Wright Communications is an agency helping some big brands tackle even bigger problems. Here, founder Nikki Wright takes us through the changes in the landscape since starting the company in 2006, and why for her, fostering good relationships with clients comes from taking care of your inner structure first.
What brought you to start Wright Communications, where did you see the gap in the market?
The catalyst for starting Wright Communications 14 years ago was my interest in sustainability.From the start of my career I’d always wanted to have my own PR agency and be financially independent – and I knew that was possible because I’d seen other women do it. I also wanted to start a family at some stage and felt that having your own business would be advantageous and offer work/life balance and flexibility in the future. These days that’s much more common; employees are given a lot more flexibility than was the case in the past.
I could see that once companies started telling their employees and customers what their values were, why they existed, their purpose, that gave all the company’s stakeholders something much more meaningful to connect with – and to me the PR practitioner’s role could be to guide those stakeholders along that transformational path.
When Wright Communications opened for business, there was just one agency in the UK which focused solely on sustainability PR – and I figured I could do the same here. My hunch was right: within three months of starting I signed up Toyota, which was to become our most significant and loyal client and began helping tell their sustainability story.
We’ve been telling sustainability stories ever since. But we’re also very conscious of our own need to honour a sustainability ethos as a business. We offer charities and ratepayer-funded organisations a reduced flat-rate, for example, regardless of the seniority of the PR consultant working on the programme, and we were the first kiwi PR company to measure our carbon footprint and offset the small amount of unavoidable emissions. Our footprint is tiny, but the exercise has equipped us to be able to make sense of a client’s carbon inventory when we’re preparing a Sustainability Report – just as we’d analyse a balance sheet in preparing an Annual Report. We also produce our own Sustainability Report each year so our clients and other interested parties can see what we grapple with as a profession, for example, attracting more men into the industry (a big issue) and gender pay equity – and how we deal with those challenges.
What were the client challenges you were looking to face at the time of opening?
In those first few months companies came to me generally seeking the more traditional PR support: communications strategies, perception audits and stakeholder engagement strategies, lots of media relations and some crisis preparedness manuals.
We had some unexpected calls – challenging briefs out of the blue like “Can you please help me measure my carbon footprint? I don’t know where to start.” At that time, the big accounting and environmental planning firms used the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol for such measurements, but it was a bit of a “black art” to PR companies. So I determined to find out more and spent time with Dr Ann Smith at Lincoln University – an expert on the practice – to understand it. With that knowledge, we could help companies not only measure their carbon footprint but also communicate that to their stakeholders and develop a strategy to reduce, mitigate or offset their emissions. From a PR point of view, there are many positive stories along that journey for businesses to share and enhance their reputation. Our focus in those early years was strongly an environmental one for our clients.
What are the client challenges in 2020?
Sustainability and the environment haven’t gone away; if anything the growing evidence of looming damage to the planet through climate change has heightened the sensitivity around those issues. But we’re seeing much more awareness, concern about and interest in social issues: diversity and inclusion, Maori welfare and rights, domestic violence, mental health. The importance of community cohesion has come to the fore too – highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis.
COVID-19 and a number of other potential threats to organisations have also raised interest in crisis communications and we’ve been working with a number of clients on how to streamline their preparedness for potential predictable (and some unpredictable) emergencies that might threaten financial or operational viability. We have also launched New Zealand’s first mobile-phone based crisis app for communications managers.
What have been some of Wright Communications biggest lessons along the way?
I strongly believe in the value of having a niche speciality as a business. While we’re a broad-scope agency, sustainability storytelling is that niche for us and we believe we’re the best in that space in New Zealand. Not all work that comes our way is necessarily right for us as an agency – and we’ve learnt to be prepared to refer business to a more suitable provider if the fit isn’t good for both parties.
I also feel it’s important to know who you are as a business and what you stand for – and recruit people who align with those values. For me, it’s about attitude and personality; I look for people who will contribute to creating a harmonious atmosphere in the office and in their relationships with clients, the media and other third parties.
What are a company’s first steps to including a PR company into its business model?
I think the most important point to proceed from is an understanding of what PR can do to support your corporate or marketing goals. PR is one set of tools – not the only set – to achieve those goals. But it definitely suits certain business communications requirements. Businesses should then understand very clearly what it is trying to achieve from the communications it requires: who it is trying to reach and what outcomes it is seeking.
Businesses also face the choice of either having in-house capability or outsourcing their PR needs and that often comes down to the magnitude of the need – or its complexity. External consulting support has many advantages: flexible resources, specialised skills and that valuable external perspective.
Is PR suitable for all companies? Why?
Every organisation can benefit from PR, not just businesses. They all have stakeholders – “publics” that they need to develop and maintain positive relations with, hence the term PR. Those publics might be customers, investors, shareholders, employees, donors, recipients, neighbours, politicians, or regulators; they might be supporters of the organisation or potentially detractors. Whatever the relationship an organisation needs to be able to manage the relationship towards positive ends. That generally means communicating with those publics about the organisation’s achievements, issues, actions and intentions. To neglect your PR can mean missing out on opportunities to improve your standing and reputation, or at worst failing to counter threats to, or attacks on, the organisation.
If you were to work with any international company as their main PR in New Zealand, who would it be and what do you think you could deliver?
Toyota is our largest client and in working with them we have drawn on every part of the PR toolkit including ethics, marketing communications, media relations, investor relations, employee engagement, crisis and issues management and community relations. The dream is to work with informed clients that can brief us in a way that gets the best out of us, and who are prepared to resource the work to enable it to succeed. Our partnership with Toyota has enabled us to succeed as a small business; for that we are eternally grateful and their number one supporter.
In working with international companies in the sustainability area as their New Zealand PR arm, our aim is to identify the story they wish to tell here, and the best channels and strategies for them in the NZ context, then help them become as kiwified and sustainable as possible and communicate their business milestones to their stakeholders.
Wright Communications is independently owned and NZ-based; how do you think that gives you a leverage over international companies with an NZ arm?
The main benefit is consistency and longevity of the owner in the client relationship; the depth of knowledge I have for our clients’ business has been established over 14 years. We don’t have the churn of some agencies. Churn is a frustration for clients because they find themselves briefing one person and then a year or so later having to brief a new person.
I feel multi-nationals are also driven more by the bottom line. I want to manage a profitable business as well, but I am more flexible in terms of the time my consultants are prepared to put into client work. I banned the vocab in the office around “billable units” from day one; I didn’t want my team stressing about that.
This story is part of a StopPress series celebrating the ever changing PR landscape. To read more on Storyteller Month, click here.