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.
Despite all the talk of innovation, there are plenty of things that people continue to do, even though they are no longer the optimal way to achieve something.
Take typing for example. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to the first, manual typewriters, where the typist hit a key manually pushing the inked letter onto a sheet of paper. The problem with the first typewriter designs was that people could hit the keys faster than the machine would cope with, leading to jams as multiple keys became intertwined. Hence adopting what was essentially a sub-optimal system in terms of speed, in order to make typewriters more efficient overall. Now, in the digital age jamming is no longer a problem, yet everyone still uses a QWERTY keyboard, as that is the de facto standard, irrespective of the fact that it can give you carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries.
Driving is another area where tradition dictates what we do. The reason that in England we drive on the left dates back to the days when people rode horses – as the majority of the population was right handed you could hold your reins with your left hand, leaving the other free for your sword. As part of the French Revolution this was reversed in France, and then imposed by Napoleon on the countries he conquered. This means that the majority of countries in the world now drive on the right, despite the fact that accident rates are lower amongst left hand drivers, perhaps due to right eye dominance.
These two examples demonstrate two things:
- The most logical, sensible solution can’t necessarily overcome the status quo, particularly if it means people have to completely relearn how they operate.
- People continue to choose a particular course of action, even if the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Tradition rules.
Why is this important? I meet a lot of technology startups, and many of them enthusiastically talk about how their invention will completely change a market or sector. Build it and they will come seems to be the mantra. All it takes is for people to see how outmoded and inefficient the current technology is, and switch to their new, unproven, but potentially much better solution. And normally relearn how they operate. And pay a bit more. Often, they then wonder why they fail to get market traction or growth.
Essentially people weren’t sufficiently convinced of the advantages to change what they did. They preferred to be inefficient rather than invest the time to solve a problem. We’ve all done this, spending an extra minute or so doing something on our PC because that’s how we were taught 20 years ago, rather than spending 15 minutes reading the manual and upgrading our knowledge.
This isn’t to say that innovation can’t happen. Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the advantages of changing (no bag, better performance), outweighed the higher cost and learning how it worked. But in that case the benefits were extremely clear, and, most importantly, marketed very well.
So, the lessons for every business, whether a startup or not, are clear. The vast majority of the population generally doesn’t like change, and therefore the benefits of something new have to dramatically outweigh the disadvantages of how things have always been done. Innovation has to be clearly marketed if it is going to take root with the majority, as opposed to early adopters – it won’t just sell itself. It has to fit inside the ecosystem of what people are comfortable with, and provide them with the best overall experience. That’s why VHS beat the technologically superior Betamax technology – it had the content from Hollywood studios and was easier to operate. Often it can be easier to sell a better mousetrap than a completely new method of rodent killing device. Therefore talk to your audience, understand their pain points and make sure you provide a simple, powerful solution – otherwise you are likely to join the ranks of technically superior, but unused products, and all your innovation will be wasted.
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…………..
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.