Can you tell us a bit about the work FCR do and what sectors you focus on?
I joined FCR 30 years ago, and at that stage it was one of the first firms to specialise in all forms of corporate communication for the financial sector. In those days, most of the large PR firms were trying to be everything to everybody, like department stores that offered media relations to assist in product marketing, political lobbying, and divisions aimed at financial and health industries for instance. Anthony Tregoning, FCR’s founder who still heads the company, in contrast, wanted to create a firm specialising in the financial and corporate area, offering not only media relations but: investor relations that took in communication with brokers, investment analysts and small shareholders, share registry research and analysis, graphic design and production skills for annual reports, corporate newsletters and corporate brochures. It’s remained that right though. I think he was pretty visionary setting it up at that time and he’s been proved right that communications would become more specialised rather than grow by being able to offer something for everybody.
So, I think now what’s happening is PR is becoming even more specialised. Within financial and corporate, you’re seeing more specialisation in investor relations, working with companies who are listed, announcing their results, communicating with analysts and shareholders, while others specialise in helping super funds and large investment groups communicate with their audiences.
FCR is over 30 years old, and you’ve been there for most of it, what are the major changes in the industry you’ve seen and how have you adapted to them?
We’ve seen big changes. When the firm was established its main clients were the big listed companies, CRA, CSR, ACI and Elders IXL. There were no investor relations specialists in Australia at that time working within the big companies. Anthony [Tregoning] was asked to brief the first Investor Relations Officer in CRA after FCR produced the company’s first investor relations plan. What’s changed is they’ve now got teams of specialists in investor relations. The big banks and the big financial service firms, even some of the big fund management groups have all built large in-house teams, so where they used to rely on outside firms, like us, they now only outsource to bolster their internal group or bring specialist advice for issues that they’re not dealing with every day. What that’s meant for FCR is that our focus has moved to offer a service to mid-size firms that don’t have in-house specialists or teams to do their communication work.
There have been several other major changes in communications in the past three decades. The way everyone absorbs information is changing with the rise of digital, online channels and a more sophisticated visual culture. The trend toward traditional media being replaced by the internet has put greater emphasis on direct communication with stakeholders.
Have there been any stand out trends you’ve noticed in the M&A and IPO market, and what are you expecting in 2017?
I think we’re now at the end of a really long term economic cycle where money has been cheap and normally in that stage you see companies making much more aggressive moves on competitors using cheap borrowings. Where the economy is sluggish and they can’t grow naturally, they grow through acquisition. I think as companies have come out of the Global Financial Crisis, they’ve not been as aggressive in expansion. Although there have been some pretty big takeovers, and I think we’ll probably seen more of that. We’ll also see more M&A activity affecting the middle tier companies as well as the big mergers happening. Companies in mature industries are now looking at how they can keep growing.
You’ve recently been elevated to Life Fellow by PRIA, what does that status mean?
It was an unexpected honour for me to be recognised in this way by my peers in the PR industry. Few are chosen and it’s by the peak communication industry body, PRIA, so it’s certainly an honour. The PRIA College of Fellows are senior operators, not necessary old and grey communicators, but those who have had solid experience in their profession. They have contributed to the community and they have contributed to the industry in noticeable ways. From among that group, every so often, somebody is elevated to a Life Fellow when their peers feel they deserve that recognition.
What are the challenges the industry needs to address going forward?
There are a number of them. If PRIA is going to be a commanding voice of the industry it really must have the majority of the people who work in that industry as active members. It must actively speak out on behalf of the communications industry. PRIA is looking very closely at that and how it brings in corporate members. Under Jenny Muir, National President, it certainly is taking some progressive action to make the professional body much more representative of the industry.
Talking about the industry otherwise, it’s been through a lot of change. A lot of people focus on how we’re only in the early stages of the information revolution. Digitisation is leading to automation, automation will affect all services industries just as much as it’s changed and affected the manufacturing and mechanical industries. Communication will be a very necessary part of those changes and essential in making them happen smoothly.
What skills are key to building a successful PR team?
I think you must have a leader with a broad view of what business clients need and where communications can help them build and defend corporate reputations. A leader should keep the business profitable and put the team together to work in a constructive way. It’s a people business and people are coming to it with diverse skills. We’ve had people coming out of legal and accounting backgrounds as well as those trained in PR, so your working team can be quite diverse.
What made you make the jump from journalism to PR?
I suppose looking back, I got married, had a family and was working shift work at newspapers and it was appealing to work a 9-5! Then I found it was sometimes an 8-9 job! But it was interesting going from sitting across the table from CEOs and hearing what they had to say, to working with them on crafting what they needed to say, working alongside them and making sure that they communicated in the best possible way. I looked at going back to journalism a few times but it’s always been exciting and interesting in PR. In journalism when you do the day’s stories, you finish the end of the day and it’s all done. Tomorrow, it’s new stories from completely different people. In PR you’re working with corporate leaders over a longer term for a strategic end.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about PR and communications?
I think far too many people see it as purely media relations. As media is changing and becoming more fragmented and everyone in media is adapting, the role of the communicator is increasingly to use new technology to communicate directly with audiences, rather than relying on traditional mediated channels. There’s another aspect here with “truthism” and the ‘post fact’ era we’re in. To a professional communications person, it’s not new, as they’ve long understood that influencing people is not simply a matter of broadcasting logical arguments and facts. People form their beliefs through their emotions, so there’s nothing new about this apart from the buzz words being used. The communicator must bear all this in mind and be on top of it, understanding how to communicate by opening a two-way dialogue direct with the end audience. The role of communicator becomes one of advising clients how their audiences think, how they are likely to react to the client’s actions, and the way dialogue and clear communication can help each to better relate to the other.
Where do you get your news from?
I still buy The Sydney Morning Herald, The Weekend Australian and the occasional Financial Review and Saturday Paper and I’m a regular listener to Radio National. I look online at everything from The New York Times to Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, which have some in-depth, long form journalism that you don’t find elsewhere. I’m always curious and interested in what’s going on. I like to read the old-fashioned paper-based information as much as I’d find news online, or on television. If you’re looking online, you don’t necessarily see everything that you would when you are leafing through a newspaper.