Mat Wilcox is both a giant in Vancouver's PR industry and a social-media maven. When she shut down her firm citing the new technology, insiders were shocked.

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube: 
it’s a whole new landscape for public-
relations professionals, and steering the 
message is increasingly hard. But is social 
media really to blame for the death of 
Wilcox PR, one of Vancouver’s top agencies?

Mat Wilcox is a veritable poster child for social media.

My requests to the corporate-crisis guru for an interview? Real-time replies sent from her workhorse BlackBerry’s Twitter account. The 48-year-old’s thoughts on my questions? Snappily tweeted to her followers, or what she dubs her “3,000-person family.” Even the photo shoot for this story was tweeted, with running commentary and accompanying behind-the-scenes TweetPhotos (“Photog says, ‘We are going with your part.’ I think he meant hair part?”).

Perhaps the self-styled “rock star” of public relations – whose Wilcox Group, with offices in Vancouver and Toronto, developed a sterling reputation for its handling of a maelstrom of issues, from avian flu to labour disputes to product tampering – believes she was made for social media? “I believe I am!” Wilcox, dressed in a sleek Ports 1961 dress, diamond earrings and high-octane Christian Dior shoes, guffaws, widening her eyes and arms and tilting back her head. “I love it. Out of 15 years of dealing with every type of crisis, the past two years have been the most fascinating of all of them, by far, because of this.”

So the news in early June that Wilcox’s multimillion-dollar firm was to close its doors on August 31 because there was no longer a business model for what she did, given “the emergence and influence of social media,” caught the tight-knit public-relations industry off guard. (Wilcox’s much-documented hard-core treatment for life-threatening parotid gland cancer over the past two years did not, she insists, factor in her decision. “I didn’t have some revelation [during that time],” she says, “but it has made me more irreverent.”) 

Her valedictory address came, of course, in the form of a blog entry. 

Although company-to-company comparisons can be fatuous – PR encompasses a smorgasbord of different specialties, from Wilcox’s type of crisis-and-issues management to special events, marketing, public affairs or government relations – viewed as a whole, the industry has been on the rise. Operating revenues across the country grew 13.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008, according to the latest data available from Statistics Canada. Even during the past two years – amid a global recession and the intrusion of social media upon the established communications triangle of PR, advertising and newspapers-magazines-TV – there is anecdotal evidence of solid growth from many B.C. firms.

“There’s never been a more exciting time to be in the profession,” enthuses Paul Welsh, the 46-year-old general manager of Edelman Vancouver (formerly Karyo Communications Inc.), a Yaletown PR firm that grosses $5 million annually. PR, he sanguinely points out, is now encroaching on the market share of advertising agencies. “Money once spent on advertising is coming to us to create digital programs, and we are not just about public relations anymore; we’re about public engagement,” he adds. “We are moving from what was a silo in the marketing-communications operations of organizations right to a seat with the senior decision-makers.”

Paul Cubbon, a marketing instructor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business who studies branding and reputation, agrees. PR and social media can be a seamless fit, he says, and once you move on from the traditional PR model as a “one-way megaphone blasting things out” – while still maintaining the old ethos of being proactive – social media can be a great asset. “It allows PR firms to listen much earlier to, and be much more in tune with, the conversations that people are having about your brands all the time,” he says.
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"Money once spent on advertising is coming to us to create digital programs. We are not just about public relations anymore; we're about public engagement", says Paul Welsh.

THE POINT WAS NEVER LOST on Wilcox. As a businessperson, she was an early social-media adopter – befriending on Facebook as well as blogging and tweeting prolifically over the past couple of years – and unequivocal about companies not yet in the game. As Wilcox proclaimed on the Mark News website in February, “The most successful companies in the future will be the ones that get online, build a reputation of credibility and respond to concerns and problems in real time. Those that don’t will go the way of the dinosaur.”

However, she says she often found CEOs of blue-chip companies reticent, even scared, to jump into the “wild, wild web.” While many PR firms are trying to demonstrate the ROI of social media, “if you’re the CEO of a big organization, you are going to want to know how it’s going to relate back to your organization, and it’s like throwing darts at a wall.”

There are disclosure issues for some companies, Wilcox points out, and some are worried about what they are going to say on social media. “I realized that there has to be a lot more work in this before we can convince CEOs that social media is as important as I truly think it is. PR firms are doing a lot of hard work. Everyone is really focused on this, because we have to be, but I worry –” she trails off, failing to finish her sentence for the first and last time in our hour-long interview. “Basically,” she resumes, matter-of-factly, “I closed because it was right for me.”

Perhaps part of Wilcox’s comfort with the helter-skelter nature of social media comes from her peripatetic childhood. Her father’s job as general manager for Levi Strauss & Co., Great Western Garment Co. and Playtex Products Inc. took the family of eight from her birthplace of Ottawa to some 37 homes around the world, in such places as Mexico City; Sydney, Australia; Dover; Delaware; and Edmonton. In the late ’70s, she received a bachelor of arts at the University of Alberta and later took a course on running a professional-service firm at Harvard Business School. Wilcox’s first PR jobs were in Calgary, when she helped launch the Globe and Mail’s western edition in the mid-’80s and worked on the 1988 Winter Olympics. Following the Games, she relocated to Vancouver to join the Hyatt Hotels Corp. where, sitting on the hotel’s crisis team, she was introduced to her passion: dealing with emergencies. After five years with Hyatt, Wilcox worked briefly at now-defunct Spectrum Public Relations and Burson-Marsteller before starting her eponymous firm in 1995. Among notable accolades she was named one of Canada’s most powerful women by the Women’s Executive Network in both 2008 and 2009. 

Today we are sitting in what was nicknamed, probably with affection, the “war room” of her downtown Vancouver offices, spread out on the 16th floor of Pender Place. This is where all the issues of any crisis were hammered out during high-pressured meetings. Those meetings between corporate executives and her team – which at its peak, in 2004 and 2005, numbered 40 but by August this year had dropped to just 12 – were “very process-oriented engagements,” Wilcox explains. “We knew everything we needed to do and the process that we would follow. Few people love issues management because it’s a huge amount of pressure – the CEO is always involved; the big guns are staring at you all the time – but I love that. It’s my forte,” she adds with unabashed confidence, “and there are few people who do what I do well.”

Fast-forward, however, to the Babel-world of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and the chatter that she feels needs to be responded to is “overwhelming.” She details how the use of Twitter has exploded since the service launched two years ago: the Maple Leaf listeriosis crisis of 2008 prompted around 20 tweets an hour as a trending topic; when US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River in January 2009, there were some 250 tweets an hour; a few months later, the H1N1 outbreak saw 10,000; then Tiger Woods’s sex scandal, 50,000; and the recent launch of the Apple iPad, 170,000. Plotted on a graph, the curve is as steep as the north face of the Eiger.

“Now we’re just off the charts, right?” she pleads, sounding slightly exasperated. “Twitter is often at overcapacity, with events like the World Cup temporarily shutting it down. And the thing with so many people tweeting is there is so much misinformation.” (She, like most of the PR professionals interviewed for this piece, mentions the fake – and anonymous – BP Twitter account, BPGlobalPR. At last count, it had 185,462 followers versus 17,167 following the oil company’s real page, BP_America. “Hijacking brands is a problem and very difficult to fix,” Wilcox says.)


"I think it's far more important to speak with
a real voice when the lights are on, and that's
what social media has done: show the light
in a lot of dark places", says Jim Hoggan.

“IN THE PAST, WE HAD traditional media, shareholder-stakeholder communications, employee communications and CEO and board communications, to name a few,” she points out. “We held all the cards and released information on a timely basis with backups and facts. Today it is an exponentially bigger audience . . . and all of the media, traditional and online, have expectations to receive material at the speed of sound.” 

If she were dealing today, for example, with a crisis such as the avian bird flu (which Wilcox Group handled in both 2004 and 2007), Wilcox continues, “I would have needed triple or quadruple the staff for the same issue because now you’re dealing with so much more and you would not be able to respond.”

And that strikes, as far as she is concerned, at the crux of crisis-and-issues management: perception becomes reality very quickly. “If firms aren’t responding immediately, somebody else will for them,” she says. Neither does this sit well with her self-confessed standing as a “micro­manager.” “There is a lack of control floating around us in social media, and I need to understand the process of how I am going to manage that. How am I going to do this when we have 50,000 tweets an hour coming at us?” she asks. For Wilcox, no amount of advance planning will work with social media “because there are too many different opinions, and you can’t cover them all in advance. All crisis management is reactive now, so it’s a case of managing it.”

That information also needs to be put out 24 hours a day “all as it happens. So unless you have a team that is going to be up at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. managing that end of things, you have a whole cycle of things that have happened before you turn up at 8 a.m.,” she adds.

She believes that as a boutique firm specializing in this type of PR, her firm simply could not continue in the same vein. “It would be a disservice to our clients,” she says. “When you are responsible for a crisis that is worth a billion dollars or $500 million to a company, I’m going to make sure that I am absolutely doing the right thing. You need to think about a company’s share price when they are under fire.”

Why not bring in, as other firms in Vancouver have, people to do the social-media side? “I could have, but there’s no business model to pay for this,” says Wilcox, “and no client is going to foot the bill because they don’t know how to measure it. Current tools are cumbersome and can be expensive: it takes a lot of manpower to sift through the information flow. Who wants to pay for something they can’t really wrap their head around?” 

Wilcox doesn’t think social media represents the death of PR. Smaller outfits of a few people will continue unhindered, in her opinion, but for full-service firms such as hers it “means a much bigger team, and there are a lot of costs associated with that. I think PR firms will continue to evolve, but they have to do it rather dramatically.” 

In other words, go big or go home.  

That dramatic shift, according to other major players in B.C., has already resulted in a ramped-up social-media component to their PR arsenal. Most would not comment directly on Wilcox’s decision to quit except to say they were surprised – although Jim Hoggan of Hoggan & Associates Inc. cheekily thanked her for “clearing away some of the competition.”

"Social media has been enduring as a tactic in our business, which is replutations management. Will social media go to 20, 25 per cent of the business? Perhaps", says Linda Bilben.

HOGGAN'S 18-MEMBER AGENCY on Howe Street, which rakes in about $2 million a year, is well established in the blogosphere through his five-year-old DeSmogBlog. The 30-year industry veteran freely admits he “stumbled onto blogging by accident” and had the benefit of backers to fund the climate-focused site (including Salt Spring Island lawyer and Internet millionaire John Lefebvre). While media have undergone much fragmentation and much upheaval thanks to this type of social communication, the PR landscape – and Hoggan’s business model – has changed little, he says, “except that things, such as bad news, can spread a lot faster and insincerity is a bigger problem than it was before.”

In terms of issues management, he sees a huge scope for a “deep knowledge in the PR mega-trends of today” and in preparing his clients. “There is a pressing need for firms to make sure that they have all their ducks in a row,” says the 62-year-old. “I think it’s far more important to speak with a real voice when the lights are on, and that’s what social media has done: show the light in a lot of dark places.” But it’s wrong, he cautions, to think that it’s created a new type of PR problem “where you have all of these people saying things about you” that will impact a company’s reputation: “I believe that people have control of their own reputations; it’s not something anybody else gives you.”

Over at Edelman, Paul Welsh feels no pressure to respond to all blogs and tweets about his clients. “You have to ensure that you have your plan and strategy in place and you understand where issues and comments are material and need a response, and where it is just the community having a conversation and blowing off steam,” he says. It is important to remember that in the social-media space, the community self-polices. “If there is a wildly untrue claim being made, we as a company don’t necessarily fight that fight because people do it for us,” he says.

That said, Welsh implicitly acknowledges Wilcox’s argument that to effectively monitor and respond when necessary takes resources. The purchase of Karyo three years ago by Edelman – a New York-based communications behemoth with 51 offices worldwide, 3,100 employees and revenues of around $450 million – has allowed the Vancouver team to take advantage of the infrastructure and scale of a larger organization. (The mother corporation also has Edelman Digital, a department devoted to digital practices since 1995.) Karyo had thought about creating the social-media expertise in-house, Welsh says, “but I’m not sure we would be where we are right now, because to try to be running a business in an industry that was transforming itself – and invest in that transformation – is a really hard thing to do.”

Linda Bilben of Vancouver’s Reputations Corp., which employs nine full-time staff, three associate counsel and a variety of consultants, estimates social media has accounted for around 15 per cent of her agency’s time over the past 18 months, depending on the client. “Social media has been evolving as a tactic in our business, which is reputation management,” says the 43-year-old partner and creative director. “It’s been an accelerated process. Will social media go to 20, 25 per cent of the business? Perhaps.”

Bilben entered the profession two decades ago when her journalism professor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology told her she was better suited to PR “because he couldn’t imagine me chasing ambulances in my three-inch stilettos as a cub reporter.” Citing the fake BP account, she says she worries about the lack of accountability on the Internet and the need for PR firms to do their due diligence. Social media is a significant change for Reputations (which expects to realize $1 million to $1.5 million in revenues this year) and is key in enabling it to build online content and platforms for its clients. But, adds Bilben, “I think there is going to be some wrangling with regard to accountability.

"While the technology of mainstream media might change, and it is changing, the need for real information that's accountable, reputable and valuable is still there", says Norman Stowe.

“MY BELIEF IS if you’re a journalist, you do research; you have to write with some sort of responsibility. If you’re just a person out there providing your opinion, that’s great, but does that make you a journalist? Not really. Maybe you’re a citizen columnist.”

Accountability is key as well for Norman Stowe, managing partner at the Pace Group in Gastown, which has 15 full-time staff (three at an office in Victoria) and annual revenues of more than $3 million. “You need to look at social media with a healthy dose of skepticism since so much of it is simply opinion, with people having no accountability for what they blog or tweet,” says the 55-year-old, who says his agency has morphed over time to incorporate social media. “So while the technology of mainstream media might change, and it is changing, the need for real information that’s accountable, reputable and valuable is still there.”  

Stowe believes a broad range of services is vital for survival. “If you are too focused on one tool or too niche, say, on crisis communications, well if there aren’t enough crises around, then you’re not going to have enough work,” he says, adding he feels it is the same with channelling one form of media. “We never got so involved in social media that if something went sideways it was going to hurt us.” 

The upsurge in social media, Stowe advises, should be taken in stride: “You need to use all the tools in the toolbox, and this is just one more tool. There’s lots of great applications for it and lots of value, but if you think you can do this and none of your traditional media work, you’re fooling yourself.” 

Having moved the last boxes out of her sleek downtown offices (“building a business,” she opines, “is so much easier than closing”), Wilcox will now consult across North America while plotting her new business model from her 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom Coal Harbour condo, which the single divorcee shares with her only child, 19-year-old daughter Alexa. 

What that new model – or what she brands “Mat Wilcox version 2.0” – will look like is starting to show already. In the near future, she predicts, the CEOs from her type of upper-echelon companies “are going to be calling in five or six firms and cherry-picking the best depending on the nature of the crisis. They won’t have the luxury of going to just one.” Wilcox, naturally, thinks she’ll be one of the chosen few, viewing herself  “as a strategic planner . . . an extension of their senior leadership team when they need a specialized executive to help for a period of time. I help them to understand the budget consequences and when to cut costs or get extra resources.”

So the Wilcox Group may be gone, but you just know that there’s one Twitter account that is going to be even more active in the months and years to come. And when Mat Wilcox is ready to announce that next move, you, me and the rest of her 3,000-person family will be the first to know.