The Career Refresh with Jill Griffin

Championing Diversity and Building Brands, with Jennifer Risi, President, The Sway Effect

January 16, 2024 Jill Griffin, Jen Risi Season 6 Episode 152
The Career Refresh with Jill Griffin
Championing Diversity and Building Brands, with Jennifer Risi, President, The Sway Effect
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Jennifer Risi, President and Founder of The Sway Effect, boasts two decades of experience as a communications executive. In this episode, we discuss:  

  • How to build your professional brand
  • Networking and Relationship Building Significance
  • Navigating the Evolving Media Landscape
  • Integrating Diversity Principles in Communications
  • Measuring the Impact of DEI Initiatives
  • Valuable Guidance for Career-Driven Communications Professionals

Show Guest

Jennifer Risi, President and Founder of The Sway Effect, boasts two decades of experience as a communications executive. Jennifer's esteemed client base includes CEOs and Heads of State globally. Her expertise encompasses international reputation management, strategic global media relations, CEO positioning, and crisis communications. She's a national branding authority, having spearheaded award-winning campaigns for countries like Mexico, Colombia, the USA, and Indonesia. Jennifer has received numerous accolades, including being featured in Observer's Power 50 and inducted into the 2019 PRWeek Hall of Femme. She's also a diversity champion, serving on boards and mentoring the next generation of talent. She is also a member of the 4A’s Foundation Board and Unsilenced Board of Directors. She is an ongoing advisor to UN Women and an alumna of Barnard College, Columbia University.​ Jennifer resides in New York City with her loyal companion, Sam. Follow her on LinkedIn 


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Jill Griffin is committed to making workplaces more successful for everyone through leadership training and development, team dynamics workshops, and employee well-being programs. Her executive coaching, workshop facilitation, and innovative thinking have driven multi-million-dollar revenues for top agencies, startups, and renowned brands. Collaborating with individuals, teams, and organizations, Jill fosters high-performance and inclusive cultures while facilitating organizational growth.

Visit JillGriffinCoaching.com for more details on:

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Speaker 1:

This is Jill Griffin and you are listening to the Career Refresh this week. I welcome Jen Resee. She is the founder and president of Sway Effect and she boasts more than two decades of experience as a communication executive. Jen's client base includes CEOs and heads of state globally. Her expertise encompasses international reputation management, strategic global media relations, ceo positioning and crisis communication. She's also leading global branding authority, having spearheaded award-winning campaigns for countries like Mexico, colombia, the United States and Indonesia.

Speaker 1:

Jen has received numerous accolades, such as being featured in Observer's Power 50 and being inducted into the 2019 PR Hall of Femme. She is a champion of diversity, serving on boards and mentoring the next generation of talent. She is a member of the 4A's Foundation Board. She serves as an ongoing advisor to UN Women, and in this episode, we discuss how she transitioned from working from some of the best PR agencies in the world, like Ogilvy and Weber-Shamwick, to launching her own PR and communications agency. We also talk about how to build your professional brand and the significance of why building relationships throughout your career is so important. We go on to talk about the ever-evolving media landscape, the importance of diversity principles in communication, how to measure the impact of DE&I initiatives and, overall, giving career guidance for communication professionals. Jen has extensive experience and accomplishments and this is definitely one that you want to grab that notes app and take some notes.

Speaker 1:

Friends, as always, send your questions. We will bring Jen back. Hello at jillgriffincoachingcom. I hope you enjoy today's episode and I will see you next time. Hey, jen, I'm glad you're here. Thank you for having me. Okay, jen, my listeners know the first question that I love to ask people is to take us back to when you were a kid and tell us what you wanted to be when you grew up.

Speaker 2:

I wanted to be a doctor. I loved medicine. I loved even just beyond medicine like studying people. So when I was in college I was a psychology major and I use it every day today. There was literally probably when I was in eighth grade I literally thought I was going to become a medical doctor. And then, when I went to high school and college, I realized I would know, maybe I'll become a psychiatrist and that's what I studied in college. I didn't even know what communications was until my family at the time, when I graduated college, said you need to get a job. You don't have a job, we're not supporting you anymore. I did not apply to medical school or even the psychology school for a master's, so I was like, okay, I'll see what's around.

Speaker 1:

So I had two interviews, one at Shanwick International at the time and the other at Simon and Schuster, and I fell into PR and the rest is history Right right, but, as our listeners will hear, the idea of psychology and psychiatry with what you do for a living, so much of what we do in communications is about understanding behavior, persuasion, influence and all of those things. So I'm looking forward to hearing sort of how those came into what you're doing today. So take us through a high level. You worked for some of the largest global conglomerates of communication the best of the best and then you eventually went out on your own. So take us through a little bit of a high level of how that all came to be.

Speaker 2:

I'm a sticker right. So I spent 12 years at one big agency, which from Shanwick International became Weber-Shanwick, and then I went to Ogilvy for eight years. So I'm dating myself. But I was in big agency for 20 years. You know, rose through the ranks like really just learned the craft of PR. I think the reason I didn't study PR in school is because I went to a liberal arts school. I went to Barnard, the female college at Columbia, and they didn't have PR. I didn't even know what PR was, but I knew I loved people, I knew I loved the news, I knew I loved, you know, just because interacting I'm very much an extrovert and so I fell into PR and I still remember that first placement. I got back in the day when I was I think it was for KPMG tax services and I walked around the office and I showed everyone because back then you had the paper, like I showed everyone, your cards.

Speaker 2:

I was like, look at this Chicago Tribune story I got and it was like it was my first big hit and I was hooked because I didn't know if I was going to stay in PR. I knew I liked certain things about it. What did you love most? I just loved you know very much. You know getting to getting to know clients and their story. But I also always loved the media. And then if I could figure out how to craft pitches to connect with journalists on behalf of brands and tell those stories and then see my story in print that I didn't pay for it, I earned it. It was very powerful.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I can see that so from Ogilvy is that when then you went out and started your own company.

Speaker 2:

So, yes, I left Ogilvy in June 2019. I started Sway Effect in July 2019. Did not know what was around the corner with the pandemic hitting several months later. It was a great launch because I had spent so many years of my career in big agency and I had amassed a great network of people, and that's something I think is very important as you're moving through the ranks of building your career is to really maintain those relationships, keep them, no matter even if the client moves on. There's ways to keep things going. Same thing with journalist relationships. But I think for working with brands and agencies, the relationship building is so important and when I left, I thought I was going to be a consultant, just be myself and take a break from the big agency world. And so many people I worked with who had their own agencies as well, who had been at big agencies, also reached out and said well, why don't we collaborate? And so Sway was started as a network of independent agencies that everyone is an expert in what they do. I happen to be the PR expert, but we have brand strategy and creative and anything you can get at a big shop. We now have in this independent agency network and it just became something that I realized when I launched it.

Speaker 2:

See, I'm one of those people that does everything by gut instinct and when I started Sway I was like, oh, we'll see where this goes. And as fast as it evolved, showed me I was on to something. Even the way I named the company I always liked the name Sway and there was lots of Sways. There's so many Sways. Like you go Google it's like oh, sway FX, sway Group, there's so many Sways. And I was meeting with the head of the PR council for lunch after I left Ogilvy and again maintain network, always important. And I said to Kim Sample at the time I said everything's Sway, what can I do? And she goes how about Sway Effect? And so she helped me name the company. And so I say this because the whole business of what it is today evolved based on amazing relationships that I had for my 20-year career. But also, you know, I believe everything happens the way it should and a lot of things fell into place because I had that network.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I think that is a theme that we've been hearing a lot with recent guests is the importance of network and I think what's happened because of the pandemic, especially with some of people who are recently entering the job market or post, you know, graduate school are finding that building that network when we are in a holy virtual and now we're in a hybrid environment right, it's totally possible, it can be done, but it's not as easy as being in a one-dimensional conversation all day on video.

Speaker 1:

You have to find other ways to build that relationship outside of the context of the meeting. So that idea of making sure that the relationship isn't transactional clearly has paid off for you and in what you've built. So the question that I know a lot of people are like Jill ask her like how did you know? You said that so much of what you did revolved around your gut and your gut instinct, but it's still a leap to go from a consistent paycheck into your own business. How did you tap into that gut to know that this was the we're going to stay here versus like take a pause?

Speaker 2:

Well, I go back to to network right. So I started sway and it's funny when you, when you want money, like you can't get it, but when you don't need it, they'll give it to you. So if I would have applied for a loan when I worked at Ogilvy, I would have got the money, but when I started, it's like, oh, you don't have any. I'm like what? So my point of saying that is I literally started a bootstrap. The entire thing myself, and I was able to keep it going, is again based on network. I had a big launch party. There's two things I do.

Speaker 2:

When I launch swipe, I and I learned this from Ogilvy I invested in branding and I create. I hired a brand agency that probably couldn't afford at the time and we came up with the whole concept and the look in the field of the brand, and so that was number one. And the second thing I did I had already. I had 50 people there former clients, colleagues from Ogilvy, colleagues from other agencies, reporters, I think I went on TV the day that I launched because, again, I'm in PR, so I put myself on TV. So it was like it just kind of all just happened and you know, I was able to do it because one of my clients at the friends now as a client and client again came to my launch party. She was debating what next job to take and she goes well, I take this job. I have this consulting assignment with Pricewaterhouse, do you want to take that?

Speaker 2:

So I was able to get freelance work with Pricewaterhouse while I built Sway and literally it took like I had a nine month gig that was consistent income that I was able to pay for everything and again, power of network. I kind of was able to help take care of myself. So I never was without a paycheck and somebody will always will say to me they're like so what was the business plan? And I tell people there was no business plan. This was literally I told people that I trusted colleagues, former clients, clients, what I was doing, and they just helped me and they were like, wow, you're working for yourself, you want to do freelance for us? Hey, do you want to do this?

Speaker 2:

And then, like a couple of months later I hired my first employee. I got an office space, like it just evolved, and then you know, like it just I am, I have a very much a person that stays connected to the relationships that I have and I built that client that helped me get the assignment. That helped feed the business with the Pricewaterhouse assignment. She had been a client of mine at Ogilvy three times over when I started Sway. She came to my launch party. I helped her figure out her next gig. She gave me what she didn't take and now she's my client again. So the power of the consistent relationship is just it's unmatched, yeah.

Speaker 1:

And what I'm also hearing, which I'll say because you're not saying, is that it's also the power of who you chose to be every day and how you chose to show up as a leader, show up in your excellence, build a reputation, which I know plays a lot into HR I mean into PR. So I would do want to talk a little bit about that, because there's a lot of talk these days about my professional brand. That said, it's networking and the actual action and the proof, proof of concept, right, that you have consistently shown up and delivered. So the two of those together is what also made this a force right, like when people say, oh, overnight success, it's like yes and X amount of years of doing excellent work where you were then able to put this out into the world. So I love that.

Speaker 1:

I love every bit of what you said. It's awesome. So I want to go a little bit deeper on the part of the professional brand, because I do hear that that's something that people I, as an executive coach, I also do a lot of strategy work with workshops and team dynamic, but the only executive coaching side of what I do people will often come to me and say like I really need to work on my professional brand, and there are ways that I do that through executive coaching. But I'd be curious from your side what tips would you have for people around building their professional brand?

Speaker 2:

I would say the first thing is you have to always put yourself out there. Like I wasn't always comfortable talking in public settings, on stages and stuff, and I started to do. I started to push myself out of my comfort zone and I started to do talks years ago. Now it's like old hat, like I'll do a talk in Cannes or I'll do a talk at South by, like there's just things that I'm comfortable doing now. But you have to it's part of you have to be intentional. You have to think about where do I want to be and not be afraid, because I have people that really really like me and I have people that don't, and that's okay. But I say that because when I was at Ogilvy, I really started to build my brand. I started to write more op-eds, I started to speak more. That wasn't always seen as, oh, that's great, jen, it was oh, why is Jen doing that? Like there, you know, there's always that in the background and I had to get comfortable with the fact. Like, not everyone's gonna like me, that's okay. And I think as women, we have a hard time accepting when people don't like us.

Speaker 2:

And I think, you know, when I built my brand, I wanted to do it intentionally. I wanted to do great work, but if I didn't advocate for myself with my bosses, if I didn't have besides, mentors, I had a lot of sponsors. I had people who said a lot of great things about me when I wasn't in the room and I could have been the greatest vice president in the history of Ogilvy. If I did not have people sponsoring me, I never would have got to the role that I did. Like I remember when Ogilvy was merging into one Ogilvy years ago and I was CCO Chief Communications Officer of Ogilvy PR, and they could have chosen four or five different people to become Worldwide Chief Communications Officer of Ogilvy my boss at the time advocated for me in the room and said Jen should get this job.

Speaker 2:

And so that to me mentors, sponsors, taking some risks, doing some talks, writing some op-eds and not being afraid. And you know what the worst that could happen is. It's not successful. You learn from it, you move on. But I've seen people be gun shy of taking risks, even in my own team. Today I'll encourage my team as part of all their goal planning write something, be a judge in an award ceremony, go to that mixer to meet some people. Go take some journalists out, cause if they don't get out there, they're not going to be visible. I don't want it to be the Jen Risi show. I didn't name it Jen Risi PR. I named it the Sway Effect because I want to have people around me who are also building themselves up too.

Speaker 1:

Right, so good, and so many nuggets in there. I would love if you would go deeper for a second cause. I know my audience is going wait. She mentioned sponsor versus mentor. What's the difference? So if you would take a moment and just articulate how you see the difference, because both are essential to your career.

Speaker 2:

So I see mentors are people who help you with the craft, the people who are going to help you be better at PR, teach you how to pitch better in a new business presentation, write a better pitch, just better at your job. Sponsors don't necessarily need to be in your line of what you do, they're just someone who is an advocate in your stratosphere that can advocate for you. Like I could have my boss go into a meeting and say, jen's amazing, promote her. And if there's three other people who can technically be sponsors in the room too, then it becomes, for people think I should have this promotion versus the one.

Speaker 2:

So I always was thinking about relationships at all levels, like I never saw someone for the title. I saw the person as I wanted to work with this person or I didn't want to work with this person. And a lot of the time we all grow up together and so we all kind of rise together. And so to me, my career, if I didn't have the right sponsors. I would never have gotten to be the CCO of Ogilvy if I didn't have that Amazing.

Speaker 1:

And I think again, everyone that's listening these are things that you want to be writing down. You want to be thinking about okay, so who within my organization or who within my industry potentially be a sponsor for me? Who could I be a mentor? Mentorships obviously is about reciprocity. Perhaps you can also help them with something. But you want to be thinking about those things as you're looking to build your professional brand. Anything else you'd add to that on the professional brand?

Speaker 2:

I would. The biggest thing I see is women don't put themselves out there enough. They, they, they, they. Sometimes they they either wait for it, they wait for the permission or they don't want the feedback. I always asked for the feedback, like I probably can take feedback better than anybody else that I know. I've had so many things said to me. It takes a lot for me to even react anymore. So it's like I would say, ask for the feedback. The most important thing is to know, to know what you're good at, to know areas of improvement. You know I always say it's constructive feedback. People use the word criticism and I always am like it's not criticism, it's feedback. It's about how can you get better. I learn every day. The only way you're going to learn every day is if you ask what's good and what's not.

Speaker 1:

Awesome, awesome, awesome feedback. Taking a little bit of a different direction, your expertise involves, you know, international reputation management, crisis communications, national branding. How have you seen these areas evolve in today's sort of rapidly changing media landscape?

Speaker 2:

Well, most people in PR don't do. Earned media relations meaning calling journalists. A lot of people want to just manage social media campaigns, create video content like advertising. I've seen what I do in earned media be more important than ever, because if you can have a journalist write a positive story that you didn't pay for, that means a heck of a lot more than the ad you buy. That's my perspective, that's what I've seen. What we do helps move stock prices. It drives purchasing decisions. So what I have seen, what we do, what I do, is honestly risen more and more in importance.

Speaker 2:

I don't see, you know it becoming less important. I interview people all the time, even to come work here, like if they're like oh, I don't like to pitch, I don't like to talk to journalists, then this isn't the job for you, because a lot of people think that they graduate from doing media relations. I love it. That's why I keep my agency at a certain size, a certain number of people, a certain number of clients, because I love the work, like I love talking to journalists, I love having different clients, different industries, and I think what we do is more important than ever because there's so much misinformation in the world. There's so much misinformation on social media that you know, and you know you even have what's going on right now people talking about fake news Like it is real, and so that's what makes what my job more important than ever is to make sure that the right stories are getting out.

Speaker 1:

So that sort of led into my next question. I was going to ask you what are some of the most challenging areas. I would imagine the misinformation being probably one of the most predominant challenges that you're going through right now. How are you addressing them?

Speaker 2:

You know you just have to like it's one day at a time. It's looking at the stories and you know, when you see something that's not accurate, you have to like, lean in directly into it and go correct the story if you can. It's we're living in unprecedented times right now. I say that to clients every day. I mean we have the way that Sway is is we have clients in lots of different industries. I don't have like one industry where it's just a healthcare agency or a tech agency. We have every industry and every client is dealing with the same thing. Every client is trying to find ways to connect, grow their business but also tell authentic stories that not only will hit investors but can consumers as well.

Speaker 2:

And I tell them all the time it has to be old school, like if you see something that's wrong, we have to confront it, get the right message out and move forward with it. It sounds very old school, but that's the only way to work. And again it goes back to relationships. I have very strong relationships in the media. When I call them with a story, they know A they know I'm not going to call them with a story that I don't even think is good, right and like I'll be like, oh, I have to send this to you. I'm sorry, I know you're not going to cover it, but I had to send it. And so we have a very real relationship and other people they know, like I'm going to like if they, if it's a good, if they get a story from me, it's a good story, and so that too, the relationships with clients Having reputation.

Speaker 1:

It goes back to the reputation that you've built based on your credibility. Yes, yeah, yeah. So you and I have talked before around the importance of championing diversity and also mentoring the next generation. Will you sort of touch on some of the DEI initiatives or programs that you've either implemented it in your company or with your work within the 4A's, or that you're planning to implement? Would love some inspiration for others.

Speaker 2:

So when I started Sway, the whole intention was how do we drive brand reputation, do good PR, while we put diversity, equity, inclusion the center of everything we do? It's not an afterthought, it's literally a central part of the business strategy. It's proven that brands that have much more diverse and inclusive strategies make more money. They do because the teams are more diverse. You reach more diverse populations. It all makes sense, but you still have many specific industries and brands that, honestly, they're not, and so you know, when we counsel and work with clients, we make sure that everything we do takes that lens. We work with brands that are mission-driven, values-driven, very similar to ours, and if they don't walk the talk and we find out after working with them for a couple of months, we don't work with them anymore. Now I can do that as Sway. I could not have fired a client by myself when I worked at Ogilvy. I'd probably go through seven meetings to get that done and I probably wouldn't have won either.

Speaker 1:

You probably wouldn't, which is no reflection on where you work. It's a reflection of the state of business. It's like money was more important than Jen's opinion.

Speaker 2:

Unfortunately, the right thing to do is not always the most popular decision right. So I think that we make it central to what we do with our clients and all of our communications efforts. And then for Sway, as an agency, we have a very diverse and inclusive team, not just the core team but our extended network, so that we are bringing, like, we get a brief in, we decide who are the best people to work on it and we will assemble the best team to make sure it's reflective of the consumer or the business that we're trying to target.

Speaker 1:

How do you measure, then, the impact and effectiveness of your efforts around DEI?

Speaker 2:

Well, we look at it in a lot of different ways. You look at it from top down and bottom up. You've got to make sure that it's an integral part of a business strategy. One of my clients, for example, is Signit. Signit owns Kay Jared Zales All the jewelry stores you see in the mall. Their CEO amazing woman leader, came from Proctor Gamble. She transformed the entire company. One of the key things parts of that was the very specific DNI strategy of diversifying her leadership team, diversifying her board Under her leadership, because of the support that we gave her, of being much more DNI focused. They have had a turnaround of the company like you would not believe they have. Literally, the stock is up, the revenue is up, the team is doing better. Their internal scores are great, great places to work, quality index rankings from Bloomberg and Fortune. It's just a complete culture shift. You have to make it part of the top business strategy. You have to work with the C-suite to get those metrics into what you're doing. The way we measure it is annually. We look at how we do, we set metrics and annually we measure against it.

Speaker 2:

I remember when I went on Cheddar, when I launched Sway, and it was the day that I think the Uber report came out. I was asked about this on camera. The Uber report came out around how they just were falling short from a DNI perspective. That day they went out and made all these goals. They asked me. They said you think Uber is serious about this? I said we have to look a year from now. We have to see against the goals they set. What did they actually do about it? That's what I believe. That's how you measure anything is.

Speaker 1:

You have to just put some numbers down and let's see how we do Then check in and see how it's going, with quarterly business reviews and results being really really sound advice and reminders. When we think about aspiring communication professionals or individuals looking in general to excel in their career, given all of your extensive experience and accomplishments, what advice would you give to them?

Speaker 2:

I think you have to think about what makes you passionate, what makes you excited every day. I love this. That's why I started my agency after a 20-year career in big agency. I love the craft of communications. I think that people need to really think about what do they want to do and which part of our craft do they want to be a part of? Then I think you need to find a team and a leader that is going to let you be your best self being around, being on a team of people who are all different. When I look at things, I look at okay, what does the team look like? If they're all the same, then that's very much like everyone is just a PR person. Maybe we have a writer, maybe we have a social media strategist, a data analytics person. The more diversity you can bring, even in skill, is going to make a better team.

Speaker 2:

I would say that people need to really find what they're passionate about. They then need to find a team and a leader that they feel really connected to and they feel that they're very like-minded and they can learn from. Then I think they need to take some risks. I think people need to not be afraid to try something new. The easiest thing we do is we do the thing that we do all the time over and over again. I like to push myself. I do this type of PR, but I'm going to go try this out that I don't know how to do very well, but I think we can do it. But let's try it out. I think you always have to go outside your comfort zone.

Speaker 1:

Again, everyone. I hope you're writing all of it down, because it's really really great advice. All right, last few questions. I would love for you to talk a little bit more about what you're doing, both with the 4A's Foundation Board and also you know, I was reading recently that you are an advisor to UN Women, which are both two phenomenal areas in which you're giving back and if you would talk a little bit about the work that you're doing there.

Speaker 2:

Sure so for the 4A's. We are the PR agency for the 4A's and extension of that is the 4A's Foundation. The 4A's Foundation is focused on driving next-gen talent in the advertising marketing industry, diverse talent. We just literally had the 50th anniversary of their MAPE program, which is their longest running and largest diversity pipeline program in the industry. So I sit on the board because I believe you have to like, do what you say you're going to do. So, like I joined the board, even though the 4A's is my client, I said I'd love to be on the board and give back to the industry. And how can we, you know, bring more awareness to this great program and bring more people who are more diverse than you know, than what we've seen in the past, what we've seen that actually represents the markets in which we're talking to Exactly how do we bring the right people and feel like you know they can see themselves in the industry.

Speaker 2:

We literally just had the 4A's Foundation 50th anniversary Gala earlier this actually last month, december, october sorry 23rd and it was an amazing night with so many diverse voices in the room of listening to stories of how that program has changed people's lives and it shows that we're on to something and we're just getting started for the next 50 years, right.

Speaker 2:

And then for UN Women. I've been doing work with UN Women since I worked at Ogilvy. I helped them create their program back in the day, the Heath Frishey program, men speaking up for women. This was a long time ago and Emma Watson gave a speech at the UN and then you had various celebrities like Russell Crowe and at the time President Obama say I'm Heath Frishey and since then you know I've been advising them over the years with their unsterity type delights and some other programs. Just to make sure that you know, sometimes it's not always easy working with organizations like the UN. It's more process versus actually getting the impact out into the work and into the market. And I've just I have a passion for the work and so I don't work with them as much as I used to, but they can call on me anytime they want.

Speaker 1:

And thank you so much for sharing your expertise. Talking about, you know what you've done. I think you're an inspiration to so many people who are looking for what's next for them and designing that next chapter, and I really appreciate your candidness and also your desire to continue to push through diverse initiatives through both your own company and the industry that both you and I love. So thank you for that. For everyone else, as always, if you have questions, send them to hello at JillGriffinCoachingcom. We will get them to Jen. We will bring her back. She will answer those questions for us, because we'd love to hear from you. So, as always, have a great week, thanks for being here and we'll see you next time.

Career Transition and Building Relationships
Building a Professional Brand & Networking
Communications and DEI Initiatives