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On the record: Havas Worldwide Siren’s Karen Flynn

Up next on our “On the record” series, we have Karen Flynn, managing director of Havas Worldwide Siren. Since 1989 in Asia, Flynn has worked with blue-chip brands across multiple industries.

She specialises in developing communication programmes within integrated marketing environments and has significant experience in managing multi-market initiatives. She has worked with global and regional clients such as Credit Suisse, Atradius Credit Risk, Sanofi Pasteur, Grameen Creative Lab, and Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

Flynn is known to have effectively developed communication strategies including the use of PR and social media for branding and campaign acceleration. This is the story of the woman behind the suit.

Describe your management style. 

For as long as I can remember I have been someone to empower people around me to have a voice – say what they are thinking.  This has allowed  me to foster and grow talent and listen to many points of view and ideas before making decisions.  I like making informed decisions.

What was your first PR gig?

Now this goes back a long long time – being hired by Burson Marsteller as part of the PR team to handle the launch event & logistics for Desaru Golf & Beach Resort – 1989!!!

Desaru project Amazing experience JW Classic

It was fantastic – the MD at that time hired four of us to specifically focus on this launch – the project was enormous for its time, a behemoth event with logistics like you would not believe – various VERY important stakeholders from both sides of the border including Malaysia ministers due to the level of investment and importance for bi-lateral cooperation for tourism.

I had no PR experience but I had very good communication skills and I demonstrated a good head for managing details and multi-tasking…. an extremely important asset for project management.

Why a career in PR?

Frankly, I was drawn in after my first project (the launch of Desaru) – understanding just how much influence one could have on the ideas and outcome – with the clients who invest in such an event and are open to creative suggestions, to the guests who come and talk about it afterwards, and for the media who attend and spoke to us and wrote about the project – it was all very heady back then for a young woman who had worked extremely hard on such an important project with a fantastic team of people to watch it unfold.  I quickly understood the power of public relations and importantly, the impact of great communications.

Who was the mentor who most influenced you and why?

One of my biggest mentors was Tan May Lin – she was a director at B-M and she taught me so much.  May Lin gave me a great deal of space to learn and flex my thinking – I watched her with clients and learned how to balance and manage relationships effectively – I watched her push back and I watched her bend when necessary.  An enormously valuable mentor and I will always be grateful for that opportunity in my life.  Thank you May.

Your biggest blunder in your career? How did you resolve it?

Leaving MS&L when I did – I had a stellar performance with the agency and had built up the office from servicing one client in 2005 (Philips) to an office of seven people in 2007, servicing a multitude of businesses in various industries.  The Singapore office had become a solid hub for SE Asia work and I was doing a fair bit of consumer business/lifestyle work; an opportunity came along for me to sink my teeth into serious corporate work.  I wasn’t ready and I left MS&L having put all the building blocks in place to catapult it to the next level – stupidly I left without seeing it come to fruition – rookie mistake and youthful exuberance.

I stayed with the corporate agency for a year then moved into my first integrated communications agency… my foray into understanding the technical even digital aspects of communications.  I turned my loss into the start of a whole new chapter – learning about digital comms.

Harshest thing said to you in your career?

“You and your team have not delivered” – I have heard this twice now over the years I managed a team – it isn’t easy to sit in a chair and listen to these words.  And I have both times, taken the responsibility for the hits.  I push my people hard but I take the fire whenever there is heat.

Harshest thing you have said to someone?

I have dismissed staff from my agency and asked them to leave immediately; I am incredibly open and fair and ask for people to behave professionally in the work environment – when that breaks down I have no patience and I chop the terminal limb off from the rest of my team for good measure.  The harshest words I have actually said to a staff member would be to “get out”.

What is the hardest part about your job?

HR matters – I find staff management much harder than client relationships.  It also takes up far too much time and now that I have spent a great deal of time in the UK this past year, I see a drastic difference between Singapore and London. Rank and file staff in Singapore like to be guided and mentored quite a fair bit – they are hesitant, anxious, even resistant sometimes to making a definitive decision when it comes to client’s work (even though they know their clients best amongst the team).

In the UK I am spending a bit of time with various agencies as I do some charity work here, and I have found people wanting to make decisions – they know the landscape and they are not afraid to commit to a course of action.  It’s refreshing and it’s efficient for everyone involved.

Biggest misconception about PR? 

Two things – it’s all about events, and PR people can put a spin on things to make it sound good.  Bollocks!

How do you measure your own personal success?

Three things: by my team’s growth, by clients sending us recommendations (positive word of mouth), and by people staying in touch with me years after we worked together.  It’s a fantastic testimony to have an ex employee or an ex client reach out to me after 10 years to say ‘hello’.  Warms my heart every time.

One thing you would say to a newbie in the PR industry?

It’s a very different ball game now – forget events and networking and drinks with the client.  It’s about how you communicate!  It’s about your ability to create messaging and developing communication for your client’s business and brand which adds to their value; it’s about understanding the greater currency of being an amazing wordsmith and how it fits with the ecosystem around you.

One thing you hate most about the PR industry? 

I wish that we as valued PR professionals/consultants/veterans could stamp out the irritating perception that our industry is the ugly and smaller cousin to big advertising giants.  We have been quieter but our power base is strong and we have an enviable position in any brand’s communications toolbox.

Do I hate the fact that we are quieter?  Sometimes I do…mostly I enjoy watching the penny drop when we speak with clients who get our value and engage our services on the spot.

Have you ever wanted to try starting up your own PR firm? Why/Why not?

I did! After having tremendous success leading the PR teams and growth for several big brand agencies I decided to put my own sign board up. Clients were incredibly supportive and we had three to start with; plus an incredibly talented and loyal tech man beside me.

It’s been an amazing journey the past six years – Siren has grown on the back of hard work, initiative and entrepreneurialism, and agility to anticipate clients’ needs.  My vision was to pursue and deliver the quality of work we can always be proud of – forget time sheets and put the right quality of effort and resources in to multiple the output – thereafter, success will come.  Some people get this, others don’t.  It’s the balance that makes a successful agency.

How has PR evolved over the last five years?

I have enjoyed watching my industry and craft change/evolve the past 10-15 years.  From being Public Relations to now what I term ‘integrated public relationships’ – our role as communications people is to ensure we research and know the environment in which our clients businesses operate and how we can help them with various touch points.

Not just to say something, but to stand out from their competitors and make an impact somehow on their stakeholders and the public.  It’s one heck of a craft and I love it.

From the advent of bloggers, to social media discussions, and branded content – these tools have made it all the more interesting, challenging, rewarding and thought provoking.

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