How Professional Communicators Can Help Executives with Conversations about Diversity & Inclusion, Disinformation, and Civility - Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona

Episode 16

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Published on:

12th Oct 2021

How Professional Communicators Can Help Executives with Conversations about Diversity & Inclusion, Disinformation, and Civility

In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Michelle Olson, APR, chair of the Public Relations Society of America, the nation's leading professional organization serving the communications community. With nearly 30,000 members, PRSA is the principal advocate for industry excellence and ethical conduct and provides members lifelong learning opportunities and leading-edge resources to enhance professional connections and support them at every stage of their career.

Michelle began her tenure as national chair of PRSA in January 2021, having previously served on the national board of directors and as a leader at the chapter and regional levels. As chair, Michelle aims to help equip PR practitioners to identify and combat mis/dis/malinformation, break down barriers for diverse students and professionals to enter the industry, and set the tone for civil discourse across the country.

With more than 30 years in public relations and integrated marketing, Michelle has served clients across the U.S. and internationally, and has significant experience in corporate communications and issues management across industries. She is managing partner of Lambert, a full-service integrated communications firm with offices in Michigan, New York, Houston and Arizona. The nationally recognized firm works with clients ranging from global brands to emerging leaders in a variety of industries including automotive and mobility, consumer, education, financial, B2B, and food and beverage. Michelle leads the firm’s automotive and mobility practice.

PR News named Michelle to the 2020 and 2021 classes of the Top Women in PR. She was named one of Arizona’s Most Influential Women in Business by BizAZ Magazine in 2018 and in 2003, she received the Phoenix PRSA chapter’s prestigious PERCY Award for her achievements in the public relations industry. Michelle is a past chair of Counselors Academy, PRSA’s international section for agency owners and leaders and served for two years as an advisor and mentor to the organization’s nearly 10,000-member student body, PRSSA, providing counsel to its national committee.

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Additional Resources

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.  

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Arizona.

Transcript
Adrian McIntyre:

The professionals—a distinct class of people serving the world with unique skills, specialized knowledge and training, often certifications and qualifications, and in some cases, even licenses and accreditation. It’s a unique world. When it comes to communication and the media and public relations, there’s a whole interesting variety of folks who are considered PR and communications professionals. Our show today is going to explore that topic and take it in some interesting directions. Joining me, of course, is Abbie Fink, vice president, and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what’s on your mind?

Abbie Fink:

Well, Adrian, I just got back from two really incredible professional development conferences from an organization that I have belonged to since I was in college called the Public Relations Society of America. In both instances, I was among my peers. Those that have chosen this incredible career that I’ve had the fortune to work on for 30 plus years. And it struck me that the individuals here are very good at what they do, but they’ve taken this extra step to get connected to and participate in the professional association. The thing that provides us with professional development, access to information, keeps us really top of line on what’s happening in our industry and lucky for us here in Arizona, our national chair of the Public Relations Society of America resides right here in the Metro Phoenix area, just so happens to be a very good friend of mine. We met actually as a result of our membership in PRSA. So I thought it might be interesting to bring her on with us today, talk a little bit about PRSA and really what makes that organization what it is. And so it’s my distinct pleasure to welcome to the Copper State of Mind podcast, Michelle Olson. As I said, Michelle is based here in the Phoenix area. She is the managing partner of Lambert, which is an integrated communications firm with offices here in Arizona, but also Michigan, New York and Houston. As I said, we met close to 30 years ago through PRSA, but she has taken on the tremendous responsibility serving as national chair of PRSA, an organization that boasts of approximately 22,000 members across the US and Canada. It is my pleasure to welcome you, Michelle, to our show and have you chat with us a little bit about your path through PRSA and why you made that decision to put your whole self in and lead this organization that we all feel so strongly about.

Michelle Olson:

Abbie, thank you. Thanks for having me today. You illustrated in your one sentence, that I met you through PRSA, the one reason why I’ve put my whole self in. I didn’t just meet you. I was in Minnesota and was a member of the Minnesota chapter of PRSA when I decided I was cold and wanted to move to Phoenix. The first thing I did was go to a PRSA meeting and there you were waiting with open arms and welcoming this girl who had no idea, one, anything about the business landscape in Phoenix and two, didn’t know anyone. And that’s the power of PRSA and other organizations, I think. No matter where you go, if you’re a member of an organization, there’s probably a chapter or a division of it in the state that you’re going or in the city that you’re going to, and you’ll find your people there. I think that just that community, that really tight knit, even though it’s 20 plus thousand people plus all of the students that we mentor daily, the PRSSA students. No matter where I go, I can call someone say, even before I was chair, “Hi, it’s Michelle Olson. I’m a member of PRSA. I have a question about X. I see you do that. Will you talk to me for five minutes?” And every single time they will say yes. Every single time.

Adrian McIntyre:

Now, Michelle, I have a question for you that I really want to get out of the way so that we can talk about the substantive stuff here. But for folks who are listening to this show who are not professional communicators, their vision of what a PR expert might be is shaped by some combination of Mad Men, Flack or some other kind of TV show. How would you characterize for the non-PR professionals in our audience? How would you describe the work of the members of PRSA? Who are they? How do they serve the communities that they live and work in? How would you describe it? So we can kind of put that stereotype behind this.

Michelle Olson:

Don’t forget Samantha Jones in Sex and the City as another one of those not-so-good role models for people coming into public relations. I would describe the work that we do in public... When you’re a public relations professional, you’re a communicator for your organization. You are the person who is the moral compass. You are representing that organization to whatever publics and helping to manage its reputation through various tactics. But when you think about that professional as a whole, they’re the person who’s guiding the external and internal reputation of the company through the work that they do. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do events, or we don’t deal with media relations. We do all of those things, but those are really tactical executions of the main goal, which is really just being that conduit from the organization to the publics they serve.

Abbie Fink:

And really serve would you say in a strategic advisory role? We bring to the table an objective opinion about what direction an organization may be going in, how to take the larger business goals and manage that within the context of communications and how effective communications guides that business objective. I think when we talk a lot about the role that... As agency leaders, we have clients, we have staff, we have other things that we do, but generally speaking, whether you’re an in-house communications professional, or you’re external, being hired in to provide those services, it’s really about advising and guiding and counseling and being confident in sharing those opinions with the executive leadership and recognizing what potential outcomes might be based on decisions that we’re making.

Michelle Olson:

100%, Abbie. I think the way that most communicators are wired and the role that we have, we listen differently than our C-suite executives might, our counterparts, our CEO, CFO, COO. And we’re wired into the community in a different way. So we’re able to advise them because we hear things differently than they hear them. They might have an issue that they’re dealing with internally or with a union or with someone on Capitol Hill. We’re hearing things from the community specifically tied to how they might want to communicate that. So we are their strategic advisors. We can guide them how to address those issues, because we’re listening from a different viewpoint.

Adrian McIntyre:

Michelle, I love that you said that because I think there’s a misunderstanding sometimes that a professional communicator is going to be good at the talking, the writing, the outwardly directed communication. You hire us spokesperson, or you hire someone to train your spokesperson, et cetera, et cetera. But listening is the primary skill in communication and being a communications professional means that you are, in fact, a highly developed listener. That you have better sources of information, you have more of them, and you have a critical way to engage with the listening first. That is an invaluable contribution to any organization whose focus might be a little more narrow. It might be a little bit more directed at their industry vertical or their specific peer set or something. So it really does enrich the creation of communication campaigns that do the talking, and the picturing, and the showing of things. What are your thoughts on listening as an essential skill in communication?

Michelle Olson:

I think that if anything the last 20 months or so has showed us, it’s that we need to pay attention to what’s happening outside our walls. And it’s not a campaign to communicate what the company necessarily wants to say, because the company is selling a widget. It is listening to what’s happening in the communities and knowing where the place of the company should be in that conversation. So we can’t know all the conversations that are going on around us, unless we’re present in the right places. Having a communications team is ideal. If you have a communicator—some companies or organizations just have one person and report right to the CEO, which is wonderful—but they need to be in the right places at the right time and hear what’s going on so they can advise their leader on actions to take. I say this frequently, and I wish I didn’t have to, but there are still companies who don’t invite us communicators to be alongside the leadership team. And the leadership team makes decisions that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the community or of the company, because they’re not hearing something that’s going on outside the walls. And then we play pooper scooper. We’re the ones who then get in and try to clean up what the issue might be and that doesn’t put the company in a good spot, it doesn’t put the communicator in a good spot, and it doesn’t really represent the reputation of the organization very favorably. We like to be alongside the person so that we can help align the values of the company with the needs of the community or their audiences in general. I mean, we’re in a place right now as a society, I think, where organizations are being asked to take a stand. They’re being asked to get involved in the big issues of the day, when that was necessarily not done before, or it wasn’t invited, or companies stayed away from the hot topics. We’re not going to get involved in diversity. We’re not going to get involved in name your big issue of the day. But audiences are requiring that now of their companies. Customers want it, shareholders want it, employees want to know what the stand of a company might be, and it’s our job as communicators to help them share that.

Abbie Fink:

That’s really been an evolution, I think. Well, certainly in the last 18 to 20 months, we’ve watched that happen, but I think it’s fair to say in the last five years, eight years where who we are is more than just the product that we’re putting out. There are human beings behind all that, and we have an opportunity and we have an obligation to stand for something and to comfortably be willing to share that and stand up for whatever that might be. In some cases, you’re on the right side of a particular subject, and other times, you may be on the less favorable side. As you said, their internal audiences are requiring it. Certainly, their other stakeholders within their business structure are saying, “We can’t just stand idly by and do nothing on whatever the topic might be.” I know that a lot of these topics that have resonated over the last handful of months were things that you were ruminating about an end were putting forth as you were making your ascension to the national chair position. You’ve been very outspoken on several issues that became really your platform for what you were going to guide through on your year as chair. And certainly, global pandemic wasn’t at the top of the list, but it forced some other things maybe to take front and center. Can you talk a little bit about from that national perspective as chair of the PRSA, as well as a practitioner and someone that’s guiding clients on those topics. What’s really been your observation in those issues that have been, from a communications perspective, so important for us to be paying attention to.

Michelle Olson:

I want to talk first about diversity equity and inclusion, and not just in communications where it’s vitally important, but in the world in general. I think last year in 2020, if we were handed a perfect storm of a lot of things all at once. I mean, with the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and all of the Breonna Taylor, all of the folks that we now know their names and say their names and they’re part of our history. It really brought to the forefront, the issue that had been percolating for, I don’t know, 200 years. I mean, a long, long, long time. I think that that was the gift that it happened. It was terrible. The way people were talking to each other was terrible. The things that happened that a man had to die. But the fact that we saw that man die on a video as shared, I think it really opened people’s minds to the inequity that people of color face. And so at PRSA, we had long had a diversity, equity and inclusion committee, and that committee had been working on a strategic plan for a couple of years and how to diversify the ranks. So take our then 25,000 members which is 72% white and try to bring it closer to the... I keep saying, let’s get it closer to the 2020 census, which is almost 50% white and 50% other races and ethnicities and PRSA is not that way. The industry is not that way. So the board came together after the murder of George Floyd and really held the D&I Committee to a higher standard and said, “We’ve been working in little baby steps and making some inroads with HBCUs, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and with students and bringing them into our ranks. What else can we do to make this happen faster? What can we do to really, really double down on our commitment to break down barriers for people of color who want to be communicators?” Those rich storytellers and those writers and those people that are really good at what we do. We want them. We want them as students, we want them as young professionals, we want the sage professionals and what they’ve brought. Because it makes us all better. When we come from a place of diverse backgrounds in an organization, and we’ve all had different experiences, we can speak better to different audiences because culturally, and this Abbie with your work with the Native American tribes in Arizona. Culturally, you know what to say, because you understand where they’re coming from. And so PRSA really doubled down on our commitment to changing our ranks, but also in how to speak and how to use pronouns and how to keep moving in a direction that would be more inclusive. So changing, for example, one of our clients during that time last summer was going through value. They were rewriting their values and organizing their values in a different way. They brought me into that meeting and they said, “We want our values to be more inclusive of different races, different ethnicities, LGBTQ, and how can we do that?” They put the values out to one of their Black ERG, and said, “Help us with this.” The Black ERG came, the head of it came and said, “These are fine because look at these circle words that we have here. This is inclusive. This really means everybody. This is for all, and he didn’t change a word.” And then I stood up and said, “No, there are so many easy ways that you can just change the language so that when somebody who’s looking for a job at this company, or someone already employed there or a vendor who wants to support that company would feel more included. And so PRSA took that kind of an attitude with a toolkit and created what we’re calling Voices4Everyone to give everyone an opportunity to share, but Voices4Everyone, and really dove into creating a diversity and inclusion toolkit and revised it to also include allyship and how companies can create a more welcoming environment. And all white companies can break down barriers and be more welcoming to people of color. Just a small part of a bigger campaign, but we were trying to not only advocate for the profession, but also provide tools that professionals needed for free. You don’t have to be a member of PRSA to get these tools. So that professionals could have the resources that they need to communicate through a pandemic, to communicate through a social injustice. To communicate through an insurrection and all of the things that we never thought that we would have to deal with that we do have to deal with. So there are four pillars in this campaign and one of them is diversity and inclusion, and there’s a beautiful toolkit that I encourage everyone. It’s vvoices4everyone.prsa.org. Go in and download the D&I toolkit. It’s updated every year. It’s really a rich resource. So diversity and inclusion and then dis-, mis-, and mal-information. I mean, how many of us have been punked by a misinformation thing that we’ve inadvertently shared on social media, or that we’ve reacted to somebody who’s sharing disinformation and it made us really angry and we had to share it right away saying, “Can you believe this? Look at what they’ve done.” And that we wanted to give communicators a tool so that they can not only stop the spread of disinformation, but show how damaging it could be, and then give them tools so that they could inoculate their minds and strike out against disinformation. So one of the pillars is disinformation. The other completely related is civility and really helping communicators understand that we don’t have to disagree in an uncivil way. We can agree to disagree, but that we’re still friends at the end of it. And giving people tools to just have that public debate and a healthy public discourse on opposing viewpoints without it becoming hate and striking out and hurting people. And so those three pillars are the most robust pillars on this Voices4Everyone platform. And then the last one is civic engagement, which was created during an election year that was not very civil. The civic engagement and how you become involved in your community, it’s still evolving, but it’s a lot of corporate social responsibility and how you can be an active member of your community.

Adrian McIntyre:

Now, I want to play devil’s advocate for just a second, because while I wholeheartedly believe in the vital importance of everything that you just said, that we must do better by being more open, more engaging, et cetera. We must be more inclusive that the privilege, which is invisible to those of us who are privileged, must be broken down to make it more just and equitable world. I’m onboard with all of it. And yet what you’re talking about here is hard. It may even be expensive. Organizations may need to restructure everything from pay scales, to pathways, to executive leadership, communicate. Let’s just take the simple act of communicating a message in this environment when the multiplicity of audiences is expecting to be communicated with in different way, which means the creation, the design of that strategy and the content, the creative elements of it must be multiplied. We don’t live in a world anymore where there’s only three channels and you can run one commercial on all three and expect to get a return on your investment. So the devil’s advocate part of me is to say, okay, but how can we... I mean, aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, how can companies, organizations actually do this? We can agree it’s the right thing to do, but how should they do it and how do they justify the expense and the hardship and all the rest? How do they do all that?

Michelle Olson:

For some companies, they’ve been down this path long before we were, and some companies are just getting started thanks to the events of last year. I applaud both of them. I applaud the companies that have taken baby steps and have had these candid meetings to really talk about how people of color may have been treated and they didn’t realize it and to show where the inequities were. They are really hard conversations. What we’ve been teaching our clients is let’s start with an unconscious bias training. Let’s at the very critical level of your own brain acknowledge that we all come into this world with bias. We were all raised differently. We talked about that before we went live. It’s like, I’m from Minnesota, you’re from California. We had much different shopping experiences, much different the way we were raised. I didn’t have an ocean. You might take that for granted when I still called to it. The bias that we face is real, no matter where we are. I didn’t know because I have a lot of Black friends, and we’re 40% Hispanic in Phoenix. So we’ve got this United Nations community here and I take for granted the experiences that my Black and Asian and Hispanic and Native American friends have had, that’s different than my experience. And for those of you who don’t know me, I’m a white woman with blonde hair from Minnesota. I’m very light skinned. I didn’t understand that I had privilege. And then I read White Fragility and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, the experience that they carry with them because of the color of their skin, every single day is just different than I am.” It was a friend of mine in PRSA that I had lunch with years and years ago. The waitress talked to me and there was a Black woman, my age, super attractive, super confident, super all of the things that you would want one of your good friends to be, not that you want your good friends to be attractive, but you know what I mean? She’s wonderful. And the waitress was talking to me and said, “Well, what would she like?” And I said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?” And then she and I kept having our conversation. We were talking about kids. So we were into this conversation and the waitress looked at me and looked at her and then she spoke up and said what she wanted. And I’m like, “That was weird. That waitress must be having a bad day.” We kept on with our conversation. When George Floyd was murdered, I called her and I said, “I think I understand that day that we had lunch years ago and we were laughing at the woman that wouldn’t talk to you and thought she was just having a bad day, and she would only talk to me. It’s because I’m white, isn’t it?” And she said, “Michelle, it took you five years, but you finally got there.” So even that kind of an experience, we need to see that in our companies. We need to see that when there’s tokenism and when there’s the putting someone on the team because you need to check a box. That’s not the way that it should be. It’s the way it is in some places. So that unconscious bias training is just a really great place to start not from a communication standpoint, but just from level setting the value of the company. And it’s cheap. It doesn’t cost much. If anything, I think we’ve got trainers through PRSA that could do it for free just because it’s the right thing to do. My agency is still largely white. We have invested and have a job posted right now for DE&I vice president. Super high level, sit on the leadership team to help us with all of the training and to dive into these areas that we haven’t had the resources to get into before. So we are investing in a way that we probably hadn’t considered before a couple of years ago, and it’s just making us better because then we’re attracting the right talent. So if you look at the economic influence of having a diverse workforce, you’re going to make more money, you’re going to be more relevant, you’re going to understand your community better and it’s more than just the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do is to be inclusive of all races in America. We are a melting pot. We’ve been a melting pot for hundreds of years, except that there are some people that want to protect the Western European roots, the people that came here first year, hundreds of years ago, but we are a melting pot and we need to communicate freely to all of the people that live here in the way that they consume information. In the Southwest, that means translating some things into Spanish because of our heritage and there are 40% Hispanic and Latinx. People who live here and we want to. They’ve got a lot of economic impact and it is the right thing to do. So companies can take little baby steps and then they can dive in deeper. The toolkit that we have on the PRSA Voices4Everyone website will help guide a little bit in some of those baby steps, but having professional development within organizations doesn’t cost very much. If anything, there are so many organizations that will just come in and help and do it for free. I hope that answered your question.

Abbie Fink:

It did, and I think one of the things that struck me during this conversation is just get started somewhere. We have to acknowledge that we are in this place right now. We cannot not be talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Whatever that’s going to look like, we have to start somewhere. I go back a ways in PRSA when the DE&I... It was probably just D&E at that point. Diversity and equality I think is what it was, but we talked a lot about that check the box, kind of thinking, and how are we going to create a diverse workplace? Well, we have to recruit from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, so we can get... We had a path we thought, and then I think what the last 18 months has told us is it’s much more than that, this idea of diversity, equity and inclusion. I think that it’s uncomfortable and it’s tough conversations and I think no one knows what to yet with it all and even with a position like hiring a VP for DE&I. It’s a new created position. We have to create what it’s going to look like we’re writing job descriptions. What does it look like? How is it going to operate? But it’s the starting, that’s the hard part and I think once we do that, and I’m in this place right now, especially on the DE&I component is I think we still have a long ways to go, but we are addressing the “D” part and we are definitely addressing the “E” part. It’s the “I” that I’m still concerned about, the inclusiveness, because so much of our diversity and our equity is not what we can physically see. There are other elements of diversity and equality that we need to consider. We’ll get there too, but I think this is an ongoing process, and a platform like Voices4Everyone that is regularly being contributed to. And conversations like we’re having here today and the sessions that we’ve been attending through PRSA and other organizations that are continually having us have these conversations is so critically important. If we make this assumption as professional communicators, that part of our responsibility is to guide and advise. And Adrian, as you said, is to listen all of that factors in to this idea of creating a more diverse and equitable and inclusive workplace and businesses that we do business with, we will hold them to a higher standard. We will ask those questions. We will require them to have representation in this way and I’m hoping this is just the... Although we feel we’ve started this conversation multiple times before, I think as you said, we were at a crossroads in the perfect storm that created this heightened sense of this conversation. And you cannot go anywhere now without it being part of the dialogue and really a requirement for moving forward has to address these kinds of things. As a 30 plus member of PRSA, I think this is really one of the first initiatives that really speaks to our entire membership, but ultimately to the entire profession, whether they’ve chosen to become a member of PRSA or not. It’s really one of the first things and maybe one of the only things that has looked at it as a whole and said, “We have a responsibility and there is no one like us better equipped to have these difficult conversations, because we are the professional communicator.” As you said, we listen to things differently. We hear things differently. We respond differently and there may not be anyone within an organization, more qualified to begin those difficult conversations and force the conversation to happen than your professional communicator.

Adrian McIntyre:

I really like the idea of raising the bar on the expectations and communicating openly about these expectations with clients and saying our firm, our agency, or if you’re a solo practitioner, my operation is committed to these things, and we ask our clients to respond to that, elevate what they’re doing, et cetera. I think the same should also be true that I think companies and nonprofits, government agencies who are looking to hire professional communicators should be, and maybe you already are asking them to meet a higher standard on diversity, equity and inclusion, and in many different ways, in many different vectors. Let’s end our conversation by shifting the focus to those that hire the professional communicators and talk a little bit from the PRSA perspective or the communication PR firm perspective about what a company, what an organization should be looking for in 2021 when they need some additional support. When they have a campaign they want to hire for, when they want to bring someone on for a long-term relationship. Through the lens of what you’ve just said, Michelle, whether it’s the diversity and inclusion part, the dis-. mis- and mal-information part, all the rest. How does a company that has a need for additional communication capacity, whether it’s media relations, or content creation, or any of the many, many, many different skillsets that a professional firm could provide them? How should they be vetting their potential agencies? What should they be looking for these days? Talk a little bit about from the PRSA point of view, whether it’s accreditation or these diversity kind of measures. What should a company look for when they hire someone like the PR professionals?

Michelle Olson:

They should look for HMA, Public Relations and Lambert. No, I’m kidding.

Abbie Fink:

I think that’s a great place to end the conversation. [laughs]

Michelle Olson:

I wanted to say one thing before that. The diversity, equity and inclusion conversation is messy. Making these steps in the right direction can be painful, and it is messy and mistakes will be made. Work through them. It is worth it. It will be absolutely worth it. People, if we come to the table, assuming good intent, assuming that people are trying to do the right thing for all people and that we are breaking down barriers and we are looking equitable lives for all of us. I think that there’s a lot of grace that can take us a long way. So I wanted to say that because it’s messy. It’s hard, but it’s the right thing to do. So hiring managers when... Two different things that you laid down there, Adrian. How to bring in somebody into your organization as a communicator. So talking to those hiring managers, I’m on this kick lately that I want hiring managers, particularly when they’re looking for a senior advisor, senior public relations or communicator to come in, that they’re asking for them to have a professional designation or a professional membership. Have them be a member of PRSA or IABC or AMA any of them, because what it does is it brings that practitioner up a level. You’re sharing best practices. You’re aware of the trends. Think and you’ve got the resources of lots of people to bounce things off of. You’ve got a network that’s thousands of people and you can find expertise everywhere. So I think that they should look for people who have been active members in associations. And then selfishly, I think that they should be accredited. You mentioned accreditation and I’m accredited, Abbie is not. I think that we have taken, it’s a personal choice. I got mine when I still had time to do things like study. Now we’re older, we don’t have time, but I want... Abbie is smarter than me in almost every way. It’s not that, it’s a test that we’ve taken. So I want hiring managers to ask for either an accreditation or a membership, because it shows that you have put more into your professional development. You’ve put more into your networking and that you abide by a code of ethics. I think that that’s where we should start. There’s a push pull on the accreditation thing. I want folks to take the test and to become accredited, but they are reticent because employers aren’t asking for it. And then on the agency side, it’s the same thing. Like having a breadth of knowledge and background in areas that your company is interested in. What your industry is, look for somebody with industry knowledge, but also look for a diverse workforce because they will come to the table thinking differently about your work. Then if the agency has a diverse workforce and diverse perspectives, it’ll bring new ideas, it will bring a different approach to what you may have been doing for a really long time. One of our clients hired us specifically for an industry that we had no experience in. They looked for an agency that wasn’t going to bring a depth of knowledge in their industry because they wanted different ways of thinking about something. So that was new to me. We as agency people, we tout our industry expertise because there’s a level of depth there and we can have better relationships with the media. We know the jargon, we can get through an acronym, SUP, we can do all of that, but they were really looking for someone that brought a consumer perspective to a B2B brand. And so it’s really across the board. Inevitably, you’re looking for that relationship with the people you’re working with. So it comes down to having a deep and meaningful trust with your agency, having a level of commitment to each other and not treating that relationship like a vendor relationship, but like a partnership. Abbie will walk into a room and she will be all in counseling clients as if it was her own company, if it was her own budget and that’s what you want in your agency relationship.

Adrian McIntyre:

Abbie, you certainly are known in our market and in many others as someone who has led many of these initiatives whether they have initials at the end of the thing or not. You’ve been working in the field and on many topics, you are known as a trusted advisor. This podcast walks a fine line because on the one hand, we’re trying to provide expert advice and perspectives to people who could hire a firm like yours, but at the same time you’re approaching it just like Michelle said, as you’re walking into the room as if it was already your job to provide the best advice and perspectives, whether they hire you or not. How do you answer the question, what should companies look for these days in 2021? And not just the skillsets. I think increasingly these skillsets, while there’s certainly experience in executing them, the skills themselves are becoming much more widely available as the democratization of technology and communication makes many more people these days expert communicators than they were before. They had smartphones that they could take pictures and videos and write on. How do you advise a company to vet a firm through the lens of what we’ve been talking about? Diversity, equity and inclusion, expertise, et cetera.

Abbie Fink:

It’s interesting because one of the things I will say when I’m having conversations with prospective clients is truthfully, there are many, many very, very talented communications professionals here in the Phoenix market, regionally that can do the job and I can list them all off for you and tell you that you will be in really good hands with any of those individuals. But the person or the agency that you hire is more than just the skills they bring to the table. It is about their passion for the work. It is about culture fit. Do you see me sitting beside your CEO and allowing them to listen to me and me to listen to them about what’s happening and bringing a true sense of ownership. I think Michelle feels the same way. Our clients are our clients, but there’s more to that relationship than just providing service. We are truly invested in their success as we hope that we develop their feeling for us as well. So there are many ways to evaluate the agency that you choose to hire, and you should be asking those questions, those hard questions about their commitment to DE&I, their commitment to the community, their commitment to professional development and continuing education. Do members of their staff have an accreditation from their professional association? Do members of their staff have master’s degrees or PhDs or other things that would help you set them apart from others? And the bottom line for me is, again, many of us can provide that work, but this is an investment. Your business is making an investment in your brand, in your reputation and how your stakeholders see you. You’re trusting this advisor to be that voice for you. We all can do news releases, we all can run social media campaigns, but it’s the other, maybe that intangible part that really makes that relationship. I think that these sticky uncomfortable conversations are going to become more and more prevalent. Michelle, I think you’ll agree in our new business pitches, I had to answer the question the other day about a very culturally sensitive topic and how would I handle it? And I handle crisis communications all the time. That was a very specific and very direct response that they were looking for. I’m okay with that. I want to be challenged, and I want to have to think differently about where I’m headed. Our industry continues to evolve and what we do and how we counsel and how we advise becomes less and less about the tactics and more about how those tactics are deployed and the impacts that they’re going to have and what the potential challenges might be and what our approach is. That’s the kind of counselor that you want to have as part of your team, whether you hire them externally as an agency, or you bring them in-house is someone that thinks that way, listens differently, and acts in a way that puts your business in line with the way that they want to be seen. It’s their reputation is equally as important as your reputation, and they see it as one and the same.

Michelle Olson:

Exactly, because we’re in the background. When we’re doing our job well as an agency, often no one knows we’re there because we shine through our clients. That’s what I want, unless it’s a crisis and we become the spokesperson and that’s completely what we do as well, but I want my client to shine it to their boss, and of course validate our invoices, but...

Abbie Fink:

Well, this was an incredible conversation today. Michelle, I am so grateful for spending so much time with us and sharing your insights, not only from a practitioner and as someone that is doing this work for clients around the country, but also representative of our industry on a national basis through Public Relations Society of America. It is always interesting for me to have conversations like this, that rise above again, the tactics, and really get more into the strategic thinking and really what we bring as strategic counselors and advisors in the communications industry and what we do and how we can advise our clients is so critical. I think these conversations are such, and we are so grateful that you spent that time with us this afternoon. I wish you continued success in the rest of your term and hope that you’ll join us again when you have a little more free time and you can look back on the past year and pat yourself on the back and say, you’ve done a job well-done. I appreciate your time today.

Michelle Olson:

Abbie, thank you. Adrian, thank you. It’s been a fun conversation.

Show artwork for Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona

About the Podcast

Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona
Public relations, media, and marketing strategies for communicating effectively in today’s business climate from Abbie Fink of HMA Public Relations, Arizona’s longest-tenured PR agency.
Copper State of Mind is a public relations podcast for Arizona executives, business owners, and directors of marketing and communications who want to increase the effectiveness of their PR, media, and marketing campaigns.

From messaging and media relations to content strategy and crisis management, the dollars your organization spends on integrated marketing communications are an investment that helps boost your brand, break through the noise, and drive business results.

Join Abbie Fink, Vice President/General Manager of HMA Public Relations, and Dr. Adrian McIntyre, cultural anthropologist and storytelling consultant, as they explore today’s communications challenges and share insights, stories, and strategies to help your message reach its target audience.

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications agency in Phoenix and the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. With more than 40 years of experience helping clients tell their stories, HMA Public Relations is committed to your success. Learn more at https://hmapr.com

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, AZ. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Abbie S. Fink

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Abbie S. Fink is Vice President/General Manager of HMA Public Relations, the oldest continuously operating PR firm in Arizona. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, 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. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.