Nicole Buckler, Editor of Mediastreet.ie, speaks to John Saunders, President and CEO of FleishmanHillard, about why Irish businesses – more than ever before – need to get their PR right.
John Saunders became only the fourth CEO of the firm in 69 years when he was appointed last November. FleishmanHillard is a public relations and marketing agency founded and based in St. Louis, Missouri. The company was founded in 1946 by Alfred Fleishman and Bob Hillard. It was acquired by Omnicom Group in 1997. The company has 111 offices in 29 countries across the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, and Africa.
How did you get to where you are today?
I was on the staff of RTE working as a sports presenter in my late teens early 20s when the ad agency O’Connor O’Sullivan asked me to head up a new PR agency they were starting – it became known as Saunders Wallace. I was 23 but left after a year and formed Pembroke PR with John Butterly.
I bumped into Owen O’Connor who was the charismatic head of O’Connor O’Sullivan at lunch when was back home a week ago. He looks great and I learned a lot from him and his business.
These days, as the president of FleishmanHillard, I see myself very much as Servant Leader – here to ensure all our staff have what they need to do great client work.
Is PR in Ireland different to the rest of the world?
Firstly I think the standards in Ireland are high. I’ve always felt there are far too many firms – but from what I can see everyone appears to be doing well and are happy.
How is the PR industry changing at present?
Obviously social has changed how we do things. The use of data and analytics was not there when I started out. We flew by the seat of our trousers offering unsubstantiated opinions on everything. I like to think we got it right most of the time but there’s more science now to what we do.
How has social media changed the PR industry?
Well for one thing if you’re not a digital native then you’ve got to get new skills. The platforms have changed but mainstream media still counts a lot. Online content is so much better now and PR firms are becoming a great home for terrific journalists who are unhappy with cutbacks where they worked previously and now feel they can still do good writing. The smart companies are devoting serious resources to content.
What does you usual day look like?
No usual – at the time of writing I just broke from vacation to fly from Portugal to New York for event and then straight back same day – 30 hours – and before you ask I do not have access to a private plane. I travel a huge amount – we have hundreds of fab clients and 85 offices. It’s a big thrill for me to do this job and I try and stay fit and energised for it.
How important is PR to the Irish business landscape?
PR is at its most developed in the Anglo-Saxon world so, for example, it’s a much more important industry in Ireland than it would be say, in Portugal. In other parts of the world where there has not been a free and independent media, it’s also understood very differently.
What would you change about the Irish business landscape?
I was in the company of the Secretary of Commerce for the State of Indiana last night. He’s a fantastic man called Victor Smith (he works for the Governor who has just become Donald Trump’s running mate) and he’s just back from Ireland. He cannot believe that a country with such a tiny population is making such a positive impression on business globally. Irish business is doing a brilliant job and should be celebrated rather than denigrated as it so often is at home.
What’s your working style?
I try to work hard when I’m working – there’s always stuff going on but I take it in my stride. Management is often “dealing with sh*t” as Mark Mortell so eloquently reminded me some years ago. I think I’m a good delegator and throughout my career have been surrounded by brilliant people who save me from myself. I’d be pretty self-critical too.
What’s the favourite part of the job?
I love the chance to live and work in America. This year I attended Super Bowl, was in the White House for the St Patricks week celebrations in March and yesterday was on floor of NYSE for first time. I’m living in St Louis which is a great community. I don’t have a sense of entitlement so am embracing all these moments like a child knowing will all be over in a few years.
What do business owners and marketers need to know about how FleishmanHillard can help them sell their stuff?
We have big resources but we behave like a boutique. Rhona Blake and her team in Dublin have won more national PR awards by a county mile than any competitor. She hires amazingly smart people. FleishmanHillard is only Irish PR firm to win at Cannes – two silvers this year. The Dublin team is joined at the hip with our global business so they are the vanguard of trends. James Dunny, for example, chairs our EMEA crisis practice group and they are now regarded as the best in the global industry.
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