Successful crisis communications, says Ketchum chairman David Drobis, is about reporting early with complete facts, not speculation. An interview with the world renowned PR guru |
Chennai: David Drobis is the senior partner and chairman of Ketchum (www.ketchum.com), a top ten global public relations firm. He joined Ketchum in 1967 as an account executive in the firm's Pittsburgh office after working in government relations and community relations in the Washington, DC area, and in university relations at The American University in Washington.
Drobis has spent most of his career at Ketchum helping it to grow from a small, *specialised firm into one of the top agencies in the world. Under his leadership, Ketchum expanded from North America to Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America and established the vertical industry categories and key communications disciplines into six global practices: brand marketing, corporate, food and nutrition, healthcare, technology and Ketchum Inside (workplace and change communications). Under his guidance Ketchum established an industry leading recruitment and training program and also introduced KGN, an award-winning intranet.
Drobis holds a master's degree in journalism and public relations from The American University in Washington, DC and has attended graduate programmes at The Harvard Business School and The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania.
He is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), a past board member of PRSA's counsellors' academy, a member of its international committee, college of fellows and past president of the New York Chapter of PRSA. He was named among the top ten most influential people in public relations in the 20th century by PRWeek and was presented with the National Public Relations Professional Achievement Award for 2001 from Ball State University.
He is president of The Arthur W Page Society; founding chairman and a member of the Board of the Council of Public Relations Firms and the current president of International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), the international trade association for public relations firms. He's also a member of the International Public Relations Association and the advisory committee of the American University School of Communication. He has been a member of the board of directors of the Center for Communication, an organisation dedicated to communications education, and The Manhattan Theatre Club, a New York based non-profit theatre company.
On a highly publicised visit to India recently, Drobis spoke to domain-b exclusively. Excerpts:
Can you tell us about your company, its philosophy and how it is different from other PR companies?
At Ketchum we are celebrating our 80th anniversary this year - so it has been a long innings [Ketchum was established in 1923]. In the early 90s we decided to be truly global, in our reach, in our expertise and in our understanding to fully meet the expectations and needs of our client companies. So Ketchum set out to identify the topline professional agencies in different geographies, with which we forged affiliation agreements, thus having the ability to support global campaigns through a network of 55 offices, with over 1,200 employees and $165 million turnover in 2001.
In fact, MelCole, our Indian affiliate since 1989, is among the oldest Ketchum affiliates. The year 1996 marked another major step on the road to our success - the acquisition of Ketchum by the Omnicom Group Inc, a leading global marketing and corporate communications company. Being part of the Omnicom Group enabled Ketchum to grow geographically and also expand the services and expertise it offers clients.
Ketchum's acquisition of prominent firms such as Scope Communications, London (in 1997), The Washington Group (in 2001), Stromberg Consulting (in 2001) and Corporate Technology Communications (in 2001) has supplemented Ketchum's strength geographically as well as in its six practices and portfolio of specialised services.
One of the unique things about Ketchum is its culture - the industry leading collaborative culture and global 'best teams' approach have enabled Ketchum to set benchmarks in the industry for the longevity of its client relationships as well as the tenure of its employees.
I am very proud of the fact that Ketchum has won the PRWeek Agency of the Year title for 2002 and three times previously during the 1990s when the award was presented by Inside PR magazine.
You seem to believe that international PR firms should have a local tie-up or affiliations to flourish. This seems to be different from what we see here across several sectors including the PR industry. Only the other day a foreign PR agency decided to go it alone here. Can you explain your belief?
The Ketchum approach has proven successful. Ketchum has grown through strategic acquisition of specialised firms, giving us the unique position of being a global organisation run by entrepreneurs. At Ketchum the entrepreneurial spirit is nurtured, as a result of which we have in our affiliate network and within the organisation, professionals who have practised and perfected public relations in their local and specialised environments.
If you see the string of acquisitions or affiliation agreements undertaken by Ketchum, you will see that we have sought the best practices from the industry segment or region and integrated them into our best practices areas.
In the practice of public relations, which deals essentially with human behaviour and perceptions, local knowledge and understanding are critical to success. At Ketchum we have always known that cultural and social sensitivities need to be integrated into the best thought out strategies, which is best done by people from the same or similar cultural backgrounds.
In order to provide uniform standard of client service, at Ketchum we have adopted the Ketchum Planning Process and myKGN, two essential tools that enable our global teams to work in a cohesive and interconnected manner.
Is there place in the PR sun for companies without a multinational partner? How much?
I am sure that there are many highly competent companies that choose to retain a local perspective. However, in today's global economy and communication age, companies are increasingly looking for a communications network which can deliver the quality, consistency, convenience and results they require to be strong competitors across their global enterprise. Our local offices still deliver deep local expertise and they combine that with the resources of a global network to deliver the best of both worlds.
Is there any set PR formula for corporates to attract different target segments like the media, institutional shareholders, individual shareholders, employees, vendors, customers, and the public?
Once again, since our business focuses on the nuances of communication and human behaviour, it does not lend itself to formulas. Frankly, this makes our business so much more challenging and exciting. We certainly believe that there are principles which are part of all communications: such as ethical practices, transparency, building relationships and going beyond mere relationships to build mutual trust.
I do want to emphasise, however, that the way we perform as communicators has become much more analytical and professional over the years. At Ketchum for example, we place great emphasis on extensive research as the basis for targeting audience segments like those you've mentioned. We look very carefully at how and when they want to receive messages, what type of information affects their thinking and behaviour, and this research provides the basis for our recommendations to clients.
The US and the UK have invaded Iraq. This naturally will have its impact on people's perception of Americans and American corporates. How will you advice the American corporates to tackle the negative perception? Should they support the American government's view or go along with local (and contrary) perceptions to build an enduring image?
As you would expect, global companies - no matter where they come from - prefer to avoid the uncertainties and business disruptions caused by conflicts of any type. In this case, US and UK companies will have to make extra effort to demonstrate their commitment to the local countries in which they operate around the world.
Maintaining strong relationships and, more important, maintaining trust will require responsible local practices and openness. All global enterprises - again no matter where they come from - must decide individually how they will or will not align with the political views of their home countries. That is true for companies from the US, the UK, India, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia - just to name a few.
How important are image audits for corporates and other organisations? How frequently should companies conduct image audits?
Measurement of the gains and efficiency of any business function is an essential part of any modern management practice. Image audits, or perception surveys, are one important way for companies to manage their reputations. No company would leave their sales or their R&D to chance; they would mange those key aspects of their business.
In the same way, companies need to treat their reputation with the same attention and disciplined approach. Audits are a good tool for determining strengths and weaknesses and then building a communications programme in response. The frequency would depend somewhat on whether the company is undergoing a dramatic change or an ongoing controversy.
How do you go about conducting image audits?
There is a wide range of tools available, which are utilised by Ketchum to conduct image audits for its clients. These include employee-satisfaction surveys, customer-satisfaction surveys, community-relations research, media-content analysis and even incorporating rankings from external organisations like leading business publications. Sometimes these are conducted in-house, sometimes outsourced, depending on the needs and requirements of a particular programme.
How can a company leverage its website to enhance its image? What do you advise your clients to do on this front?
Every encounter that someone has with your company tells them something about you, your reputation and your brand. It needs to be effective in each case and consistent. Increasingly the website is the first introduction to the company so it has to work very hard. It has to communicate something about your personality, it needs to present your business in a consistent fashion, and it needs to be user-friendly or intuitive so people find it a welcoming experience.
How is PR different from reputation management? It is said that PR or communication is just one aspect of reputation management. Your view.
Reputation management is an all-encompassing job. It begins with a company's top management and includes the performance of every employee. The communications team inside a company helps the management assess its reputation through the research steps I mentioned earlier and then designs communications programmes to help a company management develop and maintain a reputation which is accurate and consistent with the company's performance. In short, a reputation is built primarily on what you do and then how you communicate it. The exciting thing for communicators is that we have become indispensable to this process and, as such, we participate in managing this valuable corporate asset.
What's your view about companies that concentrate on PR, without making it part of an overall advertising enterprise? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
Public relations and advertising are communication tools that may or may not be used in conjunction with each other - it depends on the programme objectives, target audiences and many other factors. Today, most companies want solutions to their communications challenges. They are much less concerned about where those solutions come from. The most valued communications counsellors are those who come to the management table with solutions rather than a preordained bias to their particular speciality. And there are other disciplines that should be considered, too - such as direct marketing or special events. It's all about delivering a solution.
What are the cardinal rules to be followed by PR firms and professionals in times of crisis?
Most crisis communications experts would say that the first rule is to manage issues effectively so they don't become crisis. However, when that isn't possible then crisis preparedness is essential. Companies should have a detailed assessment of their vulnerabilities; a response plan; an organisational structure for decision-making in a crisis and training on how to respond under the glare of media attention. In general, successful crisis communications focuses on reporting only facts, not speculation; communicating early and often; and as completely as possible. Of course, that's all easier said than done but the companies that succeed are those that have prepared in advance and put the necessary resources in place.
What are the dos and don'ts?
First, there needs to be more effective communications with employees. The employee is the ambassador for the brand and corporate reputation. Too often companies neglect to inform and dialogue with their own people, especially in times of crisis. Secondly, on the external side, an important area for strategic focus is public reporting and doing it in a manner that is easily understood.
A third area of strategic importance is media relations. A mistake that many companies make is to neglect ongoing relationships with members of the media - it needs to be a relationship in order to succeed. The fourth area is integrated investor relations. In too many organisations, corporate communications and marketing communications are separated from investor relations. This means that oftentimes the financial community is not receiving critical corporate and brand messages and conversely, corporate communications may not be delivering consistent financial messages. The ideal situation of course is to integrate these and other communications functions, including public affairs and community relations.
How has the business environment for PR companies been affected by the economic slowdown?
When you talk to the CEOs of the leading global companies, they are worried not only about broad economic issues but also about the loss of public confidence in business. A recent opinion poll conducted in Europe found that the general public trusts pressure groups more than business, government and the media. Obviously, we all know the examples of ethical breakdowns that have occurred and so the business community must exert extra effort to rebuild public trust. In combination, all of this is making business leaders very risk averse. They are insisting on a much higher probability for success before undertaking initiatives, including communications.
As a PR professional do you find dealing with the media a challenge?
Yes, it can be challenging but it's also an essential part of our business, so it's a challenge we fully embrace. The media have an obligation to ask and probe and report what's newsworthy. Most of them do a very good job, especially when they have an ongoing dialogue with the companies they cover. Enlightened companies treat the media as professionals and recognise that the reporting will only be as comprehensive as the information and access that a company provides. There will always be a degree of tension involved, but that's perfectly healthy.
There is a view that the media is not professional, is corrupt and adopts a holier-than-thou attitude. Do you agree?
Absolutely not, in the vast majority of cases. There are exceptions in every business as we know, but I find that the level of professionalism in the media the world over just continues to improve.
What is the impact of globalisation and liberalisation of the Indian economy on your profession?
It is the opening up of the economy that set the stage for independent PR agencies, as the needs of the business changed - Indian business had to face competition from MNCs that were much more aggressive with their marketing and communications programme. Thus, in India, this set the stage for the practice of PR as an independent service.
In your view what are the challenges Indian PR companies face in today's world?
The challenges are the same everywhere. The events of the recent months have put great pressure on corporate management and on the PR professionals who manage their communication. The economic slowdown, the erosion of public confidence in business, 11 September, the conflict in Iraq and the outbreak of SARs in Asia Pacific - all have led to a very fragile business climate.
While posing a challenge, this also in my opinion, gives us, the PR professionals an unprecedented opportunity - to show the value of what we do. It is our responsibility to make sure that we are providing good intelligence to management so that they understand what their stakeholders are thinking, and how they will respond to messages and policies. We need to be the barometer, to provide good information and knowledge and then to measure awareness and attitude changes. As I said earlier, we need to provide solutions that work, not just publicity.
How do you see the PR business evolving in the future, particularly in India?
The business of public relations will become increasingly challenging, with managements relying more and more on 'open communication' systems. In this communication age where information overload is a practical business issue, with the world economy in such a fragile state, that the pressure on delivering measurable, almost quantifiable results, will be tremendous.