Revolutionary Measures

Google, tax and PR – do no evil?

On the PR side it has been a busy couple of weeks for Google. Firstly, it casually announced at Davos that it had agreed to pay £130m for ten years of UK corporate taxes, although obviously without any admission of guilt. Cue a storm of protest that this was nowhere near enough for a business that reputedly made £7.2 billion of profits over that period, essentially meaning it paid 3% corporation tax. Much of the vitriol came from other media companies, particularly newspapers, that have seen their own advertising revenues decimated by the search advertising giant.

Google Quick Search Box

Then earlier this week Alphabet, Google’s holding company, became the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, helped by strong financial results and worries about previous number one Apple’s future growth prospects.

Given the closeness of these two events, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that ethically debatable behaviour leads directly to outstanding corporate success. But has it actually made any difference to Google’s reputation in the UK? I’d argue that overall it hasn’t affected its business in any way, for three main reasons:

1.The public doesn’t buy from Google
For the majority of people Google is a utility – providing them with the ability to browse or search the internet, watch videos, manage emails and documents or run their mobile phones, without charging them a penny directly. What people don’t understand is that the price of this free stuff is that they become the product – Google has built its very lucrative business on selling this data on our activities and preferences to advertisers. In contrast Starbucks, another perceived tax avoider, sells physical products direct to the public, giving consumers a vested interest in seeing the right levels of tax paid out.

2.Google does no evil
It will probably surprise a lot of people that Google is as enormous as it actually is. From its beginnings it has cultivated a laid-back, anti-establishment brand, epitomised by its corporate slogan “Do no evil” and heavy investment in moonshot projects such as self-driving cars and research into cures for cancer. Despite its growth, it is still seen as a Silicon Valley upstart successfully battling the likes of Microsoft (search, browsers, productivity applications, operating systems) and Apple (with Android).

3.Is there an alternative?
Obviously you can use different search/email/operating system providers, including those that make it clear that they won’t either track your online behaviour or use it to target adverts based on your browsing. But how many people actually make the effort to go out and switch, particularly when Google makes it so easy to just carry on using its services. The figures speak for themselves – it has nearly 86% of the UK search market, which hasn’t changed much since the first mention of its tax affairs.

So, while as a PR person I agree that it has handled the whole tax situation badly by trying to claim that it is doing the right thing when its activities are ethically dubious at best, I don’t think it will have a major impact on the corporate brand. This is echoed by an (admittedly small) poll in PR Week, where 51% of PR professionals said it would leave its reputation unchanged – and 11% thought the tax settlement would improve the brand.

However, where it may cause issues, is by attracting further attention from regulators at the European Union, which have previously shown that they have more teeth when dealing with tech giants than national governments. Time will tell, but with the media already setting its sights on Facebook for potential even larger tax avoidance, I think Google will feel that the £130 million it spent is worth every penny.

February 3, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What follows Twitter?

The press and Twittersphere have been in tumult this week concerning the unexpected departure of five key senior managers from the microblogging site. Shares fell by nearly 5% as investors worried about the company’s strategy for growth, while CEO Jack Dorsey was forced to take to the social network to reassure the world that the departures wouldn’t overly impact Twitter.

English: Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, co-founder...

Given that user figures stubbornly fail to increase beyond 300 million, and that the share price has dropped by 67% since last April, the executive exodus is seen as symptomatic of wider issues – particularly an inability to make money on the scale of rival Facebook. Bold ideas trumpeted to revive the network include extending the lengths of tweets from 140 to 10,000 characters, but it doesn’t seem clear how this will increase revenues. In a month that saw social media pioneer Friends Reunited finally close, is it possible that Twitter will eventually go the same way?

Twitter does have a number of problems – many of which revolve around the original structure of 140 character messages, all displayed in real-time. It is easy to meet messages of interest given the sheer volume of content on the site and the user experience is not as immediately friendly as the likes of Facebook (which has also done a much better job of collecting and monetising data on its users and their habits.) When I was in Singapore last year I was told that no-one really used Twitter as they didn’t see the point, and it is true that in the UK and US much of network’s high profile comes from its use by commentators, journalists, experts, and Donald Trump.

So, is Twitter doomed, and if so what will take its place? First off, it does seem strange suggesting that a business with 300 million users is on its last legs, but we live in a world governed by network effect and the likes of Facebook have much larger user bases. And of course, none of the 300m is paying to use the service. Twitter seems like a network that doesn’t have a clear purpose – people tend to use Facebook for personal social contact, and LinkedIn for business. Both of these have bulked up their offerings, with Facebook pitching itself as a channel for customer service, with Facebook Business on Messenger, and LinkedIn’s ability to write and share blog style content providing a channel for business insight. Essentially Twitter is being squeezed, and for many people has become just a signposting tool, pointing to content hosted elsewhere. I tweet all my blogs, and it provides a steady stream of traffic to my posts – although not as many as LinkedIn.

However, I do think Twitter has a role to play – but it needs to be simplified, made more user friendly and above all clearly monetized. Which brings me to a potential suitor/solution for the service – Google. There are three reasons for suggesting it would be a good fit:

  • Google is a master at collecting user data and turning it into a saleable commodity. You may hate the fact that it knows so much about you, but it has built an enormous business on its stated aim of collecting all the world’s information
  • Despite its relatively friendly and sensible design Google +, its own social network, has failed to gain any traction, and merging the two will bring the best of both worlds together. There are allegedly 500m Google + users, mainly because registering for other services automatically adds you to the network, providing a ready market for Twitter – and that’s before you start looking at the hundreds of millions that use Google search or YouTube.
  • Other tech companies, such as Facebook, Amazon and Chinese rivals Baidu and Tencent are offering more and more services. Google therefore risks being left behind in the long term as consumers choose to spend more of their online time with fewer providers.

So there is logic behind a deal – though I’m not sure what the new entity would be called. Gitter or Twittle anyone?

 

January 27, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who do you trust?

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.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

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.

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CES goes mobile – the lessons for marketers

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.

English: Jari-Matti Latvala, winner of the Nes...

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…………….

January 13, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The death of the pub quiz?

A Trivial Pursuit playing piece, with all six ...

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.

January 6, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Write more, type less

According to research quoted by Richard Branson, half of 13-19 year olds have never written a thank you letter, and just 10% own a pen. And before we adults start moaning about teenagers, texting and social media replacing good old fashioned ink and paper, think back to the last time you hand wrote something, other than your name on a Christmas card.

Image of a modern fountain pen writing in curs...

As Branson points out, the act of writing long hand holds more meaning than an email or electronic message. You have to put greater physical effort into it, and you also need to think about it more, plan it and take time to actually write the sentences, particularly if your handwriting is as atrocious as mine. He points out that poems and love letters, no matter how scribbled, are the perfect way to crystallise feelings and emotions directly, rather than through the medium of a keyboard and screen. You can’t cut and paste sections of text, move things round or delete words without leaving a mess. Obviously this does involve more time, but that isn’t always a bad thing – particularly given the breakneck speed of modern life.

Writing shouldn’t just be about letters either. I find that physically taking notes is the best way of ensuring I actually remember what I’m hearing, particularly if I then type it out again later on. And planning in longhand is the perfect way of collecting your thoughts before drafting a press release or document and avoids starting with the soul destroying white space of an empty Word document.

The scary thing is that we are becoming physically less able and practiced at holding a pen. As a student I wrote for three hours straight in exams, without any ill effects, yet now I struggle to manage more than a single holiday postcard without getting cramp. Children today increasingly don’t need to write, with much of their coursework completed online, so no wonder that they don’t need to own a pen.

What we need is to embrace the best of both worlds – you need the skills to type quickly and organise your thoughts using modern technology, but also to take a step back, breathe and think about what you are trying to say. The pen is perfect for this – we should all remember to uses digits in the offline world, as well as the digital one. So, if you don’t have one, put a pen and notebook on your Christmas list and make a New Year’s Resolution to write more and type less.

This is my last blog of 2015, so thanks to everyone that has read, commented and shared my posts. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

December 16, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Content writing – the key new business skill

Having worked in PR for 20 plus years I’ve seen the power that well-written, relevant and targeted content can deliver for companies. Whether it is a pitch that leads to an article read by the target buyer at a B2B company that causes them to make contact with a client, or a press release that boosts name recognition with a potential investor or acquirer, public relations has always had the ability to deliver the right messages to the right audience at the right time.

Nederlands: Linked In icon

And the advent of blogs and social media has simply increased the importance of good content – helping engage with potential customers and position an organisation as an industry expert even before the target actively starts research. Additionally, with more and more of the buying journey taking place online, the SEO benefits of relevant, topical content cannot be underestimated when customers typically start the research process via Google or industry websites.

All of this is pretty well-known, but what I’ve seen over the last year or so is the use of content to reinforce the personal brand of business people. I don’t necessarily mean CEOs or entrepreneurs, who have always relied on the oxygen of publicity to build their reputations, but middle ranking managers on their way up. Rather than (or perhaps as well as) networking internally and bending the ear of their bosses with their knowledge and industry insight, they are now able to share through Twitter, and most particularly LinkedIn’s inbuilt blogging feature. This provides a platform which hosts individual’s content, as well as sharing it with their network, and further afield via LinkedIn Pulse. I’ve seen myself how incredibly powerful this is in keeping in touch with people you are connected to, and building your brand.

It seems to me that writing content is now one of the key skills that any manager needs, alongside technical knowledge of their particular field, understanding of their role (whether it is sales, administration or marketing, for example), and the basic business/financial nous that means they can read a spreadsheet and grasp the intricacies of a forecast and profit and loss account.

But making it easy to share content doesn’t necessarily make it easy to write good, well-thought out and grammatically correct pieces. The risk is that business people will jump on the content writing bandwagon and actually undermine their professional standing by penning incoherent, rambling or misspelled pieces.

To avoid this, here are six key ways of guarding against looking stupid when writing on LinkedIn. While the success of your content is up to you and your ideas, focusing on these ideas should help you remain professional and demonstrate leadership.

1. Be personal
People don’t want to read a corporate press release that simply been pasted into a LinkedIn blog post. By all means share interesting news from your company as an update on LinkedIn or Twitter, but a blog post should be personal and relate to your experiences and views on a subject. Obviously you need to balance your own thoughts and the views of your employer, but if necessary insert a statement that this a personal blog, not necessarily reflecting the position of the company you work for. However don’t be too personal – sharing too much detail about your home life or what you did at the weekend can alienate contacts, particularly if they only know you in a business environment.

2. Plan, plan, plan
So much content starts well and then rambles off into a dead end or randomly changes direction part way through. Sit down and write a skeleton of what you are going to say, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What points are you going to cover? What is your conclusion? What are the alternatives? I find it helps to do this with pen and paper but the important thing is to start by planning, not start and hope for the best.

Remember that you’re not writing War and Peace but creating something that people can read online in a few minutes. So keep it to a manageable length (800-1000 words), and if necessary split your piece in two to avoid your ideas being lost.

3. Don’t plagiarise
Good content teaches someone something or moves the debate on, and remember that it represents you and your personal brand. Therefore don’t simply rip off other people’s ideas without giving them credit and a link to their work. Share your content with them and they may well share it in turn with their networks, boosting your reach.

4. Proof it
We all think we’re wonderful at spelling, but everyone has weak points, so make sure you spell check everything that you’ve written and I advise printing it out to proof it properly. It is best to write a piece, and then come back and proof it later on, giving you the advantage of fresh eyes. Always pass the article to someone else to review as well – whether they are part of your target audience or not, they can pick up mistakes that you’ve missed or areas where things need to be made clearer.

5. Share it!
Obviously LinkedIn automatically shares content you’ve created with your own network, but that should only be part of your outreach. Use Twitter to spread the word further and post the article on any relevant LinkedIn groups that you are a member of. You can even email it contacts if you think it would be of interest and help deepen engagement – but don’t just blast it out to your entire contact book.

6. And repeat
A single post is unlikely to make you a thought leader so look to create content regularly. It doesn’t matter if it is every week or every month, but set yourself a schedule and try and post at a regular time so that people eventually come to expect (and hopefully look for) your articles. Little and often beats writing a huge first post and then losing interest and going off to do something else.

Content writing is becoming a key business skill – but bear in mind that the world is full of bad or simply unread content. So take the time to think it through first before hitting the keyboard if you want to build your reputation as a thought leader.

November 18, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sport – the dirtiest business of all?

In an age of social media and always-on news, every brand can feel that it is constantly under attack, even if it is for what seems like trivial reasons. Surly barista serve you coffee? Unclean hotel room? Consumers can share their thoughts and views with the world in seconds, and quite often the resulting viral storm will be intense, but fade as quickly as it came into being.

English: panoramic shot of the olympic stadium...

In contrast, the world of sport, or more specifically its administration, is facing an unprecedented attack from both media and the public. FIFA has now been joined in the dock by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with senior figures alleged to have taken bribes to ensure that failed drugs tests never saw the light of day. A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) points the finger at doping on a massive scale by Russian athletes, implicating senior figures in its government, while French prosecutors have arrested Lamine Diack, the ex-head of the IAAF, who is accused of receiving bribes of over €1 million to cover up failed tests. And it isn’t that long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IoC) had to confess that cities had ‘bought’ the right to host the games, while the close links between the then senior leadership at cycling’s governing body the UCI and drug cheat Lance Armstrong have also been highlighted.

On the outside it seems like all these organisations have a culture where too much power and a sense of entitlement mix with control over major decisions that have big political or financial impacts. As the head of UK Athletics pointed out, the leader of the IAAF is referred to as Mr President, inflating the holder’s ego as a matter of course.

Essentially sports administrators are in the spotlight, and need to rebuild their credibility. I’d see five areas to focus on:

1.Look wider for staff
Administrators seem to be either ex-athletes, those that have served their time in country federations or people attracted by the glamour of working for sporting organisations. Often promotion relies on who you know, rather than how good you are at your job. It is time to change this by recruiting capable figures from outside sport to lead administrations. They obviously need to know about the sport they are leading, and have an enthusiasm for it, but they don’t necessarily have to have spent their life in it. By bringing in outside managers, with the right skills (and no links of patronage), it will send a clear message that administrations want to change.

2.End culture of entitlement
The IoC is widely seen to have cleaned up its act, yet its bureaucrats still expect the world to revolve around them. The sell-out London Olympics saw gaps in the venues as “members of the Olympic family” decided not to bother going to certain events, while one of the reasons that Norway pulled out of bidding for the next Winter Olympics were demands for free booze for bureaucrats at the stadium and a cocktail party with the King. No one is against hard-working administrators having access to events as part of their roles, but it should be a privilege, not a right.

3.Transparency
I’ve said it before about voting for the World Cup, but every major decision being taken needs to be transparent and auditable. So no secret ballots – the results of who voted for who should be public at the time and open to the widest possible constituency to avoid any allegations of impropriety. All activities, particularly those involving potentially controversial subjects such as drug testing and financial matters, should be audited independently by consultancies that actually understand them, rather than treating the whole thing as a tick box exercise. The same applies to new hires, who should have to declare any business interests to links to particular countries/teams/companies.

4.Move offices
The IAAF probably has strong tax reasons for being based in Monaco, while FIFA and the UCI (amongst others) have headquarters in neutral, but secretive, Switzerland. At a time when credibility is tenuous, location matters, so associations need to look at moving to more ‘normal’ jurisdictions where they can be subject to proper scrutiny. It should also help with recruiting from a wider talent pool.

5.Be more independent from political control
As the Russian doping scandal (and winning Russian bid for the World Cup) both show, it is easy for administrations to become subject to outside political influences. This is true not just in Russia, but other countries where sport is seen as a tool of soft power, irrespective of the rules. Therefore all local administrations need to be independent of government, without members of ruling families or parties running them to avoid any allegations of bias.

Sport has the ability to bring people around the world together – a fact that administrators and their marketers are always reminding us of. This cuts both ways – not only do fans join together to salute outstanding athletic achievements, but they can equally unite to condemn the administrators that are destroying the sports that they love.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Bond, public relations and the drive for increased surveillance

I read recently that government ministers spend over a quarter of their time on public relations or similar activities. That’s not surprising given they face a combination of an ever more cynical electorate, lobbyists, pressure groups, opposition MPs and, of course, their own backbenchers.

Obviously everyone thinks they have an idea about the bad side of government spin, with its mixture of cunning, bullying and calling in favours (as exemplified by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It). But increasingly PR is necessary to try to educate and convince the press and public about the merits of a decision, in order to gain the support it needs.

The perfect case in point is the current debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill, a draft of which is being published this week. This aims to strengthen the capabilities of the security services to detect and foil crime. However in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the scale of current surveillance technology, and how it is used, there is widespread worry about what new legislation will enable the security services to do.

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

In the balance between privacy and law enforcement, where do you draw the line? For example, the draft bill will compel Internet Service Providers to retain a full record of your online activity for 12 months, in case they are needed for investigations. The vast majority of us would support their use against terrorists, paedophiles and organised crime, but the fact that a record of all of our surfing is stored and can potentially be accessed by law enforcement officers does scare and worry people.

Because of this, there has been an unprecedented campaign to win over the public. The Times was given high level access to Britain’s spy agencies, from GCHQ to MI5 and MI6, for example. This enabled those backing the bill to get their message across that they are foiling plots aimed at the UK on a regular basis and that without changes to the law it is only a matter of time before something slips through the net.

At the same time the anti-campaign has received backing from an unlikely corner – James Bond himself. The latest Bond movie, Spectre, features the normal array of international bad guys plotting to take over the world. But the key twist (spoiler alert) is that they want to do this by gaining access to the surveillance systems of the security services around the world – even to the extent of bankrolling a new UK security service building. Of course, in the end their evil plot is defeated, but the interesting point is that C, the new head of British joint intelligence, is a bad guy, in league with the chief villain himself. Hardly the ringing endorsement of increased surveillance that the public would expect – and perhaps politicians backing the bill were hoping for.

With the bill itself just published, expect the debate to rage on – with public relations a key tactic used by both sides to put their case. Though what the government and security services can do to top James Bond will be an interesting challenge……

November 4, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talk Talk – how to turn a crisis into a PR disaster

Last week’s announcement from Talk Talk that its website had been hacked and customer details (including bank account information) had potentially been stolen has turned into a disaster for the company. The stock price slumped by over 10% and MPs have called for an inquiry into whether the firm’s failure to encrypt data put customer information at risk.TalkTalk

Could things have been handled differently – and would they have changed the reaction of both the public and the media?

Firstly, it is worth re-stating that Talk Talk has been the victim of a crime. Initial fanciful rumours that the perpetrators were Russian Jihadis now look wide of the mark, with the police instead arresting a 15 year old boy from Northern Ireland, but the fact remains that its site was hacked. Additionally some of the press coverage has been incredibly sensationalist, with lurid stories of customers having their bank accounts cleared out by fraudsters, even though they were not necessarily linked to the hack itself.

However there are two questions that any business involved in crisis management needs to answer – did it meet the expected standards before the incident, and did it then deal with the situation in a way that reassured customers and other stakeholders?

I’d say that the response to both of these is a No. For a start, failure to encrypt customer details (at a time when people like Apple encrypt everything) is a glaring security hole that should have been filled. But as a PR person I’d point out five ways they’ve not managed the crisis well:

1          Telling press before customers
The first thing most customers knew about the hack was when they turned on the news or listened to the radio. The reason given by chief executive Dido Harding for making contact through the media, as opposed to directly speaking to customers, was that the sheer number of subscribers made this impossible. Talk Talk should have done both – customers wanted a direct response rather than just hearing about it on Radio 4.

2          Incomplete information
You can’t blame Talk Talk for initially overstating the scale of the attack – it obviously needed to get the announcement of the hack out as quickly as possible, rather than laboriously go through all its account details to see what had been compromised. And the story about the afore-mentioned Russian Jihadis came from other sources. However it didn’t provide a full picture to its customers early enough. I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and left six months ago – yet nowhere on its FAQ did it say anything about whether my details were at risk. Much later on Talk Talk admitted that ex-customer information could also have been hacked, but it demonstrates that the entire response was not well thought through.

3          Failure to stay on top of the story
After its initial apology, the story seemed to be going Talk Talk’s way, with pundits talking about the growing threat of cyber crime, and the company’s clear advice to change passwords being repeated across all media. But then the story changed, with the initial hack being downplayed and the press focusing on the failure to encrypt data. As Jacques de Cock of the London School of Marketing pointed out, it seemed to share its customers’ panic, rather than taking decisive action. The agenda shifted against Talk Talk, positioning it as culpable in its own downfall and not having a handle on what was going on.

4          Poor reputation
As I mentioned, I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and I found it a frustrating and unhelpful organisation to deal with. I kept getting regular sales calls, with agents trying to upsell me from my basic package and when I moved home it made me honour a month’s notice period on my contract – even though it said it couldn’t provide service at my new address. The impression I got was of an organisation that didn’t care about its customers, except for the money it could make from them, and that cut corners where it could to save a pound or two. Indeed I remember hearing Dido Harding on the Media Show on Radio 4, likening the firm to a clapped-out car being driven over the speed limit down the motorway, hanging onto the competition. Very few telecoms firms deliver good customer service, but I’m convinced Talk Talk’s poor reputation meant that commentators and customers automatically assumed the worst had happened.

5          Lack of empathy
Compounding customer annoyance, Talk Talk yesterday said that it would charge a termination fee to any customers looking to leave, unless they could prove that money had been stolen from their accounts due to the hack. Now, Talk Talk is obviously a business, and releasing all its customers from their contractual obligations could cause a huge dent in revenues – particularly given how badly the crisis has been handled. But the way the message has been delivered smacks of weakness and arrogance – it is almost as if it believes that customers would seize any excuse to leave, yet are stupid enough to forget the whole hack happened when it comes to contract renewal time. The company should have worked out some sort of half way house, allowing customers to shorten contracts or pay a reduced termination fee as a goodwill gesture. It may have cost it more in the short term, but would have been a valuable first step in rebuilding the company’s reputation – and any good publicity would be welcome at this stage in the process.

Handling a crisis in today’s real-time world is difficult. The combination of continuous news, social media and a desire for instant scapegoats means it is impossible to control the story in the same way as in the past. However Talk Talk should have done better – and is now facing the prospect of real damage to its reputation and bottom line by failing to take decisive action or appearing to care about its customers. Every company should take note and update crisis management plans so that they don’t fall into the same trap.

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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