Jennefer Witter, FCRH ’83, started her career in public relations by accident. In an effort to save up money for a postgraduation trip to London, Witter took an internship in the public relations department at the New York Botanical Garden. Now, with more than 30 years of experience, she runs her own public relations company, the Boreland Group (founded in 2002), is the author of The Little Book of Big PR: 100+ Quick Tips to Get Your Small Business Noticed (AMACOM, 2015), and is on a mission to empower women in the workplace.
What do you see as the biggest problems for women in the workplace?
I’m very big on the language that we use. Stop with the sorry! Men don’t say sorry. Women apologize all the time without doing anything wrong. Get the word out of your vocabulary. And don’t raise your hand. I’ve seen this many times, and I’ve mentored many women. Men talk over women. And women have to do more. I’m speaking in broad-brush terms, I know that. But you have to stand up for yourself. Don’t worry about being nice. You’re not gonna shout or curse. But do demand respect. Because if you don’t demand it, it will not come back to you.
VIDEO: Listen to Jennefer Witter’s advice for working women in this video clip created for Women Who Lead, a women’s leadership series produced by 92Y’s Women inPower program and Ellevate NetworkWhat can working women do to advance their careers?
Women especially have to join networking groups. And you have to be active. I love men. But keep in mind that they have so much more legacy in the professional world than we do. With these women’s networking groups, there is power in the numbers and power in the exchange.
The other thing is, women don’t ask. You get 100 percent of nothing if you don’t ask. If you ask, you get 50 percent; you increase your chances. With the Women inPower program, they were putting together an advisory board and I wasn’t asked. So what? I went and asked. Twice. And now I’m on an advisory board whose advisers include the co-founder of the Malala Foundation and many other powerful and wonderful women. And I’m contributing to a cause that I am passionate about.
Do you think things are improving for working women?
It’s going to take a hard change, a hard turn in our mindsets, but the turn is already starting. And we just have to keep it moving. All of us fall back at times. I speak from experience. And especially with my cultural background, it’s not in my DNA to do this. But unless you stand up for yourself, nobody is going to stand up for you. We will continue to move forward together. That’s why I always say, you help me, I help you, and we both get stronger. There is room for everybody here. So let’s work with each other, let’s help each other.
Why do you want to help women in the workplace?
I am a big believer in what Madeleine Albright said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Before it was in vogue, before it was fashionable, there were women out there striving to help each other. I want it to be better for the next generation of women, the current generation of women, my generation of women. And I am very passionate about this.
Who are the women who helped you?
There was a woman, bless her soul, named Marge Lovero, who was the director of PR at the [New York] Botanical Garden. She took me under her wing and taught me about public relations. She let me take time off after graduation [from Fordham]and I came back full time. That kind of mentorship and kindness and graciousness and selflessness has stayed with me all these years later. And Susan Thomas of Thomas Associates, who was the first agency boss I ever had who put her employees first. She truly, authentically cared for her staff. What I learned from Susan is what I apply to my own business.
Your book, The Little Book of Big PR, is aimed at small business owners and entrepreneurs. But do you think self-branding is something everyone could find useful?
I wanted to share with other entrepreneurs what they could do [to help build their businesses]. But I do think, especially after the recession, people focused on building their personal brands—how do you make yourself stand out amidst this huge group of people to get to your next goal? Your personal brand will define who you are, define your uniqueness, and give you a consistent statement that will allow you to communicate who you are effectively. The elevator pitch is for a company. Apply the same principle but talk about yourself.
How has public relations changed since you first entered the industry?
At the time, public relations was considered the ugly dog that you did not want to be in your home. It is now a respected discipline that is part of virtually every business communication program. It has become much more strategic and much more nuanced. The tide has turned.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Alexandra Loizzo-Desai.