Telum Talks To.... Rhys Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of Porter Novelli Australia

Telum Talks To.... Rhys Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of Porter Novelli Australia

Porter Novelli Australia announced a refresh of its leadership team in late January, including the appointment of Rhys Ryan as the agency's new Chief Executive Officer in Australia. Telum recently caught up with Rhys to find out a bit more about the changes, his career, what drives him and where he is taking Porter Novelli.

Rhys, what a start to the year for yourself and for Porter Novelli - a new leadership structure, including the elevation of Arj Ganeshalingam as Chief Operating Officer and your appointment as Chief Executive Officer, as well as a number of other impressive appointments and changes. Firstly, congratulations! And secondly, what is behind the leadership changes and what does it mean for Porter Novelli in Australia?

Well, firstly, thank you. Secondly, there are multiple drivers for our leadership changes. We have an incredibly impressive group of young leaders who were ready to step up, and we have revamped our career pathways to allow our people to step into practice leadership, sector leadership and project management, depending on their interests and ambitions.

With Peter Kent retiring from his role at Porter Novelli, I’ve changed roles and Arj has stepped into the COO role as he returns to Melbourne. Clare Willenberg takes on site leadership in Sydney, and Maddie Page some more operational leadership in Melbourne.

The other driver was just growth. Between June and December 2021, we hired 10 people (which is a lot for us) and fortunately experienced zero turnover, which was a great outcome, because we needed a lot more people to keep up with the business coming in. This allowed us to hire some super-smart senior people and create clear air for our young guns to step up. We’ve added some great bench strength to our leadership.

It has been a very successful couple of years for the agency, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been the key to not only resilience in such an economic climate, but also to ensuring growth?

Any success we have had in the past two years has been due to our ability to keep our core team together. Our average tenure is strong, and our leadership team’s average tenure is more than eight years. Arj, Clare and I have all left the business in the past and then come back, which tells you something about Porter Novelli’s culture.

Our clients appreciate that they don’t have a new project lead every six months. We focus very strongly on this - we’re the only business in our sector accredited as an Employer of Choice by the Australian Business Awards.

Our people are smart, motivated, curious folks who are dedicated to their roles, and bring a lot of fun and new ideas to the table every day.

The other driver of resilience for a business like ours is related to our stability. Our clients tend to change jobs, change sectors, change industries, and then they take us with them. So, we focus on seven “Super Sectors” as a business, but they are extremely diversified, which hopefully will allow us to remain resilient into the future.

Your goal is for Porter Novelli to be recognised as Australia’s leading purpose-driven communications company. That’s an area of increasing competition, as more and more companies put purpose front and centre. What does it mean for Porter Novelli and how are you going to achieve that goal?

That is our long-term goal. However, I also think that like most sectors, while there are some companies that are genuinely focused on this, there is a lot of hot air being spouted in our industry, and frankly, a lot of “purpose-washing” out there.

We invest strongly in our annual study on the relationship between purpose and reputation in the minds of Australians, in partnership with our Clemenger Group sisters, Quantum Market Research. They have been the absolute experts in unpacking the hopes, fears and aspirations of Australians for decades. We use this research in our work every day.

What we’ve found - and what I continue to see in my 20 years in working in this sort of research - is that Australians are pragmatic and practical, maybe even cynical. We’re just a lot more skeptical than some other countries, particularly our friends across the Pacific.

So we focus on real, achievable action to help our clients (and ourselves) to operate in a more responsible way, and to communicate their action effectively to their core constituents. We work with clients to focus on walking before they talk. And while sustainability is always front and centre for most Australians, our research tells that all Australians want to see what you’re doing to look after the welfare and wellbeing of your people and your customers.

I firmly believe that companies that talk a big game without focusing on the things that matter in the real world will eventually suffer a reputational penalty - and that includes firms in our sector.

We are working hard to become a more responsible employer, and to focus on more meaningful, valuable work. For example, our largest client “sector” in 2021 was the Victorian Treaty movement, which for us included a mix of major projects, low bono and pro bono work. All of us feel very privileged to play a small role in an historic period for Victoria.

Your own career spans two decades, two continents and two firms. You were with Porter Novelli in Melbourne in the early 2000s, then a stint with the firm in New York and back to Melbourne before moving across to Edelman for six years in Melbourne, New York and San Francisco. Then seven years ago, you came back to Porter Novelli in Melbourne as Managing Partner. What has shaped your career and what would you say has been the highlight thus far?

When I was young(er) and all my mates were off working in “audit” in London, I wanted to go to work in New York, which I saw as the centre of our industry, so I could learn as quickly as possible. Porter Novelli gave me that opportunity initially, and I absolutely loved my time in New York and San Francisco. I met my partner there and we raised young children there. When you live in New York City, you feel like you’ve just had three coffees, 24 hours a day.

Over time, what has shaped my work is really an obsession with the drivers that make people trust an organisation - inside and out - and how that shapes reputation.

I was heavily involved in the launch of PepsiCo’s Performance with Purpose, which included multi-year, purpose-based research across seven countries, then with the Trust Barometer in Australia and the US over six years, before bringing Porter Novelli’s Purpose Premium study methodology back to Australia. I was - like a lot of young people - inspired by Michael Porter’s paper on Shared Value, and fascinated to see the evolution out of CSR into something more meaningful.

But like most people who work in our industry, it has been the people and the relationships that have been my highlight. I’ve worked with people at Porter Novelli and Clemenger Group for almost 20 years, we have had client relationships that span more than a decade, and I find that the older I get, the more I can learn from our whip-smart young people, which is really refreshing.

What is it you love about the PR and communications industry?

I really enjoy being needed. It’s a nice feeling when one of our clients looks relieved that we have arrived. If you don’t enjoy helping people, you probably won’t enjoy our industry.

As a 20-year veteran, I also love the variety of four jobs at once. I have worked in PR companies for around 4,000 days, and no two days have been the same. I consult for clients across an endless range of sectors, I work on developing new opportunities for our business, I manage our brilliant people and try to find new opportunities for them in their careers, and I get to be a leader in our Group, which includes doing interviews like this.

But probably the biggest buzz for me is when someone (a colleague, a client, or even me) comes up with a killer idea. I just love a clean, perfect strategy that works.

What’s one thing in this industry that you would like to see change, and why?

It’s not lost on me that it was International Women’s Day recently, and that I am a white, male CEO. While our leadership is diverse, our business and our industry would greatly benefit from greater diversity of background and greater diversity overall. I think we all need to focus more on creating the most inclusive workplace we can, for the health of our industry, and to play our role as good members of our community.

What does the year ahead hold for Porter Novelli Australia?

This year, we’re focused on two key priorities: building out and evolving our own purpose as a business, and growing our integrated consumer brands offering, particularly in the Sydney market. I am confident we now have the focus and the talent in place to get it done.

We’re a public relations company, but we’ve never stood still. Our values don’t change, but we’re unrecognisable from the Porter Novelli of 10 years ago, and that’s a good thing. We’ll keep growing and changing as the world around us changes.

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