Revolutionary Measures

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

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December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luther and Leave – the communication comparisons

As someone who studied history I have a tendency to take a long view of events, comparing and contrasting different eras. And, given this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is worth looking at any lessons that can be learnt by communicators from Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and the widespread rise of anti-establishment movements around the world.Martin_Luther,_1529

First, the political and economic context. Europe in 1517 was made up of multiple, often warring, countries, with power normally focused on a single monarch. Communication was vital to control – you had to know what was going on around your kingdom to ensure order, and larger countries relied on local lords for their support. Most people had a hard life, focused on the land and governed by harvests and the weather. There was one supranational authority, the Catholic Church, which claimed loyalty from all monarchs and their subjects. The rules it set helped ensure its power, pre-eminence and wealth, and Luther’s rebellion was very much against the more worldly behaviour of priests and religious bodies.

Probably 100 years before, Luther’s theses would not have got very far beyond the town he wrote them in. He’d have been arrested by the church, charged, executed and probably forgotten. But the invention of the printing press changed all that, allowing fast communication of his thoughts across Europe, where they could be picked up and turned into a mass movement.

Comparing then and now
Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments. There is a European supranational authority, the European Union, but only its most avid detractors would claim it had the same power over life, death and potential entry into Heaven as the Catholic Church. Instead of the printing press, we have the internet, and particularly social media, which is much more difficult to control, even by the networks themselves.

So, there are a lot of parallels between then and now – an angry population that feels hard done by attacks the establishment, whipped up by charismatic leaders. Both rely on the latest communications technology to sidestep official controls, spreading their message across long distances.

However, what I think is different is that Luther had a positive message that he firmly believed in – he’d been a monk, seen the church from the inside and created an alternative vision based on that. In the same way, Marx and Engels spent years studying the working conditions of the poor before drafting the Communist Manifesto. In contrast today’s populist leaders don’t seem to have a strategy beyond bringing down the old order, with policies that either pander to their followers or offer alternatives that are impossible (Vote Leave and the NHS will get an extra £350m per week) or will cause more harm than good to those that vote for them.

The lessons for communicators from both these examples are clear – if you want your message to resonate you need to have a strong presence on the latest communication channels, whether the printing press or Facebook, and more importantly you need to ensure you are seen as being in-touch with the cares and concerns of those who feel they are not being listened to. After all, the Reformation triggered bloody and sustained wars, the Inquisition and a hardening of positions that is still in evidence today in some countries. Politicians need to take that lesson on board and communicate effectively to woo the disaffected back into the mainstream if they want to remain relevant in today’s society.

December 6, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why good leadership now starts with communication

Throughout history leadership has involved a mixture of power, cunning, communications skills and often a dash of luck. And politically, as humanity has progressed, communication has generally come to outweigh brute force as way of gaining and retaining power – in democracies at least. The aim of politicians has become to influence people, through whatever means and media.icon-1623888_1920 (1)

Every political leader, from Churchill to Trump has their own communication style, but it would be wrong to think that it is just politicians who need to be able to communicate. Everyone in business, particularly CEOs, has to be able to get their message across – and those that succeed in doing so tend to be the ones that move up the ranks and get their pick of top positions.

So how can leaders turn themselves into communicators? While it isn’t an exact science these six areas are a good place to start:

1.Be open and honest
Nothing puts an audience off more than someone who is obviously trying to hide something. So be honest if you or your company has screwed something up – don’t hide behind a ‘no comment’ or a statement, or wait too long to go public. Get the facts out, explain what happened, show genuine contrition and demonstrate why it won’t happen again. At the same time analyse the situation and if there are mitigating circumstances or you believe that you aren’t at fault, explain your position. Don’t feel that you have to apologise for things outside your control – otherwise you’ll potentially be seen as weak and not in control of the situation.

2. Adjust your message
Different audiences have different needs. Talking to national press clearly requires you to use different language than if you are speaking to a trade journal or local paper. Understand your audience (and in the case of the media, the audience they enable you to reach), and tailor what you say. Avoid jargon and stock phrases and build empathy and understanding.

3. Listen first, then respond
I find it incredibly frustrating when listening to the radio to hear the same clichés coming from the mouths of business leaders. Often it feels that they’ve simply memorised a script and are then bulldozing through it, irrespective of the interviewer’s questions. While you should have key messages you want to get across, listen to what you are being asked and respond genuinely, especially if it means putting your script to one side. Remember – people respond to people, not someone reading off an autocue.

4. Create your own style, but learn from others
When it comes to communication people regularly focus on the likes of Churchill, Martin Luther King and JFK as examples to follow. However, slavishly copying how other leaders communicate will lead to you sounding fake, and could hold back getting your message across successfully. So, while you should make a point of studying the style of communicators that you admire, work out what it is that you can apply to your own personality, rather than turning into a clone. And don’t just focus on the famous – look further afield to colleagues or people you’ve met when it comes to communication style and tips.

5. Don’t be afraid to seek help
Not everyone is a natural communicator – and while many people may be good in certain situations (such as addressing a board meeting), they struggle in other scenarios. Like most skills, communications can be learnt, so invest the time in getting training and advice so that you can fill any gaps in your armoury. The first step is recognising the need, and then you can take action.

6. Embrace new channels
Communication is changing – and with more and more people being influenced by social media, ensure that you are equally at home on Twitter and Facebook as in formal speeches or journalist interviews. You only have to look at the success of Donald Trump to see the power that social media wields – make sure you take the time to embrace new channels that help you reach your audiences.

As a marketer I may be biased, but I believe clear communications is ever more important to being a successful leader. So invest the time and effort to continually improve your skills if you want a successful, long term career, whatever sort of organisation that you lead.

November 8, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Social media, news and (mis)information

How people get their news – and how reliable it is – has been a hot topic since before the US election. And this week the debate intensified, particularly around the role of social media in acting as a gatekeeper between their users and news sources.

Firstly, Facebook began an experiment in six countries where it has removed unpaid news posts from the main feed and put them in another tab. This has decimated traffic to news websites, with one journalist claiming that it reduced click throughs by 75%. Facebook says that there are currently no plans to extend the trial, but given the amount of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) that the social media giant provides to newspapers, they are increasingly concerned about the impact on their business models.

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Secondly, investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the US election continue, with Google, Twitter and Facebook all being questioned at hearings later this week. Ahead of this Facebook announced that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian trolls, while Google has found 18 YouTube channels used to spread disinformation and Twitter has highlighted 2,700 accounts with dubious Russian links.

Both of these stories demonstrate the growing power of social media and the issues that this brings to the press, democracy and individuals. Essentially it boils down to three areas:

1.The dangers of other people’s platforms
Unlike the telephone or post, social media platforms are not intrinsically open and don’t have a public service element. Therefore, Facebook is perfectly within its legal rights to change how it displays third party information, such as news, or even if it displays it at all. Therefore while media companies have become increasingly reliant on Facebook, it isn’t a balanced (or even contractual) relationship. This shows the danger of building a business on someone else’s platform – it is essentially the online equivalent of running a company from premises where you haven’t signed a lease. You can be thrown out at any time, without redress.

2.Black box algorithms
Serving up relevant content that will appeal to users is what Facebook and Google is all about. But how they do this is increasingly complex, involving the analysis of huge amounts of data with proprietary algorithms that are central to their business. As the events of the US election show, it is possible to manipulate or trick these to deliver particular content to targeted users, not just through ads, but in other ways. This obviously goes beyond the normal social media echo chambers that we all tend to sit in, by providing fake content that is likely to appeal to our own positions and biases. Expect the US congressional hearings to call for greater clarity and oversight of the algorithms behind social media platforms, rather than the current black box system. That brings its own issues – it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were complaining about alleged pro-Democrat bias on Facebook.

3. Follow the money
In many ways the news industry has never been healthier – given the current state of turmoil in the world, more people want to know what’s going on. However, while that is good news for individual journalists, it isn’t necessarily good for media businesses as they increasingly give away their content for free and rely on online advertising that brings in much less per impression than traditional print ads. Therefore, cutting traffic to their sites as Facebook’s experiment seems to do removes one of their sources of income, just when they need it most. While the likes of Google have invested in projects to help the media, particularly local newspapers, it doesn’t fill the funding gap that they currently face.

It is difficult to see how both newspapers and social media can move forward and tackle these challenges. Government regulation would be seen as heavy-handed and potentially lead to accusations of bias on the choice and positioning of news, while the social media giants are unlikely to make public the algorithms that their businesses are built on. However, for the wider good in terms of informing the public, something needs to be done.

November 1, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

3 lessons for PR from the Bell Pottinger case

PR is again in the news for the wrong reasons, with agency Bell Pottinger in the public eye after running campaigns in South Africa that have stoked racial tension. There’s been plenty of analysis of the case itself, but in this blog I wanted to cover three wider issues it highlights:Bell Pottinger

1. A precarious business model
Essentially a PR agency has three assets – its people, its clients and its reputation. And all of these are very fragile. Except in the case of the most senior staff, employees will be on a maximum of three months notice, while clients are likely to be on a similar notice period. So you can lose your clients and staff extremely quickly, as Bell Pottinger has found with the likes of HSBC, Investec and Richemont leaving since the scandal has emerged. All that PR agencies have is their reputation – with the industry, with staff and with the media. Compromise that and you remove the foundation from the entire business, which is why Bell Pottinger has now had to put itself up for sale. I’d imagine that any buyer will either subsume the bits they want into a larger agency or rebrand quickly to salvage what they can from the wreckage.

2. Never become the story
As the likes of Sean Spicer have found out to their cost, it never pays to become the story yourself. PR people are there to communicate other people’s messages in a way that meets the needs of the audience and the client. It isn’t always easy to do, but you should never be higher profile than the organisation you are working for. In the whole Bell Pottinger case the work of the agency has actually deflected attention from the client itself – a company controlled by the South African Gupta family, and the fact that it signed off on the programme.

3. Be a consultant, not a yes man/woman
Someone within Bell Pottinger signed off on the campaign, despite the fact that using racially charged slogans and hashtags was obviously highly likely to cause offence. The concern is that to keep a lucrative, politically well-connected client, Bell Pottinger in South Africa turned a blind eye to the messages and tactics that were being used. That’s not being a responsible consultant – the whole point of using a PR agency is that they follow particular standards and should have the ability to say no if they disagree with a course of action. Bell Pottinger is not the first (or indeed the last) agency to involve themselves in dubious activities in support of potentially dubious aims, but the high profile nature of their work means they should have better understood the consequences of their actions.

Bell Pottinger employs 250 people, spread around the world and the vast majority have had nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in South Africa. I feel very sorry for them as their personal reputation has been damaged, and many may well lose their jobs if the company is taken over by a rival. But the whole case illustrates the fact that PR agencies need to think carefully about the wider consequences of their work if they want to preserve their reputations, and therefore their survival.

 

September 6, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If a tree falls on Twitter……

The launch of CNN, back in 1980, ushered in the era of the 24 hour rolling news cycle. No longer did people have to wait for their morning papers or the 10pm TV news to find out what was happening in the world. And this had an impact on the news itself – rather than having to schedule events and press conferences to fit around journalists’ schedules, organisations could be confident that reporters would be available (and coverage would result) pretty much throughout the day. On the flipside unscrupulous PRs couldn’t try and sneak out bad news, knowing that it was just too late for print deadlines and would be out of date 24 hours later.

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The internet obviously accelerated the news cycle, making it even faster and more constant. You didn’t need to be watching CNN or other 24 hours news channels to see the latest stories, opening up access to everyone with a smartphone. It also allowed a wider range of media to reach people – you didn’t need to be a TV station or a major newspaper to break a story, you could be a citizen journalist or simply someone who was in the same place as a breaking news story. Essentially this democratised the reporting process. It became difficult for governments and corporations to spike negative stories as, hydra-headed, they simply popped up elsewhere.

We’re now in the midst of the next news cycle, focused on social media. As soon as something happens it is pored over on Twitter and Facebook, with both the public and experts giving their views. If previous news cycles were one reporter/media outlet to many readers or viewers this is essentially any to any – going beyond democracy to the text book definition of anarchy (‘without a ruler’).

In many ways this is a good thing, as it opens up the debate to multiple voices, many of whom have traditionally not been heard. But it drives three big issues that I believe threaten the integrity of how we get the information that shapes our world view and actions:

1. Who do you trust?
Major news organisations have a brand that their readers/viewers trust. They know what to expect when reading a story on The Sun compared to the Daily Mirror or the New York Times compared to Fox News. However, in the anarchic world of social media anyone can post ‘news’ or comments that are inaccurate or knowingly untrue. This fake news can be mischievous, misleading or designed to push a specific agenda, and is very hard to stamp out in the instant world of the internet. And the rise of fake news risks people tarring every news organisation with the same brush – we’ve all seen politicians describing as ‘fake’ stories that they simply disagree with.

2. Who shouts loudest, gets heard
Whether it is the distance that social media provides, polarisation of views or simply that the world is getting nastier, the amount of abuse and trolling on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook seems to be ever-increasing. Just this week Viscount St. Davids was found guilty of making menacing communications against Gina Miller, who led a legal challenge that forced the government to consult Parliament on Brexit. Amongst other abuse he offered £5,000 in a Facebook post to anyone that would run over Ms Miller. Parliament itself is holding a debate on the abuse suffered by MPs and candidates of both parties in the recent election campaign.

What seems to typify all of these communications is that people appear happy to say things online that they wouldn’t to someone’s face, and that very often it involves men abusing women, often in sexual terms, for daring to disagree with their views. The sheer weight of such trolling stifles honest debate and ultimately puts people off sharing their thoughts and opinions, or even self-censoring what they write.

3. Knee jerk reactions lead to instant actions
When stories break the true facts are often unclear. Whereas traditional news organisations would then take the time to research events and wouldn’t jump to conclusions the opposite is true on social media. People make immediate judgements and share them with the world, and the sheer force of tweets and messages can then shape the news agenda. A case in point is the recent disqualification of cyclist Peter Sagan from the Tour de France, for his involvement in a crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the race. The race jury first gave him a lesser punishment, but then seemed to be swayed by the force of anti-Sagan anger on social media, changing their minds and throwing him out of the race. Taking time to study events in more detail would have led to a less knee jerk reaction, but it often feels that people believe they have to react instantly, without the full facts, leading to decisions that don’t necessarily stand up to future scrutiny.

The social media news cycle has undoubtedly delivered major benefits – it helped drive the Arab Spring for example. But its sheer anarchy means that everyone, from politicians and PRs to the general public, needs to think before they tweet if we are to have a fair, honest and unbiased discussion of news on social media.

Photo: By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why technology companies have to play by different rules now

In the 1970s and 1980s the business world was dominated by big oil companies, with energy giants becoming the largest corporations in terms of market capitalisation. These were followed by banks and financial services in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of this has changed – the world’s five largest public companies are now Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, with upstarts such as Uber leading the way when it comes to unlisted businesses.

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As they’ve grown these tech giants have expanded dramatically in what they do and the range of services they offer, demonstrated recently by Amazon buying offline upmarket grocery retailer Whole Foods. Essentially they’ve gone from being niche players, albeit in particular sectors such as search or retailing, to offering a panoply of interconnected services that constantly affect our daily lives – and in many markets they are essentially a monopoly, due to the power of network effects.

Much of what they do is invisible to the consumers that use their services – for example the majority of people don’t question why they are served particular search results, ads or news on Google or Facebook. Hence this week’s record $2.7bn fine imposed by the EU on Google for promoting its shopping comparison service to the top of search results.

Is fast too fast?
They’ve also often operated independently of existing rules, working to the Silicon Valley mantra “move fast and break things”. This has driven a huge amount of innovation, but has also led to behaviour that many find either reprehensible or even illegal. In 2014 Facebook’s UK operation paid considerably less corporation tax than my two person PR consultancy, for example.

Uber is a perfect case in point, with many countries banning its operations as its drivers don’t meet local taxi licensing regulations, set up to protect the public. Add in ongoing scandals around sexual harassment that have led to the departure of CEO Travis Kalanick and the overriding impression is of a company culture that focused on aggressive expansion at the expense of its people or the wider world. And Uber isn’t alone – the low number of Silicon Valley founders and VCs that are female or from ethnic minorities has raised eyebrows about the ethos behind the world’s largest tech firms.

Why does this matter now? Simply that the power of tech firms has increased dramatically at the same time as the complexity of their operations has deepened. At the same time, many people around the world feel left behind by the pace of technology and digital disruption, whether it is in the work or home lives, leading to a potential polarisation between the tech savvy and the tech illiterate. These worries haven’t driven people to populist politicians like Donald Trump on their own, but have added to a mood of not being in control amongst many citizens around the world.

Reading the papers, the number of bad things happening on the internet, from simple fraud to terrorist plotting, seems to be increasing exponentially, although whether this is true or is just the result of better reporting is a matter for debate. Whatever the cause it has led to calls for greater regulation and control by national governments over cyberspace.

Altogether this means that tech companies are facing an existential threat. While they are delivering record profits and driving ever-greater innovation they are now central to everyone’s lives and are therefore under ever increasing scrutiny, from governments and the public. Hence the call from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn for the tech community to sign a Decency Pledge, looking to stamp out sexist behaviour and sexual harassment, particularly amongst venture capitalists in relation to the founders of businesses that they fund. It is a start, but I think any Decency Pledge needs to go a lot further and cover all behaviour, and how it is communicated. Tech giants can’t hide behind complexity any more – they need to communicate openly and operate transparently if they want to win back public trust. Time for the old Google motto “Do no evil” to be resurrected…………

 

June 28, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why PR needs to turn around its reputation

13911715043_e32a972f78_zPublic relations has never had a higher profile, but not necessarily for positive reasons. Whether seen as aiming to control the image of celebrities, trying to keep corporate misdeeds out of the press or using political spin to get a particular message across, I’d say that public perception of the industry is actually worsening.

Given that PR people have always been focused on controlling the message why is the profession’s reputation deteriorating? I think there are three key reasons:

1. Chaos is growing
As I say PR is about portraying your company/client/celebrity in a positive light. The problem is that this revolves around people – and people are inherently random and chaotic. So PRs have to constantly balance on a tightrope, trying to plan and control the message in a world where things fall apart. The advent of social media has simply increased this chaos – it is easy for anyone to start a rumour or undermine your story through Twitter and Facebook. Witness the fact that just this week a fake Daily Mail front cover calling for Theresa May to resign went viral on social media, despite the fact that it was an obvious forgery shared by a Twitter user called Lying Tory Media.

PR people feel that they have to be constantly on their guard. And this naturally means that they focus on control and defence rather than positive engagement. After all, it is technically safer to turn down an interview opportunity, even with a high profile media outlet, if there is any risk of it going wrong. This isn’t a long-term strategy, but the speed of the communications landscape can mean people don’t have the time to think long-term.

2. Trust is diminishing
We’ve all seen the figures that show that people trust the organisations around them – be they politicians, the media, companies or other authority figures less and less. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which came out in January 2017, found that government was the least trusted institution in 14 countries, and CEO credibility had dropped to an all-time low of 37 percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if trust has fallen even further since then.

There is a widespread belief amongst many groups that the system has failed people and that the sheer pace of technological and social change is not benefiting everyone equally. This lack of trust means that PR people have to go the extra mile in order to build credibility with ever-more sceptical audiences. And again, it is easier to plan to be defensive – why risk Theresa May meeting real people on her election campaign when you can organise a backdrop of supporters to get your message across?

3. We’re becoming more tribal
I’ve mentioned this before, but populations are polarising into self-contained segments. If you live in a community that is made up of people like you, interact online with the same group and don’t talk to those with different views it is easy to build up a biased world view. Throughout history leaders have focused their tribes or countries by uniting them against an Other, whether that is a rival monarch, country or religion. A similar thing is happening now online, but generally without clear leaders, Donald Trump being an obvious exception.

PR people, particularly on the political side, are becoming focused on appealing to their segment – essentially they feel they don’t need to worry about the Other. Whatever they do opponents will criticise them, so why bother with trying to reach out to them? This does put some PRs on a slippery slope towards propaganda and fake news. No wonder that 73% of public relations professionals polled in a recent survey said that the current White House communications team is negatively impacting the industry’s public perception. But even here tribal loyalties seem to be in play – 15.1% of the sample identified themselves as conservatives, and a similar percentage (15.7%) said the White House comms team “is treated unfairly by the media”.

Public relations finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand the communications, writing and content distribution skills it is centred on have never been more important to business. Yet, the risk is that the sheer pace of change means they retreat into a defensive, safe mode that undermines their credibility. For everyone’s sake, now is the time for PR people to become more strategic, counselling clients to see the bigger picture in order to rebuild trust and unite their audiences for the greater good.

Image Jeff Eaton via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/nckbcV licensed under Creative Commons

June 21, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fake news – are we on the road to 1984?

For a term that most people hadn’t heard of 18 months ago, fake news is now mainstream. A simple Google search on the term turns up 145,000,000 results, 28,900,000 in the news section. Originally coined to cover clickbait stories written with the intent to mislead for political or financial gain, it has now been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump, one of its key beneficiaries, to describe any story that he disagrees with.

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Misleading the public has always been a tactic used by leaders, with propaganda used to push a particular point of view, especially in times of war. Additionally, many newspapers have run sensational stories to attract readers – witness the New York Sun publishing stories about life on the moon in 1835.

George Orwell’s 1984 shows how the combination of propaganda and mass-media communications can be used to control the population and condition what they actually think and believe. And for those that dismiss that as a fantasy, I’d say that fake news in the digital age actually goes even further, for three reasons:

1. We live in an ungated world
In the past people got their news from a limited range of sources such as newspapers, TV and radio. All of these employed professional journalists to sift and check facts before they reached their audiences. This meant that while they may have been biased to left or right, or even stretch the truth, they had to meet journalistic standards. Now, in the digital world anyone can be a publisher, without needing any training – opinions and stories go direct to the public, particularly through social media, without any guarantee of quality. At the same time trust in traditional institutions (politicians, journalists and companies) has broken down, meaning people are actively looking at other sources for their information.

2. We live in a polarised world
Social media encourages people to cluster with those of similar beliefs, limiting our world view and therefore reinforcing it. During the European Referendum, for example, liberal Remainers just saw tweets supporting their stance on Twitter, leading to a sense of real shock when the result went the other way. When we’re in our bubbles on social media we’re more likely to click on, forward or believe in fake news if it plays to our particular beliefs – especially if it appears to be endorsed by someone we trust.

3. We live in a world with short attention spans
How many times have you seen a headline, read it but not bothered to click through for the full story? In my case pretty often. There simply doesn’t seem time to read news stories in-depth or in-detail. At the same time attention spans are shortening and people quickly move onto the next thing, meaning it is easy to confuse fake and real news.

So what can be done to fight fake news? It is easy to blame Facebook and its algorithms, shadowy websites that make money through adverts that run alongside fake stories or even politicians such as Donald Trump who know exactly the lies that they are peddling. However, I think responsibility goes further than this:

  • PR people and the companies they represent have to think through the stories that they issue – putting a positive spin on something is one thing, but be sure that you’re not crossing the line into untruths.
  • Politicians need to be more careful in what they say – perhaps backed up by an independent regulator that immediately investigates and pronounces on dubious statistics, such as the alleged £350m per week paid to the EU that was splashed on Vote Leave buses during the referendum.
  • As consumers we need to learn that not everything you read online is true, and that we are not in a cosy world where every story is meticulously fact-checked. We need to look for sources, think before we share and broaden our world views to try and understand the wider context of the new reality.

Otherwise the fake news we’ve seen already will just be the start, and we’ll be moving swiftly down the road to a version of 1984 that sees propaganda winning and trust between groups and communities completely disappearing. And that is in no-one’s long term interest – not even Donald Trump’s.

June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why this won’t be the social media election

The last year saw massive political change, with an outsider elected to the White House and the Brexit vote in the UK. Social media played a huge part in both of these decisions, with Donald Trump building and communicating with his voter base using Twitter, and Facebook (and other channels) being used to spread real and fake election/referendum news.
256px-Jeremy_Corbyn

Given the impact of social media on politics, will June’s vote be the first election that relies on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach and convince the electorate? After all, preparation time is short before polling day, impacting on the creation and dissemination of physical materials, such as posters and leaflets, while Prime Minister Theresa May has said she won’t appear in a televised leadership debate, cutting off a popular way of connecting with voters.

However, despite the popularity of social media there are two reasons it won’t change people’s minds:

1. It is an echo chamber
Generally people follow their family and friends on social media, which leads to a self-selection of the tweets and messages that they see. As was shown by the Brexit vote, Remainers tended to see their timelines full of pro-Remain tweets, leading to a false sense of security about the overall outcome. What people like Trump have done is create a following/brand before going into politics – something that ‘normal’ politicians don’t have the luxury to do.

2. Likes don’t mean votes
Jeremy Corbyn has 841,000 followers on Twitter (double that of his party) while Theresa May has just 209,000, with the Labour leader much more active on social media. But that doesn’t translate into votes. Latest opinion polls put the Conservatives at least 20 points ahead of Labour, and while pollsters have been wrong before, the figures seem to reflect general sentiment. Additionally, social media followers may be ineligible to vote or concentrated in specific constituencies, which mean that their ability to make a difference is diminished.

Instead of focusing on how it can win elections, party PRs should instead by looking at three ways social media can help them amplify their message and meet the needs of a short, fast-paced campaign:

1. Spread the word to the committed
Following the Brexit referendum and the last general election, we’re now facing our third nationwide poll in three years. There is a danger that even the most committed voters will switch off. Social media can reach this audience and focus on the importance of them turning out on the day, or even lending their time to get more actively involved in the campaign.

2. Get news into the mainstream
Pretty much every political journalist and commentator is on social media, meaning that as a channel to reach them Twitter, in particular, is unrivalled. By using it to raise issues and highlight stories PRs will be hoping social media can move them into mainstream TV, radio and newspapers where they can affect wavering voters.

3. Use the tools
Social media provides a set of normally free, easy to use tools that are extremely powerful to any political movement looking to organise itself. While an election campaign is certainly not the Arab Spring, there are real lessons that political parties can learn here. Communicate instantly with thousands of activists through Twitter, share video and audio and use sites such as Dropbox to upload and distribute materials. These tools tend to be faster and more seamless than old style email, telephone and post – but parties must bear in mind that they are much more of a democratic channel. Anyone can share anything at any time, rather than following top-down orders. Consequently expect at least one candidate to become embroiled in a scandal about misusing social media during the election and to claim that their account was ‘hacked.’

While social media won’t win or lose the election it does change how campaigning is carried out, and provides the ability for parties and candidates to operate faster – vital in the six or so weeks until polling day. Just don’t expect it to elect the next Donald Trump…………..

April 26, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment