How Hotwire’s CEO Heather Kernahan sees the future of PR

Communicators can seize this opportunity to become essential strategists as CEOs face an unparalleled era of change and uncertainty.

Businessman shows concept hologram PR on his hand. Man in business suit with future technology screen and modern cosmic background

Everyone in the business world wants to know what comes next—perhaps because the present isn’t where they want to be.

The COVID-19 crisis has decimated many industries, forced business leaders to reimagine their models and strategies and demanded that leaders take a close look at structural inequality within their organizations. However, there is an opportunity amid the disruption for PR pros and brand managers willing to embrace change.

And it’s time for the communicator to own the role of a top-level strategic advisor.

“Every CEO I talk to is focused on employees, customers, economy and communities,” says Heather Kernahan, CEO for Hotwire North America.

“In 2020 alone, there seem to be more complex issues and crises emerging than most CEOs have had to manage during their tenures. PR can’t solve these issues independently, but we are indispensable strategic partners in developing plans to address and inform a CEO’s employees, customers and community.”

Being a ‘business’ person

For communicators to find their full potential—especially during this crisis—it’s past time they became business experts.

Kernahan says that the transformation of the PR pro into the business strategist has been accelerated by the current crisis.

“Just as many companies have been on a journey of digital transformation over the last decade, and COVID-19 accelerated those plans. PR has been on a journey of connecting our results to business goals, and COVID helped speed that up as well,” she says. “These high stakes issues are all putting communicators in a position of strength to lead.”

Kernahan says that communicators don’t have to reinvent themselves to become business experts. Rather, it’s a realignment of priorities.

“For PR pros to be considered top-level strategists, they have to be business-people first,” she says, “even in the realm of communications.”

She argues that business expertise lurks within every communicator. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ with Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy: ‘you’ve always had the power.’ Communications leaders have always had the power, we only need to understand business to increase our influence and impact.”

New business models

PR pros should expect these changes to stick.

Hotwire is so confident that the communications landscape has changed that it is transforming its business model into a consultancy. Kernahan says the shift allows the agency to offer increased services in the areas of “insights, strategy and integrated planning” as well as the usual PR and communications services.

Hotwire’s path has been inspired by the tech clients that are the agency’s bread and butter. One of the changes that Hotwire is taking from the tech world: co-competition.

“One of the interesting developments in the tech industry over the past decade is the rise of co-competition and co-opted innovation,” says Kernahan. “Tech companies have realized there is more power in partnering and combining solutions to bring great value to their clients. Companies that no one thought would ever work together – like Microsoft and Apple – now partner regularly to bring new tech to market.”

For Hotwire, that means it’s willing to work with more than one client in the same space—offering instead a deep understanding of a specific niche over exclusivity to a particular brand.

“We bring great value to our clients because we deeply understand how the tech industry operates, its greatest influencers and the narrative opportunities,” Kernahan says. “We build our knowledge constantly by working with tech companies who sometimes play in the same space. The power of that expertise learned from one client can benefit many other clients, not hinder them.”

She adds that, of course, private brand information isn’t shared—something that is a best practice for any consultancy.

What’s next?

For the present, every organization will have to navigate carefully through the next few months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter business practices. For Hotwire, that means delaying reopening the office until at least January of 2021.

Hotwire hopes to preserve its culture while workers continue to log on from home.

“We started new rituals and routines that support our thriving culture,” Kernahan says. “We have an annual in-person bootcamp, which we kept this year—though it was all online—and that allowed us to reconnect our global teams in two days of inspiration and connection that we all desperately needed.”

Kernahan adds that transparency and team collaboration will be crucial guideposts as the company finds its footing in the next stage of the ongoing crisis—focal points that any organization would do well to concentrate on.

To learn more about the future of the comms industry, be sure to join us for Ragan and PR Daily’s Future of Communications Virtual Conference, Nov. 10-11.

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