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Work & Wellbeing Brand Purpose Brand Safety

Why has PR and comms agency Ketchum launched a trauma unit?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

November 4, 2022 | 7 min read

Omnicom comms agency has put a ‘significant investment’ behind the initiative.

Two people having a conversation over coffee

PR and comms firm Ketchum has added a new ‘trauma-informed’ practice to its services / Unsplash

Marketing messages aren’t broadcast in a vacuum. They’re read, listened to or watched by audiences in the middle of the rest of their lives, experienced alongside the triumphs and petty tragedies of everyday life.

Brands need to take the latter into account, argues comms agency Ketchum – not just to better communicate advertising messages, but to avoid adding to the struggles of those affected by personal and societal traumas.

With that in mind, it has launched a ‘trauma-informed’ PR and comms practice to help lead brands along the right path.

What is ‘trauma-informed’ consulting?

“The world has collectively experienced the trauma of the pandemic, of social justice issues, of everything going on in the global economy,” explains Michelle Baker, executive vice-president and managing director of corporate strategic initiatives and public health, who’s spearheaded the project.

“Any sector or organization can only benefit from being trauma-informed and having that extra lens on how you communicate, whether it’s with your employees, your constituents, your communities or your consumers.”

She says there have been so many moments of “collective trauma” in the United States in recent years, such as the murder of George Floyd or political threats to the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, that businesses must become more empathetic to the concerns of their audiences.

To address that issue, Ketchum has hired three experts – clinical social worker Dawn Shedrick, psychologist Kate Licastro and attorney and author Katharine Manning – to teach its own staff to mend their ways, and then lead clients towards a more understanding way of communicating.

51 of the agency’s senior staff have been trained in a pilot scheme over the last three months, and the company is preparing to spread the program out further. “We’re taking things in and out of that to refine it, and then we’re going to roll it out to everyone, at every level,” says Baker.

Eventually, the agency aims to instruct every staff member in consulting this way, adding expertise in navigating trauma to its toolkit. US chief executive officer Jim Joseph tells The Drum “across all of our clients, the idea will be that every single person will become trauma-informed. It’s not really one tool or one product, it’s about the way we work. Everything we do should be trauma-informed.”

Baker adds that “that thinking will then be embedded from the generalists, but they’ll be able to tap teams with more expertise, as they would for strategic planning or direct client counsel.”

Ketchum staff will be enabled to ‘audit’ clients’ marketing efforts to check whether they’re sensitive enough to target audience concerns, says Joseph. “We’ll take a look at their marketing and communications programs and assess whether they are in fact trauma-informed or if they need to be tweaked. We’ll train them, do workshops for them and for their marketers and communication folks, and then we also will offer consultant services so that as they develop a program and put it out into the marketplace, we will make sure that it’s trauma-informed – particularly if it is targeted to a marginalized community.”

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Why launch now?

According to Baker, the impetus for the project came from a growing awareness of the impact of shocking events on society. “You can’t help, in every news article today, but see how trauma is impacting populations that are hard to reach and underserved. It was a culmination of looking at how we tackle some of the health equity and justice and larger DNI issues of the day, combined with some of the things we’re seeing in workplaces and industries.”

In practical terms, Joseph says that clients in disadvantaged communities or audiences will find the expertise most useful. “The example we give is if we’re working with underserved Black women and breast cancer, you have to communicate with them and offer them programs that are trauma-informed – not only are they going through a health scare, they have other many forms of trauma that they’re dealing with in their life,” he explains.

“The fact that they have cancer is just one of them. So when you develop programs for them to try to get them, to become compliant to therapy, you’ve got to communicate with them knowing what they’re going through in their life.”

Half a dozen clients are already on board, Baker notes, but Ketchum’s own staff have pushed the scheme forward most of all.

“Internally, we’ve talked a lot about how our own people are going through trauma. How do we help them balance the needs of their life and the stresses they’re going through along with their workload in what is a very stressful industry? We needed it for our own people too.”

Joseph says the training means a “significant investment” from the company. But he’s adamant it’s worth doing. “If you’re communicating to the public, then you need to be understanding what’s going on in the world.”

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