Jennifer Hartmann on Communicating for a 185-Year-Old Iconic Brand
Mixing Board Studio Session
Jen Hartmann is the Global Director of Strategic PR and Enterprise Social Media at John Deere. She leads a team charged with protecting Deere’s reputation, amplifying the brand and establishing an innovative and community-focused social media presence around the world.
In this Studio Session, Jen and Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, talk about opportunities and challenges of working for a company that you’ve always loved, the importance of a singular brand voice and its role in a crisis, investing in your own personal brand, and getting clear on who you really are.
SG: How long have you been at John Deere?
JH: It’ll be 15 years this December. I took this job as head of PR for Deere on March 1, 2020. There could not have been a crazier time to take on this role. My predecessor was Head of PR for Deere for 21 years, and the day before he left, we sat down and I asked him, “In the event that we would ever face a significant crisis, would it be possible for me to reach out to you?” He said no. Of course, not knowing that a global world crisis was about to hit us days later.
But it was one of the greatest blessings that he said no, because I was forced to stand on my own. I was forced to navigate the company. I was forced to make the right connections, make big decisions without leaning on him. It’s been a wild ride these 15 years. But the first 12 were, by comparison, very calm.
SG: How did you find Deere and how has your role evolved?
JH: Oddly enough, I grew up not too far from Deere world headquarters. And I dreamt of being in the exact role I’m in now. When I was about 21, I landed in PR and I knew I wanted to work for Deere. I had an aunt that worked here and thought, man, this must be a great place to work if she’s there.
When I finally got an opportunity to work here, it couldn’t have been a better role for me — I was in charge of our Gold Key program at our combine factory. That involved hosting farmers to come in and see their combine being built on the line and being the first to turn the key. It also meant hosting a lot of international visitors, VIPs, our Board of Directors. A lot of people at Deere get their foot in the door by being out in the field. I got to be out in the field, but in a factory. I got to host thousands of customers and understand just how emotionally connected they are to our brand.
From there I became a communications manager, the first communications manager at one of our factories, where I managed a global community of practice for factory communicators. We started recognizing each of those factories was a business in and of itself — some of them have 2,500 employees. And there’s a lot of potential crisis situations you’re navigating in a factory. After that experience, I spent some time in our construction and forestry division in another marcom role, which bolstered my integrated marketing skill set. Then after that, I became social media manager. And my current role is global director of PR and social media.
SG: You started around 2008 — the year after the iPhone was introduced and at the advent of corporate social communications. Obviously we all know how social changed things writ large, but how did it start manifesting inside of Deere?
JH: The evolution for all of us in the social space is crazy when you think about it. When I was in that construction and forestry role, I still remember getting a report from our agency every Friday suggesting posts we could like — someone said something positive about a skid steer, we suggest you like and comment on this.
When I became the social media manager, I recognized very quickly that anyone who wanted to say anything was just sending their brochure copy or their sales materials and saying, “Post this on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.” We were just rubber-stamping it. I had the difficult challenge of really turning that ship around and recognizing that social media was evolving into more community-building and brand-building.
We were eroding our channels with this barrage. If you think about Deere and all the product lines — lawnmowers, tractors, skid steers — we weren’t really building any communities. We were just dumping all this sales material. I had to go out to all these marketing teams and basically tell them, “What you’ve been getting for free, which by the way is not giving you anything in return, will now cost you because it needs to be paid targeted advertising.”
We have stood by the decision to have one unified brand voice at Deere. A lot of our competitors have an engines channel, a skid steer channel, a tractor channel — they’ve really divided among the product lines. This is where I feel so blessed that we have PR and social on the same team. Deere’s a conservative company, and we recognized very quickly that we needed really strong synergies between the brand’s need to promote (and to do that brand activation across social channels), but also to protect. We have social media in 54 countries, and each of those countries has their own presence, so imagine if each of those countries also had channels for each product line.
When you’re in a crisis situation, you need immediate alignment. You need people across the company to understand there needs to be a unified voice. I felt fortunate that we are able to do what we need to do from a brand building and community building standpoint, but also quickly protect our reputation, in a way that I’m not sure other companies have been able to do.
SG: How were you able to get social and comms on the same side? That’s still a 2023 issue, but it definitely was a 2010s issue.
JH: It was 100% about data. I still remember days when if anyone said one negative thing, leaders would think it was a crisis. During the Trump era, Deere was mentioned a few times. I saw other brands, like Harley Davidson, really suffering, when it became a political issue, on social. I used data often and frequently, to not make it about what Jen Hartman’s saying, but this is what the data’s telling us. Or this is what we’re seeing other brands do exceptionally well.
A great example of that is when George Floyd was murdered. My team sat with a spreadsheet and we natively tracked every Fortune 100 brand and whether their CEO was responding, whether there was a statement made by a company, or whether there were any donations made. We leveraged all that data to help Deere feel comfortable. Deere is not a company that has traditionally put itself out there, particularly on social issues. But this was one that was significantly different than any of us have ever seen before. From a PR and social media standpoint, we were able to also make sure we weren’t just giving it lip service. We weren’t just commenting or putting a statement out there, we were backing it up with action.
SG: For those reading this who can’t see behind you, you have all these cool tractors in your office. You grew up around Deere. I grew up in San Francisco, and I can barely mow my own lawn. But I’ve always been fascinated by Deere and other legacy companies who are still innovating today. What I find so cool about the social work that you’ve done is how you’re able to bring the elements behind the brand to life — whether it’s these farmers who are doing this thing, or a technology you use, or some innovation you’re creating. When it comes to storytelling, and combining that comms element with social, where have you had some fun with that?
JH: One of the best parts about working for Deere is just how incredible our customers are. We are a legacy company, but there is nothing more wholesome than a farmer and his family growing food for all of us. If you think about, on a daily basis, if you get up and you have coffee in the morning, that came from a farmer. If you get in your car and drive to work, that road came from our construction customers. If you swing through McDonald’s and get an egg McMuffin, you have a wheat farmer, a dairy farmer, and someone growing livestock. It makes storytelling so easy when the focus is less on Deere as a company and more on who we’re really supporting.
At CES in 2022, we introduced our autonomous tractor, which is the first autonomous commercially available vehicle in the world. I came back to our social media team and said, “We need to make sure that our presence on social media lives up to that.” That does not mean talking about the technology, but instead making sure that we’re using our social channels in a way that reflects modern and innovative ways to use social.
At a company like Deere that is rich in manufacturing and engineering — yes, we have incredible tech innovations — but not a lot of people understand social media. A lot of us in social media share this pain, but a lot of leaders around us don’t quite get how organic and paid social media work. They want to see that billboard when they’re driving to work. They want to see their product in a feed. The way they do that, is to go directly to the brand handle and look through it, instead of thinking about how a customer will see us show up and the kind of content we need to make sure is resonating with that customer. Selling to a customer is not going to cut it, no one’s going to follow a brand to be sold to. No one wants to be sold to.
The challenge for our team has been to balance the pressure internally. One of my pet peeves is how much time we still spend on trade shows. I’ve started saying to people, “You will not see Coca-Cola talking about a trade show in their social feeds.” It doesn’t happen. I take a step back and say, how can we create meaningful experiences that our audiences want to be part of? You just mentioned, you’re not familiar with a lot of what our customers do. So let’s put a GoPro camera in a planter for a day and let people see, in real time, what a millennial farmer is doing to plant his crop in a day. And by the way, it’s going to take more than one day. We have a ways to go and we still need to stretch ourselves. But those are the kinds of conversations we’re having.
SG: You had 12 plus years in working with manufacturing and just being at the core of the company, you obviously didn’t step into the Head of PR role cold. It was a new role, but it was one where you’ve built up some credibility and relationships inside the organization. What was it like for those initial two years after COVID hit?
JH: Before COVID and before I took this role, the PR role was all about protect. We rarely engaged with the media. Our CEOs rarely did any interviews. It was all about managing Deere’s reputation, laying low, and preventing issues from happening. My job now has become so equally balanced between protect and promote.
I think all of us, not just at Deere, have seen this dramatic shift in the pace the world is moving at since 2020. The pace of media and coverage today, and I’m going to sound very Gen X because that’s what I am, but I come from this PR world. I was trained and led to believe that ethics is everything in your working relationship with the media — being forthright, upfront, honest, and responsive. Conversely, there’s an expectation that reporters will share facts and a balanced story. The cutthroat industry has changed that for journalists. I’m not saying it’s everyone, but there’s a lot of reporters and outlets that just need to quickly get a story out, regardless of what the facts might be. And also who’s a journalist? Everyone can be a publisher.
When I got this job, I called a mentor who works at Edelman and said, “What’s the one piece of advice you have for me?” He said, “You need to start gaining pain tolerance. You love this brand,” which I do. And sometimes that’s a plus and a minus for me is that I’m so emotionally connected to Deere. It pains me when there’s negative coverage of Deere. He said, “You’re going to need to learn that there’s a lot of things you can’t control and a lot of stories out there you’re not going to be able to change.”
One of the toughest periods for me was the UAW strike. It was only six weeks, but it felt like it was six years because it was just a barrage of negative coverage of Deere. And it was at a time where I couldn’t communicate to the extent I wanted to, because those negotiations are so sensitive.
SG: For those of us of a certain age, the role was so externally focused. But over the last five years, it’s also become quite internally focused as well — which correlates directly to social and correlates directly to all the voices that could be out there in the ecosystem. What have you seen in terms of leveraging the internal voices you have, but also just making sure that they’re informed and engaged as well?
JH: Our CEO became CEO in November of 2019, so he’s also very new. He came into the role and launched an entire reorg that summer. We went through an entire redesign, focused on shifting where Deere needs to go in the future, at a time when the world was falling apart. I give him a lot of credit for the huge shift in how Deere works, operates, and views all of our roles.
I’ve been given a lot of empowerment in terms of storytelling, a lot of trust. That’s a big thing at Deere. When I started at Deere, I was a mid-career hire and looking around wondering who was going to check my work? Who’s going to review this video I just produced before I publish? No one’s going to check. They trust you to get your job done and go. It moves really fast.
Oftentimes, we’re called a marketing company that also makes tractors, because of how robust our marketing sales teams have been in the past. But we haven’t invested a lot, at the corporate level, in our brand and in our purpose — thinking about putting paid advertising behind our brand or an integrated marketing approach. This has been a fundamental shift at Deere. And it hasn’t been easy because you’re asking for funds that weren’t there before.
Previously, we weren’t investing at all in an integrated brand marketing effort. Last year we had a brand collaboration with Busch Light that was off the charts, in terms of how much that resonated with our customer base and brand fans for both Deere and Busch Light. We’re hoping to move now to more surprising brand activations. We are just getting the green light across the board with senior leaders in terms of taking some of those risks.
As Deere leans more into tech and we recruit more leaders in that tech space, we’re going to be shifting — it’s a tipping point. We’re more willing to take more risks. We’re more willing to say yes to things that in the past may have scared the company a bit. It has been a phenomenally fun time to be at Deere.
SG: I started noticing your active voice on social a few years ago. What made you step out and break the fourth wall on LinkedIn and Twitter when you could easily just stay behind the scenes, as your predecessor did?
JH: One of the last pieces of advice my predecessor gave me was to delete my Twitter account. He didn’t think that the spokesperson for a Fortune 100 company should have visibility as a person. There have certainly been a couple uncomfortable moments for me. I went silent during the strike, I found that I should probably just lay low for a bit.
But it was also at a time when I started really investing in my own personal brand. And I was also trying to convince our CEO, and other senior leaders, to develop their personal brand. I thought, before I can sit here and talk to the CEO about developing a presence on LinkedIn, I probably need to figure out what it takes. Because as you know, it’s not easy. You don’t just show up on Twitter one day and build an audience. It really takes some commitment.
It not only helped me provide better insights to our leaders, in terms of what it takes, it also helped me really understand Twitter. Even from a community building standpoint and how I need to think about Deere’s brand handle and how we are engaging. When you have a strong presence, whether it’s brand or personal on any channel, you start to feel like you’re in a room with them. And you understand how people talk to each other and whether or not Deere should be engaging in that conversation or not. Or whether I should be engaging in that conversation or not.
For our Twitter handle on Deere, our audience is almost 100% farmers. So you really have to understand how farmers talk to one another, what they think is funny or what they find engaging.
Something I tell people early in their career, even though I’m 25 years into my career, I am still struggling with imposter syndrome. I still wonder, on a daily basis, if I’m the right person to be doing this job. Or I’m making decisions that I don’t always feel qualified to make. You’re younger and you feel new to a job and so you have some insecurities there, but as you grow in your career, the decisions just become bigger and weightier. I’ve also used my Twitter feed to be a bit more vulnerable and honest about the challenges we all face, because I wish I had that.
And I have made so many connections with people across the industry. I block my Friday afternoons to connect with people that appreciate hearing those kinds of insights. Whether they’re seeking advice or counsel, or they want to hash out a decision they’re making, it’s been really valuable for me to connect with people in that way. If I had deleted my Twitter account, I would have been so isolated within the walls of Deere. I am really learning about how other PR or social media professionals are managing some of the same challenges Deere is. That has been tremendously valuable for us.
SG: If you were talking to someone coming out of college, what’s your advice for the first steps in career building?
JH: You need to set a strategy for yourself. We sit here and write strategies for our fiscal year, whether that’s our social media strategy or our PR strategy. We’re not investing that same effort in our own career ambitions and setting and clearly defining what our goals are and what we stand for.
I remember a mentor of mine at Deere said to me that her family writes a family strategy. And at the time I thought, my god, that is so extra. But it totally makes sense when you think about it. Because otherwise, you’re making decisions on the fly. And if opportunities come up — volunteer opportunities, career opportunities, or maybe your kids want to start playing baseball. You’re making all these very stressful decisions in the moment. It’d be really great if you had a map. Well, does this fit? Is this where we wanted to go?
Young people need to get really clear about who they are. There’s a thousand things Deere is doing well, if we don’t zero in on one of those two things, it’s going to be lost. And I would say that for our own professional and personal brands, if we’re not really clear about what we stand for, it’s really going to get lost in the noise. Get really clear on who you are and what matters to you.
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