One way Covid-19 is reshaping public relations is by encouraging communications professionals to work together rather than in competition. Accelerating a pre-existing trend, boutique agencies are connecting and collaborating to help clients and prospects to reimagine their place in the post-pandemic world.

That’s a sizable shift, because until recently collaboration was not something public relations is known for. “Historically, communication consultants haven’t played nice with each other,” is how Lou Hoffman, president of The Hoffman Agency, puts it.

Even before the coronavirus appeared, competition’s dominance was weakening. The Sway Effect, established in 2019 by former Ogilvy executive Jennifer Risi, is a high-profile bellwether for this emerging phenomenon.

Risi has assembled approximately two dozen boutique agencies and other resources into a collaborative network that can bring myriad top-level talents to address client needs for internal and external communications, brand strategy and equity programming. The result has won business for the fledgling organization from the likes of World Trade and Tourism Council, UN Women, Becton Dickinson, enterprise software maker Appian and digital media brand Betches.

Risi says the emphasis on collaboration rather than competition explains The Sway Effect’s appeal. “We assemble the right teams for clients no matter where the experts are based,” Risi says. “There are no barriers any more.”

Now, as she and her network partners see it, there is an even sharper need for the flexibility of independents and availability of experts to serve as extensions of brand teams. “Clients can’t pay for the excess costs right now and with the big agencies making cuts and doing furloughs, everything that an independent network like sway has to offer is more important than ever right now,” Risi reasons.

Risi and her Sway Effect network partners are responding by working with clients – sometimes at no charge – to re-imagine their brands in the radically changed communications environment. A second Covid-19 response especially highlights cross-collaboration by bringing together clients from different industries to share ideas.

“We’re leveraging our current client base and we’re learning,” Risi says. “We’re going to be helpful and supportive where we can.”

The Sway Background

Risi says the impetus for the collaborative network came to her in 2019 when she was exploring setting up a boutique firm after nearly a decade with Ogilvy, where she last held the title of Worldwide Chief Communications Officer and Global Managing Director of the Media Influence team. “I thought I’d be a consultant working with a bunch of clients and have a small shop,” Risi says. “But very quickly this became a network of experts.”

Clients were drawn to Risi’s reputation as much as the chance to leverage the talents of the network members. They include Mitchell Markson, also a former Ogilvy executive, now of brand positioning company Markson IdeaCraft. Another is Anne Madison of 357 Communications, who came from Brand USA where she worked with Risi. Social impact firm Good Scout, headed by Phillips McCarty, is another member.

Risi says clients like the opportunity to work directly with experienced veterans. But that’s not all, nor was The Sway Effect the only example of collaboration in the industry even pre-Covid.

Hoffman’s firm, for instance, is collaborating with Hotwire to provide solutions in Asia-Pacific for Hotwire clients, where Hotwire doesn’t have offices. Markson says he’s partnered with another network in addition to The Sway Effect.

So is collaboration really a trend in PR? Risi thinks so. “There’s more collaboration from everywhere now,” she say. “People who might have competed in the past are now in collaborations.”

Collaboration’s Appeal

Flexibility and agility lie near the core of The Sway Effect’s charm for clients. Risi says unlike a large agency the network can find and fit the right resources to a job rather than trying to fit the job to available resources. “We’re standing out because we’re not assembling a team based on what we have,” Risi says. “We’re assembling a team based on the RFP.”

Furthermore, clients can count on working with veteran experts rather than getting handed off to junior associates, adds Anne Madison. “The people on your account are the people who pitch the business to you,” she says. “So often you have a great pitch, a great account team and it changes and fades and the highest level people are not at your disposal. In this one you have the highest level people, it’s purpose driven, it’s passionate and it doesn’t change.”

Another difference is that network members are what Markson describes as “purpose-driven rather than billing-driven.” At larger agencies, Markson explains, people tend to see client initiatives as opportunities to bill the hours needed to sustain their careers. It’s different in a peer-to-peer collaborative network. “There is no hierarchy in this model,” Markson says. “There’s not a lot of posturing.”

Also unlike larger agencies, Markson says the network is more willing to acknowledge its shortcomings, even to clients. “We’re not looking to be all things to all people,” he says. “We’re able to assess and say, ‘You might be better off working with someone else.”

At the same time, just being part of the network makes individual collaborators better, according to Phillips McCarty. “The great thing about the network is that we’re in very consistent communication and contact with one another,” he says. “It gives you that creative energy and the opportunity to collaborate. You unpack and find new ways to approach business that you may not typically do on your own.”

Changing Client Dynamics

The Sway Effect to a degree is less about changing the industry than responding to changes already taking place before Covid-19. For example, Risi says the collaborative network, freed of the overhead costs of large agencies, can offer savings that are of particular interest today. “The model has shown us that the cost structure that’s needed to support a big agency doesn’t make sense any more,” she says.

Brands also are looking for different types of solutions. Specifically, Risi maintains, clients want access to experts and the ability to collaborate with partners who can move as quickly as they do.

“It has never been a more interesting time,” Risi concludes. “Clients are under more pressure than ever. They’re looking for people to come on as an extension of their team to collaborate. They don’t want the traditional models and the rigmarole of being part of a bigger agency.”

At Appian, Vice President of Communications Ben Farrell says The Sway Effect’s contribution is on top of what it’s getting from agencies. The software maker continues to work with Hotwire in the U.S., Edelman in Europe and Mulberry in Asia-Pacific. “Our PR agencies around the world do our corporate PR programs,” Farrell says. “The Sway Effect is additive to that.”

Farrell lauds The Sway Effect for its nimbleness, but the opportunity to work specifically and directly with The Sway Effect founder is another big reason why Appian is on board. “We’re working with Jen to engage with an influencer program primarily with our CEO to make sure that the right circles and broader communities of people become aware of our vision, what we’re doing and why it matters,” Farrell says.

This theme of clients wanting to work with top talent underlies much of The Sway Effect’s own marketing message. Having the ability to tap its network means clients get access to more high level specialists. As McCarty puts it, “The Sway Effect allows us to bring the best of the best to the table.”

Markson describes what they do as more of a consulting model than a traditional client-agency model. “This is a very flexible model,” he says. “You can bring in a psychologist; you can bring in an artist. It doesn’t have to be the traditional agency folk as usual.”

Markson also anticipates network clients collaborating with each other. “There’s going to come a point where a client like UN Women could do something with Betches,” he says. “How do we get seemingly disparate clients to collaborate and create something new? That’s the future and that’s the possibility.”

Re-Imagination and Cross-Pollination

Two Sway Effect initiatives respond specifically to post-pandemic realities. In re-imagination sessions with clients, Risi and her collaborators do an analysis of a client, what’s happening in the industry, what may be happening in other industries and how that  might affect their strategy. “We talk about how they might start talking about themselves in a different way, with different mediums and different messages,” she says. “And we’re doing it at no cost. We’re doing it to strengthen the relationship and show value.”

For Betches, re-imagination generated an idea for “Quarantine Programming” to address the special needs of 2020. “It’s a little escape and a little fun for their audience,” Risi explains.

“On a bigger scale, we’re helping them re-imagine their entire brand,” she continues. “This was pre-Covid. But it’s even more important coming out of Covid-19. How do we re-imagine these brands? It needs to be authentic. It need to focus on impact. It needs to drive change as opposed to give lip service.”

The cross-pollination sessions are even more unusual. “We’re bringing different types of clients together – such as a travel client and a tech client – and talking about how they are working and sharing best practices,” Risi says. “We’re bringing together strange bedfellows to learn from other brands.” Her diverse client list, consisting of governmental and commercial brands in fields from retail to health, helps make this approach work.

These two initiatives directly address post-Covid needs of communications prospects and clients, Risi believes. “We’re serving as an extension of the team,” she says. “We’re bringing the right experts together across any area of expertise you need. And we’re bringing together folks who wouldn’t necessarily be together. We’re breaking down silos.”

The Diversity and Inclusion Effect

While there may be other collaborative networks, The Sway Effect is uniquely distinguished by the founder’s core-deep emphasis on promoting diversity and inclusion. Long before organizing The Sway Effect, Risi was known for championing equity through her personal speaking, writing and mentoring as well as professionally with UN Women and other initiatives.

“The focus on diversity and inclusion and equity needs to be integrated into everything clients do today,” Risi says. “That’s a key thing of who we are.”

“Part of the reason I created Sway is that I wanted to create a company that worked the way we did and had the same values,” Risi continues. “In this day and age, that’s very important.”

That is another area where Risi can likely expect to find some degree of commonality, if not outright collaboration, with her professional colleagues. For example, Hoffman says, “I totally applaud this idea of bringing greater diversity and inclusivity in the communications world. That’s something we’ve lagged behind on a bit.”

Collaboration Constraints

While Risi is sure she’s spied an opportunity to exploit some of the big agencies’ weaknesses, that doesn’t imply that agencies are over. “We’re not knocking agencies,” Markson says. “There’s a right time for agencies too. But the agency model is not right all the time.” For instance, Markson says, The Sway Effect’s lower cost structure and greater flexibility allow it work with startups that lack the scale to retain a big agency.

Hoffman is not sure that collaboration is itself a scalable business strategy in communications. Most collaborations seem to be based on deep personal and professional connections as much as tectonic industry shifts. Hoffman and Hotwire CEO Barbara Bates, for instance, knew each for decades before they entered into a collaboration.

“The fact that we have a relationship in place, know each other and trust each other gives us the basis to form this relationship,” Hoffman says. Risi too has prior connections with some Sway Effect collaborators and clients.

Hoffman also questions whether collaborative networks can provide more than a small portion of the capability a communications consultant needs. “The idea of collaborating and going outside your door is something we’re going to continue to see,” he says. “But if you’re having to go outside your door to handle 50 to 75 percent of that assignment, it’s probably the wrong assignment for you.”

The Sway Effect Future

Others see not evolution but revolution. “We’re starting a movement,” Madison says. “You’re going to see agencies try to replicate this. I don’t think you’re going to see agencies do it. And you’re going to see clients seek out this model.”

Markson’s vision is even more far-reaching. “I want to see the future of this be the non-pitching model,” he says, explaining that clients may simply decide they want to work with him, Risi, Madison or another network member and rule out competitors.

Risi suggests much change is already here, and accelerating. “I’m seeing the need for collaboration and support and working together than ever. There’s a lot more transparency and authenticity. People are asking, ‘Can you help me with this. If not, who can?’ It’s refreshing. It was seeing this before Covid-19. Now I’m seeing it more.”