Member Spotlight: John Knox

John Knox small by Sue Stoney

If you want to meet someone who applies best practices across the lines that usually divide the corporate and independent communication worlds, you should get to know John Knox, a long-time Bay Area public relations / marketing communications specialist.

You will see, in his answers to the following questions, that John has spent his 35-year career understanding the objectives of a given project and his role in achieving success with it. Whether employee or supervisor, client or consultant, he is keenly aware of how his knowledge and skills contribute to the collaborative process that is effective communication.

When you first started your own business, Knox Communications, what was the best advice you received…

When I was starting Knox Communications, I became friendly with Jesse Fink, a fellow dad from our kids’ preschool. Jesse had just started Toy Boat, which has become a very popular dessert café in San Francisco’s Richmond District. His advice was to spend more time ON the business than IN the business.

…and to someone just starting his or her business today, what advice would you give?

Early in my business I was running a campaign to gain neighborhood acceptance for UCSF to integrate Mount Zion Medical Center into its operations. We were able to minimize opposition and meet the overall objective, so our success meant the end of my assignment. Without a new project to delve into, I realized that I should have been promoting my business all along. That’s why I say to keep marketing your business, even during good times! I found over the years that it’s too easy to get involved in helping your clients with their work, which keeps you busy and engaged, but frequently, for one reason or another, your assignment will end.

What is your definition of the perfect client / consultant relationship?

I would expand that to also describe the perfect supervisor / employee relationship because it really has to do with hiring a talented person and leaving that person alone to do his or her job. I do my best work for clients who let me know they have faith in me and that they’re allowing me to do things my way because I know what I’m doing. When I do good work, it invariably makes the client look good.

From my perspective as the communications consultant, I will always offer my best advice to a client, but I also understand that the client may be sensitive to other factors that I’m not aware of that may prevent him or her from acting on my recommendations. I’ve been a client myself, and while I was always open to hearing observations and opinions from the people I hired, there were often reasons why I couldn’t necessarily act on what they were advising. I keep that in mind when dealing with my own clients today.

I’ve really been fortunate to have had a number of extremely positive relationships that stem from mutual respect. In fact, today I sometimes forget that some of my friends are clients or former clients.

In your career, what industry(ies) / areas of expertise have you been most drawn to and what has excited you about your contributions to them?

I began my career in book publishing because I thought it was a perfect marriage between business and communication, two longtime areas of interest. However, I came to understand that book publishing was mostly business and that the books being produced and sold could have been any product. In time I realized that public relations was a better mixture of business and communication – at least for me – because PR is focused on a business problem or opportunity and uses communications to manage the situation.

Early in my career I went to work in the Public Relations Department for St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, which introduced me to the health care field. I really enjoy health care because it combines innovative technologies and techniques with a very human element. It’s fascinating, especially because I work with organizations that are industry leaders and are on the forefront of the latest advances in the field.

How do you balance work and the rest of your life?

When I started my business I rented an office that was outside the home, which allowed me to work at my office and make my home my place for family. I remind myself that tomorrow is a brand new opportunity, and if something didn’t get done today, it will still be there tomorrow – after deadlines are met, of course! Also, I’ve always been a list maker, and I get great satisfaction from checking things off my lists. My wife taught me to prepare realistic lists. Doing that reinforces feelings of accomplishment, allowing me greater enjoyment during my “off-duty” time.

What are you most looking forward to at IABC World Conference 2015 in San Francisco?

The networking opportunities. By attending previous conferences I’ve made friends with people from all over the world – especially our neighbors to the North, the fun-loving Canadians. I’m looking forward to seeing long-time friends and making new friends. Not only am I grateful for the friendships, but making contacts with fellow professionals in other states and countries has allowed me to draw on those contacts when I’ve needed local help in a specific geographical area.

Also, as a native San Franciscan, I’m looking forward to showing off my hometown to all the visitors from around the world who will be here for World Conference.

You’ve been a mentor for several people over the years. Who was a mentor to you, and how did that help you?

Steve Still, my boss (and at the time the Public Relations Director) at St. Mary’s Medical Center, was a terrific mentor. Not only did he teach me scores of foundational skills that he’d acquired from a distinguished career in newspaper publishing, but he was a benevolent critic, who noted my errors without dampening my enthusiasm. He must have been a good mentor, because I rose through the ranks and eventually took his job when he retired.

What’s something that most IABC colleagues may not know about you?

While I share a name with a famous Scottish reformer and I have a great affinity for Scotland, there isn’t an ounce of Scot in me. During World War I, when anti-German sentiments ran high in San Francisco, my grandfather shortened his last name from Knopfmacher to Knox. Knopfmacher means “buttonmaker” in German. Interestingly, I’ve created a number of campaign buttons to promote various client causes and initiatives during my career, so I guess I’m still a Knopfmacher.

Sue StoneySue Stoney is a writer, editor and writing coach. For more than 20 years, in the corporate world and as an independent communicator, Sue has helped many people develop content and write the stories that contribute to their business bottom line. Sue is


  1. Great profile! Great questions and excellent answers from John, who I happen to know is an outstanding communications practitioner. Thanks for including this on the SF IABC website. I love this series.

    • I’ve known John for about 25 years — what a pleasure to have a trusted and admired colleague for that long, and fun to read about him! Great profile!

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