Mark Szymanski sending the right message for National Potato Council
Mark Szymanski probably oversimplified his job as “easy,” adding that he’s only responsible for telling the world about the efforts of his fellow National Potato Council staffers.
As the NPC’s new director of communications and media relations, making sure the intended message reaches policymakers, their staffers and the press is anything but easy. It takes skill and nuance. Szymanski is no stranger to Washington, D.C., nor the NPC. He was the director of public relations from 2011-14. He rejoined NPC late last year. RJ Andrus, the current vice president of legislative and government affairs, called Szymanski “the one that got away” in welcoming him back during the NPC’s annual meeting in January.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small farming community in western New York. Part of the Szymanski clan owned and operated a potato farm back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so when I started working for NPC, my family joked that the Szymanskis were finally back in the potato businesses.
What is your professional background?
After college, I started a career in politics working in Albany, moved to D.C., and eventually to Washington State while working on the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. After that, I worked in the Bush Administration as a speechwriter for EPA Administrator Steve Johnson, held communications roles at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NPC and also three separate veterans’ advocacy groups. I took a few years off by working as a brewer for two local craft breweries, before finally coming back to NPC. After years of living in the District, my wife, 2-year-old daughter and I just bought a house in Virginia.
What does your new role with the NPC entail?
Kam (Quarles), Mike (Wenkel), Hollee (Alexander) and Hillary (Hutchins) are doing an incredible job advocating for and representing the interests of the growing community and the rest of the potato industry. My job is easy: I just tell the world what they’re accomplishing.
What is your No. 1 goal?
To raise the profile of NPC, not just in the potato industry or even the greater ag industry but as a voice that policymakers and their staffs need to listen to when promulgating rules and regulations.
What brought you back to the industry?
One of the things that brought me back to NPC was their interest in launching a new (Eye on Potatoes) podcast and their desire to get beyond the potato bubble by attracting listeners throughout the ag and policy communities. I am among the 51% of Americans who listen to podcasts (mostly sports and comedy) and find them as a great source of information. To date, we’ve launched six episodes, and our download and listen numbers are far beyond our expectations. I think we’re on to something.
Did you always know you wanted to work in D.C.?
It’s funny but after 17 years of mostly living in and around D.C., I still don’t see myself as a city guy. Growing up on 100 acres of woods, fields and creeks is something that will always be a big part of me. That said, when my family and I visited D.C. when I was a child, I remember thinking to myself that I would someday live here. I’ve never felt the same way about any other place. I think it’s the history that walks among us or the hope that it — at least sometimes — represents for America.
What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?
I love to grill. Whenever I have it fired up, I like to cut up potatoes, onions, garlic and whatever herbs I have growing or laying around and wrap them in an aluminum foil pouch. I throw that on while cooking the rest of the meal.