The past couple of months has seen a spate of stories highlighting how poor cultures can be toxic to brands and organisations. Uber has been particularly in the spotlight – with allegations of sexism from female engineers through to a rant from its CEO Travis Kalanick against one of its own drivers. New company president Jeff Jones left after six months, saying “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” Only this week allegations have surfaced of senior management (including Kalanick) visiting an escort/karaoke bar in South Korea. The story came out when Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend, part of the party, alleged that she was pressurised to say she ‘had a good time’ at the bar.
Uber is not alone. The environment at British Cycling has been described by some athletes as operating through “a culture of fear”; misselling scandals at banks, such as around PPI, have been linked to poor cultural control; while Amazon and Sports Direct have both been accused of exploiting workers. In all cases it seems that a blind eye has been turned to how things were done, provided that overall objectives, such as company growth or Olympic medals, were delivered.
What has this got to do with marketing and communications? Essentially, when stories hit the media, it has to attempt to defend the (often) indefensible and then try and rebuild corporate reputation. All scheduled marketing plans have to be put on hold, with every effort focused on dealing with a growing number of allegations.
That’s why I believe marketing needs to step up and be more involved in guiding and monitoring corporate culture, ensuring that it has early warning of any minor issues so that they can be dealt with before they develop further. This isn’t about covering up bad behaviour – more ensuring that it doesn’t happen in the first place. There’s no point investing in huge advertising and PR campaigns that aim to demonstrate corporate strength, when a poor culture undermines everything you do or say. Marketing can exist in its own bubble, particularly in large companies, so that the department doesn’t see what goes in other parts of the organisation, leading to a false confidence that everything is going well. Therefore, it is vital to break out of this bubble and find out what is happening across the business.
Obviously marketing shouldn’t be responsible for culture alone. HR, internal communications, and senior management all need to help set the standards for “how things are done around here”, with regular checks that everyone understands what is expected of them, and their behaviour. Marketing is normally at the frontline of building a brand’s reputation, so it needs to have greater knowledge of what is going on. Otherwise it can’t ensure that the organisation is not tacitly or knowingly encouraging bad, unethical or illegal behaviour, potentially harming staff or customers and storing up major issues for the future. Marketing therefore needs to get a handle on culture if it is to do its job properly, whatever type of organisation you work in.
For anyone like myself who was around during the dotcom boom, it is hard not to feel that you are suffering from déjà vu. Many of the exotic ideas and concepts that spectacularly flopped at the time have been reborn and are now thriving. Take ecommerce. Clothes retailer Boo.com was one of the biggest disasters of the period, burning through $135 million of venture capital in just 18 months, while online currency beenz aimed to provide a way of collecting virtual money that could be spent at participating merchants.
Offline, we were continuously promised/threatened with smart bins that would scan the barcodes of product packaging as we threw it away, and automatically order more of the same. And goods might arrive from a virtual supermarket, run as a separate business from your local Tesco or Sainsbury’s. You could pay for low value goods and services with a Mondex card instead of cash (though initially only if you lived in the trial town of Swindon). The first Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were launched, providing computing power in the palm of your hand. We’d already laughed out of the court the ridiculous concept of electric cars, as typified by the Sinclair C5.
Fast forward to now, and versions of all of these failed ventures are thriving. There are any number of highly graphical, video based clothes retailers, while you can take your pick of online currencies from Bitcoin to Ethereum. We’re still threatened with smart appliances that can re-order groceries (fridges being the latest culprit), but Amazon’s Dash buttons are a neater and simpler way of getting more washing powder delivered that put the consumer in control. And Dash bypasses the supermarket itself, with goods dispatched direct from Amazon. I can pay for small items by tapping my debit card on a card reader – even in my local village shop. More and more cars are hybrids, if not fully electric, while handheld computing power comes from our smartphones.
What has driven this change? First off, the dotcom boom was over 15 years ago, so there’s been a lot of progress in tech. We have faster internet speeds (one of the reasons for Boo’s demise was its graphics were too large for most dial-up modems to download), better battery life for digital devices and vehicles (iPhones excepted), hardware and sensors are much smaller and more powerful, and network technologies such as Bluetooth and ZigBee are omnipresent.
However, at the same time, the real change has been in the general public. Using technology has become part of everyone’s daily lives, and those that are not online are the exception, rather than the rule. It is a classic example of the move from early adopters to the majority, as set out in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. And it has happened bit by bit, with false starts and cul de sacs on the way.
So what does this mean for marketers? It really brings home the importance of knowing your audience and targeting your product accordingly. Don’t expect raw tech to be instantly adopted by the majority, but build up to it, gain consumer trust (perhaps by embedding your new tech in something that already exists), and prepare to fail first time round. And the other lesson is to look at today’s big failures, and be prepared to resurrect them when the market has changed in the future……
Most people I know have been deeply depressed since the results of the EU referendum came out. Many clients and colleagues are EU citizens who have no idea what the future holds for them, while others work for companies that will be directly impacted by Brexit, either because they trade with the remainder of Europe, or because they are owned by businesses based in the EU.
The fact that many people seem to have been swayed by the downright lies of the Leave campaign adds to the anger, as does the hasty backtracking of Brexiteers on key pledges repeated during the campaign.
We’re left in limbo, and what’s more it won’t be resolved soon – negotiations to leave will not begin until the Autumn at the earliest, and then could take two years to complete. So how can businesses ensure that they are not casualties of Brexit, and what marketing lessons do they need to learn?
1. Strengthen existing relationships
It could be tempting to deprioritise any customers within the EU and focus on the UK only. This is exactly the wrong approach – now is the time to invest in the relationships that you have and even extend them. No-one knows what will happen when it comes to potential trade tariffs or barriers, but the best way to be ready is to build a strong relationship with customers that mean they still want to deal with you if tariffs mean your prices will potentially go up. Make the effort to go out and visit customers and get under the skin of their businesses to make yourself as critical as possible to their operations.
2. Target the US
One immediate consequence of the Leave vote has been a slump in exchange rates between the pound and other major currencies. This means that for those selling abroad, they are currently more competitive – particularly if you are a services business that is not buying in raw materials from overseas to make products. So look at how you can exploit this by marketing to Europe and the US and coming up with new offerings targeted at their particular needs.
3. Develop new markets
Brexiteers claim that we don’t need Europe, as we should focus on trade with emerging economies such as China, as well as internally within the at the moment United Kingdom. So do look at how you can market yourself to new countries – what is required and what advice/grants can you access to build a presence in new areas?
4. Show you are open for business
As many commentators have pointed out, companies can only play the hand of cards they are dealt – unlike Boris Johnson they can’t just walk away from the mess we are in. As we move forward it is time to show that you are going to focus on the positives. Invest in marketing to spread the message that you are open for business and ready to take on the challenges of the next few years. This is equally true if you are an international company or a local one – people are looking for reassurance, so ensure that your marketing reflects this.
5. Focus on the value you deliver
Even if there will not be a recession in the UK, there is likely to be an economic slowdown of some sort. The companies that survive will be those that deliver real value to their clients, rather than just winning business due to costs or familiarity. Go back to basics, talk to clients and understand what the benefits are that you deliver, and market these strongly to existing and new clients. This might mean pivoting your business, or introducing new services, and that can be difficult, but might be necessary for your survival.
Nietzsche’s quote that “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger” has already been trotted out many times, but it is not a bad place to start post-Brexit. Unless you plan to flee the country your business needs a plan to move forward, and following the marketing ideas above is a good place to start. If you have any further suggestions don’t hesitate to add them in the comments section below.
For many media watchers the last week has felt like a watershed moment. The Independent announced that it will end its print edition in March, making it the first national newspaper to go online only. At the same time, youth channel BBC3 has come off the airwaves and moved solely to be web-based.
So, is the end of old media as we know it and will other channels and papers follow? And, by extension, does it mean that PR people will have to change how they work as media relations becomes less important with consumers getting their news in other ways, for example through citizen journalism and sites such as Buzzfeed?
Answering those questions in turn, old media isn’t dead, but isn’t healthy either. The Independent was always the smallest of the national newspapers when it came to circulation and therefore the weakest when subjected to the twin pressures of online and free papers such as Metro. Indeed it was comprehensively outsold by its cut-price sibling, the i, which will remain in print and is being sold to publisher Johnston Press.
Running a print operation has a large, fixed cost that every national newspaper is struggling with – witness The Guardian’s announcement that it will cut staff. Despite what might be said about BBC3 going where the audience is (online), this is only partially true – the real reason is about reducing costs for the BBC, although whether it will achieve its planned savings is a moot point.
Plenty of titles have gone online only, while yet more are now monthly or quarterly rather than weekly. Others have successfully embraced paywalls (The Economist, The Financial Times to name but two) to stabilise and protect their revenues. The online world does call for new business models as offline advertising pounds are swapped for digital pence, and there will be further casualties in the future.
However, this is not the end of media relations that my erstwhile colleague Stephen Waddington predicts in his blog. He believes that if your role in public relations is pitching stories to journalists, the clock is ticking and you have 15-20 years maximum before you are no longer necessary. I’d agree that anyone who solely spends their time ringing up/emailing national newspaper journalists, trying to interest them all in the same story without using any differentiation or intelligence is not going to survive long.
But I don’t think most (successful) PR people are stuck in that pigeonhole. Over the course of my 20+ year career I’ve seen the move online and the corresponding drop in the number of journalists as costs were cut. At the same time the amount of straight media relations I’m doing has dropped dramatically. More often, it is about coming up with a specific story to meet the title’s needs or pitching an idea for an article and then creating it with the client. Much more revolves around content and sharing it on social media in order to build both thought leadership and SEO for clients in their specific B2B markets.
This can be much harder than simply ringing every journalist on a list and pitching the same story, but the rewards for PR are far, far greater. It embeds the profession deeper into the marketing department and links to outcomes that are based on business value, rather than a bulging book of coverage that looks impressive, but is not measurable.
Is what I do media relations? I’d say that if it involves speaking to a publication in order to gain coverage, without money changing hands, then it is media relations – and I can’t see that going away anytime soon. After all the online-only Independent will still have journalists, just fewer of them, and they will still be writing stories that companies want to be part of. Commoditised media relations may be dying, but true media relations that aims to build links between journalists and clients is as vital as ever.
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…………..