40 Years in Communications: André Bouthillier, managing partner of Cohn & Wolfe, shares his vision on the evolution of the communications professional

August 28th, 2015

André Bouthillier is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his career in communications. The Managing Partner of Cohn & Wolfe spoke to Isarta Infos and shared his vision on the evolution of communications professionals, their practices, and the major challenges that they will face in the future. The following is a summary of his vision in five key themes.

C for Crisis

André Bouthillier is very familiar with crisis management. The Oka Crisis, the Montreal Expos and Jeffrey Loria, E. Coli, Metro merchants vs Metro, etc. The Managing Partner of public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe │ Montreal has had to handle many critical cases, and the adrenaline rush is always present:

“The motivation is the same for all clients, but I am a real crisis manager. That’s really what interests me and what fires me up! However, you also have to know how to be efficient in preventing crises, and intervening before they start,” he stated.

In this sense, André Bouthillier has seen a positive evolution in the relationship that companies have with communications: while some only recognize the added value of communications during a crisis, more and more companies are integrating the added value communications into their strategies at all times. These companies understand how useful this investment can be, rather than representing an expense or burden.

Mr. Bouthillier also stressed that communications can save significant costs when damages occur, and more importantly, can help prevent them from happening.

E for Evolution

Since the beginning of his career – 15 years in journalism and 25 years in public relations – André Bouthillier has known how to adapt his practice to the evolution of both the industry and the public. In particular, he mentioned that today, bloggers who are not necessarily journalists are playing a more crucial role in the dissemination of information.

“If we wanted information before, we would read a report written by a journalist. Now we instinctively head to blogs for comments, advice, etc. It is a real challenge for those of us who work in public relations because now with potentially “hot” cases, that are likely to stir up controversy, we first have to communicate with these writers and bloggers, which we didn’t do before,” said Mr. Bouthillier.

While he recognizes this evolution, André Bouthillier is also regrettably aware that sometimes false information, often based on no research, harms companies and damages their reputations. He noted that because of this, clients are more and more careful with their choice of words, and that it is up to public relations professionals to always be alert and prepare for the worst, as the danger of falsehoods looms larger than ever before.

Another evolution observed by André Bouthillier is the increased presence of social acceptability, a subject that he believes will be unavoidable for PR agencies, much like it has been for law firms and urban planning firms who are already well-versed on the subject.

“We need to open ourselves to new services and new markets. Communications are connected to everything, so it is our job to go get new PR mandates. At Cohn & Wolfe, we pay close attention to the question of social acceptability, but we also undertake economic impact studies, and are opening ourselves to the Anglophone market. We don’t have a choice.”

J for Journalists

Despite having left journalism 25 years ago, André Bouthillier still has the soul of a reporter. He understands the job journalists do and he respects them, which facilitates his relationships with them. This is an unquestionable advantage for someone who works with people in that profession on a daily basis. Public affairs make up an important part of the mandates at Cohn & Wolfe, and contact with journalists remains a priority, despite the arrival of the bloggers mentioned above. As he puts it:

“Our jobs coexist, in a way. I know that I’ll never have the last word with a journalist, but it is up to me to give them the best, most accurate information possible.”

D for Digital

The rapid development of digital media caused a total revolution in communications practices. We now have to think about social media, apps, and instantaneous responses.

“I witnessed the extent of this evolution a few years ago when a citizen called me up after seeing one of our press releases on the Internet that announced the upcoming construction of a factory. The man was an electrician and he wanted me to tell him who to contact in order to get contracts! I told myself, OK, we have to be doubly attentive to what we publish, because the whole world has access to it,” recounted André Bouthillier.

Digital communication also plays a new role in crisis management, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. On the Internet, reactions are immediate and extremely numerous; it only takes a few minutes for controversy to swell out of control.

While the basics of public affairs work haven’t radically changed, André Bouthillier noted that there have been concrete changes in the way we write (shorter texts) and how we monitor media (more sources to keep track of).

S for Succession

André Bouthillier is pleased that over the last 20 years, extraordinary advancements have been made in the training and development of PR professionals through associations such as l’Alliance des Cabinets de Relations Publiques du Québec and the Canadian Public Relations Society.

Mr. Bouthillier believes this access to training must continue in order to further professionalize those working in public relations. As for succession, he feels that it must be further improved concerning general knowledge:

“When we meet a client, they may want to talk to us about things other than their case. There has to be conversation, there has to be general knowledge! It is indispensable that a communicator develops this curiosity, especially with the Internet, as there is no excuse not to!” he insisted.

Finally, in light of his experience, Mr. Bouthillier had a few words of wisdom for communications consultants:

“Listen to your clients so that you properly transmit their companies’ values and missions to the target audience. Don’t just give them the advice they want to hear (don’t be blinded by compassion), propose creative ideas and don’t apply pre-packaged solutions. These are the primary challenges we face every day.”

By Aurore Le Bourdon, original text appeared on Isarta.com.