Fundamental change starts from within

The head of the PR program at a major university called me recently to ask how the new specialist roles created at GolinHarris would impact her students' ability to secure jobs in our industry.

The head of the PR master's degree program at a major university called me recently to ask how the new specialist roles created at GolinHarris would impact her students' ability to secure jobs in our industry. Surprised by the question, I asked how her students even knew what we were doing. She explained they were monitoring our press coverage and discussing it every day in class. I never dreamed PR majors across the country might analyze our agency redesign to plan their curriculum.

In mid-June, GolinHarris introduced a new business model under the banner of Agency for the Future. The idea was simple. Evolve – or PRevolve as we say – our company to keep pace with what our clients need: business insights, creative ideas, holistic media engagement, all seamlessly integrated.

After a year of exhaustive plans, long meetings, and heated discussions, I wasn't certain anyone would be interested in our plans. We considered keeping the idea to ourselves. But, in the end, we shared our thinking and process with a handful of media.

The results were overwhelming. In days our story was told in hundreds of articles, blogs, posts and tweets all over the globe. I was stunned by the coverage and content. Our agency reorganization was called bold, dramatic and daring - words we would never use to describe ourselves. PRWeek ran a poll asking if our redesign would change the PR industry forever - 75 percent said yes.

But the descriptor I liked best was “fundamental,” because that's what real change is. It's not new logos and clever tag lines: it's the gut-wrenching organizational upheaval that alters a company forever.

Fundamental change isn't sexy: it's kind of boring. We spent endless hours creating assessment tools to evaluate the skills and passions of every employee. We agonized over titles and repeatedly revised new job descriptions. We developed in-depth training courses and reorganized every account team. We tested latest technology and implemented it in every office - all before we said a word to the outside world.

We learned that fundamental change starts from within. We involved our people in very step of the process through focus groups, presentations, webcasts and individual conversations. We had to have their support to succeed.

In the beginning there was considerable doubt from top to bottom of the organization. It took a lot of trust to convince people what we were doing was good for the company and for them. Everyone embraces change at a different speed. Some race ahead, others have to be dragged to the finish line. If you let the speedsters set the pace, you leave everyone else behind. If you wait for the stragglers, you never get anywhere. The trick is finding the right pace that makes everyone a little uncomfortable.

The final secret to fundamental change is persistence. The trip takes twice as long as you think, and there are many hazards along the way. Often it is tempting to turn back and admit the old road was just fine. But if you truly believe in what you are doing, the journey becomes a mission and you discover the daily inspiration you need to push ahead. It can come from a magazine article, an encouraging client comment, or an enthusiastic email from an intern.

In the end, the biggest question remains: Will it really work? The reaction to our move indicates there is enormous pent-up demand for change. But change is easier to talk about than do. Feedback so far has been positive, but we know it will take at least another year of hard work to realize the full potential of our idea. PR majors stay tuned.

Fred Cook is president and CEO at GolinHarris.

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