Wednesday 12 December 2018

Pitch perfect: PR boss focusing on team-building

Reputations Agency founder Niamh Boyle has found concentrating on staff as well as clients is vital in a fast-moving industry

Diversified: Reputations Agency founder Niamh Boyle says it doesn’t pay to concentrate on just one sector.
Diversified: Reputations Agency founder Niamh Boyle says it doesn’t pay to concentrate on just one sector.
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

The internet is changing a lot of industries - and causing workers in those industries a lot of pain.

Print journalism is an obvious example, but the effects are profound too on public relations, the "other side of the fence" when it comes to communications.

Social media has given everyone with an internet connection a similarly powerful platform, and that can have profound consequences for a company's reputation.

That's where Niamh Boyle and the firm she runs, The Reputations Agency, come in.

PR is a crowded space in Ireland and firms need to stand out. Where some firms may focus on particular sectors, on boosting a brand or on crisis communications, Boyle's unique selling point is a very granular focus on the concept of reputation - measuring it at first using analytical tools, building strategies to enhance it, and linking it to the achievement of business goals..

What, though, about the reputation of her own industry? Ask someone on the street to name a PR person and the name they'll probably give is Alastair Campbell, commonly portrayed as a sort of bogeyman, a master of the dark art of 'spin'.

Boyle says however that she won't work with someone if it involves "defending the indefensible".

"We were invited recently to meet and give our credentials to an organisation...and at the end of the day we just had to say: 'If we go down this route we are going to be putting ourselves in a position where we're going to have to be defending the indefensible.' And we can't do that, so we just had to pull out.

"We want to be proud of our clients and the work they do. And we want to help them go in the right direction."

Persuading companies that you're the right person to help is a tricky job. Pitches for big contracts can take up hundreds of hours of work, while there is a natural churn factor with clients who want to freshen things up.

It's also important to diversify your client base. Having multiple areas of expertise is one way of tackling a growing trend whereby companies are taking communications in-house.

Taking the right agency, the argument goes, means you get access to the full gamut of services ranging from crisis communications, to brand campaigns, to corporate social responsibility programmes, to sponsorship.

Hence the 2014 merger between Ms Boyle's agency and the JWT Group, which brought a strong consumer-facing capability into the agency Boyle set up.

After an unsolicited approach from JWT, she could see the business sense in creating a bigger and more diverse agency, but taking in a partner was not easy.

"It was very difficult to give up the 100pc ownership. That took quite a lot of thinking," Boyle says. "I found it much more difficult to do than I thought it would be because it was like giving over your baby in a way. I'd be doing this for nearly 10 years."

What also proved difficult was bringing all of the staff along with the move. For Boyle, it was a significant learning experience when it came to being a leader.

"I'd a bit of growing up to do to learn that I had to bring people with me. I needed to learn to work with people more.

"I really had to learn over the last few years, and I totally get it now, but I had to learn how to put as much focus on my team as on my clients.

"For so many years when you're building a business, all you think about are your clients. Our product is our staff. If our staff aren't producing the right level of service and building client loyalty then that's a problem."

Important to clients though that PR product may be, it can be an easy target for cuts.

"I learned our lessons early on in this business not to be too dependent on a sector, not to be too dependent on too-small companies," Boyle says. "We did a lot in healthcare in the first few years and things can impact a business. If two of your clients decide to merge at a global level then everything stops ... it's hard to know what's around the corner.

"We're building a sustainable business and that's why we have this big focus on staff, a focus on developing expertise and building a team that can actually cover off a lot of different opportunities within a client."

Last time the economy took a downturn, the industry suffered.

The next time things go south is when Boyle's strategy of diversification will truly be tested.

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