The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.
But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.
This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:
- Bashar Al Asad has appeared on CBS and PBS in the US, defending his actions and denying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
- Barack Obama appealed to the American people through a series of TV interviews as well as a direct address calling on Congress to support his stance
- Francois Holland sought to elbow Britain from its position as the US’s most trusted ally, hawkishly supporting military action in Syria
- Vladimir Putin put his point of view to the US and world media through a comment piece published in the New York Times, setting out his plan for independent decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons.
Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.
If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.
Like a lot of people I start my morning with the Today programme on Radio 4, where a continual succession of politicians, captains of industry and celebrities queue up to be interviewed. If they are lucky they get the mild-mannered Justin Webb or if unlucky James Naughtie or John Humphrys in a particularly cantankerous mood.
As a PR person one thing I notice very quickly is if the interviewee has been over media trained. You can hear the key messages and soundbites being introduced into the conversation (often with a complete lack of subtlety), the practised swerve away from difficult questions and an overall replacement of any personality with a mechanised response.
Obviously anyone speaking to the press (and particularly to Humphrys, Naughtie or Paxman) needs to be trained – the car crash interviews when spokespeople are completely unprepared are toe-curlingly bad. But in too many cases the message overwhelms any personality that the spokesperson has – the lines could be delivered by a robot rather than a human being. This may be fine if the speaker is a third undersecretary at a government agency, but not good if he’s your CEO and essentially the ambassador for your brand.
And this malaise isn’t confined to senior managers and politicians. I see a lot of entrepreneurs and heads of growing companies who shut down when they have a camera pointed at them or a microphone shoved in their face. All the energy and enthusiasm they have for their wonderful product drains away to be replaced by a tongue-tied mouthing of platitudes.
So what can spokespeople do to get their personality and message across? I’m not going to provide a full media training session in this blog but it revolves around five key areas:
As Ben Franklin said, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.” Take the time to research who you are speaking to, the audience of their programme/readership of the magazine. What has the journalist written recently? What is the angle of the interview? If you have a marketing or PR person they should provide you with this information ahead of time – read it well before the interview (not 5 minutes before).
2 Know what you are going to say
Have 2-3 key points that you want to get across, particularly for broadcast interviews. But say it in multiple ways – repeating the same soundbite again and again is going to put listeners/viewers off and makes you sound like a stuck record. Back up what you are saying with examples or figures that prove your case, particularly if they come from a reputable third party.
3 Be human
People relate to people, not to dry words. Use stories and anecdotes that build pictures in the audience’s mind – and make them personal. Things like ‘I saw on my way here that…..’ or ‘I was talking to one of our customers and they said……..’ show empathy and involvement. Just make sure they are true and not PR spin.
4 Be enthusiastic
Particularly for a start-up, if you can’t be enthusiastic about your product, how do you expect others to buy it? You may be repeating details for the thousandth time and feel you are having to dumb down the language around your wonderful new innovation but explain clearly, simply and with energy what it will do to change people’s lives for the better. You’ve got passion for your start-up – get it across when you speak.
5 Get training
If you’re not sure about how good you are at speaking publicly then make an investment in training. Not necessarily media training, but coaching in public speaking is an invaluable way of building up your confidence and providing methods for getting your message across without losing your humanity.
There’s a reason that the same spokespeople keep popping up on radio and TV – from the likes of Richard Branson to Justin Urquhart Stewart of Seven Investment Management (a mainstay of Radio 5 Live). They provide consistently interesting and punchy answers, without letting the message overwhelm their own personality. It is time for entrepreneurs and spokespeople everywhere to follow their example.
In a week that saw the publication of the long-awaited Cambridge Phenomenon book, celebrating 50 years of innovation in the area, some more sobering figures concerning continued investment have been published.
Research from tech-focused investment group Ascendant found that while generally VC investment is up in Q1 2012, money doesn’t seem to be coming to Cambridge. £307m was invested in tech companies in the UK and Ireland – with £188m going to London-based outfits, and £27m to Irish ones. Cambridge (and Oxford) saw very little new money.
While it can be misleading to generalise based on three months of data this could be a worrying trend as centralised government action to boost London’s Tech City draws potential funding (and talent) away from the Cambridge ecosystem. After all, as Rory Cellan-Jones points out in his BBC Blog, Cambridge has potentially a better chance of creating world-class tech companies than London as it has already developed an ecosystem with research at its heart to feed innovative ideas to the market. But investment funding for Cambridge is key – not just in ‘scientific’ spinouts such as Owlstone and ARM but the more internet-style businesses and the thriving cleantech sector that Cambridge also supports.
So how does Cambridge compete against the media-savvy Tech City community when it comes to gaining funding? I may be biased as a marketer, but really feel that public relations has a strong role to play. There is still a tendency amongst Cambridge startups to treat PR as an afterthought rather than an intrinsic part of how you create a company and drive its success. You need to know your audience and deliver the right message to it at the right time using language they understand to succeed. Otherwise the risk is that Cambridge will become seen solely as the domain of technical wizardry rather than as a driver of customer-focused innovation that leads the UK tech scene.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the coalition government pause on NHS reforms, make policy changes on vital issues and launch poorly thought out stunts like Start up Britain. I thought we were meant to have a coalition government made up of professional communicators? It amazes me David Cameron and Nick Clegg, trained public relations people, haven’t seen the PR downside of some of their initiatives – or been able to communicate better on key issues like NHS reforms. Remember Nick Clegg, PR Week’s 2010 Communicator of the Year? It seems like a long time ago now.
Amusing though it would be I don’t want to take cheap shots at Cameron and Clegg – blogs are meant to be short and focused after all. But why has it gone so wrong on the communication front? Three things stand out for me:
1) Confusion between the message and the messenger
In the PR business the aim is for the messenger to be just a conduit to get the story to key audiences. Yes, you should have a presence but if people are focused on your personality and what tie you are wearing rather than what you are saying things get very confused. As PR people Cameron and Clegg should know this, but the pressure of trying to be message and messenger has simply overwhelmed them. The long drawn out departure of comms chief Andy Coulson hasn’t helped, removing expertise and an alternative spokesperson from the scene.
2) Short term thinking
Again, communicators preach the need for a long term strategy and that results don’t come quickly. But politics is different, hence knee jerk initiatives like Start Up Britain designed to create an immediate buzz. There seems to be no risk assessment of the potential pitfalls, just a rush to get things out the door and onto the next project.
3) No real mandate
The coalition government was obviously formed as no one party had a clear majority. And this lack of a real mandate means that the public, and in particular the press, is suspicious and analyses every policy announcement in minute detail. So flaws that may have been previously glossed over are now front page news – whether in the papers or on social media.
So what does the coalition need to do to turn around its communications? It isn’t a job I’d want, but to borrow a political slogan it needs to get back to basics. Ditch the gimmicks, take a longer term view and spend time explaining what they stand for and how it relates to the man in the street. That would really earn Clegg his PR Week Communicator of the Year Award…………..
- Im not a punchbag I have feelings (newstatesman.com)
- Government to ‘pause, listen, reflect and improve’ NHS reform plans (guardian.co.uk)
- Nick Clegg’s social mobility plans should not be lost amid mockery | Julian Glover (guardian.co.uk)
As every marketing textbook will tell you there are five main promotional tools when it comes to reaching your customer – advertising, public relations, direct marketing, personal selling and sales promotion and all have distinct advantages (and pitfalls).
In the real world, outside the textbooks, a hierarchy has developed, certainly when it comes to big brands and their campaigns. Advertising is king, taking the largest share of budgets, driving the ideas and generally providing Mad Men-style glamour. PR has always been the poor relation, while direct mail and sales promotion have been relegated to the bottom of the list, seen as mechanical methods of distributing content. Salespeople rarely see themselves as a promotional tool so have headed off on their own outside marketing’s control.
As in many industries, the advent of the web disrupted this cosy status quo, but the model pretty much survived. Web and email were put into the direct marketing category and ad agencies continued to receive fat cheques for their work.
But there are now real signs that the world is changing – it isn’t a command and control model anymore. We’re not watching TV (or TV ads) as much (as a recent Deloitte report pointed out most people now have hard drive recorders) and new digital channels, like social media, are much more about conversations and content, not just slick one-way ideas. Adland is worried about losing control – bringing in PR people for their content skills, investing in swish digital agencies and generally reinventing themselves through new services. The question is – can they change fast enough or will savvy PR agencies step up to the mark? Time will tell, but if the PR industry fails to skill up it risks missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to lead integrated marketing campaigns.
- Will PR Agencies Suffer the Campaign Mindset? (worob.com)
- Seven Ways Agencies Must Evolve in 2011 (adage.com)
- Havas Worldwide Takes Majority Stake in Social Technology Startup: Socialistic (prnewswire.com)