Published on November 3, 2017, at 2:05 p.m.
by Brooke Bailey.
Jennifer Graham Jenkins, APR, is a go-getter. Hailing from the small town of Fayette, Alabama, she found her love for public relations while still in high school.
“There was a very classy lady in my hometown who did PR and marketing for the hospital,” said Jenkins. “She was one of those people you admire; she was very professional and always spoke with such class and poise.”
Without knowing much about the public relations profession, Jenkins decided to declare PR as her major and dove in head first.
Her foundation for leadership began in college at The University of Alabama where she majored in public relations, minored in marketing and graduated summa cum laude in just three years.
Jenkins’ first real taste of PR leadership came during her senior year at Alabama, when she was chosen as the account executive for her team in campaigns class. “That was right up my alley because I was always really organized and task-driven,” she said.
During the class, she was challenged with motivating a group of people with very different personalities in order to create a campaign that their client would like. This class leadership experience, she says, gave her a taste of what to expect in the “real world.”
Both in and outside of her classes, Jenkins had professors and advisers who motivated her and had lasting effects on her leadership style. Some, like Dr. Bill Gonzenbach, helped her learn skills she would continue to use after graduation. Others, like Marilyn Mancini and Jim Oakley, gave her a taste of the kind of people she would be working and interacting with after graduation.
“I was not a party animal, and I probably didn’t enjoy college quite as much as I should have,” said Jenkins. “I was trying to do right by all of those people; but they made it fun, even though it was hard.”
After graduating, Jenkins and her husband moved to Mobile, Alabama, where she took a job as the PR coordinator for the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science.
After ASMS, she began working at Sullivan-St. Clair (now known as Red Square Agency), under Richard Sullivan and Karen St. Clair, who she said were wonderful mentors for her and taught her a great deal about the industry. After having her first child in 2001, she worked as a consultant for five years, in what would be the precursor to opening her own firm.
She returned to Sullivan-St.Clair in 2006 as the vice president of public relations, but ultimately decided to branch out in 2010 to start her own boutique PR agency, JJPR.
The decision to leave her high-profile job at Red Square Agency was difficult; she had given birth to her third child just five months before launching JJPR, but she felt that it was the right decision for her and her family.
“It was very hard to leave my family and travel,” said Jenkins. “The type of work at the agency was very demanding.”
She wanted the flexibility to spend time with her children, and she tries to give that same level of flexibility to her JJPR team, too.
“Our team has an exceptional work ethic,” she said. “If they have to leave early, they’re going to go home and after they get their little ones to bed or finish their play rehearsal, they’re going to make sure our clients’ projects keep rolling.”
Kelsey Davis, an account manager at JJPR, has worked with Jenkins since August 2011. She says that Jenkins is always mindful of everyone’s lives and the delicate balance of work and family with community activities.
“For me, it’s been so impressive to see how she balances everything from her family to the various clubs and associations and then with work too,” Davis explained. “Making sure you have that balance — I think that’s one of the most important things that I’ve learned from her.”
According to Davis, she always takes her team into account when making decisions, too, knowing that even a small change can affect everyone in the office. Because the team at JJPR works in an open-air office space, Davis said that Jenkins takes extra care when bringing new people on board to maintain a positive and productive synergy.
Jenkins said she’s not worried about growing JJPR into a big firm, which has given her the flexibility to keep the JJPR team close-knit.
“This is a small community,” she said. “Alabama is not a New York or a California, so work ebbs and flows and so do clients’ budgets. We try not to get in over our heads in terms of staff, and I want to retain the great people and the great clients we have.”
At the age of 21, shortly after moving to Mobile, Jenkins attended her first Public Relations Council of Alabama (PRCA) Mobile Chapter meeting. She was looking to network and to learn about professional development when she had the good fortune to sit by Carol Mann, APR (link) at the luncheon. Carol told her about an open position on the PRCA board: treasurer.
“I inherited a giant ledger,” she explained. “At the time, they did not keep anything electronically.” She took the challenge head-on, transferring all of the organization’s records to an electronic bookkeeping software and returning as treasurer for the chapter the next year.
Jenkins continued to serve on the PRCA board of directors in various capacities, serving as the chapter president in 2001, as Alabama state president in 2010 and as the president of the Southern Public Relations Foundation in 2016.
Another organization that was critical for Jenkins’ development as a leader was Junior League of Mobile.
“The mission of the organization is to develop the potential of women and to help them learn and tackle the challenges in a community,” Jenkins explained. “I owe a lot to the training that I got through Junior League.”
She encourages her team at JJPR to be involved in the community, as well.
“I think that it’s so important [to be involved],” said Jenkins. “I’ve come across a few company owners who don’t have that same mindset, and I feel like they’re missing that nugget that’s so critical to cultivating leaders.”
Everyone at JJPR stays involved in their communities; whether through church activities, or the Ronald McDonald House’s Red Shoe Society, which one of the JJPR team members helped to start, they’re all invested in the success of the place they live.
As for how she continues to stay motivated, Jenkins said she only gets involved if she’s excited about what’s happening.
“With each of these organizations, I got really immersed and very passionate about their missions,” she explained. “I love seeing new people come into those organizations and serve in various leadership roles, meet people and network, because that’s really the key to learning and continuous growth.”
In addition to her work at JJPR, in the community and in the profession, Jenkins also has a passion for staying involved with students and young professionals. She hires interns to work with the team at JJPR to gain some real-life experience, and she’s an adjunct professor at Spring Hill College where she teaches a course on event planning.
“I love having interns be part of our business because we can provide them with a sense of the skills needed and firsthand experience, and honestly, they make me feel young,” said Jenkins. “And the adjunct position at Spring Hill has been so much fun. It feels like as much as I’m giving to them in my experience and background in events, I get in return from their passion.”
As a young professional herself, Davis said that the experience she’s gained in her six years at JJPR has grown her own leadership skills exponentially.
“It’s a totally different type of leadership (than college group projects), getting that real-world, hands-on experience and dealing with not just people in the office but externally with clients,” said Davis.
Jenkins advises students or young professionals trying to find their way in the industry to have the courage to reach out to people and to get as much experience as possible.
“I think students have this fear of the big executive, but people are just people,” she explained. “If you can get over that fear factor and make the bold moves to email people, 10 people, even, and if one person responds, you’ve got a 10 percent response rate.”
Internships are also key to finding the perfect fit in the field, Jenkins says. “I really think you have to get the experience to find out where your passion is because there are so many different niches in this industry,” she explained.
Jennifer Jenkins knows where her niche in the industry is, and she knows that it may not seem glamorous to everyone. She’s a Southern girl, through and through, and she gives back to her community like no other. She’s invested in the success of a new generation of PR professionals, and the industry giants are lucky to have her among their ranks.