In-House Communication – A Business Essential, Not Priced By The Yard

Recently, I came across – not for the first time – the idea of creating a ‘rate card’ for in-house communications activity. Simply put, this is the concept of putting a cost on the team’s time, and on the activity the team carries out. While (normally) the charge would not be passed on to your internal customers, it shows what the service would cost, if  it were. The slide below lists the potential benefits.

(NB I apologise unreservedly to comms2point0, who created the slide. I encountered it via Twitter, and haven’t seen it presented. I do not believe it’s quite the same as I’ve described above – I think it’s a thought experiment, aimed at demonstrating the value of the in-house communication function, to those working within the function itself and amongst its internal customers and stakeholders. I have to acknowledge that – as I have no experience of how things are done in the public sector – the idea may work very well in that context.)

In the cyclical and budget-constrained world of in-house communication, where, I am afraid, there are turf wars and land grabs, creating an agency in-house is a genuinely risky course of action.

I understand what drives this thinking. Very often, the in-house communication function is (or appears to be) undervalued and thus is under-utilised (or utilised in the wrong way) and inevitably under-funded. No matter how often it tells its story or sets out its stall, at other teams’ meetings, through its own channels and tools, or on a one-to-one, it’s an uphill struggle.

Little or no value is attributed to in-house communication (exceptions may be found at C-Suite and ExComm levels) and no-one wants to engage with it – unless they have a specific story to tell, or the organisation is in crisis. Even then, many senior managers will enrol external communication advisers, apparently based on the premise that if you pay for it, then it’s worth more.

So the temptation is to put a cost on the work that’s being done in-house. Not to actually charge anybody, but to demonstrate the value. The problem is that, once done, it’s open to attack. Marketing will say that their agency can do it cheaper. Procurement will get involved in buying print and video. Continuous improvement will demonstrate how processes can be streamlined to require less manpower. Finance will question the numbers. Finance always question the numbers. And then cut the budget.

It doesn’t work. It’s like trying to assess the value in a painting by pricing up the paint, brushes, canvas and frame. Someone can always get the materials cheaper – but what they can’t buy is the knowledge of how to put them together.

The value in in-house communication lies in its strategic approach, bound to the strategy of the organisation. It’s in the team’s depth of knowledge of the business. It’s in its role as a trusted advisor. It’s in its network of contacts throughout the body corporate, and the intuitive way it helps the body function. It’s in its appreciation of business and organisational imperatives, and its understanding of how best to serve them.

No other function does this. It is invaluable – you can’t put a price on any of it.

Corporate Reputation – No Place for Newspeak

Corporate reputation is not enhanced by the continuing trend for elitist and alternative job titles, and neither are levels of employee engagement (or motivation or trust – whatever you care to call it).  Guru or ninja, black belt or master, ‘innovation sherpa’, ‘fashion evangelist’ or ‘digital prophet’ (yes, really) these titles muddy the waters instead of clarifying them, close doors instead of opening them and make it more difficult for the outside world to relate to the company or organisation in question.

In the same way, internal or external audience opinion of, or reaction to, a company or product cannot be improved by simply changing the way things are described. A recent BBC article, entitled ‘Why d0 some companies ban certain words?’, provided the quite brilliant example of  Davio’s, a chain of steakhouses in the US, where the CEO has banned the word ’employee’ and replaced it with ‘inner guest’.

I learnt that companies like Apple and General Motors have taken action with employees to avoid the use of words that might be perceived as ‘negative’ – like ‘bug’ and ‘crash, ‘defect’ and ‘flawed’ and – terrifyingly enough, ‘death-trap’.

Clearly banning the use of ‘death-trap’ if your employees were actually using it to describe your products is not going to solve the problem, mitigate against reputational damage, or assist in dealing with the crisis that’s bound to ensue.

As an aside, it is exactly in a crisis situation, however, where a possible exception to this can be found.  In a crisis situation, avoiding – and providing alternatives to – emotive and dramatic language can help prevent the escalation of an issue (particularly in media terms), the results of which will help no-one. Still, it is a difficult road to tread, and the approach must be dictated by the nature and scale of the issue.

In the cases cited above, however, a company has attempted to do away with everyday issues faced by customers by changing the names of the issues. And it’s not like the customer isn’t going to spot it – and when they do, they will feel patronised, undervalued and taken for granted. The effect on your employees is going to be similar. Telling people how to communicate (including banning of words), strange new job titles – they’re going to feel talked-down-to, they’re going to feel out-of-touch and they’re going to be disengaged.

The issue is threefold. First off, it’s not authentic. Second, it’s not transparent (in the sense that something is clearly being avoided). Third – and maybe most important – it’s slightly ridiculous.

Like most things in communication, let common sense prevail. If you’ve got a bug, call it a bug and offer a solution. If it’s crashed, repair it. If there’s a defect, then it’s a defect – so fix it or replace it. If you’re building deathtraps, stop it immediately, before you’re in a position where you have explain why you did. And don’t worry about what you call your employees – find ways to involve and reward them, and always keep them informed.

Be honest, be upfront, tell it like it is. Trust and belief enhance corporate reputation and deliver an engaged workforce.

We Need To Talk About PR and Communication….

Quite the week.

  • Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for breaching ethical standards with a campaign that the association’s DG called ‘absolutely unthinkable’.
  • As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I was stunned to learn that – according to a press release issued in May (which I’d not seen, to my chagrin) – after grace period one year, members found using AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents) as measurement will be liable to disciplinary action.
  • As a LinkedIn member, I added a response to an open request for ‘personal take(s) on communications’ core purpose’ -reading the other 15 responses, I saw the words trust, diplomacy, influencing, reputation, behaviours – but nowhere did I see the word ‘selling’.

Recently I published a piece entitled ‘What’s the Value of PR’ (feel free to have a read) in which I proposed that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now – this is an abridged version:

  • The communication industry has an image problem
  • There is no workable, affordable, industry-standard evaluation methodology for communication activity
  • Communication is still chasing its seat at the top table

The first two are self-explanatory.

  • To the outside world, the communication professional is a spin doctor or a celebrity publicist or Edina Monsoon. Those with a greater level of understanding see the role as that of an eminence grise, and not in (if there is one) a good way. On the inside, the communication professional is seen as an event organiser, a clearer-up of messes, a corporate policeman, a scriptwriter and someone to answer queries from difficult customers. The perception problem is not helped by Bell Pottingergate, nor by tweets such as the one seen this morning “You know your (sic) work for a #PR agency when……you hear a champagne cork pop before 9am!”
  • A massive amount of good work has been done, by AMEC and others, to achieve some consensus on the issue of evaluation. The CIPR – and in fairness, the organisation has since indicated that its intention is not to punish – is to publish its guidelines this autumn, and hopes to kill AVE stone dead. The problem is that any form of meaningful evaluation is costly and labour-intensive and for those with pared-back budgets, it’s not feasible. Thus, we are presented with a choice between sacrificing a sizeable proportion of our budget, or doing nothing.

The third is about the function of communication:

  • Communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. It may not all be about directly shifting widgets – it could be about encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

There are other issues, of course – such as the fact that communication works in silos (internal, external, digital, issues management, public affairs) when, quite clearly, to have an holistic view (and to guarantee clarity of message) all communication disciplines should be but different faces of the same object.

Image, function and measurement are the big ones, however, and have been for years. Unfortunately – and with no disrespect to the PRCA or the CIPR, who are herding cats, and making a good fist of it – improvement is up to everyone who works in the industry, and as we’ve learned this week, it only takes one to reinforce and renew the general misconceptions.

What’s the value of PR?

30 years. That’s how long I’ve been treading the Way of the Communicator, seeking communication enlightenment and the meaning of – well, different things actually – currently I’m seeking the meaning of ‘agility’. Which, I’m afraid, has a whiff of new clothes about it. But that’s another story.

In the last month or so, I’ve been reminded (not for the first time) that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now, and there’s continued talk around them, emphasis on their importance, and yet no coherent, industry-wide, workable solutions. Big issues like – and in no particular order:

  • The communication industry’s image problem
  • The evaluation of communication activity
  • A seat at the top table for the communication function (‘trusted advisor’)
  • The communication silos that the industry works in (internal vs external vs public affairs vs reputation management)
  • The ownership of communication, how it should be described and where it should sit
  • Why is communication necessary – explaining the value that it adds (as distinct from measuring its effects)

Recent triggers have been an article on evaluation, demonstrating that, despite all the great work done by AMEC, there’s still not an affordable, workable, industry-standard communication evaluation model (and that AVE actually ain’t all bad); and a piece that talked about the benefits to be gained from bringing internal and external communication together – the implication being that they are, currently, separate things. Should you so wish, you can read some thoughts on these two things here and here and a previous piece (prescient, but lightweight) on PR’s image problem here.

More recently there was this statement on Twitter. “Public relations (& corporate comms) is/always will be, about ‘reputation, value & relationship building.’ Not selling stuff.” In fairness, it’s not clear whether it’s serious, or whether it’s tongue in cheek – but either way, it’s a sad indictment of our industry – that people actually believe communication is not about selling (and they do), or that people are so aware that it’s a prevalent belief, they find it necessary to poke fun.

Thing is, communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. Agreed, it may not all be about directly shifting widgets, or encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

To distance communication from ‘selling stuff’ alienates it from a large part of the organisation that it should be serving, shuts it off from key insights provided by sales data and customer contact, demonstrates an elitist, ivory-tower mentality and prevents it taking the holistic overview of the organisation that would make it so valuable. Most importantly, it relegates communication to niche-player status. Marketing, the traditional adversary of communication, with the bigger budgets and the bigger offices, embraces selling – and communication still needs to learn that lesson.

Addressing this ‘we don’t do sales’ mentality would go a long way to identifying solutions to some of the long-standing issues. People tend to take you more seriously if you deliver against the bottom line – or, at the very least, understand where the bottom line is and how you can impact it. That delivery/understanding will undoubtedly help in getting communication the seat at the top table. Being seen to generate tangible business benefit adds weight to a function and helps others place it.

Being familiar with what drives business success – along with wider comprehension of social and political issues, allied with a feel for the media agenda – positions communication professionals as trusted strategic advisers, and moves us closer to where we want to be.

Here’s a piece (from prnewsonline.com, by Seth Arenstein) entitled ‘PR Pros as Strategic Advisers, an Where it Goes From Here.’ Good read, as it assumes the communicator’s role as strategic adviser, even though, to my mind, there’s not enough about ‘selling stuff’ i.e. being a part of the business beyond managing reputation and crafting the message. It does, however, contains the following quotation “You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only. You must have tremendous business acumen.” To coin a phrase – that’s what I’m talking about.

Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)

 

Corporate Reputation: Not enhanced by Gurus, Black Belts, Ninjas or Masters

Way back when – 1985, to be precise – a gentleman called Nick Graham founded an underwear company called Joe Boxer, and appointed himself Chief Underpants Officer. And why not? It was irreverent and amusing and – this is the key element – it reflected what the company actually did, and his role in it. His claim that “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir” provides insight into his thinking and an interesting take on customer relations, not suitable for all, but worth a moment’s consideration.

The point is that it is possible to break away from the conventions of job titles and role profiles – Chief Executive Officer, Sales Director, National Accounts Manager, Head of Human Resources, IT Analyst – and, in so doing, enhance corporate reputation and make a clear statement about strategic direction.

This piece, by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester for the BBC, provides a couple of further examples. Let’s hear it for the Captain of Moonshots at Google, who heads up research and development (and whose name, brilliantly enough, is Astro Teller). And take a bow, Berkshire Hathaway’s Director of Chaos, who manages the organisation of the company’s annual shareholder bunfight. From the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s not forget the sandwich artists at Subway.

There’s a point to all of these and even Captain of Moonshots is sufficiently evocative that it’s clear what the job entails and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs/merits an extraordinary descriptor. However, there is a newer and perhaps slightly worrying trend towards ‘differently naming’ roles and positions, and Sir Cary’s article goes on to discuss it.

Coming from the private sector, and having worked in environments where ‘process efficiencies’ and ‘continuous improvement’ (read cost saving and downsizing) had become central to the culture of the business, I am no stranger to people with ‘guru’ in their title. I have met those called ‘ninja’. I have held meetings with ‘commercial black belts’ – people whom, I suppose, will cripple you on price.

Sir Cary says that incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation.  All of this stuff surely adds value, but not knowing what the job title means, it’s difficult to ask the right questions about the job, and not asking the right questions means not getting the right answers, and thus not being certain of the value added. But, and going back to what the Chief Underpants Officer said, an organisation which allows incomprehensible, and above all unfriendly and slightly intimidating, job titles – for whatever reason – is not going to have the cultural mindset to be an amusement park for its customers.

For the record, the latest examples appear to be the job titles of ‘scrum master’ and ‘agilist’. The first, ‘scrum master’, gives little clue to what it might be, save (for me anyway) a vague sense of foreboding that it might involve large, sweaty men tearing each other’s shorts. The latter, ‘agilist’, for which you can train and obtain a qualification, is someone who promotes agility in an organisation (I think). And – as an aside – for anyone who’s ever spent time in a large organisation – well, I don’t have to tell you how well that’s going to work.

So what does it all mean for the Corporate Affairs/Corporate Reputation manager? Well, it’s an object lesson in how reputation enhancement and good public relations start at home. An internal view is as important as an external one. It’s no good focusing on overall customer experience and corporate image if – to over-extend the metaphor – your publics cannot relate to those who run the amusement park. And if the corporate culture allows for ninjas, black belts, gurus and masters – then it’s probably about due an overhaul.

London 2012 – The Final Tickety Straw

‘Morning all. Sun’s shining in old London Town – clearly, not for long – but, in this brief respite, the place doesn’t look too bad. The quiet before the storm. A little bit of peace before it all goes to hell in a handcart, thanks to the idiots who thought it would be a good idea to host the Olympic Games in England’s green and pleasant land.

Only it’s not in England’s green and pleasant land, is it? Despite what Danny Boyle and his certifiably insane plans for an opening ceremony would try and have you believe. Nope – it’s on a brownfield site in East London (which – in fairness – has scrubbed up quite well and has been nicely designed) serviced by, I am afraid, rickety and unsound public transport links. Upon which the majority of the extra million people expected in London for the two week period will be expected to cram, cattle-like, for their undoubtedly slow and disrupted journey to the Olympic Park (and surrounding venues).

I say the majority, because (obviously) the ‘Olympic Family’ will be whisked (although some will not need it, as they will already be light and fluffy) via fatman BMW directly to the Olympic venue of their choice along specially sequestered Olympic Routes. Those of us Londoners who might wish to go for a bit of a drive will be fined £130 if we stray into these Lanes of Privilege, and our families will be shot. (OK, I made that last bit up.) So we’ll have to go on the overcrowded public, along with the horrible unwashed spectators – and therefore we’ve been advised to leave home at 0430, and stay at work until midnight, so that our daily commute doesn’t have an adverse effect on the capacity of London’s public transport to get the Olympic sheep to the Olympic park, to be properly fleeced by the biggest McDonalds in the world, where you can only pay with Visa.

Is it just me?

Anyway – and obviously – many workers will simply ‘work from home’. Which is a simple euphemism for ‘not have a shave, slob around in dressing gown, enjoy a pub lunch, do a couple of emails, go back to the pub’. The financial impact on London will be enormous – businesses will be haemorrhaging cash and productivity – except, of course, Maccy D’s, Visa, Coke and the other TOP sponsors who will (see above) fleece the Olympic sheep and then take their ill-gotten gains offshore. No Olympic Games (apparently) has ever made its host city any money. There are doubts over the Olympic ‘legacy’. (Cracked paving slabs, rusting fences and weeds, for my money.) And all of this has cost Londoners – and only Londoners, lest anyone think this burden has been shared around the UK – dear. Billions of pounds. Funded by increased taxation.

So you’d think that Londoners – in return for disruption, chaos, upheaval and long-term financial burden – would get something in return. (No, LOCOG and GLA, not pride in the ‘legacy’, not satisfaction in a ‘job well done’, not the promise of jam tomorrow – something concrete. Something now.) Something like – well, what can I think of that might compensate me and my family? Ah yes! Got it!

Some tickets!

Ah – say LOCOG, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads. No, sorry. Tickets all gone. Actually, hold on, you could see the tiddlywinks at the Milton Keynes Bowl? No? Well, sorry, then. Tickets all gone. You did take part in ballot? Yes? And the second one? Yes? No tickets? Oh, well – at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that London did the IOC proud.

So. Chaos. Disruption. Penury. And nothing to show for it.

And then, this morning, in the UK’s free morning paper – The Metro – an advert from Prestige Tickets. We still have tickets, they say, to a range of events, including the athletics – get them while they’re hot, they say. Before they run out, they say. At £595 a ticket, they say.

On their journeys into work this morning, hundreds of thousands of ticketless Londoners, contemplating a summer of difficulty, for which they’ve been forced to pay, in the cause of an event they’ll never see, had their noses rubbed in it, adding the final insult to their forthcoming injury.

The London 2012 Olympic Games. They suck.