A Q&A with Jan Gusich, CEO of AKHIA

Jan Gusich, CEO of AKHIA, spoke recently at a Cleveland AMA meeting. We caught up with her to get further insight on the topics she discussed at her presentation and to hear more about what she has learned from the time she has spent at her Hudson, Ohio based agency.

Question: The public relations and marketing communications agency you started in 1996, AKHIA, celebrated its 17-year anniversary this past November. To what do you attribute your firm’s longevity and success when other longtime Cleveland firms with solid reputations have closed their doors during that time?

Answer: The most important driver of success has been our service model. Our mission – from day one – has been to out-service any other agency in the region. We do that through constant communication with the client, innovative solutions and unrelenting accountability for results. Another important driver of success has been our people. We hire highly talented individuals who expect to be inspired and supported, not managed, and we reward achievement with personal and professional development opportunities. Finally, our culture has always set us apart. AKHIA is a place where people want to work – the environment is creative, energetic, friendly, accepting and extremely flexible.

Question: What market niche did you envision your firm filling at the time you started it, that was not already being serviced in the Northeast Ohio area?

Answer: When we started, we were a public relations firm and there were many firms, large and small, that also provided PR. The niche we filled was to be more client focused, versus numbers focused. We had this notion that if we took care of the client, the numbers would take care of themselves – and they have. Today, we are a 57-person integrated marketing firm that includes marketing strategy, social media strategy, brand development, reputation management….oh, and public relations.

Question: What individuals do you revere as personal role models?

Answer: So many. From my personal life, my parents, who had the strongest work ethic I’ve ever seen, and who taught us kids – all 8 of us – that anything worth doing was worth doing right. From my professional life, my former boss at Eaton Corporation who approached everything with an enviable sense of calm that I, as a Type-A person (Double A, as my husband would say), often strive for. From a distance, I’ve always admired people who have managed companies with integrity, respect and compassion, like Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Thomas, as well as people who succeed because they drive for perfection in the wake of countless critics. Steve Jobs comes to mind.

Question: What companies have a knack for doing communications right?

Answer: Ours! Google, Zappos.

Question: My years of experience in the public relations and communications field have taught me …

Answer: The principles of communication don’t change; only the channels and delivery systems do. Keep basic communications principles in mind – use plain language, be truthful, shape messaging around the needs and desires of the audience (message recipient), communicate frequently and use the communications channels that are most closely aligned with your audience. This is how you succeed with any communication – especially during a crisis.

Question: My recommendation to someone starting in the field in the Northeast Ohio area is …

Answer: From a general public relations perspective, combine your communications knowledge with solid business acumen. You’ll be sitting across from CEOs and must be able to understand basic business principles and accounting terms. Crisis communications is a specialized field that requires deep knowledge. Immerse yourself in the many books, articles, and webinars that are available. Find an experienced mentor who is willing to meet regularly to discuss crisis communications events and responses, and follow industry leaders on their Twitter and LinkedIn social media channels.


Question: If AKHIA managed crisis communications for developers of the newly launched national health care website, its strategy would be?

Answer: If you remain silent, someone will fill the void with false and unflattering information. Tell your side of the story through thoughtful communications with key stakeholders – including customers, prospective customers, and the news media. Use personal meetings whenever possible. Select an experienced spokesperson that can answer questions with poise and confidence. Be truthful and not defensive. Know the key points you want to convey and do so convincingly, and repeatedly. Then move on – start innovating again and proving that the situation may have affected your organization but does define it.

Question: How would that advice change if you handled crisis communications for President Obama’s administration regarding the “botched rollout”?

Answer: President Obama appears to be following the correct formula: Apologize, explain what happened, outline the steps you are taking to fix the situation, outline the measures you are taking so that it never happens again, and make restitution to anyone who has been negatively impacted. Then, deliver on your promise. If you don’t, it will be harder to recover a second time.

Question: What are your long-term plans for growing your business?

Answer: Our long-term plan is 15% growth, year-over-year, while working hard to preserve the unique culture that we have long cultivated at AKHIA. Part of the growth we will achieve organically with current clients; part will be new business as we proactively target markets and industries where we have clear, demonstrated experience. Growth will additionally come from expanding our services in global markets, as well as more promotion of our crisis communications practice.

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