by Bruce Tomaso
Keith Burton, a global leader in the field of corporate communications, has one title he’s particularly proud of:
He was the original Meadows Fellow.
Burton, the founder and principal of Grayson Emmett Partners in Geneva, Ill., was a 1979 graduate of Meadows, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in journalism. He’d been working as a journalist in the Dallas area for a few years when a mentor of his got in touch.
Dr. David McHam, then the chair of the Meadows School’s Journalism Division, told the young journalist about an opportunity to return to academia: The heirs of Algur H. Meadows had endowed a new fellowship for graduate students pursing a master’s degree.
Burton was selected as the first beneficiary, earning a Master of Fine Arts in mass communication in 1983.
“I loved my time at SMU,” Burton says. “That was such a formative period in my life. The things I learned at the Meadows School, from the great professors and the incredible classmates that I had, have really stayed with me throughout my career.”
Before starting Grayson Emmett in 2014, Burton was a senior executive with Brunswick Group; Golin; Hill + Knowlton Strategies; and Ketchum, all internationally recognized corporate public relations and advisory firms.
His clients, from nearly every major industry sector, have included Amazon, American Airlines, Facebook, FedEx, Georgia-Pacific, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Tenneco, Tyson Foods and Visa International.
He’s a former member of the advisory board of the Meadows Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs, and the chairman of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at The University of Alabama, a leading global resource for students, educators and professionals looking to advance their careers in public relations and for PR professionals eager to identify, encourage and mentor ethical emerging leaders in the field. And he’s been a frequent lecturer at, among others, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California; Syracuse University; and The University of Alabama.
In November 2019, he’s bringing the Plank Center’s Challenge for Emerging Leaders to the SMU campus. The event is described as “an intensive, two-day leadership workshop for engaged, high-achieving and diverse university seniors majoring in public relations.” It will include guest speakers, team projects led by industry professionals, and activities focused on such topics as conflict management, critical thinking, listening skills and ethics.
Among the rewards of success in his chosen field, he says, is having a platform from which to help educate those who will follow in his footsteps. In particular, Burton is committed to highlighting and expanding opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds.
“Where we have not been sufficiently successful in our professions, in my opinion, is in attracting, encouraging and mentoring a diverse body of students,” he says. “We have to spend more time and devote more of our resources to reaching out at the high school level to African-American students, Latino students, and students from other underrepresented groups.
“We need to do a better job of letting them know about the opportunities available to them in the field of communications. And we need to do a better job of letting them know about the wide array of financial incentives that already exist that can enable many more students to take advantage of the terrific educational experience that is available to them at a great school like Meadows.”