As President and Creative Director of Access Brand Communications, Matt Afflixio brings trademarked zest and enthusiasm for helping others to the world of PR and communications. In our interview with him, he details the highs and lows of 2020 and how his role developed into that of counselor and coach. He also shares what he anticipates will be the top PR trends of 2021 and explains how a successful agency is similar to a well-run neighborhood restaurant.
Matt’s bottom line? Battle-tested by the pandemic, we can have even more confidence in what we’re doing as counselors. Across the board, people know how to pivot fast and pivot smart. That flexibility was always in our DNA, but because we’ve been through hell and back, it is now a superpower.
Q: What made Access succeed despite all the challenges of 2020?
A: People are so busy, just getting things done. They’re not always taking the time to think and to build. At Access we do both things well. When I look at what makes a restaurant good it’s all about how you are treated from the moment you walk in the door. When you came in, did someone greet you to say hello? Did they sit you down? Did you get a menu? Did you get a glass of water? When you ordered the steak, did the steak come the way you wanted? Did they suggest something to you off the menu that you hadn’t even thought of? You will go back to that restaurant because you feel warm, cozy— like they know you. If you parallel that to what we do as business people and in our job of professional services, it is the same scenario. At Access, we really care about getting it done — and about helping you get to the next level. Our core competency is service, and impact. We’ve been able to deliver impact in key areas like earned media while deepening client bonds through the commitment to service that is in our DNA.
Q: What’s the biggest change the PR industry has faced during the pandemic?
A: We’re rewriting the rules of what it means to be an effective worker. With remote work, we’re seeing a more judgment-free society. We’ve given up the makeup, we’ve given up the hair, the clothing — there’s no judgment in this anymore. But work-life boundaries are still a problem. Days are stretched to the max with kids, pets, spouses/partners and client demands that are no longer on a traditional work week rhythm. People like the flexibility of working from home but still can’t figure out the boundaries regarding where work stops and personal time begins.
Q: How are you able to set your own boundaries? Any advice?
A: You can say no and do it in such a way that people respect you. If you watch Oprah Winfrey, she’ll say, “I don’t say yes to anybody, because if I say yes to one, it opens up a whole floodgate.” So I’ve learned to say no politely when I just can’t do something, and people understand. It’s the same thing in our PR world: if we don’t have boundaries, this remote work is going to be tougher, we’ll be less productive and we’re going to be really bad counselors. So block your calendar and take a 30-minute walk, and work with your teams to prioritize who needs to be on a given client call. At Access, we offer wellness days and urge our staff to practice that kind of self care.
Q: Even after this pandemic, what do you see sticking around in terms of our working environment, boundaries, and what a work day looks like?
A: Once we start to get better about boundaries, the work-life balance benefit will still be strong. I interviewed every one of our employees and asked, what’s the one thing you love the most about remote working? The majority said work-life balance. You can walk the dog, get a workout in when you want to or home-school, for many of our working parents, and it doesn’t interfere. The days are longer but they’re more fulfilling. Yet there are regional differences. New Yorkers want to leave their house. The New York lifestyle is not about buying groceries for a week; you buy groceries for the day while you are out. Your apartment is there to crash and that’s it. They’ll go back to the regular schedule of programming, but they’re likely to telecommute more or go to work in the office three days a week, two days a week.
Q: How do you see all of that impacting the PR industry in general?
A: We’re going to be pivoting right, left and center. I think for us, we’re going to have to be more selective about in-person versus remote meetings. How we communicate has changed forever. The online video meetings we’ve all become accustomed to can work well and offer both flexibility and drive-time savings. Do we really need to hop a plane or drive an hour to the client for that meeting? You’re going to be choosing more wisely. And it works both ways – some mix of remote work is here to stay and clients are asking the same questions.
Q: What was your proudest moment at Access this year?
A: What I’m most proud of is the resilience of the team. I believe that there are three types of people in any community: the squawkers who just complain about everything, the gawkers who notice everything but don’t say anything, and then the rockers who are like, ‘everything’s great.’ The squawkers didn’t squawk as much, the gawkers talked more, and the rockers were more balanced. Everybody was taking care of everybody else. In some ways we became more connected. It was more of a nurturing thing, but with the resilience of, “we’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna do this.”