Julia Bonner

Meet the unstoppable entrepreneur who’s redefining mission-driven PR

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Key takeaway: Work hard and build lasting relationships with intention

Top 5% in the world at: Communicating clearly and effectively

Julia embodies what it means to be a “hard-worker.” While she was getting her Masters in PR as a full-time student, she worked a full-time job during the day and took classes at night. Her focus paid off. As Founder and President of Pierce Public Relations, she leads the way for mission-driven clients to better promote their products and services to the world. Julia shares how she set herself up in her early career to refine the skill of clear communication and accelerate her entrepreneurial success in PR.

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How She Did it

My parents worked in medicine so I didn’t have many existing ties to the business community. They were both very supportive of the things that I did. Knowing that my career path was going to be different from what I had been exposed to allowed me to build my own leadership style and personal brand within the business community

Boston University:
After living in Nashville my entire life, I wanted to see something new. I pushed myself and enrolled in Boston University. Many of my friends went to state schools, so I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Boston. It was an amazing growth period. But, as I got further into my first year studying business management, I wasn't excited by my classes. It also became clear that I wanted to pursue graduate school and staying at BU would limit my options financially. Leaving the friends and professors I had invested in was really tough, but I followed my intuition and decided to return to Tennessee.

University of Knoxville:
I changed my degree to Journalism and started taking classes that gave me the skills needed to tell a compelling story. I thought I wanted to be a broadcast journalist, so I interned at WBIR-TV in Knoxville for a summer.

Interning there was a big wake-up call. I realized I had been romanticizing being on TV and this was not what I wanted to do. During my internship, there was a church shooting in Knoxville. Watching the reporters cover that event was challenging. I knew I didn’t want to be engaging with people in that way and that TV journalism wasn’t going to be my path.

What made you pivot to PR?
A professor that I really admired and trusted asked me if I’d ever considered PR. She helped me get my first PR internship at DIY Network, which is owned by Scripps and headquartered in Knoxville. Scripps also owns HGTV, Fine Living, Travel Channel and a lot of other lifestyle TV programming, which made it a great place to learn about the industry.

What did you learn at DIY?
Scripps is a big company, so I was able to understand the dynamics of working in a large office office. I learned more than I ever could in a classroom. I got tangible, firsthand experience on how to write a press release for somebody who was going to use it. Plus, I learned that I loved working in television and really enjoyed strategizing PR for the network’s programs. The DIY internship also taught me how to build meaningful relationships in the workplace. I made it a point to ask my boss about what she liked about her job, how she got to her position, what challenged her, and so much more. She was a great mentor and I learned a lot by getting to know her story. By the time I moved to NYC, she knew me really well.

Why NYU?
When I was looking at PR programs, it was evident that the NYU professors were true industry experts with decades of experience doing PR in large, corporate settings and agencies. Most of my undergrad professors were professors by profession. It excited me that NYU’s professors were actually doing the work I would be learning about. NYU also has one of the best PR master’s programs in the country so that made my decision clear.

How did you get the job at Ferencomm?
I built a really good relationship with my boss at DIY, so by the time I moved to NYC, she was happy to recommend me to Ferencomm, which was the outside agency that represented DIY Network in NYC.

How did you get promoted?
When I first started working at Ferencomm, I was the lowest on the ladder. I did grunt work: answered phones, built our media lists, etc. After a few months, I realized that the work I was doing did not match my capabilities. The firm’s management also recognized that I was doing good work and that afforded me the opportunity to ask for more responsibilities. I asked for a promotion and my boss moved me into an account executive role. This was a full-time position while I was a full-time student. I worked during the day and would leave the office at 5:30PM to go to my class from 6-9:30PM.

Why did you do an accelerated degree?
I paid a lot of my own way so I knew I had to stay focused. My priority in that season of life was starting my career and earning my Master’s degree. It definitely required discipline. I didn't have time to be unfocused. I would wake up, go right to work, go to class, and then go home. And on the weekends, I’d focus on my classwork. I knew it wouldn’t be that way forever and that made the long days much easier to manage.

How did you get this job?
Adam Friedman was a professor at NYU who taught public affairs in the PR Program. As I was graduating, he asked me to work for him. His firm was composed primarily of B2B clients in finance, tech, real estate etc. I didn’t have experience in those industries and wanted to learn.

Why expand your knowledge base instead of narrowing your expertise on the entertainment industry?
I was just hungry to know more. Prior to joining the firm, I didn't understand nuances of the stock market or how PR for public companies differed from private companies. These things became so important to my understanding of the business world.

What skill did you learn?
The ability to write well. Adam took editing very seriously. He always made everything shorter and more concise. If you can learn to communicate well in any profession, you're going to be more successful because leaders must be able to make their points clearly and effectively.

Thoughts on big vs small firm?
I loved the jobs I had because the companies were small and I got to know everyone. We had real relationships with our clients. If you're a junior associate in a large PR firm, you don't always get direct communication with the client. I gained a lot of exposure at a young age because of the firm size, and was even pitching to new businesses when I was in my mid-20s.

Why did you move?
NYC is the kind of place where, at some point, you decide if you're going to stay there for the rest of your life or make a transition and live elsewhere. A couple years after grad school, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and that was an important inflection point. My family and close relationships are my anchors, and I decided to move back home to Nashville. At that point, Nashville had changed so much and become this new, trendy city.

When I told my boss that I was going to move back to Nashville in 5 months, he asked me to open a Nashville office for Adam Friedman Associates instead of leaving the firm.

What an opportunity! How were you feeling?
It was scary. I'd never done anything like that but it gave me the ability to come back to Nashville. I still had my job in NYC and was given the opportunity to start building a business in a new city. It was a great experience.

But during that year, I also realized that I was no longer fulfilled by the client work. It is important for me to be inspired by both the people around me and the work that I do with them. I knew I needed to make a change.

How was the process of leaving?
There's never a perfect time to make a hard decision. There's never a perfect time to leave a job. You just have to face your fear and do it. I called him and basically said that it had been an amazing experience and that I was very grateful. But, it wasn't what I wanted long-term. And they actually became one of my first clients because I handled leaving with transparency and respectfor the opportunities I had been given.

How did you start your company? How did you get your first clients?
A lot of it was through the relationships I made over time. There was someone in NYC who became a client through the work we'd done together. I regularly kept in touch with people. It's important to have touch-points to make sure that people know that they matter to you. For me, it’s not about keeping a spreadsheet with all your networks and industry contacts — it's about developing authentic relationships that exist on an ongoing basis.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
My vision for my business is to be the PR firm behind every major brand and individual that is doing philosophy-driven work — work that really matters.

Advice for your career launch

To build a relationship with your boss, just face the fear
Early in my career, I remember feeling intimidated by my boss and more experienced professionals in the industry when we would meet one-on-one.  Over time, I learned how to ask meaningful questions and stray away from small talk so the other person would open up. If you're feeling intimidated, consider  preparing questions in advance. When I first started networking, I would research people via LinkedIn. I’d study what they did and what they're interested in and then ask them about those areas.

Ask relevant questions
Asking relevant questions will help the conversation evolve and they'll also know that you put in the effort to get to know them. The will want to invest in you because they know you've invested in them. If you want lasting relationships, you must build them with intention.

The secret to making people believe in you is to believe in them
In other words, affirming the value of others allows me to add value to what they're doing. They see that through hard work, discipline, and integrity.

Communicate clearly
Communicating clearly and effectively is one of the most distinguishing and important leadership qualities among people at all levels. To successfully lead people, you must be able to communicate your vision and what is needed to accomplish it with clarity and purpose.

Have faith in your career journey
I believe that situations unfold the way they should, and I wish I’d had more faith in the journey and process earlier in my career. Now, when something doesn’t work out, I can easily remind myself that better things are ahead. 10 years ago, I felt more stress and frustration with circumstances that I have come to greatly appreciate.

Have a success-oriented mindset
It’s so important to be surrounded by people who inspire, push and uplift me and those around them. Skills can be taught and developed, but it’s much harder to find people who have a mindset and attitude geared toward success.