The life and loves of PR revolutionary Lou Hoffman

Lou Hoffman, based in San Francisco, launched the global communications consultancy The Hoffman Agency in December 1987. We ask him what it is like working in Silicon Valley, what prompted him to start up a consultancy, and why he considers this time to be the PR equivalent of the “industrial revolution”.

Hoffman says that when he was a teenager, his passions were writing and sport: “I wanted – no make that desperately wanted – to be a writer for Sports Illustrated. I loved to write. I loved sports. I figured combining the two as a job would be Utopia. In reflection, given today’s increasingly contentious relationship between journalists and professional athletes, I think everything worked out well. I enjoy the writing that comes with my role now. And if I need a sports fix, a game or match is only a click away.”

It was writing that led to a career in communications. Hoffman explains, “I did some freelance writing for one of the early publications to cover Silicon Valley called The Corporate Times. The editor landed a job at a PR agency focused on the tech sector and later asked me if I wanted to join. Keep in mind that this was 1983 when the PC market was still in a nascent stage. I was relatively confident that the job would be more interesting than my role at the time running a union newspaper that served California school employees.”

Telling tales

However, it wasn’t this first PR job that Hoffman considers to be his first real break, this happened when he was working on the technology giant Philips account: “What really shaped my communications philosophy came from working with Philips in 1985 and leading the introduction of what was then a cutting-edge technology called CD-ROM. The Philips VP in charge of CD-ROM was named Rob Moes. He wasn’t interested in regurgitating the pristine messages that I had spent hours shaping. Instead, he believed the best preparation came from anticipating the questions from journalists and answering the questions like a real human being. I started to notice that when I pummelled the executive into submission to stay on message, the content didn’t resonate with journalists. Yet, Rob’s style of sharing stories downright captivated journalists. The time with Rob and Philips helped me see the light – stories trump messages.”

The drive to set up his own agency, says Hoffman, partly came from the fact that the spirit of Silicon Valley was rubbing off on him. He wanted to shake things up: “I thought there was a better way to run a PR consultancy. Specifically, the quest to maximise profits by measuring account professionals based on billability and/or billing quotas seemed misplaced. It occurred to me that if you hired self-driven individuals and secured clients in which expectations aligned with budgets and then told the account folks that their number-one mission was to do great work, the financials would follow naturally. That was the original concept – to measure our account professionals only on areas that matter to the client. While we’ve obviously evolved since 1981, that tenet is still in place.”

Hard-knock life

It hasn’t always been an easy ride, and Hoffman describes that as someone with a journalism major and zero business background, he has had to learn through the proverbial “school of hard knocks”, adding, “and there were many hard knocks.”

“One in particular that stands out involved my performance review. After evangelising the value of feedback, I realised no one was providing formal feedback to me since I didn’t report to anyone. This prompted me to hire a HR company to conduct my annual review, interviewing my direct reports as well asking all employees to complete a questionnaire. The feedback was sobering. I’ll always remember the quantitative side of the review in which certain characteristics were ranked on a scale of one to ten, with ten being extraordinary and one being dreadful. I graded out as a three for internal communication skills. Tough to put a spin on that one. But the HR consultancy helped me understand that often these issues aren’t skill set issues. They’re priority issues, and this was the staff’s way of saying I needed to make internal comms a higher priority. It’s a lesson I’m still applying 20-plus years later.”

UK perspective

Running a global business involves globetrotting, including doing time in the UK. Hoffman describes what he gained from spending two years in Britain: “Working out of the UK and helping get our business going here is one of the top experiences in my career and a great experience for my family. It’s healthy to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and those two years in the UK definitely did that. I thought the sophistication in programming between the US and the UK were very similar. Yet, there were a couple distinct differences. One, there seemed to be deeper and more meaningful relationships between journalists and PR. I was amazed that journalists would actually make time to meet up with someone from PR for lunch or at the pub. It seemed to help that the journalists for the most part were centralised in London. I don’t know if this still holds true, but that was the case back in 2001 and 2002.”

“I also saw that PR practitioners in the UK had a much stronger global mentality. Because the US market is so massive, it can breed a certain provincial attitude in the US PR industry. I think the UK PR industry is still unique and forward-thinking, and there’s a lot we can learn in the US from what goes on here. One of our goals in the coming year is to cross-pollinate across the three major regions we operate in and share best practices to provide clients a truly global approach.”

PR revolution

Before we leave Hoffman, I ask if he has any advice for the rest of the PR industry. He discusses how PROs must make the most of opportunities that are being thrown up by so much upheaval in the industry: “I’m convinced that history will show that this period of time for communications will be our version of the industrial revolution. For people starting their careers, all this chaos is good. It creates opportunities. But – and here’s the key caveat – young professionals need to have the courage to speak up and deviate from the status quo. Just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t automatically mean that’s the best way to proceed. One final piece of advice – read and watch. Journalists are the master storytellers when it comes to business communications. Absorbing and studying how media properties ranging from The Guardian to The Economist to BuzzFeed communicate in all their permutations – narrative, visual storytelling, video – is a great way to get ahead of the curve.”

Lou Hoffman, CEO, The Hoffman Agency

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