Inside Atlanta PR
Rob Baskin on What Clients Really Want – and, yes, he should know.
Rob Baskin has worked on all sides of the PR equation: as a reporter, a client and now as president of the Atlanta office of Weber Shandwick, a global PR agency with offices in 81 countries.
“I’m equally comfortable on either side of the desk,” he said Friday. “It’s really one and the same skills, though applied differently. Having worked both sides, I’m now better at both of them.”
So what do clients really want, we asked?
“Clients really want three things: they want their PR firm to listen better, execute well and to be a good source of ideas,” Rob said. “Agencies and their people, by necessity, have to be in the forefront of change. A communications professional’s skills have to be honed ever sharper each year.
“We are all subject to innovation in marketing and communications – ever more true with technological innovation – but certain principles of communication have not changed. Public relations professionals need to be widely read, well informed generally and specifically on how people acquire and use information. Of course there are online aggregators, but younger professionals should remember there’s this great invention called the newspaper. It organizes a summary of what’s going on in the world – whether it’s in print, online or on a mobile device – in an informed way that provides a general overview and gives its readers a sense of community that can be useful to clients.”
Like a lot of PR folks, Rob started off in newspapers, first as a reporter for the Marietta Daily Journal covering county government and later joining a trade group (Southern Newspapers Publishers Association) as program director, training reporters and editors in 14 states in the fundamentals of newspapering.
“My great lament as a journalist is that the newspaper industry had a virtual monopoly on subject expertise in whole areas of local interest – government, schools, lifestyle, sports and they squandered that. They thought they were in the newsprint business and didn’t understand they were in the news business and they unknowingly abdicated their leadership. They didn’t have to.”
Rob said he went back a couple of years ago and read “Future Shock,” a 1970 book by Alvin Toffler. “I was blown away by how accurately he forecast how we’d live, how information would flow and how people would gather information. I liken the changes to what the agency business was 20 to 30 years ago: It was checkers and now it’s a three-dimensional chess game that never ends. The PR professional has to know how information moves through society and to manage that flow. We have to present it in an influential manner. While that’s always been true, the dynamic is dramatically more complicated today which, in turn, makes our business much more interesting.”
Fitzgerald + Co. CEO Dave Fitzgerald brought Rob over to Weber Shandwick a year ago. “We were friends for 30 years and we had had conversations about my joining his PR unit four or five times over that period,” Rob recalled. “In the fall of 2010, we literally bumped into each other and Dave said, ‘Am I ever going to be able to lure you over here?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, this is the perfect time to make the deal.’ ”
Rob first entered the PR world as account director at Cohn & Wolfe when there were eight people in the firm that soon grew into the biggest shop in the South. He was later its general manager in between stints on the client side at Coca-Cola, where he was director of PR in North America and director of corporate communications during Coke’s fast-growth years in the 1980s and 1990s. Before joining WS, Rob was with MSL Group, serving as managing director for MSL Atlanta and interim managing director for MSL San Francisco and MSL Los Angeles.
A Cleveland, Ohio native, Rob majored in political science and earned a graduate degree in journalism at Ohio State before heading south in the late 1970s.
So, what lesson did he learn he’d like to share with PR folks?
“Some agency people get frustrated when they present new ideas to clients and the clients don’t readily embrace them. Clients work on funding and execution cycles and they can’t always make decisions quickly. Clients want ideas, but for them to take root can take time. A PR person has to have patience and staying power.
“Eighty percent of the jobs in a PR firm are tactical in nature and that is a must – you throw yourself into those details and work it hard to make programs successful. But that’s table stakes. Every agency does that or tries to. What differentiates agencies are the consistent efforts at presenting new ideas that bolster a client’s business objectives and offering them up in such a way that clients keep asking for more – even when they don’t immediately act on them.”
– Chris Schroder