Passion or cold hearted calculation in communications?*

As a PR, I hear a lot about “passion”. “He/she really demonstrated their passion for this project” is a classic PR phrase. I hear my colleagues say they’re passionate about their brands and clients and working environments.

Then I listen to the stories colleagues and peers tell about great campaigns they’ve run or been a part of and see they way their eyes light up, and are a window onto their souls. They really are passionate, animated. They care. There’s no way that they could put in the hours, gain the coverage they have, without really believing in what they do. Believe me, it’s not the money as most PR people are not well paid compared to other graduate trades. You’ve got to want to do this.

Whether its shifting make up to 15 year olds or selling stock to fund managers, that inner belief, passion, commitment, whatever you want to call it, can really make the difference.

And yet…

When you’re the most excited, when you really care, when things are seriously on the line, human beings screw up. Not just a little bit either. Passion can be the catalyst for the mother of all cock ups, either professionally or personally speaking. Just look at the debate over shale gas in the UK. Passion has turned into shrill hectoring.

It might be my nasty British / Irish cynical soul but I find the constantly positive, passionate communicator deeply tiresome. What’s that? This is the worlds greatest doll, food, restaurant, investment, company, pop star, again? For the 10th time this year? Do me a favour and chill out.

So what’s the other side of the coin? Ruthless pragmatism? Steely, cold eyed objectivity? Fearless client counsel that is given no matter the personal cost? “TCUP” so beloved of Clive Woodward, “thinking clearly under pressure”?

Some of the most famous and successful men and women the world over have demonstrated the poise, what a certain sort of (almost certainly) man would have referred to as “grace under fire”. The ability to make cold decisions under pressure no matter what the cost, and certainly not bringing anything so subjective as “passion” to bear.

If we’re talking real fire, Guy Gibson VC is a good example. On the Dambusters raid, his VC was far from ceremonial. By repeatedly flying decoy runs over the dams, he drew the enemy’s fire, thereby allowing his subordinates an easier run than would have been the case. This decision was made under incredible physical and mental pressure, was cold hard logic; “If they’re shooting at me, they can’t shoot at my comrades”. It was the right decision as 2 damns were successfully destroyed, as would almost certainly not have happened if Gibson had not drawn fire. I doubt his crew were overjoyed however.

Business men and women and politicians face similar challenges. Firing long term colleagues that no longer cut it. Taking balanced risks to drive new revenues. Entering new markets. John Brown was thought of as mad to go back to Russia, and whilst there were squeaky moments, the TNK deal made more money than Han Solo could possibly imagine. The Tories got rid of Thatcher, their most successful post war leader, because they correctly analysed that she was unelectable. Major won the next election.

So is cold, hard pragmatism the way forwards?

Nay, nay and thrice nay.

Just as unbridled passion will eventually consume you, so will constant pragmatism lead to a bitter and twisted end. I’ll leave you to think of whom I might be thinking of.

To be an effective communicator, i do believe you’ve got to give a sh#t. You need to care about the subject in hand to be an effective advocate for your client. Our main targets can smell insincerity. However, unless you’re some sort of mind bender that can convince the most devout Sunni to eat bacon sandwiches on an ongoing basis, you need to introduce an element of realism.

There’s always the point where a great creative idea just goes too far. What was a brilliant idea is ruined by a puppyish enthusiasm to take every bit of value from it. What was an intelligent and thoughtful strategy failed to gain break through because of a lack of tactical enthusiasm.

Guy Gibson cared passionately about the mission being a success. Major believed equally passionately (unlike any Blewer) that the UK was better off with a Conservative government. They then took the painful decisions that required guts, intelligence, resilience that were driven by, dare I say it, passion and they were successful.

So where does this leave the debate?

As ever in life it’s a compromise. Personally, as is now clear, I distrust professional passion as it can so often turn into insincerity. Being seen to try too hard ruins the argument. (hello shale gas) However I understand passion is a vital weapon in the communicator’s armoury, as long as it is tempered by a colleague that knows when enough is enough and that the velvet glove should be slipped over an iron fist.

So what’s the conclusion?

You need to understand your personality. Either you work as part of a team where your skills dovetail with a near polar opposite, or you develop a near schizophrenic capability to be different people at different times; one minute cold, dispassionate, calculating and the next, a tiggerish, wide eyed ingenue, who believes in their cause, no matter what it is.

It will get results, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when non communications people don’t understand us.

* I should note I’ve spent all my post grad and professional life around capital markets, energy commodities and geopolitics. Not much idealism here.


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