Jennifer Byrd on Storytelling and Community-Building

May 2024
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Jennifer Byrd is the divisional director of communications for The Salvation Army, Golden State Division, overseeing the marketing and communications needs of 25 community centers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley.

She was recently recognized as the 2024 Woman of the Year by PRSA’s San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Byrd wrote on LinkedIn that she is “grateful to be part of a profession where I can uplift and celebrate the stories of those who need to be heard and highlight the positivity in our communities.”

Byrd has worked for The Salvation Army for nearly 22 years, and hopes to inspire and empower individuals to lead more meaningful and equitable lives.

Here, she talks with Managing Editor Amy Jacques about storytelling, community-building, collaboration and more.

How did you first get started in your PR career?

I remember it like yesterday. Many of my reporter colleagues were starting to work in public relations. I didn’t know much about the field, but I was interested in learning more. I did a few informational interviews with friends and PR firms and thought it all sounded like a lot of fun and something I would be good at.

One of the firms I did an informational interview with offered me a job. I remember distinctly having that Mary Tyler Moore moment when walking back to my then-current office down Montgomery Street in San Francisco after they offered me the job. I learned the nuts and bolts of PR at that job — writing a press release, working with clients, putting together a media list and strategy.

How did you come to work for the Salvation Army? 

I walked into their regional headquarters one afternoon. I was looking for a job that would give back to my community, that my efforts would help the greater good. One day, I saw the Army’s building in the SoMa neighborhood and asked if they had a PR job. They did. I applied, was interviewed and was hired, and started a few weeks later. It was just a weird, quirky thing.

Within the first few weeks, I knew I had found the right place. I was quickly welcomed as an integral part of the team and was working with reporters and community members. Through the stories I pitched and the connections I made, I was helping to serve the San Francisco community. The work was — and still remains — very fulfilling for me. 

What are some of the work challenges you’ve faced during the pandemic?

Personally, it was a shock to go from working in an office every day, seeing people and being part of that work community to working from home. I still remember how strange it was when Mayor Breed declared San Francisco in lockdown down and I packed up my laptop, monitor, everything and came home to set up a home office for the first time. I was thinking, “Now what?”

Luckily, though, The Salvation Army was considered an essential business, so I was able to get out during lockdown and feel useful. One of the core areas of service for The Salvation Army is Emergency Disaster Response, so for me, it was just like working a disaster during hurricane season when I was at the Army’s national headquarters.

The pandemic was a constant disaster, and I was used to communicating about the Army's efforts to media and community partners in a fast-paced, daily manner. We consolidated our efforts in San Francisco, setting up food pantries in a few of our locations but we also served the homeless in partnership with the City of San Francisco every day. Several times a week, I’d issue a release about our response efforts and work with reporters on updates and interviews.

The most difficult was organizing our two annual fundraisers into virtual events. That meant we had to put together a different kind of program, script, hire a video crew — the whole thing. But we did it. For our back-to-school fundraiser, which included a floral design show usually in a beautiful San Francisco location, we filmed the event in the designer’s studio and had our emcee “co-star” in the event at the studio. It was a different approach than doing a live show at a luncheon because we could really only do one take.

We had to worry about everything from mask protocols to ordering lunch for everyone. But it was a great success, and everyone had fun. By the time our holiday fundraiser rolled around at the end of the year, we had a rhythm. We created a few more videos, including one at the Ferry Building, where The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign started. We even made Mayor Willie Brown an honorary Salvation Army officer because of all he had done for San Francisco. In some ways, doing the events virtually built a greater community and was more fun. These experiences showed my team and me what we were capable of, and I am proud of our achievements. 

I do know that, as a result of the pandemic, I am nimbler and more creative in my media and community approach and a better problem solver. There’s a French saying, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good,” and I came to embrace that during the pandemic and work every day to let that be my guiding philosophy.

You were recently named 2024 Woman of the Year by PRSA San Francisco. What does this honor mean to you?

To be honored by one’s peers, it doesn’t get any better than that. I sometimes joke that everyone thinks they’re an expert in PR, but only real communications people understand the landscape we work in. So to be honored by people who really know what I do is magic. Professionally, it also brings awareness to The Salvation Army. That also makes me proud. 

You’ve been a PRSA member for over 20 years, and also have served as president of your local Chapter. Why did you initially decide to join PRSA, and what inspired you to stay involved and take on leadership roles as well?

Again, a weird synchronistic moment. I was a young PR pro who wanted to learn more about the profession I had just joined. I literally Googled PR communities/associations in SF, and an announcement for (then) PRSA-SF’s Second Thursdays came up for that same evening. So they got me with the cocktails, but I stayed for the community. I was meeting people who worked in other nonprofits, biotech, and agencies — I learned how broad the field of PR was, and found some kindred spirits.

Being a member keeps me on my toes. I am primarily a PR department of one, and while there are great resources at the Army, for the day-to-day SF communications work, it’s great to have friends who I can text with about a reporter or ask for a review on a press release. I learn by doing — I think we all do. I didn’t know what it meant to be president or chair of the membership committee, but I learned about leadership and what it means to be an effective leader. Because I am so passionate about communications and community, to be able to lead with other PR pros and also build a community of like-minded people is very rewarding.

Your LinkedIn Profile says you thrive on the art of storytelling and community-building. You’ve also worked as a journalist. What do you think makes a great story?

Well, they do say if it bleeds, it leads, and that can be true. But I am typically not a fan of those kinds of stories. It’s easy to find the bad news, but not so easy to find the good. And you hear a bad story — and then what? We do need to learn about what’s happening in our communities, but for me, a story that has elements of hope and promise is good. As a legal journalist, some of my favorite stories were about lawyers doing pro bono work, because they were giving back.

I was also (and still am) interested in why people are the way they are. And there also has to be a news element to the story. It has to tie in with what's happening or buck a trend. The best stories are not about the organization per se that you are pitching but what it’s bringing to the community. Why is that program helpful, or why does that platform matter? You need to find a reason why or how the thing will impact the reader, move them in some way, teach them something, answer a collective question that’s looming and give them an opportunity to make their world better.   

What are some of the opportunities and exciting things you’re seeing in the profession right now?

When I started my PR career in San Francisco, we would read Bacon’s to find the names and contact information of reporters. And we would fax press releases. And there were two well-read daily papers — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. News was more neighborhood-focused. Now, news is more issue-focused and there are so many more ways to reach reporters and news desks. You can DM a reporter and text an assignment editor. It’s amazing, though I do miss the days of two well-read and reported daily newspapers. AI is pretty cool. I am a fan of Grammerly and Chat GPT.

But what is fascinating to me is that there are so many more ways to reach your target audience. Whether through social media platforms or online newspapers, there are more reporters to pitch and different ways to tell your story. We were starting to use Twitter (now X) to reach reporters when I was at the Army national headquarters, and now we are using it much more deliberately. Weekly, I hear from a reporter who saw a tweet about the Army and wants to do a story about said topic. We even received a donation from a well-known tech executive who read about the Army’s new homeless initiative on X.

And speaking of, The Salvation Army has always reinvented itself to better meet the needs of its community. We’re very excited about our homeless initiative, The Way Out, which coordinates the Army’s San Francisco programs into a Recovery System of Care (RSC). Services include withdrawal management and stabilization, residential drug treatment, recovery-focused transitional housing, extended transitional living, career development and an alumni support network. Through a Treatment on Demand model, our RSC empowers participants to overcome addiction and transform their lives. The Way Out aims to provide real-time access to care, help individuals struggling with addiction achieve abstinence, rediscover their potential and renew their sense of hope for the future.     

It’s exciting to see the Army get recognized for its recovery-based approach — and, more important, for more people getting off the streets and into a program that will help them.

What are you most proud of regarding your almost 22 years of work at The Salvation Army?

One of the Army’s key messages has always been: No one is turned away. That has not always been the easiest of messages to convey because the Salvation Army has had a complicated history with the LGBTQ community. Because of that, while I served as national director of communications for the Army, I developed a national initiative called “Finding Common Ground” to help guide organizational and public change, specifically establishing a communications strategy for the organization’s engagement with the LGBTQ community.

The work resulted in a 43% decrease in negative social media comments in the first year and revisions to the service and hiring policy to include more inclusive language. We also launched a website. The initiative is used as a blueprint for The Salvation Army across the country for community engagement and media relations.

In San Francisco, we have had a booth at the Pride festival for almost the last 10 years. It’s a wonderful opportunity, we have great conversations with people and provide healing and opportunities for conversations.

What advice can you share with the future generation of PR pros? 

Learn to write, take time with your media pitches and develop relationships. Work to good measure. As PR pros, we have the privilege to look at our organization from a “Byrd’s Eye View,” meaning we can see what others can’t and how our organization interacts with the greater community. We can see more clearly than most the roadblocks to connecting with our publics.

Remember that PR is a management function, and you have valuable feedback for your boss, the C-suite and the advisory board. It’s your job to be objective and independent. But also, remember to have fun. Don’t be afraid to be a cheerleader.


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