Christopher Harvin – Co-Founder of Sanitas International

[quote style=”boxed”]Our firm has also set aside unstructured time where employees at all levels can bounce ideas off each other and think outside the box. Sometimes your greatest ideas occur when you least expect it.[/quote]

With almost 20 years of experience in the industry, Christopher Harvin has practiced the arts of public, crisis, political, and corporate communication in more than 60 counties. He is the Co-Founder and a Partner at Sanitas International, a global strategic communication, public affairs, digital media and political advisory firm that is based in Washington DC and with offices in the Middle East. Mr.Harvin has served the White House and has held senior advisory positions with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Members of Congress and in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He has also represented multiple Heads of State and governments in emerging markets and developing countries in areas such as the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. Among them include the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, Government of Afghanistan, Republic of Congo, the Executive Office of Dubai, and the Dubai International Financial Centre.
Mr. Harvin regularly provides strategic communications, crisis/reputation management, public affairs and political counsel to governments, corporate CEOs and a variety of high profile clients around the world. He has also provided strategies to political and advocacy campaigns both nationally and internationally; to include four presidential campaigns, numerous Senate and Congressional campaigns, corporate advocacy campaigns and numerous Foreign Heads of State.
Sought after for his insight into industry strategies and tactics, Mr. Harvin has been quoted in a variety of top tier publications around the world, published in international and defense related trade publications. He regularly provides expert media commentary on issues regarding international affairs, crisis management, strategic communications, national defense and security, and political campaign management.

What are you working on right now?

Sanitas International is a different kind of communications firm and our diverse client base has varying needs. A lot of what we do is developing and executing communications and reputation management strategies for clients in emerging markets and developing countries – many of the environments we operate in are experiencing tremendous conflict and facing myriad communications challenges. I recently returned from a trip to the Caribbean where we made Nation Branding recommendations to a country looking to improve their image, attract investment and showcase their heritage and tourism strength. Right now Sanitas’ Arab team is engaged in several projects to drive public opinion and push messages online in the Middle East. They are also in the final days of completing an Iraq-wide survey to test messages, attitudes and public opinion for a client. The program is specific to influence and educate U.S. officials and thought leaders on democratic reforms, human rights improvements and rule of law. It also seeks to attract foreign investment. We are also working for clients in the defense industry who are looking to build awareness of services and products, influence pending legislation and budgets, and build reputations through traditional media relations, digital media and grassroots engagement.

What does your typical day look like?

Every day is different – mostly because of time zone differences and the special needs of our clients. An average day usually starts early with a scan of emails and social media sites, handling any one of our client’s brewing crises and reading the morning media clips and blog posts. Occasionally it begins with 5am Skype calls abroad or an early morning flight. When I am fortunate enough to be in DC, I try to walk into work after breakfast. It’s always a great walk filled with great sites through the nation’s capital. By the time I get to the office, the day is usually in full force with emails, calls and morning meetings. If time permits, I usually try to head to the gym or to the soccer pitch in the early evening and then it’s back home to wind down the day, eat and relax.

Three trends that excite you?

The three trends that excite me are democratic reform in the Middle East, the rapid technology development within the industry and the increasingly common emergence of developing nations.
a. Democratic reform throughout the Middle East and North Africa would not be possible without social media. In Egypt, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube facilitated the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Even as the Egyptian government shut down certain channels of communication, the opposition continued to influence, organize and connect through alternative forms of communication. In Syria, social media is fueling mass demonstrations and revolt. In Iran, the Green Revolution began on Twitter. Even President Goodluck Jonathan announced his candidacy for President by Facebook. In fact, I thought it was amazing that locals were unknowingly tweeting the US military’s covert raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound – in real time. Digital media is everywhere. The power of organizing the masses and influencing them through technology cannot be underestimated – nor can social media’s potential to enact change.
b. The influence of technology on the industry. It has been said over and over that technology is changing the way we live, the way we communicate and the way we interact, and it’s true. The Internet is only 15 years old and look what it has done to the industry. Technology is driving the industry and it drives our clients. As the technology changes so do the strategies and tactics used to build and defend reputations. Time zones are slowly becoming obsolete as the internet continues to dominate and as information flow is ongoing no matter where in the world you are. It will be very exciting to see where the industry will be in another 15 years. Will we even recognize it?

c. I am also excited about the emergence of developing countries and markets on the world stage. As energy exploration successes expand in new markets throughout Africa and other parts of the world, so does the opportunity for these countries to develop their infrastructure, knowledge capital and rule of law. But countries must be cautious about their growth, work hard to communicate their progress and failures to in-country and out-of-country audiences and to repair their global reputations. With the changes in GDP, technology, the global economy and 24hr media cycle, the landscape of doing business in the world is rapidly evolving at an unparalleled pace.

How do you bring ideas to life?

My mind works most of the time in overdrive; always thinking of new solutions and new business ideas. Ideas mostly come to life through extensive research, planning and careful execution. Our firm has also set aside unstructured time where employees at all levels can bounce ideas off each other and think outside the box. Sometimes your greatest ideas occur when you least expect it. Our open office floor plan takes away some of the hierarchy a walled office environment often dictates.

What inspires you?

Living in DC, interacting with an extremely diverse and international crowd, and having traveled the world have given me an opportunity to experience different cultures and understand various perspectives. In addition, my work in hostile war zones, on six continents and in countless developing countries has provided invaluable operational experience. These unique foundations have created a drive that inspires me to take on and overcome some of the most unique and the most difficult reputational challenges for clients in some of the most troubling parts of the world. The bigger the challenge and the more unique, the greater the inspiration to help overcome it.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

I’ve learned to slow down, listen and to not be so quick to jump into things. I’ve also learned the importance of doing research, and that given appearances aren’t everything.
The devil is in the details. Research cannot be underestimated and it must be completed thoroughly. Research and polling take the guesswork out of just about everything. Early in my career I worked with a client who refused to fund the first steps of their communications program – a robust research initiative that would have guided our messaging and reaffirmed the importance of our strategy. After weeks of back and forth with the client, the decision was finally made against deploying research. After the client was forced to make some tough political decisions I realized I should have pushed harder. Especially since if the client had deployed the recommended research, they would have had a better understanding that the decisions they were making weren’t necessary and ultimately, their overall public opinion suffered immensely. As mobile technology and the Internet develop, research and polling become even more critical in our integrated communications operations. It should be a part of every strategy from the start.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Develop your own forms of technology and proprietary methodology. There are a lot of solutions out there, but most aren’t tailored to solve unique client problems or streamline your business. As the industry continues to evolve, so will the need for communication companies to be innovative and agile with their own methods, solutions and technology. It’s all in your value proposition and how you distinguish from your competitors.

What do you read every day, and why?

I read a wide variety of media focused on International and political news (Economist, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, and Financial Times). I also have a few favorite blogs such as Danger Room, African News and Iraq the Model). And of course who could forget the online sports publications.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

We rely heavily on media collection tools in the field. Because of the nature of our work, we are constantly keeping a finger on the pulse of a number issues and industries. With all that said, I think it would be hard to live without my iPod because it provides an outlet to decompress from the hectic days.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

Last year, our team attended and supported the media relations for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. In attendance with 56 heads of state was Queen Elizabeth. It would be interesting to get a perspective from the Queen on technology and how it is and will continue to change the world markets. Many of the developing countries she has ruled have dramatically changed since her rise to the thrown because of the Internet and the influence of social media. One doesn’t have to go far to see how the recent elections in Nigeria were influenced or the recent uproar in other countries created online by opposition parties across the former Commonwealth to see the importance.

What is one piece of advice as an executive that you would offer to other executives and also to junior and midlevel employees?

A former colleague and friend once told me early in my career to treat everyone with respect and treat them as if they were family. He said it was vitally important because the people who work for you now could easily be your boss or client in the future. It’s true. Good talent is hard to find and your business is only as good as the talent you hire and retain. Our firms have a very open management style and good ideas and services don’t necessarily have to come from the executive leadership – they can easily come from any level of the company – even from interns on their first day. That same person also told me to have fun with what you are doing, because life is too short and if you love doing it, then you won’t mind giving 110% and it shows. He was right on both points and I’ve tried to live by his words every day.

As you are based in Washington, can you give our readers a sense of what is going on in the city? So much emphasis has been put on Washington lately, what’s your perspective on the city?

Washington has been a mess lately with excessive partisan politics and infighting for personal political gain. However, the city is rapidly changing the way it works. Washington use to be full of backroom deals, earmarks and liquor lunches. Today it is more transparent. A lot of this change and for that matter even the legislation, is being driven by public opinion. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and influence one another. Home telephones and faxes are becoming obsolete and cable television as we know is evolving quickly into web-based. Even email is fossilizing to what is now known as “snail” mail. With over a billion voices on the Internet, lobbyists understand the critical importance of communicators to help their message cut through the noise and reach decision makers on Capitol Hill and in the Administration. Social media will never replace a handshake or face-to-face meeting, but traditional forms of communication must be orchestrated alongside a robust digital communications plan. Today, offline results cannot be achieved without online action and burgeoning democracies must understand the rules of engagement when it comes to U.S. diplomacy. To this end, U.S.-based communicators, lobbyists, and attorneys are working in concert to support democracy and open the lines of communication between the U.S. and other areas of the world.


Email: [email protected]
Social sites: www.facebook/cmharvin