When the highest level of government was intent on suppressing the truth about the environmental damage inflicted by the actions of humankind, forbidding phrases such as “climate change,” “global warming,” carbon footprint,” and “greenhouse gas emissions” to appear in federal websites and publications, Karen Pochert Petersen spoke up.
After her first thought of quitting her job as communications strategist for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, she realized, “I can make the biggest difference staying put and pushing against the system in ways I’m able to without getting fired,” says Colorado Press Women’s 2021 Communicator of Achievement.
So Karen asked hard questions about why and what could be published, finding alternative phrases with the same meaning and impact, couched in compelling prose.
“The people in the U.S. Virgin Islands really cared about climate change because it affects their livelihood—tourism, their coral reefs,” she says of one of the many communities she worked with on strategic communications plans to promote clean energy goals. “It was important use those terms. I pushed back and got away with it because it was a special partnership and the pieces were not branded DOE [U.S. Department of Energy].” That campaign got the message out to its intended audience—and won an NFPW Communications Contest first place award.
“Karen is wonderful to work with,” says Adam Warren, PhD, director of NREL’s Integrated Applications Center. “For more than a decade I have relied on her communications support and guidance. Karen consistently pushes the boundaries to tell a more compelling story about NREL’s work and why it matters. She has a gift for conveying complex technical and scientific information in a way that is not only relatable and accessible to a broad audience, but also engaging and inspiring.”
Karen’s co-worker, Becky Harris Sullivan, NREL senior writer and strategic communications advisor, concurs, “Central to any resonant piece of writing is humanity—and Karen has an almost innate ability to channel humanity, regardless the subject. Her written products, from articles to web content to reports and more, showcase unique viewpoints and seemingly effortlessly places the readers in the shoes of her subjects. Karen leverages her writing abilities to elevate the work of our laboratory, as well as to shine a light on the people central to these exciting technological advances.”
Karen’s passion for the written word comes from an early addiction to books. “Reading was my first love, the way I traveled the world,” she says. “Books transported me to a different time, a different place.” Her choice of subject matter also influenced her thinking: “biographies of women in history who changed the world. Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart. Books opened doors.”
She was also encouraged as a writer, and attended Colorado State University to pursue technical writing, but switched to University of Wisconsin-Madison her junior year to earn a degree—magna cum laude—in journalism and public relations.
After graduation, she knew she wanted to get back to Colorado, so she sent more than 200 resumes out to any company she found in the phone book that might need a writer. After short stints as an intern at a Colorado magazine, a canvasser for CoPIRG (the state affiliate of Public Interest Research Groups, where she earned her first environmental activist credentials), and an editor for a catalog marketing newsletter, she landed her first long-term career job as a book editor and copywriter for Paladin Press, a publisher of technical manuals on military science, law enforcement and martial arts in Boulder. The position initially didn’t appeal to her because she “was pretty liberal,” but during an interview with the owner she was taken by his commitment to the First Amendment and a poster on his wall that stated: “Question all authority.”
During her days at Paladin, co-worker Fran Milner recruited Karen to be part of the planning committee for Boulder’s Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation, an annual fundraising gala to fight hunger and poverty.
“Using her creative writing and communication skills, Karen was my point person on all things media-related,” says Fran, chairwoman of the event. “She gave live interviews to radio stations, set up free television coverage, wrote and edited press releases, created PSAs and other printed promotional pieces as well as our local SOS cookbook. Her big heart, dedication, talent and boundless energy helped Boulder SOS raise $50,000 to $60,000 annually.”
Karen’s friendship with Fran led to a friendship with another future CPW member, Gay Porter DeNileon, Fran’s sister. “I got to know Karen in the late 1980s, and she’s been a true friend ever since,” says Gay. “She helped me move at least a couple of times. She taught me to rollerblade. She babysat my young daughter occasionally, too. She’s lots of fun to be with; she’s adventurous and brave. Most of all, she’s a critical thinker, whose opinions I respect and seek out on a variety of issues, both personal and professional.”
On one of their adventures, when both were single, Gay took Karen as her date to an out-of-town wedding. They wove through mountain passes and sped across long stretches of open highway in Karen’s new purple Camaro, the “Purple Haze,” to the small town of Crestone, Colorado. Among the other wedding guests was carpenter and local resident Gus Petersen; he and Karen immediately hit it off. Their long-distance relationship lasted for a few years before they settled together in the Denver metro area. Over two decades of marriage, the pair have built a business and continued the tradition of travel and adventure Karen’s parents set out for her.
As educators who had the summers off, Keith and Pat Pochert piled their two kids into the family Ford and set off to see America. Every year they’d target a new destination, exploring national parks and the towns and cities in between. Back home in Lansing, Michigan, they’d add a pin on the large map in the basement for each place visited. “I’ve visited 45 states now,” Karen said. With Gus, her travels have taken her even farther, to exotic locales such as Machu Picchu, Peru; Baja, Mexico; Thailand; Costa Rica, and several Caribbean islands.
While she navigated her own career, Karen helped Gus establish his private training and kettlebell practice, writing promo copy, helping produce his training videos and getting the word out on social media. Karen, too, became a proficient practitioner of Gus’s kettlebell training system, and helped him lead workshops in several states. Their physical and mental well-being also requires golfing, skiing, hiking and almost anything else outdoors.
Beyond work and play, Karen’s passions include social justice advocacy, which she has demonstrated through her church work, making her mark on Colorado state legislation with one particular situation. While serving as a deacon at Denver’s North Presbyterian Church, Karen became a church and family liaison to the media and state senate in a child custody case involving a Lakota Sioux-Diné (Navajo) infant. Because of cultural misunderstandings between a social worker and the mother, the infant was taken from her mother in the hospital almost immediately after she was born and sent to a foster home. The family desperately contacted the church pastor, who in turn recruited Karen and other church members, to intervene. They advocated for the family at a hearing, called in the media, and held prayer vigils throughout the day.
The baby was returned to her family within three days, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Righting the bigger social injustice “became a mission” for Karen. Although the child was protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, the federal law was often disregarded by states in cases involving removal and out-of-home placement of Native American children.
“By the time most families were able to find an attorney to work pro bono, it was six months later, and invariably the judge would say, ‘Well, the baby has bonded with the adoptive parents,’” explains Pastor Heidi McGinness. “Because of Karen’s amazing abilities and pursuit to right an egregious wrong,” the state passed legislation the next year that stops the removal of a newborn from a parent in the hospital without a judge’s hearing. Karen’s unrelenting spotlight on the issue also elicited an apology to the family from John Hickenlooper, then Denver mayor, and the family asked Karen and Gus to be the child’s godparents.
Pastor Heidi remembers Karen’s other contributions to the church as well. “When I held the first immigration seminar in the church after 9/11, she reached out to the homeless, the poor and disenfranchised through the ministry of the church. She was an invaluable asset and partner in establishing a beloved community where everyone was welcome; where the homeless and drug addicted sat next to physicians and engineers at a roundtable of shared meals after services.”
Karen’s work with the Native American community is also an asset at NREL, where she developed an inclusive communications planning process to ensure tribal communities understood and supported their councils’ clean energy projects and goals. “Without community support, the program is not going to succeed. Now, strategic communications planning is something we always do when we begin a project with a new community, federal agency or partner. It’s a whole process of asking questions. What are the challenges, the goals, the values? What matters to the people we’re working to empower? It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s been a game changer across the office.”
Jana Ganion, sustainability and government affairs director for Blue Lake Rancheria, the California home for several Native tribes, has seen Karen’s work first-hand. “Facilitating tribal strategic energy and communications plans, respecting and reflecting each nation’s cultural ethos, is a particular focus of her expertise,” says Ganion.
Warren notes Karen’s achievements “range from facilitating communications planning workshops … to developing award-winning outreach campaigns and publications for NREL partners to coordinating and refining a strategic plan for NREL’s Integrated Applications Center. She developed and executed a communications strategy for an Advanced Energy Systems degree program NREL launched in partnership with Colorado School of Mines in 2018. The campaign exceeded our primary goal of recruiting eight to 10 first-year students; we ended up with 11 PhD students and nine Master’s students. The campaign also achieved its longer-term goals, helping garner $600,000 in funding support for the program from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and generating interest in similar joint programs among our other university partners.”
Karen also works internally with her co-workers to promote compelling, impactful writing. After taking a storytelling course from a well-known business communication specialist, she brought the instructor in to teach the course to other NREL writers, then created an ongoing series of workshops that she taught and led herself. A cohort of management-appointed communicators now meets regularly as the NREL Communications Office’s Writers’ Working Group.
“Karen is not only an excellent writer, but also a talented coach to NREL writing staff. Her writing workshops helped NREL writers think like readers, provided tips to eliminate clutter, and offered tried-and-true ways to hook and engage readers with short attention spans,” says co-worker Carol Laurie. “Best of all, Karen has internalized this new writing style, and every piece she pens demonstrates the brilliance of its merits.”
Karen joined CPW in 2010, “because I loved that the organization focused on empowering women,” she says, and quickly won top honors for her communications work. She also stepped up to manage the state’s high school communications contest, which culminated in an awards presentation at Denver’s 9News studios, where the winners and their families watched a live news broadcast. She managed the contest again in 2014, and is currently the CPW representative to the Open Media Foundation Media Engagement Working Group, which supports the state’s media and its mission to put the power of media and technology in the hands of the people.
Whatever Karen does, she does with passion and a commitment to excellence. “The tension of writing within budget, within time limits, drives me to get things done, while the perfectionist in me wants every piece to be just glorious,” she laughs.
Laughter, like the environmentalism and social justice she embraces, is an essential part of Karen, a communicator we can all be proud of.