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So What Do You Do, Terrie Williams, Author, Activist and Public Relations Strategist?

When I meet you, I want to know who you really are, not the mask that you wear every day.

- April 23, 2014
If there were a show like Behind the Music for public relations professionals, Terrie Williams’ episode would have all the makings of a fan favorite: household-name celebrities, a powerful comeback and the inspiring story of a woman who realized she wasn’t answering her calling and then, just like that, did. While most people are nudged into providence by a parent, maybe a teacher or coach, jazz legend Miles Davis inadvertently became her prophet of professional destiny during her first career as a hospital social worker. “He told me I didn’t need to be working there. He saw that I had other gifts,” remembered Williams.

Building her eponymous public relations and communications firm from the ground up with Davis and then number one box office draw Eddie Murphy as her first two clients, she’s represented Hollywood and corporate American royalty from Prince to Time Warner. After going public with her experience with clinical depression, Williams has also become a celebrated evangelist for mental health care, using the skills she honed in her 25+ year career to create buzz around a hushed and under-discussed issue. Here, she talks leadership, people skills and how personal suffering can become a social contribution.

Name: Terrie Williams
Position: Public relations strategist, president of The Terrie Williams Agency, author and mental health advocate
Resume: Started professional life as a medical social worker at what is now Weill-Cornell Medical Center. Befriended jazz legend Miles Davis, who encouraged her to open her own business. Founded her public relations firm, The Terrie Williams Agency, in 1988. Represented luminaries, including Chris Rock, Rev. Al Sharpton, Janet Jackson, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and the late Johnnie Cochran, as well as HBO, Revlon and Essence magazine. Founded the Stay Strong Foundation which, though now dissolved, supported the personal well-being of young people. Leads workshops and seminars on PR and communications-related topics for corporations, universities and community organizations. Motivational speaker and advocate for mental health. Received many honors for both professional and civic work. First black woman to win the New York Women in Communications Matrix Award in Public Relations. Named one of Woman’s Day’s “50 Women on a Mission to Change the World.” Author of four best-selling books, including The Personal Touch, which is being updated in honor of its 20-year anniversary.
Birthdate: May 12, 1954
Hometown: Mount Vernon, NY
Education: BA in sociology and psychology from Brandeis University and MSW from Columbia University
Marital status: Single
Media mentor: Venerated publicist Chet Burger
Best career advice received: Honor everyone because it pays great dividends when you treat all people as human beings.
Last book read: The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly
Guilty pleasure: Strawberry Twizzlers and riding in a convertible with the top down and the music up
Twitter handle: @terriewilliams

Most publicists launching their own firms don’t pull in high-end clients off the break. What was your strategy to attract and retain that caliber of clientele when your agency was in its infancy?
You know what it is? I honor people. This might sound simplistic, but I know that everybody on the planet matters. I was at a birthday party and Eddie [Murphy] was there with his cousin and friend. I knew everybody wanted something from him. He’s an enormously talented superstar. People don’t pay attention to the people who are with him. When you don’t honor everybody, you lose out because it’s the person that you think doesn’t matter that the talent will ask, “What did you think about Terrie?” If you haven’t paid any attention to them, what do you think they’re going to say? I’m genuine, so it’s not calculated. I wasn’t trying to get in good with his cronies or whatever. I just knew that he was going to pay me but so much attention, so I just started talking with the two guys he was with. We were at the party for four or five hours but after that, Eddie was going to a comedy club to perform. Those two guys asked if my guest and I wanted to go. I know for a fact if I had been trying to cozy up to Eddie, I wouldn’t have gotten that invitation. I was grateful in terms of what I sent to them to say ‘thank you’ -- notes and everything -- and then I began to be invited to parties at Eddie’s home.

"The greatest thing that one can do is to speak your truth. Nothing can beat that. People can see through if you’re making up a PR spin."

Then one day I heard that Eddie was looking for a PR person. He had never had one. I was kind of self-taught. I took two six or eight-week courses, but I didn’t major in it in college or grad school. I knew I was supposed to represent him. I just knew. So I wrote him a letter. I said, ‘You don’t really know me, but I’ve been to parties at your home and we met at Miles’ [Davis] birthday party. And this is who I am. I would love to represent you.’ I got a phone call maybe two weeks later and a voice said, ‘Eddie’s here. He wants to talk to you.’ He got on the phone and just said, ‘I would love to have you represent me.’ Just like that. I was in tears on the other end. I launched my business with him. Because Eddie was on board, Miles wanted me to represent him. So very early on, all eyes were on me like, ‘Who is this person? Who does she think she is?’

You’re also a licensed therapist, which, along with your career in public relations, is a unique combination of experience. How has that education enhanced your PR sensibilities?
It’s everything. It’s innate and it helps me to see people. When I meet you, I want to know who you really are, not the mask that you wear every day. People move through the world with their masks on, so they don’t often give you a chance to see them. We feel like we’ve got to have the upper hand and know everything and be perfect. I have my frailties, pain and challenges, so I know that you’re just like me. I don’t care who you are or what your position is. That’s one of the things that’s served me really well. I care about the person that’s underneath that mask.

What has been your greatest professional lesson and where were you when you learned it?
I think it’s listening to your inner voice because it always tells you what to do. Eddie’s management didn’t want me to represent him because I wasn’t traditional Hollywood. I’m a person of color and I was five minutes in the game. After a year perhaps, maybe two, I got a phone call that said ‘effective immediately, Eddie is going to have a new PR person in addition to you.’ I don’t remember her name, but I know she handled Tom Cruise and a bunch of other people. I knew what was going to unfold: Even though I’d been doing all of his press, this new person would be handling mainstream press and they would relegate me to black press.

"The ability to attract, engage and hold onto talent should be a company’s number one concern."

I wasn’t going to take two steps backward, not after all of that time, so I sent Eddie a resignation letter. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was at the same time because I was being disrespected. About two months later, I saw him at his brother’s wedding and he said, ‘So how come you didn’t want to work with me?’ I explained what happened and Monday I got a phone call from the manager saying that person was no longer on board. It wasn’t about power play. I just I knew what was going to happen and I’m glad I listened to myself.

In an era when even advanced degrees sometimes aren’t advanced enough, do you think we’re too oversaturated with learning and underinvested in the actual doing?
That’s a good question. Yes, I do. The only way to work what you’ve learned is to practice. I think some people are running from things. Sometimes we’ll do anything to not feel pain or struggle. We self-medicate with a myriad of things to not deal with ourselves: food, work, promiscuity, gambling, unprotected sex, going to school. When are you going to break out? I think it’s important to be current, but not at the risk of having an unfulfilling life. That just means you’re running from something. A good therapist is always the answer. God and a good therapist have gotten me through time and time again.

What have you done as a leader to bring the best out of your people and make your agency even more effective?
The ability to attract, engage and hold onto talent should be a company’s number one concern, but it’s not enough to hire the right people. Think about the whole person. They have to be fulfilled as human beings and your job is to create that kind of atmosphere. It’s simple but it’s also kind of revolutionary because that’s not the way that people think. Keep your people engaged in what it is you’re doing by giving them the tools that they need to become what drives them internally. The employee wants to become the best version of him or herself. I’m a social worker to the core, so I can never not look at who you are as a person. What are your dreams, goals, aspirations? What is the pain in your life? What keeps you from being the very best that you can be? It can’t be impersonal. Yeah, I expect them to kick ass and produce. But the only way you’re going to come to our space whole and able to do that is to know that you’re cared about.

Mental health advocacy is a huge part of your personal and professional interests. What has been the most measureable reward of sharing your personal struggle with depression, particularly in the African-American community?
When I went public about my depression in an Essence magazine story, more than 10,000 people responded, which led me to write my book because people were saying, ‘Girl, my best friends and family members don’t know that I’m strong on the outside, dying on the inside.’ We’re all dealing with stuff and I just felt that it was important to speak to African-Americans, for whom therapy is a badge of shame. I don’t believe anyone is born bad, mad or evil.

"Keep your people engaged in what it is you’re doing by giving them the tools that they need to become what drives them internally."

Life happens to you and it changes who you are. You don’t get help and that unresolved trauma starts to get to you. In the workplace or in your relationship, you might say something and the person you’re talking to goes completely off and you’re like, what did I do? What did I say? It was simply that you triggered something that happened to that person and they never dealt with it. You get that immediate reaction. In the workplace, it’s really important to keep that in mind because many times, it’s not personal. It doesn’t have a single thing to do with you, but it’s some unresolved pain. We all inherit unresolved pain, wounds, trauma and scars from our parents. Horrific things happen to people and they don’t get help, so if you say something that triggers it, I’m going off on you.

It seems like someone is always in the news for saying or doing something that generates shock, shame or public ridicule. As a student of both public relations and human behavior, what’s your advice for healing a career after one of these mess-ups?
I think the greatest thing that one can do is to speak your truth. Nothing can beat that. People can see through if you’re making up a PR spin. People understand that. I think when you are true to yourself and don’t make excuses, then you win.

You’re kicking off a lifestyle series based on your passion for self-care and philosophy of personal reinvention. What will that project look like and when will it launch?
I’ve been kind of doing it informally. I speak at a lot of colleges and corporations, and what I really do is simple. I will share parts of my story and others’ stories to get people to open up. It’s really amazing. My friends and family and staff knew I had anger issues. I was the last one to realize it. It came out in therapy. Somebody violates you in some way, your spirit or your body, and you have nowhere to go with it, but somebody’s going to get it. So I ended up having to apologize to friends and staff people as well because there was something else that was really making me angry and I hadn’t dealt with it. The only reason I can stand up and say this to people is because I know I’m not the only one with anger issues. I had a meeting about a year ago. People started sharing and the tears started flowing. That doesn’t happen at corporations. You don’t let people see you sweat.

If you could have a 20-something Terrie Williams as your intern now, what would you tell her to do differently?
Listen to your freakin’ inner voice. You know in your gut what’s right but either fear sets in or something keeps you from listening. There are always other forces crowding the good sense you have. Follow your inner voice and be true to it. I know this is about media, but the underlying core is our shared humanity. It impacts how effective we are in particular roles. If you look at a lot of different media personalities, you wonder what drives them because of certain things that they say or do. Even though you don’t know what that person’s journey is, you know they have one and it colors everything about who they are. Assume there’s something you don’t know that had a profound impact on that person.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Janet Mock, Writer, Transgender Advocate and Author?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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