Tuesday, June 28, 2005

PR Face2Face:
Sabrina Horn, President, Horn Group

Sabrina Horn has 20 years management and public relations experience working with both start-up and Fortune 1000 technology companies. At Horn Group, Inc., she provides strategic consulting to select clients and guides the firm's operations, business development and long-term vision. She also currently runs the firm's New York office. Previously, Sabrina held senior management positions at Blanc & Otus and Edelman Public Relations, both in San Francisco. She holds a MS in Public Relations from Boston University and a BA in American Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Sabrina has authored several research papers including "Public Relations for Emerging Growth Technology Companies," and "Advertising in the People's Republic of China." Sabrina is accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and is a frequent speaker at technology and marketing industry conferences. Sabrina was named to the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame in 1997 and received the award for Best Employer in the US by Working Woman in 1999. She was also recognized as one of the PR industry's most successful entrepreneurs by Inside PR magazine and she was recently named to the SIIA Board of Directors. Sabrina enjoys painting and playing with her two daughters.



You have been in the business for close to 15 years – what do you owe to your success? What part of that leading edge do you credit for winning the Novell pitch?

There are three things that I credit for winning Novell: number one, a passion to win and to succeed in business. There have been upswings and downswings, but there's a passion to win that my team embraces. Secondly, we are a very thoughtful culture. We did our homework with pertinent and excellent content. We had the last slot of the day for the pitch, and we knew we needed to have a creative pitch to spark the IR interest. Our pitch had the passion and creative ideas that Novell was looking for. We even rewrote a book for them!

Horn Group has always had that passion to win - a passion to be the best. I got that from my parents, both of whom are entrepreneurs. My father has 48 US patents, and has started about 5 or 6 companies. It's in my bloodstream to be entrepreneurial and take calculated risks.

I also have a mission to set a new PR industry standard with regard to how we treat our people, the employee experience, our benefits and so on. I wanted to create a better environment for our people, to foster greater loyalty and lower turnover.

You have recently opened up offices in Washington, DC and Chicago, which come after the opening of the New York office less than 2 years ago. What was the impetus for the East Coast and Midwest moves?

The impetus for New York office was to diversify our business in a city where there are opportunities beyond our core expertise of enterprise software into the telecom and consumer technology markets, as well as to be more engaged with the media and financial activites centered here.

In Washington, DC, we relocated a longtime San Francisco employee who wanted to move closer to his family there. After doing our homework, we saw that there was not much competition for us among boutique PR firms specializing in enterprise software. He now has two clients and two employees. Chicago is a satellite office, run by another senior professional who relocated from our San Francisco office. We are supporting companies between Minnesota and Michigan there, including Novell.

Why did you decide to personally lead the opening of the New York office? Have you found New York PR to be different than San Francisco / Silicon Valley PR?

Geographic expansion is a key growth strategy for us. It was the right time to strike out, do something different, that was also high profile. Our San Francisco and Boston offices were being well managed by others on my team, so I took it upon myself to go and build something new. I wanted the challenge of creating a whole new network, winning new business, and relocating existing employees from our Boston and San Francisco offices to New York. We were profitable from day one.

I don't think that PR in New York is any different than PR in San Francisco – technology PR is technology PR. The budgets are a bit smaller here, but the dynamics and basics – how you go about it – are not any different from the Bay Area.

You have been growing at a nice clip. With the recent acquisition of Outcast, have you given thought to being acquired or acquiring other firms to complement your organic growth?

I am regularly approached by other firms, and every agency has some kind of exit strategy. I am just still having too much fun. Acquiring another agency or specialty boutique that would strengthen our presence in an existing market or give us an added capability is definitely appealing to me, but I am not looking at any acquisitions right now.

You have recently set-up a blog for the firm as a whole, as well as you have a junior staffer blog on his own. Are you setting up a blogging practice for clients? What place do you see blogs taking in the communications mix?

This is a huge, huge new way of communicating. The power of the self-publisher is a little scary. It changes the dynamics of media relations and magazine publishing entirely.

There will be new influencers that PR people will need to learn how to reach. And we have to be thoughtful of what we are saying, and how it will be interpreted by others. Being a good blogger is a big responsibility.

For clients, I think it depends largely on the business. With a disruptive technology, the opportunity to discuss what you are doing on a blog is great. If it's a mainstream product or a commodity, there's less of an opportunity to blaze new ground unless you can find something novel or interesting to write about.

Blogs are definitely a part of our ongoing strategy, discussions, suggestions, and counsel with clients The greatest key to a successful blog, and blogging in general, is maintaining high-quality content.

The blog is also a time intensive matter. We all have full-time jobs. Who actually has time to respond quickly every day? Who is going to be the chief "spokesblogger" at your company? Will you have an editor? What topics are you going to choose? These are some of the issues that still need to be dealt with.

What advice would you give PR students entering the field? What do you look for in your people? Does the Boston University Terrier Network carry a lot of weight for you?

PR students should position themselves as having a diversity of skills that are not just PR oriented. If they can manage Web sites, have written content for brochures, have done marketing communications – those are skills that will help them find more opportunities.

I look for entry level folks that have more of a diverse background. Someone that worked at a TV station, or written for a newspaper, but also might have done an in-house internship in a marketing department or an internship at a PR firm – those are all good things for the resume.

I look for people who are gregarious, articulate, polished, smart, and people who have a sense of humor . I hire people who are confident, but who also know what they don't know. And, I will look at any great resume, whether they are from BU or SJSU. Being an alumnus, I would look at the BU resume first – the network DOES work, but I am not partial to it, or favor it in any way.

What have you seen changing in the last 20 years in PR? Do you think that PR practitioners are relying too much on technology, or is there a good balance with high-tech and high-touch?

Our business will always be high-touch. The second we forget about that, is the second we have lost a part of the secret sauce of our profession. Clients want to be "touched," and some of the best media relations come s from personal connections and human interaction. If you are very uncomfortable in a social situation, PR won't be the right fit for you.

Because of the Internet, our business is evolving from a more traditional publicity-oriented, media centric field, to a more well-rounded communications field. We help clients communicate to the press, as well as their business partners, employees, investors, and customers using new forms available for communications.

Technology has given us great platforms to communicate – email, blogs, extranet, Web sites – but it should absolutely not replace the personal touch.

As a prominent woman in PR, do you ever have trouble with the boy’s club mentalities in technology and public relations?

Never. And I don't let it get in my way. I think that in the technology industry – which is by nature very entrepreneurial - there is a greater acceptance of women in senior levels. It doesn't matter what sex you are, but how great your ideas are. It's the last thing on my mind.

Any final words or advice for the readers?

I have always thought that PR can be the secret sauce of a CEO, and the profession is working its way up the chain of command to earn more credibility in the C-suite. We are beginning to see Chief Communications Officers at corporations.

I think this is a wonderful trend and the beginning of a new era in our field.


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