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.

 

 

A Response From Orange, Mobile Network Provider of This Parish

So, Blog Snorkellers all, I got my mobile network problems sorted and am now up and running with email onna go. Amazing how quickly these things get sorted when you loop in the senior personnel of a company.

In fairness to Everything Everywhere – I sent an email to their CEO, CMO and Chief Performance Officer late on a Wednesday evening and by Thursday midday, everything had been rectified. I got an email from the CMO and a ‘phone call from the office of the CEO. It became the sort of experience that, as a loyal customer of ten years’ standing, I would have expected from the off. (Well, I don’t actually expect a ‘phone call from the CEO’s office, every time I renew my contract, but I do expect easy and quick.)

But I guess you can see where I’m going with this. Why does it take several hundred words of borderline crazy rantiness, delivered directly to the C-Suite, to get a result?

This is the digital age. This is the age where anyone can broadcast their thoughts and opinions far and wide, easily and instantaneously. As my faithful few followers will know, I’m not a fan of social media – but I do recognise that where it comes into its own is during a crisis, either as a response, or as a crisis creator.

Customer service is key. No matter how good your corporate reputation, no matter how loyal your customers, they can be turned against you almost immediately by one person’s bad experience. In days gone by, you could let it slip occasionally, safe in the knowledge that – as long as no-one died, and you didn’t annoy a journalist (or a journalist’s friend) – no-one would find out.

No more. The bigger you are, the more important it becomes that you get it right every time.

A learning, I think.

Corporate Communications – Trends for 2011

I don’t really know what I was doing, publishing an overview of communications trends for 2011 – and here’s the good bit – more than halfway through 2011. I was either bored, or labouring under delusions of grandeur and importance, or I was temporarily insane. Possibly for tax reasons. In any case, I’ve just re-visited this post and, with my delusional grandiose Hat of Importance on my head, it is actually quite good.

And it stands up for 2017, also. I’m brilliant, me.

It has been a mighty long time, blog trotters mine, a mighty long time. I’d like to say that it’s because I’ve been doing something incredibly exciting, dangerous and isolated for the last however many months it has been since my last post – like single-handedly piloting a spaceship to Venus, without either lights or a radio, or breaking the world record for lying immobile and silent in a flotation tank.

But, of course, I haven’t. Simply been busy, mind on other stuff, d’you see.

Anyway, without further ado, guess what is the most popular post on my blog? Actually, that’s unfair, it would take you days to trawl through all the posts and even then you’d still be guessing, so I will go ahead and tell you – it’s this.

It seems there are a lot of people out there looking for guidance as to where the Corp Comms industry is going – so desperate are they for answers, any answers, that they’ll even read my blog which, as my faithful followers will attest, is to be found sticking, damply, to the bottom of the internet’s barrel.

Today, therefore, I am – without any source material, without any proof points and without any visible means of support – going to bring you what I believe to be the current Corporate Communications trends in 2011. I think publishing this on July 15 gives you ample amounts of year left in which to follow my trends, slavishly. (It’s very important that they are followed slavishly. Makes all the difference.)

1) Social media. Despite my best efforts and those of the small band of underground Luddites like me, social is showing no signs of going away, and I am afraid, sickening though it is, we are going to have to participate. I myself have just updated the Twitter account that I have never used since I opened it in 2009, and I am going to have a right good twat, when I can think of something useful to contribute. What is interesting, however, is that when we talk about social, we no longer, necessarily, mean Facebook, as even the most weak-minded amongst us is beginning to realise that Zuckerberg is an odious turd who simply wants to control. (Parellels between Murdoch and Zuckerberg anyone?)

The role social media plays in a corporate context will, of course, depend on what sort of corporate you are. Simply put – if you’re an airline, then Twitter is good for twatterating about your routes and your schedules. If you are a global firm of accountants, no amount of Facebooking is going to make you interesting. Know your audience, know yourself, take approriate action.

2) Austerity is with us every waking, breathing day – things are not getting better (unless you’re the Scots couple who won £161m on Monday – why have they waived their right to anonymity? Why?) and it looks like it might get worse – so if you’re talking to the end user, empathise with them and – if you can – give them something. They will love you for it. Especially if it’s beer, or pizza or a free holiday. Do not underestimate the shallow needs of the impoverished.

3) Also driven by austerity is the need for inclusion – we’re all in this together, even if we’re not – so when formulating comms plans, be part of the group you’re talking to, think the things they’re thinking, watch the stuff they’re watching, eat the food they’re eating. This maybe very nasty, if your medium is the Daily Mail, but trust me, no-one’s listening to stuff that doesn’t come from within.

4) Austerity, the threat of a winter of discontent, rising fuel prices (incidentally, if – dear reader – you work for an energy company and you’re searching for a way to make your company/executives look good – I’m sorry, you are a reprehensible reptile and there is nothing for you here), rising taxes, perhaps even rising interest rates – we need something to snigger at. Do communicate with humour, there’s a chap – it should be clever and whimsical and it should make ’em laugh.

5) Transparency is an old ideal, but let’s remind ourselves that without transparency, you don’t have trust and without trust you don’t have any sort of relationship. More and more important these days – we’re all feeling threatened, we’re all worried about the future and no-one’s goingto be loyal to anyone or anything unless they’re certain it’s clean, and they can see what makes it tick. And if you feel you can’t be transparent then, for goodness sake, go away and clean yourself up until you can.

6) Working together – another much-vaunted ideal – but one that’s still conspicuous by its absence. what it means is simply eschewing the cult of the ego, realising that it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from if the idea is the right one and all pulling together to make it effective. That’s PR and advertising and marketing and direct mail and digital. It also means being polite to each other and playing nicely. This way, everyone’s interest is served. Honest.

So this is where I think we’re going in 2011. I’d be interested to know what others (anyone?) think.