Tracey Pontarelli sweat her way through college – not because she was anxious over grades, but because she realized early on in life that working out was key to her happiness and overall well-being. “My husband jokes that I’m nicer when I’m working out, and I am.”
Despite her love of the gym and devotion to a healthy lifestyle, her desire to put her Seton Hall University joint degree in journalism and business to use was stronger than the call to make a career in fitness. And inspired by a fortuitous meeting with a PR big wig when she was in high school, she was led down a path to a career in Public Relations.
Pontarelli, a native of Coventry, Rhode Island, was awarded the prestigious Horatio Alger award during her senior year of high school. The award, which honors students who excel in spite of adversity, matched Pontarelli with Harold Burson, the founder of global PR giant, Burson Marsteller, as her mentor, a friendship that continues today. Known as the Godfather of modern PR, Burson looked at the practice almost as a science, coaching his staff to analyze how to influence their client’s target customers through a carefully constructed process.
Throughout college, Pontarelli maintained contact with Burson, and while he surely helped illustrate what a career in PR would look like, he never offered her a job upon graduation and – true to the spirit of Horatio Alger – she never asked for one. She wanted to earn her own way.
“I thought I wanted to go into PR, but I didn’t fully know what it was until I got into it. Luckily it played to a lot of my strengths and I think I was meant to do it,” says Pontarelli. She landed her job first in New York City at Golin Harris and then at Ketchum PR first working on clients such as Nintendo, Evian, and Wisk Laundry Detergent.
As a counterbalance to the stressful working pace, Pontarelli continued her love affair with fitness and – spurred on by a YMCA director who was impressed with her natural ability to lead others – she got certified and taught fitness classes at the Hoboken, NJ, YMCA. By day, Pontarelli wrote corporate messaging and pitched reporters and led step classes by night. It was a balance that worked.
When her then boyfriend, now husband, moved to Boston, the moonlighting fitness instructor made another jump. This time she landed at Mullen PR and continued teaching at several gyms in the Boston area. Burson was there throughout as a sounding board. “He was just so amazing and told me to keep in touch, so I did, but neither of us ever discussed a job until I was ready to move back to NYC.”
At 26, the newly engaged Pontarelli returned to NYC, and now, with four years of PR experience under her belt, she was ready to show off her skills at her mentor’s namesake firm. Burson sent Pontarelli’s resume to the human resources department and Pontarelli did the rest. “Obviously it helps when Harold Burson calls you his protégé in public, but at that point in my career, I knew I would make him proud.”
She landed a position as a manager in the Consumer Brands division and started managing accounts ranging from Kellogg’s to Fidelity Investments.
Those who worked with Pontarelli understood that indeed she was destined for a career in PR – she thrived in the environment where she was able to creatively help clients through their communications’ challenges, while mentoring and training younger staff all while working towards the agency’s goals. The job was exciting and, at times, all consuming. Pontarelli worked her up way from Manager to Director and finally Managing Director.
Seven years, and two children later, Pontarelli got a wake-up call. It was a Saturday and she was heading into the office to finish a global new business proposal. “I got ready to hop out of the car, and my three year old said to me, ‘Happy Valentines Day, Mommy.’”
For Pontarelli, who loved her job, that was it. “You know that saying, ‘You can do it all, just not all at the same time’? That was the moment I realized something had to give.”
She resigned from Burson, but continued to use her skills by launching a consulting business. She did PR and branding strategies for friends who were starting small businesses and for a group of former colleagues who needed outside help with bigger clients.
“The nice thing about working in PR is that your skills are really useful for a lot of things, so I was able to pick up a lot of work.”
In 2012, one of those friends, Catherine Goodwin, came to her for PR help for the new gym she was opening, Exceed Physical Culture. Pontarelli had long ago let her fitness certification expire, but she dove into the project helping with branding and media relations. Much like the YMCA Director 20 years earlier, Catherine recognized talent and encouraged the 41-year-old to get re-certified which she did, this time in group fitness and personal training.
“Even when I wasn’t teaching classes, I was sort of a ‘half teaching’ because I just naturally want to help other people through things … I’ve always loved group fitness because it’s motivating to be in settings with people who are struggling along with you, but I also find working one-on-one to be motivating.”
In addition to maintaining her PR consultancy, she now teaches at least two group fitness classes a week and coaches a set of at least six personal training clients at Exceed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
While Pontarelli came full circle to fitness, this time around she’s using her PR skills to guide her through the process.
“One of the first steps in PR is understanding your audience and getting to what someone’s true underlying motivations are – their anxieties and their desires. That’s how we started every assignment at the agency, and that’s how I come at every single person I work with – what caused them to come in the first place and how do we get them to a place we want to be?”
Pontarelli, now a 44-year old mother of three, finds the work particularly gratifying when she’s coaching midlife women. “We’re really hard on ourselves as a gender, and I am passionate about the fact that women should focus on being strong, happy and supportive of each other. That’s what’s really important.”
Citing an email she had received that morning that boasted proven methods to shrink thigh fat, Pontarelli, not a fan of spot reduction, practically shrieks. “You are never going to have someone else’s body, but what you can have is a strong and healthy body and be proud of your workout. I try to get people to focus on that, and then the other stuff tends to fall into place.”
For women trying to get into the habit, Pontarelli suggests a fascinating book she read this year, The Power of Habit, which unlocks the secret of how habits are formed and broken… hint: you have to replace a bad habit with something else to truly break it. But the upside to exercise? “The book has a whole section on it – exercise is a “keystone habit,” so when you exercise regularly, it creates other positive habits like eating better and working harder.”
The best part of Pontarelli’s Career 2.0? “I’m helping people, one on one. In consumer PR, I didn’t always feel this way – I was doing things that were fun and interesting, but now I feel like I’m really helping people and it’s very gratifying.”
While she continues to bring out the best in her clients, she’s working ceaselessly on herself as well. Next stop? Her first New York City Marathon.
Tips from Tracey Pontarelli
- Do what you like and be open to where it leads you. There are endless possibilities for you out there, but the right ones can be found where your passions lie.
- Get out of your comfort zone. That is where Career 1.0 was. Career 2.0 is probably going to require a bit of a leap!
- Believe in yourself. You are a capable, smart woman. As one of my favorite instructors says, “Why not be this amazing?” Why not indeed!