Telum interview with Robyn Sefiani

Telum: If you had to summarise your success or the success of the business, what would you put that down to?

Robyn: First and foremost, focusing on clients. If you treat your clients like gold, they’ll stay with you, and you’ll grow with them. I was fortunate enough early in my career to be mentored by Daniel J. Edelman, one of the pioneers of the PR industry. He told me that If you delight your clients, the profits will come. I encourage my team not to approach the WIP meeting as business as usual, but to pause and ask our clients, “How’s your business going?” If you’re meeting with a chief executive, or head of comms, ask, “What have you been focusing on?”

The other real success factor for Sefiani has been resilience. Over 20 years there’s been a lot of change in our industry. We’ve gone through two recessions and a global financial crisis. I remember clearly, one December, getting calls from seven different clients within a couple of weeks, all saying the same thing. “Robyn, really sorry to have to make this call. I’m having to let hundreds of employees go. I’ve got to cut costs, and PR is one of those costs. So, we’re having to terminate.” It was quite a shock. Suddenly you’re missing seven clients from your books. Fortunately, we’re very strong in issues and crisis management and that sort of work flourished through and after the recession as companies were rebuilding.

The third factor for our success, undoubtedly, is our strong culture and values. When I established the business 20 years ago, I thought carefully about what I wanted our firm to be and who we wanted to work for. We took the team out to do a big value check prior to our 20th year. I thought it was time we did that to make sure the values are still important and relevant. The four values we landed on were respect, energise, aspiration, and learning – REAL. Respect for each other and everybody we do business with. We want to energise our thinking and creativity. We aspire to be the best for our clients, ourselves, and the community. Finally, continued learning and sharing this knowledge with clients and peers is really important to us and hasn’t changed in 20 years.

We also apply our values to potential new clients. Sometimes we must ask the question – do they fit with our values comfortably? Are they working in an industry we feel comfortable about?

Our values guide everything we do.

Telum:  What inspired you to start a business?

Robyn: I had a fabulous 12 years with Edelman. The final role I had there was co-president of Edelman Asia Pacific. I was also on the global Board of Edelman. The reason I left Edelman was that I was asked to relocate to Hong Kong to run Edelman Asia Pacific and, at that time, I had a young child, and my life was in Sydney. I decided not to take that role.

It was an exciting opportunity for me to do something different. People had put the idea into my head to start my own business. I’m sure a lot of entrepreneurs have that idea and have this itch that wants to be scratched, but sometimes you need a little push, a reason to make that leap, because it is a leap of faith. It takes a lot of self-confidence. You must be resilient because it isn’t easy every day.   You need connections, you need people who are going to want to be clients of your new organisation, and who are going to want to work with you. While entering public relations has a relatively low barrier and anyone can go out and hang up a shingle, to succeed, to flourish, takes a lot of hard work.

Telum: How has the PR and communications landscape changed over the years and how has your firm adapted?

Robyn: The media landscape is the major change with significantly fewer journalists and the fragmentation of how people receive news and engage with others through social channels. A decade ago, young account executives could issue media releases far and wide and some of them would get picked up. Today, it’s completely different. It is far more sophisticated. We need to be far more knowledgeable about our clients’ business. We must be intimately across what journalists are writing and need to know the news agenda of the day because you’ve got to pitch every story individually.

In my view, media relations has really gone up the value chain. It’s gone from being commoditised to being highly tailored and very personalised, requiring a much higher level of skill, knowledge and connections.

Data and technology have been another major change. New tools that are available have changed how we do things. For example, we’re now using innovative monitoring tools to measure trust and reputation. And one I particularly like is Noggin, a crisis management platform.

A change I’m particularly pleased about is the elevated respect in which our profession and wise counsel is held by Boards and CEOs, with clients saying: “Have we asked Sefiani?”

Telum: What do you think is keeping your clients awake at night?

Robyn: One of the things keeping clients awake at night is the threat of a cyber breach. It’s going to happen to every business at one stage or another and we’re helping with crisis communication preparedness and crisis drills playing out likely scenarios.

The outcomes of the Royal Commissions into the banking and financial sector and into the aged-care sector have been so high profile that every leader now knows, if there’s bad behaviour in their organisation, trust and reputation is at risk. But how can a leader be across the behaviour of every employee in their business? They can’t. They can hope that the culture and expectations of people are very clearly articulated and lived, but if not, it will be very quickly found out. There’ll be a whistleblower or a disgruntled employee who will go to a journalist or post something on social channels and the world will know. Culture comes from the top and clear communication and crisis preparedness is key.

The other topic that’s very much talked about for publicly listed companies is the relentless push for financial performance. And it’s very short term. Every six months the company has to be achieving its revenue and EBITDA targets, and if they’re not, they’re in the spotlight. CEOs tenure in Australian listed companies is around five years – shorter than most other countries.  With all of the competition, disruption, and constant need for innovation, there’s a lot of pressure on leaders to perform. Clearly communicated business strategy to the investor community is critical.

And finally, with the sharp focus on climate change, companies are going to be under increased scrutiny. We’re going to see that increasingly play out which will call for good communications explaining what companies are doing to reduce their carbon footprint.

Telum: What is the most memorable campaign you have led?

Robyn: There are two. The first was in the first six-months of our agency’s existence and it was one of the reasons I formed the company because I really wanted to work with this client. It was Visa, who was a global sponsor of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and Sefiani became the outsourced communications division of Visa International for that year. It was the most exciting, exhilarating thing I’ve ever worked on. It was everything from public relations and event management to media engagement, to issues and crisis preparedness and management. It was a thrill meeting elite athletes and the bonus was we hosted media at gold medal events!

Another meaningful standout was helping a privacy campaigner motivate legislative change to criminalise intimate image abuse in Auatralia. To help Brieana Rose, whose own privacy was grossly breached, is something I’m immensely proud of because the outcome is now protecting so many people. We worked with Brieana for 18 months, guided her, prepared her for media interviews where her identity was not disclosed, arranged lobbying meeting with politicians to get the law changed, first in New South Wales and then the federal government followed. It is now a criminal offense with an 11-year jail term to share intimate images without consent, whereas it wasn’t before, so I like to think this has a positive impact on a lot of young people who might be subjected to bullying and intimidation through breaches of intimate imagery.

To view Sefiani’s February Insights newsletter click here.