Words to Harriette Cole are the canvas of expression. She wants to see them used beautifully, sparingly and, probably just a smidge above all, responsibly. “I tell every one of my clients: show me rather than tell me. Whether you’re talking to the media or your staff or your boss,” she coaches, “when you can bring an image to life through your words, people listen.” Twenty years as a writer and editor — starting with a stint on Capitol Hill — and an A-list roster for her business baby, Harriette Cole Media, which includes media coaching services, symbolize her knowledge. But the accumulation of the knowledge itself is her greatest achievement.
When she was younger, modeling changed her world. Tall and slender with braids and glasses, Cole discovered the blessing of being sample size. But the marriage of her two passions (writing and fashion) ushered her into a world of editorial privilege at two of the most iconic brands in African-American media. Her professional purpose now, says Cole — former fashion editor at Essence and editor-in-chief of Ebony — is to inspire folks to step into their greatness and be their best, similar to that thunderbolt of confidence she got from her seasons of strolling the runway. “I have figured out lots of different ways to do that, from telling stories to helping people with the way they present themselves,” she says.
Here, she talks reinvention and grooming public figures to be media-ready.
Name: Harriette Cole
Position: Writer, author, advice columnist and media trainer
Resume: Immediately out of college, worked on Capitol Hill for Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. Hired by Essence magazine as assistant editor in the home department and eventually promoted to editor of section. Transitioned to a fashion editor position. Contacted by book publishers Henry Holt and Company and invited to write a book on African-inspired weddings, leading to the bestseller, Jumping the Broom; author of seven books in total. Left Essence in 1995 to launch a media company, now called Harriette Cole Media. Served as founding editorial director for Uptown magazine. Led the redesign of Ebony magazine as creative director and, later, editor-in-chief for the new iteration. Host of The Root Live series. Writer of “Sense and Sensitivity” column for 15 years and frequent on-air contributor to the Today show.
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Education: Graduated with a BA in English from Howard University
Marital status: Married to fashion photographer George Chinsee for 21 years
Media mentor: Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence
Best career advice received: “Hire people who are at least as smart or smarter than you. If you don’t, you’ll only get to be as good as the weakest link on your team,” told to her by John Beck, a financial entrepreneur, when Cole was starting her business in 1995.
Last book read: Firebird, by Misty Copeland, who is Cole’s friend.
Guilty pleasure: Fashion and shopping
Twitter handle: @harriettecole
How did you land the job at Essence?
In college, I was a model. Howard [University] did these huge fashion shows, so I was scouted to go to Europe when I graduated. I didn’t have the same level of comfort in modeling as I did in writing. I had written about fashion for the Hilltop, the school newspaper, and the only thing I knew enough about was fashion. There were no internships in liberal arts, so I created them at two free papers in Washington, D.C. I convinced them to let me write about fashion and gave myself a year to collect a body of clips. When that milestone got close, I reached out to two women I’d stayed in touch with from school who worked at magazines and asked if they knew of any job openings. They both did, one position at Fairchild Publications [now Fairchild Fashion Media] and another at Essence. I was offered both, but I took the job at Essence.
Your first big break is often your greatest learning experience. Was that true for you?
My first job was working for a member of Congress on Capitol Hill. I was basically a secretary and one of my jobs was to type on a typewriter — this is how long ago it was — but I wanted to write for them. They did all kinds of writing to their constituencies, in the space of art, in particular, and I would say, ‘I can write. Let me help you!’ They were kind of like, ‘Ugh, just do your job.’ I became an excellent typist, so I would be finished with my work by noon and have nothing else to do so they would let me help them. When I left there, I typed 90 words a minute. I didn’t tell anyone because my interest was not to become a secretary. But when I wrote my first book, I was able to do it, never on Essence time, by deadline, with the research completed and all of the typing done. I always tell young people: master the thing that you have to do that you hate the most and put it in your toolbox. One day, you’re going to use it.
When did you feel ready to graduate from doing your own media appearances to coaching others to do them?
I had a dream that I had a business when I was at Essence, many years before I was fashion editor, and the dream had all kinds of things in it. It was very specific. The name of the business — Profundities — was in the dream. That was what my original business was called. I didn’t even know that word. I had to look it up. There was an outline of what this business was going to do. I couldn’t go to sleep so I got up, typed it all out and put it up on my refrigerator. It yellowed there for years. A day came when I realized it was time for me to leave Essence. There was no further growth, nowhere up to go. My first book had become a best seller. With a healthy book contract and a dream, I decided I was going to start my business.
I was at a cocktail party right before I left Essence and I was sitting next to Andre Harrell, who was the head of Uptown Records at the time and really big in the music industry. He asked me, ‘What are you doing now?’ I told him about my latest book, How to Be. It’s an etiquette book, but it’s also how to bring your authentic self in an appropriate way to any environment. When I told him he said, ‘Do you think you could teach that to my artists?’ I said, ‘Teach them what?’ He said, ‘Teach them how to be.’ He wanted them to be able to talk on TV and be able to conduct themselves in meetings, to take the person off the page and help them to be prepared for whatever environment they were going to be in. That’s how it started. That was 1995.
Who have you coached?
One of my very early clients was Mary J. Blige, back when she was having a tremendous amount of difficulty in her career. But her album, My Life, had gone triple platinum so she had to be out in the media. They wanted me to prepare her so she would have positive press. Once you work with Mary J. Blige and it works, the whole music industry knows. I’ve had many clients: Alicia Keys, who I often call my best student because she wanted it so bad, Erykah Badu, Carl Thomas, JoJo, Nico and Vinz. After 9/11, I also started getting a lot of work with people in the corporate space to do not so much media training, but executive coaching, leadership training and conflict resolution.
What makes for an ideal client?
Someone who understands there’s a challenge and says ‘I need support with this challenge and I’m going to do the work so that I can get beyond the challenge.’ I’m working with people to modify their behavior or their communication. If you have a behavior that’s not serving you, it’s very tough to stop. For example, many people clutter their language with words like ‘Um,’ ‘like’ and ‘You know what I mean?’ Smart people with big jobs. It’s equal opportunity in our colloquial way of communicating. The best kind of client is somebody who’s willing to say, ‘OK, I see what you mean. Now what are the tools I can use to make the change?’
How did you ease into your transition to media spokesperson and how can other people become comfortable doing it?
I learned how to have stage presence. My older sister was a broadcast reporter. I used to have a high voice and she taught me how to lower it. She said, ‘No one wants to listen to a squeaky voice’ like only a big sister can. Don’t go on TV until you’re ready. If you’re unprepared, you’re not going to be invited back. Take a media training course. If you don’t feel confident as a speaker, go to Toastmasters. That’s one of the most affordable ways to learn public speaking. Figure out what your voice is and what your focus is going to be. Practice putting yourself on camera and learn your eye levels, what to wear, how to present yourself. Writing and editing are different from television and public speaking. Confidence is part of it, but you have to deeply know your subject matter so you can figure out how to discuss it in sound bites.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.