Rick French on Digital; “Get on the Train or Get Out of Business”

Rick French CEO of French West VaughanIn our ongoing series of interviews with PR industry leaders, Everything PR News spoke with Rick French, Chairman and CEO of the Raleigh, based French / West / Vaughan, one of O’Dwyer’s and America’s top PR firms. Since 2001, French’s firm has climbed into the limelight from a less likely perch there in North Carolina, to compete with the titans of Manhattan and the West Coast.

French, an entrepreneur those close call “a true visionary,” has served his time in the trenches, so to speak. French offered his candid insight into his company, his ideology, and the state of PR in the world today. As we quickly found out, this PR guru is not the run of the mill industry press release draftsman.

When Plain Talk Says A Lot

In line with the thematic of these interviews, we asked French about his company’s meteoric rise to prominence, the state of digital awareness for the world’s top PR’s, and his valuable insight into the the PR business in the 21st Century. For those out there still clinging to the idea social media and digital PR are a fad, Rick French (and others) actually say(s) it ain’t so. So, let’s get to it.

EPR – Thanks very much for taking your valuable time to speak to us Rick.

Rick F. – My pleasure, always honored when something thinks enough to ask my opinion.

EPR – Is it safe to say your business was founded, largely, in support of the N.C. textile or garment industry Rick? I have a specific reason for asking.

Rick F. – It was not. I founded the agency as a national firm that just happens to be headquartered in Raleigh, NC. Our focus through the years has been attracting consumer product category leaders, and not specifically clients in the garment or textile industries, although we have worked with many of these type of companies.

EPR – Thanks for the clarification. North Carolina in particular has been hit hard over the last decade because of overseas competition – plant closings and the like. Obviously events like these cause “shifts” – how have such events changed your business?

Rick F. – It really hasn’t, to be quite honest, for the reason I cited above.

EPR – The expansion of your company is impressive. You now have offices in NY, Dallas, Tampa, and LA, and you maintain these at a time when many are faltering because of economic woes. Can you account for your success in light of so many others’ failures?

Rick F. – Thank you. Our success is largely attributed to hiring good people, not being afraid to take risks when others are pulling in their sails, and the fact that our clients themselves have done very well in their lines of business, which has helped fuel our growth.

EPR – Much of our focus at EPR is on digital communications Rick. I could not help but do a cursory evaluation of your companies engagement, at a glance your company more resembles a traditional “brick and mortar” communications firm than a digital one. Is it fair to say your company has online capability, but his grounded in face to face engagement? Or is the lack of SM and other contact with FWV execs, a misconception on my part?

Rick F. – It is a mis-perception. While we started as a traditional firm, the largest growth segment for our agency is in the digital realm and I have invested heavily in this area.

EPR – How do you envision the so called “conversation” affecting PR companies in the short term? Should companies invest more in “talking” to the public? Will you invest more?

Rick F. – Conversation makes the world go-round and social media is driving more and more conversation by people interested in similar topics. So I told our people 3 years ago to get on the digital train or get out of the business entirely. 95% got on and 5% or so got off.

EPR – I have so far asked any number of CEO’s the question I put to 5WPR’s Ronn Torossian. Where is the line you draw in the sand for FWV where refusing a controversial client goes? Torossian clearly ruled out Libya’s Gadhafi, but a competitor, Qorvis Communications, just picked up Bahrain‎?

Rick F. –   We received that same Gadhafi inquiry, as well as one’s from Israel and Afghanistan, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to pass on any of them. We won’t work for any government whose interests are contrary to those of the United States, because all of my people live and work in this country and believe in its principles. Now we have taken on controversial individual and corporate assignments in the past – our current work for Michael Vick comes to mind – but that is what a PR firm inherently does, meaning we counsel clients how to deal with difficult issues and conversations with its various constituencies.

EPR –    Richard Edelman has said; “Trust in established institutions and figures of authority – CEOs, heads of state – is being supplanted by a personal web of trust that includes colleagues, friends and family.” We actually see this in our efforts in social media. This goes back to the question about the import of engaging with people – and as Edelman alludes, with groups of them. Can you elaborate (comment) on Edelman’s statement?

Rick F.  – As usual, Richard’s analysis is accurate, and it is what I allude to in question #5. I liken it to a television ad for Faberge Shampoo that aired probably two decades ago. The spokesperson told two friends about Faberge, who in turn told two friends and so on. That effectively sums up the power of social media and word-of-mouth conversations.

EPR –   I mention Richard Edelman because, like it or not, Edelman’s company makes more money and is more successful on many levels, than the other 9 firms in the top 10 combined. Even Google is not so dominant. My question is, do you have a PR, business, or other hero Rick? I am driving at your aspirations in business.

Rick F. –   My father is my hero because he taught me the value of honesty, hard-work, family, and treating people with respect, compassion and integrity. And he has never worked a day in his life the PR business. As far as our industry goes, there are many people I admire who aren’t as well-known as Richard, or say Lou Cappozi (MSL Publicis), both of whom I respect greatly.

EPR –   If there were one bit of advice you could offer the budding PR or business professional, what would that be Rick?

Rick F. – Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of taking calculated risks. Had I not done either, there would be no French/West/Vaughan.

EPR – Thanks very much for taking time for us Rick, we sincerely appreciate it.

Rick F. – I appreciate the opportunity to add to the discussion.

In Summary

Rick French is a sharp, no nonsense type of guy from what I gleaned so far. In all transparency, I honestly thought he would not have time to answer my questions, but like all our perceptions can be, mine were off a good bit in many areas (as you can see). I also thought French was a bit austere or standoffish, which also proved to be incorrect, he is actually quite a nice guy. The reason I mention this is because of the nature of big time PR, and some parallels we are finding in leadership.

An upcoming interview with Jim Weiss of WCG in San Francisco, will shed even more light here. But for Rick Fench, if you look at this list of so called “top gainers” from  O’Dwyer’s, French’s firm is 7th, right on the heels of industry giant Edelman. My impression of French is this, he embodies the old saying; “Lead,  follow, or get the heck out of the way!”

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