Within eight months of becoming the first woman CEO of a top-five PR firm, Barri Rafferty (’88) had upended the way Ketchum does business. Photo by Chris Sorensen
Barri Rafferty (’88) keeps learning and innovating—and now she’s doing so as the first woman CEO of a top-five PR agency
By Marc Chalufour
Ask Barri Rafferty almost any question and she’ll give you a polished answer. Three decades in public relations has that effect on a person. But ask the CEO and president of Ketchum, one of the world’s leading agencies, why she got into PR in the first place? “I’ll be honest, I do not remember,” she says. “My memory does not go back that far!”
For the record, Rafferty’s first PR experience came as an intern at the New Orleans’ Superdome in the mid-1980s, where she promoted tourism. Whatever her reason for accepting that position, she was hooked. She began looking at communication schools, eventually choosing BU where she earned a master’s in corporate communications. She’s been rising through the industry’s ranks ever since.
In January 2018, Rafferty (’88) became the first woman in charge of one of the top five PR firms in the world. She assumes the position as the lines between PR and marketing blur, digital and social media gain further influence and gender and unconscious bias in the workplace come under close scrutiny.
Rafferty joined Ketchum in 1993. Before then, she’d worked at Lippe Taylor and Burson-Marsteller, among other firms. During her time at Ketchum, she’s done everything from running regional offices to overseeing the transition from analog to digital media. When Ketchum tapped her in 1998 to lead its global brand marketing practice from New York City, she considered it a dream job. But with young kids at home, she struggled with the role’s demands.
“Your personal life, your family, your work life: when they’re all in sync and working is when you move forward,” Rafferty says. She gave up the dream job and took over Ketchum’s office in her hometown, Atlanta. “I’m not sure the path I took was the planned path, but it took me on a bit of a circuitous route and I learned new skills along the way,” she says.
Rafferty isn’t Ketchum’s first COM-trained CEO. Ray Kotcher (’83) spent 32 years with the agency, 12 of those as CEO. Now back at COM as professor of the practice, he’s thrilled to see his longtime colleague at the top of his old company. “She was one of my go-to people,” Kotcher says. “As PR evolved, Barri was one of the people who really helped to drive our change.” In one instance, Rafferty led Ketchum’s efforts to develop its digital marketing abilities. As another example of her skill, Kotcher cites the same role that Rafferty had stepped away from: her leadership of the global brand marketing practice. Ketchum had won Kodak’s global PR business and needed to coordinate efforts in offices around the world. “She did an extraordinary job building that platform for us,” he says. “She was always innovating, always thinking of new ways to help our clients.”
For several years, Rafferty has kept an old, creased Monopoly card on her desk. The card, a gift from a client, offers a mantra that Rafferty firmly believes in: Get out of jail free. “People and talent work much better when you not only have compassion for them, but also when they know you have their back,” she says. Rafferty’s Ketchum bosses and clients allowed her to experiment and learn. Now she’s trying to do the same for her staff. “I want them to take risks and try new things in a business that’s always evolving,” she says. “Sometimes the things that don’t work, we learn the most from.”
And Rafferty is big on learning. “[PR] is in constant change. If you’re not comfortable with that, don’t pick this as a discipline,” she says. To stay current, Rafferty frequently consults a “reverse mentor,” a younger Ketchum employee who briefs her on the latest technology and social media.
Rafferty takes over Ketchum during a run of critical success. They won more Cannes Lions than any other PR agency in 2017, receiving 26 of the communications industry’s annual awards. In 2018 they added 30 more, nearly doubling the next highest total.
A 2017 campaign, #nuggs4carter, exploded out of a Twitter exchange between Wendy’s and a teenage customer, Carter Wilkerson. “Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” Wilkerson tweeted. “18 million,” Wendy’s replied. Though Wilkerson fell short, his 3.6 million retweets set an all-time record—and Ketchum helped Wendy’s ride a wave of free media coverage. Cannes Lion, Clio and Shorty awards followed.
Not all Ketchum clients have as whimsical a message. Libresse sought to destigmatize menstruation with its “Blood Normal” campaign, which received a Cannes award for promoting positive societal change. Another campaign, “Prescribed to Death,” features a traveling memorial created for the National Safety Council: a wall of more than 22,000 white pills, each etched with the face of someone who died from a prescription opioid overdose.
“Blood Normal,” a campaign that advertising firm AMV BBDO and Ketchum collaborated on with their client, Libresse, received a Titanium Lion award for promoting positive societal change. AMV BBDO
Past success hasn’t stopped the new CEO from shaking things up, though. In her first eight months, Rafferty reorganized and rebranded the nearly century-old agency. Ketchum had used a geographic profit-and-loss (P&L) structure, with each office operating as its own business. “We’ve taken apart the agency and dissected every part of our organizational structure,” Rafferty says. Now Ketchum’s North American business is streamlined into a single P&L. Industry sectors and communication specialties have replaced the old geographic silos.
The result, Rafferty says, is more of a communications consulting firm than a PR agency, able to draw on expertise from any office at any given time. “We’ve created a national pool [of creative talent] with different infrastructure for how to get talent in real time,” Rafferty says. “At a minute’s notice, we can ramp up or down to meet the client needs.”
“One of the things we saw pretty quickly in our world is they started to tap into their creative resources in a different way,” says Kara Buckley, global grooming communications manager for Procter & Gamble, a longtime Ketchum client. “It was very different from what we’ve seen before.”
Influencing the Influencers
“What is considered public relations is really diversified today,” Rafferty says. The core of that discipline—storytelling and narratives—remains constant, but how and where those stories get told keeps changing. Rafferty sees that as a good thing for PR experts, and for Ketchum in particular. “Influencers [are] something we’ve always done well,” she says. Rafferty sees Ketchum’s ability to work with traditional influencers, like journalists, carrying over to modern influencers, who use social media to reach their audiences.
“Influencers are becoming more important every day in our industry,” Buckley says. “[Ketchum was] quick to identify that and to build a network.”
During her Ketchum career, Rafferty has seen the company go from cutting and pasting media clips with scissors and glue to using artificial intelligence to sift through massive supplies of data to reveal trends, identify potential audiences and measure results. “Our goal is to really understand that ecosystem of influence,” she says.
Ketchum isn’t just using technology to tell stories—sometimes technology is the story. Rafferty recalls a client from the early 2000s: Cingular. Long-since absorbed by AT&T, the company was an early leader in cellular telephone service. They came to Ketchum with a problem: they wanted to sell text messaging packages to people who didn’t yet know how to send messages with their phones. “Our team had to learn to text in order to figure out how to communicate and teach people to text,” Rafferty says. Of course, not all products change the world.
Around the same time as the Cingular campaign, Rafferty was helping Kodak with its own potentially revolutionary product. The EasyShare Camera could connect directly to WiFi, allowing photographers to instantly email pictures from their devices. The idea was so far ahead of the photo-sharing craze that it was discontinued before the launch of the iPhone or Instagram.
Rafferty presented her concept of a “life minor” in a TEDxEast talk. For her, that means fighting for gender equality. TEDx Talks
The Challenges Ahead
The historical perspective that Rafferty brings to the CEO’s office also includes a unique view on the inequality that remains atop an industry that’s otherwise 60 percent female. The first time Rafferty attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, someone asked her, “Whose wife are you?” It was the first time she felt like a minority, she says.
Rafferty told that story in a TEDxEast talk. She described how helping women overcome gender bias has become what she calls her “life minor,” a passion she pursues outside of her career. In 2014, she was a member of the group that founded Omniwomen, a global program designed to elevate female leaders throughout Omnicom. (Omnicom Group, Ketchum’s parent company, owns more than 1,500 communications agencies around the world.) She also chairs the national board of Step Up, a nonprofit that helps high school girls in underserved communities reach college and begin their professional lives.
Internally, Ketchum has begun addressing unconscious bias in hiring, experimenting with an online tool to anonymously screen summer fellowship applicants. And in August, the company announced the creation of a diversity, equity and inclusion advisory board tasked with helping Ketchum set and meet diversity-related goals.
“We talk about diversity, equality and inclusion these days because really good creative ideas take [having] that group around the table, bringing different perspectives to the challenge at hand,” Rafferty says. “And diversity is not just color and ethnicity, it’s where you’re from. It’s sometimes small town [or] big city. Some of us that live in the cities are kind of jaded by the more rural consumer, the Midwest consumer.” In other words, it’s not just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
Rafferty enters her second year as CEO facing a daunting challenge. Despite individual successes, The Holmes Report estimates that Ketchum’s revenues dropped 2 percent from 2016 to 2017. Competition from within and outside the public relations industry means Rafferty must keep Ketchum positioned to react to the rapidly changing communications landscape.
Those who know her best have faith, though. “She’s decisive, she’s fearless, she’s energetic, she’s tireless. At this moment of just extraordinary change in the public relations business, the agency could not have a better CEO guiding it,” Kotcher says. “She’s doing the job that she was born to do.”