Beyond the Handle: Jen Hartmann

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

The Beyond the Handle article series continues with Jen Hartmann, Director of Strategic Public Relations and Enterprise Social Media at John Deere.

Beyond the Handle is designed to shine the spotlight on the bright minds behind your favorite brand accounts on social and digital media. We learn about their career journey, how they approach their role and what they are prioritizing right now heading into the new calendar year.

Prior to her current role, Jen spent time as the Marketing Communications Manager before heading up to become the Public Relations and Social Media Manager. From there, she transitioned to become Associate Director of Strategic Public Relations before taking on her current role just before the pandemic hit as Director.

1. Talk to us about your journey and the path to John Deere. Moving up the ranks as now Director of Strategic Public Relations and Enterprise Social Media.

As luck would have it, I grew up here in the Quad Cities where Deere is headquartered and I went to school, started interning at Edelman in PR and my goal was to be Head of PR at John Deere. I don’t know if any of the decisions I made early after school were in any way intended to get me here. But, I spent a few years at the Illinois Soybean Association where I was fortunate enough to get to know the industry and to get to work closely with farmers.

I eventually served for several years at the United Way of the Quad Cities Area where I got an inside glimpse of Deere’s culture: The people they work for in the company, the generosity as a whole and all their employees.

I was fortunate enough that a position opened up to manage their Gold Key Tour Program. John Deere hosts a program where customers can come to the factory and actually see their machine being built on the line. They’re even the first to start the combine/tractor on the line!

From there I spent time as a Factory Communicator, as a Mar-Comm Manager, a Social Media Lead and earlier this year took on this role, heading up PR and Social.

2. What are some of the takeaways reflecting back at your time in non-profit specifically working at United Way? Do you feel that being entrenched in non-profit at some point is important for one’s career trajectory?

One of the biggest pieces of advice – I spent 9 years at the United Way of the Quad Cities Area - and now when I have the opportunity to speak to young people, I often recommend that they spend time at a non profit whether it be to volunteer, intern or even an entry level role.

Non profits really give you the opportunity to do it all. You get to own a communications or marketing program. You get experience in special event management, social, advertising. Non profit really gives you on the job training or in a volunteer capacity to navigate how to get ‘yes’, to learn quickly how to overcome rejection, how to seek resources and how to secure resources.

Also typically, a lot of business leaders are very involved in local non profits. It gives you a valuable opportunity to network!

3. Take us through your typical work week!

I’m still trying to figure out what part of this job is the norm and what part is 2020. But I would say for the most part, a pretty consistent of my work week is editorial planning. That is everything from planning for significant news that might be coming up this week ie. Our quarterly earnings announcement - preparing for potential interviews, fielding media requests/ inquiries, responding to internal stakeholders that might have media requests of their own, preparing for social media posts regarding any of those news or announcements.

We have a daily social media huddle that our social media team convenes each day to take a look at what’s been happening in the world, what’s trending, to see what relevant topics that Deere could engage in.

Primarily, we look ahead to plan that content calendar, determine if there’s any news we should be covering ourselves and monitoring and preparing for any potential issues that could arise.

On a weekly and daily basis, that is cadence - both proactive PR and risk mitigation and making sure globally, there aren’t any issues that our team isn’t prepared for.

4. As a PR leader managing enterprise wide communications, how much has “2020” changed the way you approach certain decisions or strategies for the team?

If there is anything that 2020 has taught us in the world of PR and social, there is no longer a lot of time to plan or prepare. We’re never going to anticipate every possible issue that can be presented to our teams at any given moment. I would also say that its become abundantly clear that there is no longer any distinct line in external or internal communications. We should always be prepared for anything that is shared internally to make it to social or a media outlet -and sometimes to prepare for employee actions or communications that we haven’t anticipated.

PR practitioners and social media managers have a really valuable role in employee communications and engagements. For Deere, there is a lot of employee pride that comes from Deere becoming covered by major media outlets or if a member of our leadership team is interviewed by a significant media outlet.

Our CEO has a presence on LinkedIn and I know our employees stay tuned in to what he shares publicly via that channel.

2020 demonstrated how important it is for PR, Social and employee communicators to be working in sync to ensure consistency.

5. What are some of the changes, if any, that you’ve made in your approach as a leader in the way you conduct business and communications especially with how the year has turned out?

It would have to go back to that recognition that we don’t have a lot of time to prepare. The demands on brands to respond quickly to events and issues is higher that its ever been. I think part of it means that you have to grant grace to your teams, to make the very best decisions they can with the information they have at the time and to act and to feel empowered.

We’ve gone through a redesign of a new operating model that is designed to ensure our employees feel empowered to make decisions quickly. I think for me on the PR and social space, its recognizing that things can’t and won’t always be perfect. But we’ve got to make the best decisions we can and I want my team to know that I’m going to support those decisions and back them because I don’t want them to fear failure.

We have to hope and expect our employees will feel empowered to make bold decisions in today’s world or we’re going to be left behind.

6. Do you have any references, books or maybe a quote that you sometimes lean on for inspiration to help you or your team push through some hard times or if they’re in a creative block?

One of the books I have leaned on since my time at the factory here at Deere is The 4 Disciplines of Execution. It forces you to think through a more disciplined approach and one of those is to stay focused on wildly important goals and to make time to work through the clutter – the “whirlwind”.

One of the things we have done on our team is to block off every Friday afternoon. To make sure there’s no meetings, people can breathe, an out for the weekend or to get caught up. It’s important for the team to feel that it’s okay to make space. We don’t need meeting after meeting after meeting to be productive and in fact, I think that’s counterproductive. When I look at the next calendar year, I’m trying to purposely think through, with intention, how to carve out more of that space for them.

And another thing that 2020 has taught us is there’s no 9 to 5. With Social and PR, we shouldn’t think for one second think that people need to be sitting at their desk or tied to the computer. I want them to feel that they can manage their workload in whatever capacity that looks like.

7. Prior to being a Director at John Deere, you were the team’s Social Media Manager. Although some organizations across the board still see social as free marketing, paid social spend is becoming more and more critical. As your brand transitioned to more paid social, were there any challenges you faced internally on switching from organic to paid spend?

By and large, I work with brilliant people so it didn’t take much to convince folks that this was the direction we had to go. The biggest challenge that took a good year to overcome because it had been used as a “free” marketing tool, they didn’t have the budget to pay for the paid spend.

We relied on data and metrics to demonstrate that by diluting our channels with organic content that was irrelevant to the channel and audience that we could potentially reach, we had eroded our organic reach.

We were able to demonstrate that in fact, sure it was free, but they were reaching absolutely no one and we were eroding our brand credibility at a time when Deere is a technology leader in the 'ag-equipment' and 'precision-ag' space. We needed to be sure our social channels exemplified that innovation and that meant really zeroing in how our audiences were in engaging with us by channel, what the expectations were for each of those channels and that we began to deliver organic content that improved those engagements rates, allowed us to clear the way for more effective customer support and to ensure it was more of a value add than noise.

I feel like we’re there now in terms of the paid marketing challenges but we still have a ways to go in really figuring out what that “always on brand” content could and should be; and to ensure that we are still strategically approaching social as an opportunity to add value for our customers. It’s not just about what Deere wants to say or feels like it should say.

One huge advantage when strengthening our organic reach - when a brand like Deere, faces a year like we have in 2020, those social media channels give us a powerful tool for communicating directly with our core audiences. If anyone wanted to know or understand, even now, how Deere responded for instance, to the social unrest following the killing of George Floyd, they can find that on our social channels.

We can share news very quickly, we can respond to crisis, events very effectively and that’s all through organic. For all the nay-sayers about the value of organic, social continues to be a powerful and effective tool when you look at it from a Public Relations and Communications perspective.

When you take off your Advertising and Marketing hat, and think more strategically about information sharing, and two way engagement you can have with customers over questions they may have, I think it’s a missed piece of the conversation.

8. You spoke on the Social Pros podcast and you mentioned that John Deere is fairly new in modern social media practices. How exciting is it to really establish that voice? Can you share some of the behind the scenes activities the team is doing to establish that “voice”?

What I absolutely love about Deere, and something that I think is very innovative and perhaps, different than what you’ll find with other companies is that Social and PR are together. I lead the PR and Social Media team.

I think more than ever in today’s digital environment, having PR and Social fully integrated so that you are approaching your storytelling across all of your owned channels - whether that’s your website, social channels or your news site -, it gives us a lot of consistency in how that Deere persona is shared across all our owned and earned channels.

When we have a story to share or news – and I can tell you we’re working very hard in the upcoming year to ensure that we’re not celebrating Deere, but we’re celebrating our customers, the industries we serve. We shine a spotlight on the challenges they face and we connect media to those stories so that there’s a richer and deeper understanding of the challenges, farmers, construction industry and others face on a daily basis.

2020 was pivotal for us across the globe – a realization that some of the essential industries that are so critical to how all of us live on a daily basis.

How critical it was that farmers were still able to plant in the Spring so that food can be harvested in the Fall! Farmers didn’t have a choice. Our factories didn’t have a choice but to make sure the equipment was readily available or that parts were in their hands so they could keep operating. Those are the stories we have to get better about sharing.

Our plans for fiscal year 2021 are to make sure we’re serving up content and stories that matter. Not to pat Deere on the back but to ensure that the world has a better understanding of just how critical these industries are, to how our country and colleagues around the globe operate on a daily basis.

9. As an established and more conservative brand, one that carries plenty of heritage, what are some of your biggest learnings with John Deere as you try to navigate 2020 heading into 2021?

One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Deere, as big as it is, it still takes a localized community approach. A great example of that is early on in the pandemic, one of the factories converted itself to a face shield assembly line where we brought in production employees to help health care workers. We then worked with each of the local communities where Deere has a factory or presence to identify if there was a local hospital or health care facility that needed these face shields. Deere takes that approach across the board - a lot of that has to do with our dealerships who work very closely on a local basis.

For me, I want to be sure with our storytelling and across our channels that our audiences senses that community. We are not a big brand that is touting itself but we’re leveraging our owned channels to make real connections. But it’s a way Deere can differentiate its presence. We can set the tone and a rapport with our audiences that frankly, I have not seen other brands do in the way Deere has the opportunity.

One of things I’ve seen recently on Twitter is this question of, “Can brands elicit love from their customers or fans? Are people really in motive?”. At the start of this conversation, I mentioned that I got to head up our Gold Key Tour Program at the factory. There’s nothing more emotional to a farm family who brings in generations (ie. Grandpa and Grandson) to start that combine, something that’s been with their family for centuries. We have an opportunity to keep that kind of legacy in front of people and to remind people where we come from and that we are in fact, not just a heritage brand, but a heritage brand for a lot families.

10. Any advice you’d like to offer to the up and coming ‘Jen Hartmann’s of the world?

The advice I give all the time on my Twitter feed is to trust your gut and part of the reason why I share that frequently is that I’m transparent in how uncertain I am – there is no roadmap in Communications, PR, Marketing, Social.

Often times, there is no right or wrong answer. You have to trust your instincts, learn from experiences. I mean this in the most encouraging way but it never really gets easier. I think I had this idea that I would get to a certain point in my career where I would have all the answers. Part of my advice is to believe in your instincts and to trust the direction you’re compelled to take.

Take comfort in the fact that none of us have all the answers and to take comfort in that.