Many for-profits and nonprofits are making a lot of impact in the world without getting the attention that they deserve. But getting attention is not just something to feel good about; you need to build it intentionally if you are to spread word about your good deeds, get more revenue and be able to help even more people. At The Boreland Group, CEO Jennefer Witter and her team help organizations capture more than their fair share of that attention using a variety of PR tactics that have worked beautifully for clients like Luckett & Farley, the US Naval Institute, Women’s Initiative Foundation and many more. As she chats with Michael Zipursky, we learn why Jennefer left a well-established executive role at Ketchum and dedicated the rest of her career to entrepreneurship in the field of PR. Listen in for some wonderful advice about building a successful consulting business, as well as some tips on PR and strategic marketing for solo consultants and small firm owners.
I’m with Jennefer Witter. Jennefer, welcome.
Thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here.
You are the Founder and CEO of The Boreland Group. You’ve been running this company for many years. You have many years of experience in PR. You’ve worked with clients Luckett & Farley, the US Naval Institute, Women’s Initiative Foundation and then many large brands and well-known companies as part of your corporate career before you went out on your own. You’ve also published books. You’re a speaker. You are named as one of the top black CEOs and entrepreneurs in the US. I want to find out more about that. You’ve accomplished so much. Before we get to all of that, you talk about being able to help your clients capture their unfair share of attention. What does that mean?
That’s a phrase that I created because what The Boreland Group does, we work primarily with minority-owned and women-led companies as well as nonprofits. The nonprofits that I work with are not the bigger ones. They’re more grassroots at the community level. With the audience that I work with, a lot of the work that they do is significant and helps their community and yet they don’t get the attention that they deserve. What my company does is to bring and put them on the radar, using a variety of PR tactics whether it is media relations social media, writing such as press releases and op-ed.
Their good works are able to be highlighted to their specific audiences that will enable them to grow their footprint and get more revenue so that they can help more people. Especially now, with a focus being on minorities and women. This is the time I feel to go out there and take what is out there. I’m not saying taking from other people. That’s not what we’re about. What I am saying is to get your unfair share. You weren’t getting as much as before. Let’s go out there, go to the top and get as much as you want so that we can work as partners in order for you to help and employ more people and get more business.
I want to dig into that and extract as much as I can from you for the benefit of all of our readers. Before we do that, let’s go back a little bit in time. You were a VP at Ketchum, quite a large organization that serves many brands and well-known companies out there. Why did you leave? Tell me a little bit more about why you decided to leave that well-established executive role to go out on your own and start your own consulting business.
It didn’t come about like, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” That was never in my business plans. Ketchum is a top-five global communications company and the work that I did was fulfilling. I had a worldwide staff of over 30. I did corporate technology, which was a subdivision that I helped to create because I had a high-tech background. One year, I was able to bring in $1 million worth of business. I’ll never forget, I was sitting in my office and it was a sunny August day. I said, “It’ll never get as good as this,” because business was flooding in. The next month was September 2001. In the tech industry, the bubble burst. I went from a worldwide staff of more than 30 to 2.
What a lot of people don’t realize is public relations while it has a perception of being glamorous and sexy, it is a high-stress job. There’s a lot of pressure day in and day out. When I lost that staff and we did lose clients and work contracted, there still was a lot of work to be done. The other thing is around that time, I lost my mother and that was devastating to me. What I decided to do was to take time off. I quit my job. I took a year off. I examined if I wanted to stay in public relations. I decided I wanted to do that but I wanted to do it on my own terms. The decision to become an entrepreneur was organic. I went about and I’m the type of person that I proceed with risk but it’s a cautious risk.
I went to SCORE and to SBA. While I was getting my company together, I sent out a couple of hundred emails and it was to my network. I said, “I’m starting a company. I need a client.” One person responded and it was somebody from Ketchum. He said, “My friend’s brother’s wife was looking for a publicist.” I met with her in February. My company didn’t have its legal set up as an S corp. We didn’t have our name settled. We had nothing like that. I started talking with her and she became my first client. She is a real estate broker. From that first step, that’s how The Boreland Group started. We were in real estate PR for about five years. Taking that first step of separating myself from Ketchum because regardless of the status, it was still a secure job. I was burned out because at that time, I’ve been in PR give or take twenty years and then you had 9/11. You had a severe reduction in work, personal loss and I needed time to stop. I’ve been moving forward ever since with The Boreland Group.
Take me back to that time when you took a year off, you were weighing and exploring what the best path forward would be for you. How did you arrive? Was there anything you learned that helped you to make the decision in terms of what that path would be, to start your own business and to stay in PR? What was helpful for you? What did you find that encourage you to move in that direction?Whenever you're writing, always think about how you can pull people in. Click To Tweet
I’ll be transparent. The first three months after I left Ketchum, my entire body broke down. I was sick for three months and a friend of mine said to me, “If you were wondering if this was the right move or not, there was your answer.” I always, for whatever reason, got the most difficult clients to work with and it takes a toll on your body. I spent the first few months recuperating. Because of what happened with my mother, I wanted to investigate a career in geriatric management. I went to a couple of seminars and I spoke to some people and I realized it wasn’t a good fit. It was a year so I had time to think and reflect and move myself. What I wanted to do was to work in an environment where I would respect, like and admire my clients because PR is not a 9 to 5.
That’s what most consulting work is. It’s not a beginning at 9:00 and a hard ending at 5:00. It’s not Monday to Friday. It’s weekends and nights. You have to be on call for your client. I wanted to work with clients that I could not have a personal relationship but have a strong professional and personal interest in their success. With the clients that I had in the past, it was rocky. I’ve had clients who disliked me. I’ll never forget this one client. It was not at Ketchum. My boss and I were walking into the office building where she was working. This particular client shall remain unnamed. She looked down at me and my boss was a VP. She goes, “Look what the garbage brought in.” I couldn’t do that anymore.
With my company, I have always made sure that I can do the work and you can pay for my work but is there strong chemistry there? I have turned down work where I know that it’s not going to work out in terms of chemistry. There have been times that I have fired clients because it’s not worth it to be working hard and to have clients who gaslight and question you. I’m not saying I’m a prima donna but we’re being hired for our expertise. If we can’t share this expertise that we have 20, 25, 30 years in and you keep changing your objectives, we’re being set up for failure. I can fail on my own. I don’t need somebody else to do that for me. With the unpacking of it during that year, that is what I decided to do, to create my own business, to be able to select my own clients and to have the freedom of saying, “This is not working out. I wish you well.”
What do you look for when you’re assessing the chemistry? Is it a matter of having an initial conversation with somebody? You just feel in your gut like, “This is a good person. I think this will work out?” Are there some specific questions or a process that you use to identify who you want to work with and who you should avoid?
It’s a mixture. I always have a couple of conversations before signing with the client to feel them out and they need to feel me out to be truthful as well. I want to know their measurement of success is. Do they have realistic expectations? What is their understanding of public relations? It can be nebulous and to be clear about deliverables. Many clients back in the day when Oprah Winfrey was on, everybody used to say, “I want to be on Oprah Winfrey.” She was sitting around in Chicago waiting for us to stroll in with our clients or, “I want to be on the cover of The Wall Street Journal.” They were waiting for clients to come in and say, “Write about me.” You have to explain to the clients that this is the process. PR takes time. You have to partner with me.
We have to work together because I alone doing the work without your participation is going to be a three-legged stool. It’s not going to be successful. In order for the two of us to work together, you have to hear what I am saying. I have to be upfront and transparent as to what it is like to work with a company. Let’s face it, public relations sometimes don’t have the best reputation. A lot of my clients have worked with other firms that did not deliver. What The Boreland Group does is that we write customized programs for our clients and in it, we build as much measurement as possible. When we go in at the start, everything is on paper. We understand where we’re going and where we want to get to.
We also have the flexibility that if it doesn’t work out then we can pivot. All consultants should build that elasticity in their relationships with the clients because who would have thought about it that we would be in this situation. How could we pivot in order to remain a successful partner with our clients when both of us, the client and ourselves are going through the Payment Protection Plan, the Economic Disaster Loan and trying to get your staff together? That’s one of the things that we’ve learned from this 2019 especially that we have to be able to pivot for ourselves and our clients. The objective may stay the same but the road to it most likely is different.
Certainly, a challenging time with COVID and everything going on in the world right now. When you struggled on your own, you sent an email to people in your network. Was that an easy thing for you to do? Do you have any hesitations about that? Talk me through what your mindset of sending out those emails to people.
I have no problem asking. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” That is exactly what I have always said. If you could bear with me, I want to share something because I’m a passionate advocate for women and I speak in broad pressed statements. Women don’t ask. It’s almost like “You’re asking?” It’s like you have a witch in your closet. “Don’t open the door, she’ll come out.” With many businesses during COVID, I lost business. I too went back and forth and I said, “Should I do this?” I spoke with my staff and they said, “Go ahead. What do you have to lose?” I posted on my LinkedIn page and the first line was I’ve always said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” I carefully crafted content that said like, “Other businesses, I lost businesses.”
In my client portfolio, I have room for 1 or 2 more clients. I was specific about what I wanted because I didn’t want somebody coming in and saying, “We’ll hire you for $100 a month,” which has happened. I was clear about my audience. I created a graphic using Canva and I put it out there. I got up to 5,000 views, about 25 people reshared it without me asking. I got a client and several business referrals out of it. Going back to 2003, I had no problem going out there and asking for assistance.
The mindset there like a lot of women don’t ask. I see that with men too. There are a lot of people who don’t ask because they’re waiting for things to be right. They want their website to be perfect. They want their logo to be in a pretty color. They want something to happen before they go out and ask. They feel like if they’re asking, doesn’t that position make them as being too pushy, salesy or promotional? Talk me through like in your mind, what would you tell someone who is working on building their business? You and I both know that sometimes it’s as simple as casting that net out, your network, your ecosystem and letting people know that, “This is what I’m looking to do. Do you know anyone? Do you need help?” What’s your thought process around that? What advice or counsel would you offer people?
Do it. There is no such thing as the perfect time. If you’re waiting for the perfect time, it will never come. When I was looking for a client, I didn’t have a website. My company wasn’t legally formed. I didn’t have a name. When I met with the first client, I was still carrying around Ketchum’s briefcase with Ketchum’s name on it. Don’t wait until it’s 110%. Don’t wait until you have a logo design because what you are selling is not the company. What you’re selling is your expertise and how you’re going to help that person in whatever need they are looking for. I work with independent contractors quickly and that’s always been our business model. I bring it up to the client once in the beginning and I say, “Work with independent contractors. They stay for the life of the account. It will not be shifted over.” I’m done. They don’t bring it up.
Clients don’t care how the sausage is made. They want the sausage made. What I say to people is get out of your way. I’m not saying that today’s November 23rd or whatever and 24th, you’re going to say, “I want to start a business.” You have to do the back work. You have to know how to sell yourself, what your audience is and what your services are that’s going to make you stand out. You have to be there. You have to know how much you’re going to sell your services for and what the profit is. You have to have an accountant. That’s one thing I’m firm about but you do not have to wait for everything to be lined up. Especially nowadays, you don’t have that opportunity because somebody else is going to come in and take your unfair share of attention and it will be theirs. You’re going to be behind that person.Toot your horn. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk about your experience there a bit more. You put all this letter and landing your first client, a real estate agent or a real estate market. What were the steps that you took to build up the business from that point and then say landing your next 3 or 4 or 5 clients? Were you sending out more emails? Were you asking for more referrals? Were you using publicity and PR yourself in your business and something else? Walk us through what you did to get your first real stable of core clients?
This is what I did with that first client. She didn’t want to pay the full amount. I said, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to charge you half the amount and I’m going to invest the other half.” I would do the work and she wouldn’t pay me. At the end of six months, she would then go up to the full fee. I knew that when people saw what I was able to do on her behalf, it would attract other clients. That’s exactly what happened. I used that client as leverage to get into the real estate industry. I went with her to events. I never ignored her but I always networked. I had my business cards and when I saw opportunities, I booked them.
She would speak at this real estate school and I got to know the owner of it. She saw the press that I was doing and then she hired me. For real estate companies, they began to see what this client because I was getting her wonderful media. She was on the cover of the New York Times, on television, in The Wall Street Journal and no other real estate expert was getting that. My company began to get a buzz and I exploited that buzz. What I say to other consultants is, “In order to get what you want sometimes you have to invest.”
Were you creating case studies of the work that you were doing? Were you documenting like saving, “Here’s the cover of the New York Times,” or whatever it might be and then sending it out to people? Walk us through a little more tangibly. How did you take that success that you’re having with your client and then extrapolate or connect that to the next client or lead a conversation with somebody new?
Back then it was different because we’re talking about the early aughts and the media landscape has changed since then. We didn’t do case studies because I only had one client. People seeing what I was doing for this particular client and would ask her, “Who’s doing your press? How are you getting it?” She would say, “It’s Jennefer.” I didn’t stay at home or at the office. I was out there going out and meeting other people within the real estate community. I was not shy about saying what I was doing. Back then social media was not used as much as it is now. There wasn’t LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. A lot of it was word of mouth. The company that she was working for, I got to know the PR department there. They would refer me to business like, “That agent needs something. We hear that this is going on.” It was word of mouth, me going out there and selling myself. The market was different. It was like manna from heaven that I sat down at my best and the business would come in.
Nowadays, there are multiple channels that you can use such as social media. We can talk a little bit more about that about how entrepreneurs can squeeze the most out of social media. You also have to strategically market yourself. What I say about my clients is that if we get the media and our focus is on media for many of our clients, that’s another thing that we can use to get more clients, the creativity. For one client, we created a podcast for him. For another client, we developed a conference series that was successful for him. When we’re going out for new business, we can take these successes as examples of the work that we do. What I did in the early aughts some of it would continue to work, which I still do. I still promote myself but there are a lot of new ways that consultants can use especially social media and virtual networking that will enable them to get more clients and raise their visibility.
Let’s talk about that a little bit more. For the consultants that either they’re a solo consultant or a small firm owner with 5, 10 employees, whatever it might be. The idea of PR and publicity, oftentimes for people it sounds like, “That’s what the big guys do.” What would you say to somebody who is an expert in their area? Maybe they’ve already been creating some content, writing articles, have a blog but they want to get out there more. Should they even be thinking about landing something in Inc. Magazine or The Wall Street Journal? Is that the right thought process for them? Do you advise them to get more granular, more specific, start off with more technical industry publications? How should somebody think about if they want to start generating more leads, build their brand, authority and be more visible? What are some of the best practices or ideas that you think that they should be thinking about if they’re already creating some content?
Take a step back. What is your objective? Who is your audience? You don’t go where you want to be. Many people want to be on The Wall Street Journal but are that where your target audience is or are they reading Crain’s New York Business? I have represented architects. They do not want to talk to other architects. They want to be in the business publication and media because that’s where the decision-makers for their work is. I would say for consultants, take a step back. What is your audience? What is your area? What can you do to get in front of your target audience that is going to use your services? There were a couple of things that you can do.
One is speaking engagements. Speaking engagements are still happening and I’m doing it. Find out what the conferences are and where your audience is? A lot of times you don’t get paid. It is what it is but if you don’t get paid, you can barter. You can ask, “Are they doing Facebook Live?” You can get a Facebook Live and merchandise it to your prospects. Are they doing show dailies? They can do it electronically. Find out what you can barter in order to raise your visibility. Are they going to have a speaker-only event? If they do, that is fabulous because you can meet other experts in the industry and build your brand. With media and industry publications, that is your best bet because what is happening in the media is that it’s shrinking dramatically. Even before COVID, it was happening.
You mean the number of publications, there are fewer actual media publications outlets?
Yes. They’re community newspapers. Reporters are leaving the industry because there’s no work or they’re getting fired. I know at one major publication and I knew a top editor there, she told me that they were told to work four days a week instead of five. That landscape is hard to get into. I will be truthful. It’s hard to get media because what’s happening is that all these events are happening. We had the presidential elections and this is not political, the difficulty in transition from one administration to the other. You have COVID and you have the holidays. It’s been one thing after the other. What’s happening is that they’re taking the remaining reporters who might be on the consultant’s fee and they’re reassigning this reporter to politics. Going to industry publications, they have their focus. It is a niche but doesn’t go, “I’m in public relations. I’m not going to peer industry trade. I am going to a real estate trade or to a manufacturer’s trade where my audience is.”
What are you typically pitching them? Let’s say you want to get in front of more real estate agents because they’re ideal clients for you. You reach out and are you typically recommending that you say something along the lines of, “Here’s who I am, what I’ve done, my credentials and so forth. I have a few ideas that I’d love to speak on at your upcoming conference, do a webinar or write an article for your blog or your newsletter,” and something like that. Are there some other key ingredients that are required to make that work so they accept you for the speaking, webinar or writing?
You need to do your research because they’re getting a ton of this already. What’s going to get you from number 93 to 2 or 3 is to take a look at these speaking events. Target five that you want to be at and then you focus on the speakers and the topics. They usually have a request for a speaker form. Take your time and fill it out. Take past articles that you’ve done and get testimonials. Show what would make your speaking engagement different. If you have a video of yourself speaking because a lot of times they want videos, include that. That’s one way for speaking engagements. For media, there’s something called an editorial calendar. An editorial calendar is a listing of stories that the publication is going to write about. A lot of times, they’ll have it on their website. You can scroll down and look for the editorial calendar. If you don’t see it, you can look for the advertising button and you’ll see an editorial calendar.
The other thing is that you can sign up for it and it’s free. It’s called Help a Reporter Out, HARO. You sign up for it and you’ll get several hundred pushes a day. When I say pushes, it is a compilation of what reporters, editors, producers are working on and that they were looking for interviews. Go through it and respond. Some people like, “It’s free. You get what you pay for.” I got a client in Bloomberg Businessweek because of HARO. If you see a small publication that doesn’t have a large name, don’t be snobby. If it’s within your universe, if that’s going to your target, it’s better to have 2,000 people who are the decision-makers than 80,000 where you have to wait through the chase.If you don't ask, you don't get. Click To Tweet
The other thing is that you do your research on the publication. There was this one publication I never heard of it. It was like, “Forget that.” Someone said, “Look it up.” I looked it up and they had an amazing circulation and background. I pitched my client to them. Those are a couple of steps that I would tell you to take. The other thing is social media. Toot your horn. I use for myself Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. On LinkedIn, I use it primarily for my speaking engagements and a little bit of business. Facebook, for business and little speaking engagement. Twitter is for visibility. From Facebook, I generated tens of thousands of dollars in revenue and how I did that was I post about what I do on behalf of my clients.
I say, “I got this media hit. I got this client in.” There was a woman, I have not spoken to her since her second child was born. She’s now in school. He’s like 5th or 6th grade. She has referred me many times simply by what I’m posting on Facebook and I’ve gotten business through her. You don’t have to do all three but choose the platform which is going to be the most lucrative for you, where most of your clients are and focus on that. For LinkedIn, I will put down what I am speaking on. I’m talking about implicit bias, media relations and personal branding for women. Through LinkedIn, I got a speaking engagement at The Pentagon, which led to a speaking engagement at The Brookings Institution. I took those two authentic opportunities and I have leveraged them. Focus on what you can do.
You posted something on LinkedIn that resulted in you giving a talk at The Pentagon. Can you tell us a little bit more about what did you post and what was the content that generates the result? Was that somebody from The Pentagon who saw that post and reached out to you or is it somebody that you shared it with? Walk us through so people can contextualize and have better practices together.
I was posting about what I was speaking about the different topics and women. I’m adjacent related to the military. I’ve spoken to several military organizations. She and I met at a previous networking event. She wanted me to speak to her military organization. She began speaking about what I could speak and then it grew into The Pentagon. How did I promote that? I put it out there that I was speaking at The Pentagon long before it happened. When I got to The Pentagon, they have a picture, the seal of The Pentagon and a fake podium. I went to the podium and I had somebody take a picture of me there. I used that. I spoke about the engagement afterward because I was not allowed to take pictures during the presentation itself. You ride that horse.
The other thing I have to say and was truthful the response that I got. I was speaking at the Women in Cable Telecommunications. It was a national conference. I found out that Meghan Markle had spoken there maybe two years before she got married. I didn’t know it and I was just doing some research. I never thought I would have something in common with Meghan Markle. I wrote about what I was talking about, which was personal branding and then I use a picture of Megan Markle. This was a few years ago. I’m still shocked that post got 25,000 views on LinkedIn. I use the word strategic a lot. You have to make sure of what you’re saying. You have to use the hashtags and the at symbols. The visuals are key. I didn’t use a picture of myself. I didn’t use a picture of the logo for the event. I use a picture of Meghan Markle. I think that pulled people in addition to the other pulls that I did. Whenever you’re writing, always think about how you can pull people in.
When you post on Twitter, the life of a tweet is seven minutes. Once you tweet, it goes out into vapor. If you were to hang in the aether, you have to use the hashtags and the ats symbols. The life of a Facebook post is two hours. You have to make sure that you pull people in. You don’t do back to back Facebook posts like one at 9:00 and one at 9:30. Do one at 9:00 and the other one at 1:00. On LinkedIn, I don’t know how long it is but I make a point. It said that you have to post on LinkedIn at least twenty times a month, which is once a day. When people hear these numbers to where you should post to eight times a day, LinkedIn twenty times a month and Facebook about 3 to 5 times a week, they get overwhelmed. Pick a platform, know what your objective is, know what to write that will pull people in, use visuals and also start using videos because that is the next wave of attention getters.
One big thing that I heard you bring up or touch on multiple times is taking action. Being visible, not being shy to talk about what you’re doing or the work and results that you’re creating. You’re creating opportunities by being visible. Oftentimes, people are overthinking or they’re looking at everything that you’re talking about going like, “That’s a lot of work,” yet they’re still hungry for more business. You got to put in the work. Do the right things and get in front of the right people. You’ve done a wonderful job of that and your business. I want to thank you for coming on here, Jennefer. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you, your work and your book as well. Can you let us know where’s the best place for people to go?
Thank you. You can find me on LinkedIn, Jennefer Witter. I’m on Twitter. You can find me as @JenneferTBG. You can always email me. Put in Michael’s podcast in the subject line. My email address is [email protected]. I’d be more than happy to talk to you. We can set up a ten-minute talk.
Thanks so much, Jennefer. It’s great to have you on.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you, Michael.
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