How I Got Here with Jeff O’Keefe

Jeff O’Keefe, far left, stands with his Golin co-workers who handle PR for Toyota Racing after Martin Truex Jr. won the championship last season. (Courtesy Jeff O’Keefe)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to describe their career path and shed some light on how they reached their current position. Up next: Jeff O’Keefe, who does digital and social media for Toyota Racing through the Golin agency.

What do you do right now in racing?

So right now I work with Lisa Kennedy and her team at Golin, but we work with Toyota Racing in their motorsports department handling content creation, working with Toyota — Kristine Curley, who you had on earlier this year — and the social strategy, social content creation and publishing for all things Toyota Racing.

I assume that wasn’t something that was on your radar to start out. So how did this all start for you? Did you grow up wanting to be in sports or anything like that?

So we’re going to go a little way back. I grew up in New Jersey — Exit 18, because that’s how you define where you’re from in New Jersey — off route 78 in a little town called High Bridge, New Jersey. Nobody knows where that is. However, about 15 minutes away was a place that many NASCAR people know: Flemington Speedway.

Flemington was kind of iconic on the local tracks scene, but then hosted a lot of Craftsman Truck Series races, and it was known being a place where you never went straight on the track. Growing up, me and my dad, he started bringing me to the races when I was a kid and we just started going there: Sprint cars, it was dirt, and then they transformed to pavement, saw some truck races there, and that’s how we bonded, just spending time with dad.

From there, growing up, we would go to Nazareth Speedway, which is about an hour away from where I grew up. Back then, they Busch races and Truck races. I remember it used to rain at Nazareth and they didn’t have track dryers, so they would take pickups with tires chained to the bumper and just drag them around the track. We waited about six hours to watch the first Truck race there. And literally so we went up there until about early 2000s from mid to late ’90s. That’s how me and my dad bonded, just by going to races and everything.

And then we went to Bristol in 1999. Walking into Bristol in the late ’90s, it was something like you’d never seen before in your life. You’re just like fully taken aback, and just the amount of people. And as I grew older, went to college and everything, I started to learn more (about what was surrounding the track). I was always interested in PR, and growing up in New Jersey has some really great opportunities because New York City was near there. So in college, studying communication and PR and everything, and as we continued to go to these races every year, you started to notice things more. Whether it’s the fan experience, the activation, even the drivers signing autographs and merchandise, people lined up. My brain started ticking: “How do they get people there? Why do they have all these activations set up? Why are people drawn to look at production vehicles at a racetrack?” And then as we sat in the stands, I had total FOMO — and granted it probably wasn’t a word back in 2003 — but that sat in, like “Man, I want to be in there. I want be inside and like I want to be going in there. They seem cool. They seem like really in the know.”

And by that point, I was about a junior, senior in college and I was like, “Alright, I want to do this. This is really cool. But I still live and go to college in New Jersey.” They would ask me (at college), “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to do PR in NASCAR.” “What? Excuse me?” And the school, the communication program at Montclair was amazing. Senior year, like they challenge you to basically prepare you for life after college, how to get a job, the interview process, forced you to go get informational interviews. I was like, “On yeah. This is going to be great.” Graduated, and then you think you’re on top of the world — and then couldn’t find a job for a year, and you’re just like, “Oh, this is life.”

And you’re trying to, at the time, purely break into NASCAR? Like you’re looking for racing jobs at that point?

Yeah. At that point, started with racing jobs, but when I knew I wasn’t going to do a full-time job right away, I was like, “I have to stay active in some sort of industry.” So being fortunate enough to live so close to New York, I got a few internships in New York City. I ultimately ended up in 2007 interning for the agency Sunshine Sachs, and I basically told them in my interview, I was like, “Listen. I’m not leaving until you’ve hired me.” It’s a great thing to say in an interview, I’m sure, now looking back on it. (Laughs) But ultimately, they ended up hiring me in about May of 2007. And I was (working at the) front desk. So first job out of college, straight front desk. I referred to myself as the “Director of First Impressions” because it was a much better title than what “receptionist” would be.

So you’re working in New York City as a receptionist, not NASCAR as a PR person.

Nope, not at all. But it was in the industry, learning PR and was what life was like. And you know you’re young, you’re dumb and you’re just being blindsided by just what the world was like.

And ultimately progressed and continued to move up, became the assistant to both the President and the CEO, which at that time, we were about 17 people in this agency. But this agency, the head of the agency, Ken Sunshine and Sean Sachs, they come from completely different backgrounds but in a way the same. Ken was a former chief of staff for David Dinkins, mayor of New York back in the ’90s. He also worked in the music industry, and then Sean has a really big political background. So their backgrounds really meshed well, but expanded their client base. They had clients ranging from very famous celebrities down to nitty gritty on-the-ground stuff in New York, very close to people like Al Sharpton.

Nothing like going into Harlem into Al Sharpton’s office when you’re 24 years old and you’re just like, “This is such an experience, but it’s really cool.” And so just being their assistant, you’re just a typical assistant doing everything –travel, ordering lunch, making sure their lives are on point. Sitting in meetings, you have no earthly idea of like, “How am I in here right now?”

So like big time people?

Yeah. Big time people, big time stuff. As we moved along, one of the things we worked on, a lot of stuff that came in in a way, very last minute — for instance Michael Jackson’s funeral. That happened in the middle of the summer, and I remember being at home, my boss, Ken, he’s like, “Hey, this is probably coming down and we’re going to probably handle this.” It was like, “Alright.”

What does that mean, “handle it?” Like do the publicity part, organize it?

Everything. So it was working with the family on just everything that was surrounding that. He was pretty much in line with the family, but it was OK, everything that was going to happen at the Staples Center, what the media presence was going to be like, how we were going distribute everything to the media. As they set up press conferences, he’s on CNN, I’m literally sitting in the office ready to hit send on a mail merge because we didn’t have fancy Constant Contact, all these web services now. Mail merge from an Excel document of people wanting to cover this. Now, mail merge breaks in the middle of this so you now have to turn into BCC. I’m the only one in the office doing this, and it’s just a time where it’s very high intensity, but just it had to get done.

I missed my flight that night to go to LA, I ended up sleeping on the couch in my boss’s office, booked the next flight out and it was just three days of like, “OK, we’re on the ground.” We didn’t have time to make fancy credentials, so they were like gold, club wristbands — that’s literally what the all-access piece was like. Could have been counterfeited easily. But just the sheer chaos — organized chaos, that’s what it was — was insane, and it just worked. And I was the guy who just, the guy was on the ground just doing stuff. So like that just is kind of in a way just the randomness in the variety of stuff that we worked on.

From there, I started working with, as I progressed and moved on to kind of being like a junior publicist or something, started working with people like Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith and then Calvary Hospital.

That’s a wide range.

Exactly. And that’s what they were known for and what primed us for being able to handle the variety. Now, with that, you’re young, you’ve graduated college, you don’t know what life is about. And Sean, who was the CMO, he was younger, he was really cool, but he was like your older brother who just tried to teach you life lessons — but in that older brother kind of way.

He literally tried to teach us the importance of networking, and he got to the point where he said, “I will pay for your dinner and drinks and stuff if you go meet media.” And we were like, “What? No, we don’t want to go out. We just want to go home, we’re doing our job. Why do we want to work?” Because, again, we’re 24 years old, why do we need to do this? And it got to the point where he threw a whiteboard on the wall and he wrote all the assistants’ names on it. He said, “Whoever has the most business cards at the end of the month wins dinner on me,” or something like that. Like, “Oh, OK.” So it turned into a competition.

And just these little things he started teaching us about how to handle stuff. Like (he’d say) “Hey, I need dinner reservations with this type of client.” “OK, where do you want to go?” He’d be like, “Alright, go to” And you’re just like, “I hate you, why are you doing this?” You’re just like so frustrated when is this happening, you’re just not understanding it. But he was just teaching you a lesson that you didn’t know what was happening.

I remember with work stuff he would say, “If I have to ask, you’ve already failed.” “What?” You’d get so mad. Now, 10 years later, it’s like, “Oh my God, he came to me from the future. This is crazy.”

So with that, still going to races, still very much loving NASCAR and wanting to get into the sport. I never really had a favorite driver, I was just more of a fan of the sport and everything that was happening. And I wanted to get into it more. Through a co-worker of mine, she worked with a gentleman named Don Rohr at one point at a record company. Now Don was Brian Vickers’ business manager. It was like, “Oh, I’ll introduce you.” He was in New York one time and she introduced us and he literally became one of my closest friends really quick — whether just because I explained what I wanted to do and what I’ve done or just because he’s a great guy. But literally he would try to help me and just communicate and talk with me. I am sure that I annoyed the hell out of him for like three years, and we would IM each other, he would kind of give me ideas on job leads and stuff, and ultimately I interviewed with Braun Racing to do PR for the 11 Nationwide car at the time. Didn’t end up getting that job, but fast forward a year, Don told me (about a job) again and I interviewed again.

I went and flew down to North Carolina, told work I was sick, I met with, now that was gonna be Turner in 2011, interviewed there, and just hit off. Like it worked really well, ended up getting the job, and I literally gave my notice to Sunshine in my annual review. You couldn’t have kind of scripted it any weirder. I sat down with Sean, my boss, and he’s like, “So, give me the State of Jeff.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s how it’s gonna go. Great.” I’m like, “Well, I’m leaving.” His reaction was shocked and surprised, but after explaining to him what I was doing, where I was going, he said he understood and everything. I literally put my two weeks in, the next weekend I looked for an apartment, the following weekend I moved to North Carolina.

Jeff O’Keefe with Mark Martin in 2011. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

So there was no hesitation, even though you had a good thing going with your work with Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and stuff. This is what you wanted, you wanted to chase that NASCAR dream all the way.

Yeah, I couldn’t turn back at point. I put my eggs in a basket and I was like, “Man, I’ve gotta do this.” Working with Bette, Barbra and everything was really cool.

What was that like?

It was unreal. You’re doing a lot of different stuff at the time. Bette, she had a few CD releases, she had the HBO special for her Vegas show happening, so we did media tours around the city for that and everything. And it’s just, with that stuff, you needed to be five steps forward — even from making sure the car is where it needs to be and the exit that you’re gonna leave out of, because if you go down the wrong exit and there’s say a mosh pit of fans, you’re screwed.

Just being able to making sure she’s ready, making sure she’s ready for interviews, trying to control the questions in a way, but you know, let them ask what they want to ask. You knew what the interview situation was going to be going in, and making sure she was ready, like talking to her about her Vegas show. I wasn’t working on the account when she had her Vegas show, but she would ask me, “OK, let’s talk about Vegas, remind me.” I’m like, “I wasn’t there, but…” and I just started reminding her stories and stuff.

She is a legend for a reason. She knows what she wants, she’s a perfectionist, and she doesn’t accept anything less, which is amazing. Same thing with Barbra. And working with the two of them, and even with any of the other clients, like you just learn, you just really quickly pick up on how to handle certain situation and certain small things.

Yes there’s a glitz and glamor about all of that, but it’s down and gritty. I mean, I just found a photo of us doing the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I’m in Asics sneakers, jeans, sweater, a peacoat and a scarf that doesn’t match, and longer hair, and I’m like, “What the hell was I wearing?” But again, I’m 26 years old, and it was at the end a long day of press touring up and down New York City, going to different places, and you can just tell, you’re just like, “Well, we’re done.” And it’s an amazing photo, but it’s just the grind of everything that was, so those are experiences you never forget.

Jeff O’Keefe (right of center) with Bette Midler on the set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

So how does working one-on-one with Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand compare to working with NASCAR drivers? Because now you’ve done Turner, you’ve done RCR stuff, now you’re with Toyota, so you’ve worked with a variety of drivers. Is there any comparison?

I mean, there is. It’s handling personalities, how to work with people, how to handle logistics, how to manage social. One of the things that we did with Bette when she wasn’t filming anything, she didn’t have a tour going on, is we got her on Twitter. And she was resistant on it at first, so I remember we’re coming home from an event in DC and on the train, and we’re sitting there and she’s like, “Jeff, teach me this Twitter.” It’s like, “What? Alright. Here you go. This is your timeline, you pop this open, you can write anything you want. And if you want to mention somebody, you do the @ symbol.” Literally basics. And she’s like, “What?” And you know, just getting her comfortable and acclimated to it.

And eventually, even after I moved on, when she got into a little bit of a back and forth with Kim Kardashian, I’m like a proud parent watching their kid go off to school. Like this is so great, I’m going to frame this.

But all of that in working with different types of personalities, whether it’s celebrities, whether it’s the people at Calvary Hospital in the palliative care unit, it just teaches you how to handle variety but also think different ways and be creative, whether you’re doing PR, whether you’re doing social and not box yourself in.

Did you ever get comfortable around Bette and Barbra? I feel like with NASCAR drivers, they’re a little more down to earth maybe than I would picture those women being, because they feel diva-ish. Is that fair?

You get comfortable to a point with everybody. You get comfortable to a point with whether it’s Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith, again, Calvary Hospital, or whether it’s Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez or Erik Jones. It doesn’t matter. You get comfortable with them up to a point, but you have to stay professional. You don’t want to become that friend zone with them. You still need to act professional because there’s going to be a time where you need to handle business with them, and you need them to have that trust with you, whether it’s handling PR or whether it’s handling social media, whether you need to tell them they did a great job on a social post or be like, “Eh, we need to talk about this.” There needs to still be that level of separation.

In general, what would you recommend to people who would love to be in your position?

That is probably one of the best questions because from Turner, at the end of 2011, I got laid off. They lost a couple sponsors, I think Dollar General, Ricky Carmichael and Monster moved out, so they just didn’t have room for people and they cut a few people out of their marketing and PR department.

I didn’t have a job. I moved down here, picked up my life and moved down here to work in NASCAR, I was like, “What do I do now?” And I saved up money, but to bring this full circle, I just remembered Sean always saying, “Networking. You have to go out and network.” And I just remembered the whiteboard with the business cards, I was like, “Alright.”

This is 2012. I interviewed with people and just circumstances, so whether you don’t get jobs, jobs don’t get filled and literally coming to Daytona, people were like, “Make sure you’re in Daytona because you don’t want to get left out. You don’t want to not be on the bus.” I’m like, “Oh my God, what?” So I did anything I could to get myself to Daytona. I ended up freelancing for an ARCA team doing PR.

Oh wow, I didn’t realize that.

Yeah. Then the next week, I was like, “Well I’ve got black pants, I’ve got a white shirt, I’ve got a hot pass through a friend. I’m going back down.” And just walked in like I owned the place. Just, “Alright, I need to be on pit road.” I had a truck hot pass, and I’m going out for the Duels.

I didn’t have a job for a year. But in that time, the amount of networking I did, the amount of doors I banged on, whether it’s PR reps, the amount of team PR reps with MWR, RCR, Hendrick, you name it, I was like, “Let’s grab coffee.” I grew an addiction to coffee through that year trying to meet people. And it all comes full circle no matter what. It may not happen right away.

One of the first people I met in this sport outside of Turner was at the Darlington truck race. (Then-coworker) Chip Wile, who was James Buescher’s PR rep who is now pretty big time, he’s kind of a big deal with Daytona (Wile is president of Daytona International Speedway). He brings me in the media center, introduces me to people, I’m dressed at that time in slacks and dress shoes, oversized button down shirt that we had to wear at Turner, and he introduces me to Lisa Kennedy from Toyota, I’m like, “Oh hi, nice to meet you.” You know, cool. Literally the first person I ever met outside of Turner.

I go through ’11, ’12, I ended up doing freelance work for Red Horse — a Toyota team — then ultimately doing freelance work for Ryan Truex. I was doing about eight or nine Gibbs races. Well that tied me right back into Lisa and her team at Toyota.

Then, you know, so in that year, I picked up freelance work, I made a lot of money, and then the government took it with the 1099. It was amazing. Did the RCR (social media) job, which is a whole other story with social because it was literally creating a social presence, literally taking baseline accounts and just being like, “OK, what is our voice? How are we handling all of this?” From (Kevin) Harvick in his final year through Austin (Dillon) going up to Cup to winning a Nationwide championship to the years with (Ryan) Newman to almost winning a championship, like how are we handling this on social? And going through and just through all that, learning the social world, to tie this back to social.

And three, four years in, you’re in a job for awhile and we’re in Chicago and Lisa comes to me. She goes, “Hey, let’s talk.” And all of a sudden, that led to my time now with Golin and Toyota Racing.

So the biggest thing, back to your question because that was a really short answer, is network. You never know who you’re going to run into and you never know who you’re going to talk to.

That’s a great lesson. Hopefully people will pay attention that because I think that’s probably the biggest thing, the whole key to this. Where can people follow you on Twitter if they want to shout at you?

@JeffOKeefe, it’s a very Irish name. And then obviously you have to follow @ToyotaRacing.

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