Interview: Jessica Switzer

Jessica Switzer is the cofounder (along with Tim Gnatek) and partner for Blue Practice, a new environmental PR firm that launched on January 30. The firm, which has a relationship with Ruder Finn, is located in their San Francisco offices.

Jessica Switzer is the cofounder (along with Tim Gnatek) and partner for Blue Practice, a new environmental PR firm that launched on January 30. The firm, which has a relationship with Ruder Finn, is located in their San Francisco offices.

Prior to Blue Practice, Switzer ran another firm for eight years, Switzer Communications, and managed Ruder Finn's San Francisco office. Switzer talks to PRWeek about what it takes to start up a boutique agency, the world of green PR, and how things have changed since she opened her first firm 10 years ago.

PRWeek: It's only been a short time [they began work with their first client back in November, before the official launch] but can you talk about some of the work that you've been doing so far?

 

Switzer: We're entirely focused on green marketing and PR; we're calling ourselves "communications for a sustainable world." It's a personal passion that Tim and I share. He's been a reporter with The New York Times for the last three years and mostly focused on the circuit and technology coverage. [We] felt like, if we started a communications firm that was entirely focused on the issues that we really care about, it would give us that infusion of passion to further our work.

Having worked with the Switzer Foundation, which is a family foundation devoted to environmental leaders (there are 400 Switzer Fellows over the last 20 years), I've come to learn in the last 1 ½ years that one of the biggest challenges that we face, that the entire planet faces, particularly the US, is behavioral change and consumer awareness. So we feel this is an incredible opportunity for PR professionals [and] marketing communicators to help turn the tide on awareness, particularly on climate change.

PRWeek: Before diving into the green issues, I want to ask about some of the challenges of starting up a new firm. Can you talk about some of the obstacles you've had to overcome?

Switzer: It's been back to the future! In 1995, I started Switzer Communications out of my house. I put a little sign out that said "Worldwide headquarters of Switzer Communications."

It feels a lot like that. So the challenges are really putting the systems in place. It's everything from getting set up on an accounting system, to getting a really good accountant who knows how to work with your legal... and a lot of systems are a lot more user-friendly than they were 10 years ago. There are a lot of things for people who are starting their own service firm to tap into.

PRWeek: For someone thinking about starting up a new firm, how much lead time should they give yourself for getting things off the ground and overcoming some of these problems?

Switzer: I think you should probably give yourself at least a month or two and be able to absorb that time without any revenue. We did not have that luxury because we suddenly went into this dress rehearsal pitch to a client and [they have turned] out to be a major client now for Blue Practice. [They currently have five clients.] They're our first client, Solar City, a solar panel installer in northern California.

We're really about growing with them and, as we begin to pick up clients, it's challenging to set up your systems in conjunction with servicing the client. So we end up doing a lot of moonlighting and weekend work and the other sort of business side of things and then service the client during the week. If I could wave a magic wand, I would've [preferred] a few months luxury. It's nice to have the revenue coming in, but I would rather have a month or two to have all that set up the way we originally planned.

PRWeek: It sounds like a seven-day a week endeavor and you mentioned you're both working parents. How do you manage to juggle that?

Switzer: It's easier when you're working with people who are parents because you understand what it means when someone says they've been up a couple hours at night with their little one.

But I think we're also just used to juggling that kind of workload. Time, when you're working and when you're not working, gets very blurred.

We just hired our first full-time employee, Blake Lynch, who has the same kind of tremendous work ethic. We're now three full-timers, and we're pulling in people and consultants as needed.

There are two big changes that I see in the last 10 years, and it impacts who you hire and how you set up your shop. The first one is the regional and more localized impact that clients want to have, at least in our case. For example, it's no coincidence that our first hire is a coalition grassroots organizer. Solar City has told us that it's more important that they get coverage or awareness that's regional; a San Jose Mercury-News or a San Francisco Chronicle story is more significant than Newsweek because they're only installing solar panels in California right now. So they don't want to frustrate potential customers if they read about this in New York and then can't purchase their services.

The other thing that's different [and] challenging for us is the communications that are direct-to-consumer has changed. Our initial clients seem just as interested in our services to help write content for their website as they are in the more traditional PR awareness and media outreach.

PRWeek: Northern California is going through the whole post-dot-com boom. How is that affecting you guys? Has it made it easier because there's so much business in that area now?

Switzer: It's fascinating. It feels a lot like the earlier [tech] days on the boom side particularly in alternative energy. A billion dollars of venture capital money was pumped into alternative energy in 2006 and the projections are that it will go up to $1.5 billion or more in 2007. So, yes, there is a lot of opportunity, particularly for boutiques who can service start-ups well.

Also, I find it fascinating that a lot of the VC firms have started their clean tech funds and they're putting in place many people and CEOs from the technology days. We have a new client that we haven't announced yet, a synthetic biofuel company called LS9, and the marketing head there is from Tellme Networks. So there are a lot of technology people.

I have to say that I'm very comforted with that. I tend to feel that because I ran a technology boutique shop for many years, technology and the technological revolution got us into this mess and technology can get us out of this mess that we have put the planet in. There are a lot of smart people and smart money now working on the solutions.

PRWeek: There are a lot of firms going into this area of PR. Does the competition worry you?

Switzer: No because a lot of them are sort of dressing themselves up and going after clean tech money, but I don't think it's an area where you can put on the green tuxedo and say that you now do green marketing and PR. It's different than that.

I notice that some of our competitors are the much larger firms that are starting a small group focused on this. We have a working relationship with Ruder Finn, which we enjoy, and it's a long history based on the acquisition of my [first] company. They've been extremely helpful. The president and the founder of the company are really devoted to environmental concerns, so they've helped us set up shop. We actually headquarter in the San Francisco office, but we're independently owned. I really am not seeing too many competitors and I don't know why.

Interestingly, most of the real true competitors, in terms of firms that are very focused on green marketing and PR are headquartered in Europe. They're a little further ahead of us on CSR and that kind of work.

PRWeek: I've heard that Europe is a little farther ahead. How is that going to affect the US industry?

Switzer: There's a great publication [that] everybody who's interested in green marketing and PR should read. [It's] run by a guy named Nick Johnson called Ethical Corporation. Nick has started some conferences as well; he's got one coming up in London on climate change. It's really about messaging and communication about climate change.

Is it really a coincidence that the first one is in London? Probably not. And the companies participating in this are international firms located in Europe.

We're considering attending this conference, if for no other reason, than to get an idea of what's coming next year. I think the US, on the marketing side, unfortunately, tends to lag a bit in terms of awareness of environmental concerns. So we're eager to learn and partner with people there to see what's been their best of practice solutions.

PRWeek: Can you go into a little more detail about your connection to Ruder Finn?

Switzer: I'm actually a very boring story because I'm a happy acquisition story. I got a call when we announced Blue Practice from somebody running a gossip PR blog and he was definitely digging for dirt. I said, "I'm sorry to disappoint you."

I used to run the San Francisco office after Switzer Communications was acquired. Because of personal changes and feeling like I needed to be more of a mom [instead of] a working mom for the last year and a half, I left the firm at the blessing of [CEO] Peter Finn and Richard Funess, the president.

When I was ready to come back, they were very excited about the concept of Blue Practice. As I said, even though we're independently-owned, they're letting us headquarter here in the San Francisco offices and tap into some of their resources. We hope, if need be, we can scale and leverage the Ruder Finn network in terms of servicing some of our clients so we can grow with them quickly.

PRWeek: How do the clients benefit based on this relationship?

Switzer: It hasn't happened yet because we just launched, but we're planning on producing an event for a client in Washington, DC. As a small boutique, we don't have a DC office, but guess who does? Ruder Finn. We can call the GM in that office and tap into that if we want to hold an event at the National Press Club. So it's really more about having [10] offices worldwide, 600 employees at Ruder Finn and having the blessing of a three-year working relationship, I really know who to pick up the phone and call if one of the Blue Practice clients needs some extra assistance.

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