Telum Media interviews Robyn Sefiani

In this week’s Australia PR Alert, Telum Media interviewed Sefiani Founder and Executive Chair, Robyn Sefiani. Read Robyn’s observations on the changing communications landscape and Sefiani‘s response below:

Telum: You started Sefiani 18 years ago, how have you seen the PR and communications industry change in that time and how has Sefiani responded / changed?
Robyn: The reason I love my job, and love leading a successful agency, is because our work is always interesting, challenging and constantly evolving. When I established Sefiani, my goal was to focus on strategic communication counsel to C-suite executives, helping them solve complex business problems. That hasn’t changed. What has changed dramatically is the way people receive news and engage with information through social and digital media, along with the carnage in journalism, the erosion of the “singular voice” by corporates who share the news agenda with employees, customers, advocates and detractors; and even the way we distribute news to the media. But one of the most significant changes is in crisis management. The public rightly demands transparency, accountability and ethical behaviour from organisations and when that falls short, the consequences can be brutal. Just look at the CBA and Dreamworld for examples of the fallout. The growth in demand for issues management, crisis preparedness and crisis counsel has been exponential for us.

Telum: Prior to your time at Sefiani you were at Edelman, as the President of South Asia region. What stands out as something that the Aussie PR industry does better than other markets?
Robyn: I established Sefiani after 12 years leading Edelman in South Asia and I’d also been on the international Board of Edelman, so I’d been closely involved with the PR industry at a regional and global level. I saw first-hand the development of the PR industry in Asia, from a fledgling profession when multinationals like Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and Burson Marsteller entered the region. I recall clearly being at a media conference with my then boss Dan Edelman in Malaysia, and being shocked by three things: journalists insisted on payment in press kits to cover their expenses (we refused but they turned up anyway), journalists didn’t ask a single question of the speaker and our press release ran word for word in newspapers the next day. Things have changed. PR in Asia today is every bit as sophisticated as in Australia.

Telum: With a strong pedigree in crisis communications, what is Sefiani’s approach to managing crisis situations, and how has this changed as media consumption habits have changed?
Robyn: Being prepared, responding rapidly, keeping stakeholders updated, accepting responsibility where warranted and making changes where needed are key to good crisis management. The major change in crisis communications has been the dramatic shortening of response times – an organisation has to get its initial brief statement out fast because news and conjecture will be all over Twitter and on Facebook within minutes of a crisis occurring. Further tips are provided in my blog following the Dreamworld crisis.

Telum: What are your tips and techniques for managing large company’s reputations in a digital age?
Robyn: It starts at the top. Leaders have to embody the culture; they need to be clear about the behaviours they expect of all employees, and live those behaviours themselves. Companies with strong cultures that are perceived to have a good ethical compass are more resilient in crisis situations. It helps also to be able to fall back on a bank of public and stakeholder goodwill, and that takes time to build up. At the tactical level, companies need to make sure they have tested their crisis response systems and know how they will respond. In the digital age, there is a premium on speed of response and levels of transparency.

Telum: What skills do people need to excel in this industry and how do you and your agency help your employees to gain those skills?
Robyn: We hire smart people from communications, government, journalism and industry backgrounds. Above all, to succeed in our profession people need to be good communicators, both in spoken and written form. They also need to be good listeners, ask smart questions, be open to and thinking about new ideas and show respect by listening to others’ opinions. They need to be confident and at a mid to senior level, be able to give frank and fearless advice. They also need to be creative, lateral thinkers and politely persuasive. The Sefiani Academy guides the professional development of our people, both through in-house and external training programmes and is an adjunct to on-the-job mentoring. We put all our staff through presentations skills training earlier this year and our senior team through leadership coaching. We invite outside experts like opinion editors and influencer agencies to come and talk to us and we encourage our staff to engage in webinars, podcasts and industry events to broaden their knowledge and networks.

Telum: What keeps your clients awake at night?
Robyn: Many clients tell us they sleep well at night knowing Sefiani is just a phone call away. We’re holding a client CEO lunch this week with a guest speaker talking on “Leadership in a Crisis” and I’ll be asking our guests what’s keeping them awake at night. I’m guessing it will be issues like corporate and individual reputation, cyber-attack, shareholder activism and regulatory impact.

Telum: What keeps you awake at night?
Robyn: Jetlag – I’ve just returned from three weeks in Italy! Seriously though, not much keeps me awake at night. If I do wake at 3am it’s with a great idea, and I get up and write it down. I often have my best ideas in the middle of the night.

Telum: Most memorable PR moment?
Robyn: There are many, but I’ll pick two. Most recently, it was achieving a big win with privacy campaigner Brieana Rose when 18 months of hard work resulted in the NSW Parliament introducing new laws to criminalise the taking and sharing of intimate images without consent. The other career highlight was in the early days of Sefiani, when we were engaged by Visa International as their PR team to handle all communications and issues management for Visa’s global sponsorship of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. I hired seven people and we donned Visa Olympic uniforms and moved to Visa’s Olympic hub in The Rocks. We’d meet every morning with the Visa team to anticipate issues and ambush marketing; we staged media events with the Olympic President Juan Antonio Samaranch, Prince Albert of Monaco and many other Olympians; and took journalists to finals events where Kathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe won gold.

Telum: Where do you get your news?
Robyn: I’m a news and current affairs junkie. I wake to ABC radio news and AM, scan the national and metro news on my morning ferry commute, and keep across Twitter, LinkedIn and major news feeds through the day. I enjoy Crikey’s daily commentary and Leigh Sales grilling politicians on weeknights. I also pick up personal perspectives on news of the day in the US, UK and Asia through my Facebook friends – many of whom are senior PR leaders in their markets.