Jennifer Vickery: “Don’t try to fix the issue; rather, really listen”

Have hope for a better future for our children. Lessons learned from this will pandemic benefit our kids: They’ll have stronger communication skills, a deeper appreciation for family time and revitalized educational systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with […]

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Have hope for a better future for our children. Lessons learned from this will pandemic benefit our kids: They’ll have stronger communication skills, a deeper appreciation for family time and revitalized educational systems.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Vickery, President of National Strategies Public Relations.

Jennifer’s expertise is in national public relations campaigns, and she oversees every aspect of PR strategy utilizing her 15 years of senior-level experience. She’s worked for hundreds of national clientele on every facet of PR. She has extensive experience across all media, from writing a regular column for a newspaper, producing a health television segment, serving as a radio personality for advocacy issues and producing a weekly radio show. Jennifer lists media relations, building community outreach and goodwill and strategic planning as her favorite aspects of PR.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Business owner. Mother. Pandemic. These things shouldn’t go together; yet this impossible situation has made many women, like myself, dig deeper to be stronger than ever.

I’m a breastfeeding mother with two young children (ages 3 and 1), a wife, a caregiver and also the owner of a vibrant and fast-paced public relations agency.

What brought me here today? A burning desire to help others, ultimately. Public Relations offers me the ability to stand behind and support causes, to help real people and to make a difference — all through communication. It truly is the only career path for me.

I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications, specializing in Public Relations from the University of South Florida. After working in the field and gaining experience, I realized I craved more rewarding relationships with clients. So I founded a PR firm where I could provide the quality and integrity that I so desired.

As an entrepreneur, I first founded a local medical PR firm in my hometown of Tampa, Fla., in 2007. Finding that experience to be rewarding, I started another venture, National Strategies Public Relations, in 2011 to focus on a broader spectrum of clientele and expand on my business vision. I’ve also founded a nonprofit awareness group, Don’t Touch Our Kids, which focuses on combatting the sexual abuse and sex trafficking of children.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

There are no dull moments in PR! I’ve planned events with water skiers jumping over trucks to land in a pool — in the parking lot of my automotive client — and worked alongside some of the best business leaders in our nation. I’ve even made media appearances sharing ways for busy professionals to get ahead.

My most interesting clients would have to include a “talking dog” running for president and a bakery that aimed to break the Guinness World Record for the Most Powdered Donuts Eaten in Three Minutes. For me, the most interesting and rewarding work I do is helping deserving community organizations combatting domestic violence, espousing substance abuse prevention and ending homelessness, hunger, HIV/AIDS, rare genetic diseases, childhood cancers and more.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m really proud of a current campaign called #CantBeBullied! We’re communicating anti-cyberbullying messages and resources because we know children are spending more time online and sharing anti-bullying tips as our kids head back to school. It’s so important right now to get this message out to many media outlets and across social media because this information on spotting, avoiding, preventing and even recovering from bullying can absolutely make a difference in the lives of parents and children. We can short-circuit mental and emotional stress that can lead to substance abuse, self-harming, destructive behaviors and even suicidal thoughts and actions. These are the types of campaigns I live for! I am truly passionate about protecting our kids and make our community safer.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband has always been my biggest supporter! He is a successful entrepreneur, and I’ve been able to watch him succeed in growing his own business while also having him cheer me on every step of the way. As two independent business owners, we share that unique perspective on what it means to “go the extra mile” and how it feels to have others depending on you for their good name (our clients) and for their livelihood (our staff).

I’ve also been so fortunate to work with really sharp business leaders, and I’ve made it a point to analyze each of their styles — would that way of decision-making work for me? Is that a leadership example I want to emulate? I’ve picked up very useful tools along the way — and avoided picking up some less helpful habits, too.

A specific leader who has truly helped me is a dynamic, strong and intelligent woman named Jackie Sue Griffin. We met about 10 years ago and began working together when she was the Executive Director of a nonprofit focused on substance abuse prevention. As I handled her organization’s public relations, I was also learning from her what it takes to be a strong leader, an amazing communicator, an uplifter of spirit and a loyal friend.

She has since moved forward to create her own business helping other nonprofits addressing substance abuse, suicide, mental health and violence around the nation and even started a movement called HERStory to support and uplift women through shared stories and nurtured needs. She is one of the most amazing women I’ve had the privilege to work alongside, and she guides me regularly to keep supporting causes that bring true change to communities across the U.S.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I’m a breastfeeding mom with two small children who need attention, care, feeding, playtime, naptime — and mean the world to me. Since the pandemic, it’s become plain to me that balance between nurturing our family life and being a business leader woman intersect for me; They’re one and the same in that I’m often both at the same time since the pandemic.

It’s hard as a family to be at home so many hours of the day. Even with family support for the kids, children still always want their mom. We aim to foster creativity, so we have many projects and arts and crafts. And so I’m often working right alongside them on my own creative, client-supporting projects!

Recently, my three-year-old set up a chair next to mine in my office. It was one of the most adorable things to see his small executive chair right beside me, but also it resolved a lot of challenges. I realized he really just wanted to be close by at a time when I really needed to work. Thank goodness for his emerging problem-solving skills! I’m not sure I ever envisioned a co-working space with a toddler, but we’re great office mates, now.

My children thrive on routine. This means that their regular lunchtime and other routine activities are essential for them — but can intersect with an important meeting. Deciding whether to prioritize the kids staying on routine or attending the important meeting can be truly challenging.

My one-year-old daughter really needs to hug and cuddle to feel secure throughout the day. Some days it’s extremely challenging wanting to be there for my children and meet their needs while also running a business with needs of its own at the same time.

Another challenge is the new movement to be on video conferencing. While Zoom and Skype are amazing for business, it has real hardships for individuals, especially for mothers. Children popping into the office during a video call, the need to breastfeed a baby, or a child crying from another room are all valid worries that race through my mind on a daily basis. My kids are everything to me. I want to be there for them at all times, so balancing their needs and safety and my business is a challenge. I’m learning to set my boundaries and do phone meetings whenever I need to.

Childcare has been an issue for so many mothers; I rely on it to be able to run my business. My mother-in-law watched our kids a few days a week before the pandemic, but when the virus hit, because of her underlying health conditions, she needed to distance from us. I was without childcare for two months. Fortunately, she has now returned, but we are cautious about engaging with others to protect her health.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

My schedule has had to shift quite a bit since the pandemic. I’ve built in room for flextime with the children and catch up with the extra work while they’re sleeping. I have to give myself the grace to do this. Being more assertive in what works for me has become a new skill! Pre-COVID-19, I’d just make meetings work, but now I’m communicating my boundaries and more than willing to move a meeting or start it a little later.

I’ve not only made these changes for myself, but also instituted changes throughout the company to support a more flexible environment overall.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Early on when COVID-19 first became news, I made a promise to keep my staff remote. We ended all in-person meetings and were one of the first businesses to take that stance.

I wasn’t sure my clients would understand or even if I was doing the right thing for my business and family. I had to let feedback from my team and my inner guidance direct me to try to reduce the stress that was quickly building.

This was a big challenge, initially. Imagine a PR agency without in-person interaction. It was a really tough decision to make.

Pre-pandemic, our clients would do many in-studio interviews, but when the pandemic hit, media outlets no longer wanted guests to come in. We quickly adapted to video conferencing for all interviews and instituted new coaching for clients to make sure they were prepared and comfortable. We created training documents for our clients on how they should prep for interviews now that they would be happening via Zoom, Skype or another remote platform. Many had never used this technology before, and the learning curve for some was steep. And they needed more of our time and focus.

Additionally, my agency handles social media for businesses and usually has posts scheduled at least a month in advance. We essentially had to rip up our scripts for the posts as they no longer applied. We worked double-time to rewrite hundreds of social media posts and create new graphics to include safety, commitment and empathy messages.

Finally, one of our team members contracted the virus, which cut our human resources, just as we began onboarding a new client. We really needed to be very sharp during this time while simultaneously trying to figure out how we ourselves were handling the pandemic.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I’ve adjusted my hours to be more flexible, and I find that my regular workday has expanded to include a couple of hours in the evening after the children have gone to sleep. It allows me to catch up, and it’s what I have to do now to make everything work.

During this time, I’ve decided to use the pandemic as a catalyst for internal change across my business. I added time for the team to talk about their own feelings about the pandemic, especially early on. I also allowed for flex time for securing supplies when there were massive shortages and fear.

I knew that our meetings and interactions would need to adapt and felt that internal communication was going to be more important than ever before. I implemented a survey to gain feedback about the company and also a communication style behavior assessment (DISC) for our team to learn about their own and each other’s preferred communication styles. We’re using these new tools to be even more effective.

Additionally, I recognized the pandemic generated new stressors about the economy, so I made a concerted effort to boost employee benefits to include 401K, medical, dental vision and PTO. I wanted to give back as much as I could.

I also incorporated a 3 p.m. meditation time for our team and purchased a subscription to an app for meditation. I wanted my staff to know it was okay to need additional space, support and to reduce stress — theirs and mine, simultaneously.

I also took the time during this pandemic to reorganize processes so that we would be more strategic as a company.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

My advice is to be open with colleagues and even clients. Initially I struggled with trying to maintain the most professional image possible while working alongside my kids, who really need me at times. I felt like an actor, though, because it just wasn’t reality.

Now I let my colleagues or clients know when I need to reschedule or need just a few minutes. Putting the children first resolves more issues and makes a more peaceful environment to work. Put your kids first, and don’t be embarrassed to express to your workmates — or subordinates — that you need some time.

Most people, if not all, should understand the situation that being a business leader and a parent during the pandemic means.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

My kids are very young, and they need a lot of things to do, mainly with an adult, to occupy their time.

That means we’re really in charge of their learning and fun, whereas an older child might have some of their own ideas.

I purchased a homeschooling curriculum and have really enjoyed its nature-based philosophy. We’ve been learning so much about nature, science and art, and my children are thriving from this. When kids are happy, parents are happy, and there is an overall more peaceful feeling.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Working in the news myself, I have to pay attention to headlines, current events and changes. Ignoring the news is simply not an option.

This makes me hyper-sensitive to what is going on in each news cycle. There is a silver lining to this, however. I feel more connected to people than ever before. We’re all going through the same silent stressors and have similar feelings.

I’m spending more quality time with my family, eating in more, doing more art projects together and, for the first time in my life, gardening. There is light at the end of the tunnel, for sure. I’d love to share my five reasons of hope to inspire others:

  • Have hope that we can be connected via technology. The last time a pandemic hit, there was no Facetime or technology to stay in touch with friends and family. We have this now. Life is amazing because we can still see the faces of our parents, loved ones, and those we cannot physically be around at the moment.
  • Have hope that going back to basics, like feeling the grass under your feet, is now more important than ever. This is good for the soul. Do things in nature that otherwise you may have been “too busy for” before COVID-19.
  • Have hope that things change after a storm. Systems get reorganized and changed as a result of the pressures of disasters, pandemics, etc. The new normal could be better than ever.
  • Have hope for a better future for our children. Lessons learned from this will pandemic benefit our kids: They’ll have stronger communication skills, a deeper appreciation for family time and revitalized educational systems.
  • Have hope that this strengthens each of us in ways never imagined. Scary times like this do something to you as a person. This experience is strengthening people in ways that they couldn’t even imagine — and may not yet have realized.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Listening is one of the greatest things a person can do to support a loved one! Don’t try to fix the issue; rather, really listen. Reflect back to them what you heard them express. Let that person truly be able to say anything and everything they’re feeling. This is one of the most healing practices and actions of support.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a quote that I often live by; it’s not from anyone in particular, but it’s something that has really always helped me. “Always do the right thing.” That’s it.

When there is a tough decision to make, it becomes much easier when I tell myself, “Always do the right thing.” If there is a conversation that I need to have about performance, budget or another tough subject and I might be asking myself if it’s worth the conflict, I let this compass guide me to doing the right thing versus what might seem the easier thing. The right thing is sometimes the harder thing, but it’s always worth it.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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