Kate Hartley | Innovator 25 EMEA 2021

Kate Hartley




The pandemic has made people innovate. Businesses have been transformed and gone online, and the PR industry has realised its value, particularly in crisis communications."

In 2011, in the wake of several high-profile instances where a brand’s reputation had suffered because of decisions made on Facebook and Twitter, reputation management and corporate PR expert Kate Hartley and social media and content specialist Tamara Littleton were talking about how important it was for brands to get crisis management right on social media. They realised the recipe for success would be a completely new idea: combining a technology platform to simulate social channels, with a team of social media specialists who really understood how the public react to issues in social media, enhanced by experience in corporate PR and reputation management. Since launching crisis simulation firm Polpeo in 2013, Hartley and Littleton have helped some of the world’s biggest brands across the FMCG, food and drink, financial services, automotive and the public sector prepare to deal with a crisis as it breaks and spreads over social and digital media. As Covid hit, the team seamlessly pivoted to virtual training, at a time when every firm in the world was clamouring for crisis support. A trainer in crisis communications for the PRCA, Hartley – who wears her wisdom and experience very lightly – is also the author of ‘Communicate in a Crisis’, which explores the changing way people behave in crisis situations, and how organisations respond.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
About the same. There's some great innovation coming from some sectors, but it really depends on the sector/agency.

Do you think the global pandemic has made the industry more innovative?
The pandemic has made people innovate. Businesses have been transformed and gone online, and the industry has realised its value, particularly in crisis communications.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Crisis management, content creation, technology transformation - there are so many areas we can take the lead on now.

Who most influences how innovative a brand's engagement is?
I think the comms team is a real influencer on this, but ultimately it comes down to the vision of the CEO and CMO.

How do you define innovation?
Innovation is rethinking how you do something, to transform a business or process. It's bringing to life a great idea in order to solve a problem.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
I'm a big fan of John Brown's Don't Cry Wolf agency, which is pushing brands to be activists and a force for good. Equally, I love Stephen and Sarah Waddington's Socially Mobile initiative, which is taking on the lack of diversity in PR and comms.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
P&G has always been a real leader in marketing innovation. I also love the brands which aren't afraid to stand up for what they believe in - like Ben & Jerry's. There are some interesting agencies around at the moment, too, who are having to innovate – like Don't Cry Wolf and Hard Numbers.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
In 2011, I was talking to my co-founder about why brands found it so hard to communicate on social media in a crisis. We realised it was because they had no way to practise how they'd deal with a crisis breaking on social media. So we decided then and then to build a simulator to let them do that. It was a real light bulb moment, and we haven't looked back.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation? 
Steve Jobs for selling us technology we never knew we needed, and being so completely right. Every scientist who's ever been involved in vaccine research.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Get more sleep and take a break! Visit a gallery, go to a concert, get away from the screen. Talk to people unrelated to your industry.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Give yourself more time to think. We all get so caught up in the day to day 'doing' that we don't have time to have ideas. Build that time into your working life.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
Writing a novel. I have so many ideas for books swirling round my head.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
Steve Peters' The Chimp Paradox. It should be required reading. I also took some brilliant CityLit courses – a couple in psychology, and one random one on the lives of Victorian women. They were great brainfood.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
When I finish work in the evening, I go downstairs and my wife and I will play music and dance round the kitchen. It's the best commute ever.