Citizen's own-the-newsfeed M.O.

By Jonathan Paul

GOING BEYOND HEADLINE-GRABBING TACTICS traditionally used in PR, and focusing on integrated communications, strategic planning and creative, is what propels conversations and earned media today.

For the last two years, Citizen Relations, which launched in 2011 as part of the Vision7 network, has been retooling along those lines.

Those efforts really came to a head with the creation of an "insights and innovations" working group at the agency's Toronto office in April 2015 (the shop also has offices in Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver).

The group is transforming the way the agency approaches strategy. More emphasis has been placed on analytics to hone in on target audiences and provide more strategic planning, while also establishing key insights.

It's an approach that's working for Citizen's Canadian operations, and one that's now being picked up abroad.

Since taking on the mantle of president of North America after running Citizen Relations in Canada, Nick Cowling says he's been actively exporting the strategic planning and integrated communications functions in Canada to the agency's U.S. offices. And, so far, they're seeing similar success rates. Next, the agency will look at doing the same globally.

"It speaks to how Canadian ingenuity can still have a great impact in any market, be it Hong Kong, New York or London," Cowling says.

Over the past year, Citizen has evolved the practice into a core function within the agency, growing out the "insights and innovations" group into a strategic planning unit with deep strategy and analytics groups within it.

"We've trained a number of our staff at different levels to be able to comprehend and work with the data that our [strategic] planning team can pull out so they don't have to do all the analysis," says Cowling. "We're teaching people to be able to look at things differently."

Citizen tasked three staffers with guiding the practice: Amanda Shuchat to lead the working group; Sabrina Kandasamy to focus on the insight and development process; and Morgan Todd to manage analytics. Shuchat has since moved over to head up Citizen's new offshoot PR agency, The Colony Project, which launched in February and is focused on helping clients reach new audiences outside their traditional targets.

Bolstering the agency's integrated communications capabilities has also been a focus. That responsibility was given to VP digital Mark Carpenter when he joined the agency in May 2015 from BBDO, where he served as group digital director. Initially brought on to head up digital, Cowling expanded the role, drawing on Carpenter's digital and advertising background for a broader marketing perspective. Carpenter is now also overseeing the Toronto office as its GM, having been given the role back in June along with Kandasamy, who left the agency in September.

The shop has welcomed two new SVPs since. Sarah Crabbe has joined the Toronto office from Edelman as SVP to lead national consumer accounts and help drive growth, and Alain Madgin came aboard as SVP in the agency's Quebec City office to oversee its government and public affairs practice and new business, joining from McKesson Canada. Cowling is currently on the hunt for a new strategic planning lead.

The additions, he says, are a reflection of the agency's double digit growth in 2015 and 2016. The dividends of Citizen's transformation efforts include its second consecutive Silver PRAOY award and new business wins, including PepsiCo Foods, Molson Coors Canada, Dyson, Intuit, Tourism Australia, eHarmony and Tim Hortons.

Carpenter describes the agency's approach as "owning the newsfeed."

This "own the newsfeed" M.O. has led to strategic and earned media work for clients like PC Organics. Recently, Citizen was tasked with raising awareness of the brand amongst Toronto-based millennial moms with toddlers. Knowing that they missed regular social experiences like meals out with friends, it created the PC Babylicious program, which included partnerships with eight Toronto restaurants popular with the target. Each one offered a fixed menu for mom, while PC Organics offered a free fixed menu for babies, as well as baby gear like highchairs and baby-friendly feeding utensils.

Fifteen Toronto-based bloggers acted as program ambassadors, and Citizen engaged Sarah Blackwood, young mom and lead singer of the band Walk Off the Earth, as program spokesperson. Blackwood and her sons were featured in five social videos shared by her and PC's social channels, with a microsite acting as an information hub. The campaign surpassed its impressions goal by 93%.

"We're not just thinking about what that headline is or what the media outlet is saying about us," says Carpenter, summing up the change in PR strategy. "We're thinking holistically about all the different channels that feed into a user's newsfeed."