Wittenberg’s focus on service pointed Shawn Hils, class of 2008, toward joining the Peace Corps following graduation. However, life had other plans for the political science major from Hiram, Ohio.
While the Peace Corps did call, Hils decided to go a different direction, using his degree to work in politics. And while bouncing around the country working on campaigns was interesting, Hils left the political world eventually deciding to take another detour, leaving the field to join the team at the National Basketball Association (NBA). The lifelong learner now makes his home in Brooklyn, New York.
“As a freshman at Wittenberg, I was interested in environmental science, but quickly became fascinated with my international relations and poetry classes,” said Hils, who also minored in English, along with running cross country and track. Additionally, he served as a public relations senator for Student Senate, interned with the Office of Admission, introduced students to Wittenberg as a tour guide, and was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
“I think my path shows that you can never tell what’s going to come next and the importance of making connections and being flexible,” he added.
Hils explained that when the class of 2008 graduated, all his classmates were sent into a world that was in the middle of a financial crisis; none of them had much of an idea about what to do in life.
“I was most interested in international relations and wanted to serve with the Peace Corps,” Hils said. “While spending the better part of a year waiting for my application to be processed, I lived in New Orleans, cobbling together rent and beer money by teaching at an after-school program and helping a family friend rebuild his house, which had been 11-feet underwater during Hurricane Katrina. When I was back visiting friends at Wittenberg in the spring of 2009, I got a call from the Peace Corps, and they wanted to know right then if I would accept a position in Bulgaria. I decided it wasn’t for me and declined. So, I was back to square one.”
But he had built connections in politics in New Orleans and relied on his political science degree and knowledge of the legislative process and campaigns to work in the political realm.
“My specialty was research, and I built on what I learned at Witt by studying the legislative process, polling, and communications strategy,” Hils said. “Working for candidates in Ohio, Colorado, the U.S. Senate, and at the Democratic National Committee provided me with invaluable insight into the American political process. It was an education I don’t think I could have replicated with a master’s degree or law degree. But eventually I left politics for the NBA, where I’ve been for seven years.”
In 2015, he was approached by the NBA for a position in New York and decided to make the change. As a senior director in the communications department, Hils advises the league on public relations strategy, helps develop messaging, and serves as a research resource.
“There are constantly issues and complex questions facing an organization as big, diverse, and recognized as the NBA,” he said. “What makes my job both challenging and fascinating are the many constituencies and audiences to consider – players, coaches, team owners, fans, partners, and league employees to name a few of the regulars. The league navigates this best by leading with anticipation and preparation, gathering the facts first and then communicating with transparency. Teachers or professors often tell you to show your work — the same applies to the public.”
Hils recently delivered the 2022 James C. Bowling Executive-in-Residence lecture at the University of Kentucky where he focused on crisis communications, including how the NBA navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests of 2020. The NBA was a leader in making the hard and necessary choices during the pandemic, pushing through by gathering as much information as they could, communicating with transparency about what they were doing, and finding a way to contribute to a solution.
“You build trust as a result if you are upfront about the process. Personally, I also believe empathy is a crucial tool for an effective communicator,” Hils said. “Putting yourself in the shoes of who you’re trying to reach is a great way to build a message that will resonate.
“I love my job because no two days are ever the same. Being a fan of basketball doesn’t hurt either. I started playing in third grade, and both my dad and grandpa played, so it runs in the family. It’s just a beautiful game. Anyone can pick up a ball and go hoop, either alone to clear their head, or to make friends in a pick-up game, or organize a league on their own. It’s one of the most democratic sports in the world,” he shared.
Hils came to Wittenberg because he was captivated by the beauty and layout of the campus and the warmth of the people fostering a community, which he feels is rare in other schools, especially larger ones.
“It’s a space where you can drop in on friends to hang out or knock on a professor’s door to chat, or strike out on your own to study, explore, or shoot some hoops,” he said. “My very first class was creative writing with Professor Kent Dixon. His advice was to write down your dreams as soon as you wake up, which has always stuck with me and something I still practice today. It forces you to wrestle with and recount images and feelings that are often indescribable and to write quickly before they fade away. Poetry with professors Jody Rambo and Ty Buckman taught me to read between the lines, and Russian relations with professor Gerry Hudson taught me to consider complex problems from different perspectives.
“I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer students, but one thing I’ll say: minimize the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary as much as possible,” he added. “Be open and in search of things that challenge you. If something doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t avoid it. Get outside your comfort zone because that’s where you learn most about yourself and the world. Also, recognize opportunities when they come and find ways to make it work. This is true in both personal and professional life -- if a friend floats an idea for a group trip or a boss asks if someone can pick up a project, say ‘yes.’”