Jen Peterson didn’t start her career with the intention of running her own PR business, but after nearly 30 years in the industry, she’s definitely proven she’s in the right spot.
No stranger to change, Jen grew up moving a lot. She lived up and down the East Coast, went to college in the Midwest and then landed in the Twin Cities upon graduation, where she began her career in PR. While testing out different avenues of the industry, she made the move to Chicago, then out west to Arizona and California, before landing in Evanston, Illinois, where she lives and runs her business today.
Jobs have come and gone, but the one constant in her career has always been PR.
She’s an expert in the area and the owner of JPeterson Marketing, which she runs on her own while also holding the titles of wife and mom.
From producer to PR pro
Jen attended DePauw University, where she originally wanted to be a television news producer. She had a summer internship at a local station in Connecticut and discovered the job wasn’t the right fit for her after a particularly gut-wrenching day where she had to interview a grieving mother who had tragically lost her children in a fire. This was late in her college career, and while she didn’t change her major, Jen did join the Society of Professional Journalists where she first became interested in PR.
She was faced with a recession upon graduating, and jobs were hard to come by. Knowing she loved theater, Jen made the decision to move to Minneapolis — outside of New York City, the Twin Cities had the most theaters per capita at the time. She discovered a theater she loved and reached out to the head of marketing and PR to ask if she could intern with her. Jen received a “yes” and went on to work in that theater for years.
“I learned a ton—there was no money, so I learned to be creative,” Jen explains.
With a desire to be in a bigger city, Jen moved to Chicago where she did PR and event planning for what is now Meals on Wheels. She also worked for an agency, a website and a radio station, where she stayed for seven years working in marketing and non-traditional revenue programs.
After getting married, Jen and her husband moved out west for his job. She worked for a museum doing marketing and PR before coming back to Chicago and working for a different radio station. “I hated the job,” Jen insists. “I cannot promote something I don’t like, and I hated that station.”
In a twist of fate, she lost her job as part of a group layoff the day before she was due with her baby.
The start of something new
After having her son, Jen wanted to figure out her next career move. With a little bit of luck, someone asked her if she could do a PR job for them. It was work she could complete while the baby slept.
“One job led to another, and I said to my husband, ‘Maybe instead of putting him in full-time daycare, I should do this for the next few years until he goes to kindergarten. Then I’ll figure out something to do next,’” Jen explains. “But along came kindergarten, and I was having my best year ever.” So she decided to stick with it and has been in business for nearly 10 years.
Jen’s agency specializes in working with small- to medium-sized businesses, especially ones where she feels she can fill a gap and make a difference. “The unifying thread is that, honestly, I either like the product or the people. That’s really all it comes down to,” Jen explains of her clients, all of which have come to her by word of mouth.
“I can’t do a good job unless I really believe in what I’m promoting,” Jen explains. “I’ve taken on projects, especially in the beginning, that might not have been something I liked, and I’ve learned some hard lessons.”
Jen is the only consistent employee at her agency, making her a true solo PR pro, but she does bring on additional contractors when necessary. From designers and videographers to additional PR people, she prides herself on being nimble whenever the project calls for it.
Balancing it all
Work-life balance is a priority for a lot of people in the workforce, but it can be particularly challenging for those who are in business for themselves. Work can easily consume every corner of your life, and that’s why Jen has made balance non-negotiable for herself.
“I’m very upfront with clients that I’m a mom first,” Jen explains. “That means I typically do not log on between the hours of 8 and 9, and I usually log off at 3:30. I might come back on or I might not come back on at night, depending on what I feel like doing.”
Before her son hits his teen years, Jen wants to soak up every second she can with him. She even chooses to dial back her work in the summer as well. “My son is 10 — I only have a few more years where he is going to think it’s cool that I’m around,” Jen says. “At that point, maybe I’ll take on more clients.”
Traveling with her family is a huge priority and passion for Jen as well. Since she can get her work done from anywhere, Jen typically works on vacation. “The fact is, I can, and I love that,” she explains. “We have three trips planned this year, and I will work during those.”
On a recent trip to Costa Rica, however, Jen hired someone to cover for her during the 10 days they were gone. “To be honest with you, it was the first time in the 10 years since I started this business that I did not work on vacation,” she admits. “I kicked myself a little. Why didn’t I do this sooner? It was the best money I’ve spent on myself.”
In addition to traveling, Jen loves going on nature walks and heading to the beach. She and a friend are also in the process of teaching themselves pickleball. “If you ask me what I’m passionate about at this very second, it is that we are going to learn this game,” Jen laughs. “It seems like it’s just enough exercise for me to enjoy it and not hate it.”
Sharing her knowledge
Being your own boss comes with a lot of benefits, but it can definitely be a huge challenge as well. Jen has learned some important lessons during her years of being a solo PR pro.
First, know that if you lose a client, there are others out there. Slow times can feel scary, but the sooner you learn to savor them, the happier you’ll be. Jen explains, “…this is the universe saying, ‘This is your chance to slow down and recover.’ There will be more clients.”
Second, find a good accountant. “You need someone who’s looking out for you financially. From helping you get set up to save for retirement to coming up with a system for tracking expenses and receipts,” Jen says. “They’re worth every penny you pay them.”
But her number one piece of advice?
“Know your worth,” Jen insists. “Sometimes you take jobs just to take them — you’ll learn about an industry or make a good connection to a person, and that’s great, but don’t take jobs just for the money. You’re worth more than just dollars.”