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Jennifer Thompson and Thompson & Co. Public Relations

Anchorage media mogul finds success in a ‘New York minute’


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Jennifer Thompson

© Chris Arend Photography

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.” The advice by basketball great Michael Jordan is one of Jennifer Thompson’s favorite sayings and is a blueprint for how she runs her business, Thompson & Co. Public Relations.

“I love that quote,” Thompson says. “I use that personally because every day I try and do something that makes me a little afraid. I try to do something that’s a little bit risky. It’s OK if you fall flat on your face, because at least you tried.”

So far, the strategy has paid off for Thompson, who was named one of PR News’ Top Women in PR in early 2015.

Thompson, alongside public relations executives from CNN, Coca Cola North America, and Time Warner Cable, is one of the “women who have made bold advances in managing crises, developing brand messages, protecting and building brand reputations, and creating content for digital platforms for their own organizations or for clients,” according to PR News.

 

‘Heart of Anchorage’

In April, Thompson took home the George M. Sullivan Award from the Heart of Anchorage Awards in Anchorage. That award recognizes members of the Anchorage downtown community “who demonstrate strong leadership qualities and work well with a team.”

Thompson says she was “completely and totally blown away” by the honors, giving much of the credit to her staff for putting together “an impressive entry.”

“I really believe our little agency is pretty top notch,” Thompson says. “Collectively, at the end of the day, it really is the agency in its totality that’s much more impressive than me.”

Thompson’s career has grown hand in hand with the company. She started as an intern at respected Anchorage public relations firm Bernholz & Graham in 2000. Roberta Graham says she hired Thompson on the recommendation of a trusted staffer at a time when the agency was in transition.

“I really needed someone who was fearless, who could think, and think creatively, and someone who had the desire to succeed both professionally and personally,” Graham says in an email. “From her first day on the job, it was apparent that Jen possessed all of those qualities. But even more importantly, she had strong values and an ethical standard, and that was very important to me.”

One of Thompson’s first assignments was to handle the logistics for a three-day live broadcast by “Martha Stewart Living” in Southeast Alaska and the Yukon for a tourism client, Graham says.

“It would have been a daunting task for the most seasoned pro,” Graham says. Thompson “pulled it off flawlessly.”

Over the next few years, Thompson moved up in the company. In April 2009, she bought Bernholz & Graham, becoming president and CEO of the renamed Thompson & Co. Public Relations, which has offices in Anchorage and New York and continues to grow. Clients include many in the Alaska tourism, healthcare, and telecom industries, as well as government agencies and nonprofits.

“Jennifer is a strategic thinker and is creative in her strategies; she is a perfectionist who always does her homework; she’s very loyal to her clients and her staff,” Graham says.

 

Jennifer Thompson and part of her team in conference at Thompson & Co. Public Relations headquarters in Anchorage.

© Chris Arend Photography

 

‘First Impression’

Sarah Erkmann, external affairs manager for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, was working at Bernholz & Graham when Thompson was hired.

“My first impression was of someone who was extremely energetic, a real go-getter who wanted to know the hows and the whys of the industry,” Erkmann says. “She’s obviously proved that she has learned a lot and can apply it strategically to her clients. From intern to president and CEO of your own agency in nine years speaks volumes on her talent.”

Even as an intern, Thompson had no hesitation in going after some of the biggest media in the country, Erkmann says. For instance, she didn’t see being a small, relatively-off-the-radar state as barrier to getting the “Today” show and some of their reporters to come to Alaska. “She has that enthusiasm and passion for Alaska and sees no reason why small PR agencies in Alaska can’t do the same things that big firms in New York can.”

Thompson grew up in Homer and says her Alaska background is an advantage because many of the people with whom she went to school or met during student activities are now Alaska’s business and government leaders.

“Alaska is such a small state,” she says. “I kind of grew up with an inherent knowledge of the politics of the state. I have a lot of connections, a lot of deep, standing relationships, and that helps me. When I’m pitching media or talking about Alaska, there is an authenticity about me because I have lived here my whole life.”

 

Team Loyalty

Thompson says one of her company’s greatest strengths is the loyalty of her team.

“We have a very low turnover rate,” she says. “I am equally loyal to them. They are just a team that is very cohesive. No job is too unimportant to the most senior person in the agency. Everybody does everything. This staff is really nimble, really willing to roll up their sleeves to get everything done. And they are brilliant.”

Opening the office in New York in 2008 helped the agency establish a presence on the East Coast, which is where most of the major news and travel media are based. “It’s very important to have a presence there and establish relationships,” she says.

Despite the distance, Thompson tries to keep the New York team in the loop as to what is happening in the Anchorage office and brings them to Alaska at least twice a year. Culturally, the two offices are similar because both are usually staffed by Alaskans, she says, and a job in the New York office is a coveted spot.

“To work in the New York office, it’s corporately considered to be PR heaven,” she says.

 

Jennifer Thompson and team.

© Chris Arend Photography

 

Evolving Industry

One of her biggest challenges is keeping up with how the public relations industry has evolved in the past decade, Thompson says.

“We have felt the effect of the demise of the newsroom,” she says. “So many newsrooms only focus on the really hard news and we had to really adapt. I think that social media and digital media is a lot about storytelling. It’s a medium we could quickly adapt to, because we are really good storytellers.”

In an increasingly crowded and noisy digital landscape, Thompson says her company’s philosophy is to not be annoying.

“We really do try to operate by the highest and best ethics,” she says. “We try to pitch things that are newsworthy. We try very hard to be respectful. A lot of my friends are in the news business and I don’t want them to think I’m anything but ethical and above-board.”

One of the requirements Thompson has for her team is that they must come up with one idea every month for their clients that is a little bit risky.

“I want them to come up with ideas that are really brave,” she says. “If we’re going to be successful, if we’re going to continue to be the top PR firm in the state, we have to bring in ideas that make us feel a little uncomfortable at first.”

Thompson says she makes sure her staff attends at least one professional conference each year. She also strives to make sure her employees maintain a healthy work/life balance.

 

‘Family First’

“My best advice is family first,” she says. New parents are encouraged to bring their babies to work for the first six months. They work a “flex Friday” schedule, so everyone gets at least one three-day weekend every month. Thompson believes strongly in the concept of “leaning in” and that women and men should receive equal pay.

“I’m just a really big believer in that everyone on the planet should have their cake and eat it too,” she says. “PR has a reputation for burning people out because it’s very high-paced, high stress. I believe if you get burnt out employees, you’re not really getting good quality for your clients.”

Thompson says she also sometimes struggles to balance both.

“I traveled eighty-five thousand miles last year,” she says. “There’s definitely some days I say I am a horrible mother, and other days I say I’m a horrible boss.

“A lot of my success I owe to my housekeeper,” she adds, laughing.

 

Mentoring Wisdom

When Thompson bought the agency, Graham gave her some advice: “Make sure you have a good lawyer and a good accountant; embrace vision over visibility; do what you know and don’t pretend to be what you are not; be fair and honest in your dealings with clients and staff; and always ask for help if you need it from others.”

Thompson regularly touches base with public relations colleagues and frequently speaks to Graham, whom she regards as a mentor. Graham says the relationship works both ways.

“I believe a teacher always learns as much, or more, from her student as the student learns from the teacher,” she says. “Over time, it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other.”

This article first appeared in the July 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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