H+K Washington Director James Barbour sat down with H+K Washington’s Chris Bull for our latest H+K Interview. This interview took place on October 3.

Chris Bull: Well, let’s begin. Thank you for joining me.

James Barbour: You’re very welcome.

CB: What brought you to H+K – what’s your background and why this agency?

JB: This time or the first time?

CB: This time.

JB: It’s a long story. The short version is I was at H+K in the London office too many years ago, 2004 to 2007.

Then, by the middle of last year, I was on the verge of wrapping up my diplomatic assignment here in the D.C. I was working for the European Union at the time, running their comms shop across the U.S., looking around at what to do next. I was having a conversation on Facebook with an old friend who still works at H+K. He said, “Well, have you thought about coming back?” I’d been left with very fond memories and left on favorable terms, and still had lots of friends from that first time. And, luckily, many of them were still there because we have very high retention rates. So it seemed like a very kind of natural re-entry.

CB: So, how has Hill+Knowlton Strategies changed since you were last here? 

JB: So, it’s slightly different because I was in the UK office and, at the time, I don’t think we necessarily had as much of a global outlook as we currently have.

We kept all of the good stuff. We kept hold of the positive elements of our culture. H+K has people who are keen to, firstly and obviously, deliver best-in-class client work. But, secondly, we’re working to build something greater than just ourselves – we come to learn and help others learn. I think that’s what really strikes you: we’re not just a collection of individuals going out there doing our individual thing with our individual clients. We’re a global collection of very talented people helping each other. And that hasn’t changed.

CB: What has changed?

JB: I suppose the flip side is, as I say, it does feel much more global. We feel much more connected. Part of that is technologically driven and part of it is culturally driven. But, yeah, on a particular account, I could be working with somebody in London, somebody in Brussels, and somebody in Texas while you’re working remotely from a different state and you don’t even notice. We don’t just have email, there’s headsets and cameras and collaborative tools and whatever else. So, it’s pretty seamless and I think that’s something we’ve clearly tried very hard to achieve.

CB: You’ve already touched a little bit on this interconnectivity and working with people from different places. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re currently working on?

JB: I actually spent the last few days on-boarding a new client: Cotton Council International, the global arm of the U.S. National Cotton Council. We’ll be helping them launch a new sustainability standard in the field. The challenge around sustainability and cotton is tremendously complex.

CB: How does H+K work with CCI on impactful sustainability practices and the environment overall?

JB: That’s a great question because one of the things we’re trying to do is influence, develop, shape, and change global sustainability practices. One of the things we found out, and the U.S. cotton industry has realized, is that they are actually more sustainable than they themselves had known because good sustainability practice is good business practice, and this is an incredibly narrow margin industry.

Literally every cent per acre in how you cultivate and harvest your cotton matters. So, if you’re using a high level of technology and automation, if you’re using embedded sensors, that makes a difference. They recovered a hundred yards so that you can test the water levels or the fertilizer and nutrient levels or whatever else, if that means that you can reduce your use of irrigation, if it means that you can reduce your use of plant health chemicals or whatever else, then that will affect your bottom line. All these decisions affect your margin. It’s one of those things where good business practice is good sustainability practice.

To answer your original question, the hope is that by explaining more broadly and in more detail what sustainability practices look like in the U.S. cotton sector then that will positively influence the cultivation practices of cotton growers in other countries.

CB: All right.

JB: One of the things we want to explore is the positive effect in terms of carbon sequestration while cultivating cotton. Hitherto, people have been looking at the carbon outputs of agriculture, but, as cotton grows and you cultivate the crop, you’re also absorbing huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And one of the things we want to look at is the kind of net carbon position of the industry, which is probably a lot more favorable than people might otherwise think.

Similarly, over two-thirds of cotton in the U.S. is produced purely with rainwater. But there’s this perception that cotton is so incredibly water intensive. It’s not water intensive in terms of taking water out of the drinking supply or disrupting the ecosystem. It’s rainwater.

CB: That’s incredible. Pivoting away from cotton for a moment and going back to you and your past work experience, how do you think your previous experience and previous insights help your current work at H+K? 

JB: I think a little bit it’s about thought process. Most of my career has been in the diplomacy, foreign policy world, either on the communications and external relations side or on the policy formulation side. And what that background teaches you to do more than anything else is how to think and then how to articulate that thought process, how to synthesize different thought processes into one kind of coherent stream and then articulate it. I think the skills are very similar and very transferable here.

CB: So obviously you work on lots of different sectors, lots of different client work. You also work with the government and public sector here at H+K. And I want to ask, how would you define public sector versus public affairs?

JB: Two very different things, although to those who aren’t familiar with the terms, I appreciate how they might sound a bit similar. Public affairs is a branch of public relations. It’s about influencing the public, communicating with stakeholders and specifically communicating with those people who influence the policy process. That to me is what public affairs is. It’s public relations, but aimed at a policy audience.

Public sector is people who work for the government. Here in the U.S. it’s defined very broadly because you have such a large government contracting space. From the DC office we have various clients who are contractors or subcontractors to the government and depending how far you draw the line, all of those early, some of those fall under the definition of public sector.

CB: What would be your advice to corporations navigating the current geopolitical climate?

JB: That’s a really good question, Chris. I think my advice might sound slightly trite, but you have to expect the unexpected. And the reason I say this is that if you look over the last few years that have been some geopolitical seismic shifts that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say, yeah, everybody could have seen that coming. But whether they could or not, I don’t know. And I’m talking perhaps obviously partly about Brexit. The Brexit referendum outcome was a surprise to many.

So the advice to anybody planning for geopolitical risk is just to plan for every single outcome because you never know what’s going to happen, whether that means having your risk and crisis planning up to date, whether that means having your stakeholder mapping up to date so you know who you’re communicating with. It’s all part of preparedness, and you know that there is such a thing as preemptive coalition-building. That’s very rarely a group of stakeholders that you can completely ignore. So even if you think a particular audience or particular group of stakeholders is not relevant to you in your current state, you can’t necessarily make that assumption months, years down the track.

One of the things that we practice here is the adoption of a very broad approach. Because you just never know when you will need a coalition, when you will need a group of friends, when you need a group of supporters. And at that point, if you don’t already know them, if you’re not already on your terms of them, it could be too late. So hedge your bets, develop relationships with as broad a group of or broader set of audiences or stakeholders as you can. And just don’t make any assumptions because you never know what’s going to happen next to turn geopolitics on its head.

CB: You mentioned Brexit. How is it being a British national abroad during all this?

JB: I’ll tell you this, it was very interesting being a British national, serving as the spokesperson for the European Union in the United States. That meant walking a fairly narrow line on a daily basis. But look, I’ve always considered myself European first and British second, and I would dearly love it if those two could remain aligned. I’m deeply saddened by Brexit, and I’m deeply saddened by the divisions that have resulted in the UK. I think so much of it is unnecessary

I never quite managed to pin down who it was who said “divided by a common language” in reference to the two countries and whether it’s actually a genuine quote. It’s been attributed to 70 different people. But I think we do have much more common with the United States than divides us, even at the moment. So being a Brit operating here in the U.S. I find almost an advantage because we have a kind of slow deliberative politeness that that goes down very well. Being British in a global firm like H+K you feel like you’re in very good company.

I think nationality becomes less and less relevant in this increasingly globalized world. I’ve served in South Africa. I’ve served in Russia. I speak five or six languages, some of them well and some of them incredibly badly. But I think being British is perhaps less important in the global business world than being able to relate to multiple different global cultures.

CB: What languages do you speak?

JB: I speak French, Russian, Spanish, German, and Xhosa.

CB: And English.