Proudly Sharing America's Story

Amanda Gilmore


Eastern Kentucky native Sherry Keneson-Hall has spent more than two decades working in public relations. Her client: The United States of America.

As a diplomat for the U.S. Department of State, Sherry has lived and worked in five foreign countries since 2002. She speaks four languages (in addition to English). She hosted a slew of foreign dignitaries and celebritites and currently supervises more than 600 other State Department employees. Oh, and she’s done it all while being a wife and mother of two.

“I am proudly American. I tell America’s story. It’s a great job,” the 46-year-old said recently from her office in Washington, D.C. “It’s the unexpected, every day.”

With the world currently experiencing the largest land war in Europe in 70 years, Keneson-Hall must fully understand the ever-changing international landscape. “Priorities and issues are different in every country,” she explained. “We have experts to speak to the issues, but I have to have a good bead on all of them. I read a lot – every day.”

Her current posting is as Director for the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. This involves directly leading a team of 39 and managing a $68 million budget across 49 countries. Prior to this post, she most recently served as Branch Chief for Fulbright programs in Europe and Eurasia, where she managed a budget of $45 million and was responsible for the safety and security of approximately half of the world’s Fulbright participants in 46 countries.

For 17 years before that, Keneson-Hall and her husband Brian traveled around Africa and Europe with their two sons, Xander (now 18) and Dylan (15), to postings in Guinea, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and The Netherlands. Each time, Brian would get a job at the new embassy and the boys would enroll in a new school. Brian was also the stay-at-home parent during much of this time.

“Family members definitely have to be flexible,” she said. “I am very lucky. Brian was willing to set aside his dreams for mine. It’s very rare to get that level of cooperation and I am so appreciative.”

The couple met in the early 1990s at East Carter High School in Grayson, when Sherry and her family moved there. “I was a military brat. I was born in Austin (Texas) and we lived all over – Louisiana, Georgia, Fort Knox, Maryland and West Germany. At one point, we lived next to a woman from Olive Hill and when my former stepfather left the military, we decided to move to Carter County.”

But her fascination with travel and other cultures goes back one more generation. “My grandparents were both Vietnam veterans and nurses. They’d lived all over. We had a box of postards, and gifts from them and I was just fascinated by it.”

In 1989, when she was 13, the family was living in West Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall happened right before their eyes. “I really was on the front row of history. My cousin’s wife’s family came from East Berlin and I remember they had a huge party.”

At age 19, Keneson-Hall was studying journalism at Marshall University and working at The Independent in Ashland when she traveled to Ireland to attend summer school in Dublin. That was where she met her first American diplomat.  “He told me all about his job, and I was amazed that they paid him to live there. I got his card, but then I lost it.” On the 10-year anniversary of her first posting, in 2012, she came across a photo of this man and posted it on Facebook – to see if anyone knew him. Quickly, she leraned his name was Richard Norland and he had become the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

“That really changed the way I do outreach. I have talked to so many people about Foreign Service.” After her first posting abroad, in Guinea, Keneson-Hall returned to East Carter and spoke to the French class there. “I love doing that. Someone did that for me, and I am happy to do it for others.”

Her various posts have involved writing, editing, event organizing and the occasional celebrity hosting. Like when comedian Bill Murray made an impromptu visit to Prague late one night, and Sherry was assigned to be his tour guide. Or when several cast and crew members from the 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” came to town. (Keneson-Hall is actually named in the credits)

In Guinea, she managed the country’s only free and public library. In Brussels, Belgium, she developed the first social media outreach using the then new Facebook to help identify owners of returned wallets and handbags, as well as to assist with welfare and whereabouts cases. In Sofia, Bulgaria, she arranged one of her favorite cultural experiences – an African string band called Ebony Hillbillies playing in the subway. “One of the coolest parts of my job is getting to share American culture abroad - films, movies, literature.”

Throughout it all, Sherry and Brian worked hard to make sure their sons were doing well in school and with all the culture changes. “It can be tough. They call them third-culture kids. They grow up in a third culture – not American and not as a citizen of the country they are in.” The years abroad had some pretty amazing perks – spring break in Pompei, a trip to Berlin to see history first-hand, and frequent weekend trips to the UK from their home in The Hague.

Some of their Kentucky family took advantage of their various European homes. Brian’s mother Molly and sister Suzanne visited them in Prague and The Netherlands, from where they also took a trip to Scotland. Molly, who passed away in April, didn’t have a passport until her 50s, but she made good use of it after that. “We’re so happy she got to see so many places.”