Dave Senay: Behavior drives Reputation

Posted: May 27, 2014 by jennroig in English, Interviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Dave Senay is the CEO of FleishmanHillard, one of the most relevant Communications firms in the USA, and the world. Its portfolio includes corporate clients and government institutions. It was recently named Large Agency of the Year at the 2014 PRWeek Awards.

Dave Senay, FleishmanHillard CEO

Dave Senay, FleishmanHillard CEO

A few weeks ago, I found on my LinkedIn feed an ad to a webinar about effective workplaces, sponsored by FleishmanHillard. He was the main keynote speaker. So I reached out to their team to ask for an interview.

I haven’t met Senay face to face, but from our conversation over the phone I could tell he is a seasoned communicator, a cut-to-the-chase with strong commonsense kind of guy. Even though this could sound at odds with the image we all have about PR people with their perennial smiles and uncontested diplomacy, it would be nice to think that a PR firm is led by someone so refreshingly straightforward.

Any case, these are Dave Senay’s answers to my questions. This is the unedited, English version of the interview published in Spanish by AmericaEconomia.

Fleishman Hillard has built a solid reputation as global communications firm. But this is a time of change and uncertainty. What are the biggest challenges that a company in service of other company’ image, brand and reputation is facing and will need to address in the near future?

In the old days, you could organize around brands and organize around reputation separately, because they tended to be governed by different audiences. That is no longer the case. Brand and reputation are now working together inextricably. You cannot separate those two.
Therefore organizations have to reflect that in how they arrange their functions. Agencies like ours have to react by developing new skillsets that help clients maximize the interplay between brand and reputation.

Previously, what was a brand? It was a promise. It was what we said about ourselves, what we broadcast out there, what we promise to do. It sets an expectation.

What’s reputation? It’s what others say about you. That is usually based on their experience. Today you could be in the most remote part of the world and have an experience with a brand. If that experience doesn’t match your expectation, what the brand promised, what are you going to do? You are going to do what we all do today: that is share the experience with hundreds, if not millions of followers through shared media.

Suddenly the brand experience becomes a reputation experience. Nothing happens today without someone talking about it or sharing it. This is why reputation drives so much purchase consideration. That’s really at the heart of our business today. Of course the accelerator of all this, the thing that has lit the fire is social media, the ability to share, to publish, to critique anything at anywhere at anytime. In summary, that is the number one challenge.

Others would say we are in an era of great transparency. That’s true. There’s nothing that happens that someone won’t eventually find out. Telling the truth, behaving ethically and honorably, delivering on the promises, it is the number one guarantee in Public Relations.

Public Relations is not the solution for unsupportable behavior.

Technology is changing the way a company interacts with stakeholders. With so many venues and platforms both offline and online, how can a company reach coherence in the way its brand and identity are communicated?

There are some structural changes occuring in corporate America. I would say there’s quite a movement to plant all communications, including PR, under the wings of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

In the all days the Chief Communications Officer (CCO) would be the top corporate communications person reporting to the CEO. Many argue that he/she still should. But the CMO seems to have become the one winning the battle of creating that coherence.

It all starts with a very good understanding of the identity of the company, the corporate character. Everything tends to spring from there.
We’ve created a model that it is called the authenticity gap. It measures nine drivers of reputation and brand, by industry, by company and by country.

You’ll see the public has certain expectations along those nine drivers. For example, innovation, treating employees well, performing consistently, taking care of the environment.

You can compare what consumers are experiencing versus what they expect. We call that distance between expectation and experience, the authenticity gap. Now that we have tools, I think organizations can’t help the interrelation between reputation and brand. This is important because we are learning that reputation issues drive purchase, more than anybody ever thought.

With so many digital/social platforms, associates, clients and allies who are all senders and receivers or information. How are these media changing the way employers communicate with staff and stakeholders worldwide?

In the old days it was all push. We were pushing messages, sometimes in the most unwelcomed way. We were interrupting people’s lives when they didn’t want to be interrupted.

As well, on earlier days there were fewer touch points. My father read the morning paper when he got up, he might have listened to the radio while driving in the car, at his work he probably talked to few people, and then over the phone maybe to five people all day, then he came home and listened to the radio and maybe the evening news.

Today, you are choosing between a tidal wave of interaction opportunities. The way that you interact is very special to you. Only you interact with media the way you do. I call it the media consumption fingerprints. Everyone has their own media consumption fingerprint.

The idea isn’t to put a target on your back and hunt you down and harpoon you with messages you don’t want. The idea is to understand you so well that I can show up where you are showing up, so you can discover me as part of your life in a way that is timely, personal, relevant, useful, credible, and even entertaining. If our marketing does that, they are going to be a success.

We have the technology today to be able to reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, with any message through any channel. And this is a very important point for a company like ours. Once we have the story, the message, at the very end of the process, we are deciding the media mix. We include earned media, shared media -which is very much a cousin of earned media, much more in PR because it is about dialogue and relationships, not monologue and transactions. But we also use paid media.

This is shocking to some people, that PR firms are using more and more paid media. The reason isn’t that we want to become advertising agencies: we don’t. We think advertising agencies models are broken. We will use paid media if it makes sense to match up with the media consumption model of our audience.

With such fragmented audiences and so many media choices, how do you make sure to be at the right place at the right time? Do firms need to be ubiquitous? Is it about keeping up with research, or technology, or both? How to make sure you are reaching out to the right public?

Do you remember the fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel? They went out to the woods and dropped stones on the ground… Well, all of us are leaving our footprints, all of us are leaving little stones on the ground.

We have invested millions of dollars in analytical procedures and people and software and hardware. They data is available today to understand precisely that. Not just what you want, but how it should be delivered to you, with what tone, with what length, at what time of day…

We have a great tool that we call the six Ts, those Ts relate to something like tone, timing, and so forth. We can optimize all of our online communications by understanding the most preferred and welcomed ways for individuals or groups to receive our messages. Even though it sounds like an impossibly large task, the data and the analytics we have today and the ability to crush that data makes it easier and available to great marketers to truly understand the behaviors of their audiences.

From your perspective, what are the main mistakes or problems that companies fall into when communicating their image and reputation?

First and foremost, leadership in this industry requires to be a great deal of focus on the character of the company. The world will want and reward companies that do well and play fair. The world will not reward companies that did not play fair, or which have flawed processes that appear to the public as been uncaring. All this is to say that companies need to align their business objectives to those in society. They need to do so in a way that’s very transparent and understandable.

In communication, and this is one of the great myths, you cannot communicate yourself out of something you behaved yourself into.

If your company has polluted a river, or if it has sold faulty products that don’t work, medicines that hurt people, then you are not going to be able to use communications to wipe wash behaviors like that. Everyone today talks about loss of control, the one place you can control communications is how your corporation behaves. Behavior drives communications.

Long before you get out the press release, or the blog post, or the tweet, you really have to think clearly about how the company works together in a way that is beneficial to society.

I’ve given a number of speeches on this topic of corruption and ethics. The short speech here is that corrupted and unethical business models are not sustainable. Eventually they collapse.

In China they are cracking down on corruption, because they know corruption leads to shortcuts, to food that isn’t healthy, medicines that don’t work, cars that don’t run, electricity that doesn’t work. All because somebody paid somebody off. All that will lead to civil unrest and nobody wants that.

The single biggest issue is to operate as a company in private the way you want people to perceive you in public.

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