Christine Barney, CEO, RBB Communications, emphasizes that what you stand for as a business is more important than ever. She shares insights on the future of the workplace, and how her team was prepared for the remote environment. Christine also dives into the agency’s initiatives in the ESG space.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: CHRISTINE BARNEY
DOUG: Christine, you talk about what you stand for as a business has become even more important than it’s ever been. Could you elaborate for us?
CHRISTINE: I think what you stand for is more important than ever for several reasons. The first is that the employee activism that we’ve seen through the pandemic, that confluence of all those incredible events that that caused people great concern, really made employees look to employers for information. And as a recent guest talked about, it’s important to think that employers are actually becoming the number one source of information for most employees. And they want to know what you’re doing to prevent work through climate change. What are your positions on racial inequities? And I think when you look at it from an employee perspective, it becomes very clear that companies have to know what they stand for. But more and more importantly, it means all of your external audiences, all of your stakeholders, whether they’re vendors, whether they are customers, want to know what are the issues that are important to you so that they can decide if they want to continue to do business with you, expand their business with you, or in some cases, as we’ve seen with the cancel culture, make you a poster child for someone who’s not doing it right or someone who is an exceptional leader in that space. So, I don’t think that’s going to change post pandemic. I think that we will continue to be focused on what are you going to stand for and how are you going to communicate what you stand for in a genuine and authentic manner so that it really matches with your mission, vision and purpose.
DOUG: And you talk about authenticity at your agency. You’re involved with both B2B communications and B2C. I would assume authenticity is important for both, but how has B2B comms changed compared to, say, B2C during this time of the pandemic?
CHRISTINE: Yeah, I think many B2B companies were sort of taking a backseat for many years because it’s much easier to for a B2C brand to be in the spotlight, for consumers to understand what they do, to be a either a target, or a poster child for good or bad behavior because their brands are more well known, and their products are simpler to understand. And so, I think many B2B companies felt that it wasn’t as critical for them to take a stance on issues. So, companies had to think, what do I say to my employees the day after there’s a giant riot? What do I say to my employees about our sustainability goals? And so, B2B companies first started by looking at it internally, but now even externally. If you look at what happened this week with Goldman Sachs, when they announced that they were going to encourage people to take Saturdays off. That became a flashpoint for people to talk about bad behavior, workplace abuse of employees. And so, I think even companies who didn’t necessarily want a large consumer profile are starting to see that there’s value in deciding what they stand for, what they will speak out for, and what they want their employees to know is important to them.
DOUG: And given that you have some real estate companies in your portfolio of business, you have some insights on the future of the workplace. Now, your firm was pretty much ahead of the curve with flexibility and respect even before the pandemic. How do you see the workplace changing?
CHRISTINE: Sure. Well, you know, it’s interesting when you talk about where our firm was founded in 2001, we started with less than 12 people, and we built an Internet and decided everyone would get to choose where, when and how they work. And we did that not because we were a bunch of women who wanted to have whatever you may define as work life balance or blend, but because we thought it was the best business practice. It was the best way to serve our clients, to allow our staff to determine the right schedule that was better for the clients, and it was the best way to get productivity to where it was going to be unique for each person. So, we’ve always had a work from anywhere policy. And over the years I’ve had a lot of very heated discussions with other business owners who disagree. Well, we only give Fridays off, and that’s enough. And I’m like, well, what if Friday happens to be the day when I do all my client meetings with my clients in California and I can’t work from home on that day? It never made sense to me. And I think that the pandemic has shown that we can work from anywhere. In many cases, we should work remotely. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to think that meeting is now going to, be instead of a trip, it’s going to be an email or a Zoom, because I just got nine hours back for traveling for a one-hour meeting. And so, I believe that we’ve been validated in terms of the efficiency and the business rationale for making the workplace. It’s not that we want to make the workplace loose. It’s that we want to make the workplace flexible enough so that everyone can do what’s right for them, for their clients and for that situation.
DOUG: You’ve talked about the initiatives you have in the ESG space as well. Could you elaborate on those?
CHRISTINE: Sure. One of my predictions is that I think the ESG space is going to be a very profitable growth area for communications agencies because every company is trying to figure out how they’re going to navigate through their ESG. I think when the letter came out from Larry Fink at BlackRock talking about the importance, I mean, I had clients who think of him as a Rockstar. They wait every year for the letter to come out, and they’re looking at how do they take those principles and use them. And so, many agencies are starting to build practices around what I would consider to be an enhanced form of reputation management. How do you take your ESG and really make it something so that your employees understand, all your stakeholders understand, and that can add value to your mission? And I think that will only continue to grow in terms of being an umbrella for what companies need to do to make sure that their value proposition is presented.
DOUG: And that’s adding value and also has to align and be sort of relevant to what your mission is. It’s not just I guess a greenwashing would be one example, really is to be integrated into what you’re doing. There’s been some great advice. Any final thoughts, tips that you have as we enter what we hope is a post pandemic or at least a transition to a post-pandemic period?
CHRISTINE: I mean, I think aside from in-person meetings being less common, although people want to get back to collaboration, I do think that this idea of the word pivot is going to be permanently in our lexicon. How many times have you heard, we have this great idea, but it would take too long, too much money to do? And what the pandemic showed is that when push comes to shove, you can do things faster and you can make it happen. And I always joke that life is like a roll of toilet paper. It goes faster when you get to the end. And I think the pandemic pushed us to think faster, to think about if tomorrow if my business was going to be in jeopardy in two weeks, what could I do to change that and make things happen? And I think the decision-making process for everyone is speeded up. That’s good and bad. But I just think that it means that we can all look forward to thinking about how do we pivot, how do we take advantage of opportunities. And there’s a lot less complacency in the business world, and that’s a good thing.
DOUG: And I think that’s not only a good thing in general, it’s a good thing for those in the communications field, because when change happens more quickly, it needs to be communicated even more effectively, you need to be more nimble. Your contributions to this conversation have been awesome. Thanks so much for spending time with us and continued success.
CHRISTINE: Thank you.