The Harvard Approach to Improving PR Firms – Plus Richard Edelman’s Big Social Media Trends to Watch

Janet Tyler, Co-CEO, Airfoil Public Relations; Board Member, Council of Public Relations Firms

When I flew off to Manhattan earlier this month to spend a day and a half with a Harvard professor, a rock star on the public relations stage and leaders from 40 other major PR firms, I expected a lecture and some introspection. What I got was one of the most intellectually challenging experiences of my professional career and an impetus to examine in some new ways exactly what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong in managing our agencies.

In my defense, the title of the Council of Public Relations Firms “Harvard Leadership Program” event did serve to tamp down expectations: “Elements of Leadership in Today’s Professional Service Firms.” But rather than being a snooze-fest, the program kept me up well into the evenings thinking about a whole range of approaches that leaders should be considering but often are not.

The program was driven—and I use that term in its boldest sense—by Dr. Ashish Nanda, research director and faculty chair for executive education at Harvard’s Center for Law and the Professions and one of the most rousing presenters I’ve ever enjoyed. He gave us homework long before we arrived at the Executive Conference Center in Times Square. During the session, he asked very pointed questions of individual attendees—and didn’t let up until he pulled a correct answer from the flustered CEO or VP. But all of us were there for the same reason—to improve our leadership qualities, sharpen our skills and understand new strategies for confronting the issues we face; so the lessons all were immensely valuable.

Dr. Nanda began the program with videos, statistics and discussions surrounding the 2008 terrorist bombings of hotels and other businesses in Mumbai, India. At the Taj Mahal hotel, occupied by the attackers for three days, 34 people were killed, 28 were injured and dozens of hotel staff became heroes. While employees of most of the other businesses under attack escaped as soon as they could find a way out, those at the Taj Mahal took action to protect their guests. Many of the staff laid down their lives to save their customers. It was a jolting illustration of what it really means to hire the right people for the right jobs, of rising to a challenge and and of establishing a corporate culture that values relationships to the ultimate degree.

In slightly less dramatic fashion, Dr. Nanda later demonstrated to the leaders gathered there the value of learning from case studies. Using a fascinating episode from the annals of dental-hygiene history, he escorted the group through a case study surrounding a dispute between Procter & Gamble and Colgate over the validity of claims relating to the value of Colgate’s Simply White in comparison to Crest Whitestrips. The battle over the new category of teeth whiteners really made the four P’s of marketing a tangible axiom for me, as Dr. Nanda examined strategies around product features, price setting, placement in an intensely competitive landscape, and promotion techniques.

I confess, however, that the highlight of the event for me was the opportunity to hear from public relations icon Richard Edelman. In many ways, he is what Niall Horan from the boy band One Direction is to my teenage daughter—a rock star of our industry so-to-speak. In his remarks, Edelman pointed out four “big trends” he is observing in social media:

  1. Keep an eye on three impending social giants: BuzzFeed, Pinterest and Tumblr. We need to watch them as closely as we do Facebook and Twitter.
  2. Search and social now are more integrated than ever. If you’re doing well in one, you’re likely doing well in the other.
  3. Amplification trumps circulation. Appearing in an influential online publication is one thing, but becoming the subject of online communities who begin discussing you represents a whole new level of success. When we can measure this amplification of initial content, we’ll be doing well.
  4. Visuals matter more than ever. Think infographics, video, slides and any other way to tell our story beyond words.

Dr. Nanda wrapped up the conference with McKinsey’s 7s Framework, indicating how companies should align their strategy, structure, systems, staffing, skills, style and shared values. In relating alignment to growth, he cited the Bermuda Triangle of management from which corporate leaders must choose:

  • You can stop growing. If you do, you may ultimately die as an organization.
  • You can grow and better organize the company, putting more processes and formal communications in place.
  • You can divide the company into smaller groups as you grow. Giving each of those groups a shot at the same entrepreneurial feeling we had when our firms were in their early days.

I realized that after a pretty spectacular record of agency growth (including 20% last year), Airfoil is going to need to focus even more on processes. We need to organize for 60 people, not the 25 people we were a few years ago. It will require more discipline and focus than ever before, especially as we approach our global expansion.

As an agency leader, taking a few days to think about all these matters—something we, as a species, rarely do—helped me begin formulating actions around how we reward our employees, how we work with partners, how we prioritize. This was one of those game-changing, enlightening junctures that rose far above the agenda on the page to touch the minds and methods of our profession’s leadership. Thank you to The Council of PR Firms, Dr. Nanda and of course Richard Edelman for giving me a sense of renewed energy and focus as we round the bend into the second half of 2012.


Janet Tyler is co-CEO of Airfoil, a top technology PR and marketing firm with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley. She oversees the firm’s expansion of its digital, social, and global capabilities. Janet is a leading figure in the PRSA Counselors Academy, a board member of the Council of Public Relations Firms and one of PRWeek’s “40 Under 40.” You can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and on Airfoil’s blog.