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Dave Senay Global CEO of the PR firm Fleishman Hillard is seen in the Toronto Fleishman Hillard office on March 22, 2010. JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

A s CEO of the global public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, Dave Senay oversees about 2,400 employees in 25 countries who spin for clients as diverse as AT&T, Bombardier, the city of Singapore and the Korean Labour Ministry. Last week, he swept through Toronto with the Fleishman-Hillard Digital Influence Index Study, a survey of more than 4,200 Internet users across seven countries (Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, the United States and Britain) that sought to comprehend the influence of the Internet on consumer behaviour.

Social media has changed the landscape for public relations in the past few years. You don't have a Facebook page. Do you tweet?

No, I don't. I have a heavily read internal blog; that's where I concentrate my time. I post two or three times a week. I probably write 90 per cent, at least. When I'm on the road, I'll ask somebody to ghostwrite something if I can't be there, then I'll rewrite it.

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We've got 2,400 other thought leaders out there, and I've tried to create an environment where they're the ones who are making their mark. I encourage people to have a short memory, because whatever's big today is going to be small a year from now, and then there'll be another big thing. You have to not be fearful, you have to be daring and willing to embrace every new thing, fully understand it and move into it and move on.

My job, I think, is to create an environment where all this adaptation takes place in real time. And almost instantaneously, because I think there's two traits of a successful firm in this era: One is instantaneousness - how quickly can you turn the information, contextualize it, put it for or against your client or your opponent. The second is anticipation.

I gather your government relations activities have been exploding in Canada.

This is a place where Canada's been ahead of the rest of the world. This same phenomenon is occurring in the United States and throughout Europe, in pretty much any democratic country. Government's presence is so pervasive that the gateway to any market today starts with public affairs.

I like to say they don't make laws on Capitol Hill, they make markets - whether it's a word in a regulation that frees up a billion-dollar sector of a market or a word in a law that depositions your competition and helps you - or just a whole public policy area that makes doing business in a sector possible or impossible.

There isn't a thing we eat or wear, or medicines we take, or destinations we go to - anything - that doesn't come to market through some public affairs dimension. So what's happening in Canada is a real harbinger for things happening in many, many other parts of the world. Public affairs is a huge growth market for us.

Public relations in general seems to be gaining more influence at the marketing table.

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In the old days, the way we marketed was we had a target on you - that sounds very military, doesn't it? I put a target on your back, and I harpoon you with messages until you surrender, and then I drag you aboard, and you bought my product. It was very invasive and unwelcome.

Today, we're counselling clients that you've got to show up in a relevant way in the streets and alleyways of the lives of the people you want to reach, so they can discover you. The target is now on the product's back for the consumer to discover in a way that's useful, in a way that's relevant and timely and credible, and that's called a relationship, where suddenly there's this symbiotic thing going on between a brand, a product.

Consumers are commenting, we're adjusting, we're reacting; suddenly there's a little Velcro here that you never had before in the old monologue/transactional, harpoon-'em-to-death era.

Last year, Omnicom reported its PR revenues, which include Fleishman-Hillard, were down about 10 per cent. Is that part of what's driving this push for integration: the notion that, hey, you don't need to be just a PR firm, you can drive strategy, too?

Well, yeah, necessity's the mother of invention, but I would say this was happening long before 2009. The digital integrated global platform became really my overall approach to driving the company's growth when I became CEO in July '06. Now, 2009, when you have a downturn in the economy like that, that's like a brush fire over the Great Plains - ultimately it's a renewing event, because it just made us evolve a lot faster in all respects. I do want to make a side note: We consistently outperformed whatever Omnicom reported, I can assure you.

Here's a cheesy Barbara Walters question, but I'll ask it anyway: What keeps you awake at night?

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I am immensely bullish on this industry right now. I would trade places tomorrow with a 24-year-old coming into this business. There's just never been more excitement, more relevance, more power in what we do. We can make a difference today more than we've ever been able to make a difference. We just have all of these tools in our toolbox and the environment is coming our way: It's about relationship building, not transactions; influencing influentials; it's about dialogue, not monologue. Working in uncontrolled spaces - here I'm having a dialogue with you, you're going to publish something that's fully under your control - well, we've operated in this environment a long, long time.

Are you ever concerned by the fact that the reputation of PR in general among the public is about the same level as, say, journalists, which is to say: not great?

No. I don't know how to react to something so general as that. When I ask our client base, and prospective clients, 'Do you think PR is legitimate, credible and valuable to you?' They say, 'Hell, yes.' When I ask prospective employees - even if they're not interviewing, people who are eligible to be in PR, or people who are in PR, 'Do you think what we do is important, makes a difference and is valid?' They say: 'You bet.'

I feel great about what we do. So those are the two key audiences. I guarantee you as well that if I went up to Capitol Hill and asked regulators and their staff, 'Do you find public relations and public affairs staffs valuable to you?' 'Yes!'

Sure, but -

I'm just parsing the audiences.

You haven't mentioned consumers, or citizens.

But I'll start with journalists, too. You're going to get a mixed reaction from journalists. There are those journalists who readily acknowledge that PR people are very helpful to them, okay? There are other journalists who think PR people are simply an obstacle to getting what they want. So if you threw out the high and you threw out the low, you'd find a pretty good relationship between all those audiences and public relations.

Now, I think in the general population, we have probably lost control of the definition of public relations. It's sort of a catch-all: If there's a mass execution in Myanmar, somebody says, 'Well, the junta there has a bad public relations problem.' How do you react to that? That's not public relations.

Well, I don't know. Is Fleishman handling PR for the government of Myanmar?

No, we're not.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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