Agency innovators challenge status quo

Innovation is essential for the PR industry as it continues its evolution. PRWeek profiles five agency executives whose ideas could have an effect far beyond the reach of their agencies

Innovation is essential for the PR industry as it continues its evolution. PRWeek profiles five agency executives whose ideas could have an effect far beyond the reach of their agencies

Todd Defren
Principal, Shift Communications

"Let's screw up intelligently," Todd Defren dares the industry.

Defren envisions a PR industry that is willing to take risks - and perhaps make some mistakes - to get things right.
"I'd like to see us experiment more," he adds.

And the industry may not have a choice. As media grow increasingly sophisticated, Defren believes bad PR - e-mail blasts, unsolicited attachments, and uninformed press releases - will disappear.

"It was easy to get away with that when it was just clicking the mouse and crossing your fingers," he says. "But now there's so much openness and transparency."

And while everyone's new buzzword is "social network," Defren says the industry hasn't fully invested in this. "It's one thing to jump on every social network as it is announced," he says. "But if you're not participating on a daily basis with people who you are trying to influence, you're not truly part of their network."

Last year, Defren debuted one of the first templates for a social media press release, but many in the industry worried the mainstream press wasn't ready for the change, he says.

"To which I reply again and again - this is not just about them anymore," he points out. Yet while it's important for PR professionals to be aware of the changing media landscape, Defren warns that it's equally as important to not get too overeager with social networks.

"Where disillusionment sets in on the other side of the table," he says, "is when [journalists] see this as yet another avenue for spam. Because while the PR industry is open to new avenues of communications, they haven't taken the time to do it correctly."

Doing it right means maintaining relationships with the handful of online influencers in each industry, he advises. But that takes time and resources, and some are skeptical of it being a worthwhile investment.

This is where the experimenting - and perhaps the screwing up - comes in.

"I didn't say it wasn't hard," he adds. "If it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be worth doing."

Judith Harrison
VP of HR, Constituency Management Group

As the definition, role, and tools of PR continue to evolve, finding the right employees can become quite the challenge. To effectively identify and subsequently woo potential employees, recruiters and HR professionals need to be innovative in their approaches.

For Judith Harrison and her team of recruiters across the country, innovation means leveraging existing relationships and figuring out how technology can be used to find and create relationships with candidates.

"It also means using technology to enhance internal communications," says Harrison. "Social networking is one of the biggest trends in recruiting; I cannot overemphasize how important it has become. Understanding how our target candidates create communities and share information are the keys to innovation in my area of the business. Innovation also means that understanding how these communities like to receive information is critical."

Harrison says for the industry as a whole, innovation means finding new ways to address current issues and to identify future challenges and opportunities, as well as figuring out how to stay ahead of the curve.

"[It's about] finding new audiences and new ways to communicate with them," she explains.

"It means changing those audiences into participants in an ongoing dialogue."

Harrison is also a big believer in properly educating younger talent about all aspects of the business.

"I think when you come into the business, it's important to get as broad a picture as possible because you really don't want to pigeonhole yourself as an assistant account executive," she says. "You want to be a sponge and learn as much as you can about as many areas as you can so that years later you can make a more informed decision."

Sabrina Horn
President, Horn Group

Sabrina Horn is preparing her agency for what some say is the inevitable collision of PR and advertising.

"I think the PR industry is moving toward more of a holistic communications industry," she says. And this is not the media-centric approach the industry has been following for decades. Instead, the evolution focuses on more of a marketing communications picture.

Agencies like the Horn Group - that work in the tech sector - have historically led the pack in terms of new media. But eventually the rest of the industry will have to catch up, Horn predicts.

"Probably the majority of agencies throughout America - in the different industries - are still very much focused on tradition-al audiences and approaches," she adds.

And while taking new media seriously is not a new addition to the industry's agenda, many have been shy to move from verbal to visual branding and communications. Horn is taking the lead on that front by adding unconventional functions to the Horn Group, such as creative directors and Web engineers.

"PR people need to think more on a marketing or business level," she says.

"We still have a plethora of people to talk to - it is just [that] the rules have changed," Horn adds. And sparking conversations in, for example, the blogosphere seems complex because precedents have yet to be set in that space, she notes.

The Horn Group's account managers and directors have already moved beyond a traditional PR function. "[They] are now expected to help a client manage their global brand," Horn says.

This could include a Web site redesign, brochures, or simultaneous campaigns to coincide with a PR launch.

"It's a much bigger conversation," she says. "This is only just beginning. We are only at the infancy of all of this."

Paul Rand
President and CEO, Z—calo Group

Innovation is something that comes naturally to Paul Rand.

"You have two choices," says Rand. "Continue doing what you're doing, or innovate... If you don't innovate, somebody else will, and you'll have to answer to that later.

"The world around us is changing so incredibly quickly," he adds. "Every time there's a change, there's a new group of winners and a new group of losers. I look at these changes as opportunities rather than threats."

Rand's agency, Z—calo, is a prime example of seizing opportunity in the marketplace. Until April, Rand was global chief development and innovation officer at Ketchum. That role offered the opportunity to help clients communicate in new, often tech-assisted ways - with blogs, pod- casts, and search engine optimization, among others. As an executive committee member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, Rand also realized word of mouth's implications beyond building buzz.

"It's not PR [anymore], but a distinct discipline," he says. "There are certainly elements of PR, but it's its own discipline... I would argue that interactive for PR has the potential of being a distinct discipline, as well."

It's a mix of these elements that Z—calo relies on in crafting campaigns. And though the Ketchum-owned firm does capitalize on PR's core strengths, Rand says, it practices very much its own distinct discipline.

And in today's constantly changing PR landscape, that kind of agent-of-change approach is essential.

"Evolution is required on every path," he says, adding that the majority of Z—calo's clients are CMOs and brand managers - not PR directors. "That means PR is in a position to define new core competencies" and expand its domain.

In fact, it's something that PR agencies will have to do to deal with the competition coming from other marketing disciplines. Rand says that when he goes into a pitch these days, "we're talking about and doing things that two years ago would have been in PR's domain. The client is now saying they don't care where it comes from."

The good news, he notes, is that "everybody has the potential of being an innovator. You just have to take the time to step back from the day-to-day grind and think about what's not being done as well as could be."

Peter Verrengia
President and senior partner, Communications Consulting Worldwide, Fleishman-Hillard

More than ever, communications professionals are being asked to prove how their work is contributing to the business goals of their companies or clients.

This task arrives in tandem with a greatly shifting communications landscape.

"My role is to explain how we fill the space between traditional communications services, including PR, and the achievement of business strategy," says Peter Verrengia, who cofounded Communications Consulting Worldwide. "Sometimes innovation is finding something new, and sometimes part of innovation can be to answer longstanding questions with existing techniques from other disciplines."

What is needed, notes Verrengia, is a framework for how all the communications and other activities of those types of relation-ships can be held together for business outcomes. "It's about understanding the questions that have been asked, but have frustrated people for many years, like: 'Why should I communicate? What should I say? Does it really matter?'" he says.

And so, Verrengia's work centers on demonstrating and measuring the relationship between communications efforts and a company's bottom line. One of the techniques he uses is intangible valuation, a statistical model that can quantify (through a stock price, sales, or some other result) the effect of the communications function.

"This was an established business development technique that hadn't been used in communications," he explains.

Another element to Verrengia's everyday innovation is welcoming questions, in whose answers PR pros can find something new and inspired.

"Treating questions as an opportunity rather than a threat is the most important part of innovation," he says.

Profiles written by Michael Bush, Tonya Garcia, Randi Schmelzer, and Aarti Shah. For more insight from these individuals, including whom they consider to be innovative, visit

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