Start Your Own PR Company – An Interview with Rosalyn Palmer

Start Your Own PR Company – An Interview with Rosalyn Palmer

To mark the publication of Start and Grow Your Own PR Company I have been interviewing some people who did just that. Some have built large agencies which they are still heading up, some have gone on to sell them, and some have created a great lifestyle business that supports them in however they want to live. All of them are incredibly inspiring.

The first of our interviees is Rosalyn Palmer, who I first met, many many years ago, when she was running Rosalyn Palmer PR with her husband.

Rosalyn, thank you for agreeing to be one of our interviewees.  I remember coming to see you for an interview many, many years ago. Since then you both build up and then sold the company. Can you tell me a little bit about this, was it a planned thing, or did an opportunity arise that was too good to turn down?

It was definitely luck if you believe that luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  We had been building up our turnover, reputation etc. at a rate of knots and the PR Week Award – Best Small Consultancy Award 1998 and my achieving runner up in the Women Into Business Awards 1999 intensified this.  Around ‘98 I realised that I had spent a whole week and only seen my son (six at the time) asleep.  It was clear to me that RPPR had to change to meet my needs for greater home life balance.  One option was for investment and expansion to create a wider senior team and thus take pressure off of me.  It was also clear that we needed to move into more central London premises (as our quirky location on the fringes of Notting Hill/Ladbroke Grove was great for me and those who drove but not for several staff members.  We had to recruit the best and I knew that this could be an impediment as we started to play on a bigger stage).

To get some expert advice, we appointed a non Exec Director (who was/still is a mentor to me) from a leading Management Consultancy and worked on the business – getting it as robust as possible for future expansion and/or a merger and/or a sale.

A chance conversation over lunch with Kleshna Handel (a contemporary of mine who had been a rival in our early days) then set me thinking about selling the business. She had sold her business (Handle PR) that year and put me in touch with the broker who had arranged the sale.  There then followed a period of ‘corporate blind dating’, which I found stressful and exciting in equal measure.  We soon had two offers on the table and I took the one that would allow RPPR to maintain as much autonomy as possible and put me as MD of the newly merged business.  The idea was that we (RPPR) and the other company (Hill Murray PR, part of the wider Hill Murray Group) would bring different yet complimentary skill sets and areas of expertise.  This worked in theory but in practice we were quite different animals and the merger was not entirely successful.  I left one year later after steering it through the transition period and went as a consultant to the Duke of Edinburgh Awards before moving overseas for five years.

  Over the years, what’s been the main thing that you have learned about managing and leading a PR company, as opposed to doing PR?

I learnt very early on, thankfully, that you need to approach running any business as a business, not just some extension of what you are good at.  My parents were successful small business people (I’m a grocer’s daughter from Nottingham!) and my ex-husband, who was the FD at RPPR, also came from an entrepreneurial background so business came naturally to us.  We understood the hard work, sacrifices and demands that a business requires.  We knew the adage that: “in the first year you work for the business, in the second year it works for itself and in the third year it works for you”.

In Year Three we discovered Michael Gerber and The ‘E’ Myth.  The essence of the book (now a course for businesses) is that most ‘Entrepreneurs’ are not actually very entrepreneurial and are usually terrible managers.  They are, in truth, glorified ‘practitioners’.  They are a good plumber, artist, PR/Marketing person but this doesn’t mean that they can create a great and profitable business.

We followed the advice in the book to the letter.  It comprises seven essential skills of:
•    Leadership
•    Marketing
•    Money
•    Management
•    Lead Conversion
•    Lead Generation
•    Client Fulfilment

At the same time, we invested a huge amount of time and money in attending Tony Robbin’s Mastery University.  One week was spent discussing ‘wealth’ and I came back with a whole new psychology towards making money, seeing it as a force for good and a new way of creating a life and legacy that I could be proud of.  Because of this we invested heavily in some very senior staff (paying them more than I paid myself for several years) and worked hard on staff development.  I had heard Richard Branson say that his number one concern for Virgin was not his customers but his staff.  I adopted a similar view.

Can you run through what would have been a typical day for you?

I often have this conversation now and wonder where I got my stamina from but a typical day would look something like this:
6am – up and to Home House gym for personal training session. Shower and get ready
8am – breakfast meeting or back to the office or off on the train for meeting
10 – 12.30 Client work/meetings
1pm lunch meeting
3pm -5 – back in office for internal meetings/staff support
5 – 7 – New client development/client account input

7. Home (on a good day) or evening supper/black tie function

What’s been the worst financial worry or mistake that you made or encountered?

Cash flow issues in Year 2.  These were exacerbated by the waste of time we put into preparing a business case for Business Link that was eventually turned down.

We knew that cash flow was crucial for the smooth running, survival and success of the business and as we expanded it became our biggest challenge. In the end, my father gave us an interest free bridging loan for three months.  Banks were not very supportive of small businesses in the early 90s.

And what was your absolute favourite moment?

Would have to be winning the PR Week Award 1998 for Best Small Consultancy (and sharing it with our guests AIR Miles.  They had chosen us as a (quotes PR Week: “surprise choice after it (RPPR) pitched against Green Moon, Cohn and Wolfe and Barclay Stratton”).

I was so nervous the whole evening and when they announced us as the winners it was just a blur.  All I can remember is trying to not trip up in my long dress as I went on stage.  In the glossy PR Week brochure, Jane Boardman (then MD of Ketchum Life) said: ‘Rosalyn Palmer PR has a large company attitude to staff care and development but also has a small friendly feel. Good growth has been experienced”.

I also treasure a letter I received from the former editor of Adline.  It reads: “Dear Rosalyn, I rarely ever get round to writing letters back to people from the PR business. There are excuses, but none of them are good enough.  Most of the time the material submitted is such garbage that you usually wish to throw it away.

“ Quite simply, I wanted to write to you to congratulate you on the standard of PR material that you sent to me recently on FTTV (Financial Times TV). It was brilliant, informative, well presented and generally excellent.  If only the rest of the people in your industry could make the time and effort to contribute such perfect material.”

Given the sometimes-fragile relationships between the media and PR people it gives me great pride to receive such praise.

How did you cope with the work/life balance (if you did, that is!)?

I coped as best I could and made a huge effort to attain such balance not only for myself but also for all of the team. My first agency job had been with Lynne Franks PR so I was used to a quirky environment where chanting in the boardroom and Lynne meditating before her macrobiotic salad were daily occurrences.

I wanted to work in an environment that made me happy.  Consequently we embraced all manner of (then unusual) things to make work more fun and less stressful. The office was laid out by Simon Brown a top feng shui expert.  I’m not sure if everyone bought into it (the bowls of salt did get in the way sometimes!) but I felt that absenteeism reduced afterwards, possibly because the office was better to be in and full of plants and water features.

We had a massage therapist come into the office once a week with a special massage chair for head and back relief.  The team were allowed one day a month off to do whatever charitable work they would like and I used to take my dog to work and once a month drag her round to the local hospice as part of the ‘Pat A Dog’ scheme.  We also had a rebounder (mini trampoline) in the boardroom.  At times of great stress it was a good way to forget about things whilst bouncing up and down for 10 mins.

We all worked hard and as it was the 90’s played hard.  It was quite a drink and dining focused culture so I balanced too many client lunches and dinners with a healthy diet.  I was vegetarian for 7 years and ate no dairy.

I also had regular acupuncture, massages and went to the gym.  I had a strong spiritual side (embracing traditional Christian values and some new age ones for a while).  This led me to try meditation, which I still swear by.  I also tried hypnosis and became friends with a leading practitioner Marissa Per.  We are due to have lunch soon for an ‘Oh my where did the last 10 years go’ catch up soon.

What did you look for in a new member of staff?

Passion. Energy. Creativity. Sound judgement. Courage. Honesty.

We recruited from diverse backgrounds such as brand management and psychology and all staff were trained (once onboard) in creative thinking, dynamic teamwork, advanced communications skills and accelerated learning techniques.

We took risks on people.  I would recruit people who had never worked in PR before but who first and foremost matched our values and had something different to offer.  We had a values contract that formed part of their contract of employment.  We also used psychometric testing (equivalent to Myers Biggs today) and employed a US consultant psychologist Dr. Bob Bays to guide us as to who/what personality and skills we should be looking for.

You have to go on a degree of instinct with recruitment but also get yourself out of the way.  I have actually recruited people who, shall we say, I didn’t warm to as much as other candidates but I knew that they were exactly the right fit for the team.  Recruitment decisions must be made for the good of the company as a whole.

That said, in our early days, I did once recruit a waitress as my PA. She was so bubbly, attentive, fun and good at her job that I thought: “Why not?” She worked for me for a very successful year before joining a girl band!

Managing clients’ expectations is always a difficult one…one minute you are pitching and selling in these great ideas, and next minute they want the results and they want them now. What are your tips for managing impatient clients?

Firstly, I don’t think clients (on the whole) set out to be impatient or unreasonable.  They are often under immense pressure themselves to show results from marketing campaigns that may lead to unrealistic expectations about what can and cannot be achieved.  So it is all about managing expectations (as well as doing your absolute utmost to deliver for them).

I think that part of the problem starts with the pitch.  Often the communication tends to stop there.  If you (as a pitching agency) ask for additional information or try to open up a constructive dialogue you can often be met with silence or a rebuff such as:” It’s not fair to the other agencies to share more information with you”.  This is totally counter productive.  Clients should be open and transparent and both client and agency should start as they mean to go on with good honest communications.

Then it is about managing expectations.  An agency must really nail at the outset just what is wanted (the most desired outcome) from a PR/communications campaign.  How will it be married with the client’s other marketing and business objectives?  What does the client want their consumers/clients to think, feel, know and do as a result of your input?

Good relationships create good outcomes.  They need commitment, vigour and fairness on both sides.  Agencies have to learn to listen, manage hopes & fears, do their utmost to deliver over and beyond what is promised and sometimes just have the good sense to say ‘no’.

Any advice on building a team that works together or do you just hope you get the right mix?

Together with my comments in section 7 this is about ‘dynamic teamwork’ and I do think you have to work at this one.  It’s far too important to leave it to chance. At RPPR, we used to have regular away days when the whole agency would get together, with no phones or distractions, and undertake a series of team building and creative thinking exercises.

We would speak about clients but these awaydays were really opportunities to explore possibilities and work on the business.

Having just spent three years with a leading business development and training consultancy, Go MAD Thinking, I would suggest that a facilitator from such a company is a good investment for any PR firm.  With the right facilitation it will be a good investment of time and money.  In a few hours you can free up your thinking to come up with new possibilities that can save or gain a company millions of pounds.  It only takes one remarkable idea!

Good teams need to harmonise the different skills of different people who can work together for a common purpose or good in a mutually supportive way.  This takes work and managing.  It requires shared values and a shared vision that is easy to understand.  It requires accountability and personal responsibility that is balanced by support from both above and below.

In my conversations with most PR company owners and MDs, the issue of fees and pricing seems to come up again and again…do you have any advice for pricing well and making a profit?

Well, because we were an ‘agencies agency’ (worked for many of the leading marketing agencies in the UK at the time) I would ask this question of just about everyone I met. There was a model at the time – I believe it is the Boston Matrix – that divides clients/people you have a relationship with into: Rising Stars, Cash Cows, Problem Child and Decaying Dogs. We knew that the client base had to be a mix of smaller margin, long contract, and not-too-demanding accounts that paid the rent and wages.  On top of this you seek the high margin, exciting, big profile clients but never put too much of an exposure to them (don’t have to high a total turnover % with them) so that if they go then you will still have a viable company.  Sometimes we would take on a demanding client with a low margin as a ‘Trojan horse’ in order to break into a new market.

What is important is to have a good mix and not too much risk. It is also important to check if the account is profitable.  I’ve noticed much debate recently in the PR press about the pros and cons of time sheets.  We used them and had our team keep an hourly note of what and where they had spent their time on.  Analysing this then let us know which accounts were profitable or not and we would then take a view (depending on if they were Trojan horses etc.).

We had strict 30-day payment terms and would levy a late payment charge where necessary.  I was also very creative, especially in the early days of the agency, about contra deals.  I worked for one client that had too many cars in its fleet.  I needed a car and they didn’t want to pay our full fees. The solution was the agreed fee plus me being given on of their (fully paid for and serviced) fleet cars.

All in all, you need to keep an eye on finances. If you don’t like doing it then pay someone you can trust to do so.

What were your must have investments (gadgets, PR tools, taking the time to learn about…)

As I ran my agency in the 90s it predated ipads and many of today’s tools. However, we always invested in the best technology and systems we could. We had an amazing filing system (Kardex) that took hardly any space and made things easy to find. We had a systems and procedures manual and everyone was trained in it.  We were early adopters of evaluation systems and spent a lot of time on training of all manner.

Whilst it sounds off the wall, one of the best investments was in a driver.  I realised that I was so stressed using mini cabs, which often turned up late.  We were also paying out huge amounts for cabs and couriers and had identified that the team spending time on minor tasks such as photocopying was not a sound investment.  So we employed a driver/office assistant.  When he wasn’t driving me or other team members he would do junior office support tasks.  He delivered items to clients and we charged all the travel and deliveries back at a commercial rate.  He paid for himself in effect and made my life so much easier.

Finally we also insisted that everyone learn to type. There is an online tutorial called: Mavis Beacon teaches typing that can get anyone to touch type in a week.  It is invaluable.  I type well and I type quickly. I can’t imagine how much time this has freed up for me over my PR career.

Who do you admire most in the PR world, and why?

I think it would have to Matthew Freud (not just because I knew and really respected his father Clement).  He combines sound judgement with tenacity and intelligence and amazing connections.  I’d also have to say I learnt just about everything I knew to a dearly departed Theatrical Agent Theo Cowan and of course to the inimitable Lynne Franks.

Joanna Lumley has also shown that you don’t need to be a PR person per se to be an amazing and passionate communicator.

What are you plans for the future?

I’ve just finished a three-year tenure as Insight & Innovation Director at Go MAD Thinking that really expanded my marketing, social media and communications skills.  I am about to start a part-time role in a charity.  I will be Head of Marketing and PR at The Leprosy Mission.  The time just feels right for me to work for the third sector, support an amazing and well-deserved cause and put a very low profile organisation on the map.

I will also continue to write (I have a book on the go), blog, Tweet and network.  I am considering a Non-Executive Director role with a Notts based PR company and thinking of buying a house in Brazil.

I love this life and the future is as exciting as ever.

You can find Paula Gardner’s take on starting a PR company in her book  Start and Grow a PR Company, available on Kindle.

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