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How PRSA Counselors Academy helps agency owners (featuring Chuck Norman)

The benefits of joining together with peers to learn about the business side of agencies
Chuck Norman

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Most agency owners find value in talking with their peers and understanding the challenges that they share in running PR firms. The PRSA Counselors Academy is a special interest group within the Public Relations Society of America that brings together agency entrepreneurs through events and other programming.

The Immediate Past Chair of Counselors Academy, Chuck Norman, joined Chip to talk about the group and how it brings benefits to agency owners. In addition to his volunteer role, Chuck is also the owner of S&A Communications.

In this episode, you will learn more about Chuck’s journey, as well as specific examples of the work that Counselors Academy does to bring together agency principals and experts.



The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I am your host, Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Chuck Norman. He is the owner of S&A Communications, and the immediate past chair of the PRSA Counselors Academy. Welcome to the show, Chuck.

CHUCK: Thanks for having me today. Chip.

CHIP: I am happy to have you here to talk about both your agency as well as perhaps more importantly, at least for this show, the counselors Academy and all the benefits that that has for agency owners, particularly those who may not have heard of it before. So before we dive into the conversation, why don’t we learn a little bit about S&A Communications and Chuck Norman?

CHUCK: Sure. Well, I’ve been practicing since 1996, and been with my agency for about 18 years now. We are a full service agency and like many of us over the years, we’ve had to get creative on how we continue to stay competitive and relevant. And even though we started out back in 1982 as a traditional public relations agency over the last almost 20 years We’ve added our digital in a number of other things that complement our field of public relations. And really help strengthen the value and offerings that we can share with our clients. So where there’s about 40 of us here, and we’re based in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. And fortunately, I’ve really appreciated prsa over the years because I’ve learned a lot, first and foremost, but I’ve also made some connections around the world by this organizations relationships, and it’s really great because got somebody just about in every city in the United States and Canada that can reach out to you if we need feet on the ground somewhere. But we’ve really enjoyed, you know, how the evolution of our agency has taken place, and I feel like we’re, you know, set for 2020 and beyond to remain competitive and relevant.

CHIP: That is great and PRSA is a great resource for communicators. And it’s also a great resource for agency owners and that’s through their the counselors Academy, which you coarser intimately familiar with as the immediate past chair. So why don’t you give us a quick overview of the counselors Academy?

CHUCK: Sure, like a lot of folks prsa was something that you you should and probably have done at some point in your career. And if you haven’t, I suggest checking it out. But as we all continue to get older, we really hope that folks will matriculate through the process and join some of the special interest sections that would be relevant for your agency. There’s everything from the health care Academy to the tech Academy and so on. But what drew me in was counselors Academy were the most expensive section unfortunately, we’re at $195 a year but the value has paid for itself. 1000 fold in my opinion, what counselors Academy is is a professional intersection of prsa that is geared towards agency owners in North America and also senior level executives that have at least 10 or more years of experience in agency life. It doesn’t have to necessarily be just agency. We do have members that are Part of other sectors. But I would say the majority of our members are either solo practitioners or leaders of agencies up to about 100 employees. We have members again, all over the United States and Canada. And our current chair is from Toronto. So you can see we’re truly international for this particular section. And we work with cprs. up in Canada. So we’re excited about the future of counselors Academy. I’ve been a member for 12 years now. And I can’t imagine having anything else as a part of my professional development Aquaman then counselors Academy because it speaks to us as agency owners. It’s not tactical, it’s really about how to be a better agency owner. And while you do learn some things that are associated with, you know, getting better at your craft, it really helps you be a better agency manager and leader of people.

CHIP: Yeah, and so a couple of things pop out at me from what you just said. The the first is, you know, speaking generally about prsa and interest groups, you know, most folks that I know in prsa are, you know, tend to join their local chapter, certainly very familiar with it. But I think that that folks in general have taken less advantage than they should have some of the interest group sections, like counselors Academy and some of the others and, and so, you know, I think increasing awareness of them is obviously really valuable. But the The second piece is what you’ve really touched on. And I think it’s so important, so many people become PR agency owners, accidentally, if you will, you know, they start out as a freelancer, and then the business grows from there. And all of a sudden, look, I’m running an agency. And so to have that support on the business side through prsa is really valuable.

CHUCK: You’re 100% correct. And most of us that go to school for communication, don’t necessarily go to business school as well. And one of my favorite sayings over the years that my founder and now retired business partner told me was people go into business over enthused and undercapitalized and don’t always have all the skill sets and dollars needed to make an agency successful, even though you can deliver an outstanding product, you’re not necessarily geared for being a risk taker and entrepreneur. And so those that are interested in having that skill set strengthened can join counselors Academy and learn about those facets of agency development that really keep your business moving in the right direction.

CHIP: And it’s that’s a great point, because most folks who find themselves owning an agency are very good practitioners. They thrive on it. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and it is their expertise, but it’s really on the job training for the business components, whether that’s financial statements or contracts or other legal documents, all of the all of the logistics that it takes to run a business and that’s a very different experience.

CHUCK: It is one of my favorite things about counselors Academy in general, is we bring in consultants and professionals that work with agency owners specifically for instance, one of our speakers every year is a law firm that and it’s not always the same law. firm but they specifically work with PR, marketing and communication agencies as their top line practice area. And so they really get what we do every day, not only from a contract perspective, but what are some of those things that can pop up and you know, every day practices that we’re consulting with clients around and that could be everything from Craig trademark and copyright law to you know, how to handle a situation that gets out of control from a reputation management or crisis situation that legal advice may be necessary.

CHIP: And I think the exposure that folks get through counselors Academy helps people realize the things that they should be thinking about, you know, as I work with agencies on a regular basis, and try to help them through various business challenges. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that a lot of folks get into trouble simply because they didn’t know something existed, or they should be thinking about something as a potential challenge. So having that environment where you’re sharing with other owners who have been in the same place that you have been can be very helpful.

CHUCK: 100% and I I can say that, you know, taking the APR back in 2009, which is the year after I joined counselors Academy was great from a knowledge skills and ability standpoint to really validate what I know as a professional. But counselors Academy really helped round out the the business mindset for me.

CHIP: And that business mindset helps you not just run your agency, but it helps you with your clients too. Because the more that you understand about business, the more you understand what’s really motivating the underlying desires and needs of your clients.

CHUCK: 100%. And I can’t tell you how many spring conferences I’ve gone to over the years where maybe just a case study presented in a breakout session helped me understand how to deliver something even better than I was able to come up with them all.

CHIP: And I think the other advantage of groups like counselors Academy is that it provides a safe space doesn’t it so that it’s a place where you can sit down with other agency owners and express your your fears, your concerns, and they’re not going to judge you for it and say oh my god, you know, what do you think? It’s really an opportunity where you have that opportunity to expose yourself a little bit more in, in a way that is probably more comfortable for most agency owners.

CHUCK: I think you nailed it. You know, there’s a, there’s a chip on a lot of our shoulders. You know, we all think that we’re we’re the best at what we do and starting an agency is extremely difficult in general. And, you know, one of the challenges I’ve had over the years is the next me is not necessarily in my agency today, and through the m&a consultants that are involved with counselors Academy, I’ve been learning how to position myself in my agency and looking for those value propositions to not only make it something that people want to buy, but create a leadership team that people want to bring on board if we do happen to sell someday when I choose to begin the m&a process myself.

CHIP: So let’s let’s get down to brass tacks a little bit more. So if I join the the counselors Academy, what kind of programming Do you offer? What kind of services are there? You know, how does it specifically help me?

CHUCK: Sure. Well, you know, there’s a number of different things about counselors Academy that are of great benefit to anyone who joins. But first and foremost is the spring conference where we get together for three days, somewhere around the country, or internationally to just get together, and and learn. Like I said, we bring in people from both agency, corporate, nonprofit, educational institutions, and so on, along with a number of different consultants. You’ve worked with large multinational agencies to educate our participants. Outside of spring conference, we do webinars five or six times a year, we also have a speaker around a topic that’s been sourced through our Facebook page, which is a private group, which leads me to the third, I think one of the most beneficial things that bridge the gap between conferences is or a closed Facebook page. You wouldn’t believe the number of conversations had on that page where people really peek behind the curtain and show you both the positive and the negative that’s going on. Their agency. And if not a dozen, two dozen people will chime in on the conversation to help people through those opportunities and challenges they may be experiencing. So those three things I think are the top, you know, things that people get out of counselors Academy, but again, nothing beats that in person touch point, because there’s something about sitting around a fire, having a drink with someone and then spilling their guts about a challenge they had with their agency that they just wouldn’t do if they were back home or if they’re a competitor in your market. There’s a couple of folks even in my market in the Raleigh Durham area that we didn’t even meet until we got to a spring conference. And now we actually chase business together because we’ve had those candid conversations and haven’t become good friends and realize that we have the same morals, values and ethics that each other have so we can feel comfortable sharing that agency with our client.

CHIP: When I think that’s a great point about the the social interaction really in any kind of event, but particularly this sort of one where you have that opportunity to to become even more candid than you might on a phone call or on a webinar or even speaking one on one on the phone. There’s something about that in person connection that as much as we all love technology and the way that digital tools keep us together, there’s something special about seeing folks face to face.

CHUCK: You know, it’s really funny because,

again, we’re all extremely talented people. And you have to be somewhat of a risk taker to be an entrepreneur, but we all put on a, you know, somewhat of a mask in front of others, because we want to be seen as someone who’s successful and has done well with their business. But a lot of times you have to have some of these conversations around the challenges that you’ve had in your business. And you can’t necessarily do that with a competitor or someone that’s right here in your own market. So going somewhere secluded. and spending time with folks who have areas of expertise that match up with yours is is really beneficial for me.

CHIP: And what are some of the things that will be on the agenda for this year’s conference?

CHUCK: Sure. So this year we’re meeting down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico may 3 through fifth For our spring conference, and we have a pretty good program lined up this year. So this year, our theme for the year is 2020. Vision, leading the agency of the future. And part of that is talking about how agencies are evolving. I did mention that earlier on in the conversation about, you know, just being a general service PR firm is becoming harder and harder. And with the shrinking newsroom, both nationally and globally. You have to offer other products and services that marry very well with PR. And so what we do in this conference is we kind of touch on all those different areas to get out of your comfort zone. We start off the event, having a pre conference session, where we call it grow, run and protect a stronger, more profitable agency and we call it the best of counselors Academy. So this is a special pre conference session that brings together a special selection of the most highly rated speakers from past counselors Academy conference for a Masters course, for lack of a better word on how to build and manage a stronger, more profitable agency. So those areas are broken up into a couple of different areas grow, which is learned six reasons why your agency must have a written, written new business plan and how to create one that will change how you think about finding and winning new clients. Actually, the speaker for this section I’ve hired personally, his name’s Ken Jacobs, with Jacobs consulting and executive coaching. But he really talks through you know, sometimes, if we all were able to develop business, we wouldn’t have agencies you know, and I think that’s the biggest key it’s always hard for us to let’s say, hire a business development person because if you can develop business in this, this industry, you’re probably going to have your own agency. But you always need to get better at how you attract business. A lot of us, you know, fall back on past relationships and so on. And Kim has really helped me Understand that he might not be bringing, you know, hundred percent new ideas, but most of us don’t have anyone to answers to. So he keeps me accountable and keeps me on track with my business development plans. On top of that I had mentioned earlier in our conversation about the legal side of things. We also have Sharon Toerek, who’s a principal at toric law. And she is going to be talking about one of the most challenging aspects of running an agency can be employees and how you manage them. And then we also have for anyone that’s new, and I would say this, we have about 30% new attendees at our conference every year. Sometimes that’s geographically sometimes that’s because of the content. But we do a really in depth counselors one to one session where we have someone buddy up with a counselor who’s been going for a long time so no one ever enters our conference a stranger. The very first thing they do on site is sit down with someone they become their buddy and hopefully a long term friend so they can get the most out of counselors Academy from a very big joining our conference,

CHIP: that’s a really great idea and probably something that more conferences should be doing. Because it often can be tough when you’re coming to an event where a lot of folks already know each other.

CHUCK: That’s 100% true. And, you know, I know a lot of us are outgoing but and you’ve probably experienced this with other guests on your show there as many introverted people in PR as any industry I’ve ever seen.

CHIP: Which is, which is ironic, since it’s you know, all about the public, but it but it is absolutely true.

CHUCK: Yeah. And so we try to break down those barriers in the very beginning and, you know, give our members a great first intro to it, but we do a number of breakout sets. Over the course of a few days. We have four keynote speakers that come in that are both motivational and educational. And I’m happy to go in or provide more detail after the fact I’m sure you’ll share a link along with this to the full program for the event.

CHIP: Absolutely. I will include a Full link for that, so that folks can get more information both about counselors Academy as well as the event itself. Because, you know, there are there are far more resources than we have time to cover on on this particular episode. But I know folks will want to dig in more after the fact. Sure. So can you share a little bit about some of the specific things that you’ve taken away? I think you said you were with you’ve been with counselors Academy for 12 years now. Is that right? That’s correct. Yeah. So, you know, in that time, you know, what, what are some of the lessons that stick out in your mind that you’ve been able to take out and apply to your own agency?

CHUCK: Well, first and foremost, I think it’s really about the connectivity to those folks around the country that have been most important to me. I’ll never forget the very first event that I went to, from a spring conference perspective was in Naples, Florida. And I was probably only there for 30 minutes before, what we call a sage came up to me and who’d been doing this for 30 years and threw his arm around me and just said, you know, I’m here for you. been through all this year at the beginning your career and I’m at the end. And I find that in our profession, maybe unlike some others, were very welcoming group of people. And even though we all are competitors, and we want to make as much money as we can and leave the world better place,

we really want to improve the industry.

And that’s what counselors Academy has really done for me is figure out a way to make the industry better. So as I do hand off the rain someday, we know that this industry is going to be strong and regardless of how the industry is changing around us, like I mentioned earlier, with the shrinking newsrooms, just doing, the things that make the industry better as a whole is something we can all do together. There’s no competitive nature to that at all. We’re all just trying to make sure that our industry is around for another hundred years after the first hundred had been so good to us.

CHIP: Well, I think your point about competition is a really good one too, because my experience generally is that when I work with folks who are new to the agency game, they see the competition in a little bit more An aggressive life than they do over time where it becomes more of a feeling of Co Op petition, if you will, where, you know, there’s there’s lots of opportunities, as you said, you have with some of the local agencies that you’ve met, through counselors Academy to, to cooperate on different things to learn from each other to pursue business together. And so while you may be competing for certain pieces of Business at different times, you really have more opportunities to work together than against each other.

CHUCK: You do. And in this, especially taking a leadership track, like I did with counselors Academy and going through the executive committee and the board, I was able to roll up my sleeves and work alongside folks and see what kind of people they really were, and that naturally lead you to man, I really want to do something with this individual outside of my professional society. And just six months ago, someone called me that was on the board with me, based in Detroit and said, I really need feet on the ground because I don’t know the North Carolina market, have this great international client that’s opening an office in your area, and she knew that she could try me because again, we work side by side for four years together on the board, understanding what the goals and objectives are, were with prsa and just building a relationship with one another so she picked up the phone called me and we had really successful engagement with them and that would have never happened without something like counselors Academy.

CHIP: Now as you look at some of the newer members of counselors Academy Are you seeing any particular trends that that stand out to you whether it’s the their specialties or geographies or ages or any of those kinds of things that that might give us insight on you know, where the the industry is, is growing most right now.

CHUCK: You know, what I’ve been most intrigued by and something that I’ve been trying to figure out myself is you know, with with 40 people, we have quite a large brick and mortar footprint. But I’ve been seeing over the last four or five years not only younger agencies come online, you know, those under 40 and mostly in their 20s and early 30s. One having the having the ability and the desire and Also the fortitude to be able to start an agency that young, I don’t know that I would have done it myself. But also just going completely virtual, I would say, I can name five or six off the top of my head that have chosen not to have any brick and mortar space whatsoever. You know, a lot of us that are over 40 think that could be a challenge because you want to have your own safe space and invite people in clients or otherwise to show that you’re a real company. But these folks are really setting the bar very high and have delivering great work and growing like crazy having these virtual agencies so I’m trying to take a page out of that book myself and maybe reduce square footage create more opportunity to work from home. You know, we started last May allowing people to work from home one day a week and this coming May I think we’re going to go to two days and if I go to two days, I might be able to reduce our square footage saving myself seven or eight grand a month, which you know, anybody would love to see, just by, you know, allowing people to do what they want to do, which is work from home or

CHIP: Yeah, and that’s Clearly a trend that’s that’s taking root, particularly in the agency space where a lot of what you do can be done from anywhere. And so you know, whether it’s agencies like yours where you’re going to a hybrid model, or other agencies perhaps where they’re taking advantage of remote work to be able to hire the best talent wherever they exist. So maybe they still have a core headquarters, but they’re doing a lot more hiring in remote places where it allows them to tap into folks that they might not otherwise be able to bring on board or as you’ve said, some of the younger agencies that are just starting out as virtual workplaces and staying that way,

CHUCK: it’s really interesting to see and I’m slowly getting a comfort level for that model. I doubt that I will ever go 100% virtual like some of these folks have started off as but I do see. I do see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel and I believe probably by the end of this year, I may be able to report back to you that we have some of that going on here destiny

CHIP: Yeah, it’s it’s interesting to how its evolved because You know, I suspect you and I are probably in roughly the same age range. And when I became president of a company in the mid 90s, I found out that my predecessor had told the receptionist that she could telecommute after she had a baby. And I remember that meeting with her and I just kind of stared at her. I’m like, how Why would he sign? How can you be a telecommuting receptionist and of course you know, even today, that’s probably not the position that you could have as a remote worker because receptionist has a certain responsibility to greet any guests. But in any case, it really has shifted and so you know, from that time to today, you know, I remember you know, we did do our due diligence and look into it because our HR person said we had to sensitive been offered to her. And so we did test it, but you know, it took a lot to have remote worker back then where it was truly seamless, you know, to put in special phone lines and all that kind of stuff and internet access. today. Everybody’s got the tools on, you know, probably their own little laptop that will allows them to act just as if they’re in a regular office.

CHUCK: They do. And that’s part of why I’m encouraged by this potential opportunity to decrease our brick and mortar footprint, because everyone’s connected all the time. And you know, our IT company makes sure that workstations and cell phones and everything are both secure, but also have the, you know, proper, proper technology to be able to connect from anywhere. also realize that, you know, we’re an output based business, you know, and some people work better at seven o’clock at night than they do at seven o’clock in the morning. So I just have to get in my own way sometimes and allow that, that transition to happen.

CHIP: Yeah, and this is a topic we talk about a lot on the sister podcast of this one, the Agency Leadership Podcast that I co host with Gini Dietrich, because her agency, Arment Dietrich started as a brick and mortar agency, and then about 10 years ago went virtual. And so, you know, she’s able to speak to both of those, both the challenges and opportunities at present. So, for anyone who’s interested in learning more about how to to balance those, I’d encourage you, there’s a few episodes. We really dive deep on that on that show.

CHUCK: Well, Gini is a good friend of mine and of counselors Academy has been a member for years. And I’d like to think that her idea for the PESO model came out of her attendance spring conference. There you go.

CHIP: Absolutely. Absolutely. And she is a great co host for the other podcast. So. So on that note, I guess so where can people find you chuck? Where can they find us and a communications where can they find counselors Academy?

CHUCK: Sure. So esterday Communications is located at 301 cascade point lane and Cary, North Carolina. But you can find us most easily on the web at sa communications dot com. And if you’re interested in learning more about Counselors Academy, you can either go to prsa.com and search the section counselors Academy or you can go to our own website ca PS a.com. And learn more about both the board the organization and the spring conference.

CHIP: And we will include all of those links for you in the show notes. So if you are on the treadmill in your car or somewhere else, please don’t pull over fall off or whatever it will all be there for you Just visit agency leadership com. So with that, I really appreciate your time Chuck. My guest today has been Chuck Norman, the owner of S&A Communications and the immediate past chair of the PRSA Counselors Academy.

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