Public relations is an interesting industry in that we work directly with the media and with our clients, who in turn work with their own customers. How do you ensure that the agency’s company culture and values are reflected in the firm’s diverse portfolio of clients?
You start with your values and then you look at clients and employees and make sure they align with your company values to ensure that prospective client or employee is a good fit. We want to work with companies that recognize our strategic high-value role. We know they’re the right client when the CEO wants to be involved from the get-go. Another marker for alignment is based on shared values. For example, we give back to the community and have employees who love this aspect of our business. We have clients who ask us how they can map their philanthropic efforts into their culture and marketing.
Some of the case studies or programs presented at the summit are known for challenging the traditional, sometimes-stale lists of “company values.” What lessons can you take from those and apply to the culture at Red Fan?
A list of values needs to be a list that resonates with your employees and feels authentic to anyone externally who engages with your business.
The bottom line is the values need to be cultivated from within and throughout the entire organization. If values are outlined, but senior management is off doing their own thing, those values fall apart. The same is true if values are stated or dictated from the highest levels and subsequently aren’t perceived as authentic at the lower levels. It’s a collaboration that helps to fine-tune the values of an organization, and it involves input from every source.
In Netflix’s culture deck, the company defines its values “as the behaviors and skills that we particularly value in fellow employees,” suggesting that the company’s culture is curated and grown at the grassroots level. Why do you think this is a more effective approach than some of the wistful, nice-sounding value sets brokered at the highest levels of a company? How do you think these ideas apply to Red Fan in particular?
I’m all about involving the team in defining the values for Red Fan. We have off-sites where we talk about the values we care about and how that maps to the types of people we like to work with. It’s simple: We work with people and brands we believe in. When I started Red Fan, I wrote down our mission and what I wanted to focus on, whom I wanted to work with, whom I would and would not take on as clients. My team has continued to evolve this, and our values and culture reflect it. My initial ideas for our mission as an agency attracted top-tier clients and talent, and the values and culture have taken root through collaboration and smart growth.
Also, early in my career I sat through value and mission brainstorming sessions that didn’t involve employees beyond the C-suite and the heads of HR and PR. It wasn’t a good approach then and it’s not a good approach now.
What are some of the most important lessons or ideas you’re going to take back to the office with you?
Part of growing is taking some risks and learning. Some may define this as failure. But as Steven Tomlinson pointed out, it’s time to reframe failure and restructure it as an opportunity to view failure as “fast acting interactive learning.” Being in a startup is all about moving forward, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, improving and moving forward. If you haven’t made mistakes you’re probably not pushing the boundaries enough in my book. That said, they need to be mistakes that are about smart growth, where the intention is good and the people involved have good heads on their shoulders so they can stop, learn and adapt.