Revolutionary Measures

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

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June 21, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 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

The open and the closed – marketing post-Brexit

The Brexit vote has highlighted a deep division within English society that is likely to define and drive politics over the next decade. Essentially many traditional Labour voters in Northern/Midlands cities and Conservative supporters in the rural shires all voted to Leave. At the same time those in dynamic cities such as London, Bristol and Cambridge overwhelmingly favoured Remain, irrespective of their political allegiance.download

The result? Political chaos in both the Labour and Conservative parties as traditional voters move from defining themselves as left or right wing, to more about whether they are open or closed. This defines their complete world view. Polling by Lord Ashcroft shows that Leavers share opposition to multiculturalism, social liberalism, feminism, the green movement, the internet and capitalism. By contrast, Remainers are much more open to globalisation and immigration, which they embrace.

In many ways this isn’t unexpected. Globalisation, which has shifted jobs and people around the world, has caused major disruption, and, while it has benefited the economy as a whole, it has sidelined certain groups. All through history this sort of change leads to a fear of the new, which is manifested in religious or racist persecution as people define themselves based on the past, rather than the present or future.

What feels unique is that the two groups – open and closed – are so similar in numbers, yet completely different in their outlook. This has an impact on marketing, adding another layer of complexity to reaching and engaging with audiences. How can marketers ensure they are reaching the right target groups in a post-Brexit landscape?

Obviously certain basic items appeal equally to all consumers – there is no Leave bread, though marketers have always known you are going to sell more artisanal focaccia in Hoxton than in Sunderland. It is as you move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to more aspirational purchases that what will appeal to one side is likely to put off another. The open group are more likely to be sophisticated early adopters, pro-technology and renewables, while the closed group are more suspicious and needs-driven.

This has to be taken into account when you are planning your marketing strategy. Which products fit best with the open and closed personas? Geographically where should you make them available? Which celebrities should you bring on board to endorse them? Marketers are probably more likely to be Remainers than Leavers, meaning they will have to ensure that they put their feelings aside and understand their audience if they want to appeal to Brexiteers.

Just as there is no easy answer to the political chaos caused by the referendum vote, neither will marketers find it simple to define and target their audiences. Given that it will be at least two years before Brexit is completed, meeting this challenge will be central to success in our uncertain, interesting times.

July 13, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lies, PR and the EU Referendum

As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.grunge-european-union-flag

Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:

1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.

2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.

On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?

3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.

4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.

5. Ambivalence
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.

The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.

June 22, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Radio Clegg

Nick Clegg addresses the Conference Rally in B...

I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.

Currently with the lowest poll ratings of the leaders of all three major parties (which is saying something), Clegg’s strategy is to appeal directly to voters by appearing on LBC. After all, his spin doctors must have mused, it was his appearance on the first televised party leaders debate before the last election that pushed the Liberal Democrats up the polls and ultimately helped them into power. So, let’s simply repeat the exercise and people will forget the last couple of years of government, and any policy changes, and just connect to Clegg the man.

Unfortunately, I think they’ve got the right idea but the wrong media for turning round Clegg’s image before the next election. Here’s three reasons that come to mind:

Lack of control
Obviously the whole point of a phone-in is that you have no idea what you are going to be asked. The plus point is that you can get the chance to talk about a wider range of subjects, but normally people on phone-ins aren’t giving up their time to call in and praise you. Hence Clegg suffering a verbal kicking in his first week on the radio. This may improve as he builds a rapport with the audience, but the randomness of live radio was shown by the headline news picked up by the press – Nick Clegg has a onesie, but hasn’t worn it yet.

LBC doesn’t reach a national audience
Having a senior politician on every week is a no-brainer for LBC – it boosts ratings, increases profile and, by broadcasting via the web, means it can reach a wider audience. However, whichever way you look at it, Clegg is not reaching the right voters – hundreds of miles from his constituency and not on a national platform. He’d do better (and show a keener grasp of new technology) by hosting a web chat or using social media to increase his credibility.

Other politicians make you look good
One of the basic reasons that Clegg impressed in the televised debates was that he was a relatively fresh face against the well-known Cameron and Brown. He hadn’t got the baggage they had and so looked good by association. The combination of years of government and being the only politician on show is always going to weaken credibility.

However it is a brave move from the Liberal Democrats who realise that from a communications point of view they need to do something to differentiate themselves and rebuild their fortunes. What next – sending him into the Big Brother house or chairing Have I Got News for You?

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January 16, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment