Rahat Kapur
Oct 11, 2023

Communications can lead AI innovation: Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden

In an exclusive interview, Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden shares her thoughts on communications' rightful place at the C-suite table in a post-pandemic world, and why it can lead with AI applications.

Photo: Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden. Courtesy of Ruder Finn.
Photo: Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden. Courtesy of Ruder Finn.

Over the course of the pandemic, there was an undeniable paradigm shift in the worlds of business and branding.

Weighed down by access limitations to traditional formats such as offline events, physical interactions and on-ground retail, companies found themselves having to pivot to a exploring a new arsenal of tools to help penetrate the sensitive bubble that is consumer and employee engagement. Influencers thrived, the creator economy began surging, as did livestreaming and ecommerce. Hybrid workforces became the norm, and collaboration became a virtual playground. As the worlds of digital advertising and public relations began to converge and collide, critical questions arose: Who is speaking to whom, for what, when, why and how?

Enter: Communications.

Once overlooked as an executional and tactical end-of-funnel mechanism reserved for the tail-end of the consumer or employee lifecycle, the word and profession have both taken on a whole new meaning in recent years as brands battle to identify, engage and reach ever-evolving subsets of audiences. Influenced by the likes of globalisation, technology advancements, as well as the rise of newfound spending power amongst younger generations, the key to knowing exactly what to say and how to say it, continues to be one of the most powerful tools to unlocking commercial success. It has not only become paramount to anticipate, hear and record these shifts, but also to engage in a way that creates meaningful and authentic interaction between consumers and employees alike.

Ruder Finn is willing to taking on the above.

Founded in 1948 by David Finn and Bill Ruder, the firm started out as a publicity arm of sorts, representing American crooner Perry Como. Soon, it was quickly taking on a number of prominent clients, and eventually, began to expand out to driving publicity strategies for consumer product companies and government agencies.

What has followed since has been an illustrious corporate history, resulting in some of the world’s most controversial yet impactful public relations campaigns. As of 2023, the firm has made a number of recent strides in the acquisition and expansion spaces in Asia (and worldwide), from the opening a bespoke AI-driven creative studio, to acquiring design boutique marketing agency Pandan Social in Malaysia, and launching a DEI communications practice in Asia.

Campaign sat down with their CEO Kathy Bloomgarden to discuss the evolution of the communications industry, how the pandemic has enabled the function to embrace a new seat at the C-suite table, the emergence of AI in the field, and much more.

Kathy, Ruder Finn is 75 years old this year, having been co-founded in 1948 by your father, David Finn. What does Ruder Finn stand for today?

The great thing about Ruder Finn is it was one of the first agencies in the world. The communications and PR industry really didn’t exist until after World War II, and Ruder Finn was one of the handful of agencies that got set up at that time. So, it’s sort of a special mission or mandate [for us] to always push communications forward and make it a high priority for people, and introduce, innovate and see the progression and evolution of the field.

How do you think the role and presence of communications has evolved over the last 7 decades or so? Is it more important today than it was before?

Over the last few years, communications has become a lot more important. Communication used to be kind of nice-to-have, and CEOs used to say “Oh bring the comms people in here!” when they needed to put out a press release or something tactical. But over the last few years, the pandemic has also really accelerated the trend where there’s many things that need to be communicated very effectively.

Whether it was the threat of the pandemic or what was happening, the engagement with people working at home, transformation of every business with supply chain disruptions and the ability to adapt new technology or tools to be more productive has become crucial. Then, we had the uncertainty of the economy and so many things happened all at the same time, and communication became an essential glue that really holds things together. Communication wasn’t really ever seen as a C-suite position, but I do think it’s becoming more acceptable [for it] to have an extremely high level position in a global enterprise now. When I ask CEOs, even those who are consumer-facing, how much time do you spend on internal communications now? I’m surprised because often times, it’s half their time. That never existed before.

It's interesting you mention internal communications because the perception of communications work is usually very much focused around the external side, such as crisis comms. Has this also changed?

Crisis [communications] was seen previously and before our current era, as really a reputational risk. It was about calling a communications professional in because we wanted our brand to be protected or our reputation to be reinforced etc. But now, that has actually changed, and it has even more of a commercial impact too. There's the recent US Bud Light example where the brand lost, almost overnight, about 30% of its sales, got knocked from its number one position and estimates by the holding company are that they lost something like $400 million. So, crisis now is the responsibility of all commercial managers to really worry about too, it’s not just the communications people that have to be engaged, involved, concerned or prepared.

How has the role of internal communications shifted?

Well, you look at the hybrid workforce and a lot of companies coming back to the office. Though it does vary depending on area, geography, type of business or location etc., there’s still this need to hold people together as teams [who are] collaborating and feeling engaged. It’s a long journey. You have young people who don’t want to stay long at a company and are wondering what the meaning of life is, so you need to use communication a lot more internally than we’ve had to in the past. In the past it was like ‘let’s write a newsletter!’ or ‘let’s send out an e-mail!’ and that was really internal communication. Now, it’s really about engagement, it’s emotional connection and it’s about bringing people into a unified team that tries to achieve a certain purpose for the company and holds certain values it puts forward.

How have the introduction of new tools and analytics enabled both these facets of communication? Are they driving more efficiency across the board?

I recently saw a survey that asked where communications can bring the most innovation, and AI and new technology tools were voted by over half of the survey participants as being the one area where we could make a real difference, and where PR could lead. So, within communication these tools are being used at a really fast-pace and being piloted. And I don’t mean generative AI, that’s a bit of a hype. There’s insight-mining, mapping of influencers, which people are trusted by which groups, there’s predictive analytics for when a crisis might go viral—it’s a broad and very rapidly moving set of tools that people are using now. It makes us more scientific and more akin to the way marketing in the past has operated instead of this [communication] being a totally soft, more intuitive qualitative function.  

Can you talk a little about Ruder Finn’s Tech Lab which is an analytics and emerging technology incubator. What role does it play in assisting with the above?

The Tech Lab was set up about two to three years ago and we wanted to know what is the innovation and technology ecosystem that’s serving the PR industry, what are they exploring and looking at, and what could we pilot, bring into our organisation and see if it works. Here are the areas we focused on: Research, real-time insights, audience mapping and predictive analytics.

The predictive analytics is the place for me that’s been most insightful, the other areas are things one may have heard about or used to one degree or another. The predictive analytics in particular, has been super important with crisis planning and how we look at it, and what is the curve of conversation we’re likely to see and where is the peak. Sometimes people have a crisis and their board says to them, “Comms people, get in here! Go fix this! Make it go away!”, there are moments in time where you’ve reached the peak and if you speak out too aggressively, you’ll only stimulate the discussion, so you have to really understand the curve and what’s really happening. It’s so great to have the analytics to think it through.  

As a comms professional, is it an insurmountable task to be able to control perception and narrative today, given AI advancements and the like are only adding to the pile of readily available misinformation that's emerging?

I don't think it's a fruitless task. In terms of crisis, we have what we call these "blind spots", these superfan factions—they're so small sometimes that people ignore them. Those are the blind spots. I saw an interesting statistic recently that said something like 14% of people generate 40 to 60% of misinformation. So, that's why analytics is so important to our field. Because we have to identify, watch, and track the blind spots. You can rebalance things with factual information and other trusted clusters of groups and with influencers who have social authority, but you have to do in a smart way and analytics is the only way to find the right path. We can rebalance it, but we can't eliminate it.

With all the pace of this innovation, there’s also some inertia. Generally the larger the size of the company, the harder it is for them to evolve, even infrastructurally. Do you think most clients are actually ready for this new wave of technology and retraining that’s required to facilitate real change or is there a level of resistance there?

This is absolutely THE question. That’s why we’re setting up new practices and bringing everyone together, because it’s exactly that. People don’t want to change and not only that, how many of us get a training on a new tool and then go back to our desk and do exactly what we did before because we can’t remember everything we just went through? Or, we can’t adopt it so quickly. The thing is that the communications function engages the person in the change process and it’s not a "come attend a lecture" or "be online for 15 minutes or half an hour and you’re exposed to this" [kind of thing]. This is an everyday communication process and finding the success stories and sharing them with people.

It’s finding the failures too, and sharing them with people. It’s showing people the anxieties, because when you shrink certain teams and expand others, resources go from one side to another, and that produces a whole lot of anxiety. You have to get people to feel like they can move into other jobs, but their old way of working is going to go away. And this is going to happen because the economic pressures are so intense. Machine learning and AI are so available and they’ll become more and more available, therefore the ability to do things better, faster, be more innovative and have a better supply chain is something that everybody needs. It’s inevitable. You either do it well or you’re going to do it poorly. It’s not a question of not do it at all. The worst thing is to do it halfway, because halfway gets you nowhere. So, communication becomes essential and the real key to making the company change in the way it embraces new technology tools across the board.

Consumers today are starting to have a very discerning attitude towards advertising and in some ways, PR-generated content has become the primary way in which they’re engaging with brands. Do you think PR will eventually overtake advertising as an industry?

I think both industries are changing, and the question has become communications—who does it report to? Historically, it was marketing. The goal with communication is to reshape attitudes to influence behaviour. Advertising had a very similar end goal. The two are trying to achieve the same thing. PR, I would say, was a little ahead of the curve in terms of content generation. If we can adopt the technology tools, we’re going to be able to do quite a lot in terms of leading AI and machine learning and analytics (as the survey was indicating) because marketing has a lot of data and it’s always been very data-driven. I think there’s always going to be an overlap and a cross there. But, our ability to create content and to tell stories is actually what our core is as communications people, and I think that for me is a more fundamental driver for marketing and consumer-facing activities.

In the same vein, PR professionals are now deviating away from just elevating ad work to standing on their 'creative' objectives. Do you think there’s a friction that exists between the creative side of ad agencies and comms people because they’re somewhat ‘eating into their lunch’? 

The real fight, I think, started around who owns digital and social. Over here [on the advertising industry side], we have the amplification and paid, and over there [on the PR side], we have the storytelling and content generation remit and in between, we have the social and digital channels and the influencer mapping and the whole influencer community building strategy. So, it depends on where your roots are. I believe that influencer and community management is very much tied to content generation, therefore it’s more housed in the communication end of things and PR wise, than it is in the paid side of the house. But there is the overlap in the digital and social, and that’s where I think the battle will be. It doesn’t have to be a battle though, because both practices are converging.

Being in Asia, we have a very different imperative for communications, given the variance in cost of living, regulatory frameworks, language, culture, and the space that brands take up. Do you think that sets the region back in any way when compared to its Western counterparts, or is there a lot to be learned by the way in which comms professionals here are catering to such diverse markets?

I definitely think there’s a lot the West can learn from Asia, to be honest. Because we think we’re ‘developed’ in terms of our communications, strategies, economies or whatever, there’s sometimes a lack of understanding on where to look for the key learnings. We’ve just acquired a social and digital agency in Malaysia (Pandan Social), and we’re globalising all these functions. That’s precisely because of this, so we can learn from different practice areas and different parts of the world, and bring them together in a very multi-faceted, fast-changing, innovative kind of competency in all the different areas where we’re active. And when I say that, I look at China as one example. Because China online, with its different communications platforms, is way ahead of the US. Completely ahead. I remember some time ago when I was in China (before the pandemic), I wanted to get some things for my kids. So, I asked where I could change some currency, and they were like: Change currency? We don’t really change currency, there’s not really ATMs anymore! So I was like, which credit card do you take? And they were like, credit card? We use WeChat! It was like, where are you people from?! So, the thing is if you take that as a lesson, you see that China very early, became completely online.

Clients in Asia are also still very heavily driven by statistical evidence and reach-based metrics when it comes to the success and failure of campaigns. How do we re-educate brands to measure messaging effectiveness in KPIs that reach beyond targeting mass audiences?

This goes back to the point we made earlier about the battle between agencies, PR firms and even management consultants, because unless we change our KPIs and are really looking at changing behaviour, then we're not going to be able to win that battle. Because marketing guys will come in and they'll say, "I'll show you with the influencer strategy we're going to do that we're going to generate more sales for you."

I think if we're really looking at KPIs that are tagged to what the company or marketing campaign is trying to achieve, and we [should] task ourselves with KPIs or statistics that are actually in sync with that, rather than just the share of voice. Because PR grew up on share of voice and it's still an underpinning of what we think we're doing. But actually, what we're trying to do is find the people who say for example love the fashion industry, love red dresses, who live in New York City, who are willing to pay between x and y and make all those people go and buy it. That might be a really small group of people! Rather than going out and saying, "Hey world, don't you love red dresses?" which doesn't necessarily generate a behaviour change. It might make you think about it, and there is a role for that. But it's just the first part of the funnel and journey.

Finally, you opened a DEI practice earlier this year across Asia. How much do you think communications can play a role in mitigating the performative nature of what’s occurring in the DEI space and actually embedding diversity into the fibre of companies as opposed to as a footnote in their terms and conditions?

First of all, I think talking about it and not doing anything doesn’t really work. As a woman-owned firm, we’ve long been ahead of the curve in that respect. Also, don’t forget that half our workforce is Chinese-origin. We’re the only agency in the world I think, that has that composition and for me, that’s super important. In our China operations (which is hundreds of people), we have no Westerners. I was actually in a meeting [with another company] the other day in China and I was in shock, because a lot of the managers were not Chinese. That’s old-fashioned and like the olden days when you used to send people from headquarters to manage the China operations. So, I think that actions you take are important and it’s not just the words that you speak that are really what makes a difference in terms of the way you act. Companies are working their way through on all these things, but you really have to look globally and unite a global workforce. If you’d really like to be a global entity, then your management team needs to be global and represent that.

Campaign Asia

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