This American Life — and the Courage That Made it Possible

Nancy Flagg Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

NPR CMO Emma Carrasco’s rise through the ranks of marketing began with the strong, intrepid women in her family

Carrasco_Emma-smallsidebarFearlessness can be a valuable trait for moving ahead in life and in a career. Emma Carrasco, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at National Public Radio (NPR), was fortunate to inherit a courageous spirit from her family that has helped her to be bold and excel professionally.

Carrasco considers herself blessed to have been born into a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, who lived in a small village in the hills of northern Mexico in a dirt-floor adobe home with no running water, had the courage to illegally cross the border to the U.S. so that she could offer her eventual family a better life. Carrasco’s grandmothers were strong leaders of families and local communities. She feels very fortunate to be the daughter and granddaughter of such intrepid women, and has drawn on their examples of tenacity, fearlessness and commitment to a dream.

Marketing Mettle

Carrasco’s courage, developed via nature and nurture, has enabled her to repeatedly take on the challenge of leadership roles in wholly unrelated industries. With each new industry, she has translated her marketing mettle to the latest settings and advanced each organization’s marketing, branding and communication efforts.

At public relations agency Fleishman Hillard, Carrasco created media relations and corporate responsibility campaigns. At advertising agency Republica, she helped international brands increase their market share. When she was a marketing executive at media organization Univision, she helped launch a fresh Spanish-language TV programming era. Carrasco also has led campaigns at classic consumer organization McDonald’s to attract Hispanic and African-American customers.

When Carrasco joined telecommunications giant Nortel, she applied her craft in a global business-to-business environment at a time when the telecommunications field was being utterly transformed by the Internet. The changing industry “was really disrupting the way we thought about everything and how people and organizations communicated,” she said.

Carrasco_Emma-quoteMarketing Milieu

Carrasco’s biggest career challenge came when she was hired as the first-ever CMO at NPR. She built a marketing approach almost from scratch in the unique environment of public service journalism. NPR produces and distributes noncommercial news and entertainment through 900 independent radio stations to a weekly audience exceeding 27 million people. Carrasco’s role as CMO is to redefine the brand and the strategy for responding to changing audience demographics and points of access to content.

Defining a marketing approach for a highly reputed news organization where the audiences are members creates a distinctive challenge, Carrasco acknowledged. The approach must be firmly audience-centric and uphold the trust that audiences have in NPR and its loyalty to journalistic personas.

“As a news organization, there are journalistic and ethic guidelines that we must uphold,” Carrasco said. “We need to be intentional about how we amplify that work, and be sensitive about how we use that work in a promotional way.”

At the core of Carrasco’s marketing approach is a strong audience as well as Listener Services Team. From that core, she has added classic marketing functions; created a new branding platform; turned marketing units into revenue generators; produced live events and streaming content platforms; implemented media relations and social media; and developed a pipeline audience strategy to further engage audiences and to invite younger people to discover NPR content.


When hiring within the Marketing Department, Carrasco concentrates on finding individuals who have the right “cultural fit”—those who are committed to the mission of public radio and who have an inherent intellectual curiosity to seek out the kind of complete-perspective news that NPR provides.

Carrasco’s creative leadership has earned her an induction in the Direct Marketing News “Marketing Hall of Femme,” and she was named one of Ad Age’s “Women to Watch” in 2013.

Becoming Authentic

At the same time that Carrasco was fearlessly testing her skills in widely diverse marketing settings, she also dared to look inward and change the way she presented herself to the world. When she started her career, she thought she would have to act and be like male leaders, as did many females in similar situations.

“Women wore suits and bow ties and were trying to find their place in what was then a male-dominated scenario,” Carrasco said.

Over time, she realized that her personal background and approach were valuable, noting, “I came to understand that I bring qualities to the conversation and don’t need to pretend to be anyone other than who I am.”

Once acting as one person at home and another at work, Carrasco came to find it impossible to keep her personas straight. “I’m now the same person all day long to everyone and people get the real deal,” she said. “This is who I am.”

Mentoring: Pay it Forward

Carrasco’s first job opportunities were given to her by mentors. They encouraged and coached her with the idea that she would one day be in a position to do the same for others.

“It was their way of contributing,” she said. “They set up the expectation that this was part of my responsibility as I developed professionally and grew into my career.”

Carrasco takes her responsibility seriously and approaches those she mentors from the perspective of a favorite “Aunt.” Carrasco built her confidence as a professional guide from her experience counseling her nieces and nephews. She tested, coaxed and challenged them and told them things they did not want to hear. Her family mentoring skills proved to be readily transferable to work settings.

“I’ve been told I really understand how to bring out the best in someone else, inspire confidence, draw attention to correct, and learn from incorrect action,” Carrasco said.

She advises young professionals to be fearless and to raise their hands for assignments to test their skills. Equally important, Carrasco added, is to display humility.

“Humility is the most overlooked trait one should develop,” she noted, stressing that people need enough of it to accept that they do not know everything; rather, they are on a lifelong quest for knowledge and can amplify their learning if they surround themselves with smart people.

“Continuous learning,” Carrasco said, “is one of the most exciting things about being a human being.”


Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

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