Melissa Waggener: Notes From One of America’s Best

Waggener Edstrom PR

We continue our series of talks with the leaders of industry, with Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Founder, President, and CEO of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. From a two person agency, begun in 1983, Melissa’s company has grown to become the second largest PR firm in the World. Talk about your American Dream – Waggener Edstrom embodies it.

We caught up with Melissa (which is not so easy to do – she’s really fast) just as she was touring several of WE’s offices. So the reader knows here, I mention this (catching up) aspect only to point out how involved Melissa is in the day-to-day of WE. If there is a poster child for “hands on” involvement, then she is the top candidate.

In addition, she and her company have been a favorite subject of EPR since we first covered digital PR leaders back in 2008. “Favorites” become favorites because they; are professional, friendly, responsive, exhibit excellence, and in the online world – because they “get it.”

The reader will gain some insight from this Stevie Award winning exec, into how companies and their communications people can optimize successes (read closely).

Waggener Edstrom, very early on, “got it” where the two way conversation of the social wave is concerned. Wired, in tune, receptive, on top of the game, many adjectives explain why WE is so powerful. But, the reader can glean more about Melissa, and the puzzle pieces of success, from the Q & A to follow.

Melissa Waggener

A View From the Top with Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Founder of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

EPR – Melissa, of all the biggest PR firms in the world, your company seemed to grasp the importance of digital tools faster and with more energy, from the start. I remember scrutinizing all at the top a couple of years ago. That being said, how far has WE come since your early adaptation?

Melissa Waggener – First, thank you and I appreciate that you’ve closely tracked and studied our efforts. I agree that we did grasp the importance of the new influence model very early on, and that we have always placed great significance on taking action to evolve WITH the changes in influence, throughout the years.  In the digital tools area, we have come a long way, but have much ahead of us as well. We are fortunate that our work has always been at the vortex of innovation and technology, so we needed to build upon that and instill in our people the expectation that every campaign, every opportunity is a means to drive a more holistic approach to communications, in particular with digital strategies and tools.  Since then, it’s become an inherent part of how we work every day and now the focus is on where do we push forward next?  I still think there is a great need and opportunity from an industry standpoint to demonstrate ROI and impact for our clients in terms of how we measure results.

EPR – Speaking of “digital,” when you started this company back in 83, could you ever have imagined all this – iPhones, iPads, search engine wars, social media, and so on? Do you ever feel as if you have entered some Orwellian lost manuscript Melissa?

Melissa Waggener – That’s an intriguing way to raise the question! HA – I don’t really think we’re in an Orwellian lost manuscript. But I do know that from the very beginning we knew technology and innovation in general would have a diverse and positive impact on productivity, communications and of course entertainment. At the outset of our firm I admit to being very hopeful that technology would also play a ubiquitous role in solving big world problems but I don’t think I fully could have predicted the potential that exists today.  Directly to the point of Orwell: technology is indeed a huge enabler, but it is PEOPLE who make the real difference. Technology is enabling people to be more interactive with one another in a multitude of powerful partnerships, and people are making a difference in the world from the simple solution to hugely scalable solutions.  As such, the essence of what we do is still very consistent – giving a powerful voice to innovation to drive action and impact.

EPR – It’s no secret, your company’s long standing relationship with Microsoft. My question is about young PR companies, their desire for such relationships, and the unforeseen challenges. Is there one huge aspect of the MS relationship you were NOT prepared for?

Melissa Waggener – I can’t say there is any ‘huge’ aspect of the Microsoft relationship that we were unprepared for because you are right, we have had a long standing relationship with the many Microsoft clients for 26 years.  Some days (rare, but nevertheless truthful) I might answer this question, well how about JUST KEEPING IN FRONT OF THEM!  Specifically though, one thing we probably underestimated is how adept and nimble we have had to become at working with many companies and third party organizations that at times could have strong and even competing agendas.  Microsoft has been masterful at bringing together companies that they may even compete with, to partner in different areas and we serve as a facilitator of how those various points-of-view are integrated and told as an ecosystem, with a cohesive set of stories.

EPR – Switching gears Melissa, I was just reading a story by a student sponsored by WE in South Africa, one Zamafuze Ngcobo, a One Young World delegate who is helped via WE’s outreach to the University of Johannesburg. My question is, how important do you feel it is for leaders, like WE, to cultivate young communicators like Ngcobo?

Melissa Waggener – I am extremely proud of this work out of our South Africa office!!  Cultivating young communicators like Zamafuze is THE most important thing I can do and one of the favorite parts of my job – getting to work with the new talent that joins WE as well as our next generation of leaders.  I blogged a bit about it previously, but as an industry we need to recognize how intensely competitive the battle for new talent to enter our field is, and will be for the foreseeable future.  And this is not just about increasing our numbers – this is about GETTING THE VERY BEST IDEAS FROM OUR OWN PEOPLE, AND NEW PEOPLE WHO JOIN WE.  I spend dozens of hours each year with our Leadership Forum participants that bring employees from around the world together to develop a network of peer partnerships and train them on leadership skills.  I firmly believe that we can’t solely rely just on ‘in the moment’ teaching to form good leaders.  It has to be a conscious effort and one a company puts resources towards cultivating because that’s where a lot of the really great ideas come from.

EPR – I have asked each industry leader about where they draw the line in the sand on controversial clients Melissa. Ronn Torossian of 5WPR drew his somewhere before Gaddafi, Scott Allsion proved a bit slippery on the question, how does WE approach the “yes & no” there?

Melissa Waggener – It’s difficult question because it would be unfair for me to start listing names here, unless I’ve met with them face to face.  In general, though, if you have a prospective client who has contributed to a big world problem such as environment or health erosion, but now this prospect genuinely is reinventing to be part of the solution to that problem, I’d definitely consider working with them. But I would have to speak with them about it directly and understand what’s changed and why.

EPR – You wrote a very insightful post on WE’s Thinkers & Doers outlet about the recent Rupert Murdoch/journalism 2011 debate. Is citizen journalism a passing fad, or will the trend to “everyman” reporting grow more powerful?

Melissa Waggener – It’s a wonderful thing that so many more people have the chance to now have a voice.  And to give credit where it’s due, that post was written by two of our employees Eric Berto and Kelly Perkins, but I too thought it was very insightful.  I don’t think anyone can consider the fact that everyone can be an influencer as a passing fad.  It simply is the new normal, but again our view is the core principles of our craft still apply around knowing your audience, understanding your unique value and building a compelling story to share that drives action and impact.

EPR – More and more the world of politics and big business seem to be in need of crisis management. One expert (BBC’s Nick Robinson) in the above article said of the political-press dynamic here; “Politicians and the press are fated to be locked perpetually in a loveless embrace.” Your company has always appeared to me, less about crisis handling, and more about brand evangelism. How are you having to adjust now Melissa?

Melissa Waggener – Crisis management is not a long-term strategy.  It is a fundamental skill that we are experienced in and are adept at assisting our clients with when need arises.  So to your point, I don’t think we’ve had to adjust at all other than recognizing the speed and nature in which news travels is ever-evolving and looks far different than it did say 10, 5 or even 3 years ago.  So yes, having a long-term, proactive and committed strategy around what you are trying to share around your brand or company vision is, and always has been, the more important vision to have.  Executing on a strong crisis response strategy is invaluable, but that in itself is not a recipe for how communications can contribute to strategic growth.

EPR – Reading further down the Thinkers & Doers blog, I noted a piece on SEO for PR – I am pretty sure no other big time PR company out there offers up such “web crucial” hints Melissa. The article by Eric Berto talks a great deal about “optimization” – my question is, how far behind do you feel the world’s biggest PR firms are “still” on such digital concepts?

Melissa Waggener – I think that as an industry we probably should be impatiently optimistic (to borrow a phrase from an organization I greatly respect).  I’m optimistic because I believe, unlike three or four years ago, generally speaking most people in our craft understand that the old way of doing things is no longer sustainable.  I’m impatient though because I think even though we at Waggener Edstrom have a strong point of view on what integrated influence should look like…there is always something else on the horizon that we must be reaching out to explore and understand.  Firms, or corporations who are still struggling with how to deal with this, again what I’d call ‘new normal’ of how information flows…aren’t stretching themselves and challenging set norms nearly enough.

EPR – I was reading about the superlative TEDWomen (TED, for those unfamiliar – Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference), and I read a lot about how TED’s track record (before) not being stellar where women’s ideas etc. were concerned. My question is more broad. Nearly 5 decades past the civil rights movement, JFK, MLK, Bobby, the Vietnam War, we seem even more “segregated” now (in many ways) than we ever were before. Are “organizations” a double-edged sword Melissa? Women, African Americans, Gay, Tea Party, Oprah, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Wall Street to heartbreak hotel – are we more divided by these movements (initiatives), or closer together?

Melissa Waggener – For me it’s not about men vs. women or questions of race or any cultural or ethnic differences. IT IS NOW, AND ALWAYS SHOULD BE, ABOUT MERIT.   But it is a question that gets to the heart of some perceptions I struggle with at times myself because when there is an under ‘heard’ group, whether globally or in one part of the world, something organizations can do is help raise visibility and awareness of the issue, which is something needed before there can be unity formed on how we can, together, help address those problems. As a female entrepreneur/CEO of an independent company – I’ve benefited from the help and counsel of many woman AND men along the way to be successful. From my father who gave me advice and an initial loan to start my business to men who help lead the agency today – all have been key contributors to WE’s success. Just as I benefited from the help and counsel of many women, not the least of these is again my business partner Pam Edstrom.

The formula to success is not gender-specific.  In the end, I think the dialogues you hear at many of these types of events are much more open than one may expect on the surface.  For example, Nick Kristof who authored the inspirational book “Half the Sky” about supporting the health, education and overall rights of women around the world, has regularly made the point (most recently at the Clinton Global Initiative) of the need for men to be a huge part of the solution in challenges that many women face around the world.  I applaud the need for a diverse and highly inclusive approach to address great opportunities and solve thorny problems.

EPR – The BBC just suspended all programming from affiliate London-based FBC Media – allegedly, because FBC may have been paid to air what amounted to “propaganda” or fraudulent programming about Malaysia’s palm oil industry – FBC admitting they worked in collusion with the Malay government. The question is; “Are we approaching the moment when no one can be trusted?” More acutely, will we run out of words, explanations, reasons, “spin” to satisfy?

Melissa Waggener – I look at it in a more optimistic way.  If we are entering an environment where only the truth and high (if not complete) transparency is the expected norm, then that makes it all the easier for companies and individuals with good intent to break through, and those who do not have the best of intentions to be identified and dismissed as not credible. The risk could be that everything is regarded with such skepticism that nothing is trusted, but I personally believe that true merit and value has always risen to the top and will continue to do so. Especially if it’s around innovation that’s really helping solve big world problems.

Facing Forward

Forward thinking, leading edge, digitally engaged, in the conversation, no one knows better how to “spin” a yarn than any great storyteller. The crux of the matter always resides in, the truth or lie at the end of the fairy tale. Well, I have covered as many or more Waggener Edstrom stories as anyone I guess. And, while we do not always agree with all of any business’ actions, you can take one fact check to the bank – and cash it. Melissa Waggener Zorkin embraces the spirit she professes, aside being a super nice lady. On her corporate profile, at the end, the following truth suggests who she is more than any other I have seen:

“…at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is the people you have laughed with and loved.”

We have to have our priorities straight! Lastly, I think it is important to point out a couple of things about Waggener Edstrom’s success here.

First, Melissa and the team she has selected, are the fundamental reason for Waggener Edstrom’s success – this is a no brainer – their adaptation of the best principles and ideologies, etc. Secondly, and equally important, WE is respected enough to sit at the strategic table with their clients. I cannot overstate the value of this where effective communication is concerned.

Melissa (WE) is trusted enough to not only “voice” a client’s brand, but to actually help develop it. This is what real teamwork means – try and “talk” your way into a Super Bowl touchdown.


  1. says

    This woman is amazing! It’s very heartening to see that her “fame” has not distanced her from the reality that it is the people we connect with and the relationships that we forge, which drives us to be better at what we do and who we are. She is wise in that she knows nobody holds the patent to good ideas, but that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute. I like her!

    As my humble and astute father would have said about Melissa, “she’s NOT gotten too big for her britches.” lol

  2. says

    Great piece Phil! And Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time! Working in PR, I am very familiar with you and your firm! I couldn’t help but come away from this interview feeling smarter. Your ability to handle the questions with data-rich examples and thoughts was extremely helpful. My big takeaway on a contributing factor to your success was this:

    “we have always placed great significance on taking action to evolve WITH the changes in influence”

    In my estimation, it speaks profoundly to your understanding of the need to evolve WITH as opposed to adapting TO. Evolving WITH is a cornerstone of any successful business, as the need to be able to reconfigure deliverables to markets is a moving target.

    Thanks again for taking the time Melissa, and I look forward to meeting you someday! =)

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