John Deere's PR Leader, Jen Hartmann, '94, M.A. '97, Plows Through Crises
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Jen Hartmann leads John Deere through crisis events.
(Photo credit: Shirene Garner)

As the global director of public relations and enterprise social media for John Deere, Jen Hartmann, ’94, M.A. ’97, is responsible for managing the image and reputation of the company. Hartmann leads media relations, social media community building, and handles crisis events and issues that could have a negative impact on the brand.
Hartmann’s leadership was immediately tested when she assumed the role on March 1, 2020, just weeks before the global COVID-19 pandemic began.
“My predecessor retired after serving 21 years as director of public relations at John Deere—he had become one of my dearest mentors,” shared Hartmann. “During our last meeting, I asked him if I could call him if I ever experienced a significant crisis. He responded quickly and emphatically, ‘no.’”

Hartmann recounts her first few weeks in her role.

“Of course, two weeks later, the world faced one of the most unprecedented world crisis events in history. Deere, like all companies, was facing so many unknowns. Would employees be able to continue building the equipment and parts so many farmers depend on to plant, grow and harvest their crops? Would employees be safe working on assembly lines? Would suppliers be able to provide the parts they needed to build our equipment? How would the company and its 72 units around the world be impacted in the long run?” 

Hartmann worked 12-to-15-hour days in the first few weeks of the pandemic, responding to media inquiries and developing timely communications for employees, dealers, customers and shareholders. Navigating the crisis on her own gave her greater confidence in her abilities to lead the PR function for the company.

“I did all this knowing I had to step up and do it on my own—without the lifeline I thought I needed,” she said. “In hindsight, it was one of the greatest gifts any mentor has ever given me.”   

It wasn’t the first time Hartmann tackled a crisis head on with grit and fortitude.

In 2011, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The tumor was wrapped around her vagus nerve, which manages critical functions such as the ability to speak, eat and swallow. While the surgeons believed the tumor was benign, they expected the surgery to permanently damage the nerve. Hartmann went into the surgery believing she would never be able to speak or eat normally again. But she eventually regained her voice and ability to eat and drink.

“It was such an incredible blessing,” said Hartmann. “I began to view the world through a vastly different lens. It gave me gratitude that persists to this day. What really matters now are the relationships I have, the impact I can have on young professionals, and the experiences I can foster within the teams I lead.”

Growing up in the small town of Preemption, Illinois, Hartmann was always surrounded by agriculture and the John Deere brand. She idolized her aunt, who worked for John Deere just 20 miles north at the world headquarters in Moline, Illinois. But her journey to John Deere didn’t crystallize in her mind until college.

While at NIU, Hartmann worked for the student activities office in a work-study role and later served as a graduate assistant for the student-run Campus Activities Board. She gained valuable experience working behind the scenes on Homecoming activities, Greek Week, spring break events, and even musical, comedy, and theater acts the board brought to campus. These campus experiences played a significant role in shaping her aspirations for a career in public relations.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in English, Hartmann decided to continue her education and pursue a master’s in communication studies from NIU. She spent a year as a graduate assistant for the Campus Activities Board and then a summer as an intern at Edelman Public Relations in Chicago, Illinois.

“The internship opportunity was a dream come true, but the commute was fairly brutal,” Hartmann recalled. “Each weekday, I’d drive 30 minutes to St. Charles, take the train another 60 minutes and then walk another 30 minutes to the office.”

The long commute time, however, gave Hartmann time to consider where she wanted to work, what experiences she hoped for, and her long-term career aspirations. 

“I recall one morning with absolute clarity,” she said. “Looking to pass the time (well before the Apple iPhone had been introduced), I opened the copy of NIU’s alumni magazine that I had stuffed in my bag that day. As I leaned against the window frame of the Metra train, I flipped to the back to find the list of alumni news and announcements. It was my favorite part as I loved looking to see if there were any friends or fellow classmates I recognized among the list of jobs, career accomplishments or personal updates.” 

Jen Hartmann, '94, M.A. '97

“And then it hit me. One day, I want to be the head of public relations for John Deere. I didn’t know how or when. I just knew it was my dream job.”

Working at Edelman, Hartmann learned the value of caring about the products or organizations she wanted to represent. She knew she belonged somewhere with a meaningful purpose.

After working in various marketing and public relations roles, including manager for domestic marketing programs at the Illinois Soybean Association and vice president of brand strategy and marketing at the United Way of the Quad Cities Area, Hartmann’s goal to be a part of John Deere became a reality. In 2008, she joined the company as a public relations specialist and Gold Key Tour lead—Hartmann immediately felt a strong connection to the brand.

“I grew up with a corn and soybean field just 10 inches from our kitchen window,” she said. “Farming was part of my community’s culture. I’m extremely proud to work with, alongside, and for farmers. John Deere helps farmers produce more food with fewer resources, our technology helps farmers work more sustainably, and the industries we serve touch all of us on a daily basis. All of this makes my work feel incredibly meaningful.”

Hartmann’s husband, Pat, recently celebrated 25 years at John Deere and has John Deere green in his DNA. His father, Mike, was an engineer at John Deere before retiring. Reaching her own milestone, Hartmann recently celebrated 15 years working at John Deere.

In addition to the pandemic, Hartmann led John Deere’s public relations through many considerable moments in history. 

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine facing a global pandemic, social unrest, election chaos, and a United Auto Workers strike at John Deere, a top story for weeks across all news outlets and social media,” said Hartmann. “I received a note from my predecessor saying that I had gained 20 years of experience after only weeks on the job!”

Rooted in empathy, a strong moral compass, and cultivating relationships, Hartmann has guided her career to the helm of a global agriculture giant like John Deere, bringing her dream to reality. Her story serves as a reminder that no matter the challenge, it is possible to overcome it with the grit and determination of a Huskie.