The last week has seen two big stories in the world of PR, both of which I think are linked to issues the profession has in getting it across what it does – and what it cannot or should not try to achieve.
Firstly, the Vatican is rethinking its communications strategy, both to deal with the 24 hour global media cycle, and to better support the straightforward and down to earth style of Pope Francis. Given that the Holy See’s press office is understaffed and shuts every day at 3pm GMT you can see why changes are needed. Otherwise the risk is that the messages that Pope Francis wishes to get out will be undermined by lack of the right structure and mechanism to interact with the press.
The second, and much more high profile (on Twitter at least), is the case of HP Enterprise and the Financial Times. After FT columnist Lucy Kellaway included remarks made by HPE’s boss, Meg Whitman, in a piece that poked fun at foolish things said by leaders the World Economic Forum, Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at the company, sent an aggressive response. This ended with a direct threat “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”
Rather than put up with this attack on her (and the FT’s) journalistic independence from advertisers, Kellaway went public with the exchange, to widespread support from both journalists and PR people. HPE made the situation worse by denying Gomez’s letter was aggressive and then releasing it. A quick read shows that it was exactly as described by Kellaway – aggressive and threatening. Hardly bridge building with the journalistic community.
What links these stories? In both cases the PR function is not doing its job. The Vatican is not providing the basic support that its boss/chief spokesperson (The Pope) requires, and HP Enterprises has gone to the other extreme by seeming to pander to the ego of its boss, who seems to have been upset by a tongue in cheek comment.
What seems to be missing is an understanding of what PR can, and can’t do. So, with particular emphasis on Mr Gomez, here’s a list of 5 points to bear in mind:
1 PR is not advertising
In PR you don’t pay money and therefore nothing is guaranteed. However the flip side is that your message is amplified by a trusted, independent third party (the media), making it much more powerful.
2 Not everything written about you will be positive
Particularly if you are a large global corporation not all stories will turn out the way you’d like them. Even if you prepare in detail there’s still the chance that your messages will be mangled or ignored in favour of a better story. Take the rough with the smooth, don’t be thin-skinned, and move on. If you want to hold a grudge, don’t do it publicly.
3 Complaining won’t help, it will make things worse
In the days of print, once something was published it was there in black and white and couldn’t be changed. On the positive side newspapers and magazines have a finite shelf life, meaning today’s front page story is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Online, things are different. They are there forever (unless you can get Google to remove them from search results), but can be amended, updated and changed. I’ve asked journalists to correct stories online that were factually inaccurate – a particular favourite is when a reporter got the sex of a spokesperson wrong (after meeting her!). But there’s no way that you can expect any publication to remove or amend a piece that meets its own journalistic guidelines. As HPE is finding, complaining and threatening is just digging a deeper hole for yourself.
4 PR should be a critical friend
Communication departments need to reflect and support the business/religious organisation that employs them. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense and what will actually work with the media, and other audiences. Be realistic in your aims, and if a PR person thinks a strategy won’t work they need to have the guts to tell their CEO why it won’t fly. PR people should think like a journalist – what is the story, why is it interesting and how can I get it across. Lots of agencies now employ ex-journalists, and as my colleague Chris Lee points out, there are a multiple benefits in doing so.
5 Journalism is independent
Despite living in an era of native advertising, advertorials and blurred lines between paid and earned content, companies need to remember that quality journalism is independent. So threatening to remove advertising pounds should have no impact – and doing so would be counterproductive on a number of levels. After all, as Lucy Kellaway pointed out, if the FT is the best way for HPE to reach its target audiences, then pulling ads from the publication will undermine its overall marketing programme.
What the HPE debacle shows is that it is time for PR to better communicate to stakeholders what it is we do, be robust, and think independently, rather than just believing that the CEO is untouchable. If he wants a role with an all-powerful leader, then perhaps Mr Gomez should apply to the Vatican – I believe they are recruiting…………..
We live in challenging, complex times. Globalisation, wars, mass migration, terrorism and the sheer pace of technology change all combine to unsettle and worry large percentages of the population, both in the UK and across the world.
In suspicious eras such as these, trust in institutions and organisations is vital if people are to be reassured and helped to understand how change is affecting them. So the headline finding of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer – that levels of trust in UK government, media, business and NGOs have all risen – should be a reason for celebration. The Edelman study, now in its 16th year, surveyed 2,500 members of the public in the UK as part of a global sample of 33,000 people.
However, behind the headline figures there are two main causes of concern for those of us involved in communications.
1. Below average national trust
While the UK’s trust levels are at their highest since the recession (excepting in the case of NGOs), the country’s combined, cross-index score of 40% means it ranks amongst the ‘distrusters’, along with most of Western Europe, the US and Australia. The Chinese say they have the most trust in institutions (71%), followed by citizens of the United Arab Emirates (65%), and India, Indonesia and Singapore (all 62%). The global average is 48%.
The UK’s relatively low ranking is probably not a surprise. After all, we pride ourselves on taking a cynical attitude to the institutions around us, and this adds a level of public and media scrutiny that supposedly keeps politicians and business on their toes. Negative headlines sell papers, reflecting the national psyche and appetite for bad news. However, it also means that PR people, and other marketers, need to work harder to convince the general public that, actually, things aren’t that bad for the vast majority, particularly compared to many other places around the globe.
2. The trust gap
The biggest worry is the widening gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to belief in institutions. Edelman divided its sample into the ‘informed public’ (those with a household income in the top 25%, typically with university degrees), and the general public. Overall the gap between these groups in the index hit 17%, up from 9% last year, with the informed public trusting government, business, the media and NGOs much more than the rest of the population.
In many ways this isn’t unexpected – it is much easier to be happier with your lot if you have a cushion of money and education to fall back on. And the recession has seen widening inequality – figures released by Oxfam show that the richest 62 people in the world held the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population in 2015, equivalent to some 3.6bn people. Working a zero hours contract for a company that allegedly shifts its profits offshore to avoid tax is going to provide a radically different perspective to someone who is a manager in the same organisation.
But the big concern is the impact of this lack of trust. The rise of Donald Trump in the US, and the fact that Poles (the least trusting population at 34%) have just elected an ultra-conservative government that promptly replaced the heads of public broadcasters, shows the consequences of the rift between citizens and public institutions. In the UK this suspicion is evident on the forthcoming EU referendum – 61% of the informed public back Britain remaining, with 26% wanting to leave. In contrast nearly half (47%) of low earners favour leaving, and just 34% believe the UK should stay in.
The consequences of the trust gap are therefore potentially extremely worrying, with populists exploiting public fears to increase their share of the vote and shift the debate rightwards in many cases. It is up to communicators of every sort (whether working for government, business or NGOs) to address this gap, and look to educate the general population, both that current change is bringing positive benefits, and that issues can’t be solved through kneejerk reactions, such as building a wall between the US and Mexico. It won’t be easy as in many cases the devil has the best tunes, but it is vital if informed democracy and real debate are to flourish.
Amid all the excitement and hype of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – products demonstrated included a games console for dogs and a smart belt (unfortunately called the Welt) that monitors your waistline – there are some big trends that will potentially affect us all.
While last year was all about wearables, CES 2016 was focused on travel and transport. In fact, there was more noise about cars than at the once dominant Detroit Motor show held a week later. GM announced a $500m investment in Lyft, as well as launching its latest Bolt electric car. BMW showed off a concept car controlled by gestures (taking giving the finger to another motorist to a whole new level), while Ford talked about its progress in self-driving cars. There was even a hoverboard or two – though not something that Marty McFly would recognise from Back to the Future.
What’s interesting is that it shows that the traditional car makers are waking up and fighting back hard against tech companies in the battle for future motoring. As cars essentially transform into computers on wheels, manufacturers risk becoming relegated to providers of hardware (the car chassis), with all the value and ongoing profit going to the tech firms providing the software that makes them intelligent, self-driving, more efficient or more comfortable spaces. Allied to this, there is a lot of talk about the Uber effect, with younger consumers turning away from car ownership and instead just hailing one when they need it or renting on an ad-hoc basis.
So car manufacturers are worried – fewer people buying their products and margins squeezed as the profits go elsewhere. Personally, I don’t think it will be as bad as some naysayers predict – younger people have been hard hit by the recession, so don’t necessarily have the money to buy and run a car. And owning your own vehicle isn’t absolutely necessarily if you are one of the 54% of the world’s population that lives in a city. For those living in the countryside without Uber or buses, the picture is very different.
But what is interesting is how the car giants are changing their behaviour. They have realised that they are up against a smaller, more agile foe – but one that has access to new ideas, brands well known for innovation, and no preconceptions about the business. They have to market themselves better, embrace technology and work together to convince consumers that traditional car makers have what it takes to meet their future needs. Hence investments in start-ups such as Lyft, car clubs and the joint purchase of mapping firm Here by a consortium of VW/Audi, BMW and Daimler.
But both sides face significant marketing obstacles. Aside from a few supercar manufacturers, the majority of car companies are not sexy – and VW’s issues with faked emissions tests back up the view that they can’t be trusted. Cars are expensive to buy, depreciate quickly and require ongoing maintenance and fuel. I’m not saying that tech companies are angels, but the majority of people pay nothing to use Google’s services, even if that means that they themselves become the product. So tech companies need to convince consumers that they combine style and innovation with security and safety, and that they won’t have to reboot their self-driving car before driving away in the morning. Essentially the incumbent needs to show a bit of excitement, while the new player needs to demonstrate a bit of gravitas – a classic marketing dilemma.
As the battle moves from the phony war to full on combat, and new companies (such as Apple) join the market, then expect a much greater focus on marketing from both sides – as each one aims to convince us of their benefits in the brave new motoring world. My money is on whoever develops a proper hoverboard first…………….
500 years ago, during the Renaissance, it was possible for one person to know pretty much everything across a wide range of subjects. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was a painter, anatomist, sculptor and inventor, designing objects as diverse as an early helicopter and an adding machine. A little later polymaths such as Isaac Newton were leaders in fields as different as mathematics, physics and optics, while still believing in alchemy and experimenting to try and turn lead into gold.
In the late 20th century the place of the Renaissance man shifted again, moving from laboratory and academia to the hallowed pub quiz. This was the foremost place for polymaths to show off their knowledge, particularly if their family and friends refused to play Trivial Pursuit with them anymore.
But, in the same way that the days of a da Vinci or Newton are gone, I fear that time has been called on the pub quiz. And it is all down to technology and the way it is shaping how we learn and retain facts/useless information. Nowadays we can access all the knowledge in the world instantly with a smartphone and Google (except in my village, which only has 2G coverage). I remember as a ten year old memorising the capital cities of Europe (including mastering the trick question of what the capital of the Netherlands was), but am now sorrowfully realising that I may have been wasting my time.
Shared experiences and the herd mind
This means that rather than priding themselves on learning and retaining information, my children are much more focused on how to find it in a hurry. While this is good in a way – there’s no way you can know everything, so why try? – it is also disheartening in others. We relate to other people through shared experiences – whether that is knowledge of the same events, watching the same TV programmes or attending sports matches. And if you erode that – such as through the explosion in viewing choice, the plethora of pay-TV options and rising ticket prices at sports events, you take away much of how we relate to others.
Why is that important? Essentially because mankind is a herd animal, and a lot of our choices are not based on being rational, but fitting in with those around us. So take away our shared offline experiences and we won’t know how to behave, meaning we will start trying to find new herds to potentially join online. At its most extreme this can lead to the bandwagon jumping you see on Twitter, when everyone tweets/retweets on a particular topic or trend, without thinking, or at its worst joining radical organisations that provide a sense of belonging, however misplaced.
It also provides opportunities for marketers – good and bad. Marketers can position their brands as essential to the lifestyle and experiences we want to share, but this opens them up to charges of psychological manipulation if they are simply using PR and are not genuinely delivering what they promise. It is a balancing act – consumers are both more susceptible and more cynical at the same time – and are also apt to forget your brand in the wider noise if you don’t keep communicating with them.
So, while pub quizzes will never be the same, the need for shared experiences remains: as humans we should remember this and ensure that we find them in the physical as well as the online world. And that means making sure we still retain enough useless trivia to interact with those around us – and of course to dominate at Trivial Pursuit.