I can hardly believe I am writing a reflection on thirty years working at FleishmanHillard, as I prepare to retire from full time employment, but here goes…
In my life I have made two great, life-changing decisions. One of them was in 1987, when I took a call from a former colleague and friend in RTE, John Saunders, and agreed to join him at Pembroke PR as an Account Director. In truth, I had no real idea what was in store but US brewers Anheuser-Busch had just launched Budweiser in Ireland and John wanted me to work with him on their extensive sports sponsorship programme. It was too good an opportunity to miss and I jumped at the chance to do something different, after eight years as a sports journalist in RTE.
At the outset we worked with Anheuser-Busch’s PR company Fleishman Hillard, also headquartered in St. Louis. This gave us a glimpse of what a world class PR company looked like and, to cut a long story short, on November 1st 1990 Fleishman Hillard Saunders was born, with John Saunders as Managing Director and Rhona Blake and myself as Directors and Co-Founders.
It was a very different world in 1990. Tim Berners-Lee introduced us to something called the World Wide Web. The first text message was sent that year. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Margaret Thatcher resigned, and the Berlin Wall came down, leading to German reunification. Everton finished 6th in Division 1 of the English League, just behind Manchester City in 5th place.
In the office we were just getting used to a magnificent piece of technology called the fax machine; it was revolutionary! Despite this new technology we still relied on the bike courier to deliver our press releases to Independent Newspapers in Middle Abbey Street, the Irish Times in Westmoreland Street, the Irish Press on Burgh Quay and RTÉ out in Donnybrook. Apart from a few lifestyle and business magazines, that was about it. The care and attention that went into not just the writing of the release but its presentation – the layout and labels squarely set in the middle of the envelope – was a hallmark of the attention to detail everyone was expected to deliver, no exceptions.
“So, what are the other big changes you have seen over the years?” is a question I get asked as Fleishman Hillard in Dublin approaches its 30th anniversary. There are the obvious ones – the proliferation of publications, channels and platforms; the segmentation of audiences and the role of data have all created challenges, but more importantly they have provided huge opportunities for the PR profession. Which leads me directly to another big change I have seen in the past 30 years; the increased importance and relevance that our clients now attach to the PR function.
With this increased proliferation and subsequent greater democratisation of media, chief executives, marketing directors and other key C-suite decision makers have come to understand that the power of reputation. Now, it’s understood that what others say about you is as important, if not more important, than what you say about yourself, advertising in other words. What this has meant is that PR people are alongside the other communications disciplines from the outset in the decision-making process and the subsequent application of strategies to support that company’s business.
Another big change I have seen in the FH Dublin office parallels how Ireland has changed in the past 30 years. In 1990 Ireland was a relatively poor country by Western European standards, with low inward investment. Over the years that has been transformed. Today Ireland’s fortunes have been turned around with massive investment by a myriad of global companies; Apple, Intel, Pfizer, Google, Facebook, Medtronic, Microsoft, Twitter – the list goes on. Our food and dairy industry is a significant player across the world. Ireland is now a powerhouse, a hub for global business.
When we started out, we were fortunate that we had two international clients, Anheuser-Busch and Gillette (Gillette is still a client!) but the majority of our business was local clients and 100% of our business was focused on the Irish market. Today, that has all changed. FleishmanHillard Dublin is now a significant player in the global FH network. A significant proportion of our business is outwardly focused on markets across the world. FH Dublin is now a hub managing communications for global pharmaceutical, technology, retail, manufacturing and insurance companies. The opportunity to travel and work with colleagues across our global network is now an everyday occurrence. When I started, a trip to Cork was the best I could hope for. Twelve months ago I was working in Tel Aviv for a week!
Some things haven’t changed, and I doubt they ever will. The most obvious one for me is the requirement of good PR people to be able to write and to tell a story. That’s what we do; we tell stories on behalf of our clients. The only difference is the stories now get told on a wide variety of channels and platforms and new ones are emerging all the time. Consuming media, whether it is reading, listening or watching, is an essential for all aspiring PR people. We need to understand who is good in the media, why are they good, what interests them, what are the conversations that are taking place and is there a place for your client’s story in there? If I was to be critical, I would say that this is something young PR people are not doing enough of. For sure, they check in on the things that interest them, but they need to do more and expand their horizons.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is the great people that work in PR. From day one I have had the privilege and joy of working with some of the smartest, most dedicated and funniest people you could hope to meet. I have shared great times, happy times, sad times with hundreds of colleagues who have always inspired me, kept me real, kept me young and helped me develop into the person I am today. The one big thing I am going to miss is coming in each day and seeing friendly faces to work and have the chats with. To all of you, thank you.
Before I finish, I am going to leave you with three thoughts that I think good PR people should try and aspire to:
The first one is Stand for Something.
You will have heard the saying “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”. It is true. Don’t sit on the fence, inform yourself, have a viewpoint, you might be wrong – but at least stand for something.
The second is Don’t Stand Alone.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, no one is expected to know everything. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. I have had John and Rhona to support me along the way but I have also been really fortunate to have had Mark Mortell to guide me when I was unsure of the best direction to take. He has been a great friend and mentor. I am going to miss our chats. Thanks Mark.
The third one is Question Assumptions; Let Go.
Ask questions, all the time. Just because you did it that way last time it’s not necessarily the best way to do it this time. I am reminded of George Patten’s saying; “If everyone is thinking alike then someone isn’t thinking”. Be brave.
It has been a fantastic 30 years. If I hadn’t accepted that offer many years ago, I wouldn’t have had the amazing experience of working with two of my best friends, John Saunders and Rhona Blake. I can’t begin to tell you what John and Rhona have brought to my life. Professionally and personally, they have been by my side whenever I needed them and I am eternally grateful. Thank you, John and Rhona.
29th May 2020
In case you were wondering, that other great life changing decision I made was plucking up the courage to ask Mary Rooney to marry me. Thankfully she said yes but that’s another story and what a story it has been! Hopefully it has a long way to go yet!
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