In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss the benefits of the Public Relations Global Network, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Collaboration, Best Practices Are Benefits of the PRGN Network"
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The field of public relations practitioners is sometimes seen by outsiders as a cutthroat, competitive landscape of individual firms and agencies all vying to try to get the business, win the client, get the deal, do the work. Yet, the Public Relations Global Network is proof that is not the real story of how PR firms work together, learn together, and grow together. PRGN is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and HMA Public Relations is one of the founding members of this global network. Here to talk about that is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, and someone who has been there with the Public Relations Global Network from the very earliest days. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, Adrian, it's so exciting because after three years of not being able to meet in person, HMA is hosting our colleagues from all around the world here in Scottsdale, Arizona this week, as the Public Relations Global Network comes to the place it started -- actually it was founded right here in the Phoenix area -- to celebrate its 30th anniversary and to be together for two and a half days of professional development, networking, collaboration, and really getting connected with our colleagues from all around the world. It's been exciting to plan this three-day conference for these folks that run agencies all over the world. Our network is made up of about 55 firms from all over the world that are all independently owned and operated, meaning the owners of the agencies are active members of their account teams and daily participate in the doings of the agency, and really have found extreme value in having like-minded business owners and practitioners that they can call on, on a regular basis, to network, to share leads and resources to potentially work together, to support other clients. We're just thrilled to welcome them to the Valley. I mean, you cannot ask for a better time of year to come visit Arizona. We have jam packed their agenda with all sorts of exciting learning opportunities and a few social options as well, because you can't bring together a group of PR people and not have some outlet for them to socialize a bit as well.Adrian McIntyre:
Professional development is something that every industry approaches somewhat differently, but there are some common themes throughout all of it. Let's make this personal. What have you learned? How have you grown over the years through your interactions with the network, as well as through your colleagues from other markets?Abbie Fink:
Sure. When I joined HMA Public Relations as a practitioner, I came into the company as an account executive working directly one-on-one with clients. As I grew professionally and became more involved in the day-to-day operations of the business and ultimately became part of the ownership and management of the firm, I didn't go to business school, right? I went to journalism school and got my degree in public relations. And so how to run a business was not something that I necessarily learned in school. Being a part of a network like PRGN or other professional associations gives you that chance not only to become a better practitioner, meaning what's new and improved and what's the current trends and what are we doing in terms of client service, but it really gives you this chance to talk to other business owners. One of the best things about being a part of a network like PRGN, is the willingness and openness for people to share and to talk about what worked and what didn't work. Sometimes the what didn't work is actually more beneficial than what is working. If you're struggling with accounts payable, and you're having a client that you can't collect your fees from, or you've really got to figure out how to help a particular client out of a situation that might be different than what you've ever dealt with before, here's 55 other PR agency owners and their staff, accessible and willing to help. That's a pretty powerful thing, and gives us on the ground support virtually anywhere in the world. And so when we have this chance to connect with and interact with others who bring a different perspective, a different approach, how they address particular topics, it's really, really beneficial. One of the best things about it is, it's not only Scott Hanson and I, as the owners of the firm, they get the chance to interact with our business owner colleagues. The members of our team have opportunities to interact with their peers at these agencies around the world as well. There's a lot of commonalities, and the differences that exist help us be better and stronger at the work that we're doing.Adrian McIntyre:
Certainly there are content related things that you can learn because how conversations about social justice, for example, are playing out differently in different countries, different cities around the world allows you to learn more about the nuance and the way these issues are shaped. Things related to the environment, things related to changing regulations, and things of that nature. You can learn things of that type, as well as the business side. What are some of the perspectives that you have encountered, either through conversations or the writing of other network members, that have changed the way you think about some of these issues? Has that happened?Abbie Fink:
Yeah, it has. One of the things I think is also important to note is, from within the organization itself, we are a very diverse group of business owners, right? We have ages and ethnicities and cultural beliefs and such, which obviously helps inform what we bring to the table. Probably some of the most interesting conversations that we've had are really about our interactions with members of the media. What is best practices here in the States: you pitch a story to a reporter, they agree to do the story, they write the story. We don't have the opportunity to review that story before it's published. It's the trust in the journalistic process, that the story will run with the information that we share. Some of our colleagues in other countries, it's more of an advertising play, if you will. They can read articles and are expected to review and see the content before it publishes. How we interact with our clients in terms of, we enjoy a face-to-face opportunity. We provide follow-up information. Others have different types of interactions with their clients, the way they structure their account services team. We just had a dialogue within our chat room about organizational structure. How are different agencies, especially now with this hybrid work environment, how are we structuring our account teams? How are we handling the management functions? Are we still bringing teams together in the same way that we might have two years ago, three years ago. I think what Covid did for a lot of businesses is create a different pathway into communicating because of the technology that we had. So although we have not seen each other as a network face-to-face, in-person for three years, we've probably had more interactions, again, very intentional interactions because we can have monthly webinars or quarterly check-ins because everybody can log in. Sure, there's a time difference. Our partners in Australia or in Asia Pacific, it might be the middle of the night for them, or completely another day while we're jumping onto a Zoom call, but that exists and we can network with each other. I'm anticipating that even though we're back to being able to travel and be in-person, that accessing each other via technology will continue. The conversations that it sparked about best practices and things that, "how are you doing? What are you doing? Have you thought about doing," will continue with this type of frequency, as opposed to just waiting for those twice a year in-person conversations. I'm excited to see where this takes us. Our topics this time are a lot about, or I should say less about the business of being in public relations, and more about issues impacting our businesses and ultimately how that impacts how we are servicing our clients. We're not necessarily talking about the latest and greatest in responding to proposals, but we're talking about how we're doing that, how we're delivering the content, why are we still doing these things versus these things? I think there'll be some real lively conversations around that. We're also really focusing on a reconnection. Again, not just with us, but how are we reconnecting with our staffs, with our clients, and the other resources that we use to do the work that we do.Adrian McIntyre:
HMA Public Relations has been operating in Arizona for more than 40 years. You obviously have collegial relationships with many of your competitors in this market. But I imagine that the quality of the conversations amongst PRGN members is somewhat different because there isn't that direct competition. The geographical dispersion of folks around the world in different markets makes that almost a moot point. How would you describe the differences between talking with somebody, a colleague, from the global network, and talking with a colleague from a local firm or agency? What's the same? What's different?Abbie Fink:
Well, one of the things I think that has always fascinated me about the PR agency teams here in the metro Phoenix area, the leaders of the PR agencies, is our willingness to talk to each other and understanding that the conversations that we're having are meant to be better at what we do, and when one of us is better, we're all better. I'm not necessarily going to pick up the phone and call an agency colleague and say, "I'm really struggling with client X. Can you help me?" But I do call them and ask them about, "What vendors are you using for this particular process? Who are you using for social listening? Who are you using for a clipping service?" I will call them and say, "I got a great candidate that I am not able to hire. I think they'd be perfect for your agency. Can I send them along? I have a client that we've got a conflict with. May I refer them to you?" That same camaraderie comes back to me on a regular basis. I think that's because we have built this trust and we all run ethical in our businesses with integrity. We are competitors and we do come up against each other for particular pieces of work and we are all interviewing similar people, so there is some of that. But we do trust each other. The difference with the network in that regard, is that we have very intentionally brought these individuals together. There is an application process to be brought into the network. You are brought in geographically because you represent a part of the world that we want to be a part of the network. You go through a very extensive vetting process. You are being brought in because of the way you run your business and the makeup of the structure of your firm, and that we, as the membership committee and those that evaluate the members, determine that not only are you bringing to the table resources about how to do the business -- you might be experts in real estate public relations and we are looking to add that to our list -- but you are the kind of business owner that we want to interact with and have part of our ... so that when I meet with a prospective client and I say, "I have colleagues on the ground in ______," fill in the blank, I know that those individuals are me in that market. They run their business the way that I do. They believe in client service the way that we do and that they've structured their company comparable to the way that we do it. It gives an agency like ours, with our primary footprint here in Arizona in the US, an opportunity to be regional, national, and international with like-minded businesses across the world.Adrian McIntyre:
Let's talk specifically about that collaboration on client work. If you have, for example, someone who needs something somewhere, you have a resource to turn to, but how does that play out? You may or may not be able to give any specific examples, given the nature of this kind of work. Likewise, if somebody in Chicago needs coverage in Arizona, they can reach out to you, et cetera. Tell me a little bit more about that. How do you work together to actually deliver results for clients?Abbie Fink:
Sure. It comes together in a couple different ways. The general way it works is an agency will have a current client, and that client is looking to grow their business or expand, or has a project outside of the primary market that they've been hired in. So if I have a client here in Arizona and they are growing their business and then going to be opening up a location in Chicago, well, I can do the work from here and would do the work from here. What I can do is say, "I have on-the-ground support in Chicago. Let me bring in my partner agency from there. They will become an extension of us. Here's the team. They know the market better than I know the market, but you have the trust that I will be part of that team and that they will have the guidance that we've had and benefit from our long-term relationship." That's generally how it works, is that one of us has a client that's looking for other work. The other way it happens is in the new business development structure. We would be asked to bid on a new client or respond to a Request For Proposals. And within that response, the client is looking for agency support in the following locations, and they list what those would be. Well, now I can pull together a team and say, "You will be hiring the team of experts, part of the Public Relations Global Network membership, in Detroit, Israel, Ireland, Mexico, wherever they happen to be. We are all coming together to support your team." In that competitive way, we are able then to be in the same playing field as some of the national or multinational agencies who have offices themselves in those markets, we can put together a team of independent, small business owners and small business agencies to be able to make that happen. Those are the primary ways that we collaborate. And the other is just strictly a referral basis, right? I find out that someone I know is looking to hire somebody. They really want on the ground, in that market. I pass the conversation over to them and they are able to secure that. And in that case it's a warm lead for my network partner because we've made that introduction for them. The client feels a heightened sense of trust because they know us and we are able to turn them over to that. When the network first started back 30 years ago, we were just an U.S. based network. This was long before cell phones and fax machines. You had an area code that was based on where you lived. If you wanted to do work outside of the market, you had to have a partner to do it. We didn't have offices in other places. We didn't have technology that allow us to link in people. I had to have people in other places. If a client asked me for help, I couldn't do it the same way that we do now. The network just became this extension of our own offices because it worked so well then, we wanted to continue it. That's why here we are, 30 years later.Adrian McIntyre:
Now in any intimate relationship, you're only like-minded some of the time. How does the network handle situations where there may be differences of opinion on particular subjects, approaches, methods, et cetera? How do you work together to resolve disagreements, if there are any, between members?Abbie Fink:
Keep in mind that we are all independently owned and operated agencies, right? We do not have a financial relationship with our colleagues at the other agencies. We do if we enter into a contractual agreement on behalf of a client. But we all operate our businesses independently and make decisions independently. When you agree to be a part of the network, and the guidelines that we set in terms of geography, and percentage of your business that has to be from public relations, and your owner needs to be an active participant in the agency, once all that has happened, the conflict really only happens in the business of the network. It's not about how we run our businesses necessarily, but it may be that I would like to bring in a member that only does social media because I need them and I really think it would be beneficial to my agency if I had a partner agency that only does social media. And I might have three or four agency colleagues that say, "No, no, no. We have social media departments. We can't have that." And we debate and we discuss and we determine, and we figure out what the best approach might be. Without fail, a compromise can be reached that makes both sides happy. Now, in that particular scenario, I can utilize one of my partners then, because maybe I wasn't aware that they had the kind of depth I was looking for. There's nothing to prevent me from using someone who's not a member of our network, for a project that I don't have the resources from within. So when we have something that might rise to that level of more of a conflict, it typically has to do with the business of the network itself. Where we have built-in guidelines that we want to address, is if we should happen to be on opposite sides of a discussion. "I have client A, you have client B, and they are in conflict with each other and we are both trying to do that." To the best of my knowledge in our 30 years of being part of this network, that has not presented itself in a way that required anything other than a courtesy to let someone know we're working on this. And again, because we run our own businesses and we have our own business structures that are not dependent on the network, we can make those decisions quite quickly. The vetting process from the very beginning that brings these members into the network, is a deep understanding and respect for the process. And when you have that from the get go, you really have what you need to be able to counter any potential conflicts. One of the interesting things that we're talking about now, and we're thinking about now is, and I suspect that all agencies that are involved with other networks of these kind are looking at, geography used to be our defining point because we had our office in a particular place. As the hybrid workplace has evolved and the client relationships have evolved in such a way, geography is one of the ways to look at membership, but I think we will be looking at some other ways to evaluate where our membership is. Just because I'm sitting somewhere, does not necessarily mean that's where my primary business is and vice versa. I think we're all looking at that kind of structure and what that's going to look like. Again, with the commonality being what's good for the organization is ultimately good for each of us as business owners, that should guide those conversations pretty easily.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that you've talked about is the "brain trust" that the membership of the Public Relations Global Network really is on all manner of things from specific subjects with individual members having subject matter expertise on particular topics, to the business practices, to everything of that nature. As you reflect back, and obviously any member of the network might answer this question differently, but can you think of some of the highlights or success stories that would really compel someone to realize the benefits of being a member? Is there anything that stands out as an example of when this really works and works well?Abbie Fink:
A couple things come to mind. I think the instant ability to tap into that brain trust, right? A problem presents itself or a challenge presents itself. I know I have 55 people I can ask the question to and get probably 55 answers. Where I really think the value in the membership of the network, is really in the client service side of things, right? That there are opportunities for us to serve clients virtually anywhere in the world, and that they know that they have this incredible resource at their disposal. They don't have to go through a similar vetting process to find access to these individuals. There have been a couple instances where we as HMA, have tapped in because we got a situation brewing, we need extra hands, and I only have to make the phone call And I know that I've got a team willing to work in whatever structure I need to set up to be able to do that. As agencies that might consider being part of a network, the value proposition that you bring to us, is market knowledge, expertise in particular areas, like-mindedness in terms of how you run your business, and a willingness and desire to work collaboratively with colleagues around the world. If you are a client that is looking to bring in outside public relations support, you have individual business owners, all of us operate independently, but you all of a sudden have this large agency concept with the nimbleness of a small boutique firm. Our colleagues at the big agencies across the country, the national firms, superior at what they do, excellent work at what they do, and they are good competitors for us, right? We compete against those individuals. It will always end up in the client's hands to decide what type of structure they want. For those that are looking for support for small businesses, looking to interact directly with the owners, the names that are on the door, a network like ours becomes a great place for that to go. I think the collaborative nature and the commitment to working together on behalf of, and in support of each other, is really what makes a network like ours so valuable and so important to us as business owners and as practitioners, to have access to this type of brain trust all over the country, all over the world.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that is going to happen at the Public Relations Global Network meetings this week is, you are organizing a limited-edition podcast to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the network and to hear from members of this brain trust. Let's wrap up this episode by just giving a little preview. It will be available separately but we'll link up to it when it's published. Tell us about the PRGN podcast, this limited run series that we are going to be co-hosting with other members of the network this week.Abbie Fink:
Well by bringing us together, as I said, and we haven't been together for a couple years now, couldn't pass up the opportunity to try to get that knowledge and preserve it for the future. We are going to do eight episodes talking about workplace culture, certainly diversity, equity, inclusion will be a part of that. We're going to talk about sustainability, community support, community relations programs. We're also going to talk about succession planning and things to consider if you are going to create a legacy for your business and pass that along to your offspring. We're going to talk to a couple of our owners that have done just that, and really give our members an opportunity to talk about what they specialize in, those things that they do. Really give a good feel for the makeup of our network and the depth of knowledge and the geographic reach that we have and share that knowledge about, from their personal perspective, some of the topics we've talked about here on our show, but they will have the chance to dive in a little bit deeper. You and I will be setting that up with them. As you said, we'll get that all together and release it on the PRGN website, prgn.com. And it'll be a great limited series to recognize our 30th anniversary, as well as give an opportunity for our members to share some of their knowledge and expertise.