The Innovation SABRE Awards — North America 2020
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Fifteen years before all agencies were forced to become virtual, George Blizzard – along with co-conspirator Nicky Regazzoni – saw an opportunity to innovate the agency model and form the first global PR agency to be virtual by design, The PR Network. The duo, who started their careers in B2B technology communications and met at Bite before launching their own venture, were also ahead of the rest of the industry in leading the firm together in a seamless job share from the start. Their network of senior independent communications professionals now extends to more than 2,000 associates across 40 countries. Since 2005, they have worked with global brands including Workday, Zipcar, ABG (Avis), Vodafone, Dropbox, Toyota, Lexus, Sophos, Snapchat and Patagonia, as well as innovative start-ups. In 2018, the super-smart pair – both passionate advocates for flexible working, female leadership and gender parity in the industry, including being mentors for Women in PR – launched a PRCA working group to champion virtual agencies as a credible choice for clients. This year, Blizzard and Regazzoni’s vision meant they didn’t skip a beat while the rest of the industry had to work out overnight how to pivot to virtual.
Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry?
Innovation is often associated with shiny new tech - but to me it’s always been about flexibility: how we can tweak and improve to add value. Innovation is the birth child of creativity! I think the PR/communications industry has always been adept at reinventing itself, whether it’s the birth of social media and the opportunities associated with that, or the success of the podcast and video comms like TikTok. The one area I feel still needs focus is how we work, not what we do. For example, there are still huge strides to be made – which the pandemic has highlighted – in how forward-thinking we are in enabling our people to work smartly, whether that’s providing greater flexibility or remote working, or encouraging parents to return to work or catering for our industry’s woeful mental health statistics.
How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
In previous years, I would have said it was lagging behind some of the other marketing disciplines, but this year, it feels like comms has come of age. With the plethora of challenges brought with the pandemic, the entire communications and PR function really had to innovate, bend and flex to meet the demand placed upon it.
How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
Beyond the obvious issues that all businesses have faced in terms of dispersed workforces, cost management and new ways of working, the PR and communications industry has actually risen to the challenge of implementing flexible working across the board, seeing that people can collaborate and be creative without being in the same room all day every day. I hope these changes become longer term once we return to ‘normal’ business life post-pandemic in 2021.
The industry has also had to counter misinformation and try and cut through complex and erroneous messages, and to respond to a closer relationship with its publics. Companies have had to respond carefully and thoughtfully with a viewpoint via social media, whether regarding Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement or the US election.
Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
We now have the ear of the board, by delivering complex messaging in a crisis. There is a renewed respect – a renaissance of the PR and communications industry – so now is the time to role model how many of our client organisations should work. We are essentially a people focused industry, by showing that we can work in organisations that are compassionate, kind, welcoming and outcome-driven (not measuring how successful employees are by measuring their time), we can take the lead.
What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
I would always say working in partnership lends itself best for creativity and innovation. Diversity of thought is important whenever you make a decision and I’ve always benefited from that with my job-share with Nicky Regazzoni.
Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
It’s made me realise that innovation isn’t about shiny, sexy, new technology – it can be about lateral thinking and clever tweaks that result in a better, high value outcome. I’ve learned to embrace the simple shifts that make a big difference, whether that’s a new way of handling internal comms or the launch of a new product line.
What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
There have been some brilliant innovations in the area of virtual meetings, beyond Zoom. We rate Mmhmm, which recently launched. I experienced it first-hand on a client event and it is a refreshing way of engaging with your audience. I’ve also loved seeing all the events companies quickly bring content and events online – the events industry has really shown how resilient and agile it can be this year. It was also a lot of fun watching our industry awards creatively embrace online awards.
What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
To be grateful. If we’ve learnt anything this year, it’s got to be how important it is to appreciate what we have, we just have no idea what is coming around the corner and sadly, there is always someone somewhere worse off.
Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
Setting up The PR Network with Nicky in 2005 and committing to running it via our job-share.
Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
Trying not to worry about something until it happens as more often than not, it won’t. I’m also exercising more than I have ever done in my life and I’d like that to continue, as it’s made such a difference to my overall health and most importantly my mental health.
How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
I like the expression “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. We need to continue role modelling when we get it right and talking openly when we get it wrong. To support greater representation and social mobility, we need to be prepared to step aside to give others a platform, for example passing a speaking opportunity to a peer. There are some phenomenal agencies doing great work in this area and we should be celebrating them. The biggest obstacle is fear – of getting it wrong, or offending someone.
What are you thinking about most these days?
What the world is going to be like for my girls. So many big things have happened this year, some good and some bad. I worry and rejoice in equal measures about the world they are going to inherit. And GCSEs as my eldest is currently sitting her mocks – that is invading my head space right now!
Your bold prediction for 2021…
I think next year will be the year of compassion and partnership. 2020 has been a rollercoaster of emotions and crises, some of which are coming to an end with a new US leadership on the horizon, and a vaccine rollout. We will all dust ourselves down, pick ourselves up and start again. I’m hoping we will see a more collegiate approach with companies working together and supporting each other and more thoughtful and compassionate values at the forefront. I’d like to see more companies work towards B Corp status and put those kinds of moral values at the heart of their business - not just the financial metrics.
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