A conversation with Desautel Hege Communications CEO Michelle Hege: Leading in a dynamic market
Linn ParishJune 5th, 2014
Michelle Hege was employee No. 1 when Jim and Cher Desautel started a public relations firm in the 1990s.
Last July, she became the top executive at Desautel Hege Communications Inc., a firm based in the Morgan Building, at 315 W. Riverside in downtown Spokane, with 18 employees and a reach that extends throughout the Northwest.
We sat down with Hege recently to talk about the public relations industry and the company in which she has spent much of her career.
How has the transition to being CEO pro-gressed?
Michelle Hege: I think our founders, Jim Desautel and Cher Desautel, were smart in that they thought early on in the business about succession planning. They built a partner team over time that grew and was able to manage the company. We have been talking about the transition for years. From that sense, we had a lot of time to work on exactly how it would transpire.
I think it has been fairly seamless. In our company, management is a team sport. I’m not on my own. I have wonderful partners. We all work together as a company to manage a team.
How many partners are there? Take me through the number of partners and number of employees.
MH: Cher and Jim are not active in the day-to-day operations of the business, but they are partners. They’re owners, and they’re active whenever I need them to be. The other members of the partnership team are Sara Johnston, Andrei Mylroie, Christine Varela, and myself. We’ll be at 18 people this summer. We’re hiring this month.
As Jim and Cher have moved out of day-to-day operations, has the culture of the company changed at all?
MH: Cher and Jim are still very present in the company. They’re here on a regular basis. They come to all of our social events. We feel their presence. I think particularly Cher was a very strong force in our culture for many years, and we’ve all worked together for so long.
Cher was actually my boss at a health-insurance company and that’s how I knew them. Cher and I have worked together for 20 years. In the partner team, Sara and Andrei were employees No. 2 and 3. Christine is the newest addition to the partner team, but many of us have worked together most of our professional careers.
Sometimes people will be curious about our decision-making model, and, ‘Oh, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.’ For us, it works. We have chemistry and history and we know each other so well, and that works for us. So the culture evolves over time because the mix of people changes through the years, but the founding principles are close to us. We hold them pretty dear.
When you talk about those principles, are they stated principles or more implicit?
We do have a set of values. Those are things we have talked about, that we publish, and that we have in our marketing materials.
Then there are beliefs that people experience but that are not necessarily down on paper. Those would be things like putting people first. If someone has a sick kid or isn’t feeling well or has something come up and needs to leave, people come first, and we have each other’s backs. I think people feel that if they have something come up that relates to their family and they have to leave, they have our full support. We’ll pick up whatever we need to for them. You have to live. That’s not something you put in a brochure. It’s something people experience.
Talk to me about the work you do: the services you provide, the geographic reach, and the industries you target.
MH: The company really got its roots in integrated communications. Really, what that means is we serve the marketing, communications, and public relations continuum, and we have added creative services as well. We do marketing, advertising, public relations, creative services, public affairs. We have all of those offerings.
We serve clients mostly in the Northwest. We have a lot of clients in Washington state. We do a lot of work in Idaho and Oregon, we have clients outside of the Northwest, but most of our clients are in this region.
If you look at the industry mix, because of the market we’re in, we’ve always served a diverse set of companies, but probably our largest sectors are health care, energy, tribal, higher education, and nonprofit.
When you talk about public relations, what does that involve? Are you usually working on proactive campaigns around a certain effort? Or crisis management?
MH: All of the above. Certainly. The thing that I really appreciate about the public relations discipline is that it’s a multi-audience discipline. When we come in and look at an issue for a company, we’re looking at customers, board members, employees, special-interest groups, regulators. We’re looking at all of those audiences. So often, our work is to come in and diagnose what’s happening. Sometimes, it’s a problem or a crisis. Sometimes, it’s an opportunity. We come in and diagnose using research to find out where are people at, what’s happening, and how these audiences are viewing the issue, then we create strategies to communicate about the issue. That often will also bring other tools to bear. Not just public relations tools, but also sometimes marketing, sometimes advertising, sometimes the production of creative assets as well.
What is the competitive landscape like in your industry?
MH: In our industry, one of the things you see is consolidation as well as the lines blurring between disciplines. Companies that used to only focus on design have gotten into writing and other kinds of services. Companies that used to only focus on public relations are now doing advertising. More and more people have seen the power of integrated communications and so many clients need that. They need a little bit of everything, and you want to serve their needs.
Sometimes we talk about it as ‘collabetition.’ Sometimes we’ll compete with different firms on a RFP (request for proposals) or a project, but we’re also partnering with those firms to serve clients’ needs. That’s kind of a nice thing about our market. Everybody knows each other and most of the firms we compete with, we’ve also worked with and collaborated with to meet the needs of larger projects and larger clients.
Who you’re competing against really depends on what the project is. I wouldn’t say the competitive set ever stands still. Often, we’re competing against Portland and Seattle firms more than Spokane firms.
Have you ever looked at satellite offices in those markets?
MH: We’ve talked about it over the years. Technology has made it easy to collaborate with people anywhere. It’s less important to have that physical, bricks-and-mortar location.
The other thing is, we have a lot of clients on the West Side, but we joke that it’s faster to fly to Seattle than it is to drive the I-5 corridor some days. It’s really easy for us to pop over for a day, then come back.
What are some of the challenges your industry is facing right now?
MH: I think technology and media consumption are changing so quickly. It’s such a dynamic landscape. We’re always looking at what’s coming down the pike and how you anticipate that.
There’s been a lot of fragmentation in media, and consumption is changing. You look at the fact that 30 percent of adults are reporting they get news from Facebook, and 60 percent of smartphone users are watching news videos on their phones. And we’re seeing those statistics shift on a monthly basis. I think that’s something that everybody is looking at closely and paying attention to.
Tell me a little bit about your strategy with client generation.
MH: Like many small businesses, we are always focused on new business. We think that’s an important part of sustained growth. We have a team of folks at the agency who work on new business, and we meet every week. That’s always a proactive effort, where we’re looking at, who are the kinds of folks we want to be working with? Where do we see opportunity in the marketplace? And how are we going to pursue that? That’s a constant drum beat in the agency. We’re always looking at that. And because we have been in the market for so long, we get great referrals.
How about your internal social media strategy?
MH: You asked about challenges earlier. One of the challenges in the agency environment is getting to your own materials because you’re so focused on the client work. We have put more time and energy into our blog over the past year. We have some passionate writers on staff who have taken the lead with that. But everyone has played a role, and we have used it as a foundation to express our point of view on issues and as a way to share experiences. We push that out over platforms so you see that on Facebook. You see that on Twitter. We use it on our website. We’ve used an e-blast more recently.
Any takeaways from that yet?
MH: Nothing earth shattering. As you put more energy into that and as you’re talking about issues that are relevant to folks, engagement is strong. When we push out the blog, we see a tremendous uptick in people’s response.
It’s a combination of being proactive and making sure folks are seeing that and commenting on timely topics. That’s a great way to start conversations, and you tap into what your audience is thinking about. It’s really taking our own advice and dedicating those resources.
Do you see it as a client generation tool or a way to stay on top of people’s minds?
I think it’s both of those things. Certainly, you want prospects to see you in that space, so you want to drive your SEO (search engine optimization) and your digital presence as people are shopping for services, but we also want to engage our clients and colleagues in meaningful dialogue, and that’s a great way to do that.
Take me through your career path.
MH: I have spent the majority of my career with this company. Jim and Cher hired me. I was their first employee 16 years ago. The majority of my career has been here. Prior to joining them, I worked for an insurance company and also in the nonprofit sector, so I had a little bit of experience in the nonprofit sector and in the corporate setting.
It was good experience coming into the agency realm to have a little insight into the corporate world. In the nonprofit, I basically learned small business because I did everything. I did not only the marketing but also selling tickets to events and event coordination. I also did the books, so that was a great training ground for what it’s like to run a small business. Working in a corporate setting, you learn navigating a large organization and what that’s like.
Did you always know you were going into this field?
MH: I didn’t. I didn’t know I would fall in love with consulting until I was in graduate school. I had a mentor, Jeff Stafford, who is still a professor at Eastern (Eastern Washington University). He used students to help him on some of his private-sector consulting work, and I was able to work with him on a variety of projects and I fell in love with it. Then I knew. This is what I want to do.