Next up in our series of informal talks with industry leaders, Ruder Finn’s CEO Dr. Kathy Bloomgarden talks with Everything PR News about her agency, values, and the future of PR.
We caught up with Kathy at the Ruder Finn offices in Switzerland late last week. Our discussion was aimed at giving industry professionals some inkling of the quality of excellence ingrained in highly successful companies like Ruder Finn, and especially in leaders of such companies.
What follows is the transcript of a phone interview with Dr. Kathy Bloomgarden, an acknowledged expert in brand strategy, acquisitions and mergers, change management, and corporate governance, among her many other areas of expertise.
Once we get into the Q & A, the reader should immediately recognize a sort of special character about Bloomgarden. Besides the smartness, even past the genuine friendly tenor, there is a confidence and measure we might recognize as one increment of leadership – and a bit more too – check it.
Leading by Example in Public Relations: Kathy Bloomgarden.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams
EPR – Kathy, if I may, I would like to jump start off talking about your book, “TRUST: The Secret Weapon of Effective Business Leaders.” At a time in human history when trust in leadership has never been lower, it seems so appropriate. My first questions is; “Who (what) is to blame for the stigma, the degradation of credibility government and business seem to suffer from? Public apathy? Leadership ethics?
Kathy Bloomgarden – We’re in a period of considerable uncertainty and change. Unemployment rates are high, over 9% in the US, and currencies are highly volatile, as are stocks. Whenever you have a period of change, people feel unsettled; there are anxious feelings. I think a lot of the lack of trust in government and business right now is due to the uncertainty in our environment. I wouldn’t call it a question of leadership ethics. I think it’s a lack of strong leadership. Leaders have not been able to unite people around a shared vision and a road forward. They haven’t instilled confidence that progress can be made.
The emergence of social/digital media has also arrived at the right time to create the Perfect Storm. It has never been easier for the public, customers or employees to exercise their right to free speech, and to broadcast it to whomever wants to listen – either in their name or anonymously. At a micro level you have, for example, customer service issues aired on Twitter which are seized upon by the masses and become huge leadership problems at the executive level. At the other end of the scale, you have Wikileaks becoming a globally accessible forum for whistle blowers or opportunists.
People have always aired their views. It’s just now so much easier to do so, and can be far more damaging. Leaders need to understand that it’s not good enough for them to embody the right values and ethics. Now, more than ever, they need to make sure they communicate and that the whole organization is aligned around the values.
EPR – Some people I know ask the question at dinner parties, or on the golf course; “What ever happened to making an honest dollar?” This is a question you or I may have overheard our father’s utter. Wouldn’t it seem ultimately wise for a leader, a company, to instigate an ethical code, processes, and practices, so extraordinary, as to eclipse the competition? Or, has business become so “cost conscious” no one is willing to take the short term loss? I know this is a highly ideological idea, but you understand my track?
Kathy Bloomgarden – You’re quite right to ask the question about keeping the priority on ethics, especially during economically pressured times. I think it’s vitally important that we all have a code of conduct that we respect and uphold no matter what pressures are around us. At Ruder Finn, ethics and values are part of our DNA. We have an ethics officer who checks potential assignments and RF activities. I believe it’s really important that we uphold our values and ethical guidelines, even if it means turning away business.
“As I mentioned previously, it’s now more difficult than ever for organizations to maintain and grow their reputations. Small issues become big issues very quickly and one has to focus on always doing the right thing regardless of an uncertain economy.”
EPR – I just noticed RF got what many of us smaller (and sometimes envious) PR entities might consider an “easy” client to promote. Experian, one of the world’s most trusted brands, wants people to “adopt” or know about their Hitwise and Cheetahmail services (as if millions do not already). Can you talk about the challenges a PR company faces in such a case? We know such initiatives “seem” easy, but seldom are.
Kathy Bloomgarden – In terms of our work in general for clients, we try to listen carefully to their needs and challenges so that we can work as a team to accomplish their goals. While sometimes a client assignment may seem easy, it’s been my experience that it always takes expertise, contacts and hard work in order to do a great job. We have many long-standing clients, which has helped us build true partnerships with them, enabling us to more fully understand their needs and enhance our ability to contribute.
EPR – This reminds me of another point Kathy. Given Experian has other partners in PR, do you think ultra competitiveness, particularly in communications, will become more cooperative? Isn’t it time we all became a bit less “cutthroat” in our approaches to business?
Kathy Bloomgarden – We all have our strengths and contacts. No one agency has the best of everything. There are opportunities to do an even better job with the special expertise of another agency or consultant. I do think that collaboration and cooperation is the way forward, especially as we become more global.
“Our approach at Ruder Finn is simple and consistent – we will grow our reach by proving the expertise of our people and the quality of our work, and by delivering great quality results and creative thinking.”
EPR – Speaking of cooperation, your place on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Open for Business committee, a but especially some others of the committee members, seems like “the way” where burying the political hatchet for forward movement is concerned. Is New York, Cuomo, good leaders in general, heading into a sort of “One for all.” philosophy to fix the economic mess?
Kathy B. – I’m pleased to be a part of Governor Cuomo’s initiative. I think one needs commitment and a diverse team in order to realize some tough goals. I very much believe in the New York City Partnership, which is a group of CEOs from New York and throughout the US who have come together to discuss issues in New York, led by a fantastic leader, Kathy Wylde. I go back to my earlier point that strong leadership really makes all the difference in the world, and it is one of the key factors in the Partnership’s success.
EPR – The recent split of your brother Peter, from you and the core RF business, must prove difficult for you. I only mention it because your father’s agency is one of the most influential in the world. Personally, I think the details are yours and Peter’s business. That being said; “Is Ruder Finn becoming more globally focused?” AdAge alluded or attributed this idea to you earlier.
Kathy Bloomgarden – We have considered the possibility of spinning out some of our operations to form a separate unit. As you know, it’s very much the strategy today to unlock value by spinning out more focused operations, much as Kraft, Sarah Lee and Motorola have done or announced. For my part of the business, Ruder Finn Inc., we are becoming more global, and a large percentage of our business is global. As you may be aware, we are leaders in four separate areas: global corporate reputation, health & wellness, technology & innovation, and consumer products, with a very strong digital piece underlining all of these activities. We also have several hundred people in China, and are ranked one of the top global agencies there. Today we are almost dual-headquartered. We think there may be very significant opportunities to gain in separating out our multinational global business into a unit that would build on the core heritage of Ruder Finn. It’s always worthwhile to consider your structure and strategy in order to ensure a strong, competitive firm going forward.
“The world has also changed from what it was even ten years ago. News breaks globally in an instant, rather than taking a day or so to filter around the globe as it used to. We are set up in all regional hubs to deal with this, and ensure that we or our partners can react instantly to protect or enhance our clients’ reputations.”
EPR – Switching lanes a bit Kathy, I have asked all the other industry leaders about controversial clients, or “where the line is drawn ethically.” Ronn Torossian’s borders started way before Gadaffi, Margery Kraus’ and APCO’s a existing but confidential, others scattered in between. Does RF have a hard and fast rule? Can you address this?
Kathy Bloomgarden – You make a very good point about controversial clients. In order to consider the right companies and the right fit, it’s important to have a process for doing this. If there is a question regarding a client or individual assignment, our ethics officer becomes involved to review the situation and make certain that we believe in the assignment and can deliver results because we trust and believe in the client. It definitely needs both an ethics platform and a process to make sure that we do the right thing in each case.
EPR – Even though it is cliché by now, everyone wants a snapshot of success, a window into leadership. I ask everyone about their heroes, mentors. Your father has to have figured largely into your leadership qualities, your career. Can you talk briefly about your idols or role models?
Kathy Bloomgarden – It is important to have mentors. I was very fortunate to be involved, at a very early age, in communications activities with my father. He was very inspiring, having worked for the Kennedy administration, the Vatican and the UN all for many, many years, and this gave me a wonderful feeling of how communications could be a great asset to people, companies and giant global institutions. I had the opportunity, growing up, to meet some very wonderful and inspiring CEOs. Finally, my father’s dedication to the arts led to the creation of one of the first communication arts units in the world.
EPR – I was just reading something your father, David Finn, wrote about his long time friend and partner, Bill Ruder, after he passed away this year. Your Dad’s creative nature, added to Bill Ruder’s innate business savvy, made for a super powerful “one two punch” for RF. What are Ruder Finn’s great advantages today? What is next for you and Ruder Finn?
Kathy Bloomgarden – I believe our greatest advantage is our creative culture, especially in the context of the roots of the company, which were always strong in corporate and policy. Ruder Finn is lucky to be able to build on the heritage that was created in 1948. In the 63 years that we’ve been in business, our great relationships and our networks have really served us well, and we’ve been able to make some bold moves, creating one of the first in-house digital shops, which is now one of the largest in the PR business. Also important is our global viewpoint, i.e., entering China as one of the first global agencies, where we now rank one of the top three. We’ve worked hard to make ourselves almost dual-headquartered with our China operations. We are truly international in our thinking and can give our clients a global perspective. I have personally spent a great deal of time working globally, and travel about half my time. I’ve also kept my language skills up, and am proficient in several languages, having also studied Chinese and Russian for many years.
EPR – For the budding communicator, business exec, or leader out there, what is the best advice you ever heard Kathy? What tidbit or ideology has helped you the most?
Kathy Bloomgarden – To be successful in this business, you need a strong will to win. You can’t give up easily or you’ll never get very far. Humility is also key as you can never stop learning. Things are changing so fast and it’s important to always tackle challenges with the curiosity of someone doing it for the first time, always learning new things along the way.
The Value of Values
I won’t be going out onto a limb much in suggesting Kathy Bloomgarden as a great example of where ethics, intelligence, and a rigid set of values can take a person. It would be easy to say Kathy Bloomgarden simply inherited David Finn’s and Bill Ruder’s communications empire – we have seen this motif played out in hundreds of motion pictures. However, this is clearly not the case for Ruder Finn.
Read this transcript, Google Kathy Bloomgarden, get her on the phone – underneath the doctorate, besides the weighty structures of influence, this is a very, very nice lady – and a very smart one too. If leading by example counts any more at all, Ruder Finn employees and clients are fairly set.
“I think it’s vitally important that we all have a code of conduct that we respect and uphold no matter what pressures are around us.”
The CEO of Ruder Finn, a $100 million dollar a year business, is a lady first – an influencer and power broker second. Like several others of our discussions, this one is a revelation if the reader studies it. Kathy sits on the board of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Partnership for New York City, the Atlantic Council, and author of Trust: The Secret Weapon of Effective Business Leaders. Thanks for the insights Kathy.