Jeanine Liburd is sharing Black stories through her role as Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at BET.
“Black people are super cool,” and not coincidentally, Black narratives and issues are being highlighted in mainstream media more than ever before. Liburd reminded Her Agenda in our interview that for BET, this isn’t new. The media giant has a long history in being unapologetically Black 365 days a year; and takes pride in celebrating and being a home for Black culture.
Many of us know what it feels like to want to make a professional change into something that feels more authentic to who we are. In this interview, Liburd shares her story on how she made a pivot in her career from politics, to PR, to cable media. Her story will inspire you to identify what you know and what you need to do, to make a change. Liburd also shares some of the amazing work that brings her joy from day to day as she plays a part in helping to design the future of Black media culture.
Her Agenda: Although New York is home, you started your career in politics in D.C., and now you’re back in New York as a media executive. How did your career path change, and what did politics teach you about media?
Jeanine Liburd: When I was in college I decided that I wanted to work in urban policy. For some context, I went to Vassar and I also spent a year at Spelman. After getting my master’s in public policy, my intention was to work in local government for David Dinkins, but he lost the mayoral election. That was my first understanding of, you might have a plan, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Like many Democrats in New York, with Giuliani at the helm, many of us went to D.C. to see if our fortunes would fair better with the Clinton administration.
Politics to me always meant local, that’s where my passion was, so going into federal government wasn’t exactly where I thought my path would lead me. But it did, and I learned so much about how the federal government works in the process; the pros and cons, how policies are made that impact state and local government etc. I did a stint at the Department of Health and Human Services, I also worked in the White House for awhile under Clinton. I was there during the time of welfare reform. The debate was highly charged and political. There were a number of policies that I didn’t agree with and I decided this wasn’t where I wanted to be spending my time.
Her Agenda: When that initial realization set in that your work wasn’t fulfilling you, what were your next steps?
Jeanine Liburd: While I loved that work I decided two things:
1.) It’s not only about the work itself, but also how it’s communicated to the world. Many times policies are fought in the media. For example, the immigration debate right now… is it really about the policy or is it about Donald Trump winning or losing the media war? I began to learn how important the media was in driving policy decisions and the political process.
2.) It’s just as important to figure out what you don’t want to do, as it is to figure out what you do want to do. I had to go through that process, but learned so much about the difference between a policy and the political environment; I learned how to put those things together.
What drove my decision was knowing what I wanted. I knew that I wanted to come back to New York. I knew that I had to figure out how to make a living in New York, I knew that I had to make a career change, but I had to figure out how I was going to sustain my lifestyle.
I’ve always had a passion for entertainment and for news, so I literally just started having conversations with people. I started with three people and had conversations with them about what they did. One particular gentleman who I had coffee with asked me what I did well. I explained my public policy background and how I liked to solve problems and think critically. He recommended that I would be great in strategic comms. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but he laid out the basics of what I now do.
Her Agenda: If someone reading this feels out of sync with their work, how should they start the process to make a change?
Jeanine Liburd: Get information. Don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t assume you know everything. Growing up you don’t know all the areas that exist for you.
Her Agenda: In your case, you learned by working your way up the industry and you’re now at BET. What’s your favorite part of your job?
Jeanine Liburd: Our programing team creates the content. My job and my joy, is introducing our audience to that content. I make sure that we are breaking through the clutter, and that we are creating stories that tell a narrative that our viewers can engage with, that will not only entertain them but also empower them.
Through our work in corporate social responsibility (CSR), I make sure that when we have the opportunity that we use our platform in a huge way. For example, our #voteyourvoice campaign. We’re ramping up for midterms. How can we make sure that we’re educating our audience on issues that are important? So when we have Angela Rye moderating a great panel with such huge issues, we’re making sure to push it out there on our social media, we’re pushing it out to other media; we’re using it to remind people what makes BET different.
Her Agenda: How is BET, and your work specifically, highlighting Black stories?
Jeanine Liburd: Being Black is super cool, and is a ratings driver. There are so many networks who have different shows trying to attract a Black audience, and more specifically a Black woman audience on certain nights of the week to boost ratings. But that’s not our play. We are 365 days a year, all day all the time celebrating, acknowledging and being a home for Black culture. Our north star is to respect, reflect, elevate. We have always been for the culture, and there isn’t a brand that’s doing that in a multi-platform way, in the way that we’re doing it. So it’s a big goal for us. Sometimes we hit it on the mark, at other times we miss it. But we keep trying to do it every single day in a way that no one else is doing it. How do we not shy away from big issues and instead run towards them?
Her Agenda: What advice do you have for women in 2018 who want to continue to move up in their careers that may be similar or very different than the work it took you to get to where you are today?
Jeanine Liburd: I had a mentor who told me when I was at Viacom ‘to bring my whole self to work,’ and I thought,’nobody is ready for that.’ The one exciting thing about media and the new attention around the different facets of Black life is that I think we’re much closer to that place where we can bring our whole selves to work.
I’ve worn my hair short and cropped for a very long time, and it’s been great to see the natural hair movement grow. All of this is a part of, can Black women really express themselves in the workplace? I think there was a period where we fell into the typecasts of, ‘I’m going to be a doctor or a lawyer and be more constrained.’ The important thing now is really figuring out, what are the things that really make you happy, and how you can pivot my career into that direction. An even more exciting phenomenon is finding the work that will not only help maintain your lifestyle, but what is that extra thing that you want to do? That entrepreneurial thread?
We’re never going to be happy with every single piece of our jobs, but we do need to figure out what our full package life look like? What’s that entrepreneurial thing I’m going to do, what’s my workout plan, what’s my travel plan, what’s my girlfriend plan? The difference is consciously going into the workplace with really concrete ideas on what you can get out of the workplace, and also really focusing on leading a full life and putting all of the other pieces together so you get the right amount of satisfaction from your work; [your job is] not every single piece of your life.
[Editor’s note: This interview was published on March 19th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]