As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.
Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:
1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.
2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.
On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?
3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.
4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.
The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.
Sometimes listening to captains of industry being interviewed can be a yawn-inducing experience. They’ve been media-trained to within an inch of their lives and appear to have been sent off with a stern warning that anything they say will immediately impact their stock price/company survival/job prospects. The result? Cagey, bland and message-filled interviews that don’t get across their personality or that of the brand that they represent.
Of course, there are exceptions who engage with the audience while still getting their message across, but for many, fear of failure stops anything interesting being said. As a PR person I find this really frustrating, as it is a missed opportunity to communicate.
Therefore it is always entertaining to hear from those CEOs who have built a brand on not giving a damn on what they say and seem to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise interviewers. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair immediately comes to mind, but he seems to have mellowed – O’Leary has even said that “If I’d only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago.”
Another case entirely is Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who has combined an appetite for controversy with not caring about speaking to the media. Given his reputation for frank speaking I can see why his PR handlers have kept him out of the limelight, so like many I was expecting fireworks when he appeared in front of House of Commons Select Committee to discuss working conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse. However, I was surprised at what I heard. Rather than bluster and defensiveness he admitted past mistakes, such as not paying the minimum wage, and said that the company’s size meant that it had probably outgrown his ability to run it. And all this after previously stating that he wouldn’t appear at the session and that if they wanted to speak to him, he’d send his helicopter to ferry MPs to his company HQ for an interview.
So what caused this road to Damascus moment? I think partly it was the realisation that, like O’Leary, being hated by your customers and the public isn’t a long term business strategy. Competition is fierce in the retail market, and while many shoppers may not care about the working conditions behind their cheap trainers, others do. There is such a thing as bad publicity – stories about a female member of staff giving birth in the Shirebrook toilets as she didn’t want to call in sick and risk her job is bound to resonate widely with many people. By admitting errors and saying that the company was going to change he’s now one step ahead of his critics, though the focus will be on him to deliver on his promises.
Another reason was that his actions give him the chance to occupy the retail moral high ground, given the ongoing investigation into the collapse of BHS, which has also seen leading figures in front of parliamentary committees this week. Former boss Dominic Chappell (who bought the business for a pound from Sir Philip Green), was accused of “having his fingers in the till” by one of his associates, described as a “Premier League liar” and of threatening to kill the chief executive after he challenged him on his behaviour. In turn Chappell’s testimony tried to shift the blame to Green, who he claimed had bankrolled his purchase (with more than a pound), and was behind the decision to put the chain into administration. Green will now get the chance to defend himself in front of the committee, so expect more mudslinging. Given his contrition it all makes Ashley look like a paragon of virtue – something that may help fulfil his desire to buy BHS in some form.
For anyone talking to the media, they should keep these examples front of mind. Develop your own style, tailor it to the audience in order to engage with them, and take the time to go beyond the pre-written message if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Mike Ashley or just talking to your trade press, invest time in the interview and you (and your company) will reap the benefits going forward.
Sponsoring a successful sportsperson or team should be a no-brainer for brands. Provided they pick one that appeals to their key demographic, they can benefit from their success, use them as a spokesperson, boost their brand and generally engage more deeply with potential and actual customers.
However, if this is true why are many of the biggest companies in the world conspicuous by their absence from sports sponsorship? I may have missed it, but I don’t see the logos of Google, Apple or Facebook on footballer’s shirts, F1 cars or advertising hoardings in athletics stadiums. They simply don’t see it as a good use of their marketing budgets it seems.
Looking deeper, this is part of a retrenchment over the past few years, with commercial sponsors replaced by trade suppliers in many sports. In Formula One, the biggest sponsor of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes is, err, Mercedes, while Red Bull is a hybrid owner/sponsor. In cycling a large number of teams are sponsored by bike manufacturers and equipment suppliers and in athletics the likes of Nike and Adidas have a huge profile. In football seven of the 20 Premiership teams were sponsored by online bookmakers over the 2015/6 season, and a further two (including champions Leicester) by their owner’s companies.
So, why are consumer brands less visible when it comes to sports sponsorship – and what can clubs, teams and sportspeople do about it? I think it boils down to four factors:
1. The threat of scandal
There’s always been a chance that your brand’s chosen ambassador will go off the rails and get you publicity for the wrong reasons. But in an age of constant scrutiny the slightest indiscretion is now plastered over the front pages before your brand has the chance to react – look at Tiger Woods as a good example. As testing technology improves, more and more drugs cheats are being caught, even if, as in the case of Lance Armstrong, it is years after their offences actually took place. And that’s before you start on the impact of corruption within governing bodies on public and business perceptions of a sport. Many brands simply don’t want to take the risk of involving themselves in a crisis down the line.
2. Value for money
Sports sponsorship obviously covers a huge range of budgets and opportunities, but generally is becoming more expensive. Global competitions, such as the Premiership and F1 have a worldwide reach, meaning that only the largest brands have the budgets to spend on sponsorship. And to get any value from your sponsorship you need to make sure people know about it, using other marketing activities to make sure that your target audience feels involved and included, and that you maximise the impact through advertising, corporate hospitality and other add-ons.
We’re coming up to Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics, meaning sports fans will see a procession of sponsor logos over the next couple of months. By the end of it all, will people really remember who sponsored what? Was it Nike or Adidas that provided the match balls for Euro 2016, or had pride of place on the stadium hoardings? I’m sure, if asked, many fans would claim to have seen adverts for brands that weren’t even there, such is the level of advertising saturation we are subjected to thanks to wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage. Demonstrating this, over half of the brands that consumers associated with Euro 2016 in a poll were not even sponsors of the tournament.
4. Other opportunities
Put simply, brands have a growing number of places where they can spend their marketing budgets. From online advertising to supporting good causes, they are all opportunities to boost a brand and engage with audiences. In many cases these channels weren’t there 10 years ago – and equally some sports have been hit by what you can and can’t advertise. One of the reasons for the growth of F1 for example was the enormous sponsorship from tobacco companies – they had nowhere else they could advertise in most countries, so could focus their budgets on one sport. F1 is in many ways still coping with the hangover, with high costs and a cultural desire to outspend rivals – but not the budgets to support it.
Digital channels in particular make it much easier to measure the results of marketing in terms of click throughs, visits and sales, whereas measuring the impact of sports sponsorship can be more difficult.
So, is sports sponsorship doomed? Not completely, not while we are still able to be moved by amazing feats of sporting prowess on the field or track. However, brands need to be more careful on what they spend their money on, and activate sponsorship more cleverly if they are to stand out from the crowd. And teams, players and governing bodies need to focus on getting their own houses in order, removing cheats and corruption and remember that the reason that brands sponsor them is to reach the fans – put them first and you’ll build loyalty that will deliver return on marketing investment, whatever sport you are in.
It began as a bright idea to interest the general public in polar research and swiftly became an internet phenomenon. The little-known National Environment Research Council (NERC) wanted to come up with a fitting name for its advanced new polar exploration vessel, and so decided to hold an open competition for the public to provide suggestions and then to vote on which they thought would be most suitable.
All was going well, with a selection of worthy names in the running, until BBC radio presenter James Hand came up with Boaty McBoatface. Interest (and votes) skyrocketed, with other new suggestions including RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie, RRS Capt’n Birdseye Get Off My Cod and the apt RRS It’s bloody cold here. In all 7,000 names were provided by the public, though Boaty McBoatface was the clear winner with just over 124,000 votes cast for it. Through Twitter alone, the research council reached 214m people after the BoatyMcBoatface hashtag went viral.
This left the NERC with a bit of a problem, as Boaty McBoatface wasn’t quite what they were thinking of when they started the process. Instead, they’ve chosen the fourth place name, RRS David Attenborough – although one of the boat’s submersibles has been given the Boaty McBoatface moniker (surely it should be Subby McSubface?). The head of the NERC was even called before a Commons Select Committee to discuss whether the PR campaign was a success or failure – which either shows how little MPs know about PR or was simply an excuse for them to make boat-based puns.
So what can businesses learn from the PR campaign? I think there are four things:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously
It would have been really simple for the NERC to close the poll or simply vet suggested names to ensure that they were ‘sensible’. But it didn’t – it rode the wave of good PR and used it to draw attention to what it does. Even the most casual observer now knows that the NERC does something with polar science.
2. Have a Plan B
The NERC made very clear from the start that the winner of the online poll wouldn’t necessarily be chosen as the name of the ship, and that public suggestions were merely ideas that would be considered. That meant that when it didn’t chose Boaty McBoatface the backlash was minimised – even more so when one of its robot submersibles was given the name. Expect him/her/it to get their own Twitter account as soon as they are launched.
3. Link to the rest of the news agenda
In many ways NERC was lucky, as the poll closed at pretty much the same time as the nation celebrated David Attenborough’s 90th birthday. This gave it a ready-made name that summed up exactly the right image of science, exploration and explanation that they were looking for. Holding the competition first, rather than simply naming the ship after Attenborough made all the difference to coverage of the announcement – it moved from a news in brief to the front pages of the press and onto the national news.
4. Make it work going forward
This is where NERC has to capitalise on the interest and goodwill of the British public and keep them involved once the ship is launched and dispatched to the polar regions. It needs to engage through social media, popularising what the vessel is doing and the benefits it brings in a straightforward and approachable way. That will not only help its work in particular, but will hopefully spark wider interest in science generally, guaranteeing its future importance (and funding).
So, before embarking on a campaign that may take off make sure you have a plan B, set clear rules of engagement but be prepared to go with the flow, and keep momentum going beyond the end of the programme. That’s the overall lesson for all communicators, whatever sector they are in or product they are publicising.
Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.
The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.
In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.
In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.
As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:
1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.
The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.
So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.
2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.
3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.
4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.
If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.
Obesity is an enormous problem in the UK, especially amongst the young. One in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. It has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of the obese themselves, and treating it costs services such as the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion every year.
So the Chancellor’s unexpected announcement of a sugar tax on soft drinks from 2018 in the recent budget makes financial and social success. If you can reduce the consumption of sugar in soft drinks, it will help reduce the impact (and cost) of obesity by lowering sales. A 10% tax levied in Mexico worked, bringing down the amount of soft drinks drunk by 6%. In the UK proceeds from the tax are ringfenced, and will be spent on primary school sports, meaning the government can’t be accused of simply making this a revenue generating exercise. Campaigners, such as Jamie Oliver, are delighted – while soft drink makers such as Coke are threatening to sue the government.
No-one would deny that we are facing an obesity epidemic – simply look around at the number of people (adults and children) you see that are overweight. And few would argue that it is a good thing for either their own health or the country as a whole. Where the arguments start is the relative roles of government and individual in dealing with the problem. How do you balance free choice for people to do something that is perfectly legal (buy fizzy, sugary drinks), against the harm it is doing to themselves and the cost to the NHS? Most people accept that in some cases, such as tobacco, high taxes are justified by the damage that cigarette smoking does, and the addictive qualities of nicotine. Other examples, such as tax on alcohol and petrol are less clear cut. Living in the countryside, with a skeleton bus service, I need to drive to most places, so does that make fuel taxes unfair in my case?
Where you draw the line is the issue. The government would argue that in the case of obesity, particularly among children, the damage is too great and that previous attempts to educate the public about the dangers of sugar have not worked. Critics see the tax as interference in their lives, even if what they are doing is harming them in the long term.
As a parent, I think there is another dimension to this – it may sound old-fashioned, but we’ve got a duty to educate our children about the dangers of over-consumption of anything (whether sugar, chocolate, alcohol or food generally), the need for exercise and to set a good example. By that I don’t mean turning into marathon running vegans who exist on a lettuce leaf a day, but showing that you need to balance what you eat and drink, while getting out and taking exercise when you can.
I expect the PR battle around the sugar tax to rage for a long time, with both sides advancing their arguments to the electorate. It promises to be a fascinating contest – on one side you have Jamie Oliver and those that believe people, especially children, need to be saved from themselves, while on the other the massed ranks of the soft drinks lobby will try and paint the tax as something that won’t have an impact and will limit people’s freedom to consume what they want. The fight has already started – whether Coke or the Naked Chef wins is going to be central to where the line between free choice and government intervention is redrawn.
Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.
So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.
However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:
1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.
2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.
As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:
- Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
- Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
- At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.
What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.
The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.