In this episode, Sean Dowdall highlights the role of PR professionals in guiding companies towards values alignment and the impact it can have on the community.
Drawing from his experience growing up on a tribal nation, Sean emphasizes the need for businesses to have a strong mission and vision that serves the benefit of people and the planet. He explains the pitfalls of solely focusing on making money and shares how the dot-com era exemplified the consequences of this approach. He also explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted individuals and organizations to reevaluate their priorities and strive for work that helps others.
Sean emphasizes the importance of aligning values with clients and employees, as well as the need for strategic decision-making that considers the impact on a company's brand and reputation. He also discusses the challenges of working with clients whose values may not align with your own and the importance of vetting potential clients.
About the Guest
Sean Dowdall, President of Landis Communications Inc. (LANDIS), is a 30-year public relations, marketing and sales executive. The son of a banker, he started his career at his father’s local bank on the Flathead Indian Reservation in his hometown of Polson, Montana. Prior to LANDIS, he was Chief Marketing Officer for Rabobank, N.A. Prior to Rabobank, Sean headed a variety of marketing, sales, public relations, and digital/Internet functions at Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America.
Sean graduated from Santa Clara University (BS in Finance) and the Pacific Coast Banking School at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA). He also studied in Tokyo, Japan during his junior year of college. He served as President of the Board of ODC San Francisco for 5 years during 2 $10 million capital campaigns to expand the ODC campus supporting more than 200 dance classes every week and an active 200-seat performing arts theatre. Sean is married to David Landis, the retired Founder of Landis.
About the Host
Abbie Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.
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From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.Abbie Fink:
And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.Adrian McIntyre:
Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.Abbie Fink:
For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.Sean Dowdall:
Hi, I'm Sean Dowdell. I'm the President of Landis Communications. We are a boutique public relations firm based in San Francisco and serve a number of clients in the environmental, healthcare, and technology industries.Abbie Fink:
Sean, you and I have had some pretty in-depth conversations over the years as our agencies are both members of the Public Relations Global Network, and yet I did not know that you spent your youth living on a tribal nation, on a reservation. And I'm just so intrigued by that background. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like as a kid and how that kind of informed some of your thoughts on the topic today, which is being a values-aligned company.Sean Dowdall:
It was a wonderful experience. I grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation located in Western Montana. And I think what's important for people to know about that reservation is that it's atypical. The tribes, the consolidated tribes that are operating the reservation are the Salish and Kootenai tribes.
And they were one of the more fortunate of the Native American peoples when all of the reservation system was established, to be in an area that is extremely beautiful, it's located on Flathead Lake with lots of resources, and also to have very wise elders that looked to how does the tribe and the Native population integrate and survive, really, really in this burgeoning influx of people from outside and then as the United States grew. So they developed social services networks, healthcare, services for tribal members, education, their own K through 12 and accredited community college system.
And my parents were liberal Democrats, very much supportive of tribal growth and success. growth and success. And my dad ran a small-town bank where, and I think he ran a values aligned company where he really tried to serve the entire community, including the tribe. And in fact got a lot of accounts and made loans to the tribe so they could businesses and promote the success of the tribe and tribal members.Abbie Fink:
Our agency does quite a lot of work with tribal communities as well. And one of the things that I've always struck me is the sort of the generational perspective that they have. They look at what has happened before and how that informs their decisions and then what will be coming ahead and what decisions they make now will impact the future.
And that really, I think, is what thinking about when you create an organization or you make this effort to really align your business goals with your values, right? It has to be more than just making money. We have to think differently about that.
And I think in today's society, that is becoming even more important that we think about our values as we're guiding our businesses. So not only as business owners ourselves, but as we are consulting to other companies. So talk a little bit about what you mean when you think about a values-aligned company and why it's such an important part of a growth strategy for any organization.Sean Dowdall:
I think a values-aligned company has a very strong mission and vision that fundamentally is there to serve for the benefit of people and the planet. It's not if a mission is something that we actually experienced a lot here in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area during the dot-com era about 23, 24 years ago.
We had clients literally, prospects knocking on our doors saying, “I need to sign a PR agency today because our funders said we need that.” And we said, well, what's your business? And he said, well, we do X, Y, or Z, but what we want to do is hit this revenue target so we can sell this company and make a lot of money. That's not values aligned. Purely in business to make money. And I think we saw what happened with dot-com.
There were other things too, but I think fundamentally the basis of why so many of those startups were in business and were funded was the wrong basis. They didn't have a long-term vision. Selling just to sell is not, not going to really help anybody except benefit those that make a lot of money. And then we had “dot-bomb,” it all fell apart.
I also think, you know, as an owner and over time learning this, I think all of our thinking evolves. It's just the most satisfying. Personally, professionally, health, healthfully, spiritually, whatever way you can think of us as people to know that the work that you're doing is helping. You're not hurting people. And obviously, mistakes happen every once in a while.
But the clients that we work with, I think we can serve more successfully, if we're values aligned, and have values aligned clients who we work with, as well as our employees, we're able to retain our employees because they really believe in the work that we do as well.
I think part of that too, in that evolution has been the pandemic and people really evaluating their life work balance and what do they want to do with this threat of all of our lives being upended and even being sick, not being able to work or even dying. A real evaluation of let's do things that help.
And this isn't just about making money. So I think that that's where we've landed and Landis, our agency, I consider to be values aligned. And I think we're able to benefit our clients, our employees, and also the community at large because we're serving the value of letting people know good things and opportunities for them and how we can make the planet a better place.Adrian McIntyre:
Sean, it's one thing to have clients whose business practices are aligned with their values and to have your firm align its practices with your values. What about when there's a mismatch between the two? I mean, I could think of some businesses whose values are very clear, and they're leading from them, but I find them reprehensible. How do you deal with those situations and how do you communicate about them so that your broader goal is being realized?Sean Dowdall:
Our thinking has changed over time around that, and I would say it's really from the beginning of establishing a client relationship. So part of our vetting process when we get prospects, and we're fortunate to get a really nice volume of prospects due to our own marketing of our agency, is to upfront identify not only can we do the work and that they have the budget, I mean, you have to pay for the services, but also that there's someone we want to work with and the values are aligned.
No company is perfect, but if their mission and vision, for instance, in the technology space, we've worked with a number of companies where they are there to develop the technology, to save lives, to prevent injuries, that's really valuable. Now, they may have a few things that happen in their corporate culture, An incident happens that you say, gee, that's less than ideal or the wrong way, admit it, deal with it, change the way you do business and move on.
And our role, I think, as PR professionals is to always just know the truth, validate the truth, develop the messaging and tell the story and strategically guide our clients when they're making decisions and the considerations that they're making, is this really fitting to, you know, your mission and vision, and also the damage or the benefit to the brand that you can do if you make decisions that aren't value aligned?Abbie Fink:
Well, and I think what's important in that part is that there are, there are things that we need in our communities, there are necessities, businesses that we need to do what they do. And so it is not, it all isn't necessarily have to be about the doing good for the community, but that your business operates in a way that is good in the community.
We still need certain types of businesses that may feel a little bit harder to say their value, their values, but yet we need them, but they're very conscious about what they're doing and how they're doing it and how they're bringing that information forward, which I think is where, you know, communications professionals asking those hard questions really helps a company, an organization, large or small, decide if they want to be a values-aligned company.
And as a business model for yourself, you know, we say this is what is important to us. This is our value. This is how we want to operate. Therefore, the types of organizations that we work with and we represent must think the same way as in I want a values-aligned company.
To Adrian's point, it doesn't necessarily have to be that we believe the same things, but more that we believe in each other and the impact that we're having on our community. I think the tough questions that you outlined here in terms of asking the potential client also has to be. You have to be willing to say this one isn't going to work for us doesn't mean they're a bad organization. It's just not going to work in our values aligned company to be a part of this particular process or this particular client.Sean Dowdall:
Right. I mean, there are really several things there. One is it's just not just the outcomes. It really is the strategy of the organization, their policies, both internal and external policies, their execution. They may be very values aligned, but their execution is messed up and ends up harming people. Well, that's a problem in their planning and their processes to really what their purpose of the company.
I think a great example is thinking about oil companies. The reality is we need oil companies. We need oil. We can't shut off using non-renewables tomorrow. It's a process.
But oil companies have, many have realized that they're in the energy business and oil is one of those sources and they recognize that they need to look at renewables and sustainable sources. That being said, you know, we as an agency would not represent an oil company because we don't feel that that is values aligned. However, what they are doing is very necessary and the way that they can do it can promote the most good as possible. as possible. I mean, there's definitely the need.
And how do you do it where you don't, you know, destroy more environmentally sensitive and necessary areas, or if you are in those areas, you do it as sustainably as possible. And then you continue to invest in their business to really understand and I think many of them do that eventually, oil isn't a century from now going to be business. It's going to be other sources of renewable energy and they should be making that transformation now.Abbie Fink:
You know, I do a lot of speaking, as many of us do, with college kids and one of their questions is always about, “would you represent a company that you don't believe in?” And then of course, even if they offer you a million dollars, and I think the answer is always the same, it's not really always about the money and it's about whether or not, you know, I can stand proudly next to them and say that I 100% believe in them and what they do and how they do it.
And I agree with you. There are certain businesses that just, they have to exist, but that doesn't mean that I have to be the one working with them. There are others that would do that and that's great. There's as many PR strategists out there as there are potential clients, and the right ones find each other. But I think from a business owner's perspective, that's such a critical part of making the decision to be a values-aligned company.
And whether we're talking about it from PR agency to potential client, or the client and the other providers that they bring along into their fold, the vendors and partners that they use, that the decision-making happens on a different level. It's not always directly related to the financial outcome, but really about the other things that you can't touch and feel about what we're doing in the community, and that's a tough line to hold.
I mean, it can be very tempting to compromise, but if you're going to be a values-aligned company, you have to stick to those values and hope that your, you know, your organizational structure focuses on that as well as the partners that you bring along with you.Sean Dowdall:
Yeah, exactly. You know, going back to someone starting out their career, the advice that I like to give is think of things that you love to do and in that category, hopefully those are values aligned to your values. And then the things that you're really good at. If you can find a position, a job, a volunteer, whatever that is that fits both of those criteria well, then you're really set up for success very well.
Now if you love something but aren't so good at it, but can be trained, that's another in. Now if it's something that you don't love, whether you're good at it or not, for me, you're really wasting your valuable time in your life regardless of the money and the opportunity. I mean, it would have to be something where the training is so good that you can do something that you really love. Also, I think maybe meet or to go allow that compromise in terms of your career.
Now for companies, again, nobody's perfect. You know, I think of when I started my career at Bank of America, a couple of the reasons I joined right out of college, one, they had an outstanding training program for bankers across the board, for any type of banker, from consumer, commercial, credit. It was really like going back to college.
Secondly, they had a huge international operations, and I studied for a year in Japan and wanted to live in Japan or Asia or somewhere else for at least part of my career. Well, B of A, Bank of America, notoriously had some issues in terms of companies and clients that it had some of its processes and procedures.
Every big company is going to have some things that people don't agree with. But what to the credit of Bank of America, At that time, the pressure was on for companies to de-invest in South Africa because of the horrific apartheid that it had for many decades. And finally, it came to a head to say that this has got to stop. And it was my early days in Bank of America where it de-invested in South Africa, would not do business with any South African companies. And I think that being part of the of the international pressure, economic and government pressure led to South Africa becoming a democracy and a free state and the ending of apartheid.
Bank of America is still not a perfect company, but by my tenure there, I felt good about the values that it did promote and trying to improve what it did to give fair access to credit, to financial literacy and financial services across the entire community.Adrian McIntyre:
Sean, as we wrap up this conversation, I'm wondering, from the perspective of an executive or business owner who's listening to this and thinking to herself, we are a values-aligned company, but I don't know that we've formalized that or that we've made that explicit in any way. Obviously, working with a communications professional's team to help refine that is important. How does that process play out? Do people come to you with this already established and enshrined in various sorts of documents and assets and other things, or is that something that you help them create? What does that actually look like?Sean Dowdall:
You know, the question isn't usually the entry question. Are we really doing everything in a values aligned, even though we believe we're a values aligned organization? Part of our process with a new client is doing research on the client and across the industry, looking at their communications, looking at the media and other things that they've either produced in content or have been written about them, and developing messaging. And part of that messaging is, you know, what are your mission, vision, values? And if they aren't articulated, to what extent can we have those articulated? You at least have to be ready to answer it when someone's asking.
And then also, what are your differentiators and who are your, why are you in business and who are you benefiting? You know, those things I think help uncover that answer to are we truly saying we're values aligned and are we values aligned? And again, I think this is an evolution for every company. Again, none are perfect, but a process of learning and improving and seeing that where the outcomes are great and it happened with great strategy and process, keep doing that. And then where things don't quite go the way you would like it to, learn from that and apply that learning to doing things differently and improving.Adrian McIntyre:
Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.Abbie Fink:
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