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PR in the Digital Age


Last updated 6/20/2012

Amy Binder is CEO of RF|Binder Partners, a full-service public relations firm based in New York.  RF|Binder helps clients manage corporate and brand reputation by focusing on issues most important to the organization, the industry, and those influencers who impact key stakeholders. When the company was formed in 2001, the goal was to create a different kind of agency—one that combines the resources of a large agency with the advantages of a sophisticated, boutique consultancy. Amy is a board member of The Institute for Public Relations, the Council of PR Firms and Media Advisory Council for Brown University. She is a forum member of The Center for Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. Amy is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. RF|Binder is part of the Ruder Finn Group, one of the largest independent communications firm in the world.

Recently, Amy Binder was interviewed by Leader’s Edge.

AMA: How would you describe your management style? How has your background shaped the leader you are today?
Binder: A public relations agency is a professional service business. Our assets are our people.  So it’s incredibly important to have a great group of professionals who work well together.  Working as a team enables us to develop better ideas and deliver a higher ROI for our clients.

When we founded RF|Binder 10 years ago, we intentionally wanted to be different from large PR agencies.  A number of us came out of very large agencies, which tends to have a “silo” mentality. We felt strongly that wasn’t the way to get the best thinking.  So when we started this agency, we put in place a structure that ensured we would not have silos.  Our client work encompasses consumer programs as well as corporate and B2B public relations.  In a large agency, those accounts would typically be managed by separate groups with their own staffs and P&Ls.  This meant that it was unusual for creative innovative thinking to be shared across disciplines. It also meant that you didn’t look at a client as an integrated entity.

What we decided is that we were going to have one P&L for the agency. Instead of having group P&Ls, we have client P&Ls.  This enabled us to choose the best team across geographies and across disciplines to handle each client assignment.  We wanted to mix things up between the B2B side and the consumer side. For example, an executive who works on a retail account could join a financial services account team.  After all, consumer banking is a type of retail. Someone with more consumer retail experience might bring innovative thinking to a retail bank client.

By having cross-agency teams, we break down traditional agency silos. Industry expertise is critical, and we do keep our senior specialists very involved in every account. But having openness to different perspectives, experiences, and disciplines promotes the most creative thinking and ideas. This approach has been especially valuable to us as the world has become more digital. Many agencies still see a world divided between digital and traditional, and manage accounts that way. We saw immediately that digital is a just another dimension of the communications spectrum so that we needed to ensure that this expertise was integrated into the approach for each client.

AMA:Is there a specific piece of advice that has shaped your leadership and management style?  Are there specific management principles you stand by?
Binder: At RF|Binder, we have worked to create an environment which encourages creativity and engenders an openness to new ideas. Communications is changing rapidly and we need to be willing to try new avenues of communications and new approaches.  This means you need to be willing to take risks. An idea might not work out the first time you try it.  But as you go through a process of exploring new channels and different ways of engaging your key stakeholders, we will grow and stretch our capabilities. In corporate environments, people often feel that if they take responsibility for something they’ll get blamed. We’ve tried to create an environment here where we all know we’re in it together. As a result, there is much less of a concern with taking a chance on doing something in a new way.

AMA:The internet has completely changed the media business.  How has this digital transformation affected the public relations industry?
Binder: Public relations was created in the early decades of the last century. But the PR agency business didn’t really grow until after World War II. The economy was expanding, the advertising industry was emerging and media was changing. There was a new understanding that companies could get attention and build a reputation by what we now call earned media. It was a revolution in the industry, and you saw the emergence of six or eight large public relations agencies.

The scope of change the PR business is going through now is comparable to what happened six decades ago. The emergence of digital and social media has changed the way companies interact with the public. Once again, there is an understanding that what people say about you can really build your brand—or it can do great harm. That’s what the digital world is all about. It’s changing what we do and what everyone in the market and industry does.

AMA: How has the Competitive environment changed for PR firms?
Binder: The marketplace has become incredibly competitive because different types of agencies now want to move into our space. In the past, PR firms spent a lot of time dealing with editors, reporters, and producers in securing what we call “earned media.” At the same time, advertising firms were focused on paid media. Today, it’s a fuzzy line. Who owns the Internet? What discipline is best suited to work with Bloggers, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? Digital agencies, advertising agencies, and public relations firms each say they own the digital space. But we believe public relations is best positioned in this competition. PR has always been a two-way conversation, which has much more in common with the interactive world of social media than does traditional advertising. Paid media is a one-way conversation where you can control the message.

Our clients are also increasingly sophisticated about communications. Today, many companies have large in-house PR departments with very capable people, many of whom come from the agency side. They’re really looking for their agencies to do cutting-edge work. They want new thinking, new approaches, and new channels. So, there’s greater pressure on agencies to be innovative than there was 25 years ago.

AMA: What new capabilities and skills does your company require to succeed in this emerging digital environment?  Have your recruiting efforts changed in any way?
Binder: Everything is changing—the media world, client needs, and the work we do for them. So our recruiting has had to change as well. Of course, we will still look for English majors who can write, former journalists who know the media, lawyers with public affairs experience, and analysts who know the capital markets. But increasingly we are looking for candidates with different skills and experience than we did in the past. For example, we recognized we needed a chief digital officer, which was a new position. We approached an executive recruiter, who specializes in the public relations industry, to identify candidates. We kept getting back resumes of people with traditional PR backgrounds, people who hadn’t grown up in the digital media world.  Through some networking, we were able to find someone with a different background.  The candidate’s experience was running the digital operations for a media company.  She had spent her entire career in the digital world, and understood the different channels.  She did not have a traditional PR or media relations background. But we hired her because we believe that bringing innovative digital ideas to clients required someone who is at the forefront of the thinking on digital.

AMA: The changing media environment has also created challenges for your clients.  How are you advising clients adapt to this new world?
Binder: Every single one of our clients has been affected by the Internet. There are some that haven’t embraced digital and social media because of regulatory issues or other reasons. But every client is impacted because they know how fast news—and misinformation—can spread.  Every client today is concerned that if something happens, even in a remote place, it could move quickly around the world.  In the past, you might say, “Oh, don’t worry, that’s an isolated incident.” Now, an isolated incident can blow up into a bomb and I think most of our clients understand that. This is really changing how we work with clients to protect their reputations and manage crises.

AMA: Thinking about your clients, what are the attributes of leadership that make them most effective in their own communication with the public?
Binder: The ability to effectively communicate their vision for the company is an important attribute of leadership. When I think of the corporate CEOs that we work with who are very visible and accessible to their employees, it tends to be in companies with up to $5 billion or $10 billion in revenue.  In smaller companies where the CEO is visible, people listen. People move and feel the pressure to get things done. They understand who the company is, what it is, and where it’s going. That’s really critical for a company to grow, stay ahead of the curve, and to be successful. We enjoy working with CEOs who value communication, have a vision, and want to translate that vision for their most important stakeholders.  At the very largest companies, it’s often difficult to translate that vision, to permeate it throughout the company.

AMA: Where do you see your company in five years?  Can you see your leadership and management style changing or evolving due to this digital transformation?
Binder: Right now, the public relations industry has the greatest opportunity for growth that I have seen yet in my professional lifetime. Because of the Internet and how fast information travels, more companies are recognizing they have to be communicating with their key stakeholders and they need professionals to help them do it. I believe that this presents a great opportunity for the public relations industry. I’ve seen some of the best young people ever coming into the industry, so I think we have an opportunity to recruit really great young people.

I don’t see my leadership/management style changing, because I think our approach is very much in line with where our business and our industry is going. We need to continue to build our team approach—one that creates an environment where people are encouraged to work together to identify the most creative and innovative communications solutions that address business challenges.