Terri-Helen Gaynor: A fresh perspective

Oliver Fall meets Burson-Marsteller’s new CEO Terri-Helen Gaynor and finds someone committed to bringing a fresh perspective to the Asian agency scene


Less than twenty-four hours into her new position as president and CEO Asia Pacific for Burson-Marsteller and Terri-Helen Gaynor is already fielding media interviews.

The announcement of her appointment in early January, effective immediately, is the latest in a series of prominent Asia-Pacific hires by Burson-Marsteller which is revising its strategic direction to maintain its position against international and home-grown Asian competitors.

Size has quickly become a poor rule of success in Asia’s markets. The proliferation and growing business success of boutique firms has underlined that bespoke creativity and talent are today’s inescapable market differentiator.

Recent churn across Asia in appointments and transfers has stressed the industry’s ongoing internal re-engineering to meet these challenges and Burson-Marsteller has not been immune. Gaynor’s own appointment is another inflection point in this campaign.

A 27-year Asia veteran, her career has spanned the full spectrum of corporate communications, from internal communications to investor relations and marketing communications programs.

A confidante of innumerable blue-chip firms, including Bupa, IBM, Jardine Matheson, Kimberly-Clark, Manulife, Nike and Philips, Gaynor was Managing Director of Reputation Pty Ltd., a company she founded in Australia in 2003, which specialized in corporate communications, government relations and investor relations.

Moving from boutique to mainstream, Gaynor will bring a fresh perspective to one of the industry’s most prominent brands, which is evident from the outset.

Opportunity to refresh

Speaking from her new office in Hong Kong Gaynor told PublicAffairsAsia, “There has been a lot of churn and people see that as a negative, but for bigger companies in particular I see it as an opportunity to look around for both different talent and for those with an area of expertise that you haven’t previously considered.”

It is also a mechanism for companies to monitor the industry around them and look one step ahead. Discerning these needs is Gaynor’s top priority.

“My job is now to be one step ahead of the market and our clients to anticipate what they will need.”

Indeed, Burson-Marsteller’s own strategic intentions can be divined in part from Gaynor’s background.

Public affairs is a practice area that she is determined to bring to the fore in a new generation of Burson-Marsteller professionals, born in part from her close work advising a number of departments within the Australian government, including the departments of Education, Health, Finance, Human Services and Sport.

“There is no doubt in my mind that public affairs will be of growing importance for Burson-Marsteller given the growing sophistication of business and government,” she said.

While Public affairs has always been a pivotal Burson-Marsteller cornerstone and one of the reasons why Gaynor was attracted to the position, she confides that there is a need to bring in younger professionals into the public affairs industry practice.

End of the stuffy era

Often misconstrued as a ‘stuffy’ practice area, it remains one of the industry’s most issues rich disciplines and one of the few with a clearly outlined budget, published annually courtesy of national governments.

Public affairs, alongside corporate communications, issues and crises, and technology are Burson-Marsteller’s really powerful legacies, Gaynor knows, but there is a need to re-establish the firm’s lead in anticipating future trends she argues. This requires further investment and support in the firm’s talent.

“There must be a renewed emphasis on training and development. In order to think ahead you must have staff also doing that and you must be able to support them in doing so, she told PAA.

“It used to be an area that Burson-Marsteller was known for and I think it is one of the areas that we need to be known for again. Burson-Marsteller must again be the employer of choice and have people knocking on our door. If you look after your people, if you show them the future, you provide them with training and development, the chances of keeping them are strong.”

Public Affairs will remain a corner stone of Burson-Marsteller’s brand differential, yet Gaynor also sees room for expansion in employee branding, consumer, and internal communications. “Change management,” the synergy of PR and management consulting, will be, Gaynor says, “integral to what we need to be doing given it is growing at such a rapid rate.”

In China and India, Burson-Marsteller’s largest markets, tech, consumer, issues and crisis management have been earmarked for the firm’s expansion plans. Yet in these disparate national economies the immediate strategy is likely to be one of consolidation focused on tier one engines of urban economic growth. Only after a new 100 day strategic framework, commissioned by Gaynor, has been composed will Burson-Marsteller be in a better position to assess their drive into tier two and three market centres.

India and China pose eloquent challenges to an international firm such as Burson-Marsteller, with local hires set to be the driving force for local growth. “There is a need to strengthen recruitment of nationals in specialist practices, particularly in China and India,” Gaynor agrees.

Yet some markets are more international than others and across Asia the sophistication, expectation and understanding of PR is now mature, which changes how the industry is used.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious that you have to meet the needs of that particular client in that market and what they’re trying to achieve.”

A broad spectrum

Gaynor is confronted by a broad spectrum. As the largest markets in Asia-Pacific and with expanding client bases, India and China are certain to demand attention. Regional hubs, Singapore and Hong Kong, will similarly face fresh performance targets. However, across the region Burson-Marsteller will be looking to push back market frontiers through its existing offices and affiliates.

For Gaynor and Burson-Marsteller, this requires a bespoke, yet innately flexible approach and she plans an enhanced matrix for Burson-Marsteller’s clients to tap into.

“I’m very keen at developing a stronger matrix within Burson-Marsteller in the region, developing the team around the client needs, even if the best person for the job is in a different country from the account. With technology today those barriers are fairly transparent.”

Sound in practice maybe, but its wider application will undoubtedly be driven by the firm’s client requirements. At its foundation, however, as with all things in the PR industry today, will be Gaynor’s colleagues.

“Our existing talent is central to our aspirational growth. We’ll complement this with the new and exciting talent we can find in the market as well as building new, creative and inventive practice ideas.”

Across such a broad spectrum of markets, Gaynor faces opportunities and competition in equal measure. Industry professionals and potential clients will no doubt be watching how Gaynor’s three decades of experience plays out on a continental stage.