Small business week: MediaStyle’s CEO shift ‘a chance to shake things up’

Faced with founder’s departure, Ottawa public relations firm took fresh look at its reason for being and reaffirmed its core mission
MediaStyle
MediaStyle’s Caitlin Kealey, left, and Allyson Chisnall. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

As partners in one of Ottawa’s leading public relations firms, Caitlin Kealey and Allyson Chisnall are usually the ones asking other people what message they want to send to the world.

But when the executives at MediaStyle learned earlier this year that the firm’s founder, Ian Capstick, was planning to step away from its day-to-day operations to launch a new social enterprise, they decided it was time to sit on the other side of the table.

They enlisted co-worker and strategist Bailey Reid to put to them the questions they’d so often asked of their clients: What is your core purpose? Where is the firm heading? How do you plan to get there?

The process, they say, was enlightening and invigorating.

“It was fun doing ourselves what we would do with our clients,” says Ms. Chisnall, the firm’s director of operations. “We had to walk the walk.”

The conviction in her voice suggests her words are far more than a cliche.

Nine years after it was launched by Mr. Capstick, a well-known political analyst and commentator, MediaStyle has earned widespread respect in the industry for staying faithful to its philosophy of promoting social justice.

The company lists its four core values – or pillars, as it calls them – prominently on its website. They include promoting healthy lifestyles and free post-secondary education as well as championing the rights of Indigenous peoples and bolstering democratic institutions.

One of the firm’s highest-profile clients was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and it’s worked with organizations such as the National Association of Friendship Centres and Community Foundations of Canada. A certified B Corporation, MediaStyle is required to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental responsibility.

But at the end of the day, its leaders point out, it’s still a business – and a profitable one. Last year, MediaStyle placed seventh on OBJ’s list of the city’s fastest-growing companies with three-year revenue growth of nearly 280 per cent.

Riding that wave of success, the nine-person firm is now adjusting to life without its founder. Ms. Kealey, who joined MediaStyle five years ago, has taken over from Mr. Capstick as CEO, a transition she concedes hasn’t been without its challenges.

‘Take a fresh look’

But the 2017 Forty Under 40 recipient also sees the change in leadership as an opportunity to “take a fresh look” at MediaStyle’s operations – hence the sit-down with Ms. Reid.

After taking a good, hard look at the company they’ve built, the executive team decided to double down on the firm’s commitment to social justice, adding fair labour practices and environmental sustainability to its list of core values.

“At almost the age of 10, it gives MediaStyle a chance to sort of shake things up a little bit,” Ms. Kealey says.

Ms. Chisnall and Ms. Kealey rewrote the firm’s mission statement over the summer, consulting regularly with staff on issues such as what type of pro-bono work the company should do and what community causes it would support.

“We listened closely, asked a lot of questions (and) asked a lot of questions of ourselves."

“We listened a lot,” Ms. Chisnall says. “We listened closely, asked a lot of questions, asked a lot of questions of ourselves, what was really important to us, what kind of impact did we want to have on Ottawa and Canada with our company.”

To reflect its expanded mission, the firm is hoping to build on its existing relationships with clients in the environmental space such as the World Wildlife Fund and add others with an equally strong social-justice focus.

“We’ve realized that the work that we’re best at is the work that we are all collectively passionate about,” Ms. Kealey says. “It was really important to me to continue the work that we do because we support a lot of organizations … that are doing really important work. For the team to know that the mission wasn’t changing was of the utmost importance.”

Ms. Chisnall sums up MediaStyle’s fundamental raison d’etre in one simple sentence.

“We’ve always been storytellers, and we keep that focus,” she says.

A certified financial planner who has her own practice, Ms. Chisnall has helped many businesses navigate their way through various stages of growth. She says it’s important for all companies, big or small, to embrace change as part of the ride and keep their eyes fixed on their long-term goals.

“Sometimes, you get blinders on,” she says. “You’re so focused on where you are right now that you lose (sight of) the bigger picture.”