Many legal professionals operating at the very top of their practice will seek to take it to the next level. For Robert Gemmill, a long-recognized expert on crisis and litigation communications, that meant using his stellar credentials and reputation to start the first U.S. outposts for Canadian PR firm Argyle. He did so in 2020 with fellow lawyer and Lawdragon Consulting honoree Harlan Loeb. Gemmill believes the move will best position him to continue bringing innovative approaches to client solutions over the long term. That type of sustained relationship is the backbone of Argyle’s philosophy of forming true partnerships with clients to achieve the best possible business results.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you and Argyle provide?
Robert Gemmill: As a trained lawyer and former civil litigator, I practice public relations and strategic communications for lawyers and their clients. In practice, this centers on advising them on a variety of reputation management issues and risks. These include potential media crises, regulatory and legal matters, board/executive counsel on sensitive internal issues, and assistance with corporate M&A activity, leadership changes and business transformations.
While Argyle often engages when a pressing reputational crisis or issue emerges, we focus on achieving positive business outcomes. We work with clients committed to correcting a matter and solidifying their reputation resilience for the long-term. For us, this achieves stronger and more enduring relationships – and client outcomes rooted in business success that extend far beyond a typical PR boost that any agency can provide.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on for a legal client?
RG: Representing the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal proved the most interesting, challenging and, in many respects, rewarding. It encompassed critical legal and communications workstreams that had to mesh to achieve success for our client. And success required new leadership and processes, a commitment to transparency, and the restoration of confidence in a storied organization that Americans had trusted implicitly.
Amidst litigation, congressional hearings and intense media scrutiny, we worked with legal counsel and USOPC’s new leadership team to rebuild the Committee’s reputation with the public, political constituencies, athletes and sponsors. It was achieved by recognizing the terrible wrongs that had occurred and proceeding with empathy for Nassar’s survivors. Doing this while balancing sensitive ongoing legal proceedings was essential, and required translating complex legal arguments to reduce further reputational risk and achieve the client’s overarching organizational objectives.
LD: Can you discuss some ongoing trends in your field?
RG: We’re seeing an unmistakable trend in the need for “change” consulting. This can take several forms – from a corporate commitment to double revenues or tackle a broader customer footprint, to prioritizing internal culture, to assessing the benefits of speaking publicly on societal issues, to grasping how to incorporate appropriate governance processes to maximize efficiencies and reduce risk.
Our experience and research is clear: Companies embracing such change lead from a reputational perspective with their stakeholders. Our advice is to lead from the front, even if mistakes occur along the way. Corporate change that supports a company’s vision – combined with transparent communications and ethics-based actions – proves a winning strategy in 2022 and beyond.
LD: To the extent your business involves innovation in the legal industry, what is it you are trying to achieve that will help your clients or their business?
RG: By the next decade if not sooner, strategic communications counsel will be grounded fully in data and artificial intelligence. We see it already, which is why Argyle invests in a leading data intelligence capability. Clients today expect insights that can’t be gleaned from experience alone.
By the next decade if not sooner, strategic communications counsel will be grounded fully in data and artificial intelligence.
While technology is evolving, we’re not at a point where software alone can answer these questions simply. It’s essential to combine technology with critical expertise to decipher data and translate it into the reputational and business advice companies require. Increasingly, this is true in litigation and legal matters as well. Because public opinion often influences a courtroom outcome, we consistently and continually work with a client’s general counsel and outside counsel to best understand how potential positions will be received by key constituencies.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a professional service provider?
RG: While professional style can – and should – depend entirely on the client and its situation, I apply three rules when applying my overarching philosophy. First, the client must be guided by ethics. If we determine a prospect isn’t being sincere or is trying to skirt or hide the truth, we politely decline. Not compromising on our core principles proves a primary differentiator from our multinational competitors.
Second, clients must see us as true partner consultants, not order takers. We respectfully speak truth to power, and sometimes that doesn’t make for a good fit. We build long-lasting relationships by providing the best senior counsel to executives facing critical decisions. Finally, an internal rule: A flat hierarchy is critical to deliver the best results for a client. Outdated is the multinational organizational chart with layers and layers of bureaucracy and order-givers. Certainly, there’s a pecking order. But clients need fast, efficient decisions from a reliable team, and ensuring all team members contribute in key ways is critical.
LD: Can you discuss your decision to join Argyle?
RG: Argyle is one of PRovoke’s fastest-growing firms, having recently been named Canadian firm of the year. As a well-established Canadian brand with more than 150 employees, the firm possesses a foundation that includes diverse corporate communications offerings and high-profile AOR (Agency of Record) relationships of large U.S. and global companies. In 2020, I started Argyle’s U.S. business with the unwavering support of Argyle CEO Dan Tisch, Chief Operating Officer Stefan Moores and my colleague Harlan Loeb.
Previously, I led crisis and litigation communications practices at several large law and communications firms in Washington, D.C., but a lack of purpose characterized my previous stops. I craved out-of-the-box thinking and an autonomy where the best practitioners brought the best solutions to clients. I opted to start from scratch in an effort to provide real value to aligned clients in a way that provided meaning and purpose to what we do. That is the Argyle ethos.
In the past two years since its founding, Argyle U.S. has markedly increased its presence across D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia. Corporate advisory work constitutes our cornerstone, and the U.S. market centers primarily on reputation risk, strategic risk, litigation and crisis management. But our ambition extends well beyond risk-based matters and encompasses corporate and cultural transformation and public affairs. Our strategic advisory work is designed specifically to match and exceed our C-suite clients’ ask.