Strictly Business — Women of Influence
Debbie First, Partner, D&S PR|Communications
“Everything you do or say is Public Relations.” — Unknown
In today’s world, where people can share their thoughts and opinions with lightning speed and a limitless reach, the importance of knowing how to communicate your narrative has a tangible impact and can no longer be ignored.
Preparing to interview a PR maven whose work and experience has been dedicated to crafting stories, communicating moments and building relationships with some of the most well-known names in Boston, we dove head first into the world of PR and were instantly hooked.
On paper, Debbie First hits all the marks with her professional experience, her academic accomplishments and her philanthropic track record. In person, she is engaging, warm, humble and speaks with an authenticity that comes from the heart.
Learn more about the world of government, public television, education and how to survive when the world throws you the fastest curve ball when our AFH teens get inside the ring with Debbie First.
Considering your background in academics, we’re curious to know what drove you to a path in public relations.
I did not plan on a career in public relations. But in hindsight, PR is in my DNA.
I went to a Liberal Arts college where I majored in English and minored in Government. I chose English because I enjoyed literature and creative writing. When I was growing up, if your father was in business or your mother was a teacher or a secretary, you followed in their footsteps. My dad, Bill Savitt, owned a jewelry store, but that was not an option for a woman. When I was your age, there were few choices for women. My mother’s goal for me was to get married and have kids. I knew that if I wanted to work, the options were secretary, nurse, or maybe a teacher. Of those professions, I wanted to be a teacher. I babysat and loved the responsibility. I loved reading and making up games and being in charge.
Although I was not destined to be in the jewelry business or an entrepreneur like my dad, he has still had a major influence on my career. He was one of seven children and left school after Grade 9 to work. His parents were immigrants so they didn’t have the language skills to be as successful as he would become. By serendipity, and perseverance, at age 19, he opened Savitt Jewelers in Hartford, Connecticut where I grew up. He had a gift for selling and for making up slogans. He created his own small advertising company and wrote his own ad copy. He eventually started a radio station and owned a semi-pro baseball team. His favorite team was the Boston Red Sox and Ted Williams was his friend. He was self educated, self-made and a giver which made him a gift to his community. He had two daughters — and he always included us in his world in dinner table talk.
From childhood and even now, my dad is my mentor. When I was about 13, he asked me to write his after-Christmas advertisement that ran in The Hartford Courant. Because of his baseball team, I had the courage to reach out to the Red Sox organization in 2013 with an idea that turned into a fundraising project, From Fenway to the Runway, a fashion show with the Red Sox wives. Like my dad, I am committed to making a difference in our community, and most of the public relations work I do is for non profits like Artists For Humanity. Through PR, AFH is better known for the amazing work you do and the art that you sell to sustain the program for future generations.
My dad’s life-lessons still impart a lot to me. It was always in his heart to give to the community. I learned that doing good is also good for business.
Public relations is what I do now, but my first job out of college was as a fifth grade teacher in Sharon, MA with a special focus on language arts. My class was a mix of kids who were very smart, average and some who needed lots of support. Language arts was a subject that worked for all levels. One skill I still remember teaching is how to develop a vocabulary of words that are specifics for general words. I asked my students to make up a story about a magazine photograph without using the same action words over and over. It was a win-win. I learned how to motivate my students and was excited when the best stories were from the students who were creative, not necessarily the A students.
After teaching for two years, I had our first of three children. I became a stay-at -home mom. Over the next five years, I took education courses part-time, finally earning a Masters of Education from Boston College.
During this time, I was asked to volunteer to promote an event for Action for Children’s Television (ACT), a non profit advocacy organization whose mission was to improve the quality of kids’ TV.
ACT was an opportunity for me to get involved in something that crossed into all of the areas that I cared about. It was an advocacy group like Artists For Humanity, trying to improve outcomes for youth. It was focused on protecting the needs for kids over the needs of TV advertisers. At the time, TV was taking advantage of the youngest, most impressionable viewers, by doubling the amount of advertising in the programs they watched compared to adult programming. On Saturday mornings there were non-stop violent cartoons designed to keep children’s attention for the commercial messages. TV was the babysitter. Public TV was in its infancy. The question for ACT was, how do you improve program content without using censorship?
This was like today’s issue of keeping kids safe from bad or inappropriate content and messages on the Internet. If you believe in the First Amendment, which means you don’t censor content, you must solve the problem without crossing that line.
ACT advocated for change by threatening regulation and offering alternatives. With three kids of my own, and as a former teacher, I saw the impact of TV on kids. I happily volunteered for an ACT fundraising event and welcomed the opportunity to meet the ACT president Peggy Charren and asked, “How can I get more involved?”
By luck, a summer position at ACT was available and I was hired as a part-time program manager. My first job was to write brochure copy to combat the TV advertising that was selling sugar to kids in cereals, snack food and sugarcoated vitamins. The goal was to make a fun brochure that would appeal to kids and help them see the benefits of healthy foods. I went to the library and found books with kid-friendly word games and books about nutritious snacks. The graphic was a child-drawn caterpillar-like creature that we called the SugarSneak. The title for the brochure was ACTs Nutrition Survival Kit. I wrote short, child centered copy. I loved the process and the opportunity to work with designers like you! Next was getting press coverage and using it for advocacy.
The selling of sugar coated vitamins on children’s TV was a big issue. Ultimately, ACT petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and there was a ruling outlawing selling vitamins on TV programs that were specifically for children. By the time that happened, I was working full time for ACT as Executive Director and being mentored by the President and founder of ACT.
This was a time when women were beginning to find their voice. Women with children worked primarily out of economic necessity. I had the energy, a supportive husband to help at home, a cause I believed in and an opportunity to enter the work force. So I went for it and have never looked back.
I was also involved in my community as a member of the Board of the League of Women Voters and becoming conscious that politics can be a change maker.
While at ACT, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Not good news, but I was in denial and only thinking about getting through the grueling treatment and being a role model for our children. Work was a distraction. I was treated at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The best news is that I beat my odds with the combination of good medicine, good support and good luck. I never stopped working, I just wasn’t always able to work on all cylinders.
ACT hosted a conference on the Arts and Children’s TV that was directed at TV producers to showcase examples of the best programming on TV and to encourage the networks to invest in creating more. With a wig on my bald head, and courage, I introduced Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of “Where the Wild Things Are.” He had produced “Really Rosie” for TV and told about that experience. Sendak was 47 and introduced himself to me saying, “I’m 47. Sometimes four and sometimes seven.” He was an adult who could see through the eyes of children. Another speaker was Lavar Burton — now on PBS encouraging kids to read! My cancer was not stopping me.
Working at ACT was exciting and creative. Peggy was a demanding but motivating boss, who would ask, “Debbie, can you imagine doing anything more fantastic than what you’re doing?” I know it’s not curing cancer, but it’s making a difference for children.” She infused me with her passion, though in my heart I hoped we could also cure cancer.
Throughout your career in PR and in government, what were the challenges that you faced as a woman?
I went to an all-girls’ high school and to Wheaton, an all women’s college. Both are now coed. I was always involved in sports and theater, which probably gave me the confidence to speak up and be involved.
The women’s movement of the 1970’s gave me the courage to think I could raise a family and work, though I always took positions that had “work life balance.” My biggest challenge was being diagnosed with a rare woman’s cancer as a young working mom.
While working at ACT, I had the support of work, family and friends. But after 13 months of grueling treatment, I thought, “I should smell the roses, I should spend more time with family.” So, without any real plan, I announced that I was stopping work. I regretted it almost immediately. Quitting was a big mistake. I learned that you should never resign without a job or a plan.
I was lucky. Within weeks, I got a call about a job as Director of Public Affairs at WBZ -TV Boston. Though I did not get the position, I learned about corporate public relations.
Not long after, the Dean of Admissions at Wheelock College told me about a position as her Associate Dean. I qualified because of my Masters of Education. I loved the school because it was teaching students to be teachers. I was hired.
Though not in my job description, I offered to help the Wheelock Communications Department design a campaign to make Wheelock more appealing to prospective students. I created “Who Will Care for Tomorrow’s Children?” as the campaign theme and helped design a new brochure and an event with a speaker who was a psychologist on WCVB -TV. This ended up being a mini marketing campaign. The campaign was effective and I learned new skills. But I realized that I was not hired to do PR and the basics of my admissions job were not stimulating.
What to do? While I was at ACT, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis ran for a second term and lost in the primary. Four years later, when I was at Wheelock, Michael was ready for a rematch! I thought Dukakis was an outstanding governor, honest and capable. I decided to get involved in his rematch campaign. At night I was helping with Dukakis events, making posters, and doing PR. I learned that if you do whatever is needed you end up being given more and more responsibility. I was not being paid but I was meeting extraordinary people and learning a lot.
I started working nights for Dukakis and days at Wheelock and it was too much. I decided to take a chance, leave Wheelock and give all my time and energy to the campaign in hopes that if Dukakis won, maybe I could work in his administration.
I left Wheelock and Michael won the election. Getting a job in his administration was a long, slow process. I interviewed with many different departments. I found my match when I interviewed at the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT) which is responsible for marketing the whole state to visitors from near and far. After six months of interviews, I was hired as Deputy Director. My job was to oversee the Advertising and Public Relations. By the time I left MOTT, I was Director.
Based on your prior position as Director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, how do you go about selling a city such as Boston?
MOTT’s responsibility is to market the whole state including Boston. The state is divided into 13 regional tourism councils from Boston to the Berkshires from the North of Boston to Cape Cod and the Islands. Each region does their own marketing and in addition, MOTT sells Massachusetts as the brand that includes each region, their cities and towns and all the major arts, culture, sports, parks and recreation, fairs and festivals, lakes and beaches, lodging and dining and so on.
My first challenge was the process of hiring an advertising agency and a public relations company. The agency had to show it was capable of coming up with a slogan that would sell Massachusetts and get the approval of the Governor, the legislature, the tourism industry AND would make the citizens of Massachusetts proud!
So how do you do it? You make sure the process is open and fair and that the agencies who are applying have experience and a creative team whom you can rely on and work with. The first agency that was selected was IQJ. They created a tag line, “The Spirit of Massachusetts is the Spirit of America,” that presented Massachusetts and Boston as where US history began. The campaign was a big success because it was well funded, the jingle (song) was catchy and memorable, and the tax revenue from tourism increased over the years it ran from 1984–91.
As a state agency, MOTT’s PR is to communicate that the return on investment of tourism was significant. MOTT also hosts conferences for the industry and creates awards to acknowledge private and public sector tourism leadership. Much of what my team developed for the tourism industry is still in place today. The difference at MOTT today is the use of the Internet, social media for marketing and a much smaller budget.
As a woman running MOTT, I was initially challenged by the male dominated travel industry. But I had a mentor in the Governor’s Office who believed in me. I quickly learned the politics, management and communications aspects of overseeing a state agency. I was proud to sell the assets of Massachusetts nationally and internationally.
When Dukakis left office, I had to leave MOTT. That is politics, but I left with experience in marketing and PR and landed senior positions at a small and then international PR firm before going out on my own. One of my favorite clients was Artists For Humanity!
You are very active in philanthropy. What drives you to do so?
I learned about philanthropy from my dad. I can remember times when he would be listening to the radio and hear about a child who was sick or a family struggling after a house fire. He’d pick up the phone, call the radio station and offer help. My dad believed in the Golden Rule and gave out hundreds of marbles that were engraved with the words “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was advertising the idea of doing good!! My dad was a big Red Sox fan and an early supporter of the Jimmy Fund. He found a Baseball Prayer that begins, “Play me where you need me.” The prayer was used by Kathryn Nixon (wife of Trot Nixon, Red Sox player) at From Fenway to The Runway.
What drives my philanthropy is trying to make a difference.
As a cancer survivor, I feel privileged to be a Trustee of Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I do the 200 mile PMC Jimmy Fund bike ride to raise funds for cancer research and treatment. The other areas I support with time and funds are arts and education.
We are ending all of our interviews by asking if you had one piece of advice for young women, what would it be?
You are lucky to be in an environment like AFH which is giving you valuable design skills while also giving you a caring place with mentors who want to help guide you. My advice is to welcome their teaching and their guidance. Be honest with them, so that they can help you, not just today, but in the future.
Throughout this presentation I have seen how powerful my dad’s influence is on who I am today. He would say, “Listen to your best coach,” and he meant the person who speaks from their heart because their heart connects to yours.