In our Headliners series of conversations, we get under the skin of PR and communications leaders around the world who have made PRovoke Media headlines recently, uncovering what they see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for the industry, where they find inspiration (and how they switch off), what they’ve learned about themselves, as well as the creative campaigns they love and the work they are most proud of.

In the latest Q&A in the series, we chat to Arent Jan (AJ) Hesselink, who was recently named as Edelman's new EMEA CEO as part of a series of leadership changes at the agency. 

What are the greatest challenges and opportunities for the PR and communications industry over the next 12 months?

I think it will be to stay true to the most important thing we are here to do and that is to help solve and address fundamental business and reputation challenges with solutions that are as smart and integrated as possible. There is a real risk of the communications industry allowing itself to be knocked off mission in the short term by the emergence and sophistication of generative AI technologies. We should make sure we keep our eye on the ball and remain focused on the bigger needs of our clients, and find ways to have these developments truly help to solve clients’ longer-term challenges – not fall into the trap of providing gimmicky, shiny, partial solutions that feel good in the moment but do not solve anything on a fundamental level.

What’s the best PR campaign you’ve seen recently and why?

An impressive campaign I’ve seen this year is ‘Time to Read’ for the UAE’s largest bookseller, Kinokuniya. The brand was seeing rapidly decreasing book sales, and the campaign aimed to challenge the excuse that people just don’t have time to read anymore. Using mobile phone data from across the UAE, they brought to life – through outdoor activations and through an online campaign – how much time people were spending scrolling through social channels instead of reading a book. At a time when people are constantly distracted by the next digital trend – AI, NFTs, ChatGPT – it was a really smart way to remind people about the power of an old-fashioned novel. It was such a smart use of data, employed classic PR guerrilla tactics, and drove sales for the brand. 

What work from your team are you most proud of over the past year?

Our team in Italy recently created a beautiful piece of work for Stiga Gardencare to tackle habitat loss and its impact on flora and fauna, #MyPatchOfGreen. Using innovative non-damaging electrodes, we tapped into the ultrasonic frequencies of plants – usually inaudible to the human ear – and translated those frequencies into musical notes. We invited attendees to immerse themselves in the world of plants with an interactive experience at Milan Design Week. It was such a smart way to introduce a B2B brand to a B2C audience. For me it was Edelman at its best: sharp creative, clever use of technology and innovation, and a deep understanding of audiences and storytelling. I am proud of this for the work itself, but also because it is from our wonderful team in Italy, where we have been expanding capabilities significantly. I consider this campaign a sign of things to come. 

What have you learned about yourself over the past couple of years?

There is not enough space on this page to list it all, but much of it comes down to how leadership roles provide you a better-calibrated perspective on what your role is every day. I believe that fundamentally I am here to try and help everyone I interact with in this large agency become a little bit better every time we work together, whether that is through providing vision, clearing roadblocks, offering personal support or by rolling up my sleeves and working with them on something hard for our clients. I have learned that I am good at communicating clearly and precisely, and converting broader objectives into what they mean for individuals and teams. I want to believe that could be the start of great work for many. 

How do you switch off and maintain wellness?

I’m an avid road and gravel cyclist. When out, I am thinking of nothing but the miles ahead of me, whether they are flat such as in the Netherlands or sloped such as in Spain, a country I love spending time in.  

What cultural source has provided creative inspiration for you lately?

Like many of us, I just finished Succession on HBO. Outside of the obvious and incredible quality of the show, I have been amazed by how much it reflects the times we live in on so many levels. My main inspiration is that it gave me so much clarity on what sort of person I never want to become. 

If I wasn’t working in PR/comms I would be…

I got to this point along a meandering path through journalism, in-house corporate communications, a CMO role and a few other things – all in the space of media and communications. If I could do it all again I would seriously consider a career as a house painter and decorator. I find that sort of work incredibly calming and fulfilling.