Want to be a Public Relations Survivor? Be Prepared to Change, Constantly

As we enter 2013, the transformation in the world of communications that is driven by the mass adoption of social media and mobile devices is accelerating.

Fish-changesThe public relations industry is not immune from the impact of these changes. And this has disrupted the competitive marketplace.

Over the past year, I found my company, Thornley Fallis, repeatedly competing for assignments against non-traditional competitors. Ad agencies invading our turf. Digital boutiques. Marketing agencies. Management consultants.

An increasing proportion of the assignments we won from clients incorporated digital communications as a core element. Throughout 2012, we saw the budgets for these assignments shift away from traditional public relations activities to digital. The budgets didn’t shrink. The allocations against digital activities increased.

In a world like this, if you want to be a Public Relations Survivor, you must be willing to reinvent yourself constantly. That’s what the most successful firms in the communications marketplace are doing. And that’s what we’re doing at my firm.

And here’s the indicator that drives this home. Today, only about half of Thornley Fallis’ revenues are from what would have been considered traditional public relations services. The other half? Video production, public engagement, content marketing, design and development.

You’ve probably noticed the absence of social media from that list. Where’s social? Integrated across everything we do. What was hot a few years ago has become simply the common entry fee.

What’s hot now? Content marketing. The creation of social objects that people will connect around. Understanding and building public engagement. Making connections with people who care about our products and services and the things we care about.

We see ourselves as much different from the public relations practitioners of old. We don’t define our horizons within the constraints of earned media. Most of our programs include paid keyword advertising to seed awareness among those most likely to be interested. As the  traditional media distribution deteriorated, we realized that placing great content and counting on organic search simply wasn’t good enough. So we moved into the territory of the advertising agencies. Not as advocates of advertising first, but as advocates of a true integrated solution in which each medium has a role to play.

Yes, we are still a PR agency. But when people ask me what we do, I answer in a way that is much different from the answer I provided a few years ago. Today, we “provide insight, create remarkable experiences and connect people to the things they care about.”

And that’s how we make  sure that we are Public Relations Survivors. Not by clinging to the past, but by evolving with the changing communications environment.

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If you found this post interesting, these sources provide even more to think about:

PR Agencies’ Lost Year by Peter Himler

10 Things I’ve Learned from an Advertising Agency by Ed Lee

When the Corporate Social Strategist Role Goes Away by Jeremiah Owyang

 

 

 

 

 

Thornley Fallis is partnering with Gini Dietrich and Arment Dietrich

Today is a big day for me and the team at Thornley Fallis. We announced a partnership with Gini Dietrich and her team at Arment Dietrich.

I’ve known and collaborated with Gini Dietrich for over two years. Every week, we’ve come together to co-host the Inside PR podcast with Martin Waxman (Martin joined Thornley Fallis in 2011). We’ve attended conferences together. Developed ideas together. Shared insight into the direction and opportunities for each of our businesses. We’ve talked extensively about the changes in the communications business brought about by the social media revolution. And we’ve discovered that we share a similar vision for the future of communications: the continuing revolution of the relationship between consumers and companies, citizens and governments, you and me.

During that time, we’ve transformed our companies from traditional communications consulting organizations to focus on the expertise that is most important in the connected era, the time when we all have voices, can find and share with our communities of interest, and in which we become both the media and the trusted advisors to one another.

Gini has positioned Arment Dietrich as a thought leader in social and digital media. She has built an industry leading platform for these views in Spin Sucks, her widely-read blog. And she adding to that Spin Sucks Pro (in Beta), a resource for senior business executives who want to understand and participate in the new media. In the process, Gini has become an acknowledged expert in content marketing. She’s used it to build her own company and she uses that same expertise for her clients. She also found the time to capture her ideas in Marketing in the Round, the just-published book she co-authored with Geoff Livingston.

Thornley Fallis also has come a long way since its founding in 1995 as a traditional corporate PR company. Today, we are focused on the expertise necessary to engage with the public through traditional and digital media. We offer design to deliver remarkable experiences, produce video to create the ultimate social objects, build audiences and communities through content marketing, earn media through public relations, and build relationships and trust through social media. But these tactics must work together. So we develop strategies to marshall them into a coherent whole and then constantly measure and refine.

Given all this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve decided to bring our firms together so that we can offer our collective expertise to our clients.

That’s a big move. And it promises a much brighter future for our teams. New combinations of expertise. New clients. New opportunities. I’ll continue to write about my journey and experiences on this blog and we’ll also share our collective insight on the Thornley Fallis Blog and Spin Sucks. I hope you’ll join us for the journey.

 

Where do PR agency leaders go to learn how to run their businesses?

If you run a PR agency, you know that it can be hard to find expert advice that relates directly to our business. There is no shortage of conferences and seminars dealing with practice issues – media relations, social media, research. But business skills that are tailored to the public relations industry. They are few and far between.

There is one conference that is unique in its focus and its attendees. The PRSA Counselors Academy Conference brings together owners and managers of public realtions agencies from across North America for two days of sessions focusing on the business of PR.

At the recent PRSA International Conference (a great conference for learning about communications best practices), my Inside PR co-hosts, Martin Waxman, Gini Dietrich and I caught up with Abbie Fink, the Chair of this past year’s Counselors Academy Conference. We talked with her about what makes Counselors Academy unique – and a must-attend for each of us.

At Counselors Academy, business leaders set aside their status as competitors in order to advance the collective whole, the public relations consulting industry. Abbie says the focus of the Counselors Academy Conference is “being a better owner, a better manager, discovering new ways to do business development and revenue streams … the management side of running a public relations practice.” How do they set billable hours? How do they determine when to bring on another employee? How do they deal with problematic clients? Under what circumstances would they fire a client?

Why do these PR business leaders share so freely with one another? According to Abbie, “If I can help another PR agency owner look at or do something in a different way and they become better at what they do, that’s good for our industry as a whole.”

You can hear our interview with Abbie and also Martin, Gini’s and my discussion of our own perceptions of Counselors Academy on Inside PR 275.

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If you are a PR agency principal and you go to only one conference this year…

The next Counselors Academy Conference will take place May 6 to 8, 2012 in New Orleans. And Inside PR’s Martin Waxman is co-chairing this year’s conference with Dana Hughens. You can be sure that I’ll be there along with the senior leaders of my company.

“If you are a PR business owner and you can only go to one professional development event,” says Abbie Fink, “then Counselors Academy is the one thing you should attend.”

If you’re interested in more information about this year’s conference, you can find it at the Counselors Academy Conference Website.

I'm going to be working with Martin Waxman!

Big news today. After collaborating for years as podcasters, bloggers and just good friends, Martin Waxman and I are going to be working together. Martin is going to be a Senior Counselor to Thornley Fallis and our clients. And, of course, his focus will be social media.

It turns out we’re both in Orlando today at the PRSA International Conference where we’re recording Inside PR podcast episodes with Gini Dietrich. So, as we were waiting for our next guest to arrive, Martin and I had a chance to talk about what we’re doing. We recorded a video of it to upload to our blogs because that’s the way we’re announcing it. On social media.

Martin also has posted about this move on MartinWaxman.com.

Martin has his first client meeting with us this Friday. Making a good week a great week.

It happened again: This time a gold award from the CPRS

Last week I wrote about the excitement of watching the Thornley Fallis and 76design team’s creativity and hard work being recognized at the IABC Toronto Ovation Awards.

Well, it happened again. One of the programs we did with Allstate CanadaDriven to Distraction – won a Gold award at the Canadian Public Relations Society’s national awards ceremony. And our work with RBC on the “RBC Student Fall Banking Program Goes Digital” picked up a Bronze award.

Another great night. A night when we celebrate the talented team members who gave their very best to make our clients winners.

Thank you to all the Thornley Fallis team members for your great work. You make me proud to count myself one of you.

It's HOW you play the game that matters

When Terry Fallis and I founded Thornley Fallis, we were two guys working on folding banquet tables in borrowed space. And we set out to create the kind of company that we’d really like to work at. A place that reflected our values.

Well, it’s 16 years later – and I just had one of those “back to the future” moments.

I was part of a team pitching a potential new client. We really wanted the business. But we also saw that there were problems with the way the potential client had spec-ed the Request for Proposal. So we proposed an approach that we thought was right for them. And it didn’t match 100% the things they had said they were looking for in the RFP. The senior officer at the table called us out on this and we had a good discussion about why we had proposed the approach we had. A really good discussion. At the end of it, he said our approach would make demands on his organization that he wasn’t sure they were ready for. He didn’t say that we weren’t going to be selected. But he did give us an honest response to our honest advice.

And then it happened. The other client representative in the room leaned forward and told us that he recalled reading our founding principles many years ago (when he worked for us; yes, it’s a small world.) He remembered that one of our founding principles was: “Give the client the advice they need, not the advice they want to hear.”

Whuff! One of those moments that remind you it’s about walking the talk. Doing what you say you want to do.

I’d love to win the account. I don’t know if we will. But I do know this: You have to really believe that it’s HOW you play the game that matters. Be true to your principles and have faith that you’ll get your fair share of wins in the long run.

Controversial Clients: Too hot to handle?

If you take on controversial clients, you’d better be sure that the people in your company are onside. If you fail to do this, disaster lies ahead.

That’s where Eric Portelance, Sean Howard and I come down in this week’s Social Mediators. We revisit the question of how consulting organizations should decide whether to take on a potentially controversial client.

Sean believes that the decision about a controversial client can be a defining moment for a company. Indeed, the decision will affect both the external perception and the internal self-image of the company.

Eric argues that companies need to first determine whether their employees will want to work for the potentially controversial client. People should not be compelled to work on issues that conflict with their personal beliefs.

I suggest that this is one of those issues on which senior executives should be mindful that their own preferences must be balanced by staff preferences. Eric asks, Will the new client be consistent with the image of the company that employees themselves have.

How will existing clients view the new relationship? Every company must be sensitive to how existing clients react. Do clients hire us to accomplish a specific mandate or do they have a claim on other parts of our professional lives?

Our bottom line: In the era of the social web, when we all need to be authentic, it’s just not viable to say, let’s take all clients. It won’t pass the social sniff test. People will see you as a gun for hire, open to the highest bidder. And that’s not the way any of us would want to be seen.

As Sean Howard says: “Your decision shouldn’t be made out of fear. It should be made out of conviction.”

Would you, should you, take that client?

Inside PR: Do you provide references?

In this week’s episode of Inside PR, Gini Dietrich, Martin Waxman and I discuss how we, as employers, tackle the challenge of providing references for former employees.

It seems to me that this is one of those areas in which legal liability forces us into a situation in which we are constrained in what we can do. That leads to conflicting impulses and emotions. We want to do the right thing. But are we allowed to?

Listen to this week’s episode to hear Martin, Gini and I discuss how we try to deal with this struggle. None of us claims to have the right answer, but we all think it’s something that we must come to grips with.

Would you?

If you are an employer, do you provide references for past employees? If you do, what practices and standards do you apply to ensure that you are fair and consistent? When you are hiring, do you rely on references?

If you are an employee, do you expect your employee to provide a reference for you?

Three questions to ask before accepting a controversial client

Have you ever been found yourself  presented with the opportunity to work for a client who might be controversial.

Recently, my company was asked to work for an organization that many would consider controversial. We struggled with whether we should accept the assignment and, ultimately chose to decline it.

Even though we encounter this type of situation many times in business, it is all too easy to become mired in the specifics of a situation and to lose sight of your longer term objectives.

So, as we deal with these kinds of issues, I’ve written down three questions that I think will always guide us to the right outcome. I’d like to share them with you and get your feedback on this approach and what you do in your own company when confronted with this type of situation.

Business should not be value-free; But it’s complicated

As the CEO of a company, I have to be concerned about the impact our roster of clients will have not only on our public image, but also on our self-image and our internal culture. People should spend their time working on things they believe in. They shouldn’t be compelled to work on assignments or for clients they disagree with.

In the 1980s and early nineties, the CEO of the firm I then worked for famously declared that we would not shy away from taking on controversial clients because “just as every person is entitled to a vigorous defence in court, they also deserve a vigorous defence in the court of public opinion.” Well, I disagreed with that position then and I disagree with it now. There are some bad people in life and they don’t deserve a vigorous defence – at least not from me.

But that’s easy. The “clearly bad” are at one extreme. But we don’t live life in the extremes. We live them in the mushy middle, in shades of gray.

We can’t expect everyone to agree with us or believe in the things we agree in. But we also can’t shy away from supporting a cause or belief that not everyone supports. If we did that, we’d lose ourselves in the depths of political correctness and we’d never do anything.

How do you decide whether to take on a client that may be controversial?

First, avoid the trap of believing that you have to make the decision on your own. I lead a company. But I also work as a team member in that company. The route to the right decision about accepting a potentially controversial client lies first in remembering that we all have a stake in this decision and involving more people than myself in the decision.

Once past this hurdle, I have three questions that will get you to the right outcome for our organization:

1) Do we support the objectives of the potential client as well as the way they go about attempting to achieve them?

The world is full of business opportunities. Why not look for those whose objectives and methods we applaud? Conventional management wisdom advises against grabbing every business opportunity which presents itself but which is off strategy. Similarly, why not focus on bringing in business from organizations and companies that you can easily support. In our case, ff can’t say with pride that we work for a client, we will walk away from the opportunity to work for them.

2) How will this affect the culture of your company?

The answer to the first question cannot be fully provided without reference to the entire organization. Are there people within your company who feel strongly about the potential client? Will it create division and alienation?

This doesn’t mean that anyone individual (including the CEO)  should have a veto. Don’t be afraid to have a vigorous internal discussion. It can lead to an understanding and respect of the different perspectives held by people. Reasonable people should be able to understand another’s point of view and respect that point of view.

Ultimately this is the issue on which management must make a call. Can the normal and healthy differences in opinion be accommodated or is this a situation in which the cultural cost will be too high? If the latter, take a pass on the potential client.

3) How will this be perceived by the external world?

This question comes last because, if you’ve answered the preceding two, you will be ready to weather the disapproval of those who disagree with your decision. And there will always be those that disagree. That’s the great thing about an open and liberal society. We hold different views and we are free to express them.

My objective is not to stop people from criticizing us. My objective is that we appear reasonable and reasoned in our defense of our decision. And if we do that, it will loop back into our internal culture

Bottom line

While we can’t eliminate controversy from attaching it to our businesses (unless we are prepared to be so nondescript and bland that we leave no footprint), by answering these three simple questions we can be true to our essential nature, build a stronger culture, and be ready to respond to comments from the outside world.

How do you handle this kind of situation?

I’d welcome your views on this. What practices do you follow in your company to manage potentially controversial situations?

A New President for Thornley Fallis & 76design

Thornley Fallis and 76design have a new President: Keelan Green.

Keelan joined Thornley Fallis in 2002, just as the bottom was falling out of the tech industry. That was a tough time for the company. We shared our tech clients’ pain. And it put great demands and strain on our team.  This was when Keelan first showed his mettle. If a client needed a tight turnaround on something for Monday morning, Keelan could be counted on the pitch in over the weekend. If a piece of work was good, he’d look at it and make the changes necessary for it to be great work. Keelan always looked beyond the process of the work to focus on the results. And clients loved him. They came to the firm to work with him and they stayed for more.

It wasn’t just our clients who gravitated to Keelan. Even before he was appointed to a leadership position, other Thornley Fallis and 76design team members began to gather around him. After all, in a storm, you follow the person who you believe has a plan and the ability to get you home safely. That was Keelan from the start.

As time passed, we promoted Keelan through several positions. In every position, he excelled. As an Account Manager for some of our most important clients. As an Account Director and then as Vice President. And ultimately as Vice President and General Manager of the Ottawa offices of both Thornley Fallis and 76design.

In 2008, the economy entered recession. Keelan dug deep and brought our Ottawa office through the downturn with a minimum of bruises. As the economic free-fall ended and we hit the bottom of the cycle, he looked ahead and began to plan for the recovery. As a result of this leadership, our Ottawa office emerged from the recession stronger than it had entered it, with an expanded set of services and a larger client base. Growing out of a recession. It’s something we all want to do. It’s not easily done.

Now I’m asking Keelan to provide this type of leadership to the entire company. I’m delighted that he’s accepted the challenge. And I’m looking forward to working with him as he conquers new challenges and leads Thornley Fallis and 76design on to ever better things.

Finally, this is the kind of announcement I really love to make. Not just because it’s a good news announcement. But because it signals that we are being the kind of company we aspire to be – a company that attracts the very best people and then provides them with opportunities to grow personally and create a job they can truly be passionate about. Keelan’s growth and success with Thornley Fallis and 76design is a brilliant example of this vision in action.

So, this is a great day for our company. A step ahead for Keelan Green and a chance to celebrate our values.