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

Turning an Easter egg into a marketing crisis

In today’s climate, it isn’t easy being a mainstream politician. At a time when populists are gaining ground across the world, from Spain and France to the White House, the danger is that traditional parties are seen as out of touch and unreflective of popular opinion. In the UK, the memory of the parliamentary expenses scandal, where one MP claimed for a duck house for his country estate and for having his moat cleaned, are still fresh in many people’s minds.

20110423_Easter_eggs_(3)

By Donar Reiskoffer (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

No wonder that politicians think they should get themselves involved in low level debates that burnish their populist credentials. Witness David Cameron claiming to love Cornish pasties – but then being caught out when quizzed on when and where he last bought one.

Now Theresa May has got herself involved in the furore over Cadbury and the National Trust dropping the word ‘Easter’ from the title of their chocolate egg hunts. What were previously called ‘Easter Egg Trails’ at 300 National Trust properties are now being referred to as ‘Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt’. Interviewed by ITV News while on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, she described the omission as “absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know what they are thinking about frankly.”

Personally what I think is ‘absolutely ridiculous’ is the current Prime Minister, who is dealing with Brexit, the biggest change in the country’s position in the world since World War II, spending her time criticising how organisations market themselves and their products. Clearly, someone in Cadbury’s marketing department has had the bright idea of trying to link to either the mood of nationalism or more likely, the Great British Bake-off, and removed the word ‘Easter’ to make space in the title. Easter is mentioned plenty of times elsewhere in promotional material for the events, so they felt that they had all their bases covered.

However, this does demonstrate the potential dangers to brands and their marketing campaigns. Thanks to social media we seem to live in a particularly touchy time, with people quick to jump to conclusions and complain, with issues snowballing as more and more people Like or Retweet them. It then becomes a story that politicians feel they have to become involved in. So what can brands do?

1          Check everything
Marketers need to balance new ideas and being creative with an eye on potential repercussions. The danger is that you worry so much about the tiniest chance of offending someone that you become too scared to actually do anything. So strike a balance – run new ideas past your wider team and test them with your target audiences before going ahead. At least that way you’ll pick up major issues before launching a campaign.

2          Be prepared
As I’ve said in previous blogs, the risk of a reputational crisis is there for every brand. Things go wrong in even the best run company due to the speed and complexity of business today. So make sure you have a crisis plan that is ready to swing into action when necessary. But don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut – adopt a proportional response to an issue, rather than rushing your CEO onto the Today Programme at the merest hint of trouble.

3          Be engaged and keep listening
The best way to avoid lasting damage to your brand is for it to be strong in the first place. If you don’t have a good reputation people are likely to be harsher critics when there are issues. Witness TalkTalk’s drubbing when it suffered a cyber attack – it was already seen as a company that was not particularly customer-centric, so had no real brand capital to fall back on. Cadbury is in a similar, but slightly stronger position – since it was bought by US multinational Kraft Foods and then spun off into the Mondelez confectionery conglomerate, it has been seen as ‘not really British’. Therefore it is not given the benefit of the doubt when a story like this comes up.

Personally, I think the whole Cadbury story is a storm in an Easter egg cup that will blow over and won’t either damage the brand or the number of people who turn out for the egg hunts over the holiday period. However, its prominence, and the involvement of politicians, shows that marketers need to be prepared for even the most innocuous activity to turn into a crisis overnight.

 

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

Why marketing needs to get a handle on culture

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.

March 29, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is PR changing at last?

Last week’s Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) East Anglia conference reminded me of much of the good – and the bad – about the profession. For a start the half day event brought together a really diverse group of PR practitioners, all enthusiastic about their profession and what it could achieve for businesses. And the overall theme of the conference – why PR needs to step up, embrace new skills and demonstrate the value it creates – is immensely important in a world where digital is transforming the marketing, and business, landscape

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But – and it is a big but – I can remember going to events debating these issues five or possibly ten years ago. And even some of the presenters admitted that they still find it hard to persuade clients that measurement needs to go beyond counting the number of clippings or the advertising value equivalent of coverage. Perhaps most damning of all there is still a huge gender pay gap, of an average of over £8,000 between women and men doing comparable jobs, and a relative shortage of females in the higher echelons of the PR profession. In a sector where 70% of the workforce is female, this is nothing short of a disgrace. Essentially much of this comes down to PR not being taken seriously – we’re expected to either be Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. While I’d relish the chance to drink as much as the former while working or swear as much as the latter without attracting disciplinary action, it is far from the truth.

So PR needs to change, and the first step, like Patsy attending Alcoholics Anonymous, is recognising the need to do things differently. While there was a lot of repetition in the different presentations, there was also a lot to pick up and learn from. I’d distil it into four points:

1. This is a great time to work in PR
Corporate reputation matters: to sales, to the share price, to recruitment, and to overall business success. Customer relationships are vital to build loyalty and revenues. Given its background, PR is the profession best placed to manage both of these, but to do so it needs to change, digitise and talk the language of business. As Sarah Pinch, the current CIPR president, pointed out, “Strategic counsel can’t be provided by a robot.” Only by upping its game will PR avoid being automated.

2. PR needs to integrate
While it is best placed to help companies improve their reputation and relationships, PR can’t do it alone. It has to work with every other department of the business, from finance and sales to customer service and IT, to create a cohesive approach that focuses on the overall reputation of the organisation. It needs to adopt a team of teams approach, working with colleagues with different skills to achieve results.

3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
There was a lot of talk about the need for measurement and why it was important, but fewer examples of how PR could be measured in a way that linked directly to business KPIs. As I’ve said the industry has been talking for years about the need to move from outputs (the number of clips or readers) to outcomes (changes to perception or behaviour that can be directly credited to PR). There are plenty of apocryphal stories of how reading that one article led effortlessly to a sale, or a campaign enabled a company to shift its market positioning, but one of the major issues is measuring this on a consistent, reliable basis. One of the key issues, particularly for smaller agencies and businesses, is that measurement costs money – and often clients are unwilling to pay for it or don’t see its value. That means it has to come out of budget that would otherwise be spent on PR programmes, lessening what can be done, and meaning agencies may well lose out in beauty parades to rivals that promise more.

4. Think like the board
As Denise Kaufmann of Ketchum said, quoting W. Edward Deming, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” PR needs to understand what senior management is looking for and ensure it is talking the same language. And that means ensuring PR targets directly map to corporate objectives, and are presented in a clear, business language. Think like an MBA and speak data, rather than discussing size and number of clips. This requires a change of mindset, but the potential rewards are enormous in terms of prestige, preserving/growing budgets and being recognised as crucial to the business. Hugh Davies, until recently the corporate affairs director of 3, gave his advice on advancing your PR career: be a team player, be confident, build business understanding, and create a body of evidence to support your ideas if you want to be taken seriously.

And by building trust with the board, the job of PR could also become slightly easier. We’ve all seen PR wonderful campaigns that are quickly undermined by a corporate scandal or cock-up that no-one thought to tell the communications department about until it became a crisis. I’d hate to be a PR person for VW at the moment for example. By stepping up to senior management, PR will at the very least have earlier warning of such issues, rather than having to deal with the aftermath.

It is easy to see PR as a profession that just provides window dressing to an organisation – and in the past PRs have not helped themselves with their behaviour or attitude. But the CIPR East Anglia Conference showed that attitudes are changing, and finally we may be solving our own reputational problems.

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment