“Networking opportunities are a bit like being set up on a blind date, and similar rules apply” With Sawyer Armstrong

Don’t take over the conversation by talking “shop” the whole time. People want to feel that you are genuinely interested in them

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Networking opportunities are a bit like being set up on a blind date, and similar rules apply. Don’t take over the conversation by talking “shop” the whole time. People want to feel that you are genuinely interested in them. Ask questions to get to know the other person. Understand what they do and what makes them tick. As you build personal connections, potential business and press opportunities often present themselves.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sawyer Armstrong, Account Manager with Green Olive Media, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. Sawyer is a dynamic public relations professional specializing in brand development for a diverse array of food, beverage, restaurant and hotel clients. Sawyer began her career in New York City representing 1OAK NY, 1OAK LA, Up&Down, Light Nightclub at Mandalay Bay Las Vegas, and Butter Midtown with Food Network celebrity chef Alex Guarneschelli. Sawyer now works in DMAs nationwide with clients such as Grain & Barrel Spirits (Dixie Vodka), Brown Forman (Coopers’ Craft Bourbon), Holler & Dash (multi-unit subsidiary of Cracker Barrel), Salata (fast-casual salad restaurant with 80+ locations across the country), Jackmont Hospitality (James Beard nominee One Flew South and Chicken + Beer owned in partnership with Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), Casi Cielo (the chef-driven imprint of La Parrilla Mexican Restaurants), and Michelin-starred Gunter Seeger NY by Chef Gunter Seeger. As Account Manager for Green Olive Media, Sawyer also oversees a team of Senior Account Executives, Account Executives and Account Coordinators to develop results-driven public relations programs for James Beard Award winners, Michelin-starred restaurants, Pit Masters, celebrity-owned concepts and world-renowned hotels. Sawyer strategically positions clients for success with strengths in event planning, earned editorial placement, forging key relationships and building interest across market communities. She effectively executes high-profile projects, strategically entices and entertains influencers, creates brand ambassadors, secures VIP events and promotions, and ultimately increases customer frequency.

Thank you so much for your time. I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I come from a very non-traditional communications background. I was raised in the restaurant industry, and came up through the professional ranks of the culinary world myself. At 25 I was the general manager of a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. Then, as I was developing that restaurant’s private dining kit and programming, I kept wondering how to attract and host guests of increased influence in the market. I was discussing this with colleagues and friends, and discovered that I was actually attempting to activate some public relations strategies, though I hadn’t a clue about public relations at the time. After looking into the field further, I decided to make a career switch and I was very, very fortunate to be hired right off the bat as an Account Executive with a boutique PR firm in the Flatiron District called Fingerprint Communications. Jessica Meisels took a leap of faith in hiring me, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that. Since then, I have lead public relations and marketing programs for a well-respected list of food, beverage, restaurant and hotel clients.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began working with Green Olive Media?

Absolutely — I had for several years represented Chicken + Beer, a restaurant owned by Jackmont Hospitality in partnership with Ludacris. In 2017 I coordinated an opportunity for Ludacris to be the Honorary Chair of Atlanta’s Taste of the Nation, an annual culinary gala benefiting Share Our Strength. As I was escorting Ludacris around the event that evening, managing his run-of-show and ensuring that we hit all the touch points, he turns to me and says, “Do you mind if we go back to the green room for a few minutes?” I said, “Of course, is everything alright? Is there anything I can do for you?” He said, “I’m fine, it’s just that my daughter is about to go to sleep and I want to FaceTime her to say goodnight.” That memory still warms my heart. He is a consummate gentleman and entrepreneur, and I very much enjoyed working with him and his restaurant.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh goodness, where to begin? Pitching the wrong people, pitching the wrong things — but maybe one of my funniest mistakes made was while working the door and managing the guest list at a private client event. I felt very uncomfortable telling anyone that unfortunately they weren’t allowed inside because they weren’t on the list. People would say, “Oh, but I’m friends with so-and-so!” and I would reluctantly let them right in. That event saw far more attendance than the host had anticipated! It wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back on the swarm of people and little me with my clipboard is pretty hilarious. Now, I teach everyone on my team how to finesse that exact situation with strength and grace.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now I’m leading new business development by planning and overseeing all new business initiatives, identifying new leads and potential new markets, drafting scopes of services and preparing RFPs / RFIs. There are so many wonderful restaurants, hotels, breweries, bars, cafes, and food and beverage products in need of increased momentum, market awareness and buzz. At the moment, I am the most excited when a brand I believe in buys into the public relations process.

Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in PR?

My father has been a chef my whole life, and over the years we’ve often discussed the benefits of cooks attending culinary school. I have known many talented cooks who have gone through I.C.E. and C.I.A. and others; but my father will maintain that the greatest culinary school is the restaurant kitchen. Will a cook learn more about how to work in a restaurant kitchen in a classroom, or in a restaurant kitchen? To that point, when I first broke into public relations, I bought a few “how to” books about pitching and marketing and food journalism, etc. I felt completely out of my wheelhouse and ready to immerse myself in something new. But I learned more about PR by entertaining writers from New York Magazine and Vogue at Up&Down until 3 a.m. than I ever did or ever could from a book. I couldn’t afford mascara or a slice of pizza at the time but I made sure that the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar and Bon Appetit came to my door. Today, I’m as much of a media sponge as I ever was. My advice to young people seeking a career in PR is to get in the restaurant kitchen, so to speak. Absorb as much media as you possibly can: websites, magazines, newspapers, tv shows, radio programs, trending social media platforms and influencers, etc. Attend industry events and competitors’ events. How can you strategically position your clients as relevant and press-worthy based on your of-the-moment knowledge?

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

That’s very kind of you! I learned very quickly that people don’t want to be pitched all the time. Networking opportunities are a bit like being set up on a blind date, and similar rules apply. Don’t take over the conversation by talking “shop” the whole time. People want to feel that you are genuinely interested in them. Ask questions to get to know the other person. Understand what they do and what makes them tick. As you build personal connections, potential business and press opportunities often present themselves.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

Well, to piggy-back on my advice about being a media sponge, I read restaurant reviews regularly: Pete Wells, Ryan Sutton, Tom Sietsema, Jeffrey Steingarten; I used to read Jonathan Gold a lot as well, may he rest in peace. Now that I’m in the southeast, I follow Christiane Lauterbach, Hanna Raskin, John T. Edge and others regionally based as well. It’s important to have my finger on the critical pulse of the industry — again, to understand what’s being said, how it’s being said, and how I can use that of-the-moment knowledge to my clients’ advantage.

Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Talking politics can be a professional landmine. I used to be so scared to have a political voice because I was concerned about alienating clients, colleagues and media. Now, I don’t believe that anyone can afford to be silent. That doesn’t mean I want to launch a bipartisan debate in the conference room, but if I’ve identified an appropriate audience or platform, I’ll speak up and speak out now more than in years past. Sometimes it simply takes an open, honest dialogue to inspire a movement. So, the movement I hope to inspire is more civil dialogue, and an increased effort to truly hear each other. The best way to improve communication is to do more of it.

I feel strongly that the HIV / AIDS epidemic is under publicized and still a global plague. Prevention efforts have lead to encouraging declines in some populations, but there are still so many socioeconomic factors that continue to affect HIV risk. Poverty can limit access to health care, HIV testing and medications that can lower levels of HIV in the blood and help prevent transmission risk. Discrimination, stigma and homophobia are far too prevalent in many communities, and these factors may deter individuals from seeking testing, prevention and treatment services. Language barriers and concerns about immigration status present additional prevention challenges. I believe that accessible, affordable, high quality health care is part of the American promise.

Be an advocate, be an LGBTQIA++ ally, vote in the midterms on November 6 and vote in every election. Communicate. Speak up, speak out and vote.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

  • Not all news is newsworthy. The news cycle is a competitive arena where publicists are pushing to position stories that could become news. To secure press is to understand how to create and vet the most compelling stories, and pitch the right ones to the right people and newsrooms. The whole process is highly curated.
  • Don’t have any news to share? Make some. Align your client with of-the-moment, trending and relevant opportunities, or create campaigns that have a news angle and also reflect the client’s brand values.
  • Do not neglect email etiquette: be responsive. It doesn’t matter if the email is from a client, your boss or a reporter: respond immediately — even if you don’t have an answer. Sometimes you simply need to let the sender know that you’ve received their email.
  • Do not underestimate the power of a great non-profit partnership. Develop a campaign or event that shows off your client and charity partner, and raises funds with a call to action for your client’s target consumer. The resulting coverage in mainstream and social media will enhance brand awareness for your client and promote a positive brand imagery halo while also strengthening or laying down community roots.
  • When it comes to working with influencers (bloggers, celebrities and other social media personalities), sometimes less is more in terms of followers! No joke. You can easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single sponsored post from big-name influencers, but what’s the real return on that investment? A lot of research shows that as influencers’ followers increase, audience engagement decreases. Those influencers with 1,000 to 10,000 followers are actually more influential in today’s digital world because they tend to have more engaged, loyal followers. They are perceived as trustworthy as opposed to influencers with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers. They are also typically more open to sharing posts in exchange for goods and services rather than monetary payment!

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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