After several years honing her craft in entertainment and culinary PR, including a stint as Account Director at Bread + Butter, Los Angeles-based Sarah Jenkins made the leap to go out on her own. First known as Salt + PR (an homage to her restaurant clientele and love of the beach), a trademark issue required a quick rebrand. A true blessing in disguise, Sarah transformed both the name of her company and branding to attract a more luxury clientele in a variety of verticals. These days, the White Oak Communications House team of six is having a blast with luxury, fashion & lifestyle accounts.
Name: Sarah Jenkins
Job Title: Owner
Agency: White Oak Communications
Current City: Manhattan Beach, CA
Education: Double Major in Art History & International Relations, University of Missouri
How did you get started in PR?
Funny enough, I didn’t know PR was an actual thing when I graduated college. I moved to Tel Aviv and bartended for about a year, and really started loving doing events. When I came back to L.A., a family friend who owned a lifestyle PR firm offered me an internship as her assistant, and I fell in love. From her, I learned how to pitch, write press releases, cover events. It was so amazing being able to work so closely with an industry vet.
How did you come to create your own agency?
I worked in the PR industry for a long time, in entertainment, real estate, travel & hospitality. I slowly learned what I loved & didn’t love as much. After putting in my time, I learned the industry like the back of my hand, got to know media on a first name basis, and created lasting relationships with clients. At that point, I decided to strike out on my own.
Within a year of establishing my company, we have grown to six employees, amazing clients, and what I believe is the ideal work environment. Our team is like a mini family, and I really chose to foster a work environment that encourages work/life balance, after spending so many years watching young, overworked PR girls crying in the hallway. It’s not easy to start your own firm, and to make it successful, and you have a lot of ups and downs along the way.
I managed to make it work by learning from my mistakes, building a team that is truly incredible, and finding clients we are all passionate about. But what I think is the most crucial part about how I got my current job is I never stop learning. There are always new media, new trends, new EVERYTHING popping up, and I could only be where I am now by absorbing everything I possible can.
You started out as Salt & PR and then did a rebrand. How did you go about making the switch?
When I first started, I wanted a name that tied back into the food industry, but also was reflective of my love of the beach. I live just a stone’s throw from the ocean, so that’s really important to me. Salt & PR was a good play on words, and the logo was really sweet. However, and this is a good lesson for all budding entrepreneurs, I did not do a deep enough trademark search. Sadly my name was too similar to a company doing marketing in San Francisco. Initially I was incredibly frustrated, but I decided to use this opportunity to elevate my brand. The new name and corresponding branding has really taken us to the next level and helped us to expand our portfolio of clients.
The thought behind White Oak Communications ties back to the idea that mighty oak trees are grown from a small acorn, just like a grand idea comes from a fleeting thought. I grew up with a lot of White Oaks in my grandparent’s backyard in Indiana, and I always remember noticing how much they grew every time we visited. That really resonated with me, and with what we do. We build a foundation for brands to thrive & grow. I worked closely with an amazing company, Colony, who created a logo and aesthetic that could segue us into the luxury lifestyle industry, and not pin us solely to the food industry. Also, as we have expanded out of classic PR and into doing more experiential events and social media, I really liked the term “Communication House” as a means to encompass our more modern approach to PR.
The day we launched as White Oak I wrote a short & to the point email with a gorgeous graphic announcing our name change, and included the updated email addresses of the whole team and sent it (with everyone on the bcc OF COURSE) to all our go-to media. Then I wrote a tailored, second email to our clients. My team did the same. Our old emails forwarded to our new, but we also spent about two months opening every email and responding with a little blurb about the rebrand, asking our contacts to update their records. Was it a bit of a headache? Yes. Was it worth it? Beyond.
What you responsible for as the owner of your own PR Agency?
Oh my goodness! Everything! Reading & editing pitches and press releases; meeting with clients; meeting with potential new clients; coming up with story ideas; planning events; managing clients; running a company! But, internally, I also am very close with my whole team, and I am also responsible for making sure they are ok. When someone has something go on, it effects their work, and their mood, and I try to be diligent about keeping up morale, ordering in sushi, and fostering a positive environment.
After putting in my time, I learned the industry like the back of my hand, got to know media on a first name basis, and created lasting relationships with clients. At that point, I decided to strike out on my own.
What is the mood like in the office? What are you working on right now?
Happy, busy, energetic, with some good jams to get us through. We listen to a lot of Avicii! We just got back from a weekend ski trip to Mammoth, so there is some recovering. But we are also gearing up for a huge food event tonight with a client, two major restaurant openings (a high-end Mexican BBQ place in Frogtown & a super hipster shared plates bar in Little Tokyo), the launch of a client’s SS16 line, an oyster & champagne dinner at a client’s lobster roll restaurant for event planners, and creating a farmer’s market tour for a chef & mixologist who utilize only market fresh ingredients! We also just got a new camera, so the social media team is going nuts experimenting with it!
What are some of the unique aspects of working with Restaurant clients?
First at foremost, you have to understand the food industry. If you have a media request, asking your chef client for a reply at 5:00pm on Thursday, just as dinner service is picking is up, is a bad idea. It’s important to the ebb & flow of a restaurant, respect that most chef’s have Mondays off, and they probably just want to sleep & be with their family on that day, so they will probably ignore you.
Unless you’re a classically trained chef, sommelier, or bartender, understanding pronunciations & techniques can be scary if you are new to the space, but people appreciate educated questions about how to say something, or what pairing is best! If you have a background in entertainment, and have worked with celebrities, it’s very similar to working with a chef.
Also, keep up with trends, know what’s opening, pay attention to “chef shuffles,” and keep an eye out for trends. If you work with a modern American small plates restaurant, and the same thing is opening two blocks away, it’s good think of ways to keep your client relevant and know how to alleviate their fears of becoming obsolete. The industry is VERY fast paced. In any given city, on any given day, five to ten restaurants open or close in a week! It’s crazy! It can be overwhelming, but it’s exhilarating. Watching a chef create a dish that blows your mind is like watching an artist paint. Working with a young talent who is about to have his or her breakthrough is like working with a young actor about to star in their first TV series! It’s exciting.
What is a recent success story that makes you especially proud?
I think looking back on 2014 in general is pretty overwhelming for me. From NYC press trips, to hits on Good Morning America, Self Magazine, LA Times, multitudes of events, openings, product launches, it has just been a crazy year. I am so proud of all of our amazing clients, and my amazing team.
White Oack Client, Knuckle and Claw, gets some love from Haylie Duff
What are you really good at?
Adapting. I can adapt to any situation, authentically. I am as comfortable at Fashion Week in Ann Demeulemeester boots as I am headed out to a farm with one of my chefs in flannel and jeans. I am extremely observant, and it’s second nature for me to absorb my surroundings, adapt to them, and then put everyone else at ease. This is super helpful as clients, media, and influencers all have such different & dynamic personalities, we can work with a wide-range of people across the board.
What has been the most meaningful moment in your career thus far?
The day I started my own company! It was so scary, exciting, nerve-wracking, exhilarating! It blew my mind to see how much support I received, and how quickly it all took off.
What has been the most glamorous moment in your career thus far?
There have been a lot, but I think the most memorable one is always your first! I worked a red carpet for a celebrity charity event in my first week as an entertainment publicist. I had to have been 22 years old! I remember I bought a Kimberly Ovitz dress for the occasion, of course it was all black. I spent the first hour prepping the carpet for all my clients who would be there. Upon arrival, I escorted my clients down the carpet. Afterwards, the event people let us sneak into the event, and we drank champagne, flirted with up & coming actors, and ended up at the Palihouse for an after-party. After that night, I knew the only thing I could ever be was a publicist!
At the Angeleno Food and Wine Event
What about the least glamorous moment thus far?
Not naming any names, but I had a client who made me hold their lit cigarette through an entire photo shoot, as she wanted a drag between shots. I also remember as a baby entertainment publicist having a client get arrested for a DUI during baseball spring training, and having to go down to the county jail in the middle of the night to bail him out, and keep TMZ away. I think I actually went in pajamas. Yikes!
What type of employee thrives at White Oak?
Outgoing, creative, motivated, happy people! We are so collaborative so people who are “team players” really thrive at White Oak. As well, all of the ladies at White Oak live / sleep / eat / breath food, fashion, social media, and PR. They are passionate about what they do, and understand this career is a lifestyle choice, more than just a job. Another common thread we all share is that we are all adventurous, inclusive of others, and we all love Justin Beiber.
The biggest challenge is making your client relevant enough to be the email that an editor replies to. Catching the eye of a writer boils down to a subject line, but securing a placement requires a lot more.
What are you looking for in an entry-level candidate?
Primarily, a strong sense of self. My first hire, Annie, came with to our initial interview with a portfolio of clips, writing samples, recommendation letters, and a resume. She made eye contact, smiled, and had a general sense of ease about her that I found disarming, despite the fact she was insanely nervous (which I learned later). I don’t remember much of the details from that interview, but the one thing that will stick with me forever is when she asked “Will I have much interaction with clients, because that’s really important to me.” That showed me she wanted to be a part of the team, be hands on, and had the tenacity to ask somewhat “above her grade” questions. I knew when I said good bye to her that I would be hiring her. She’s been with us ever since!
I think the main similarity in all the girls I hire, even at an entry-level, is that sense of confidence and the desire to want to do more. I also can tell when someone is looking just for a job, as opposed to a career. I am impressed by someone who has done research on our company, knows who we work with (um hello Instagram – our account features ONLY our clients!), and has an idea of how they can help build & improve the team.
In terms of specific skills – I look for well rounded people. So, while I appreciate you studied PR & Communication in college and know AP style, do you know who is running for President? Do you know what the G8 Summit is? Have you read the front page of the New York Times this morning? When was the last time you set foot in a museum? We work with sophisticated clients, businessmen & women with worldly perspectives, and they appreciate a PR team who can keep up with dinner conversation and current events. I work closely with my team to make sure they are reading the news, and staying educated outside just the PR world. Reading a good novel is as important as reading a relevant magazine!
PR can be stressful and full of rejection – how do you deal?
As a publicist, stress and rejection are two concepts I deal with on a daily basis. That’s is one of the reasons I truly love what I do. It really challenges me to face hard issues most people try to avoid. The best PR people are the ones that have the ability to thrive and stay calm in tough situations, as opposed to taking things too personally. It can be a challenge, but staying positive is always the goal. At the end of the day a publicist / client relationship is all about trust, and not all clients will be the right fit.
What are three must-have tools, apps, or products that are essential to your job?
- Subscriptions to EVERY magazine
- VSCO app
I remember having a client get arrested for a DUI during baseball spring training, and having to go down to the county jail in the middle of the night to bail him out, and keep TMZ away.
What do you wish more people understood about your job?
A few things, actually. First – PR is EARNED not PAID media! You have no idea how often I explain to people that we work with media, and have to come up with creative, new and timely story angles to secure placements, you can’t just buy them! Also, I think publicists gain a bad reputation for being pushy. We aren’t pushy, just persistent, and that’s how we secure coverage for our clients! Finally – I think so many people get into PR for the glitz & glamour. It’s not all about that. I love my clients, and I love showing the world what they can do / who they are. It’s about passion, for me, and I think people often times miss that.
The best PR people are the ones that have the ability to thrive and stay calm in tough situations, as opposed to taking things too personally.
What’s the biggest challenge facing lifestyle communicators right now?
Market over-saturation. Seriously. Sit down with an editor, and ask to see their inbox. You’ll be blown away. Most editors receive between 100-500 pitches a day. No joke. The biggest challenge is making your client relevant enough to be the email that an editor replies to. Catching the eye of a writer boils down to a subject line, but securing a placement requires a lot more. With the rise of social media, we are constantly inundated with the new new, so we just have to work diligently to ensure our clients maintain their relevance!
Team White Oak
How do you stay on top of industry trends?
Obviously by diligently reading PR Couture! But also, I read the news throughout the day, as well as magazines (everything from The New York Times to WWD to Women’s Health to GQ), and keeping a close watch on social media. I troll Instagram daily to find new trends, writers, influencers, and publications. New ones spring up every day! Dirty little secret: I really don’t read too many PR industry-oriented publications.
I think the main similarity in all the girls I hire, even at an entry level, is that sense of confidence and the desire to want to do more. I also can tell when someone is looking just for a job, as opposed to a career.
What would you tell someone who wants to be you when they grow up?
Go to college, study whatever you want! Don’t take one single communications class. Learn Russian History! Learn Art of the 1920s! Everything you thought you knew from a communications class will be tossed out the window the first day of your first PR job. Intern as much as possible though, every summer! And travel! Learn about the world. Educate yourself on as much as possible. Even if you want to be in fashion PR, make sure to read a political article each day. Know what’s going on in the world. Take chances! Don’t be afraid to reach out & meet as many people as possible. And lastly – watch people you admire, learn from them, and follow your dreams!
Thanks so much, Sarah!