When one Real Housewife throws her Chablis in the face of another, and the camera pans back to reveal a gorgeous resort as backdrop (with its logo and branding clearly visible), there's almost certainly a PR agency behind this placement. Less splashily (sorry) but likewise, when you read about a hotel's grand reopening or a restaurant that's hired a James Beard-winning chef, or see fabulous professional travel content on an Instagram channel, there's no doubt a PR agency at work behind the scenes, connecting your eyeballs with that content.
Which PR agency? Well, particularly if that content is travel- or hospitality-related, there's a good chance the agency is J Public Relations, one of the best-known PR agencies in this sector, serving over 100 top-of-the-line hotels, restaurants, and spas worldwide. JPR (as their name is inevitably shortened) supports travel brands by organizing press coverage, influencer relations, and brand partnerships, as well as creating and disseminating unique content to promote social media engagement-there's a JPR team member entirely dedicated to partnership strategy. The goal of all these efforts, says JPR founder Jamie Sigler, is twofold: "the general goal of brand awareness and the bottom-line goal of bookings, which the hotel industry calls "heads in beds."
The roots of JPR can be traced to Sigler's college years, when she supported herself with a variety of far-from-glamorous hospitality-sector jobs during summers on Cape Cod where she was raised: cleaning vacation rentals, doing back of the house prep in restaurants, and taking on nearly every frontline front of the house position, from bussing tables on up. "Those experiences certainly gave me a hands-on feel for the less-glamorous aspects of what our clients are up against, an understanding that no matter how luxurious the experiences they provide may be, it's a daily effort, physically, emotionally and mentally, to keep the operation humming and all the pieces in place."
(It didn't become clear until later, but an essential human element of Sigler's future PR path emerged in this phase of her life as well: Sarah Evans, her sorority sister and best friend from those college years onward, with whom she would ultimately co-own J Public Relations. Nearly two decades later Sigler would tell me, "I'm proud that I own this business with a woman who's been my best friend for over 20 years," and, in nearly the same words, Evans would repeat the sentiment, adding, "As young women, we created this incredible organization; I couldn't be prouder of what we went on to create together.")
64 Women and One Man
What exactly did Sigler and Evans go on to create? A top-ranked PR agency with clients on six continents, served by four offices (San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, and London) and 65 employees. About those 65 employees: If my count is correctly, they consist of 64 women and one man. Although the hospitality industry is traditionally male-centric in many ways, when you step into one of JPR's offices, you'll realize that you've found the exception to this rule. JPR's four offices are at the same time elegant and unabashedly feminine-girly, even-all cozy settees in cool gray hues and conversation chairs in tufted velvet pink--oops, I mean rose gold. There's even an onsite blowout bar in the San Diego office, dubbed the J Spa, at the ready to provide coiffures for client events.
More significantly, this woman-friendly décor extends to where it matters, in the form of an expansive and restful nursing nook intended as a private refuge for the agency's many working moms, a far cry from the cramped and "frankly icky" pumping closets and worse that are often the norm elsewhere; and a napping pod that employees busy "having it all" appreciate.
Sigler and Evans have also made adaptations to their agency's woman-centric reality that go far beyond décor. (It's a reality that shows no sign of waning; since JPR become known as a woman-powered organization, "maybe one out of one hundred resumes are men; we could use a few more, frankly; the one fellow we've got, Tom, is awesome, and I'm ready to meet his twin.") When the first employee got pregnant, Sigler looked at what the state offered for short-term disability and thought to herself, "we have to do better. I've seen how it is when a new mom comes back on the job after just eight weeks; they're sleep-deprived and stressed and really not ready to be back at work. We decided it was essential to provide employees with a full sixteen weeks of maternity leave" after a minimum employment of three years.
Don't some moms simply take the leave and then quit? "Not a single one. Not one!" To be sure, the supportive JPR office culture does helps ease a mom's transition back to office life- "babies are cooed over like you wouldn't believe when they bring them in. Though we don't have anyone working with their babies in the office full-time, as frequent visitors, babies, toddlers, dogs, even husbands are pretty frequently seen around the office."
"An "Employee-first Organization"
"From day one of JPR, we have been a truly employee-first agency. We've worked on fostering employees' education, in terms of understanding the hospitality industry as well as understanding our clients' businesses and our own business. We pay a lot of attention to nurturing their happiness at work, their camaraderie with their colleagues," says Evans. She wanted to be quite clear, however, that "people aren't here because there are margaritas on Fridays-the superficial kinds of efforts that pass for culture at some trendy companies. Those kinds of things aren't the key to success. The key is to have happy employees who are knowledgeable and passionate about what they're doing--and genuinely like each other. From that flow happy engaged clients who stay with us for a long time." (40+ JPR clients have been with them for three years or more, a rare feat in this industry.)
Surviving Tough Times
When JPR expanded to the East Coast, it coincided precisely with the hospitality apocalypse that started in 2008 (what was a severe recession in most business sectors was truly a depression-size catastrophe in hospitality and travel). "Sarah opened our New York office the day the stock market crashed-literally that day. But we were in an interesting place as a company when the economy went south." With so many people being laid off in the hospitality sector, properties that had never used outside contractors became open to it, and those already using contractors became open to considering new vendors. "We were small and just coming up on the radar, so as companies were looking at every single line item and evaluating their partners, we had a lot of opportunity to pitch new accounts." (Sigler, it must be said, is a born hustler who makes Pollyanna look like a pessimist, so if there's anyone who could build a silver lining out of the stock market crash and subsequent economic free fall, it would be this woman who sums up her personal philosophy as "the harder we work, the luckier we get.")
"What's hard during these times is managing expectations and scopes of work. All your customers will be tightening their belts, so you have to work with the budgets that they have. It's essential to come up with creative projects to fit those budgets that are realistic for you to accomplish, so you don't burn out your staff and talent by promising the same amount of work as before for the new, smaller retainers."
"Building and nurturing relationships is the center of our strength," says Evans, who has been called a "Badass Businesswoman" by Mediabistro, though she titrates her badassitude with a hefty dose of unmistakable sweetness and kindness. "It's a cliché, sure, and maybe it's a particularly feminine cliché, but it's a central strength of ours. Every hotel, restaurant, and spa, in some ways, is different. They each have a different high and low season, and a different demographic. Our teams spend their time understanding the uniqueness of each property, then living and breathing it, until we can really zero in on the best way to get to the specific results that will benefit that client. (JPR is so relationship driven, in fact, that it doesn't even proactively go after new clients, relying instead on word of mouth from existing clients and the power of their existing media placements.) Evans says that the preferences of their media contacts vary as well; it's essential to understand if a journalist wants to only hear from one agent or from a team; if they are open to hearing everything new there is to share, or if they only want to receive information that is extremely targeted; and what format do they want--personalized email every time, or are press releases okay, and would they ever want to be contacted or pitched over social media? "As communicators, we need to honor the other part of communication, which is listening. Because even though we're all created equal"--Evans is a born and bred Virginian, so I wasn't entirely surprised to hear her referencing Jeffersonian ideals-we're not all created the same! And as PR professionals, we're in the business of personalization and customization so we need to honor that-always.