The average adult has an attention span of eight seconds. As Smile Train’s Senior Director of Public Relations, Nijha Diggs cuts through the competition to make sure people spend as much of that precious time as possible tuned into something that matters: The lives they can help save by supporting Smile Train. We recently caught up with her to get the inside scoop on why she left a PR job at a major New York agency to help people with clefts, explore her passion for making Smile Train a more inclusive workplace, and so much more.
I hear you took an unusual route to a career in PR. What did you study in university?
I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia and studied at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. At the time, that was one of the top-ranked medical schools in the country, and that’s what I wanted to do. But after two-and-a-half years as pre-med student, I decided to switch to communications with a focus in PR.
Growing up, I had many doctors in my family, which led me to wanting to pursue a career in medicine (at least that’s what I thought). I was always fascinated by medicine, specifically surgery - I loved to watch it and see how people’s lives were transformed after it. But later I decided it wasn’t for me and pursued a degree in PR.
It seems like Smile Train is the perfect combination of your passions. How did you end up here?
I worked at agencies for over 10 years, with major consumer brands as clients. Then decided I was ready for something new. I didn’t know what that new was, but I wanted something that was going to be challenging and life changing; when I found Smile Train, it was exactly what I needed. This was something different for me and it was definitely an amazing fit — I feel like I’ve come full circle. I will have been here six years in August.
What was it like the first time you met a Smile Train patient and their family in person?
I’ve been on many trips to the field, including quite a few experiences taking our Celebrity Ambassadors to meet our patients. It has always been a very eye-opening experience. Our work is very visual, but I think until you have had the opportunity to go to the field and see it firsthand, the pictures and the stories can’t do it justice.
The most amazing experience for me was when I took my own personal Journey of Smiles. It was so special because I brought my mother along, plus I didn’t have to worry about the needs of others like I do on celebrity trips. We had the opportunity to go to Kenya — it was always my dream to go to Africa, it was just a question of which country. We visited one of our patients at school there in a very rural area. It was literally breathtaking and very emotional and was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life so far.
These families give you everything. I never wanted any of them providing food for us, but they’re just so generous and they’re just so thankful for Smile Train. Every trip that I’ve been on, the families are extremely emotional, so you can’t help but wipe away the tears. And they’re just so giving and so welcoming and so loving, and when they tell their story, they’re so, so appreciative for the treatment they’ve received.
Having these special opportunities makes you so thankful for what you do have, and for me, especially, it makes you thankful to be able to give back every day. It feels really good to be part of an organization that provides these services and helps people.
What’s it like to work with celebrities?
Honestly, it doesn’t faze me; I’ve never fangirled. My mentality has always been, “Okay, let’s just get the job done.” That’s a level of professionalism, in PR especially, that you always have to show. I don’t care how much you love that actor or that athlete, you have to be a professional and really leave your personal feelings to the side.
And one thing you learn when you do this work? They’re normal people! They sometimes may share a lot of crazy stories, but you have to keep a very buttoned-up lip, even while you’re thinking inside, “I can’t believe they’re telling me this!” But they are looking to trust you and you want to build that trust. I think that’s how people create long, lasting relationships with celebrities even outside of work. Just like any other relationship, it’s all about that trust and that respect that you have.
Why do celebrities like to partner with Smile Train? How do you decide who to reach out to?
We always try to partner with people who really believe in our cause and are passionate about it — when they are naturally curious and show a genuine interest, that gets their followers excited, too. We’ve found recently that a lot of people we reach out to actually know someone who is cleft-affected, or they are at least familiar with our work and want to help.
Of course, celebrities also have their own lives outside of their philanthropic work, so it’s really about finding that right time for them to help us raise awareness. Timing is everything in this biz.
Give me your favorite Smile Train celebrity anecdote.
Like I said, I have to keep it professional. So how about this: The experience that had the most “wow factor” to me was when I went to Peru with Kylie Jenner when she featured our work on Life of Kylie. I don’t think I’ve experienced something of that magnitude before, even with all the celebrity work I’ve done. There were so many elements that had to be put in place for it to work, and I think it was definitely the experience of a lifetime. I don’t know that I will ever do something that big again.
Of course, it’s not all glamor. Walk me through the parts of your job that people may not know as much about. Why is this day-to-day work so meaningful to you?
You have to remember what you’re doing it for. I always have to remember to put the “why” forward, and for me, that “why” is the stories, the faces of the families and the patients that I’ve visited. The way I felt in those moments keeps me motivated through the days when I’m exhausted.
It also goes deeper than that. We humans have to start thinking about more big-picture things — the world is more than just me! At Smile Train, I see how my little piece of the puzzle fits in with the bigger picture, and I think that’s what keeps me moving.
What is one thing about clefts or Smile Train’s work that you wish everyone knew?
That clefts are treatable! It’s all about building brand awareness and telling Smile Train’s story in a compelling way, and that’s what we’ve really focused on, especially in the last few years. We pride ourselves on being the world’s largest cleft organisation and the only one with a sustainable model — my job is to educate and shed light on our incredible work.
You’ve been a leader in internal efforts to make Smile Train more diverse and inclusive. Why is this work so important? What’s your vision for how our workplace should look and feel and how are you helping us get there?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) has always been important for me. During my career, I have worked at organisations where I look around and I don’t see people who look like me, especially in executive and leadership roles. I think more recently companies are working towards bridging that gap and putting more of an emphasis on becoming more inclusive and I’m happy to see that shift take place. Diversity is what the world is; the make-up of the world is inclusive. People are more keen to support and work for an organisation when they see people who look like them, in leadership and at all levels.
In addition to leading Smile Train’s global PR efforts, my role is to help accelerate DE&I as a critical component of our business across our global network. Diversity is at the centre of our work and we are continuing to take strides to bring about change within our organisation. For example, we’ve hired a DE&I organisation to help support some of our needs and efforts. This is a very exciting time for Smile Train to really focus on these key areas and I am looking forward being a part of this journey.
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