The Scope


Podcast |

[SHOWNOTES] Karen Keller, Smithsonian Institution: The Smithsonian and the importance of protocol – ECEO004

[SHOWNOTES] Karen Keller, Smithsonian Institution: The Smithsonian and the importance of protocol – ECEO004

Listen to the full podcast episode HERE


Protocol – The official procedure or system of rules governing affairs of state or diplomatic occasions.
Order of Precedence – A sequential hierarchy of nominal importance of items. Most often it is used in the context of people by many organizations and governments, for very formal and state occasions, especially where diplomats are present. It can also be used in the context of decorations, medals and awards.

Organizations and Schools that focus on Protocol/Certifications

COPE – Council of Protocol Executives(COPE) is a professional, nonprofit organization comprised of men and women throughout the world who coordinate special events and high-level meetings for corporations, governments, and major nonprofit institutions. COPE serves as a valuable resource for information ranging from facilities and suppliers to issues and trends as they evolve in this demanding profession.

Protocol School of Washington – The Protocol School of Washingtonis the only nationally accreditededucational institution providing international protocol, cross-cultural awareness, business etiquette and image training that prepares professionals with the critical behaviors necessary to build lasting business relationships.

Smithsonian Museums mentioned in this episode
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History
National Air and Space Museum
National Portrait Gallery
American Art Museum
Freer and Sackler Galleries
National Museum of African Art
Arts and Industries Building

Smithsonian Departments
Office of Protocol

Groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Gala for the Medal of Honor 50-year Anniversary
You have a unique setup as an events entity, can you talk to us a bit more about that?

The office of special events and protocol at the Smithsonian is a central office. I’m the Director, there’s a Deputy Director, and then 10 other staff who are event coordinators. The way the Smithsonian Special Events office is set up – as I said – we’re a central office but all of the museums also have their own Special Events Units. We are in charge of the policy for the Smithsonian for special events and do all of the special events for the office of the Secretary, for the Board of Regents, which is our governing body… we do all of the Office of Advancement Events, all central fundraising events. But all of the other units do their own events. So it’s a unique kind of setup, in that we are central but the other offices don’t report to us. We do oversee all the policy but they are responsible for keeping it up.

Talk to us a little bit about your background that makes you so perfect for this particular job?

I started out in public relations, doing events, and somewhere along the line I left Public Relations and moved into Government work. I worked for the White House for 8 years. Originally, I worked as a special event planner in the Office of Management and Budget. The last 4 years of the Bush administration I worked as a special assistant to the President, directly for President Bush. I served as the gate keeper to the oval office, basically, and ran oval office operations. I also dealt with the State Department on a day-to-day basis with visiting Heads of State and Dignitaries, so I got to see a lot of really interesting, amazing, powerful people walk through that door every day. I worked with the State Department and our Office of Advancement on planning events. So I had a very unique perspective and a front-door to history.

What are some bigger moments you’ve had at the Smithsonian since you’ve been there in terms of the events you’ve done?

One of the biggest moments was one we worked with Linder on and that was the groundbreaking for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture where the President and Mrs. Obama were there as well as Mrs. Bush and many other members of Congress… it was a very, very powerful day, as you remember, and now we’re moving into the Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September. That’s very exciting, a very historic moment for us and for the nation.

We also have done other events with the President and Mrs. Obama. We did a gala for the Medal of Freedom 50-year Anniversary, that was a really fun and exciting event. We have done events with the State Department, a couple of events at the Natural History Museum with the Secretary of State, Secretary Kerry. We do all kinds of things, we run such the gamut because we have so many different spaces. We have 19 museums, not all on the Mall but mostly on the Mall. So we do events in the American History, Natural History, and Air and Space Museum, the Portrait Gallery, American Art, Freer Sackler, African Art, and now Arts and Industries, which just re-opened for special events this past Spring. Another unique part of what my office does, which is different from the other museums, is that we operate in every museum. Whereas, if you’re with the Natural History Museum, you do events in Natural History. But because of the units that we support we get to work in every single museum, which is really fun and interesting. Our events change all of the time based on where we are and what Gallery or exhibition space we might be in.

Talk about the unique circumstances around some of the events that you host with the Presidents. What are the challenges and constraints around some of those programs?

Protocol is extremely important in any organization, and not many organizations have a protocol department. But it is extremely important in that when you welcome a visiting Head of State or the President of the United States, or a King or a Governor or a Prince, and they all come to the Smithsonian, Protocol is different for each visitor. But it is important because it can really strengthen or diminish your relations, both Smithsonian and national. When someone comes to the Smithsonian, we are representing the Nation, I think we are looked upon as a national institution. So it is extremely important to have the Protocol right. Order of Precedence is important. Order of Precedence is a specific order of precedence when you have different leaders in a room, who speaks first, who is seated with whom, who is greeted by whom, and that order of precedence starts with the President of the US and it works its way through hundreds of different types of leaders, roles, and titles. It’s critical to pay attention to that. The last thing you want to do is insult someone who is coming to visit you, so the rules and etiquette of how to interact with that person from whatever country it might be is important to know.

How are you disseminating that kind of standard information to your department of about 10 or so staff?

When someone new comes on board we sit down with them and we go through an entire list of all the things that our department does, because we do a lot of different things, other than just events. Katie Desmond, the deputy director of our office, is a certified protocol officer. She’s been doing some training lately, knowing that not everyone comes in with a protocol background, with some of our new employees to make sure they understand the importance of protocol. She’s going to be doing this training throughout the year. She’s also working with our Office of Advancement officers to do some protocol training. We do it on a day-to-day and case-by-case basis but we try to also have this ongoing training to help all of our coordinators understand how protocol works, and we will work side-by-side with them when they are dealing with a protocol issue until they are more comfortable doing it on their own.

As, essentially, the CEO of your department, how are you tasking your internal direct reports with their performance around events? What are you asking them to do to stay current?

First of all, the Smithsonian has an incredible training program. We have performance appraises that we have to conduct for all of our employees, and part of that is training. When it comes to event training, there’s not a lot out there. A lot of it is experience. So it’s making sure people are keeping up with online publications such as BizBash and going to SESMA events and talking with their counterparts outside of the Smithsonian, so they are aware of what the new trends are. And going to events. We encourage our coordinators to go to other events that they can to see what’s happening out there. Sometimes we feel very insular within the Smithsonian because we’re only doing Smithsonian events, but it’s great when we can get out and see what other people are doing. But we do put that in their performance appraisal that they are supposed to be keeping up with the trends and making sure they are aware of what’s happening outside the Smithsonian, and in turn hopefully bringing back some of that new and innovative technology and different ways of doing events to the Smithsonian.

You actually produce events yourself in these incredible venues, arguably some of the most amazing in the city and even the country that we have. You also then work with third party planners for hiring them to do events or interfacing with them for events that you put on?

Yes, sometimes our events are bigger than we can handle so we bring on third party planners to assist with event management, catering, production, etc. We’ve teamed up with Linder on many, many occasions and have had great success. We’re working with you on the opening of the new museum in September, which is so exciting and historic. It’s very important that we have the types of vendors and partners that we can look to to help us with those events. A lot of the internal events we do ourselves, but many of our bigger events, as you know, require some outside help. It’s been fantastic working with all of our vendors. This city is full of great vendors, as you know. That’s something we appreciate very much, having those relationships with these amazing companies that can come in and make us look really good!

What is the biggest challenge that you face running an Events and Protocol Department?

As I mentioned before, we are a central office but the other offices don’t report to us, so our policy is very restrictive. As a quasi-federal organization we are very restrictive in what we can and cannot do in our buildings. So we have a directive called SD401 (Smithsonian Directive 401), and that Directive outlines all of the types of events we can do and the types of events we cannot do in our spaces. So what we’re tasked with is making sure that all of the Museums’s special events teams – the special events teams throughout the museums are fabulous, and they are really, really careful about the types of events that we bring into our spaces.  the  The office of Special Events and Protocol is tasked with making sure that that policy is enforced throughout the organization. Sometimes it’s a little trickier, some events may seem like they might be a good fit, but maybe they are not quite fitting within our policies. There is a lot of back and forth, and all of the coordinators are great about making sure that if there is question they reach out to our office to make sure they are working within the bounds of the Smithsonian’s policy.

That makes it a little tricky because we have to turn away a lot of business, unfortunately.

What are some of the types of events you can’t do, as an example? Can I have my wedding there?

No, you cannot have your wedding there, nor your birthday party, nor your anniversary. Not really social events. We do corporate events and we can’t do anything political in nature, anything that’s partisan, anything that promotes social advocacy, or is promotional in nature for another company, and we can’t do third party fundraising – ONLY Smithsonian fundraising events in our space. But we’re unique in that we don’t rent our space, we celebrate donations, so if an organization wants to make a donation to the Smithsonian, we will celebrate that donation with a co-sponsored event with that organization

Since the Smithsonian’s been doing events, that’s the type of format or co-sponsorship that we’ve done. We don’t rent our space.

You have a unique set of inventory, as far as event spaces, as an organization. How are you promoting?

We don’t typically use social media because our events are invite-only. So we’re not using social media to invite people. We do need to get more on the forefront of social media in terms of letting people know about our space. But again because of the unique nature of our space we have to be very careful. Most of our business comes from people just knowing the Smithsonian and wanting to do something there. We don’t really have to market our space because we’re such a well-known entity and people come to Washington and they think of unique spaces to do their events, and they think of the Smithsonian. So we’re lucky in that we don’t have to really be out there marketing our space. But we would like to get more into the social media area to make sure people know how special we are. We do use social media for the overall Institution. We have a social media department and they do a great job of letting people know what’s going on with the Smithsonian, like when a new panda is born!

You’re working with so many entities within the organization, plus your own events, plus external – what do you establish as your metrics for success when you do an event and how do you measure that?

Mostly our office of Advancement is the group that’s measuring the results of the success. We’re delivering and they’re measuring. They use us to produce their events but then they are the ones collecting the information to make sure there is a good ROI. The success that we have and measure for our own events is the joy that it brings people and how much content we’re delivering, and the amount of people who return to our events. So as far as metrics, we don’t really have much to measure. It’s really more anecdotal. We do events for our Regents and Secretary, and those are events that are not looking for an ROI. Very high-pressure, all the same.


< Back to Podcast Homepage

GUEST: Karen Keller

Karen Keller is the director of the Office of Special Events and Protocol at the Smithsonian Institution. She is responsible for planning, programming and managing the Institution’s major special events, including museum and exhibition openings, fundraising galas, dignitary and head-of-state visits, board meetings, conferences and symposia.  In this role she also supports the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Institution’s Board of Regents at events.  Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Ms. Keller served as special assistant and personal secretary to President George W. Bush.  In that role she helped direct Oval Office Operations for the White House. Other positions she has held include: director of administration for the 55th Presidential Inaugural Committee and special assistant to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.  Prior to her work at the White House, she spent 10 years at Burson-Marsteller Public Relations where she planned and produced events and supported C-suite executives.

Build your Brand. Raise Revenue. Develop More Meaningful Relationships.
Enjoy the Process.