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.
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.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the coalition government pause on NHS reforms, make policy changes on vital issues and launch poorly thought out stunts like Start up Britain. I thought we were meant to have a coalition government made up of professional communicators? It amazes me David Cameron and Nick Clegg, trained public relations people, haven’t seen the PR downside of some of their initiatives – or been able to communicate better on key issues like NHS reforms. Remember Nick Clegg, PR Week’s 2010 Communicator of the Year? It seems like a long time ago now.
Amusing though it would be I don’t want to take cheap shots at Cameron and Clegg – blogs are meant to be short and focused after all. But why has it gone so wrong on the communication front? Three things stand out for me:
1) Confusion between the message and the messenger
In the PR business the aim is for the messenger to be just a conduit to get the story to key audiences. Yes, you should have a presence but if people are focused on your personality and what tie you are wearing rather than what you are saying things get very confused. As PR people Cameron and Clegg should know this, but the pressure of trying to be message and messenger has simply overwhelmed them. The long drawn out departure of comms chief Andy Coulson hasn’t helped, removing expertise and an alternative spokesperson from the scene.
2) Short term thinking
Again, communicators preach the need for a long term strategy and that results don’t come quickly. But politics is different, hence knee jerk initiatives like Start Up Britain designed to create an immediate buzz. There seems to be no risk assessment of the potential pitfalls, just a rush to get things out the door and onto the next project.
3) No real mandate
The coalition government was obviously formed as no one party had a clear majority. And this lack of a real mandate means that the public, and in particular the press, is suspicious and analyses every policy announcement in minute detail. So flaws that may have been previously glossed over are now front page news – whether in the papers or on social media.
So what does the coalition need to do to turn around its communications? It isn’t a job I’d want, but to borrow a political slogan it needs to get back to basics. Ditch the gimmicks, take a longer term view and spend time explaining what they stand for and how it relates to the man in the street. That would really earn Clegg his PR Week Communicator of the Year Award…………..
- Im not a punchbag I have feelings (newstatesman.com)
- Government to ‘pause, listen, reflect and improve’ NHS reform plans (guardian.co.uk)
- Nick Clegg’s social mobility plans should not be lost amid mockery | Julian Glover (guardian.co.uk)