Gary Conkling

Smooth Transition Fuels CFM Growth

Transitioning a personal services firm is a high-wire act. CFM managed to do it with minimal publicity and without losing legacy clients. It may have been one of the best PR moves the firm has made in its 28-year history.

The move from older to younger generation owners has proven a huge success. However, the transition didn’t always look so promising. “We started the transition discussion almost a decade ago,” recalls CFM co-founder Gary Conkling. “Every promising idea we had flopped.”

Transitions don’t occur in suspended reality. “Partners retired or left,” recalled Conkling. “Employees, including ones in line to become partners, peeled off.” Owning a personal services firm is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Senior CFM partners Norm Eder, Tom Eiland and Dave Fiskum got lots of advice, considered varied paths and lived through a series of failed opportunities. “We wound up,” Conkling said, “going back to basics.”

The goal was to enlist two to four young professionals who shared CFM’s vision for integrity and saw potential in a brand dedicated to results, not optics. Several candidates surfaced, but the two who stuck it out because they saw the potential for the firm and themselves were Joel Rubin and Dale Penn II. They made the transition possible and are now the owner-operators of CFM.

“Owning your own firm is an intriguing option,” Rubin says. “Owning a firm with a reputation for integrity and a commitment to client result is a dream come true.”

“From the beginning, CFM always felt like the right fit for my goals,” explains Penn. “Now Joel and I have a chance to build on past successes to scale new heights.”

Transitioning a 28-year-old personal services firm is not a small undertaking. However, the sellers and the buyers shared one important common goal – a transition that was seamless to clients. The sale date came and went with minimal notice. Clients were informed there would be no changes in their service. Yes, new people were in charge, but the old people were still at the wheel.

“We didn’t want the change of ownership to reflect a change in how we represent clients,” Rubin said. “Our priorities didn’t change and the way we advocate for our clients didn’t change,” Penn added.

Six months after the sale of CFM was consummated, the only noticeable change has been an increase in client work. “Whenever a firm with CFM's prestige transitions to new owners, there's sometimes the question of continuity,” Penn admitted. “But our senior partners have remained on the job and existing and prospective clients have responded positively.”

It may be too soon to judge the ultimate success of the CFM transition, but not too soon for this observation: “I have been impressed by how everyone in our organization has responded to the change in ownership,” says Rubin. “There is a feeling that if we can pull off a transition like this, we can do anything. That attitude is infectious and it is the attitude that is attracting clients.”



Conkling: Actions Speak Louder than Words in Crisis Response

Words matter in crisis response, but actions leave the longest lasting impression. President Obama recently came under scrutiny as some said he took too long to fit in a tour of flood-ravaged southern Louisiana in August. Meanwhile, Obama praised FEMA for stepping up disaster relief efforts in the last decade, a trend that has helped repair the agency's damaged reputation after Hurricane Katrina. 

Words matter in crisis response, but actions leave the longest lasting impression. President Obama recently came under scrutiny as some said he took too long to fit in a tour of flood-ravaged southern Louisiana in August. Meanwhile, Obama praised FEMA for stepping up disaster relief efforts in the last decade, a trend that has helped repair the agency's damaged reputation after Hurricane Katrina. 

"Actions speak louder than words in crisis response, and the actions that speak the loudest are ones that align and affirm an organization’s core values,” CFM President Gary Conkling told a group of Puget Sound water officials at a seminar Wednesday in Woodinville, Washington.

“Words spoken in a crisis response are important,” Conkling said, “but the actions behind those words are what leave the most lasting impression, especially with the people impacted by the crisis.”

CFM President Gary Conkling

CFM President Gary Conkling

He gave an example of a retaining wall failure at the construction site of a new water reservoir near a residential area. “One of the most powerful actions you can take is to knock on the doors of nearby neighbors to explain what happened, describe how you are fixing the problem and listening to their concerns,” Conkling said. “If a TV reporter team shows up later and interviews the neighbors, they can say they’ve already talked to you.”

“They may still have concerns, but that direct, one-on-one contact with the agency will be an important demonstration that the agency is on top of the problem,” he added. “That can be an important, maybe the most important part of the story."

Conkling also offered a number of other crisis response tips, including the following:

“No one wants to face a crisis,” Conkling said, “but if one does occur, worry less about how to control events and more about the quality of your response.”

“A crisis is a moment when you can demonstration your commitment to your values and mission,” he said. “It is an opportunity to build goodwill and loyalty that no amount of paid advertising could ever achieve.”

Runquist Joins CFM, Deepens Firm's Writer's Bench

Justin Runquist, who has worked as a reporter for The Columbian, The Oregonian and The Spokesman-Review, has joined CFM Strategic Communications as the firm’s communications counsel.

Justin Runquist

Justin Runquist

A graduate of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, Runquist deepens CFM's bench for storytelling, story pitching, content creation, presentations and social media.

"Justin brings a fresh eye and contemporary experience in the media to meet client needs," said Gary Conkling, CFM’s president and co-founder. "He knows how to tell a story, sniff out a good story angle and leverage digital resources.”

Runquist most recently worked for The Columbian, where he wrote about local government, business, education and the marijuana industry in Clark County. Prior to that, Runquist worked for The Oregonian, covering government, business, crime and education in Lake Oswego, Wilsonville, West Linn and other parts of the Portland metro area. 

Three years ago for The Oregonian, Runquist covered the Washington State Legislature during a historic session as gay marriage became legal in the Evergreen State.

Runquist joins the CFM communications team, but he will also provide support for the firm's state affairs and research practice areas.

"Working for CFM appealed to me because of its range of public affairs work for corporations, nonprofits and public agencies," Runquist said. "This will translate into more diverse experiences and challenging work."

Conkling said, "People with journalistic experience do well in the world of public affairs. They understand policy issues and political processes. They also know that timing is everything."

Runquist also will play a key role in CFM's content-forward marketing efforts. 

"This is a company that shows what it can do through its widely shared thought leadership and case studies,” he said. “Clients know what they get when they hire CFM."

Runquist's arrival coincides with the departure of Hannah Smith, who has worked at CFM for seven years after graduating from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications. Smith and her husband are departing soon for a dream experience of an extended stay in Southeast Asia.

Owning, Fixing and Talking About Your Crisis

It is hard to fix a crisis you don't own.

It is hard to fix a crisis you don't own.

"Failing to own a crisis is like walking away from an opportunity to show your character, resiliency and values," CFM President Gary Conkling advised a group of water agency officials. "You will be choosing a road other than the road to redemption."

Conkling was invited to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of American Waterworks Association. The meeting was centered on strategic communications by water agencies. The title of his talk was "Owning, Fixing and Talking About Your Crisis." "I honestly believe crisis response is that simple," Conkling said. "Unfortunately, it isn't that easy."

A leading crisis communications counselor, Conkling said it is hard to "fix a crisis you don't own." "An insufficient apology or an evasive explanation won't put a crisis to rest," he explained.

Owning a crisis involves acknowledging what happened, expressing an appropriate emotion, apologizing and providing relevant detail about why it happened and why it won't happen again, Conkling said. "Owning a crisis doesn't involve saying you have everything under control, telling people not to worry or urging people to trust you."

"By definition, a crisis means events are out of control," he said. "You can't stop people from worrying. Your words don't elicit trust. Only actions can do that." 

Fixing a crisis relies on taking "demonstrable steps that show you own the crisis and are willing to deal with the root cause of the crisis." 

Talking about your crisis response "is easier when you have something to say," Conkling said. 

Sometimes it is smart, he said, to talk with stakeholders or neighbors before a crisis occurs. "People respect you for telling them what could happen," Conkling said. "The absence of an incident actually reinforces your trustworthiness. They assume the potential problem you discussed with them is being managed well." 

"A crisis may uncover something you wished would have stayed hidden," he said. "But your crisis response can demonstrate your openness to owning a potential problem and addressing it responsibly."

Gary Conkling Crisis Communications

If you are interested in having Gary Conkling speak to your organization about Crisis Communications, you can contact him here. For more Crisis Communications advice from Gary Conkling, visit the CFM Crisis Ebook.

Start the Customer Conversation Before an Ask

Gary Conkling gave a presentation designed to help water officials make a big splash with their marketing. Water utilities need proactive, out-of-the-box communications strategies to connect with constituents who care about clean water, but don't it much thought in their daily life.

Speaking at an Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies conference in Salem, CFM President Gary Conkling urged water officials to concentrate on information that is useful and relevant to their customers, presented in easy-to-access and easy-to-understand ways.

"Your information needs to be presented simply, packaged effectively and designed imaginatively to pull readers to your content and connect with your agency," Conkling said. "And it's all not just about a website. Friendly, helpful counter clerks and service techs who deal directly with customers can project an agency that wants to help."

His presentation on "Mapping a Communications Strategy" was part of a workshop that also included discussions on how to win community support for water projects. Around 150 people from throughout the Pacific Northwest attended.

Conkling encouraged water officials to embrace a marketer's perspective in their communications, starting with grassroots research that enables them to develop "customer personas." "It is easier to see how to talk about water to a personalized face instead of a statistic," he said. "Your communications will be closer to the mark if you aim them at people who are your customers."

An advantage enjoyed by water agencies, Conkling said, is having a database of customers with whom the agency is in monthly contact. "Your database can be a platform for finding out what matters to your customers," he explained "and turning them into your community partners through regular engagement."

Since people aren't sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear from a local water agency, "you have to find useful and even entertaining ways to connect with them," Conkling said.

"It's a lot better to have the conversation already under way," he advised," than waiting for the moment when you need to ask customers to agree to a rate hike."

Conking leads CFM's public relations practice, which includes strategic communications counsel, managing public issues, crisis response and reputation management.

New CFM Expert Section

The CFM website now sports a new expert section showcasing the expertise of individual staff members.

"You can read our bio and blogs, but still not know on what subjects we're experts," explained CFM President Gary Conkling. "This section is organized to make that recognition easy."

The expert section offers a convenient package of staffer background, expertise, recent media mentions and selected blog posts.

"It is designed to help news media find a credible source for their stories," Conkling said. "But it also is for clients and prospective clients who want to know more about our team members."

"We intend to keep the section updated," says CFM Digital Specialist Hannah Smith, who designed the expert section and is featured herself. "As we develop new areas of expertise, we will add those."

"And we will share the passionate hobbies and avocations of our team members," Smith adds.

Turning Crisis into Reputation Opportunity

More than 50 people heard tips on how to turn a crisis into a reputation-saving opportunity at a crisis-preparedness seminar this week.

CFM President Gary Conkling shared five crisis-response tips, including the importance of believing a crisis can happen to you. "If you don't think it can happen to you," he said, "you won't take steps to identify and assess your vulnerabilities and prepare a response."

Organizations are more likely to prepare for crisis if they put their reputations first. "Once you realize your reputation is at risk," Conkling said, "you are more likely to develop and update a crisis response plan." 

Overall, Conkling explained, organizations should think more deeply and more often about their reputations. "They are hard to earn and easy to lose," he said. "You should be thinking routinely about actions you can take that avoid crisis and can be turned into opportunities that save or even enhance your reputation."

The crisis-preparedness seminar was cosponsored by Durham & Bates and the Ladd Group. It is part of an occasional series of presentations offering information of value to senior corporate, nonprofit and public agency leaders.

"We are not pitching business," said Christen Picot of Durham & Bates. "We are sharing information so we are viewed as valuable business partners."


Click here to download a .pdf of the Crisis Response handout.

Conkling to Head International PR Network

The president of CFM Strategic Communications, Gary Conkling, will start a two-year term later this month as president of Pinnacle Worldwide, an international network of independently owned and operated public relations agencies.

More than 60 firms located in North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific Rim are available to provide services through Pinnacle. “Typically, our agencies are the leading agencies in their markets,” Conkling says in a video posted on this website.

“We are a global network based on first-name partnerships with like-minded firms from Los Angeles to London,” Conkling says. Pinnacle is a benefit for CFM clients who operate in multiple states or emerging overseas markets, Conkling adds. Virtual PR companies may be created, blending their know-how to deliver customer messages.

“They [Pinnacle members] are led by senior PR professionals. They’re also good, solid teams that have a deep source of talent, a deep bench, that can do a wide variety of work,” Conkling says.

“I value the opportunity to sit and talk to my peers, to be able to share information, and to learn what they are doing for best practices for their clients,” he says. Conkling adds that he appreciates the chance to share information so that CFM really has a handle on what are the emerging trends, new tools and techniques that are effective.

CFM is the Oregon member of Pinnacle. Membership is by invitation only. Principals from member firms meet regularly to exchange ideas on best practices and discuss how to handle critical communications issues.

Conkling has served as CFM president since 1990, when he co-founded the firm. Based in Portland, CFM provides services in the areas of PR Marketing Communications, Public Affairs, Research and State and Federal Lobbying. Branch offices are located in Salem, OR and Washington, D.C.

Conkling Keynotes Best 100 List Event

CFM President and co-founder is this year's keynote speaker at the annual 100 Best Companies to work for in Oregon dinner on March 4.As president and co-founder of a company honored seven times as one of the 100 Best companies to work for in Oregon, CFM’s Gary Conkling will keynote the annual event hosted by Oregon Business magazine.

The annual dinner is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 4, 2010 at the Oregon Convention Center’s Portland Ballroom. The 2010 100 best list will be announced at the event. The rankings are based on confidential employee surveys and a benefits report that is completed by each company. 

“We think it is critically important to be a good employer,” says Conkling in a video. “We feel extremely grateful that our own employees, through their votes, have made us one of the 100 best employers in Oregon. To us that is an important indicator that we’ve created a culture with the people in our company that they enjoy working here.”