Persistence pays off for School of Communication alumnus
Ryan Witherell has never been one to take “no” for an answer.
Shortly after graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in communication from what is now the School of Communication, Witherell began his career in public relations as an account coordinator with Merritt Group. One year later, however, his plans to make a career in Northern Virginia, near where he grew up in Woodbridge, changed.
Witherell’s then-girlfriend, and now wife — Jennifer Lowry, a 2001 Virginia Tech graduate with a degree in music performance — had dreams of moving to New York or Nashville to pursue a career in the music industry. The expenses associated with New York made Nashville the only sustainable option.
The 2000 Virginia Tech alumnus took a leap of faith, left a reputable firm, and relocated to a city where he had no established connections. On top of that, it was only one month before the world stopped on Sept. 11.
“Moving to Nashville in 2001 was risky,” Witherell said, “and it was an extremely difficult time to find a job. I was wondering whether I’d made the wrong decision. But then I contacted a particular firm five or six times. Eventually they let me in the door just out of a this-guy-won’t-stop fatigue.”
That persistence has paid off. For the past two decades, Witherell has made a career in Nashville at that same firm. He’s a senior partner at DVL Seigenthaler, a FINN Partners Company, the largest public relations agency in Tennessee.
“Persistence is really what matters,” Witherell said. “How do I overcome this challenge to get the result I’m seeking? It can be sheer determination, it can be creative thinking, it can be some other avenue. People who embody that approach ultimately succeed.”
‘People are looking for credibility'
When he arrived in Blacksburg in 1995, Witherell hadn’t expected to dive head first into the world of public relations. Instead, he had charted a path in journalism after growing up in love with reading The Washington Post and serving as editor-in-chief of his high-school newspaper.
Suddenly, he found himself picking up an interest in marketing and looking at things from a business perspective. As Witherell navigated through his college experience, he discovered that public relations was the perfect intersection of journalism and marketing.
Upon moving to Nashville, Witherell landed the gig with Seigenthaler Public Relations, a small firm of about 15 people at the time. Soon after Witherell joined the team, the firm began to expand, and in 2015 it was acquired by FINN Partners, the fastest growing public relations firm in the world.
DVL Seigenthaler, which is now FINN’s southeast office, is a full-service communications agency. Witherell leads its corporate and consumer practice group, where he specializes in media relations.
“I learned early on that you can make an impact by focusing on media relations,” Witherell said. “When social media came about, everybody was like, ‘Oh, traditional media is dying. It’s not going to matter anymore.’ But it’s as important as ever, especially in a world where people are looking for credibility.
“Journalism remains critical to our society. I realized if I could get good at working with reporters and helping generate placements for my clients, then I could make a difference.”
Despite his title as senior partner, this realm of media relations is still where Witherell finds his most professional joy.
“My days are filled with meeting with clients and presenting plans or particular approaches to projects,” Witherell said. “I love what we do. I still love pitching. Earlier today, I was emailing with a Forbes reporter. I still find that exciting.”
In his leadership role, Witherell seeks to establish a collegial and collaborative culture that manifests in team members “high-fiving and hootin’ and hollerin’” for the individual wins that pop up. It’s this culture that continues to serve him well and make DVL Seigenthaler a welcoming place to work.
“Only one of us may get the story, but it’s a collaboration,” Witherell said. “That team-first approach is fun. The client situations we face are not always easy. To have an environment that is supportive and celebrates successes is important.”
‘I want to encourage the next generation’
Witherell’s passion for public relations as a possible agent of change has not faded over the years. He hopes others will join the cause.
“Public relations is so critical right now in a world where there’s not much trust between each other, and between the public and the media,” Witherell said. “Professional communicators are crucial in today’s climate and in demand more than ever these days. Communicators who are good and ethical and strong can make a difference in the world.”
And what better place, Witherell asks, to find some of those communicators than in Virginia Tech’s School of Communication? He’s a huge proponent of supporting current students in the public relations major.
“It’s important in this current climate to get people working in this field,” Witherell said. “I want to encourage the next generation and would love nothing more than to bridge the gap to an agency like FINN Partners.”
“We are fortunate to have such accomplished alumni, like Ryan, who are committed to our students and our program,” said Nneka Logan, an associate professor in the School of Communication. “Ryan is an example of someone who tailored his Virginia Tech education to lead to a great career.”
More than anything, Witherell notes the importance of public relations agencies as an ideal career path for students looking to enter the workforce.
“Agencies still offer an incredible career path for professional communicators,” Witherell said. “The opportunities for young people are there. It’s hard to get hired in-house straight out of college. We constantly hire recent college grads and provide an environment where we cultivate them, help grow their skills, help them gain experience, and provide opportunities to make an impact on our clients.”
Witherell looks back fondly at his time at Virginia Tech. He appreciates the way his time in Blacksburg gave him a leg up on those in the field, comparing his mindset to the blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality that the Hokies football team has used to define itself all these years. And now, he’s seen the success play out in front of him because of those connected experiences.
“I came out of Virginia Tech with determination and a strong work ethic,” Witherell said. “I do notice that common thread among Hokies who have had career success. We’re all cut from this similar cloth.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke