Revolutionary Measures

Nick Clegg – the worst job in PR?

There are lots of jobs in public relations that could best be described as ‘challenging’ – and at worst be considered nightmares to avoid at all costs. Press secretary to Donald Trump or Elon Musk’s PR handler both spring to mind. However, these revolve around trying to control a wayward individual known for having their own communications style. In these cases the PR issues come with the territory as they are part of the brand.

So what are the worst jobs in PR when you take the figurehead out of the equation? I’d say that at the moment they revolve around Brexit and Facebook. I won’t go into Theresa May’s communications strategy as I’m not sure there is one beyond repeating the same stock phrases over and over again and hoping that the world will change.

Instead I’m going to focus this post on the challenges facing Facebook’s PR team, and in particular Sir Nick Clegg, the company’s recently appointed head of global affairs. First, a quick recap of the issues in his intray:

  • The Cambridge Analytica case, where data was illegally collected and used to target Facebook users
  • Failure to regulate fake news or Russian interference in the US election
  • Allowing posts that promoted genocide against the Rohinga minority in Myanmar
  • Automatically recommending content involving self-harm to vulnerable teens on Instagram
  • Not paying its fair share of tax

I’m probably missing a few – suffice it to say that in PR Moment’s annual review of 2018’s PR disasters, Facebook was villain of the month on three separate occasions, well ahead of any other business.

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What hasn’t helped has been its ‘solution’, which seems to amount to taking out a lot of adverts and whingeing a bit about it being so unfair (being 15 the company is going through a sulky teenager phase).

Oh, and hiring Nick Clegg. Obviously Clegg had a background in public affairs before he entered politics, so the combination of his experience seems like a good fit. But since he joined little has really changed. There’s still a refusal to engage with politicians – Mark Zuckerberg has dodged requests to appear in front of politicians, apart from one hearing of the US Congress. And all the time revenues have been increasing, adding fuel to the allegations that the company puts profits above doing the right thing.

Clegg’s job is not one I’d relish as clearly Facebook needs to undergo a root and branch reform to make it more open and accountable. And the clock is ticking – murmurs of breaking the company up in some way are growing, with splitting the different services it offers (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) into separate entities, providing what looks like an easy solution to lawmakers.

I’ve previously outlined what I think Facebook needs to do, along with other tech companies, to turn around its reputation, focusing on openness, confessing to past wrong doing, investing and matching words with deeds. Essentially Facebook needs to engage and that means communicating in a more human way – for its sake let’s hope that Nick Clegg is given the space and resources to deliver real change, rather than propping up the status quo.

February 6, 2019 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Elon Musk and brand safety – a cautionary tale

Consumers increasingly want to engage with genuine brands with a personality. And in many cases this goes back to the founder and CEO. Think of Apple and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Bill Gates, Burt’s Bees and Burt. Or, as I heard yesterday on Radio 4, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.

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In a world where consumers are bombarded with slogans from faceless corporations, having a figurehead that they can relate to should be an excellent shortcut to drive success. And, in many ways it often is. However, one of the key factors that drives people to found and grow businesses is self-belief that whatever they do is right, and that they need to battle the world to maintain their success. Add in that the more success they have, the fewer people there are around them who are willing to tell them when they are wrong and you can see a recipe for potential reputational disasters.

Elon Musk is a classic case in point. He’s built Tesla into one of the most recognised car brands on the planet, from scratch, and helped accelerate the spread of electric vehicles. Earlier in the year the company had a stock valuation of $50 billion – larger than Ford, despite its much smaller size (and profitability).

Of course, the key phrase is “had a stock valuation of $50 billion”. Musk announced in a tweet that he had the funding in place to take the company private at $420 per share. When it turned out he didn’t he was sued by both investors and regulators. A further tweet after he was fined for this saw the stock fall further, knocking $10 billion off its value. And don’t forget this is the man that called a British diver involved in the Thai cave rescue a ‘pedo’ and was recorded smoking pot on a podcast.

So how can organisations combine the creativity, drive and charisma of a founder with brand safety? There are four ways to achieve this:

1          Trust the CEO
You could, of course, just let the CEO do what they like, Richard Branson style, but that’s assuming that they understand that there are limits to their behaviour. In the case of true loose cannons (like Musk), this isn’t going to work. In the case of public companies it is also going to make the share price gyrate on a daily basis.

2          Focus on the product
A longer term strategy is to shift the focus from the founder to the product. So while the CEO might be introducing what the company makes, they are talking about what goes into it and what makes the company special, beyond their own personality. Bring in outsiders such as celebrities to subtly shift away from a single founder – a good example is the Virgin Media ads featuring Usain Bolt alongside Branson.

3          Build a team
No one person can run a multi-million pound company successfully. Leaders need help, so build a team and make sure that they are increasingly seen in the media. They are never going to have the same appeal as the founder – for example compare Tim Cook with Steve Jobs at Apple. But creating a wider team will deflect some of the attention over time and prepare for the point when the founder is no longer around.

4          Have people who can say no
Probably the hardest thing for an underling to do is to disagree with their boss, particularly if they have built the company from the ground up. Not many employees would embrace such an almost certain career-limiting move. That means telling founders that they are on the wrong track has to come from boards, independent mentors and from creating a culture where messengers are not shot, but encouraged. This is another long-term process, but one that needs to be thought of early in the process.

Balancing the marketing value of a charismatic figurehead with their wayward side is never easy – just ask Ryanair – but if brands want to stay around for the long-term they need to be ready to outlive their founder and put in place a framework and culture that turns ‘me’ into ‘we’ without losing the brand essence and magic they bring.

 

 

October 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

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Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment