Best Book I’ve Read This Year:
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Red, White, or Beer?
Deep, full-bodied red
Favorite Vacation Destination:
WSJ or NYT?
Both, but NYT first
Sara Gavin co-founded Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin 23 years ago, and as its president led its continued development to become Weber Shandwick’s most successful North American location. We discuss her September promotion, which further positions her as one of the country’s top experts in public relations.
How are things changing for your industry?
Public relations has always been a discipline that has been about building trust, building relationships, creating transparency, reaching third parties, and so on. That foundation is pertinent to what has been enormous change [in who can communicate to a mass audience]. Literally every one of us is a publisher, right? And a human being couldn’t possibly ingest all the information that’s available to them now. So the challenge for our industry and our clients is to humanize themselves, and there are more ways to do it because there are more channels and interesting ways to build content. But there’s also the opportunity to make all of this information more relevant, more valuable, and more meaningful to the stakeholders they care about, whether it’s their employees and colleagues, whether it’s customers, whether it’s policy makers.
Given that others in PR/marketing also are out to humanize content and make it more relevant, might the outcome be simply a new caliber of noise for people to have to filter?
That’s the point, though. There is so much information and news and content surrounding us. I think it requires a higher order of skills. [As a PR practitioner] you have to be more thoughtful. You have to be more aware of the landscape. You have to be more proficient in the tools. And you have to, in a sense, get comfortable with immediacy. Moving quickly, understanding how that story is playing out in real time. Creating opportunities to build content; it may even be in real time.
In many ways, the challenges are even more profound because of that new reality, but there is a lot of ingenuity and a lot of invention and a lot of innovation going into figuring it out. And when you do, all those sensibilities that we bring about content and understanding what works and what resonates, [sometimes] informed by research, often informed now by analytics . . . the deep understanding of the audience, what’s relevant—all of those skills need to be brought to bear.
Is there a good example that you can think of that really hits on what you just talked about?
So we’ve been doing work for a number of years for the U.S. Army [recruiting], an institution with a powerful story to tell. One of the innovations that, together with the client, we instituted was a major operation to let soldiers tell their own stories through video, through blogging, through online commentary, and so on. Simply to talk about what they did, why they joined, what their work was like, where they lived, what it was like to move their family, all of their expressions about their work. That was not only important as a way to really authentically tell the story, but it began to use all of these social channels, to enable that story to be told in a very first-person way.
With your recent promotion, how have your responsibilities changed? And what does this mean for the company, and for you?
Well, for years, I’ve been president of the Minneapolis office of Weber Shandwick, which, as you know, we founded as Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin many years ago. So I’ve had the great joy of both owning my own firm and then running an operation in a global system. Now my job is to really take responsibility for and look after 23 offices in North America. The responsibility is moving that system forward.
How are you going to do that?
The real challenge is to continue to unlock all of the richness that’s there in terms of talent . . . and deploy it for clients. And, frankly, deploying it for our people, to give them opportunities, because one of the reasons to work here includes the opportunity to draw on all that knowledge, to work with colleagues around the country, around the world, to work in teams that may be composed of subject matter experts and digital experts and visual experts and so on.
Aren’t you already doing this, though?
What’s your greatest challenge today?
One challenge is each of our 23 offices has its own culture that reflects its market, its team, and the clients it serves. We need to nurture the great vibes that reflect an office, and at the same time pull together from all of the offices their expertise, passion, and knowledge on behalf of clients.