For the past 13 years, Jen Hartmann has worked in various positions at John Deere. Today, she is the company’s director of enterprise social media and public relations. Prior to working for John Deere, Jen worked for nonprofits, including the Illinois Soybean Association and Checkoff Board and United Way.
On today’s episode, Jen and I discuss her career and the lessons she’s learned along the way; the evolution of social media and how she and her team approach John Deere’s social media presence; and the way people’s different perspectives and experiences contribute to better outcomes in the workplace.
Jen offers some great social media insights. She also talks about the importance of prioritizing care for others. Whether it’s in our daily interactions with co-workers or a random encounter with a stranger at the store, there’s a lot to be said for demonstrating empathy and caring for others, and I think Jen’s advice is something we should all keep in mind.
Episode 12 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity
Jessie Topp-Becker: Hey, Trailblazers. It’s Jessie. Welcome to another episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture, a podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators. Today’s guest is Jen Hartmann.
For the past 13 years, Jen has worked in various positions at John Deere. Today, she is the company’s director of enterprise social media and public relations. Prior to working for John Deere, Jen worked for nonprofits, including the Illinois Soybean Association and Checkoff Board and United Way.
On today’s episode, Jen and I discuss her career and the lessons she’s learned along the way; the evolution of social media and how she and her team approach John Deere’s social media presence; and the way people’s different perspectives and experiences contribute to better outcomes in the workplace. I can’t wait for you to hear from this trailblazer.
Welcome to the podcast, Jen. Thanks so much for taking time to visit with me today.
Jen Hartmann: Thank you for having me. I look forward to chatting with you.
Jessie: As we get started, would you mind telling me about yourself?
Jen: I have been in the public relations profession for going on 25 years now. I’m currently the director of enterprise social media and public relations for John Deere. I’ve been at Deere for 13 years and have been in and out of various nonprofits, really starting my career at the Illinois Soybean Association and Checkoff Board before spending about nine years at United Way. I currently head up a team of nine people who manage PR and social media across 54 countries where we have a social media presence for Deere.
Jessie: You talked about some of the different roles that you’ve had in the companies that you’ve worked with over the years, Jen. Do you have a tie to agriculture outside of your work life?
Jen: The closest tie I have to agriculture is that I grew up here in the Quad Cities, which is home to John Deere. I had family members who worked for Deere, and genuinely grew up dreaming of working for the company. When I headed into public relations as a career, I tell people that even at the age of 22, the job I’m in now was the job I dreamed of being in; heading into PR, I knew that someday I wanted to do PR communications for the company.
Jessie: That’s awesome to see how it has come full circle for you just getting to be in that dream position. Can you talk a little bit about your work at John Deere over the last 13 years and some of your roles within the company?
Jen: Sure. I started at John Deere Harvester Works, where we will build our combines and front-end equipment. And my job couldn’t have been the more perfect introduction to the company. I was responsible for a new visitor center that many listeners may have visited if they did any Gold Key tours or factory tours at Harvester Works. And I was responsible for managing all of our Gold Key tours, before I eventually became the communications manager and employee communications manager for the factory. In the role managing Gold Key customers, I also hosted all of our international tours and the public tours that we hosted. And just got to spend really valuable time interacting with a lot of families in agriculture, a lot of businesses and industries that are involved in agriculture, and got a really good understanding of the needs of our farmers and how Deere’s equipment plays such a huge role, not only in their farming operation, but for many people, just the legacy and the brand affinity so many of our customers have for John Deere.
Jessie: That’s neat that you talk about that brand legacy because I think John Deere is so iconic. And its unique that you talk about your opportunity to interact with some of those customers who are longtime generational owners and purchasers of John Deere equipment.
Jen: Yeah. What it did for me being in that role right out of the gates is it really solidified now in my role, which is to protect that brand and reputation. I am very passionate about how much we stay tuned in to any of the challenges, any of the issues, making sure that on social media, our customers feel heard. For me, our social media presence has been more about engagement and connecting with the ag Twitter community in particular vs. posts or products. You know, I have learned over the years, personally and professionally, that no one is going to follow a brand on social media to be marketed to. You either need to be entertaining, engaging, educational and provide some kind of value for people to pay attention.
Jessie: How do you go about that then, Jen, really making sure that you’re focusing on engagement for John Deere’s followers on social media platforms, especially when the platforms and social media today are so diverse
Jen: You know, one of the first things we did a few years ago was we incorporated what has amounted to about 24/7 365-days-a-year social care. We have our customer support team dedicated now to monitoring and managing any customer support questions that come across the channels. You know, for us, we oftentimes want our customers to turn to their local dealer, but that’s not always reality, and they can’t always fix every issue or answer every question. So part of it was making sure that, from a social care standpoint, we were getting back to customers in a timely manner.
And then second, it was just really the realization when you think about how social media platforms find the greatest success organically by simply responding to and engaging with customers and fans. That’s going to keep people tuned in. They care more about what their fellow farmers are doing than what John Deere is doing, right? So we want to be sure that we’re engaging in the conversations that make sense for us. I don’t ever anticipate that Deere will be one of those brands that does silly brand play for the sake of silly brand play. We want to make sure that it’s relevant to our audiences and to our customer base. So that’s really been a big part of the approach we’ve taken.
And then we look at channels like TikTok, which we currently don’t have a formal corporate presence on. And yet, you know, I’ve shared on my own personal Twitter feed, I think now it’s over 4 billion views – billion with a b – just on the #JohnDeere. And so in a lot of cases, we need to step back and take a look at the content and the energy and the passion around our brand that exists organically, without our voice in it. And until we can come up with a compelling reason why Deere should have a formal corporate voice (and I don’t anticipate a TikTok presence being very corporate), but I just want to be sure that we’re adding value to that conversation and not taking away from it.
Those are a lot of the conversations we have on a daily basis. And of course, you know, just constantly staying tuned in to the contents that our followers are sharing. I would rather retweet great content from a farmer, than post something straight from Deere. So we’re really leaning into what our followers are interested in, and sharing what they have to say more than what Deere would have to say.
Jessie: It’s nice to hear you talk about the followers and that presence on TikTok even though you don’t have a true corporate presence there as John Deere corporate itself, I think it speaks to the loyalty of John Deere customers and fans, which I think we all can attest to.
Jen: Think about how passionate you have to be about a brand to share content around that brand on your own personal social media handles. I feel blessed every day to be part of that community across social media.
Jessie: I think probably some of those followers and the things that they’re posting are maybe even more valuable, like you said, than what you as a brand could post yourselves.
Jen: People here at Deere are sick of hearing me say this, but no one cares what Deere has to say. We have got to find a way to tap into what our followers, our customers, our fans are talking about and determine whether Deere has a relevant voice in that conversation, and tap into that. Tap into what the social media community as a whole is talking about if it makes sense for Deere to engage in that conversation. But otherwise, no one cares what a company has to say. Right? I mean, they just don’t. And so we’ve got to find ways to entertain, engage, educate on the things that really matter most to our customers and audiences.
Jessie: Through the course of your time at John Deere and maybe even your entire career beyond John Deere, how has the introduction of social media and the various platforms changed what you do as a company in marketing and public relations?
Jen: It has changed the pace in which we have to communicate or respond on the public relations side of my role. The world is no longer patient and forgiving. They demand to hear from, understand and hear from a brand on any number of social topics or issues. There’s some research out there from Edelman, which is a public relations agency we work with, that has shown that because people are, by and large, less trustworthy and don’t trust what politicians perhaps have to say, in an increasingly strong number of people – particularly younger generations – are looking to brands to solve, comment or take a position on any number of social issues.
So when an issue hits and let’s just say it’s even an inadvertent, you know, mistake that’s made on social media, there is a what I would call almost a mob mentality on social media anymore, right? Where the world just comes after a brand. Without any recognition that perhaps there’s some due diligence that needs to take place, perhaps there’s an investigation that needs to take place, perhaps we need to understand this issue a bit more, right? There’s just this almost intense demand on brands and companies to respond right away.
I will say I’m very proud to work for a company like Deere that has not been tempted to jump into those demands. Deere continues to stay true to who they are, to who our customer base is, to who our employees are and what our employees expect from us. And, you know, I think it’s probably harder on me sometimes to be sitting at the forefront of any kind of controversy or question that might be out there, again, on any number of social issues. But I’m really proud to work for a company that isn’t going to make a play simply to make a PR play, if that makes sense? Or isn’t going to be woke for the sake of being woke. But it’s really going to stand behind what matters most to our customers and employees.
Jessie: Talk a little bit about that fast pace of social media and how that’s changed and that need to be accessible for your customers kind of all the time. Can you talk a little bit about the team aspect then and the team of people that you work with to make that all happen?
Jen: I mentioned at the opening of the show, I have colleagues in 54 countries around the world who are managing their own social channels. So, when it comes to social, we want to make sure that individuals within each of those regions are truly representing their customer base or even products and landscapes in the environment. You know, a picture of a combine harvesting corn in Iowa is not going to resonate in South Africa, so we want to make sure that the content, the tone, and the engagement and interactions are true to that region. From a PR standpoint, similarly, I have colleagues across the globe who are managing issues, working very closely with their public affairs teams, working closely with communications professionals within ag, turf, construction, forestry and golf and ensuring that we are being consistent and that we are all up to speed on any positions the company might be taking, any response we might be making.
For me, I started in my current role March 1 of 2020. So the pandemic hit kind of full force with factories shutting down around the world. And I think I fielded something like 300 media inquiries in the first few weeks alone, you know, because the Wall Street Journals of the world, the Bloomberg, the CNBC, MSNBC, the Fox Business outlets want to know where a company the size of Deere stands. How they’re approaching it, how they’re managing it. I just worked very diligently to ensure that across the company, my colleagues have where Deere is, have relevant talking points to ensure that we’re all on the same page and that we’re providing clarity and participating in interviews that make sense.
Jessie: You mentioned your interaction with your colleagues in 54 countries. In your role, are you over any of those people in the other countries? Or are you kind of strictly focused on the United States?
Jen: You know, we are very decentralized at Deere. I have a small team of eight people that report directly to me, and everything else is just collaborating and doing this. It’s, you know, communities of practice and sharing best practices and sharing lessons learned and connecting as regularly as we can.
Jessie: It sounds like a really neat work environment to be a part of, a team environment.
Jen: Very independent and very autonomous. I will never forget starting at Deere and realizing that no one was going to check on me. I remember doing a new video for all of the visitors that came to Harvester Works and realizing that no one in the company was going to view it and let me know if it was okay. The company just trusts its employees to get the work they were hired to do done and to run with it. And so that autonomy took a bit of getting used to, but it’s something that truly is what makes working for Deere so fantastic.
Jessie: We’ve talked a lot about social media, Jen. How does your role branch beyond social media in the types of work that you do? Is it strictly focused on social media or do you do any distribution of public relations information via other media outlets?
Jen: I would say my job is almost evenly split between public relations and social media, and even then it’s very integrated. We are constantly monitoring social media for any potential issues that could bubble up for Deere. We want to be sure that we are constantly staying tuned in to the tone and the conversations happening on social media so that we don’t inadvertently talk about something very frivolous, or, you know, try to be entertaining if there’s been a significant natural disaster, for instance, that has hit a significant part of the country. So we’re constantly managing that.
As director of PR and social media, I’m staying tuned into industry topics, issues that might be affecting the industry. You know, when the President of the United States announces, for instance, like he did yesterday, that immunizations will be required for all businesses with over 100 employees, it’s my job to start working through the company to find out what is our response going to be? How are we going to manage that? Is that something worth considering? So that I can get the right information out to any media inquiries. I would say yes, on a daily basis, I’m keeping my eyes and ears on the public relations side of my job and on social media, because they are so intertwined.
Jessie: You talked a little bit about natural disasters, and I saw on your Twitter feed that you recently posted a video about arriving to help with Hurricane Ida relief and recovery efforts at John Deere’s plant in Louisiana. Can you share a little bit about the work that you did there and what that kind of looked like?
Jen: Yeah, so very eye opening when you are able to travel to an area like Thibodaux that had been impacted so heavily by Ida. As a community outside of New Orleans, which tends to get all of the media attention, this is a community that still two weeks later doesn’t have power; fuel is in very short supply. People are waiting in lines up to two-and-a-half hours to get fuel to run the generators to run their refrigerators or to charge up their phones. What I attended was a resource day for 300 employees who work at our Thibodaux factory there. And that was an effort organized by factory leadership there at Thibodaux to make sure that employees had the resources they needed to fix their homes. So we were giving out tarps and bleach and sprayers and hammers and also fuel. They each got a couple containers of fuel to take back home and charge up their generators. None of the stores in the area had power, so they were only taking cash. We worked with Deere employees’ credit union to get an ATM down there that could be hooked up to a generator so that our employees had access to cash to simply buy the goods they needed at local stores.
It was just a really great opportunity for me as an employee of Deere to see, first of all, just how much our company as large as it is, takes care of one another. And similarly, also really good experience for me in my role, heading up PR, to witness firsthand that in today’s media environment, not every story can be told. And the stories that are told are just a small fraction of what’s really happening. It was a good reminder for me to maybe tune in a bit more to more local coverage, and not just the main, you know, large media outlets, that I think sometimes we’re prone to do just because it’s everywhere.
Jessie: As you think about your time at John Deere and the various positions you’ve had over the years, in what areas do you think you’ve grown the most, professionally?
Jen: Can I say influencing without authority? You know, in my job, like I said, I only have eight people reporting to me. And yet, you know, working with colleagues around the globe to help support, influence, guide and manage information can sometimes feel pretty unwieldy. So I think that collaboration piece has been really integral for me. I think it’s something that we don’t learn in school, perhaps like we should. You know, it goes well beyond doing group projects, right? We should be asking students to work with poly-sci majors and business majors and science, and do a project together with cross-functional teams across the university vs. all the same function.
I would say, second, is that I tell young people all the time, whether or not they have a natural interest in business and economy and finance, they need to study that. It was a blind spot of mine for some time, because I wasn’t naturally interested in the business environment or business school or getting an MBA, learning accounting or finance. And I look back now and wish I had, because I think having a core understanding of how businesses work, operate and are profitable, would be very valuable for a lot of young people to learn and understand. So those would be my probably the two pieces of advice I’d give people.
Of course, coming and working in a factory again, not just because of the Gold Key experience, but actually sitting on the leadership team at a factory and understanding how that unit and that business operated, the demand on making sure that equipment gets out to customers in time for harvest, making sure the supply chain is where it needs to be, that the quality is where it needs to be, that our workforce is trained to the extent they need to be. All of those things are incredibly valuable when it comes to even understanding the ag industry as a whole and what farmers need to be successful goes well beyond the machine they’re operating.
Jessie: So you’ve spent many years at John Deere, but prior to that you had other roles with some other companies and nonprofits. How did those experiences set you up for success at John Deere?
Jen: I would say that because my experience was primarily with nonprofit organizations like the Soybean Association and Checkoff Board and then United Way, it gave me the opportunity to work in so many different functions. Nonprofits by nature are just a lot grittier; they have to be a lot more resourceful. I was doing everything from special event management to campaigns to communications to marketing, PR, fundraising and learning the ropes across a whole number of tactical executions within communication. As you know, it’s communications, marketing, PR and now digital.
I also tell young people that if they can get even an internship with a nonprofit, that will help them really explore and fine tune what part of their skill set they do best. Where do they have some opportunities for growth? And then where do they really want to focus their efforts? For me, did I want to be more of a writer? Did I want to be more of a special event planner? Did I want to be more of a marketer? And those opportunities at a nonprofit really helped me zero in on where my strengths were.
Jessie: One of the things that we didn’t talk about early on Jen is what kind of led you to a career and a desire to pursue a career in public relations and marketing and communications.
Jen: It was just one of those natural things I was good at. I think everyone has their own subject that when the teacher announced. For me, it was we’re doing a lesson in poetry or we’re gonna do sentence diagramming or we’re gonna read Shakespeare. I was the kid in the class that was excited about that, right?
I went to school at the beginning to become an English teacher. I ended up getting a major in English. I was asked at the end of my senior year to stay on as a graduate assistant with our campus activities board, and that’s when I really discovered PR and special event coordination and management, helping support campus events across the university. So for me, it was just pursuing the area I had the greatest interest in, and I had no ambition when it came to money, clearly, I pursued a career in communications. But I just I loved communications and that’s what I pursued.
Jessie: Kind of circling back a little bit to John Deere, what’s one of your favorite projects or campaigns that you’ve been a part of?
Jen: Hands down my favorite project of all time was project “Can Do” when we built the Guinness Book of World Records largest structure built out of cans. It was a life size replica of a combine that we built in the John Deere pavilion, put on display and then donated all the canned goods to local food banks. It took hundreds of John Deere volunteers coordinating with architects and engineers and hosting media outlets to come in and view the structure. My only regret is we did it before social media was where it is now. And the storytelling we could have told had we had all the digital channels we have now. But at the time, I just so appreciated the celebration of farming and really bringing together in a visual way and a symbolic way all those canned foods to replicate a life-size combine. It was fun and creative. And my husband, who works at Deere was a big part of it. He’s an engineer, so he was very involved with the architecture firm that was designing the structure. And so just as a couple, we had a lot of fun doing that together and have a lot of great memories of all the time we spent building that can combine.
Jessie: How does that idea get brought to the table, like, let’s build a life-size combine out of cans?
Jen: That came from one of our advertising managers and she reached out to me just because I worked at Harvester Works. We knew we needed a large core of employee volunteers and, you know, I feel blessed that she had the forethought to think, wow, I bet Harvester Works employees would be interested in this, and so it just came to be. And I would say that’s true across the company. If there is an idea that you can get enough people excited about, you can make it happen. I’ve seen a few examples of that. But in terms of what my favorite project was, that continues to be the one.
Jessie: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, Jen, what would that be?
Jen: To not be so hard on yourself. You know, a big theme that I try to share across my personal Twitter handle is that none of us ever have it figured out. And I think I probably would have spoken up a bit more, shared a bit more, ideated a bit more and perhaps even pursued different opportunities if I would have been more confident in the voice I had. Young people have a really valuable voice in the workplace. It’s important for all of us to be more inclusive when it comes to generational diversity. The perspectives and experience and viewpoints we all have coming from different generations, I think, create a healthier environment, stronger innovation and better ideas for our customers if we can listen more. But I think that also requires for those that feel insecure or unsure of themselves to know that, in fact, they actually have a lot more value than perhaps they will ever know or recognize.
Jessie: That’s very good advice. One of the questions I ask all of our guests on the podcast is, who a trailblazer has been in your life? Who is someone who has impacted you and made a difference in your life and can you just share a little bit about them?
Jen: When I was at Harvester Works, one of the factory managers I worked for, his name is Dave DeVault. He just recently retired. He was also the factory manager at Waterloo. He taught me and shared frequently and often with employees across the factory that joy and love belong in the workplace. I have taken so much of the lessons he shared and the time I was able to work with him about empathy and caring for others as a focus point vs. an afterthought, and to place that above yourself, above profits, above sales. Because if you care about the people you work with and you care about the customers you serve and you strengthen those communities, everything else is going to work out, including sales and profit, and you’re going to have a lot more fun doing it. So Dave DeVault is someone that I hold very near and dear to my heart and look to as an example of how to manage others and to demonstrate empathy and to be a bit more vulnerable and how we talk about work.
Jessie: You know, from a team perspective, when we feel cared for and heard, we often perform better than when we don’t or when that stigma is on just out putting and performing vs., you know, having that connection.
Jen: Agree 100 percent.
Jessie: Is there anything else, Jen, that that you’d like to talk about or that we should be touching on?
Jen: I can’t think of anything. It’s been great talking to you and I enjoyed meeting you today and look forward to listening to more episodes on your podcast.
Jessie: Thanks so much, Jen, for joining us and for sharing your story.
Jen: Thank you.
Jessie: What another great conversation with an incredible trailblazer! I really enjoyed visiting with Jen about her career and the way John Deere approaches social media. Even more though, I appreciated Jen’s comments about prioritizing care for others. Whether it’s in our daily interactions with co-workers or a random encounter with a stranger at the store, there’s a lot to be said for demonstrating empathy and caring for others, and I think Jen’s advice is something we should all keep in mind.
Thanks for joining me for another episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture. Join me again next time as we chronicle the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators