PR, Resilience and Giving Back with Jennefer Witter
Episode 16: PR, Resilience and Giving Back, with Jennefer Witter
Jennefer Witter has a long and proven track record in PR. She’s an author and the founder and CEO of The Boreland Group, a public relations firm dedicated to working with small businesses to get them their share of media attention. In this episode, Jennefer shares her career history, how resilience has been an important part of her successful journey, and why women should (and do) help other women.
00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.
00:14 Kristy Wallace: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is Kristy Wallace, here with Maricella Herrera. Welcome.
00:20 Maricella Herrera: Hi, everyone.
00:20 KW: Today on the podcast we talk to a long time Ellevate member, Jennefer Witter, who has given back to our community in many ways, has shared her knowledge and expertise through our webinars, our events, articles, which is really a big part of what the community is about and networking. It's that give and take balance, and Jennefer talks a lot about that in the podcast today. But I was just blown away by her story. She shared a lot around her upbringing, resilience, and how she got to where she is today. And in those stories, hearing from other women, I think it really puts things in perspective, learning what others have gone through, and how they've overcome that, and they've really risen to get ahead. And more than that, Jennefer gives back to a lot of women. She's used her experiences to help others. And I know you're very close with Jennefer as well, Maricella.
01:14 MH: I am.
01:14 KW: So we're excited to have her with us today. Before we get started, we have some data and research from our community, the Ellevate community, on giving back and love to hear that.
01:27 MH: Yes, absolutely. So one of the polls we have that we've asked our members is, "How do you invest in other women?" And 43% of the women in Ellevate Network are mentors for women, 35% volunteer and/or donate money to organizations that help women and girls.
01:47 KW: Great.
01:47 MH: 8% invest in companies that have women in leadership or board positions, and a few other responses include, "I'm an angel investor in women-led startups."
02:00 KW: That's the next frontier, ladies. We're getting more women investing.
02:02 MH: Absolutely.
02:02 KW: It's exciting. So Maricella, you mentor. We have our mentor meetups through Ellevate focused on short-term actionable goals or events that we're doing with the chapters. And that's been great and you've been a great mentor with that.
02:15 MH: It's been so interesting. The mentoring meetups, as you mentioned, are very short-term actionable questions that we can help women in the network come to an event, meet in sort of a speed dating kind of format but it's mentoring, obviously, and meet with a lot of the very experienced women in our networks. And so Ellevate, we're all about networking, and we're all about the natural and organic relationships that happen when you get women in a room. And these mentorship meetups, best case scenario, you make three great connections where you're talking to people that are extremely more experienced than you and can give you feedback on questions you have. Worst case scenario, you lost an hour and got feedback on something you needed feedback from.
03:04 KW: What I really love about the mentor meetups is there's no rhyme or reason. So I've seen younger professional women mentoring more experienced professional women, which is impactful.
03:17 MH: Absolutely.
03:17 KW: I've learned a great deal from women that have more experience in social media than myself or in new technology. I don't wanna age myself, but I am.
03:28 MH: You're young.
03:29 KW: But I need all the help I can get. There's no set model there and that's a big part about networking. You have so much to learn from so many different people.
03:38 MH: Yeah, and you get the different perspectives, which you wouldn't get otherwise. But I am really happy that you did talk to Jennefer. And I'm really happy that I get to do the intro today because Jennefer is someone I've developed quite a networking relationship with since I started working at Ellevate back in the day. She used to be a chapter leader in DC.
03:58 KW: I know. We talked about it.
04:00 MH: So yeah. So we worked closely together for quite a while, which is great.
04:04 KW: Alright, so let's get to the interview.
04:21 KW: Thanks for joining us, really excited about this.
04:23 Jennefer Witter: So am I. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I've been an avid and a rabid fan of it. And you've had a lot of great women on it.
04:31 KW: All members of Ellevate, so if that's any indication, wow. Wow.
04:35 JW: I was just about to say hello. Ellevate really attracts the creme de la creme.
04:40 KW: I know, well, and you of course. Of course, so thank you.
04:42 JW: Thank you so much.
04:43 KW: We're having fun with the podcast. If you're out listening today, make sure you subscribe, and rate us, and review us, and listen to all of the stories 'cause we really shake it up a little bit and cover many different topics, which is great. I've learned so much. I know Jennefer, today we're gonna talk a little bit about many things, one of which is PR 'cause you are the expert.
05:07 JW: I've been doing it for 30 years now, if I'm not an expert, shame on me.
05:14 KW: I know you wrote a book, "The Little Book of Big PR". First, tell me about the book and then I would love to just know about your journey writing a book. That in and of itself is such an accomplishment.
05:26 JW: You know it's funny when I started with "The Little Book of PR", I didn't even think that it was going to be a book. And what I was doing was posting tips on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages and it was about public relation, social media, entrepreneurship. And I would post it every Sunday evening to about 40 pages on both of those social media platforms and I was getting such response. And more and more people were saying, "You should do a book. You should do a book." And I said, "Okay, I'll do a book." And this is something that I wanna share with my fellow women entrepreneurs is not to give up. Because a friend of mine had an agent and I reached out to him and he said, "I would love to work with you on the book." So we met and I told him what I was going to do, gave him a brief proposal. And he took it and then he sent it to a very large publishing company. And they went back to him and said, "This looks more like an article, not a book." And he didn't sell it. And I said, "Well, this is what you say, this is how you position it." And he goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." And I never heard from him again. And that annoyed me.
06:37 KW: Sure.
06:38 JW: Yes. So what I did was I have a staff member and I said, "We're going to get this book published." And neither of us had any experience in it. And so she put together a list of publishers. A friend of mine helped me with my proposal and we sent it out. And we got three bites back. And I went with AMACOM, which is the publishing arm of the American Management Association, and they have been wonderful. And when the book came out, I very sweetly wrote back to the agent.
07:07 JW: And I said...
07:07 KW: Oh, I wanna hear this.
07:09 JW: And I said, "Here's the book and thank you so much for giving me the encouragement to keep going forward. Take care Jennefer".
07:19 KW: That's fantastic. I take so much out of that, it's perseverance and it's humour. You gotta laugh at it and roll with it, but have you conviction?
07:30 JW: Absolutely. In our lives we always will have some kind of obstacles and challenges, and we have to learn to get through them. There was this one person who said if the door doesn't open, climb through the window. If the window isn't open, then go through the back door. Just keep trying. And eventually something will open up for you.
07:52 KW: You talk a lot and you work a lot with companies and smaller companies on PR. What are your key tips you usually give to your clients and friends?
08:03 JW: To my clients and to small business owners which is the Boreland Group's sweet spot, is in order for people to know who you are, you have to get your name out there. Nobody will know how great you are until you tell them how great you are. So for businesses, I would focus in on three tips. The first one is branding, and that is defining who you are, what you are, what makes you unique. Because if you're going to go out there and have that elevator pitch, which is basically your explanation of you and your company within 30 to 45 seconds and if you can't absolutely say in that amount of time what you are and keep that person's interest, it's just going to fizzle away. So put your personal brand together and know how to differentiate yourself from others.
08:55 JW: The other tip that I would give for businesses who are looking to grow is to work on your social media. Now, my head usually [09:04] ____ off when I speak to entrepreneurs about this because a lot of them say, "I don't wanna do social media." It's either, it takes too much time, I'm a private person, it doesn't bring me any return on my investment. Not at all. With Facebook alone, my company has generated tens of thousands of dollars worth of business. From LinkedIn, I got a speaking opportunity, which I took advantage of at the Pentagon.
09:33 KW: Oh, my goodness.
09:33 JW: Isn't that amazing?
09:36 KW: Is that just from regularly engaging?
09:38 JW: Yes.
09:39 KW: Posting information? Sharing? Connecting?
09:40 JW: Posting information. Look at the social media platforms that are out there. Yes, it does take a lot of time, but it doesn't mean that you have to focus on each and every one. Pick one. Pick two. And then focus on them and then post regularly, be authentic, engage your audience. I was coaching someone yesterday and I said, "One of the biggest things to grow your community is to be generous." So what you should do is, if one of your colleagues wins an award, post it on your page. Say "Congratulations Kristy, you've won that award. We're so proud of you." Like other people's pages. On LinkedIn, comment, go into groups, make contributions, and most of all, look at your news feed. Look at it every single solitary day, a couple of times a day. That's how I got one piece of business. A real estate broker who I knew, started his own company and he posted that he was interviewing for PR companies and I saw it on my news feed. And I went, "Doug, you haven't spoken to me." So I went in and I won that piece of business. And it's because he posted, I was looking at the news feed, and voila! I generated revenue just by Facebook alone.
11:00 KW: Clearly, I think a lot about networking, right?
11:01 JW: Mm-hmm.
11:02 KW: And social media and engaging with people, connecting with people, learning what their interests are and what their needs are and being able to then respond to that. It is relationship building that really can help drive a business.
11:16 JW: That is the key. That is the basis of all networking, it's relationship building. And I'm going to give you a quick story, with my book that you mentioned earlier, "The Little Book of PR". A woman tweeted me out of the blue and she goes, "I voted for your book." I went, "Voted for my book?" And I was like, "What is she talking about?" So I looked and it was a Sunday evening, and my book had been nominated for an award.
11:41 KW: What?
11:42 JW: Yes, and I didn't even know about it. And the awards were being shut down, it was by vote that Thursday. And counting my vote, I had two votes for my book. [laughter] And I'm super competitive. And I was like, "Oh, no way I'm gonna go down with two votes." Okay? [chuckle]
12:00 KW: Yeah.
12:01 JW: And so from my desk, I engaged in social media outreach and by that Thursday, I got 300 votes.
12:11 KW: Oh, my goodness.
12:12 JW: We came in second after being dead last and I got votes from throughout the United States, England, Italy, Jamaica, and Canada. And I was right here in New York when I did that. Now, first of all, it shows the power of networking, that you can network globally, domestically, regionally from your desk. The other thing too is that you have to build authentic relationships because I just couldn't come out of the blue and say, "Can you vote for my book?" They knew me, they engage with me and so many of them came back and said, "I would love to do that." So that's what I call virtual networking, by building relationships from your desk because a lot of people are very shy.
12:56 KW: Yes.
12:58 JW: And I've seen it, like for example with the Ellevate events that are really big sometimes and you see women coming in and they don't know anyone and it can be overwhelming. And yes, ladies you still have to go to these physical events but maybe a way to get over it is to start building relationships beforehand virtually so that when you get to these events, you know the people who are going to be there as well.
13:23 KW: So two questions; one, I think you said you had three tips. So we talked about your brand and being able to clearly and concisely articulate that. We've talked about the power and impact of social media. What's your third tip?
13:35 JW: The third tip, media. Now I have been in public relations 30 years and it's only been one time when a potential client said, "I'm not interested in media relations," and the thump that you heard was me falling off my chair.
13:51 JW: It just it's never happened, it hasn't happened since. And what I say to entrepreneurs, "It's not where you want to be, it's where you should be." We're here in New York, so they may say, "I wanna be in the Wall Street Journal." That's fine but what influences your audience? What do they read? So it may not be the Wall Street Journal, it may be Crain's New York Business. So look at the publications and the outlets, not where your ego wants you to be, but where your target market is going to be. And then here's a tip that I want everybody to listen to 'cause I've been hearing it now since 1982. When you reach out to the reporter, make sure that the person you're reaching out to is the person who covers the story that you want to have addressed. Because this is an ongoing complaint with reporters that they get these beats and the beat is their area of coverage, and let's just say it's fashion and then all of a sudden somebody's coming in saying, "You know what? I have this news company that manufactures widgets, will you cover it?" And they're like, "No, we don't." And so that has been a problem. So when you reach out make sure you know the reporter, you can go on their LinkedIn page.
15:14 KW: Do your homework.
15:14 JW: Do your homework, go on their LinkedIn page, read some of their stories and shameless plug from my book what I've done in The Little Book of PR, I have samples of what you can send to the reporter, sample content and you can use it as a template and send it out to the reporter. But media relations absolutely... And once you get the piece, don't just let it sit, merchandise it to your audiences, post it on your social media. If you are going out on pitches, use that as well. Really take advantage of the media placements that you generate. So again it is where your audiences are influenced by, get the correct reporter and use the resulting coverage as much as you can in your marketing advertising outreach efforts.
16:05 KW: So I've heard from a few people recently, a few conversations, the word 'authentic' has come up, including this conversation we hear today. How would you define authentic? What does that mean to you?
16:18 JW: Authentic is a buzzword and for me authentic is being you, being real, not being fake. People can see through it and that's what I tell my clients. If I'm congratulating you Kristy, it can't be out of the blue and say... I haven't been in contact with you and all of a sudden, "Oh, Kristy, congratulations on X, X, X." And then the next outreach, "Kristy, can you do something for me?" You have to be real, you have to be generous, you have to be yourself and if you're fake, people will absolutely see it. You have to believe in what you're doing, that's how I define authentic.
17:00 KW: So it's funny. There's the whole queen bee conversation. Women don't support each other and Sheryl Sandberg actually just, I think, came out with a piece in the New York Times against that notion in many ways, of women inherently we wanna help each other, we wanna support each other. That's your experience?
17:17 JW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I'm a passionate advocate for women in the workplace and that came organically. It's one thing to be an employee because you're protected that way, it's another when you're the CEO and owner of a company and you really have to fight through stereotypes, and discrimination, and unconscious bias, and with women in the workplace we have made great strides but we need to go further and with Ellevate and with my advocacy on behalf of women, I feel when one is strong, we all become stronger. And that's how we succeed.
18:00 KW: And we're both on the advisory board for 92Y Women inPower.
18:04 JW: Yes. Yes.
18:04 KW: I mean, that's really what you're talking about here is, how can we through many different channels have an impact and invest in the mentoring, the education, just the support in the...
18:15 JW: It's the giving back.
18:16 KW: Encouragement of...
18:17 JW: Yes.
18:17 KW: I know when I was a young professional, certainly lacked some of the confidence that I actually probably lack till today. [chuckle]
18:25 JW: Hardly, hardly.
18:27 KW: But it's the people around you that believe in you and give you that confidence and boost that goes a long way. It's very impactful and particularly as you are navigating all different stages of your career.
18:41 JW: Oh, absolutely. The way I am today is not the way I was in 1982. And I can't begin to tell you some of the nonsense I went through. With younger women, I feel that I have this knowledge and the battle scars, so to speak. Yes, the road ahead for them will still be difficult, but I wanna smooth out some of the pebbles in the roadway. And I feel particularly linked with younger women, especially younger women of color, 'cause I am black, and there are certain things you only know by being of that community. And if I can give them my knowledge and let them know keep going, keep going, then maybe it will help them because my background is very humble. I grew up in the South Bronx. My parents divorced when I was five years old. My mother always said, "Your father got the house and I got $2 million." And she didn't get $2 million. She always referred to my sibling and I as her $2 million.
19:49 KW: Oh, I love that.
19:50 JW: I know. But she took an economic hit, and I went from a house with a formal dining room, an eat-in kitchen to a one-bedroom apartment. My mother was a nurse and we didn't have a lot of money. In the beginning, all three of us slept in one bed. At night it used to be so cold that my mother would hang comforters over the window in order to keep the room warm. After six years, she worked so hard and she saved enough to buy us a house and we each had our own bedroom and a backyard and a porch. And I was schooled via public school system. No one gave me anything and my mother gave me love. Even though we didn't have a lot, she made sure she had a set of encyclopedias in the house, she always had books in the house. So what I wanna say to other women, younger women, who especially in these turbulent times that we're living in is that if I can move forward, you can too and that whatever you need, you can achieve. You have to work hard, don't expect handouts. If you get slapped in the face, and believe me I was slapped many times hard on my face, pick yourself up, give yourself a pity party, like a weekend and then that Monday, start off again.
21:20 KW: Your upbringing, your experiences, the resilience that clearly you've overcome some hardships. How's that led you to where you are today?
21:30 JW: Everything.
21:31 KW: Tell me about the Boreland Group.
21:33 JW: Well, first off I have to give it all to my mother. She was perfect and she...
21:41 KW: She sounds amazing.
21:42 JW: She was perfect. She worked so hard and she led by example. When she and my father divorced... I'm first generation and my family is all over the world and she didn't have any of her brothers and sisters around. She was basically on her own with two small children. This was back in the 1960s when believe it or not divorce was still uncommon. And so she had to keep it moving. And while my father did pay child support, it was minuscule. And so she had to generate revenue. There was no ifs and/or buts about that. And so through my mother, I saw that you have to have a hard work ethic, that you have to keep moving forward.
22:29 JW: For women today, we do outlive men, we do earn less on the dollar, and I've seen many women who've gotten divorced, shocked divorce, that's what I call it when they didn't expect a divorce and it has damaged their economic standing. And so, you have to have that ability to generate revenue. With all that being said, I was the vice president at Ketchum public relations, and I was absolutely exhausted around 2001. I had just lost my mother, it was 9/11, I had been working in the tech world. After the World Trade Center disaster and the Pentagon, my worldwide staff went from 30 to two, and I was just burned out and so I decided to take a year off and just recuperate. When I decided to go back to work, I decided to go back to public relations. I wanted to create an environment that I wanted to work in. Now, I never had an entrepreneurial streak in me. It wasn't like I was growing up and say, "I wanna start my own business."
23:34 JW: And so I didn't have a background. So I went to the small business association and I took classes there. I went to the Science Business Library, it's called SIBL and I took classes there. I went to SCORE and I started the business. It's the most amazing thing. I have a business mind. 'Cause I was a Liberal Arts major and never took a business course. With my first client, and this is something... Sometimes you have to give in order to get. And my first client was in real estate. And I had sent out 200 emails to everyone saying, "I'm starting my business. Can you direct anyone to my direction?" And I got one response, and it was a friend of mine from Ketchum. And he goes, "My friend's sister-in-law is looking for a publicist." And I met her and she became my first client but there was a hitch to it. I was only generating from that one client $1,800 a month. Yes, not enough to feed a gerbil.
24:37 KW: Yeah, that's not gonna go far in New York.
24:40 JW: No, not at all. And I invested half. And so, basically, I was giving her like $3,000 to $3,500 a month in services but I knew that the work that I did on her behalf would bring attention to my company. And that's exactly what happened. And I started to get more business building upon that foundation, and that was the starting point.
25:05 KW: So, earlier in our conversation you were talking about the top three things for a company in their PR. And at the time I was thinking like, "That could apply to an individual as well," and it does. I mean, this is... We're getting into personal brand which I think is hugely important. You've got a great personal brand. How did you cultivate that?
25:23 JW: It was an evolution. And again, I've adapted it, especially within the past couple of years because I have been doing more speaking engagements. I've become involved with the military. The core of it has to be, "Who are you?" And I named my company the Boreland Group after my mother. And I think I am these things, but with my mother's name to it, nothing can impugn the integrity of my company 'cause if my integrity is impugned, it's my mother who's being tarnished. Aside from the obvious, like honest and trustworthy, my clients can call me at any time. I'm totally involved in their account. I walk the talk. If I make you a promise, I follow through on it. I will go outside the borders of the relationship in order to make it work for both of us. And with those elements, I carry it over into my speaking engagements, into my coaching business, into the greater business itself, and the extracurricular activities such as Women inPower, which is the organization that you and I sit on the advisory board with.
26:40 KW: And then as you build that brand, you talked about speaking engagements. You wrote a book. How do you get started with that? 'Cause they are important, and you need to be seen, the visibility out there. But many people don't know how to make that happen.
26:56 JW: Start small. My first speaking engagement was at the Science Industry Business Library, and it was about to... About 20 people showed up. I will tell you this, whether it's 20 people or 200, you're going to get nervous. And you're gonna think, "Oh, I'm gonna forget everything." But you know what? People are not there with tomatoes in their handbags ready to toss it at you if you stumble and whatnot, you're the expert. And so, I would say, start small, have faith in yourself, pick a couple of topics that you're really familiar with, and reach out to your local library. The Localwise are a good spot to go to.
27:40 JW: One of my clients, we used to get her engaged with her son's school and she would do presentations to the parents and then eventually grow step by step. And the great thing about is, you can go at your own pace. And you should also include in your descriptions that you are a speaker so that people will come to you. And remember, if they come to you, you don't necessarily have to say, "Yes." You simply can say, "I can think about it," or "I'm booked." But push yourself out of your comfort zone and say, "Yes" even though you want to say, "No." Jump into the deep end of the pool and you'll be fine. You'll bob up to the top and you'll swim to the edge of the pool and get out, and you'll look fabulous in that bikini. [laughter]
28:24 KW: On that note, which is a fantastic note and on. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time today.
28:30 JW: Thank you.
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