Revolutionary Measures

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.

 

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September 6, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Royal PR should be a model for us all

A few weeks ago I talked about the breakdown of trust between the public and traditional institutions, be they the media, government or business. Yet arguably the most traditional institution of all – the British monarchy – is actually bucking the trend and engaging and resonating with the public more than ever. From the Queen visiting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire to Princes William and Harry talking openly about mental illness, the Royals are increasingly seen as understanding, and empathising with, the mood of the country. This is in stark contrast to current political turmoil where the Prime Minister seems too scared to engage, while her cabinet squabbles around her. The Queen even seemingly managed to get a cheeky shot in about Brexit, wearing an EU blue hat with flowers resembling stars to open parliament.Queen Elizabeth

It is worth noting that it hasn’t always been like this. At the time of Princess Diana’s death the Royal family, particularly the Queen and Prince Philip, was seen as outdated and out of touch, hidebound by protocol and simply unable to understand the mood of the country and the wider world. That led to a major change around in how the Windsors approached PR, which has evolved into the machine that we see today, which is driven by four key factors:

1. Trust
We are in an age where there is a breakdown in trust, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to believe in someone or something. In fact, many are desperate to find somewhere to put their trust that isn’t going to let them down. The monarchy fills this space admirably, seen as working hard while taking the time to listen and engage with people’s concerns.

2. Range
The sheer size of the Royal family, and the number of generations it contains, mean that there are a range of characters and ages for different people to identify with. From the Queen and Prince Philip through Charles and Camilla down to Harry, William, Kate and their children there is someone for everyone to support, trust and relate to, dependent on their views and age.

3. Impartiality
I’m not comparing the Queen to Donald Trump, but in the same way that he has a multimillion dollar fortune to fall back on, so has she. That means she is seen as generally impartial, without an agenda or wider policies to push. I think many in the US see Trump in the same way, even if he definitely does have an agenda/ego driving his actions. This ability to be independent means the Queen is above politics and doesn’t get drawn into a blame game around events such as Grenfell.

4. Vulnerability
In the past the monarchy was seen as aloof and simply not affected by outside events. Since Diana’s death that has changed and it has opened up, demonstrating that the Royals are human too. The younger princes have discussed their mother’s death and the impact on their own mental health, while the continued illnesses of the Duke of Edinburgh has led to widespread sympathy for the Queen, who, after all, is 91 herself. We empathise with humans, and the Royal family continues to show that despite their wealth and power they are human too.

What lessons can communicators draw from this? I think the biggest is to take a long-term view. The reputation of the British monarchy was at an all-time low after the death of Diana, with many questioning their continued role. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction, the institution has changed how it operates, and in particular how it communicates, giving individuals more freedom to talk about the topics that they feel passionate about, all within an overarching framework that demonstrates empathy, authenticity and value for their audience. It may not be perfect, but other communicators looking to build genuine trust should see what they can learn from the Royal family’s success.

 

Photo Nasa/Bill Ingalls via Wikipedia http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2007/queen_egress_8.html

July 5, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can you make your PR campaign strong and stable? 4 communication lessons from the General Election

 

With well under a month to the General Election the parties various communication strategies are becoming clearer. As I said in a previous blog, this won’t be a social media election, but that isn’t stopping politicians from adopting new techniques to reach voters. The aim is to control the message, and drum it into the electorate, even if that means repeating ‘strong and stable leadership’ ad nauseum.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APolling_station_6_may_2010.jpg

There are four key tactics that are emerging – and could serve as PR lessons for other communicators:

1.Go for the low hanging fruit
Essentially politicians are trying to duck the tough questions – although in the case of Diane Abbott she seems to be succeeding in making easy questions difficult. That means Theresa May popping up on The One Show, along with her husband, to discuss such key facts as who takes the bins out, while at the same time saying she won’t take part in a TV leadership debate. Instead, she’ll appear alongside Jeremy Corbyn, but not in a head to head.

While it is difficult for businesspeople to follow this strategy to the letter and duck tough media appearances, it should serve as a blueprint for showing your human side if you want to demonstrate that you are just a normal person, with interests and passions beyond your job.

2. Go where the audience is
It isn’t an election that will be won or lost on social media, but that doesn’t mean the channels can’t be used to get the message out there. The Prime Minister took part in a Facebook Live event with ITV News, essentially reaching an audience in the easiest manner for them. In reality there’s no difference between Facebook Live and a televised phone-in – as proved by Jeremy Corbyn trying to hijack the event by sending in a question himself. It is simply a question of going where the audience is – something that chief executives should also bear in mind.

3. Exploit the system
Once an election is declared, impartiality rules kick in for broadcasters. Covering TV and radio (down to community stations), they mean that no one party should be favoured, personal political preferences shouldn’t be aired by presenters and due weight is given to the larger parties. What this means in practice is that over the course of a bulletin, all major parties must receive airtime – and it must be presented in an unbiased manner. Hence the huge amount of effort put into campaigning in front of the camera, with politicians criss-crossing the country to launch manifestos and policies. In contrast, newspapers are free to add as much comment as they like, making politicians much warier of them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that PR people try and break the rules when it comes to getting their clients in front of the media, but understanding how different types of media work is vital to providing them with a story that works for them, and their audience.

4. Prepare and leave nothing to chance
The biggest lesson for all PR people from this election is the importance of preparation and planning. In terms of the Conservatives every appearance is carefully stage-managed, even down to allegedly shutting reporters in a room when Mrs May did a factory visit so they couldn’t film her and bussing in activists to serve as the audience in community centre visits. This level of planning doesn’t quite extend to Labour. As well as Diane Abbott’s series of car-crash interviews, the party manifesto was leaked with Jeremy Corbyn subsequently pulling out of launching its poster campaign to deal with the issue. And his driver then accidentally ran over a BBC cameraman’s foot.

You shouldn’t follow the Conservative strategy to the letter, and indeed being too polished can be detrimental to your message. However ensuring you have set detailed objectives, have the right messages, plan how you are going to deliver them and are fully prepared is more likely to project the image you want to be known for, rather than seeming to be continually running to catch up. As the election unfolds, expect to hear the words “strong and stable” a lot more………………

Photo by secretlondon123 (originally posted to Flickr as Polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

May 17, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Turning the Oscars fiasco into good PR

We’re now living in a world where fewer and fewer of us watch TV live, preferring to use catch up services or clips on YouTube to get our fix after the event. Hence TV companies increasing focus on event-based shows that you have to experience live if you want to be part of the conversation. Whether it is the half time show at the Superbowl, or the climax of the Great British Bake Off, broadcasters are looking for ways to make us tune in.arriving_at_the_oscars_2106606836

Which brings us neatly to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Let’s face it awards shows are never riveting viewing, with the only interest normally being whether (a) someone gives a really terrible speech or (b) to judge the sartorial elegance (or otherwise) of the dresses on show. No wonder that the 2017 Oscars had the lowest ratings for a long time.

Therefore the fiasco which saw the Oscar for Best Picture initially given to the wrong film is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise for the event. The organisers get to blame PwC for giving out the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, while knowing that the issue will keep the show in the public consciousness for much longer than previous editions. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate PR ploy, but it bet it means that next year more people will tune in, secretly hoping that something goes wrong again. But, in an age of shortening attention spans, I think there’s a lot more that the Oscars (and any other awards ceremony) could be doing to keep viewers glued to their screens:

1.Random awards
Rather than just getting two candidates for best picture mixed up, organisers need to get a lot more random. Add in a few leftfield choices or even get the auditors from PwC to offer presenters a choice of envelopes with different winning names in them. It’ll certainly make the whole process more entertaining when the Best Actor award goes to Danny Dyer for his performances in EastEnders, even if he wasn’t on the shortlist.

2. Best dressed
As I said a lot of the time people watch award shows for what the stars are wearing, and this (primarily) means women in dresses, given that men tend to stick with a suit/dinner jacket and bow tie. So reward the best (and worst) dressed by running a quick poll on Twitter or Facebook and then announcing the results during the ceremony. It is sure to be hotly contested – and might even see male stars become more adventurous in what they wear.

3. Fights/drunkenness
The best ever award ceremony moment was undoubtedly the year at the Brits when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage when Michael Jackson was singing, was then arrested and was sprung from the cells by ex-solicitor Bob Mortimer. At least that’s how I remember it. So use some common sense when deciding the seating plan – two actors that hate each other’s guts and get chippy when they’ve had a skinful? Pop them on adjoining tables and start a rumour that one called the other a lightweight. Perfect entertainment for the watching masses.

4. Gunge tanks for speeches
The sheer excitement of winning an award often goes to a star’s head and they then drone on for hours thanking everyone they ever met, and going through their entire life story. At one ceremony Tom Hiddleston even brought in doctors working in South Sudan. Politely telling people to finish is obviously not enough, so organisers should take a leaf from children’s TV. Install a gunge tank above the stage, and put a hyperactive 10 year old on the controls. It’ll certainly shorten the speeches and keep people focused.

I’m sure there are many more ways of spicing up award ceremonies and increasing the interest of the general public – let me know your suggestions below.

photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

March 1, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Communicating in a state of permanent crisis

Français : Bradley Wiggins, vainqueur du Crité...

It used to be that a company suffered a PR/communication crisis once in a blue moon. The response was simple – well-prepared organisations dusted off their crisis plan, put it into action and, dependent on their execution and the scale of the problem, they either succeeded in safeguarding their reputation or not.

Things have now changed. Organisations can be hit by a crisis that is impossible to predict, strikes suddenly and/or simply will not go away. Restaurant chain Chipotle, already suffering after multiple food safety incidents, saw its share price plummet by $300m when author Eric Van Lustbader tweeted that his editor had been taken to hospital after eating at a New York branch of the business. Closer to home the Sky cycling team, and rider Sir Bradley Wiggins, are caught up in an ongoing crisis about the use of therapeutic use exemptions that let Wiggins take otherwise prohibited substances in the run up to three major races. Sky obeyed the rules at all times but a combination of suspicions caused by cycling’s doping past, the team’s stated commitment to anti-doping, and ham-fisted attempts to manage the crisis have seen it run and run.

What this tells everyone is that today you cannot either rely on a crisis plan or get away with not taking any allegations seriously. We live in a digital world, where any information can be shared/hacked, whether by private individuals or state-sponsored organisations. Social media works alongside the traditional press to broadcast material, enabling wide-ranging discussions of, and even the creation of, conspiracies at an accelerated pace.

Bearing this in mind, business leaders and communication professionals need to change how they operate in five key ways:

1. Keep building your brand
Any business can be hit by a crisis, even if it is not directly linked to their operations. For example, a supplier could be hacked, releasing your customers’ credit cards details onto the web, or a contractor could break bribery laws without your knowledge. In all of these cases, the source doesn’t matter – you’ll be held responsible. This means you need to have already built a strong brand that means something to people – that way you may take a hit from an incident, but it will be less of a blow. Poor brands suffer more – take the backlash against TalkTalk (already pilloried for poor customer service) when it was hacked.

2. Be proactive
The digital world has ushered in a new era of transparency. So any secrets will come out at some point. It is therefore better to control the dialogue – be honest and open if a crisis happens, and explain the full circumstances up front, including any other problems that haven’t been immediately highlighted. That might mean an initial hit to the share price, but it should recover quicker if everything is known from the beginning.

3. Everything can be a crisis
The smallest incident has the potential to spark a major crisis, so take everything seriously. Be prepared to step in quickly and deal with a problem rather than making the mistake of thinking it will go away. It is more work, but it is better to solve something early instead of waiting and facing an unstoppable juggernaut of a story.

4. Keep monitoring
You don’t want the first you know about a crisis to be when your share price tanks or you get a call from the BBC. Make sure you have monitoring in place across the internet and social media to keep a track of any potential issues, so that you can act swiftly, and brief frontline staff to flag problems and involve the communications team early.

5. Show you are taking action
Given shrinking attention spans people are bored of pre-prepared statements that don’t actually mean anything. What they want is action, and they want it immediately. This isn’t always possible, but showing that you have weighed up the facts and are being decisive is the best way to take control of the story. It doesn’t always work – shutting the News of the World didn’t end the phone hacking story for News International, but it reassures stakeholders that you are taking things seriously and have a plan.

Overall, businesses need to replace their crisis management plans with something more flexible and adaptable, based less on what can go wrong and more on how you react to changing events. Only then will they be able to avoid a drama turning into a full-blown crisis.

October 19, 2016 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The PR lessons from Rio 2016

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds...

It’s probably fair to say that there was a lot of trepidation about how the Rio Olympics would turn out. Russian doping, the Zika virus, political turmoil in Brazil and worries about the venues being ready on time, and up to standard, all dominated the news in the run up to the games. At a country level, Team GB’s medal count was expected to fall compared to London 2012, while time differences meant that less of the action would be taking place when it could be easily viewed by the British public.

Instead, rather than being a disaster, the games came through. There were obvious issues in terms of infrastructure, but nothing major, and while attendance was poor at a lot of sports it seems there was a real buzz by the end of the event. Team GB not only hit its stated medal target, but exceeded its London 2012 total, with medals in a huge range of sports. In football, the host nation got revenge for its World Cup drubbing by Germany, winning gold in a penalty shootout. The decision of the IAAF to ban Russian athletes helped more countries than ever before to win medals, and while there were police raids linked to ticket touting, in general the IOC bureaucrats either behaved (or weren’t caught red-handed). So who were the PR winners and losers of Rio 2016?

1. Ryan Lochte
The prize for worst public relations (and behaviour), undoubtedly goes to US swimming superstar Ryan Lochte. After a drunken night out he, along with some of his team mates, claimed they’d been robbed at gunpoint by Brazilian policemen, feeding the world’s fears about crime and corruption in Rio. Luckily for the games, the real story was captured on CCTV. Rather than being robbed, the swimmers had smashed up a local petrol station toilet, causing security guards to pull guns on them until they paid for the damage. Once the truth came out the press were able to delight in headlines such as Liar, Liar, Speedo’s on Fire – and sponsors (including Speedo) quickly dropped Lochte from their campaigns.

2. Usain Bolt
Such is the pulling power of Usain Bolt that his presence and success helped define the games. From dancing a samba at a pre-race press conference to entering the arena with dry ice swirling, he is a consummate showman, as well as the fastest man in the world. And he does it with a smile on his face, helping fans and the general public to empathise with his performances. Given the recent history of drug taking in sprint events, his performances have essentially rehabilitated the sport.

3. Team GB
As I said, everyone was expecting a drop in the medal total for Britain after London, something that Team GB administrators kept repeating at every opportunity. This meant that the country’s success was even more unexpected, particularly when some early medal shots (such as Lizzie Armitstead in the cycling) didn’t come through.

However, it did create a bit of a dilemma for many people. We’re meant to be plucky British underdogs, but thanks to the skills of the athletes and coaches, and lottery funding, we now dominate in many sports. No wonder that many broadcasters seemed unsure how to play the triumphalism – the BBC’s end of games roundup was a mixture of awe and confusion.

What impressed me was both the range of sports where Team GB won medals and the attitudes of the athletes. Sports participation actually went down after London 2012, and clearly there was a concerted effort to try and address this. Pretty much after every medal athletes encouraged people to get involved, try things out and visit their local sailing/swimming/gymnastics etc. club. Let’s hope the message resonates and that grassroots sport gets a boost.

4. Golf
Like a lot of people, I didn’t believe that golf merited a place in the Olympics – or, if it did, it should be something more exciting, such as Crazy Golf. With many of the sport’s stars pulling out, citing the Zika virus as an excuse, the tournament looked like it was going to be a high profile disaster. Yet the sport shone through and the stars that had championed the event gave us a thrilling event, with Justin Rose winning at the death. Thanks to that, golf may well have saved its place at future Olympics.

5. British Airways
Painting post boxes gold in the home towns of Olympic champions was the PR masterstroke of London 2012. Given the time difference this sort of marketing was more difficult in Rio, but British Airways managed to pull it off, with a gold nosed plane (renamed victoRIOus) carrying many of the athletes back to the UK. Cue lots of shots of gold medal winners on the flight deck, and selfies shared on social media, probably helped by the 77 additional bottles of champagne the plane was carrying. Even the fact that a large number of medal winners, such as Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray, Laura Trott and Justin Rose had already left Rio, didn’t detract from the triumph.

August 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mike Ashley – PR star?

English: Sports Direct - Crown Point Retail Park

Sometimes listening to captains of industry being interviewed can be a yawn-inducing experience. They’ve been media-trained to within an inch of their lives and appear to have been sent off with a stern warning that anything they say will immediately impact their stock price/company survival/job prospects. The result? Cagey, bland and message-filled interviews that don’t get across their personality or that of the brand that they represent.

Of course, there are exceptions who engage with the audience while still getting their message across, but for many, fear of failure stops anything interesting being said. As a PR person I find this really frustrating, as it is a missed opportunity to communicate.

Therefore it is always entertaining to hear from those CEOs who have built a brand on not giving a damn on what they say and seem to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise interviewers. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair immediately comes to mind, but he seems to have mellowed – O’Leary has even said that “If I’d only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago.”

Another case entirely is Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who has combined an appetite for controversy with not caring about speaking to the media. Given his reputation for frank speaking I can see why his PR handlers have kept him out of the limelight, so like many I was expecting fireworks when he appeared in front of House of Commons Select Committee to discuss working conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse. However, I was surprised at what I heard. Rather than bluster and defensiveness he admitted past mistakes, such as not paying the minimum wage, and said that the company’s size meant that it had probably outgrown his ability to run it. And all this after previously stating that he wouldn’t appear at the session and that if they wanted to speak to him, he’d send his helicopter to ferry MPs to his company HQ for an interview.

So what caused this road to Damascus moment? I think partly it was the realisation that, like O’Leary, being hated by your customers and the public isn’t a long term business strategy. Competition is fierce in the retail market, and while many shoppers may not care about the working conditions behind their cheap trainers, others do. There is such a thing as bad publicity – stories about a female member of staff giving birth in the Shirebrook toilets as she didn’t want to call in sick and risk her job is bound to resonate widely with many people. By admitting errors and saying that the company was going to change he’s now one step ahead of his critics, though the focus will be on him to deliver on his promises.

Another reason was that his actions give him the chance to occupy the retail moral high ground, given the ongoing investigation into the collapse of BHS, which has also seen leading figures in front of parliamentary committees this week. Former boss Dominic Chappell (who bought the business for a pound from Sir Philip Green), was accused of “having his fingers in the till” by one of his associates, described as a “Premier League liar” and of threatening to kill the chief executive after he challenged him on his behaviour. In turn Chappell’s testimony tried to shift the blame to Green, who he claimed had bankrolled his purchase (with more than a pound), and was behind the decision to put the chain into administration. Green will now get the chance to defend himself in front of the committee, so expect more mudslinging. Given his contrition it all makes Ashley look like a paragon of virtue – something that may help fulfil his desire to buy BHS in some form.

For anyone talking to the media, they should keep these examples front of mind. Develop your own style, tailor it to the audience in order to engage with them, and take the time to go beyond the pre-written message if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Mike Ashley or just talking to your trade press, invest time in the interview and you (and your company) will reap the benefits going forward.

June 15, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharapova, drugs and public relations

Maria Sharapova hitting backhand, Fed Cup matc...

Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.

So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.

However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:

1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.

2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.

As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:

  • Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
  • Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
  • At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.

What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.

The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments