In this episode of On Record PR, members of the Furia Rubel team go on record to discuss trends in digital marketing, public and media relations, crisis communications, business development, and talent acquisition and retention.
Welcome, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I’m Gina Rubel, host of On Record PR and founder of Furia Rubel Communications. With us today are Leslie Richards, our chief innovation officer, Sarah Larson, our executive vice president of public relations, Jennifer Simpson Carr, our director of business development, and Caitlan McCafferty, our public relations account director. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the founding of Furia Rubel.
I was actually working in a bedroom in a small farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and here we are in 2022. And along the way, each of these incredible professionals and others have joined the team to support Furia Rubel and, most importantly, our clients. And with that, we’ve grown from clients in Pennsylvania, in New Jersey, to clients throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and hopefully in other countries as well. Along the way, there have been many lessons learned, lifelong relationships built, incredible clients, and tons of work to be proud of.
Of course, as we begin 2022, it’s hard for any of us to fathom that we are still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s something that we thought was going to go on for a few weeks, and then a few months, and now a few years, and it has really changed every industry that any of us touch. It’s changed banking, legal, healthcare, and a variety of other industries that Furia Rubel serves.
Today, we’re going to discuss where we see things going in 2022 and beyond and really just want to have a conversation. And hopefully our listeners will have some wonderful takeaways. Leslie joined Furia Rubel in 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic. After 17 years in a leadership role in digital marketing, Leslie is our chief innovation officer.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen that relate to innovation that have affected our agency and our clients?
Leslie Richards: Thank you, Gina, for that introduction. We’re in an industry that is constantly evolving, so change has got to be part of the DNA of anybody who’s in the digital marketing space. But if I were to point to some of the really significant ones, a lot of them have been fueled by the current environment. That has been an acceleration of digital trends, particularly for industries that were lagging behind. They’ve sort of been given a push to move forward and understand the digital landscape and engage with it in ways that they may not have in the past.
We’re seeing updates in Google for things like Core Web Vitals, where we’re really focused on how websites perform for the user and what the user experience is about. We’re seeing a new focus on user intent when we do things like keyword research. There are just so many. Automation is absolutely critical. Personalization is critical. These are trends that have been building, but they’ve really accelerated in recent months and years.
Gina Rubel: Leslie, you used a term Core Website Vitals. What is that?
Leslie Richards: We actually have a blog about it on our website, but it is a way that Google evaluates the user experience on a site. How quickly do your pages load? Do you have elements on your page that shift with page load in a way that’s disorienting? Do you have engagement? In other words, do people spend time on your page? That’s an indication to Google that you have content of value. They’re looking for visually rich pages. They’re looking for audio content.
Audio content saw a huge spike in 2021, and something like 43% of marketers have audio content available. A larger percentage say that they’re going to invest in audio content for 2022.
Gina Rubel: Interesting. Yesterday, we were talking to a client who may be closing one of its offices and you provided something to think about. Can you share what that was because I didn’t think of it?
Leslie Richards: Sure. I had past experience with a client who had a number of locations of business and they used WeWork or Regus Spaces for attorneys to come and have meetings, and those attorneys were based in that locale. But because they were using a co-working space, Google wouldn’t recognize that as a location for that business. Just a preference, I guess, or a guideline that Google uses when identifying business profiles and featuring those businesses on the map. It’s now called Google Business Profile. The map pin that you get when you search on a particular company and it shows you where it is on the map and what related companies are on the map, those all feed your Google Business Profile.
Gina Rubel: Listeners, this is something we all need to be thinking about, right? Because many companies are going virtual. What I want to say is I learn every day from our team and we hope that in this podcast our listeners will learn something new as well.
Caitlan, could you please share a bit about your role and history with Furia Rubel and some of the trends you anticipate in public relations?
Caitlan McCafferty: Sure. I’ve been at Furia Rubel for five years, and I work mostly with our law firm clients in a PR and media relations capacity. I think that the trends I’m seeing are similar to what Leslie was saying, the power of digital. I think there’s been a lot of news in the media space lately about reporters going out on their own and sort of leaving institutional publications. Ben Smith, who’s a writer for The New York Times, just announced a new publication that he’s sort of embarking on that will cover global news.
I think you’ve seen the rise of newsletters and Substack has been a really great option for journalists to sort of create their own content and not be dependent upon institutions that have been laying them off in great numbers. I think that relationship between writer and company is going to continue.
I also think that from those startup publications, there is sort of a renewed focus on local news. Axios is an example. Axios started a few years ago as sort of an inside baseball political publication., and they started offshoots in various cities. They have one for Philadelphia, which is where I live, and I get that newsletter every day. It’s in addition to your institutional publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer, or WHYY, et cetera. I also think you’ll see partnerships between institutions and those sort of digital offshoots. Another example is Billy Penn, which has been a local Philadelphia publication for a long time, was merged with WHYY. And now they’re WHYY’s digital written outlet and WHYY’s radio station here.
I think those interesting collaborations are going to continue in the mainstream space. I don’t think we’ve seen that in legal industry pubs as much. I think you’ll see an increase in podcasts, which Law.com has been investing in. But also similarly, like Above the Law is a very powerful source in the legal space and it continues to be so.
Gina Rubel: Its founder, David Lat, is now out on his own with a whole new publication.
Caitlan McCafferty: Yeah. I think we’re going to continue to see those things happening and staff at institutions decreasing just due to the business model and the pain points that they’ve been experiencing for the last 15 years.
Sarah Larson: 25.
Gina Rubel: Which is a perfect segue to Sarah for a moment.
Sarah Larson: I had to put my reading glasses on there, because I’ve got something to read to you.
Share a little bit about your history with the agency, your background, and where you see the media landscape going.
Sarah Larson: Well, it’s really interesting because I think my own background and my experience actually kind of is a personalized embodiment of the trends that both Leslie and Caitlan were just talking about. I started out my career as a journalist, and I was a journalist for about 18 years. I moved into PR, and I’ve been with Furia Rubel nine years. The trajectory of my career, both in general and what I do at Furia Rubel, reflects all of these things that we were just talking about.
What does that mean for clients? Number one, it means that there are far fewer journalists to tell your story to, and they are far busier than they ever used to be. And they are interested in what they are interested in, not always what their publications are interested in. It’s a really fine balance of trying to figure out who to go to and where your audience is and how to get that person’s attention. Just to put some numbers to what Caitlan was talking about, mergers, closures, acquisitions, layoffs have been plaguing the journalism industry for at least 20, 25 years.
There’s a really interesting theory on how it all got started. It’s actually probably Craigslist because they stole the advertising revenue for the… If you wanted to sell a bike back when I was a kid, you bought a classified ad. You don’t have to do that anymore. You can post it on Facebook. That was sort of the beginning of the end. I’m probably dating myself.
Gina Rubel: Did you know that my very first job in college was selling classified ads?
Sarah Larson: Yeah? I’m pretty sure that job doesn’t exist anymore. They do still try to sell display ads, but the number of newsroom jobs has declined by about 27-28,000, just since 2008. And it had already fallen before then as well. So long story short, there are fewer journalists. There are fewer publications. They are owned by a very small number of players, many of them hedge funds that are no longer really interested in turning out local news.
They’re interested in buying up the locations, selling off the property, and then closing it, because that’s how you make money right now. All of this is to say that there is still so much change going on in the way we communicate to people. It’s not just news. It’s news. It’s entertainment. It’s communications. We will continue to see, as Caitlan said, these spinoffs of very well-known journalists, taking what we now call their brand and making it their own. They don’t have to respond anymore to what the publication wants or feel like they’re being held hostage.
Especially reporters and journalists in their mid-level career just feel like they’re held hostage and waiting for the next round of layoffs. And that’s not a great way to produce innovative work and a lot of them really still want to do that. We’ll continue to see a consolidation of media outlets. What that means for clients though, is two things. Number one, it may be harder to find a spot for you in The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, wherever you think you want to appear.
A lot of that is ego. Your audience isn’t there. They’re not going to make their decision based on that. Really understanding how your audience makes their buying decisions and communicating to them through that way is very, very important and will be more important moving forward. And on the other hand, we have so many more options to get to that audience now. We have independent bloggers. We have influencers.
There was a report yesterday in The Wall Street Journal that influencers are now out ranking CEOs for the amount of money that they’re making each year, like $15 million. That would’ve been unheard of even five years ago. A lot of that has shifted the work that I do at Furia Rubel. While we started out mainly in PR, now I very much more oversee content and crisis communications, both of which are an essential part of our clients’ plans moving forward.
Leslie Richards: I think what keys into this, Sarah, is that you need to find much more niche targeted areas to communicate to specific audiences. Digital tools help you do that. I think that everybody in this space knows that the greater the personalization, the higher the return on investment in terms of people who convert to brand loyalists, people who become clients or customers.
The space has gotten more competitive overall, not just the media landscape, but certainly the information landscape. I think personalization and targeting as a result become more important.
Caitlan McCafferty: And before we move on for media relations, I would sort of stress that the basics of media relations stay the same. I was talking to a client yesterday. You have to be really thoughtful about pitches and the sort of “send the press release everywhere” method will never work. You have to find the reporter that will be interested and really find the source for them that will fill that gap of knowledge for them. Like Sarah was saying, they’re so busy. They don’t have the support anymore of research teams or anything like that.
It’s really our job to figure out what they’re reporting, pay close attention and fill that knowledge gap and really be useful.
Gina Rubel: I’d like to share something too, a lesson learned as you will. It’s really incumbent upon us as communicators to make sure that all of the information, all of the details are included when you’re pitching the media, whether it be a company’s finances, the number of employees, all of that information needs to be readily available and up to date, because otherwise they may be relying on old information. Like you said, Caitlan, there’s no one there researching it anymore.
Companies need to even be more transparent than they’ve ever been, and that’s how you get credible correct stories. That really comes down to our jobs and making sure that’s there.
Caitlan McCafferty: We could talk about Eisenberg, the reason why that was successful. We had a client that had a police involved shooting. It was a civil case suing the Philadelphia Police Department. That 10 years ago would be a huge deal. Would bring people to the press conference. That same day, Bill Cosby was in court at Montgomery County, and there was an escaped prisoner in Bucks County as well.
Sarah Larson: And a pedophile case.
Caitlan McCafferty: It was a big news day in the Philadelphia area. In the course of our preparation, we arranged for a private cameraman to come and film the press conference. We packaged the materials for the media and our client’s press conference was still on every single news program in the Philadelphia area that evening. That’s a great example of giving the media everything they need, and really doing some of that legwork for them, which they no longer have the resources to do.
Sarah Larson: And that makes it so important to have people on the team who know what a new story looks like, right? We were able to do that because you directed the videographer to take B roll and do the entire shoot as if he were reporting a news story because he was a former journalist.
Gina Rubel: Before we keep going on that, I do want to share with our listeners that if you go to our website, and you go to the podcast page, there are categories like media relations. We have lots of podcasts there with members of the media who will share even more details about what they’re looking for. I do encourage listeners to go there.
Jennifer, share a little bit about your journey and how public relations plays a role in what you do in business development.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Absolutely. Prior to joining the agency two years ago, I spent about a decade in house at a number of Am Law 200 and mid-market law firms, leading business development and marketing communications teams, all with the goal of new client acquisition and new business acquisition and retention, and also, in part, talent acquisition and retention, because it all goes hand-in-hand. What I’ve learned is the significant role that public relations plays in supporting the business development process.
As you heard earlier, digital is such a big part of our world today and our clients’ world. We know from research that a significant part of the buyer’s journey is conducted online before they ever pick up the phone or send an email to a prospective business partner. The important role that public relations plays is ensuring that your firm, your company, and your thought leaders’ content is out there in many different ways. And that could be byline articles. It could be interviews with the media. It could be being a guest on a podcast.
And what that does is it helps position your people and important topics in the places where your prospective clients are reading. Taking a really holistic public relations approach and ensuring that you’re speaking on the topics that are top of mind for your clients and you are in the areas of the media where they will be listening and reading is important.
Because as they start to use the internet to search for the topics that they care about, how it impacts their business, how it impacts their day-to-day role, and what the expectations are of them as an executive, your content will be available and they will be able to see that you and your people are thought leaders and that you have your finger on the pulse of the issues they’re facing.
What that means for our clients is to continue to think about the questions that your clients are asking you every day, the questions that you’re hearing, and working closely with your in-house PR team or your outside public relations partner to make sure that you’re creating content around those really important and timely topics for your clients, and ensuring that it’s not just a one stop shop approach, that you really are taking a 360 view of how that content can be shared.
And what I mean by that, again, is pitching topics to the media, drafting articles for byline, posting information on your website, being a guest on a podcast, really taking an approach so that any prospective client or purchaser of your services can find you and the topics they need to find where they are in their day.
Gina Rubel: And one of the things I’ve learned from you, Jennifer, and I love the way you do this is you’ll be speaking to a prospective client and you always use a resource and say, “Well, for example, here’s a resource that can share more about that specific topic,” and it may be a podcast that one of us was on or one of our guests on our podcast, which really demonstrates that we understand those issues as well, because, A, we know they’re important and we’re asking the right questions.
Every piece of work that your company does should have value. It’s not just that grandiose marketing brochure that everybody used to call and say, “Hey, can you make me a brochure,” which I don’t think anybody really looks at anymore.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Absolutely. As corporations continue to feel the pressure of creating greater cost efficiency, as we continue to deal with COVID, as the world is unfortunately nervous about a potential recession, we’re going through inflation right now, there’s going to continue to be cost pressures for in-house counsel. What that typically means and what we’ve seen in the past is that it typically forces them to go into some type of convergence program in order to try to create some type of cost savings.
Why I point that out is that if you are taking these steps to have content and proactive PR, when you’re going through those convergence programs and when you receive RFPs, you will already have an arsenal of great content that you can share in response to that RFP process or pitching processes with those general counsel.
Gina Rubel: I know we have listeners across many industries – what we’re talking about when we talk about convergence is the consolidation of law firms. But that same process holds true with the consolidation of vendors, consolidation of employee roles and talent. It’s important to understand that you need to have a wealth of content, whether it be new content or media relations content, that’s going to help drive that business development function.
I wanted to make sure that all of our listeners understand what convergence is in our everyday work world and how it relates to them.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I want to add one more point because I’ve talked about the business side of things, but I think we’ve all learned in COVID that there’s this humanizing side that people really appreciate. It is also very important on the public relations side to promote the culture of your organization and the great work that you’re doing, not just that you’re getting paid for an exchange of your services for money, but also the volunteer work that your firm supports or the volunteerism that your attorneys or your staff are doing or your executives.
That is just as important as promoting timely topics and important information about business. We find with our clients that the humanizing content on social media typically receives even more engagement than the timely news topic. It’s important to have that as part of the public relations mix when you’re thinking about attracting and retaining new business, but also talent whose values might align with your business.
Leslie Richards: I think it’s particularly timely because we’ve seen the trends in resignations really accelerate during the pandemic. I saw a recent Google Trends report that said “how to write a resignation letter,” the search phrase, is up by 60% in 2021. The phrase “follow up email after interview” is up by 80%. Retention is increasingly important. A stable team is key to just smooth operations, and we all know the cost of hiring and onboarding new team members.
I think using public relations, using marketing to promote culture and connect with that human element is super important.
Gina Rubel: I want to piggyback on something Jennifer said. We talk a lot about the human side. I participated in a conference earlier this week as an organization that I’m a fellow in. I can’t speak about exactly what was talked about because it was a private conversation, but it was about ESG in general. For those listeners who aren’t familiar with the term ESG, it’s environmental, social, and governance, and having programs that go far beyond the social good that you do.
In other words, the charity donations, the volunteer work, but going far beyond that. We have a podcast with Pavani Thagirisa that’s worth listening to, to understand the basics of ESG, but also just do some research on it. It’s an area that even at Furia Rubel we’re trying to grasp more readily and understand at every level how it affects our clients, like the diversity issues and things of that nature.
This is not just a trend, it’s the future and something that every company has a great opportunity to engage in. What does ESG look like for us and how is it different and even more human? And don’t forget, you still want to give to your nonprofits and give of yourselves time and resources, but how do you live? I think ESG to me is how we live in a global environment and the footprint we make.
I just wanted to share that as another big trend, in fact, for the future of how companies need to position themselves and the cultures they need to have to be successful in the long term, especially with these new generations of young professionals who are smarter than we ever were. I know a couple of us on this podcast have kids in college and they come home and they start talking about things and my mind is blown. With that, I’d love to just take a couple minutes.
How does crisis communications and crisis planning play into all of this?
Sarah Larson: I think that still too many organizations think that will never happen to me or if it does, we all know what to do. We don’t need to write it down. And if nothing else, the pandemic has shown us that that is not the case. You need to be ready for a wide variety of things like a global pandemic that will insist that you have no contact with your customers for a while. How are you going to get around that?
I will never forget, Gina, you and I had been watching the beginning of this coming out of China in January and February 2020 and made a recommendation to our clients, “Look, folks, we think this is coming here. We’re going to need to be ready.” And one of our clients was like, “Nah, that’s never going to happen.” And it was the one most affected in its daily business. They had to change the entire way they deliver their services and they weren’t ready for it. You need to be ready.
Gina Rubel: The funny thing is I remember that and I remember not too long before that I made a silly Gina comment, which was something like, “Oh yeah, I’m sure we’ve addressed every kind of crisis under the sun, right?” And then this pandemic hits, I’m like, “What is a pandemic?”
Sarah Larson: Yeah. Well, thankfully there was plenty of guidance out there from the last flu pandemic in 2008, I think, so we started there. But updating your crisis plans continually as threats change. Does your crisis plan include a hack that completely takes over your systems and you can’t get into it unless you pay a ransom? Does your crisis plan account for all kinds of different things? It’s really important to have that written down. You can’t presume that the team that you have right now is going to be the team that’s going to be even equipped and prepared to respond to that crisis.
I mean, how many people right now are… How many organizations right now, today are struggling because 25% of their people are out sick? If your lead communicator is out sick, you got to have a written plan to give to somebody.
Caitlan, what are your thoughts on crisis?
I was just thinking that it’s really important to plan for the really, really big things. It’s also important to plan for the small things. Updating your social media policy, updating your media policy, keeping those things as tight as possible are really important. I think anytime there’s a PR opportunity, there also could be a crisis opportunity, depending on who is speaking externally or how things might leak externally.
Always having that mindset that your email can end up on the internet somewhere – that’s good to have when you’re talking about crisis communications or anything related.
Leslie, what have you learned about crisis communications since joining the agency?
Well, it’s interesting because that really was not my past experience. I think what this team does well, I think that we are in a media environment, particularly social media that’s very reactive. I think what I’ve seen this team demonstrate is sometimes the best response is restraint and pulling back and understanding when to engage and when not to engage. There are times where your brand and your organization are best served by a quieter and more restrained response. I think our team gives clients great counsel on how to weigh that.
Sarah Larson: That’s the hardest thing to get them to do. Don’t feed the trolls.
Leslie Richards: Yes. Don’t feed the beast. The beast we know based on… Well, what we’ve always known as digital marketers and certainly what’s come to light in terms of practices like Facebook. They’re really actively going after triggering and engaging us in kind of the worst demons of our nature. Not the best angels of our nature. I think really being responsible in the media environment and also being protective of your brand can go hand in hand.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: From a business development and, again, from a talent perspective, I think it’s really important to have those wins internally so that when you’re talking to prospective clients, you can share the successes that you’ve had and the thoughtful nature that your organization took to approach certain challenges. I think it demonstrates a level of foresight and a level of innovation to a certain extent that can be telling for your prospective clients to choose you over another strategic partner.
I’m going to kick us off for a quick lightning round of recommendations. It could be a book, a podcast, a TV show, whatever you want that recommendation to do. And from me, it’s watch Ted Lasso.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I will second or third Ted Lasso. I also am loving Yellowstone right now. It is a nice escape from where I live in New Jersey. It is unlike anything I experience here. I would highly recommend watching it.
Caitlan McCafferty: The podcast You’re Wrong About. It really goes in depth into sort of the media narratives. A lot of it is the ’90s and how some of those were a bit corrosive and what really happened and sort of taking a revisionist history lens to a lot of the events that have shaped the last 30 years.
Leslie Richards: I guess my two favorite podcasts right now would be Ezra Klein from The New York Times, just because it’s such a wide-ranging subject area from business to politics, to creativity, et cetera. And then the other for a completely different diet would be On Being with Krista Tippett, which is really about our communal life and our life of the soul, how that plays out.
Sarah Larson: I’ll go back to the thing that has inspired humans for hundreds of years, and that is words. I have two books to recommend for you. The first is called Your Money or Your Life. It’s from the ’70s. It’s been updated several times. By an economist named Vicki Robin. Actually I think her partner was an economist. Anyway, it’s situated in this context of the Great Resignation and the pandemic and everyone changing the way they look at work and life. That book is really very, very revealing.
And for entertainment and soul value, I will recommend The Midnight Library, which is a fiction book by Matt Haig, but there’s a lot more to it than just a story. I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to ruin it.
Gina Rubel: Well, listeners and teammates. Thank you for your time today. We are a new company. We’re 20 years old. We’re a virtual company now. I do certainly miss seeing you all in the office. I thank you for your time in participating in this program. And listeners, feel free to send us any questions, recommendations, thoughts, or ideas that you’d like to see us cover in the coming months. So with that, thank you, everyone.