Few job candidates were as qualified for a role in public affairs for a women’s network as Toby Graff: She was previously deputy press secretary to then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When she joined Lifetime in 2000, she was concerned how different the world of politics in Washington would be from media in New York. As it turns out, not that much. Graff works on many of the same women’s issues with the same organizations that she had worked with in her government days. She concedes that leading a women’s network is a bit “less intense” than working in the White House for the wife of the president.
Today, as VP of public affairs for Lifetime Entertainment Services, Graff oversees the network’s initiatives on a variety of issues to inform and support women, including movements to end violence against women, to encourage women to vote and run for office, and to promote quality child care. She is also responsible for the network’s charitable giving and participation in various industry and community events.
Her experience in Washington prepared her well for the challenges of her current position, says her boss, Meredith Wagner, executive VP of public affairs and corporate communications at Lifetime. “Nothing scares her. I’ll be hyperventilating about some writing deadline, and she calmly types. When you work for the most powerful person in the world, you get used to the pressure.”
After graduating from Boston University in 1992 with a political science degree, the Summit, N.J., native landed an interview with the Clinton/Gore campaign and was quickly inserted as an assistant press secretary in Kentucky. “That showed how desperate they were for bodies,” she laughs. “But I was fortunate that it snowballed into other opportunities.”
WORKING FOR CHANGE
With so many other campaign staffers fighting over jobs in the new administration, Graff felt lucky to score a position working on health-care and welfare reform, as a special assistant for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, before heading to the White House, where her role working for Clinton meant being available 24/7. While the job was “amazing,” she admits she was ready for a less round-the-clock position: “It was one of my happier days when I gave in my White House pager.”
Several years of government experience taught Graff how slowly change comes in Washington and that it can come in a variety of ways. She also discovered the power of television as a medium. “It’s great to be with a network that is working for change,” she says. Every department at Lifetime is involved in the campaigns in some way, she explains, including writers, producers and programming executives who raise awareness through programming, marketing, ad sales and affiliates.
Her proudest moment since coming to Lifetime, says Graff, came through what was called the Debbie Smith Act, named after a rape survivor who participated with the network in two years of lobbying and delivering more than 110,000 signatures to help pass legislation that would eliminate the backlog of DNA evidence and put thousands of rapists behind bars. “There were just so many up and down moments,” Graff says, “When the bill was actually passed and signed into law, it was the greatest achievement we’ve had.”
Graff has returned to the White House a few times, as part of legislative work that the network supports. “We make sure that it is bipartisan legislation, since we know our viewers represent all sides,” she says, noting that there are Lifetime staffers who worked in the prior Bush administration.
Continuing to raise awareness about women’s issues is Graff’s main goal going forward, she says, including the upcoming 11th annual campaign for breast-cancer awareness and a new miniseries on human trafficking that will involve a great deal of outreach. “We just want to stay out there and make sure women’s voices are heard in the houses of power,” she says. “Lifetime really listens to them and does take their messages to Capital Hill and to the White House.”