Ottawa’s King of public relations

Hill+Knowlton VP Jackie King credits a loving family and supportive colleagues for her rise to a senior role at one of the nation’s top public relations firms
Jackie King
Hill+Knowlton vice-president Jackie King. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

When Jackie King was a wee lass of five, she was given a minor role in a community play. She had three lines. Just three. But when it came time for her to deliver them on stage, she froze and started to cry.

Very few audience members would have predicted then that King would one day land the role of general manager of the Ottawa office of Hill+Knowlton Strategies and would ultimately be promoted to national senior vice-president at one of Canada’s most prominent public relations and public affairs consultancy firms.

Having worked her way up the corporate ladder, Ms. King is now responsible for developing and executing the office policies and corporate plan for the 75-person Canadian operation. Simultaneously, she leads and manages multiple national and international client files.

Not bad for a shy Irish-Catholic girl from Northern Ontario.

“I’ve just been very, very fortunate. I have a great leadership team, and the staff here are just phenomenal. They’re hard-working, dedicated, really engaged and care about each other.”

“I’ve just been very, very fortunate,” says Ms. King, 50, speaking in her corner office overlooking Parliament Hill. “I have a great leadership team, and the staff here are just phenomenal. They’re hard-working, dedicated, really engaged and care about each other.”

Ms. King acknowledges it’s impossible to keep everybody happy all of the time. A more realistic goal, she says, is to make staff feel like they’re valued and to help them weather the ups and downs of the business.

“It’s about making people feel that no matter what happens, we’ll get through it,” she says.

Ms. King spent the bulk of her childhood in the tiny township of Manitouwadge, halfway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, after immigrating to Canada with her family from Limerick, Ireland.

Her father, Sean, was a hard rock miner, while her entrepreneurial mother, Mary Ann, raised five children. She also taught Ms. King that she was able to achieve anything.

A bright and ambitious student, Ms. King attended an all-girls boarding school run by nuns in North Bay. A school trip to the nation’s capital left such an impression that she returned to study psychology at Carleton University.

After marrying young and immediately starting a family, she decided to mostly stay home with her children until they were in school, working part-time jobs to bring in extra money and taking evening courses that were of interest to her.

“It was actually a blessing,” she says of those years. “In addition to raising my kids, I was also able to explore what I really wanted to do in my professional life.”

Six things to know about Jackie King

  1. She became a proud Canadian citizen in 2007. It was a border-crossing guard who motivated her to finally apply after scolding her for not having already done so.

  2. She is the first woman to manage the Ottawa office of H+K.

  3. She’s never missed an episode of the British soap opera Coronation Street.

  4. To relax, she often heads on the weekends with her family and dog to her secluded cabin in the woods, located in the Lanark Highlands.

  5. She’s on the board of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in addition to serving as co-chair of the Ottawa chapter of the International Women’s Forum Canada.

  6. King starts each day at 5:30 a.m. by catching up on e-mails and reading the news and social media feeds. She gets home from work anywhere between 6 and 9 p.m.

In the fall of 1997, she entered the public relations program at Algonquin College. A few months later, her marriage ended. Suddenly a single mom of a five- and seven-year-old, Ms. King put herself through college by waitressing at the former Capital City Diner on Hunt Club and Merivale roads.

At times, she was tempted to quit school.

“But then I thought: I have two years; I just need to suck it up and plough through it,” says Ms. King. “I always thought of the big picture and the longer term, anytime I had doubt.

“I also wanted to set a really good example for my kids. I wanted them to be really proud of me and, more importantly, I wanted them to know that Dad’s not here, but Mom’s got this.”

The honours student set her sights on working at Hill+Knowlton after her college instructors sang its praises. Her six-week internship at the firm led to a full-time position in 1999.

Over the years, the company allowed her enough flexibility and work-life balance to also single-handedly raise her children. She was actively involved in her son’s hockey team and regularly volunteered at her kids’ schools. She would catch up on work after they went to bed.

Ms. King continues to enjoy a close relationship with both her daughter (and frequent travel buddy) Caitlin, 27, and her son, Jordan, 25, who’s getting married this fall.

“I would not be where I am – not only with the success in my career, but content and happy and satisfied with my life, if it wasn’t for all the people in it,” she says.

“My kids have been an amazing source of support. They always made me feel like I was the best mom ever, even when I wasn’t. Of course, there’s my colleagues and the leadership team here. I will continue to always grow as a leader. I learn something from the people here every day, right from those who are just starting with us to those who have been around longer than I have.

“I guess it really does take a village, and I have a great village,” concludes Ms. King, who ends our meeting the same way she began it: with a warm hug.