to national media outlets, but the fax of the story to The New York Times wouldn’t go through.
“I picked up the phone and called the telephone number of The New York Times thinking that I was going to get somebody at the front desk,” Banken said. “Instead, I got a reporter.”
The reporter asked Banken what the story was about, and when she read him the lead, he asked her to send him the story directly.
“It was the front page story that week in The New York Times, and it was pitched by the administrative assistant of the News Bureau,” Banken said. “And that’s when I realized that it’s the story that gets the reporter’s attention, not how you pitch it. That was a real lesson for me. I was able to get his interest by reading the lead. I really utilized that when I became the director.”
From her initial position as an administrative assistant, she quickly began to work her way through the News Bureau ranks.
Lindsey said once Banken sets a goal for herself, nothing will stand in her way.
“She was just a sponge, learning everything she could from [previous directors],” Lindsey said. “She knew that she had the ability to run the News Bureau. She knew that she could do it. She just had to convince others to give her that chance.”
Throughout her career, Banken has worked closely with university administration and reporters, including Janese Silvey, a former reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune.
“I like to think I was a tough reporter, so I’m sure there were times when she saw my phone number pop up on caller ID and she probably didn’t want to answer the phone,” Silvey said. “But she always did. She did her best to provide me with all of the information I needed and she was very professional.”
Banken sets an example for those working in the public relations field in higher education, said Silvey, who now works in the public relations field.
“Certainly there have been times in my PR career now where I’ve thought to myself, ‘What would Mary Jo have done?’” Silvey said.
Former Chancellor Brady Deaton said Banken is professional and a “delightful individual.”
“She has a good sense of humor,” Deaton said. “She’s very careful and well-prepared with what she does.”
Lindsey said Banken motivated her daughters and served as an example of a good leader.
“She’s not a person who just tells people what to do,” Lindsey said. “She does things and lets people see what she’s doing so they can learn from her. She tells people why she is doing something instead of just saying, ‘This is what we have to do.’ I learned those skills from my mom that have served me well in my career.”
Having worked her way up the News Bureau hierarchy, Banken is familiar with the tasks and challenges faced by her employees.
“One of the things, I say this to my staff a lot, is don’t ever come to me and tell me that something’s impossible, because I’ve been in that job and I know it is possible,” Banken said.
Lindsay currently works in strategic communication for MU Extension and in the past worked with the College of Arts and Science. During her career at MU, she has on occasion worked with her mother.
“She has really built the News Bureau and its reputation,” Lindsey said. “Her dedication to that department really showed through whenever I was in a meeting with her. She was very professional and firm. She really can stick to her guns when she knows she is right and I really respect that about her. I could really tell that people listen to what she has to say and they really take her advice when it comes to working with local and national media.”
“She’s leaving the News Bureau in a very good place.”
National media coverage of MU has grown during Banken’s time with the News Bureau, Banken said. Now, MU gets thousands of national placements every year. Placements in national media outlets are important because the purpose of the News Bureau is to elevate the prestige of the university, Banken said.
During the protests of last fall, MU received even more coverage by national media.
“I went home one day and I had 600 unanswered phone calls from media,” Banken said. “We had to call in additional staff members from other offices who didn’t understand media at all to just answer the phones. People were screaming at us. Not just the press, but the public.”
Because of the number of questions and because the News Bureau lacked information, the bureau didn’t have enough time to fact-check properly and couldn’t answer questions from the media, Banken said.
“That really bothered me because I felt like I wasn’t doing my job well,” Banken said. “It was the first time that I had ever felt that way.”
Over the years, the News Bureau has undergone changes as technology has advanced. Under Banken’s leadership, the department has also transformed internally.
After being faced with budget issues and struggling to find suitable candidates to fill the administrative assistant role, Banken decided to do away with the position completely. Now, the News Bureau hires students to perform the tasks that Banken herself did when she first started out in the department.
“I couldn’t get [the administrative assistants] to buy into the whole culture of the office and get them excited about what we do,” Banken said. “For instance, they wouldn’t even watch the news.”
But Banken said the student workers have made the workplace “much more enjoyable.”
“They add such a vitality to the office and they keep us young and bring us new ideas,” Banken said.
Banken said one of the ways that the News Bureau successfully interacts with the media is by building a relationship based on trust.
“You never lie, absolutely never lie,” Banken said. “You never say, ‘No comment.’ If you can’t comment, you explain why you can’t comment.”
After she leaves the News Bureau, Banken will be moving to Gainesville, Florida, to help raise her grandson.
“She’s going where she needs to be now,” Lindsey said. “She’s at a stage in her life where she’s proven herself in her career. She’s done very well and she’s leaving the News Bureau in a very good place.”
Banken said those who work for MU care about the university.
“It’s not just about them,” she said. “There are a few exceptions of course, but the people who I work with, they are all doing their very best to represent this university and to do the right thing. It’s been a pleasure for me to serve as spokesperson for those people and for this university.”
Edited by Claire Mitzel | email@example.com