'Internal communication greatly influences a company’s corporate culture'

Paula Lovell sees company turn 25

Paula Lovell is president and chief executive officer of Lovell Communications, a Nashville-based marketing and public relations firm that marks its 25th anniversary this month. Since its inception, the company has worked with more than 350 clients representing every U.S. state. Lovell, who launched the business with a family loan in 1988, recently sat down with City Paper Assistant Business Editor William Williams to chat.

What, if anything, do CEOs consistently fail to understand about PR and communications that could make them more successful than otherwise?

Most business leaders aren’t aware of the full scope of the PR/communications function and the breadth of skills their team should have. It’s not just about media relations. PR is a strategic business function that should coordinate with marketing and sales, and it can have significant impact on the bottom line. CEOs should bring their PR practitioners and consultants completely “into the fold,” so they can effectively serve in a management position and further the CEO’s vision and goals — not just put out fires.

What role does internal communication and corporate culture play in how a company communicates externally?

Internal communication greatly influences a company’s corporate culture, which then plays a role in a company’s brand reputation. People develop their perceptions of a company not simply from press releases and advertisements. Employees who are the “face” of a business are impacted by what they see and hear coming through the organization — and certainly not just in a formal way. They are the individuals who project an image and paint a perception of the company.

A good PR person is skilled at ferretting out rumors, grumblings and even people who are not a “fit” in the way of corporate culture. If they know the CEO’s vision, they can use their expertise to influence, persuade and change.

What role does the CEO play in steering that culture?

There is no more important role for a CEO than that of guiding company culture. Sometimes leaders get so busy and stressed they don’t see that all eyes are upon them, and they forget that everything they say and do influences internal culture. CEOs should get a reality check every year by doing internal surveys about the company culture. Do the answers reflect what the CEO thinks the culture is or should be? If not … surprise. The CEO has work to do.

When should the CEO not be the company spokesperson?

Every situation is different. It depends on the purpose of the particular media interview. Generally speaking, with a large corporation, if you want the focus on the local markets you should have a local spokesperson — both in good times and bad. Also, there are incidents where an interview focuses on an area — clinical issues, technical issues — where the CEO is just not as conversant. That’s when the company needs to use an internal expert as the spokesperson.

I understand Lovell Communications has represented about 1,000 hospitals. Why did you decide to build your business in health care, and how did you do it?

Our health care specialty stems from more than 25 years of advising acute and long-term hospitals, physician practices, nursing homes and rehab facilities, behavioral health centers, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, payors, home health and hospice providers, ambulatory surgery centers, tech companies, social service agencies, revenue enhancement companies, medical device manufacturers and disease management specialists.

Early on, we were fortunate to be associated with some hugely successful national health care companies based in Nashville. Over the years, we’ve had experience in marketing health care services and product lines as well as managing crisis communications at times of wrongful deaths, Medicare decertification, drug diversions, sexual harassment, hospital or service closures, labor issues, fraud and abuse, data breaches and bankruptcies. We have a lot of “depth on the bench” in these and other sensitive areas.

What percentage of your business is health care related and what is the significance of this?

About 80 percent of our work is health care related. The rest is primarily in the education space, like nursery schools, private grammar and high schools, special education and colleges and universities, as well as banking/finance. I think if you have a lot of depth in these highly regulated and sometimes volatile areas, you can do just about anything.

Are we going to see more firms within your industry that focus, say, 75 percent of their efforts on one industry? And, if so, what industries, other than health care, might be noteworthy? Perhaps there is more specialization already, and many don’t realize it.

The mega-firms will always have to be diverse, but we are a boutique firm that focuses on business-to-business (B2B) and the services industries. I think most boutique firms will either focus on B2B/services or in business-to-consumer/retail. They are very, very different.

A major part of your business is crisis communications. Tell me about that.

I think I am an adrenaline junkie, and most of the people in our shop are, as well. With serious crisis work, you are working side by side with the senior management team as well as inside and outside consultants. I like the strategy, the pressure and the potential impact that even a single word can have on the management and repair of a crisis.

You have a business partner, Rosemary Plorin. How does this relationship work?

Rosemary Plorin is the best and smartest business partner anyone could ever hope for. She was named partner in 2005, and we work as joint leaders of the firm. Both of us are “working managers,” as well as mentors to the staff and each other.

What’s the most dramatic change you’ve seen in the public relations industry since you started your company 25 years ago?

Technology, social media and digital marketing.

What is your take regarding social media?

Social media is part of a good marketing mix. It cannot be overlooked, nor can it be the only element. The most important thing about social media for a business is to ask: Why are we doing this and how will we measure success? If it doesn’t play a role in achieving business goals, forget it.

Will Lovell Communications do anything special this month to celebrate 25 years of operations?

We just did a visual rebranding of the firm after 25 years, produced new sales materials, hired a few people to start in January and plan to celebrate all year long.