Today, Hill+Knowlton announced the acquisition of Ascentum, an Ottawa-based boutique specializing in public engagement. The acquisition is a vital component of the business plan objective we set for ourselves two years ago to redefine the way our clients think about us.

We know our business has been changing, and that most of our competitors are looking for ways to adapt to new business realities. The Ascentum acquisition is one of our big bets that the ultimate success of our public and government relations business will be built upon putting new meaning into the word “relations”. We all know that the internet has facilitated the creation of networks that are eroding the traditional power institutions, like government, business, and labour have. The increasing “democratization of publics,” as Jack Martin says, has reduced the control that institutions have over their message. We feel that we need to find new relevancy to what our traditional business has been all about… establishing meaningful relationships that help our clients achieve their goals.

Two years ago, we looked at the challenges that our clients were experiencing in the Canadian business environment. They were often stymied from launching new projects and products because of increasingly burdensome regulatory approvals and public acceptance issues. Major infrastructure projects, for example, take a punishing long time to get underway because of an array of First Nation, environmental, social, and NIMBY concerns. The old paradigm of just getting in front of an issue and controlling the narrative hasn’t been working. We feel the time has come for institutions to seriously engage their publics before their plans are put to bed. This will put the emphasis on collaboration and even co-creation in a way that public relations has paid lip service to in the past.

That’s why we bought Ascentum.  The Ascentum team, led by Joe Peters and Rob Mariani, have built a business over the past ten years working mainly with governments, industry associations, and not-for-profits on the engagement process. We want to turn their cutting-edge and proprietary products over to our Fortune 500 client base so that they have better access to the type of tools that will help them achieve their business goals.

This will require our clients to change the way they think. In the past, consultation has meant notification, and in some more enlightened settings, an attitude such as “here is what we’re thinking—what do you think?” Consultation often mitigated conflict, but too often was executed late in the day after the inadequacies of a company’s business plan became all too obvious. More recently, consultation has been about changing the conversation—slowing down the process until stakeholders better understand the plan. But what public engagement is really about is actually working with stakeholders to build the plan from the bottom up. That is the true meaning of co-creation.

Obviously we’re going to have to spend a lot of time educating, not just our clients, but ourselves. Let’s face it—PR and GR have traditionally been more about telling a story than participating in the creation of one. The next few years will continue to see enormous change in our business, and the Ascentum acquisition will focus us all on some new ways of thinking.