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PRSA Puts the Spotlight on MSLGROUP’s Merrill Freund

The PRSA recently got a chance to grill San Francisco’s managing director, Merrill Freund. Check out the full Q&A with Merill’s thoughts on the changing nature of PR, his advice to new PR professionals and his recommendations on the healthiest coffee consumption levels below.


Merrill Freund, Managing Director, MSLGROUP San Francisco

PRSA – Tell me about MSLGROUP and your role there.

Merrill – MSLGROUP is a global public relations agency that works with companies ranging from exciting engines of innovation to the world’s largest brands. We have 3,650 employees in more than 100 offices in 22 countries. I have been with the agency for 20 years and am the managing director of MSLGROUP San Francisco. I spend my days managing the office, running accounts and identifying the great companies of the future with which we want to work with. I was previously with Schwartz Communications which was acquired by MSLGROUP in 2011. Throughout my career, I have worked closely with companies that have changed or are changing the way we work and play.

PRSA – You mainly work with technology clients; what’s the most exciting thing about this industry?

Merrill – It might be cheating, but there two things I find fascinating about the technology industry: the speed of change and the people.

When I started my career in public relations in 1992, I had never heard of email or used a fax machine. The only technology experience I had was with a “computer,” which was no more than a glorified typewriter. (I had also never heard of PR Newswire but that’s another story.)

Twenty-three years later, the pace of innovation for both personal and enterprise technology remains insane. We now walk around with personal mainframes in our hands. We can basically access any piece of information we want and reach anyone instantly in hundreds of ways. And these changes have all occurred in the past decade. I can argue about whether these changes have made our lives better or more fulfilling, but I can’t argue against the power of the innovation and the passion that is driving it.

A big thrill in working with technology clients is connecting directly with the brilliant minds who are behind all of the incredible breakthroughs we’ve seen in the last 20 years. These masters of the universe don’t necessarily share any common traits other than being super smart, but they are all unmatched at thinking about the way things could be if technology was applied in new ways.

I lied – there is a third exciting thing. It gives me the knowledge to understand HBO’s Silicon Valley. Mad props for that.

PRSA – You have been in PR for 20 years; how has it changed over time and where do you see the industry heading?

Merrill – The core value of public relations remains the same – creating and communicating compelling narratives that resonate with the right target audiences. What has changed dramatically are the means for communicating these storylines and measuring their impact, as well as how many people are reached.

An abundance of social channels, blog and video platforms, content syndication networks, and the increased opportunities to contribute owned content all provide compelling compliments or alternatives to earned media as a way of disseminating information. Many of today’s enterprise and consumer decision makers have grown up regarding these channels as their primary means for learning – this adds further credibility for driving owned content across them. And what’s better? Technology allows the results and impact of all of these new channels to be easily measured and understood using sophisticated analytic tools.

I am not a prognosticator, so it would be foolish of me to predict where the industry is headed. My advice to anyone in public relations is to constantly experiment with new approaches, but always keep it grounded by understanding how changes will impact the overall client program.

PRSA – What has been your favorite project you’ve worked on?

Merrill – I am too smart to single out any one client at the expense of all the others. The value of working in an agency, and why I have been with MSLGROUP for so long is the concept of the shiny new object. Whether it is a new client or an existing one’s new innovation, there is always something exciting happening when you are with a high-tech firm that is working with the world’s most exciting companies. No day goes how you expected it, and your slow account can instantly become your favorite assignment of the day, week or month. If you are bored at work, just wait 15 minutes and that will change.

PRSA – What’s your best advice to the new generation of PR professionals?

Merrill – Public relations consistently comes up on the top five most stressful career lists due to the high expectations and demands of clients. It is only getting more stressful due to the rapid rate of change occurring and the constant need to reinvent yourself and learn new skills in order to remain an asset to your company and to your clients. My advice to the NKOTB (who will need to Google this term to understand it) is to remain curious throughout your career. Stay curious about your client or company’s business model, technology and purpose, curious about better ways to do your job and curious about whether you are making a difference. It’s no longer about what you know, it’s how quickly you can learn what you don’t.

And have fun. Lots of it. Oh, and always drink six cups of coffee day. At least.

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Nathan Beers

Nathan Beers

Vice President at MSLGROUP

Nathan is a vice president in the technology practice in the San Francisco office.

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