Exeleon Magazine

Niki Jones: Infusing Optimism to Drive Success

Niki Jones_Exeleon Magazine_Cover Story

A petite, twenty-year old woman kneels on the pavement beside a patient. She checks his vitals and takes notes as he inhales sharply, then coughs up blood. Around her, New York City erupts. Panicked bystanders push past her emergency response equipment while her partner questions the distraught family for medical history. The terrified patient clutches her arm, seeking comfort amidst the chaos. Sirens announce the arrival of police at the scene. 

It’s been more than thirty years since Niki Jones, CEO of Niki Jones Agency, knelt on New York City’s sidewalks tending to a patient in critical condition. Still, she says, the lessons she learned as a tactical patrol paramedic shape the way she leads her public relations and marketing agency. “In the emergency medical services world, we tried to save lives,” she explains. “In the business world, we save companies.”

Niki Jones Agency is a public relations and integrated marketing firm that specializes in translating complex data into sophisticated narratives with eye-catching graphics that drive capital to clients. Launched in 1999, the Agency now has a diverse portfolio that includes work for government agencies, non-profits, universities, corporations and of course, hospitals. Nevertheless, Niki Jones remains focused on helping small and local businesses thrive. For example, Niki was part of a recent effort led by Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses Voices who spoke with New York State Senator Chuck Schumer about the needs and concerns of small businesses in the U.S. during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

We asked Niki about the invaluable skills she learned as a tactical patrol medic, how she applies them in her current leadership role, and how taking a people-centered approach to marketing keeps her Agency growing despite economic setbacks.

On leading fearlessly under duress

Optimism and emotional intelligence are two of the most important qualities of a successful entrepreneur, says Niki. Being a small business owner means facing unexpected challenges, making hard decisions, and navigating economic ups and downs. Optimism makes this process easier. “In 2008, I had just opened a new office and purchased new equipment. Then the economy went into recession. I lost my largest client and had little income. All I had left was hope, but this was merely a hiccup in business,” Niki reflected. “Being optimistic helped me weather that hiccup. At the end of the day, entrepreneurs need optimism to persevere.”

Optimism is the driving force behind Niki’s “blue sky” ideas, or ideas rooted in the belief that nothing is unattainable or unrealistic. Blue sky ideas are necessary for the business to evolve, Niki explains, especially in times of duress. For example, Niki Jones is currently expanding her core services to include online reputation management for companies that have experienced a data breach, catfishing and other cybersecurity crises. “This is work that lay just outside my wheelhouse. The tools were readily available, but I had to grow my knowledge to truly understand the problem clients are facing. Only now can I apply my expertise in marketing to resolve it.”

This is how she found herself in a class on the dark web, tor servers and cryptography a topic she admits she never considered studying until last year. “I can now implement tools I’m familiar with to meet an emerging market need,” she explains. Once a blue-sky idea, Niki’s now actualized online management services are proof that growth is possible even in the most challenging economic conditions.

On empowering employees and leading by example

While her optimism fuels long-term growth, Niki takes a more grounded approach to leadership in her day-to-day operations. “I strive to be emotionally intelligent as a boss and as a businesswoman,” she states. “I try to be self-aware, to embody the self-management style I expect of my employees and to give them the skills to express themselves confidently and professionally.” Emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as “EI” or “EQ”) is the capacity to be aware of and control one’s emotions in order to handle situations judiciously and empathetically. It is in this context that Niki’s background as an emergency responder is most apparent.

“What I learned in emergency medicine is that leaders need to have a steady hand,” she explains. “When you arrive at a scene, everyone is panicked. It’s your job to assess the situation, identify strategies to resolve the crisis, and implement them quickly and efficiently.” Though the stakes of the situations she manages have changed, she says the same EQ techniques serve her well in her position as CEO. She still needs to anticipate client and employee concerns, assess the circumstances and prepare a solution, for instance. But, she adds, she also needs to teach her team how to perform this analysis and respond autonomously.

To this end, communication is essential: “You need to create a culture, internally and externally, of thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and consideration for others.” When people know it is safe to express their emotions, she explains, they are better positioned to produce collaborative, durable and innovative solutions. This is because they can shift their attention from what they’re feeling, to how they can address it and move the project forward.

On running a people-centered business

Ultimately, Niki says a culture of communication leads to a happier workplace, more coherent products, and stronger client relations. “When people learn to express their ideas confidently and constructively, it creates room to be flexible, to work together, and to overcome adversity with less struggle,” she states. Implicit in this statement is her commitment to running a business that prioritizes people over products. She credits her ability to maintain long-lasting relationships with clients (many of whom have stayed with her Agency for more than a decade) to her people-centric approach to business.

To prove this point, Niki talks us through her first meeting with a client, 22 years ago. “My first client was Ed Nikles, a custom builder and he’s still with me today,” she laughs. He was looking for a marketing representative, she explains, and “I walked into his office and introduced myself. He hired me on the spot, I think because I was enthusiastic, direct, and honest.” Since then, Niki has never wavered on the importance of open communication between her Agency staff and clients. She asserts, “It’s the communication between our team members and with our clients that enables us to create. It’s the culture behind the products that really sets us apart.” 

Still, Niki acknowledges that building a sustainable, communicative culture takes time and comes with its own obstacles. For example, she is often faced with the difficult choice between expertise and culture-fit when interviewing potential employees. “I’ve had to turn down career experts with very valuable skill sets because they weren’t the right fit for the culture I’ve built,” she explains. “That’s always hard because you know they have the technical skills to perform the job,” she elaborates, “but at the end of the day, our business is about more than product.”

On next steps for Niki Jones Agency

In a year marked by pandemic disruptions, Niki says her experience in emergency medicine was more helpful than ever. After initially cutting down staff hours, applying for and receiving PPP funds, and transitioning all daily operations online, Niki was finally able to restore all employees to their full-time positions by January 2021. She has also hired one full-time and one part-time employee to help manage incoming projects. “In a weird way, this year worked out for us – in part because of my training. And now my focus is to help other businesses be better prepared for the next time an economic downturn occurs,” she says.

To this end, Niki Jones Agency has worked with partners to develop the Small Business First Aid Kit, an economic development training module designed to help small business owners adapt to the current economic recession. The Small Business First Aid Kit educates small business owners and prepares them to 1) revise their existing business models, 2) use technology and data to revise their operations and 3) use marketing tools to generate new leads and conversions.

Niki Jones explains the significance of this project, stating, “People think that 10 months into this pandemic, we’ve moved beyond the period of teaching people how to survive it. But the data shows that small businesses still desperately need help.” For this reason, she says, the Small Business First Aid Kit is a hands-on educational experience that gives small and emerging entrepreneurs actionable tasks and one-on-one business coaching to get them on the path to recovery.

As for her Agency, Niki has her eyes set on moving the needle in the field of crisis communications. “What we’ve seen throughout 2020 and into 2021 is that many companies don’t have a plan of action to communicate internally, with clients, or with the public in emergencies. We want to resolve that challenge, once and for all.” To do so, Niki and her team are eagerly learning new methods and techniques in the fields of cybersecurity, web development, and integrated marketing. “We have never been stagnant,” she says, “and we can’t let up now.”

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Visit Niki Jones’ Website.

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