Banding together works in and out of the office

The Life: Dave Robinson, the chief executive of the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, talks about leading the company through turmoil in this region and his rock n' roll lifestyle outside the office.

Dave Robinson strums the PR message. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Dave Robinson is the chief executive for operations in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa of Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm. He discusses how the recent unrest has affected his business, and why he once considered chucking a TV through a window.

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As a leader, what has been your biggest challenge recently?

I think it's always going to be a challenge to rapidly move from a fast-growth and very confident, booming economic environment to one that's tough, where certain sectors have taken a real battering. We obviously had some client fall-out in 2009, in particular, and that was very unsettling. I've worked through several recessions in my career, so it was not my first time to face difficult times.

Despite that, you say your firm saw growth over the past three years. How have you managed that?

For us, our strategy is focused on two areas. One is staying ahead of our client demands and needs. The second is investing as much as possible in staff development, so they have some longevity in our business and commitment beyond the monthly pay cheque.

Many PR professionals tend to switch agencies frequently. How exactly do you hold on to top talent?

We try and get our Arab staff, which is 68 per cent of our staff in the region, on multinational talent programmes and prioritise them for international training opportunities. We've done exchange schemes where our Arab staff spends time in our Washington, New York and London offices. Conversely, we need our expatriate staff deeply immersed in [exchanges within this region]. Hopefully what we end up with is a highly competitive Arab staff who have international expertise and international staff who are deeply immersed in the nuance of this region.

How has the business been affected by this year's unrest in this region?

Our first priority has been the safety of our employees, and I'm glad to say we haven't had any major incidences. The Egyptian uprising was significantly disruptive in that we had to shut our office for a couple of weeks and had people work from home. I was in Cairo this week, and it seems very positive. Our client base is bouncing back.

How do you blow off steam with all this stress?

I'm in a couple of bands in Dubai. The dynamic is much like a team. It's similar to the office in that everybody has the opportunity to be lead but also has to play together to make sure the overall sound isn't dominated by one person.

Do you party like a rock star?

I remember playing in Ras al Khaimah once, and we stayed in a hotel where we had some fans who had a suite. They invited us to the suite, and we had a bit of a rock 'n' roll moment where we considered throwing the TV out of the window the way Keith Richards did. But it was a little 14-inch LCD and thought that's a bit lame. We ended up abiding by the law and behaved like good citizens.

* Neil Parmar