What would Tom Ballard do?

By: Cortney Piper, President

Good mentors don’t need to look or operate within traditional, one-on-one mentoring structures. In my experience, some of the best mentoring relationships are observational. 

These mentors don’t have to actively teach and coach you. You can witness how they work and approach challenges and successes. For me, one of the most significant influences on my career has been Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer of PYA.

Connected through a mutual colleague, I first met Tom when I was 28-years-old and looking to grow my newly launched strategic communications firm. At the time, he was the Director of Partnerships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, after already having a successful 35-year career at the University of Tennessee.

Despite his level of expertise, importance to the community and not knowing me from Adam, he was more than willing to block off an hour of time in his busy day to answer my questions, offer suggestions and start connecting me with key stakeholders in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region. 

That’s the thing about Tom. He doesn’t underestimate or dismiss people. He’s brilliant and genuine and takes the time to forge meaningful connections and relationships with people, whoever they are. As a young professional, I believe his kindness and attentiveness set me up for success, imparting crucial knowledge and connections I needed to grow my business and knowledge base. 

Over the years, he’s always been willing to pick up the phone and meet with me to hash out problems and come up with new ideas. But it is the important life lessons he has taught me since our first meeting that have been even more valuable. As a result, when faced with any seemingly insurmountable challenge, I often ask myself, “What would Tom Ballard do?” Two of the most influential Tom Ballard lessons for me have been the importance of socializing ideas and a unique approach to networking and relationship building. 

First, I have learned that when making decisions – big or small – the process is more of an art than a science. There is immense value in a group of people coming together in a room to brainstorm, strategize and imagine multiple possible outcomes. Bold ideas don’t typically emerge in silos. It has been the times that I have met with others or brought people together to hear what we have to say, share our expertise and really socialize emerging ideas that I have come up with some of the best solutions or ways forward in my career.

Next, Tom taught me how to form meaningful and lasting networks and relationships in this industry. It’s not just about having good people skills. Tom has a genuine drive to learn more about those around him and then put ideas into action, which is evident through his writing at Teknovation.biz and being involved with numerous nonprofit boards across the state.

Essentially, Tom sees potential in people and partnerships where others might not. In attempting to apply this same approach, I try to keep an open mind when meeting with anyone new and focus on what they may have to bring to the table without any preconceived notions. You never know what kind of work or lasting partnership could come from a simple meeting. After all, he took a chance on me several years ago not knowing  what we would accomplish in the years since. 

From helping in the early days of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council to fostering the Innov865 Alliance, I and so many others in this community could not be more grateful for Tom Ballard. If there was a way to capture and replicate Tom’s approach to making things happen and forging and fostering relationships in this city, our community would be set for life. Instead, I’m trying to follow his lead and embody his best characteristics to help move our community forward alongside so many others who are equally honored to know and work with Tom.  

I think most would agree that “the Tom Ballard experience” is incredibly memorable. My own life has become even more full because of this unexpected, unintentional mentorship. For all that you do, have done and will do, thank you, Tom. 

Additionally, so many other people have coached me along my unexpected business journey, and I am extremely grateful for all the coaching I have received along the way. There might even be future posts about others who have shaped my professional growth – so stay tuned! 

Back in the office: Part two

The Piper Communications staff is excited to be back in the office once again. We asked each of our staff members what life was like during the pandemic and what they are looking forward to now that they are vaccinated. Check out part one of our “Back in the office” series here

Here are our answers for part-two of this two-part series: 

What is something you wish you could tell yourself a year ago?

Cortney Piper: Honestly, nothing. Everything was so uncertain, surreal and different last year. We didn’t have a frame of reference for what things would look like, so I don’t think I would have believed anything I told myself. None of us could have imagined what life would be like a year later. 

Gerald Witt: Don’t worry, there will be plenty of toilet paper. Support those around you, try to be healthy, and talk about what you’re going through. You’ll try a few face masks before you find one that works. Instead of overbuying hand sanitizer, stock up on ice cream.

Abby Hassler: Stock up on hand sanitizer and sweatpants. Kidding. Honestly, at the beginning of the pandemic, I found it very difficult to wrap my brain around what was happening. Once I allowed myself to accept the new reality and the changes we were all facing, my transition into the “new normal” was much easier. So, I would probably tell myself to take a deep breath, face the scariness and uncertainty, and turn to my loved ones for support and connection. 

Allie Mobley: Everything happens for a reason. I was very distraught in the beginning of the pandemic, it completely changed my career path and life plan after being a recent college graduate and my plans to move to New York City had obviously fallen through. I had to start from scratch and create a new plan. I wish I could tell myself that everything happens for a reason and it’s okay that plans change, you might like where you end up!

Yvette Martinez: I am a hugger and it is extremely strange not to hug people when I see them. I would prepare myself for this adjustment and remind myself that hugs will be back someday. 

How have you grown or changed in a positive way during the pandemic?

Cortney Piper: The pandemic brought out my introverted nature in full force because there was no external pressure to go to meetings or meet up with people. If left unchecked, I am completely happy to roll up my sleeves, put my head down and get work done. However freeing this experience has been for me, I realize that this wasn’t the ideal choice long term, especially when running a public relations business. So, I have made a conscious decision to pull myself out of it and start embracing a return to normalcy. 

Gerald Witt: There’s been a lot of challenging growth for everyone. Fear, loss, anger and ennui were common emotions among my friends. So, in my better moments, I tried to “be present” with friends and family – whether we were in-person, texting or talking on the phone. The pandemic has also highlighted how important it is to relax and recharge. Even if you have to schedule it, you gotta find time to unwind.

Abby Hassler: Strangely enough, this past year has made me more confident and sure about myself. Working remotely gave me the time and freedom to be more creative and believe in the quality of work I was putting out into the world. I would attribute this change and growth to a year of self reflection and valuing a healthy work-life balance. 

Allie Mobley: It made me look at life as not a straight line but more of a rollercoaster. Things are going to change, you are going to have some lows but also many highs. I also learned not to plan so much, before I got so caught up in the future and the pandemic has taught me to enjoy the present more. 

Yvette Martinez: It was extremely difficult to understand how a virus, mask and a vaccine could become political. In the beginning, this was extremely aggravating to me and would dominate much of my thoughts and create an emotional roller-coaster for me. However, due to the duration of this crisis, I have been able to come to a place of understanding that I cannot understand the politicization of this tragedy and that is not a good use of my energy. My energy is better utilized in adjusting to what is next!

Remember to read part-one here. Or, find out more about our team members here!

Back in the office: Part one

The Piper Communications’ staff is back in the office! After each staff member received their vaccine, we are happy to work face-to-face again. We received the vaccine for a number of reasons: to keep ourselves healthy, our families safe, for the world to return to normal, and much more.

For this two-part series, we asked staff members some questions about life after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Here are our answers for part one: 

Now that you’re vaccinated, what are you looking forward to doing the most and why? 

Cortney Piper: I have been so happy to resume normal daily activities and not think twice about it. Going to meetings, lunches and taking my kids to the grocery store again has been great. Another one of my favorite parts about being vaccinated is being able to go back to having a happy hour with a couple of close friends at my favorite Mexican restaurant in town. 

Gerald Witt: Telling as many people as possible to get vaccinated. My wife works in a hospital and has seen first-hand just how awful this virus can be. Even those who survive it can experience lingering negative health issues.

Abby Hassler: I spent a lot of time with my family during the pandemic – outside, socially distanced, and with masks. One of the first things I was looking forward to was hugging my parents and siblings. We all got together in my parent’s kitchen, cooking and just spending time together mask-free. It was strange at first but so needed. 

Allie Mobley: Hugging people! I’ve missed being able to hug my family and friends whenever we see each other or say goodbye. I also love hosting, it is one of my favorite things to do. I love having people over for dinner and drinks and can’t wait to finally have a house full of guests. 

Yvette Martinez: I’m looking forward to learning to be around people again. As an extrovert, I’m used to being energized by personal encounters. However, the pandemic has created an instinct to avoid those encounters, so it has been a low-energy year. 

What is something that you learned about yourself this year? 

Cortney Piper: Sticking to my mantra of “never give up” and “head down, sleeves up” will get you through the most stressful times stronger. I also learned how grateful I am to have found such good friends in Knoxville and across the globe.

Gerald Witt: I’ve observed that good leaders create a supportive environment to let people try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. That’s something I hope to carry forward. I also learned that I like ice cream much more than I realized.

Abby Hassler: This year, I became incredibly introspective – like many others, I would assume! From needing to put others’ health and wellbeing before my own during lockdown to Black Lives Matter protests to learning how to work with an entirely remote team, I learned that it’s important to take a step back and learn from others who may know more than I do. I learned to listen, learn, and grow each day. I’m so thankful for the many lessons I have gained over the past year.

Allie Mobley: How much I love going to restaurants. When there were only take out options I realized how much I enjoyed getting together with friends after work for happy hour or celebrating birthdays at dinner, etc. I also learned that I loved to cook at home though and trying new recipes were fun, even if they were a complete fail! 

Yvette Martinez: I transitioned quickly to a germaphobe at the onset of the pandemic and I’m not sure how long it is going to take to transition away from that extreme.

Stay tuned for part two that will arrive next week!

In the meantime, find out more about our team members here!

A diverse career journey shaped me into a strategic storyteller

By Abby Hassler, Content Creation Manager

I have worn many hats over the years. From working as a Senior Writer at a content marketing agency to pursuing qualitative research as a master’s student, my career trajectory hasn’t been exactly straightforward.

However, one thing that has remained constant over the years has been my passion for crafting a good story. The medium, content and audience of storytelling have changed with each industry I operate in or job I hold, but one thing that has remained the same: All of us have amazing stories to tell. 

I didn’t start out in strategic communications. Fresh out of my undergraduate studies, I received a job offer from a fast-paced content marketing agency in Boston, Massachusetts. Not one to say no to an exciting new challenge, I moved 1,000 miles away from home to pursue my first “adult job.”

It was a wonderful learning experience where I worked alongside many other fresh-out-of-college writers, crafting content for clients in a range of industries. On any given day, I wrote for a healthcare organization in the morning and then switched gears, writing for a higher education program in the afternoon. Fun fact: I may or may not have drafted copy for Rob Gronkowski’s Gronk Party Bus website at one point in time (though I doubt the terribly pun-ridden copy ever saw the light of day). 

There, I learned how to write fast, effectively and in a variety of different industries — skills that are still relevant to my work today. This ability to write quickly and accurately helped me land numerous short-and-long-term freelance opportunities after moving back to Tennessee before and during graduate school. As a freelancer, I built up my professional network, collaborated with innovative clients and learned how to find the “so what” in any kind of story I was telling.

My master’s program at the University of Tennessee was another incredible learning experience that molded me as a writer, researcher and creator. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came from my mentor when I was stressing over defending my thesis. She told me, “You wrote this. No one else knows more about this than you.” While simple in nature, this advice has shaped how I view myself in any situation or job I find myself in. Graduate school, despite its difficulties and challenges, taught me to believe in the work product I put out into the world. Whether it’s crafting an entirely too-long master’s thesis (guilty) or a feature story for a client, if you believe in the value of your work, others will too.

Now, I am the Content Creation Manager at Piper Communications. Over my two-plus years of working here, I’ve learned a lot from Cortney, my colleagues and the clients we serve. I’ve also developed a new appreciation for the depth and breadth of opportunities Knoxville has to offer its residents and the rest of the country. Our city has some of the best and brightest innovators, researchers and professionals who are making incredible contributions to their respective fields. 

I have loved every minute of interviewing and writing about our clients. While my journey to this point has been full of twists and turns, I’m grateful for the lessons I have learned along the way that have allowed me to get to this point. Whether I’m promoting the work of Dr. Peter Tsai, the architect behind the essential material in N95 masks, or learning from leaders in the advanced energy industry in Tennessee, everyone has an incredible story worth telling and it is a privilege to be able to do so each day. 

Find out more about Abby Hassler, Piper Communications’ Content Creation Manager, here.

From college intern to full-time employee: Keeping in touch with your internship employer

By Allie Mobley, Project Specialist

In December 2019, I graduated from the University of Tennessee. While my college degree was essential while I was on the job hunt for a job in public relations, I was even more thankful for one lesson I learned early on in my college career: Connections, networking and internships are a lifesaver, especially during a pandemic. 

During my junior year of college, one of my professors connected me with Cortney Piper and Allie Eskew for an internship opportunity at Piper Communications. I had previous internship experience but nothing related to what I really wanted to do: public relations. After two rounds of interviews, Cortney called to tell me I would be working 15 hours a week at Piper Communications to assist with social media and email marketing. A part-time gig running social media channels and building out MailChimp emails might not sound extremely glamorous, but for me — a 20-year-old who got my first “big girl job” all on my own — I was ecstatic. In the few months I interned at Piper Communications, my education from the classroom really came to life and I loved it.

A few months later, I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at an advertising agency in New York City and Cortney was my biggest supporter. I left Piper Communications on great terms and planned to stay in contact, which is exactly what I did.

Staying in contact with previous employers from past internships is a critical part of the networking process that many college graduates miss out on. If you worked with someone who taught you a lot and truly wants you to succeed, never lose contact. You never know what more they can teach you or if you may need their help down the line. 

Fast forward to summer 2020 — right smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. I had just graduated college and lost an opportunity to move to New York City because of the impacts of COVID-19. I was lost and frustrated, but knew I needed to figure out a new plan. I reached out to Cortney to see  if she knew of any public relation firms looking to hire recent graduates. She sent me over a few contacts, but suggested I come back to Piper Communications instead — an offer I couldn’t say no to.

I have now been at Piper for about 9 months as a Project Specialist and can say I am so happy how the past year has turned out. Sure, there have been plenty of unknowns: I graduated, moved to a new city, and started a new job. Essentially, my entire post-graduation plan changed. But I am so thankful that I had people like the Piper Communications team in my network to reach out to. During the last year, I have been able to work on projects and with clients that I could never do at an entry-level job anywhere else.

I’m now a believer that internship and networking in college is incredibly important, along with staying in touch after you move on to new opportunities. After all, you never know when you may need a helping hand from a mentor to help land you an incredible job during a pandemic.

Find out more about Allie Mobley, Piper Communications’ Project Specialist, here

From 2013 to 2021: Growing with Piper Communications over the years

By Allie Eskew, Project and Events Director

I have spent the past eight years at Piper Communications. In 2013, I came in as a project assistant and eventually worked my way up to my current role, Project and Events Director, where I focus heavily on event management. Being Cortney’s first and only full-time employee, I realized I needed to figure out a way to stay at this company.

Before coming to work for Piper Communications, I worked at a recruiting firm for 2 years. While my previous job gave me transferable skills and immersed me into a professional setting, it was important to me to transition into something I was more passionate about. 

Coming from a very corporate, male dominated environment, it was very impactful for me as a young professional to see an intelligent, confident female running a successful business. When Cortney walks into a room, everyone pays attention. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Cortney. She has been a great mentor for me over the years. I also believed the future of Piper Communications looked bright and wanted to be a part of it.

Through the years, my role shifted more into event planning. I enjoy event planning because it really fits my personality. I am very detail oriented and like to have a plan for every scenario that may arise and a solution to go along with it. Forward-thinking solutions are important, and I never want to be caught off guard, so it’s a crucial skill to have when you are in this position. My first events were small roundtables for Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and throughout the years it turned into larger events, including Innov865 Week.

One of my most prominent tasks throughout the years has been planning Innov865 Week. This week-long event began years ago with just one event: Startup Day. Startup Day began as a way to showcase entrepreneurs in Knoxville. Over the years, the event and mission has evolved into what it is today and includes creating impactful event programming and resources throughout the year for local entrepreneurs, not just limited to one event. Innov865 Week is one of my most memorable events to plan since I’m so passionate about Knoxville. I love being able to showcase what all is going on in our city and being able to communicate that to the community and really take pride in all that is being accomplished here locally. This past year, everything shifted when Innov865 Week had to go virtual.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the event planning industry. Once the pandemic hit many people outside of the event planning industry believed all events would have to be cancelled. We really had to think outside of the box, and it took a lot of research and strategizing. For most events we were a well-oiled machine, we knew what we were doing. When COVID-19 hit we had to throw out everything we knew and start from scratch. In going virtual, it forced us to come up with a Plan B and it also forced me to get creative. Though this past year has been frustrating, I think the entire industry adapted well to the pandemic and technology really stepped up to the plate. 

I’ve experienced a lot of growth at Piper Communications over the years – team wise and client wise. But our main mission hasn’t changed. Obviously, the clientele has grown, and we have more of a footprint now not only locally, but regionally and nationally. Overall, Cortney is very strategic on who she takes on as clients which has contributed to our growth and reputation in the community for making an impact and getting results.

Find out more about Allie Eskew, Piper Communications’ Project and Events Director, here.

From reporting to pitching: A journalist pivots to public relations

Gerald is reporting

Credit: Adam Lau/News Sentinel

By Gerald Witt, Sr. Media Relations Specialist

I was a PR major for about 15 minutes in undergrad.

That’s what I told my ink-stained friends in newsrooms when Cortney Piper added me to her team in 2020. Those same buddies cranked out copy with me on election night deadlines, trudged through muddy fields to cover disasters, and kicked sense into me on occasion over 15 years in news. We frequently ran into media relations people on the job, and often treated them with suspicion. So, naturally, my old newsroom pals ribbed me about joining “the dark side.”

But pigeonholing media relations to “the dark side” is tantamount to calling journalists by the oxymoron “fake news.” Both generalizations are false and damaging. If journalism is one side of the media coin, public relations is the flipside. They need and help each other. Looking back on my newsroom days, some of my best sources worked in media relations. They had access to the institutions and individuals who make news. They smoothed the path to help me get information, quickly, on deadline. Outside of my newsroom coworkers, PR professionals best understood the needs of journalists.

Now, as I help clients get in front of journalists who cover them, I remember those people who helped my reporting back in the day. The needs of a client and a journalist are often aligned, though it may not appear obvious at first glance. Media relations professionals, like my  team members at Piper Communications, step in to help journalists and sources connect.

Sometimes, yes, media relations requires the unglamorous work of pounding the pavement to make connections with journalists in the field. And yeah, there are times when doors close in your face. Journalists learn early, however, to find another way in – just as we do in media relations. Much more often, media relations is about compiling and crafting a message for an audience. Which is exactly what journalists do. And both fields are rooted in accuracy, with the shared goal of communicating. Yeah, there are hard heads in newsrooms and in PR, but there’s no need to generalize either as bad actors. Journalists and media relations pros share similar goals more often than not. Reporting a news story and pitching a news story are remarkably similar experiences.

Specifically at Piper Communications, in my short time here, we have the added bonus of working with clients who are making the world a little better than they found it. Our clients are research leaders in technology and energy sectors. We help entrepreneurs with groundbreaking business ideas. Other clients also educate and help people have better, more sustainable lives. Personally, that is satisfying. Professionally, the work itself has been as challenging and rewarding as those long nights covering election results. 

Find out more about Gerald Witt, Piper Communications’ Sr. Media Relations Specialist, here.