Sabrina Horn of Horn Group on the Renaissance of PR in the Digital Age

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Several weeks ago, Everything PR began evaluating the Websites of some if the most prestigious PR companies in the world to determine their understanding and utilization of the Web. One of these companies, The Horn Group, demonstrated a particularly refined online presence in comparison to many others.

As it turns out, understanding the Web as a conduit for communication is not all that is refined or extraordinary about Horn Group. We had a rare opportunity to talk with Sabrina Horn, the CEO and founder of Horn Group, about PR, social media and current events pertaining to our profession. If professionalism, knowledge and ultimately openness are key traits of true leaders, then the reader should gain valuable insight from this Q & A with one of the best. Here is the full transcript of our interview with this extraordinary executive.

Everything Public Relations – You have a very refined and broad skill set from what we have read, so why did you chose public relations over advertising or other media businesses?
Sabrina Horn – The simple answer is when I started this agency 18 years ago, I didn’t know anything about advertising, so PR seemed like the right thing to do. The more thoughtful response is I truly believe that public relations is one of the most powerful and yet still undervalued business tools within corporations. People just don’t know how to communicate to different audiences, and that’s what we do. The difference is I take a broader view of what PR is in the sense that it can utilize virtually any medium or vehicle to get a message out, including advertising.

EPR – Do you have a personal role model in the business or other sectors?
SH – I would have to say that my parents are my role models. They are true entrepreneurs and innovators and self made people who came to this country and made lemonade our of lemons. I learned about business from them, but most importantly; I learned about what it takes to be successful, and the real value of persistence and passion and ingenuity.

EPR – How important do you think it will be in the near future for traditional PR firms to engage the world via the Web?
SH – If traditional PR firms haven’t yet engaged in the world via the Web its probably too late for them and I would worry about their viability. The Web in transforming our business at warp speed, and it’s the new medium by which most if not at some point, all, communications will take place.

EPR -How would you define “writing for the Web”, and what are the main traits of PR business blog?
SH – Short, concise, to the point. It must be content rich and authentic, definitely not promotional but more opinionated and factual. It has a much more personal, “real” tone. But, it’s not much different from any other writing in that it must be done with a particular audience in mind. This must be the governing principle.

EPR – What role does your corporate blog play in your online visibility and community engagement?
SH – Our blog is a place for employees to state their opinion on ideas and things happening around them and in the industry. To the extent that those opinions are thoughtful and provocative, and in some way impactful, they help draw more people to our business, or who just want to share their views. It has helped build a greater community and echo chamber around Horn Group.

EPR – What are the strengths and weaknesses of an online press release?
SH – Strengths: more content and potential sources for information embedded within a traditional release, oftentimes more visual appeal, more uniqueness (but not for long). Weaknesses: depending on laptop/network bandwidth, hard to pull up and open links, links get confused when transposed over a wire, sometimes time consuming to put together, overloaded with too much irrelevant information for the sake of being an online release.

EPR – In your view, what are the core elements of an online PR campaign?
SH – Getting to know the influencers and being present with them online and offline, reading their blogs, engaging in their conversations with meaningful ideas/content, picking core topics you can espouse yourself, identifying who you want to reach through an online campaign first, and most importantly, identifying what you want to accomplish from a business perspective, i.e., is it reaching small business owners in certain markets with how-to information, or selling to CIOs of Fortune 50 companies about the virtues of considering new supply chain models. Totally different places and communities with totally different needs and communication styles.

EPR – What is your opinion of DIY PR and of its advocates?
SH – DIY PR, like anything else has its upside and downside. It’s a matter of whether DIY is the approach that will help you accomplish your business objectives. Scale and reach can often be an issue. Can one or two people accomplish what a team of 5-6 with a plethora of contacts, experience and ideas can? However, one subject matter expert may be exactly what the doctor ordered for the time being. In my experience, DIY PR works best for “shot-gun” opportunities and projects where someone’s expertise is particularly relevant or valuable for a period of time until the scope of work gets too broad and hiring additional resources or an agency becomes the requirements.

EPR – What advice would you give PR professionals who are just starting their online business arm?
SH – Talk with people and get to know their successes and failures so you can repeat/avoid them. Network with influencers who can endorse your new venture when you launch. Take the time to establish your own guidelines and principles for online communication. Find some themes and topics you can launch with that you feel passionate about and have some currency and life span.

EPR – As representatives of clients we are inextricably associated with them. In the case of AIG, if Horn Group represented them, what would your advice have been with regard to highly volatile actions like the bonus situation have been? Given that clients sometimes refuse good advice, how should a PR firm handle the backlash onto their own business?
SH -The AIG situation is incredibly complicated, but as in any crisis the first step is to have a deep understanding of all the issues, whether they’re flattering to your client or not. Frequently there is litigation involved in these situations, so as a PR person you have much less autonomy than you would otherwise. Because of legal constraints, a PR person in this situation may be frequently operating in public with partial information, which is dangerous.

So, while our natural inclination would be to encourage AIG to be transparent, “rip the band-aid off,” make amends and move on, that may be impossible because of pending litigation. That’s the biggest decision many companies have to make in these situations, and why PR needs to have a seat at the table; to be able to balance the court of law with the court of public opinion.

That said, there are sometimes situations in which one’s own ethics and the company’s strategy are just not compatible. In that situation, you have to take a close look at your priorities and make a hard decision. We have had that experience a couple of times, and it is always a last resort.

EPR – It seem fairly obvious that President Obama has some enemies in big media. If you were his PR, how would you have handled the recent “punch drunk” ambush?
SH – I disagree with the premise of the question. President Obama was laughing as he talked about the unpopularity of the auto industry bailout, and Steve Kroft called him on it. The exchange really seemed to spring from the conversation itself.

Whether or not you like “60 Minutes,” Steve Kroft was responsible as a journalist to question President Obama’s attitude, and President Obama dealt with it quickly, without defensiveness, and moved on. 60 Minutes didn’t milk it: Kroft didn’t follow up and they cut to a discussion of Afghanistan. There may have been more that ended up on the cutting-room floor, but we’re not privy to that, so we can only go on what was aired.

Any sitting president is going to have to deal with hard questions and intense scrutiny; it’s inevitable, and it’s the responsibility of the President to answer them and the media to ask them. President Obama knows that. If we were his PR counselor, we’d have said he should have shown more respect to the people affected by the auto industry’s woes, but he probably already knew that when he left the studio. I would not have bought into the “ambush” language; that doesn’t serve his best interests because it makes him look like a victim.


Sabrina Horn - Horn Group Public Relations

Who is Sabrina Horn?

Sabrina Horn was the CEO and Founder of the Horn Group, we say “was” because on September 10, 2015, a big announcement was made. The Horn Group was acquired by Finn Partners, a global PR agency. But the company she founded almost 25 years ago being acquired doesn’t change what an amazing woman she is. In fact, it reinforces that understanding.

Horn started in PR right out of college and worked her way up in a couple of PR companies all while living in San Francisco. She did what was needed to gain experience and understanding, not just the necessary steps, but every step she could, not wanting to miss any opportunities to grow and increase her experiences. Those steps undoubtedly at times felt like she was barely moving, but she got better with every new assignment and with her work for previous employers.

She obtained her MS in Public Relations from Boston University and a BA in American Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She went to work at Blanc & Otus and, then later at Edelman PR.

In 1991, she opened her firm the Horn Group. She took the time, made plans and worked through the process building slowly until reaching a pinnacle where her firm was purchased by Finn Partners weeks ago.

Of course, the acquisition means she has access to greater resources and global possibilities for her clients, and the opportunity to work with other clients too. It’s a great move as the firm was known to have a very high turn-over rate of clients.

Horn stated that she knows their clients will benefit from Finn Partner’s “exceptional digital team, consumer tech, corporate affairs, lobbying expertise, and extensive resources and talent, all on a global scale.  In fact, Finn’s approach to digital communications and client service mirrors our own.” It will be great to see her grow into yet another role over time – perhaps one where clients and staff are better served.

She has many prestigious associations including serving as a Board Member on the Council of PR Firms (www.prfirms.org), and the Software Industry Information Association (www.SIIA.org). She’s on the Advisory Board for the Jordan, Edmiston Group, Inc. (JEGI), and a member of the Arthur Page Society. Sabrina has written many research papers and several articles for various online magazines including Entrepreneur.com. She’s a frequent speaker at marketing and technology industry events and conferences.

Horn said, “I truly believe that public relations is one of the most powerful and yet still undervalued business tools within corporations. People just don’t know how to communicate to different audiences, and that’s what we do. The difference is I take a broader view of what PR is in the sense that it can utilize virtually any medium or vehicle to get a message out, including advertising. The Web in transforming our business at warp speed, and it’s the new medium by which most if not at some point, all, communications will take place.”

She is a strong practitioner of progressive thinking, and it shows in the expertise she’s gained with social media and the rapid shift in public relations to digital communications. In her time away from the office, Sabrina enjoys playing with her two daughters, cooking, and running.

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