The challenges of defining PR and casting out the undesirables

This post was generated by a comment by a senior and highly respected PR advisor on a moderated Facebook group who said,

I’ll be unpopular but I’ve said it publicly. I don’t recognise what DC does as PR. It’s political propaganda & there is a difference. There is a reason why spin doctors don’t join the CIPR or PRCA and that is they have no moral compass or ethical framework. The GCS does government PR and while I don’t always agree with what they do it is done to standards with insight and evaluation. I know many of you will say I’m being naive but I’ve spent over 20 years navigating the minefield of ethics and politicians. You have to stand up and call out the unethical behaviour and you can only do that if you are prepared to resign.

My response to this is that I broadly agree with the sentiment. I agree with the core aspiration – to work within an industry where ethical and moral standards are enforced. By and large we do, or at least significant steps have been made and the leadership of CIPR and PRCA in the UK should be recognised.

However, I also (respectfully) think there’s a bit of aspirational over reach here. To define what PR advisors are and are not – and by definition what they are prepared to do and what they should not be prepared to do, we have to look outside our own perception of the industry and consider how other publics consider us.

To outsiders, if someone constructs things out of wood, they’re a carpenter. The same can be said of brickie, sparkies and scaffs. But what if one of them says, “I’m a mason” or “I’m a cabinet marker?” Are they still a brickie or chip, or are they something fundamentally different? In PR, definitions are still developing, despite there being examples of our forebears – or those of Cummings – for millennia. If there’s confusion about the designation of someone that builds you a house, how the hell are we going to be able to consistently define what we do?

Clients / employers want to understand what they’re buying. What are you going to do for me and what will be the result? On this basis, one could argue that what Dom Cummings did for both Vote Leave and the current UK government is very close in terms of generalised commercial offerings to what multiple CIPR, PRCA or nonaligned but multimillion £ value firms offer to clients, just without the vital moral or ethical core.

We are hired to persuade multiple audiences to develop or change their perception of a specific issue, thought process or product, and to persuade them to take action in some way. Whether that is buy a product, vote for a political party of buy shares in a company.

To reuse one of my favourite analogies, once can be a soldier as a servant of a legitimate sovereign state and be respected for one’s profession and one’s commitment to it, serving with honour and respect. One can be an honourable mercenary (Gurkhas / LE / respectable PMCs) that abides by the laws of war. Or one can be scum of the earth (Blackwater) and have no rules.

However, they can all be called “soldiers”. They all effectively do the same thing.

BUT. There’s more complexity. These are not necessarily simple distinctions. Look up the Phoenix Program run by US professional soldiers in Sth East Asia. Look up the FRU operations of professional British army soldiers in Northern Ireland. Let’s not even start with the work of legitimate intelligence and COIN /CT operations sanctioned today by democratic sovereign states.

Once could argue that it’s the same with Public Relations. There are a number of well-known strategic communications advisory consultancies (I’m being careful not to name names of some of the highest profile and most highly remunerated firms and individuals) where the entire portfolio of communications tools is offered to certain clients, if the price is right.  They have their own version of the Phoenix Program somewhere hiding in plain sight.

Many if not all or the best known of these firms are PRCA or CIPR connected, and that the majority of the employees do what most people would think of as “PR”. Strategy, messaging, media and / or stakeholder relations, content creation etc. The funky stuff is not the bread and butter. The average client will hire them for the same reason they hire any other PR firm. They will have met a senior person at the pitch and won’t see them again. There will be a 30 something account lead and a couple of 20 something tactical operators and the basic objective will be to drive positive media coverage for a standard objective.

Its also not necessarily as cut and dried as it was at Bell Pottinger where a small team was clearly operating outside accepted standards – even if that work was a high profile but low % of the average BP employee. The 7* hotel complex that a PR firm has been paid over the odds to get luxury media coverage for is in a disputed territory and is really a geopolitical tool, not a holiday destination. That country with a major education platform that will transform the country and more importantly its geopolitical perceotion, so that diplomats will ignore the funding of insurgent forces across the region.

Should or even can these firms be specifically branded as NOT public relations advisors because they occasionally work on very highly paid (geo)political projects that don’t fit with our varying moral compasses?

I therefore don’t think we’ve necessarily yet reached the evolution of our profession where we can say X person or Y company is beyond the pale because they work for a certain sort of client or they do their work in a certain way – unless perhaps that is all they do. But they won’t care what we think about them, because they’ve already committed to the dark side.

So, my conclusion? Call out bad practice where you see it. Call out hypocrisy. But I’m not sure we can say “they’re not PR” people because they lie or work for abhorrent clients. The best we can hope is to brand them as renegade operators that if hired, come with their own moral stigma.

And I would urge all my peers to remember that sometimes the good guy / girl wearing a white hat that you really like and respect? S/He’s got a friend standing behind you dressed in black about to blow your spine out.

“A Certain Point Of View”

 

One of the funny things about being a comms person are the situations where there are equally valid points of view on a highly charged situation.

Take the engagement between, say, a large energy company and an environmental NGO. Both can effectively and objectively  communicate the almost binary opposite position in good faith.

Journos and stakeholders get told an awful lot of things through the prism of “a certain point of view”. Mostly they accept that as part of the job and understand that committed professional communications practitioners are by and large positive actors because we can provide both the necessary information but also the context that frames it

“Facts” are nothing without a wider context through which they can be fully to understood.

What is interesting about the Cummings situation is that a number of journalists and few members of the wider UK political establishment believe they have caught someone spouting full on lies that demonstrate a pretty amazing level of personal hypocrisy, and therefore, they won’t let it go.

This is a step or two further than the raised eyebrow or even the tougher questioning that I’ve received following telling my side of the story, “from a certain point of view “.

Is it personal dislike of Cummings? Is it political? Is it looking to sell more newspapers?

Sure, it could be all three and we should not ignore these issues. However, it would appear that the Government comms effort of the last few days has entirely failed to convince the majority of the country (see the poll in today’s Daily Mail) that their point of view is legitimate or acceptable.

For one of the first times in my professional experience the word “lie” is being used on a regular basis from people that the Government are meant to be trying to persuade.

It is quite rare that “a certain point of view” is so thoroughly rejected.

What happens next, it will be interesting.

The media are not the enemy of free speech – but those that say they are might be

media

If you spend much time on social media, you will probably have noticed more and more the UK version of US politically motivated actors looking to damage the perception of “the media” or any stakeholder group that might have an opinion that does not converge with that of their own.

This has obviously this has been happening for some time. I’m not pretending to be some sort of sage spotting future trends. We saw how Trump used multiple owned channels to engage directly with his publics and then encourage sharing of content to control the narrative and gain traction by effectively bypassing the much of the traditional media whilst simultaneously looking to denigrate them so as to negate the effects of criticism.

You can see the same tactics used by the Corbynite left in the past few years. Bypass a largely hostile traditional media to focus on direct engagement, owned channels and using outriders on their social channels to create significant noise, including a lot of criticism of traditional media that sounded very like that leveled at the same media organisations by those a long way to the right of Momentum, Novara and the Canary.

Coming back to today (yesterday) in the UK, when you have actors as far apart as Frankie Boyle (https://twitter.com/frankieboyle/status/1254701518290399235) and Tim Montgomerie (https://twitter.com/montie/status/1254769786803765248) both biffing on about whether the media can be trusted, one could argue that the trolls have begun to win the war; the question of media bias / efficacy / fit for purpose is already well under way.

Spending too long trawling through social media feeds of various different political commentators and their public relations / affairs outriders, it doesn’t feel that they’ve started a debate about whether “the media is representative” because they care about objectivity. There is constant, clearly planned attack. They want to denigrate the media so that they can better “control the narrative” and persuade people to support their broad selection of causes. “Don’t listen to those out of touch metropolitan élite journalists. Listen to me instead. I understand you”.

There is a growing trend to avoid playing the ball and simply play the man. Take Guido Fawkes attack on the BBC tonight – https://twitter.com/MediaGuido/status/1255131746162507785. God knows I’ve had challenging engagements when dealing with the BBC and inherent bias which became even more apparent in private discussion with editorial staff. However there was also genuine attempts to engage with arguments and issues that they found unpleasant and I rarely felt personally judged. Unlike Guido who didn’t even both engaging with the argument or content of BBC Panorama program in a series of tweets. He’s running straight on the “you can’t believe what they say so don’t listen” argument.

It’s anecdotal but I’ve chatted to a couple of mates who are well and truly outside the media / politics bubble recently where they’ve repeated this standard rubric to a point where they sound like they’ve been groomed by extremists. “The media don’t know what they’re talking about” or “What right do they have to print that?”. The arguments are resonating outside of their immediate constituency.

So what are the media doing wrong – if anything? In a free society journos should be questioning, looking to better understand and therefore inform, educate and entertain their audience. This means that they will get things (honestly) wrong. Or they will publish legitimately argued opinion that will contradict what your tribe believes.

In general, good; publish and be damned. Unless it’s about my employer or client – for avoidance of doubt, this is a joke. I’d prefer this to “group think” of either ideological and / or state control. But those that wish to control all levels of communications and debate can’t stand it. They want to reach their audience directly; to control the emotional engagement with the news and therefore influence society’s decision making processes.

The constant criticism of “the media” has now reached a fever pitch. COVID has taken the safety catch of certain actors and they are in full on attack mode, stating that the media have “read the country wrong” or are “too negative”. The constant repetition is classic propaganda / comms / marketing theory. Take a simple phrase and repeat it constantly to create an impression, whether it’s objective or not. It is perhaps blackly humorous that that in this case it’s designed to discredit the audience society should rely on for objective commentary.

Of course “the media” aren’t blameless. The ultra competitive nature of the profession combined with governance and editorial systems that are manipulated by certain sorts of operators (some who you might of thought of as the goodies) can lead to surprising publication / broadcast decisions that a little while later, in the full light of day, might regretted. The system we have in place leaves media organisations and individual journalists open to a certain amount of manipulation by those that may look to align their interests with those of a newspaper or simply offer a scoop or titbit of information that meets the needs of the journo / news org and whomever provided the information. Or by those with expensive PR firms and legal advisors prepared to play chicken with relatively impoverished media organisations.

I also think that some journalists are overfond of the role of (appearing to) “speak the truth to power” – including their rather poorly educated understanding of how comms works in organisations beyond talking to them.

However, if one adds in the ongoing challenge of media p&l digital age and the average hack and media organisation is assailed on all sides. By those that wish to dismiss whatever they publish or broadcast because it doesn’t fit the narrative, by the balance sheet and by people like me trying to persuade them to look on my arguments favourably. Who’d be a journalist?

Some of the best and brightest one would hope. At least it means I can be informed and entertained when I consume news throughout the day.

So maybe we should all stand back and take a breath before we criticise “the media” again? Unless we want to live in a world where all government decisions are praised as “brave” and all corporate moves and to be welcomed as “innovative”

Who wants a newspaper that reads like a bloody press release?

The Honourable Mercenary Part 2: Do you have to believe to do be an effective PR advisor?

A journalist that I used to speak to, usually when he had a story that included my then clients’ ideological detractors tweeted this which caught my attention and got me thinking.

terry mac (2)

https://twitter.com/TerryMac999/status/1205064123123412992

My response has led to me writing this blog

PB terry (2)

https://twitter.com/Padsky/status/1205066309341532161

I’ve been told by a few people (not Terry) that they were appalled that anyone could be employed to be a mouthpiece for “x” or “y” because they were “the bad guys”. Anyone working with them was a wrongun (I paraphrase). I can broadly generalise, but this really came to the crunch when I was working for “THEM”.

Terry’s tweet engaged me and made me think a bit more about the vote I cast yesterday morning, and the assumption I’ve witnessed when interacting with committed political animals. That it’s either hard or wrong to work a certain sort of job and hold what appear to be diametrically opposed personal views.

On a different but connected level, there has been an ongoing discussion in some parts of the UK PR industry for some time about whether we should publicly embrace ethics and morality to demonstrate professionalism? The counter argument is that lawyers will service anyone so why should PRs not be able to do the same as they act in the court of public opinion?

One hears less of this in the post Bell Pottinger days as it was a favourite line of Tim Bell, however it is worth noting that some of the largest and significantly remunerated PR advisors in the UK are effectively ignoring this debate, either through silence, through ignoring either the CIPR / PRCA or by being members but pretty much ignoring some of the stipulations of membership.

Which leads me to the core question. Is it ethical to advise on PR / reputation for clients or employers where you do not share their beliefs?

As it happens, I know talented ex PR and communications advisors that left the industry due to this issue. They felt they could not gain popular support for projects that they could not themselves support. They had to believe in the cause to be truly committed, and to effectively advocate on its behalf.

To be very clear, I find this an entirely understandable, intellectually logical position and one that it is easy and correct to applaud.

However, it’s not one that has governed my career or those of a number of peers. There is a legitimate role for the outsider. I wrote a piece about my concept of being an honourable mercenary here: https://paddyblewer.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/vive-la-mort-vive-la-guerre-vive-la-legion-etrangere/.

I’m not talking about whether you think a consumer product is / not lifechanging and / or will enhance your performance with the potential sexual partner of your choice. I haven’t done that sort of work so couldn’t comment. I’m really focusing on reputation management and / or strategic communications.

What I do want to consider is advising people / companies / sovereigns that have fundamentally different philosophical, ethical and moral beliefs to your own. Again, restating the core question, “is it acceptable to work for “THEM” if you would also vote for a party that would see the fundamental defenestration of “THEM” from the UK?

One could for instance enjoy a successful career as an outsider in a community that he or she advises from the position of understanding / empathy of their harshest critics.

This creates multiple advantages:

1 – He / she can advise a client / in house leadership on what the opposition thinks far more effectively because the advisor in question is not trapped in the bubble. They don’t necessarily share the same societal and political preconceptions as their client / colleagues. Most importantly, it’s not their job to believe. It’s their job to be effective in reaching specific communications objectives linked to overall strategy.

2 – On the tactical side, it’s a hell of a lot easier engaging with external parties that are hostile if you can craft messaging that will resonate with them because you have a level of empathy and / or sympathy to their POV. You might also gain a little more credibility when engaging with them.

Were I as cynical as I like to suggest, my point might be “use a thief to catch a thief”.  As with all clichés or stereotypes, there is something in this. As my ex colleague and still friend Anastasia Ivanova used to say, “stereotypes save time”. If you want to engage effectively with a specific community, use a representative of that community, not someone that will be treated as “other”. One sees this in a lot of specific roles, for instance luxury sales. However, I think there’s a deeper level of consideration.

Since my earliest years in communications (when Wellington was campaigning in the Peninsula) I’ve always felt that a level of intellectual detachment is vital when engaging around contentious issues. In an ideal world, the communications advisor should be able to detach his or her own feelings from the matter in hand and take a purely objective view of the project and the various different audiences / publics that he or she is employed to influence.

One can make the argument – as I have above –  that either caring passionately about the project in hand, or having a strong understanding of the opposition will crate tactical optionality and efficacy. Both are potentially correct.

What I actually believe is the comms advisor should be able to retain intellectual and emotional objectivity. We should be able to tell the client / colleague how they are viewed by any constituency without any concern that our internal bias has influenced our judgment.

We have to be objective to do our jobs effectively. We have to be able to remove our own personal prejudices and operate with objectivity if we are to be as effective as possible.  We might not like who we work for. We might not agree with the POVs held by the communities that we are paid to influence. But the job has to be done.

Of course there will always be roles that are deeply morally challenging – it won’t matter who you are and where you’ve come from, you either will find a job at the very edge of your ability, or alternatively, you really should not be doing that job and maintain any pretence to professional pride. As with military mercenaries, there will be clients for whom working is beyond the Pale. You know you shouldn’t be doing it, and will be judged correctly for taking on the work. Hence my concept of the “honourable mercenary”

Honour is a strange concept. There’s no universally agreed definition. It is therefore very much a personal judgement, both for the advisor and the way they are viewed by wider audiences. I’ve turned down opportunities to work on projects that I felt I could not maintain a professional detachment, that might surprise some readers. I’ve also taken on roles that have led to criticism. THEM.

In conclusion, my view is that for whomever the communications advisor is working, they should attempt to maintain the objectivity of the honourable mercenary. The assumption that the client isn’t always right and might credibly be seen as the baddies.

We’ve signed on to do a job and we will do it as best we can, not because we necessarily care about the cause but because we are honest professionals. If you take someone’s money, you might as well do the job right.

Maybe I watched too many westerns as a kid – “Ride on / we deal in lead, friend.”

Maybe like Cyrano, I’ve practically lived chapter 13 of Don Quixote.

“Windmills”

 

Prince Andrew Reputation Crisis – Analysis and Lessons to be Learned

This blog will consider these the PR / reputation issues currently being debated, however there’s something far more serious that should be said.

The evil treatment of many girls and young women by a predator who has since killed himself but has left the lives of his victims blighted must be acknowledged as a vile and disgusting act. Trauma, be it physical or psychological, will make us all react differently. I don’t have the level of education to accurately assess the potential consequences of being a victim of Epstein so I’m not going to go into it, but all of those women deserve our sympathy, consideration and discretion.

*********

A senior PR and Communications advisor who I’ve worked adjacent to and continue to respect has commented that “It’s not a bad PR story, it’s his behaviour in the first place” https://twitter.com/wadds/status/1195985610353397761

I feel that this can be seen differently.  Of course, Andrew’s behaviour has been rumoured to be substandard for many years, but it’s always bubbled under the surface. There were all sorts of suggestions about what he used to get up to in Kazakhstan in the mid 2000s and other allegations about his behaviour with women but it was rarely international headline news and the current iteration with Epstein appeared to have gone away.

However, it was Andrew’s decision (and it would appear the buck stopped with him) to put himself on a BBC News interview that directly made this into a much bigger story. He could have kept his head down and got on with things and waited for some of this to go away.

This therefore is a reputational crisis created by the execution of a suboptimal PR strategy that had been designed to persuade a host of audiences that Andrew was a wrongly accused and misunderstood man.

 

Why did he do the interview?

Most reputation focused communications and PR professionals would recognise the decision to film an interview with BBC Newsnight when the principal is under accusation, especially if it really was a case of “ask me anything”, as a high risk strategy. In this case, especially so as Andrew could not deny he had repeatedly consorted with (convicted sex offender) Epstein, stayed at his house, attended social functions etc. Why therefore would Andrew open himself up to potentially reputationally fatal public interrogation?

Men (nearly always men) like Andrew do not lack confidence in their own ability. They are rarely told “no” by anyone and this creates – especially in an environment like a Royal Family where there are few downsides to failure – a culture of invincibility.

CEOs and political leaders, whilst not always the beneficiaries of inherited privilege will often have a lot of confidence in their own ability, because they’ve got to the top. When again combined with few people daring to say “no” to them mistakes can be made.

This creates 2 options for the first consideration, all of which is based on Andrew’s false assumption that he’s a brilliant and strategic communicator with a unique and powerful charisma that can persuade his audience of his position:

a) He feels unfairly wronged and wanted the opportunity to put the record straight, believing that a man such as he would be able to convince his audience of his innocence and that the more lurid accusations simply did not happen

b) He has something to hide but he believes that force of personality and a unique charisma will allow him to charm both the interviewer and audience into submission. Think Bill Clinton or Silvio Berlusconi or Boris Johnson. Obviously dodgy guys across various behaviour considerations but gifted communicators who could get out of a jam through oratory, a wink and a smile. And the strong support of a significant % of the population who would vote for a pig if it was the confirmed candidate for a political party

However, maybe there’s a longer game being played. There are alternative classical PR rationales for this sort of interview

1. You know there’s more bad stuff on the way. Get out in front of it to control the agenda

2. Do a deal with a media company. Don’t publish “x” and I will give you a full no holds barred interview on something else – Tiger Woods was well known in the media world for this before we all got to know about his off course performance.

3. Start the rebuilding process by lancing the boil and asking for forgiveness. Again, Woods is a good example but there are plenty of others in both political, sporting and corporate life. “I did it wrong. Hands up. I’m sorry”.

 

What did the BBC want to get out of the interview?

It appears clear that Andrew believed that he could turn this opportunity into a success.

Well done to the BBC team for giving him this perception. They baited the hook very nicely. It should be made clear here that no media platform ever wants to offer anyone an opportunity to “set the record straight”. Media firms want a number of results from this sort of operation:

1. Get as many eyeballs on their platform as possible

2. Exert editorial control so as to ensure there are no accusations of partiality

The last point is vital for learnings. This was not an opportunity for Andrew to get his point of view across – no matter what was said in advance. The prevailing external dynamic is that Andrew may well have been involved in criminal activity and has certainly consorted with a known felon. Therefore the entire focus of the interview was always going to focus on this. There was an extremely limited opportunity to consider wider issues. The interview only happened because of the accusations and these accusations were always going to be the focus of the interview.

The media don’t care and will not listen to any attempts to mitigate or bring in “what abouts”. The only thing the BBC cared about is whether Andrew was involved in the criminal trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls.

Whether the media genuinely want to search for “the truth” is too philosophical a question for here. I passionately believe that we need a free media to ask questions of the powerful and that they often do. I’m perhaps a little cynical after 18 years and I’d suggest that’s not always the case.

Andrew clearly did not understand this dynamic and was not ready for what was effectively a criminal cross examination. Not a friendly chat.

 

What was he trying to do?

20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. After watching the interview through twice I think it’s fair to say that Andrew lacks the skills, intelligence, charisma, empathy and ability to effectively articulate his thoughts in a manner that would allow him to come out of an encounter with a neutral perception, let alone a positive.

Of course I’m not objective. I’m a “small r” republican (“Paddy the Republican” means something else) and I’ve always hated inherited privilege. Andrew lived down to all my prejudices. The interview itself was a total shit show.

The way he managed the interview demonstrated he’s not used to being questioned and lacks the wit to fence in any way with a sophisticated interrogator such as Emily Maitlis. There should have been hours of practice with his advisors to get him ready to answer the obvious questions with well prepared lines. He should have been able to keep his facial expressions neutral. He should have been able to be in some way relatable to his audience. These skills can be acquired with both a lot of practice, but also a level of humility to engage with your advisors and accept that maybe you don’t know everything.

Above all there should have been an acknowledgement that Epstein was a monster and that his victims deserve sympathy, empathy, justice and discretion.

Secondly there should have been a fundamental denial of the basic accusations made about him. “[looking directly at Maitlis and making eye contact] No. That definitely did not happen. I am deeply sympathetic to the victims of Epstein and the trauma he inflicted on them but I am categorical in my denial of this accusation” – or something like that. Don’t mention criminal activity directly in association with your behaviour whilst on camera, but also fundamentally deny it.

If the interview was meant to be an opportunity to convince the public at large that there was no chance he had been party to the trafficking of women or had raped an underage girl or only just of age woman, then the interview and associated PR strategy was a failure.

 

An alternative rationale for the interview?

The entire interview felt like Andrew wanted to make it a distraction from the issues faced by the victims of Epstein’s crimes and was an attempt to make Andrew look like the victim of the piece.
The arguments over detail such as “It was a shooting party”, “I can’t sweat”, “I don’t party” “positive act” or “Pizza Express” looked suspiciously like trying to degrade the testimony of his accuser(s) rather than truly make it fundamentally clear that he had not had sex with an illegally trafficked minor.

The objective of this approach could be to place doubt in the minds of the audience of the accuracy of witness testimony. If she had got these details wrong, how could she be trusted to know if she had been the beneficiary of a “positive act” (a description that is boorishly masculine and lacking in empathy as pointed out by my wife) by HRH Prince Andrew the Duke of York?

The major reputational challenge about this approach is that it makes it clear that you have a case to answer. It’s a legal defence tactic, not a reputation management defence, because Andrew is attempting to denigrate his detractors, not demonstrate his own purity.

This approach creates the impression that Andrew knows that he is morally guilty but thinks he can either keep it out of court, or he and his team already preparing for legal action.

 

Tactical performance

Andrew’s interaction with Maitlis was also interesting. There were a few small details he jumped on with glee mixed with a huffy and patronising tone of reproach that was deeply unsympathetic. His correction from a “birthday party” to “a fairly normal shooting party” etc that made it appear that he was delighted to be able to get on the front foot and tell her she was wrong about something.

The problem with this approach is that is made the contrast when he was asked some of the really difficult stuff extremely clear. More monotone. More hesitant. Far less definite and sure of himself. It made him look guilty.

If the circumstance was slightly different and he was being cross examined by a barrister in the Old Bailey I don’t think the jury would have found him a particularly credible or sympathetic witness. In particular there was a cough and inability to speak clearly when attempting to answer a particularly difficult question was pure Hollywood melodrama.

This was as sub optimal a performance in an interview as I’ve seen in my life. Unsympathetic, petty, possibly sexist, certainly disdainful of the concept of being criticised.

 

Consequences

Time will tell how successful he’s been. In the short term, I think he’s embarrassed himself and his family. He will have chosen and been given permission to record the interview in a Royal Palace, thereby making this not just about Andrew but the institution of the Monarch and Royal Family – although that might be my prejudices and those of my own echo chamber.

Conversely, the deference generally given to both institutions may well have played in his favour. He wasn’t asked directly “Did you abuse an underage girl?” There were many wounding engagements but no killer blow. Would a simple member of the public, or a corporate executive have been afforded such care?

The decision to go public has turned this into a much bigger deal that it might have been. By proactively engaging with one of the world’s most significant media organisations, Andrew has lost the right to privacy. Dozens of investigative journalists around the world are looking for the big Andrew story. There’s plenty of whispers out there as well. Plenty of copy to be rehashed and reshaped to paint a negative picture of a priapic and not particularly intelligence Prince who thought he could do whatever he wanted and there would be no consequences.

There are already negative consequences with KPMG pulling out of a charity partnership that Andrew had clearly thought would be part of his road to redemption.

In addition as a direct result of the interview there are now calls from further victims of Epstein that Andrew should come to the US to give evidence under oath and potentially be investigated under criminal charges

 

Lessons learned?

Tactically Maitlis played a blinder. Quiet, calm, mostly undemonstrative, she let Andrew speak and thereby embarrass himself. I’ve seen this time and time again. A careful, respectful, intelligent female journalist will allow a successful male interview subject to incriminate themselves because “they have to be listened to” or that “they have to win the argument” and that “they can’t lose to a woman”.

Andrew could have learned from her in all sorts of ways. Physical comportment. Style and tone. Empathy and sympathy. Listening. Engaging. That he did not do well in any of these things means he was either poorly prepared or he lacks the skill sets to manage this sort of operation, which means someone should have said to him, “Do. Not. Do. This.”

For other princes (even corporate ones) the lessons are pretty clear:

a) Be as objective as possible about how you come across to a general audience, not your own bubble. The qualities that got you where you are may not be those that are particularly attractive to the general populace. Yes Mr Zukerberg, I’m looking at you.

b) Be very clear about why you are doing the interview and what you want to get out of it

c) Be very clear about why the media organisation is doing it and what they want to get our of it. They will control the context, they will ask the questions. They don’t care what you have to say.

Unless the media has a specific ongoing interest in you and your activities the only thing they are interested in is the scandal(s). If you’re not on their usual beat, they have limited interest in you and will wonder why you want to engage with them – in their mindset it can only be to limit the damage of either previous scandals or something that might be about to break.

Therefore they don’t care about your business or the issues you want to talk about. They want to know about the bad stuff.

d) Be aware of the potential downside if you cock it up and how that compares to the upside.

e) Short term consequences of media engagement should be balanced by long term reputation consideration. just because you achieve short term wins does not mean that the operation will be net positive over a longer period.

f) Listen to the advice of people that have professional experience in the subject. Listen to those that question you more than those that always say “what a brilliant idea sir; there’s no chance of a trap or encirclement in that very tight valley over which we have patchy intelligence”.

This is not to say that you should not make your own decision but be aware of the consequences and bigger picture. Take a systemic approach to risk management. Do not operate on gut feeling and short term rationale.

g) Get used to answering tough questions asked unsympathetically and if you need to engage in a nuanced conversation be very careful that the other side will understand it

h) Don’t engage in whataboutism – especially if you believe you are being treated unfairly. The journalist or stakeholder only care about the specific allegations made. Not the wider subjects that you believe to be important. Clouding the water with generalised accusations makes you look like a criminal. If you are going to raise mitigating issues be very specific and have objective evidence to hand.

i) Modulate your tone from aggressive risktaking corporate leader to thoughtful, sympathetic corporate leader.

j) Practice media scenarios till your fingers bleed.

I’m not sure how many of these were considered before the interview. I suspect that Andrew’s film will be worked into multiple communications training exercises for years to come and PR students will be warned, “don’t forget Prince Andrew”.

Unless of course he’s expunged from history. The British Royal Family can be quite good at that.

Notes from the dark side; we have to understand each other better to enhance PR’s operating and ethical standards

I was part of a twitter conversation recently with a bunch of PR advisors of different ages and experience. The conversation was started by Claire Simpson (@ClaireSimpsonPR follow her, she’s smart), who put out a twitter poll looking for views on whether the PR industry should be regulated.

It was a great conversation starter and it turned into an interesting if somewhat frustrating discussion. A number of my peers, both senior and junior suggested a range of ideas such as:

  • Anyone that is in a PR role should have a relevant industrial qualification
  • Membership of one of the two primary trade associations should be mandatory
  • A mandatory / statutory regulator to enforce ethical standards on the GMC model

My response was perhaps a little too polite and a little too keen to please / engage the audience, none of whom I know well, if at all.

“Maybe it’s because I came into a niche form of #PR / #comms (IR) with a previous career and an atypical qualification. Maybe it’s because I don’t like being told what to do. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. But I’m struggling to engage with a lot of this.

CPD is important in all trades / industries. It makes sense if you’re a lawyer / banker / accountant or #PR. But. The longer I provide #comms services the more I’ve felt the breadth of services encompassed as “PR” means this sort of issue is impossible to solve for us all.”

I then added, “I see a lot of PR debate like this online and occasionally in person. I don’t often feel that we are joined by the big hitters in the industry that would be necessary to drive real change. Or I’m too junior / disengaged to see it”

This point was taken up by a few people who have exceptionally successful careers: “speak for yourself – be confident in your position / grab the opportunity to change the industry for good / don’t wait for others to make the changes”

All of their points were well made, positive and genuine, and made absolute sense in the context of their careers and experience. But didn’t chime with me. I’ve spent weeks pondering on this and I think I’m close to getting it.

It’s not them, it’s me. My original statements were a little disingenuous. I pulled my punches and I should have been more straightforward.

What I should have said is that for the PR niches I’ve inhabited, a PR qualification would be useless compared to either qualifications or industrial experience in:

  • Capital markets– particularly global equities / debt investment and macroeconomic drivers that influence pricing and demand. Give me someone that’s been in banking for a few years – but not so much that PR would be a big remuneration drop
  • Geopolitics– why do sovereign states act as they do on the international stage? Give me a post grad in international relations and / or an ex NGO / foreign office staffer (not necessarily from comms)
  • Energy / natural resources / extractives industrial specifics – what are the major drivers in the industry in terms of supply / demand / regulation? Give me engineers, geologists and traders.

My experience is that it’s easier to teach PR and communications skills to someone that understands the above than it is to teach a PR focused colleague the effects of monetary policy on both inflation and the value of a currency and therefore the valuation on any given investment.

What I should have said was that when it comes to either CIPR or PRCA I think they do a great job for the majority of the industry. The championing of standards, knowledge and CPD does both credit and has significantly enhanced both the practice and the perception of the industry in the UK. But much of the content and engagement does not really engage with the reality of my operational practice for the last 18 years.

I’m involved with the CIPR as co-chair of the Energy Leadership Platform in an attempt to enhance the wider understanding of what strategic communications can do for the wider energy value chain and the fact that to create strategic value, communicators must to have a deep and broad understanding of the industry to which they consult. I’m deeply impressed by the experience and skills of my colleagues on the ELP. They are exceptional communications advisors with remarkable experience and perspective.

However, I don’t see much engagement from either CIPR or PRCA in many of the specific issues that I’ve spent most of my career working around, so if I was hiring a No2 today, I wouldn’t necessarily care if they were CIPR or PRCA affiliated.

What I also should have said is that across the many senior and junior professionals that I regularly see discussing this issue either online or in person, I rarely see those engaged in the sort of work that has formed the bulk of my career. I feel a bit uncomfortable being judged by a jury whom I do not see as my direct peers. I wouldn’t presume to judge the practice of a consumer PR, influencer engagement specialist or digital strategist. I barely know what those jobs mean.

Finally, the majority of the community of quite famous senior advisors that earn kajillions of £/£/€, for providing either what used to be called “financial PR”, strategic communications or international relations (either in house of certain consultancies) are rarely seen in this debate. There are a few notable exceptions, but my experience of this community through either working with them or chats in bars in certain parts of the world where I was working on non traditional PR mandates (Moscow / Almaty / Abu Dhabi / Doha) is that they’d ignore the majority of what is being said because “they don’t think it applies to them”.

So, here’s the thing. I do think it applies to us. I’m a communications advisor. I aspire to the highest possible standards both in house and in consultancy for all communications / public relations disciplines. I think we should all be in some way publicly accountable.

However, simply grouping all type of PR / communications people together under one umbrella risks a splintering of the industry with those that could do the most global societal damage dislocated from the wider industry. It’s a growing split that I can see growing somewhat inexorably.

Look at all the commentary around Tim Bell’s death and one can see that dislocation in action, along with the now standard culture wars stuff with one side protecting their guy and the other screaming abuse, many of them without a real understanding of the portfolio of his work and its effect on the wider industry. For the record I think that he helped positively transform the industry into a strategic management discipline that is taken seriously in the C suite and pays serious money. He also worked for a small number of vile individuals and was potentially a security and intelligence threat to the UK. Complex does not begin to cover it.

Speaking of Tim Bell, there’s much that I disagree with as regards the way the PRCA managed the Bell Pottinger situation, but I think that this could be the start of some sort of direction of travel. The industry should call out bad practice. Finding the right way to do so could be another blog.

I suppose this should end with a call to action. I’m just not entirely sure what that should be specifically. I think that those of us that do a certain sort of work should be more engaged with the wider PR & comms community of practice. It’s why I’ve written this. I also think that the wider PR & comms community could engage a little more with us and understand better what it is we do and how it really works before assuming that we are on on the wrong side of an #PRethics divide.

Goodbye to all that

I’ve just voted in what will probably be my last European election for a long time.

I still don’t understand the impulse to leave the EU. My outlook is essentially internationalist. I was born in Abu Dhabi to an English Dad and ethnically Irish mum. Carshalton, Borough Market and the City of London will always be home, but i dont see the UK as a brave rock in the Atlantic that best acts alone, but as part of a wider whole.

Of course the EU needs reform but i still see it as a force for good. I’d prefer to be inside the tent reforming and having a voice, than having to follow diktats from brussels over which we have no influence.

Of course the UK can exist outside the EU but much of our economic stregnth is based on the free  movement of capital / services / goods through the EU. We make a lot of components in the UK, less fully integrated manufacturing. Also, ive worked on multiple major sovereign trade deals (VERY JUNIOR) and they are fiendishly complex projects that demand a long term point of view and a balanced understanding of all parties strengths and weaknesses. I fear the UK lacks the skills and experience which could cause long term downside as the UK starts its new identity on the back foot.

Is the slim philosophical point regarding enhanced  freedoms worth the consequences, especially when so many of the views on this subject are deeply subjective? We already have control of our borders, laws & money. One could argue leaving the EU puts at least money and borders  under more pressure due to increased exposure to global volatility trends.

The pervasive trend outside of hyper powers (US / China) or those with strategic reserves of natural resources, is for pooled sovreignty to balance the weaknesses and combine stregnths of regional partners. The EU is the model accross the world.

The reaction to many of these points is “dont you think the x largest economy can hack it?” or “arent you proud to be British?”.

I’ve answered the first question. “Yes we can hack it but why would we want to?” All the indicators suggest this is an economically  negative decision – not least Brexiteers developing lines of “its not all about money / we never said it was about money / the metropolitan élite only care about money” tjat i dobt remember being made 3+ years ago. The second, for a british / irish one time historian and now international relations / geopolitical / finance PR consultant would need a whole other blog.

To paraphrase Heaney “my passport’s blue” (the particular poem’s a hint) and I’m happy to be British and live where i do. I always well up when they play Nimrod on rememberance Sunday and I love a day at the Oval.

But pride?

Im not so sure.

The long post imperial decline continues. The UK still hasnt worked out what it wants to be on multiple lecels; internationally, domestically or econonically.

The matter of whether we are in or out of the EU is just another issue in a wider question;

What is the UK and who are the British?

Vive la mort, vive la guerre, vive la Légion Étrangère

01709F7F-56F9-4CB3-A8E4-C699310D8E3B.jpegSo goes the toast of the French foreign legionaries. The Legion are legitimised mercenaries. Many are not French, but fight for France with professional efficacy. The same could be said of Gurkhas or Irish in the British Army. Less officially or legitimately there are many private military companies that are employed by sovereign states. The top PMC’s operate in the classical manner that mirrors the Gurkha or Legion capability: strategy is designed, objectives are set, missions are accomplished with professionalism.

So why am I blogging about mercenary soldiers?

Because of this article, written by fellow KCL Warstudies post grad and Comms advisor, Tom Hashemi: https://www.prweek.com/article/1583013/pr-firms-own-medicine-regarding-social-purpose

The article considers “social purpose” and whether PR firms that advise their clients to follow best practice and put social purpose at the heart of their organisations and their communications campaigns actually take their own medicine in this issue.

My reaction came from my gut and was not supportive of the core argument that PR consultancies or departments or PR as an industry should necessarily have a “social purpose”. So I went online and asked for thoughts from the PR universe. Engaging with some friendly ex colleagues and peers on the issue gave alternative points of view.

The first response was a mirror image to my gut feeling from one of the outstanding PR advisors and people anyone could want to know, Anastasia Ivanova. “it can be cool to know you’re doing more than paying the mortgage”. A fair point, well made. Alastair Sibely also commented about how a clear social purpose could well be a talent attraction tool, especially for younger colleagues.

Rod Cartwright (who if you don’t know, you should) commented, “purpose is key to customer and stakeholder engagement, no matter how good your products/services. Without it, it’s not easy to differentiate over the long-term and generate the emotional engagement crucial to sustainable brands. But internally, it’s arguably nigh-on impossible to deliver great products/services if your people don’t know what they belong to and where you are heading collectively”

I quote this in full because its typically smart and thought out from a respected PR & Communications industry leader.

But I still don’t buy it.

Following more discussion, where I suggested that agreed objectives were more important and practical than shared purpose, Rod pointed me in the direction of some scrupulously researched and nicely presented work on the subject of purpose being at the heart of brands, businesses and organisations and that it is the shared purpose that allows organisations to define the right objectives and execute effectively.

It’s great stuff and I get the theory and can see how it resonates.

And then there’s the second article that caught my attention and it’s almost like the perfect hook to the body / hook to the head combination: https://www.ft.com/content/6aa98f00-669c-11e9-9adc-98bf1d35a056 It encapsulates a particularly British challenge with a pithy and witty precis:  “I find it hard to appear wildly enthusiastic about anything. Which is why I find the idea of being passionate about work a bit difficult.”

Those of you reading this that know me, either personally, professionally or virtually will be aware that I like my job and have worked hard to develop a career. I do care about the work I do.

However

My combined reaction to these articles is to return to honest and honourable mercenaries (as opposed to shits like Mark Thatcher). They have developed a particular set of skills that they can monetise, as long as they meet the objectives set out for them by their client. They don’t have to be demonstrably passionate. They don’t have to agree on a shared purpose. They have to be effective and do what they say they will. This isn’t about individualism over corporatism. Outside of cinema and a few VC citations, the single hero doesn’t win the day on their own. The Legion and other mercenaries rely on teamwork and a shared understanding of mission, objectives, tactics etc. I could use any team sport as the same analogy. You don’t have to like each other or believe in the values of the club to win.

My experience at the intersection of capital / (geo)politics and commodities could be a little niche to generalise about “PR” per se. I’m not claiming to speak for the industry, just give my personal reactions on it.

I don’t like being told what to believe. I don’t like being told what to feel. I don’t think we have to engage on that level to do an outstanding job. I was briefly both a hard left trot and worked on an institutional foreign exchange floor. I’ve comfortably coexisted as a soft left social democrat and PR advisor to autocratic sovereign states whose system of government I find personally challenging.

The growing dynamic about the intersection between “PR as a force for good” and wider issues of “purpose” combined with a growing corporate desire for demonstrable “passion” and “engagement” runs the risk of alienating those of us that just want to do as professional job as possible for clients or employers that understand the value that we can create. This may also chime in with the PR extrovert / introvert discussion I’ve seen recently.

There is and will remain a role for the objective outsider in PR that can provide an alternative view and maybe call BS on the group think. Maybe we’re occasionally uncomfortable to have around, but I believe there is an ongoing role for the honourable PR mercenary as much as those committed to social value and demonstrable passion.

Vive la Légion Étrangère, vive le sacré mercenaire

 

 

Can PR Teams and their consultancies be too quick to look for glory?

I’ve just read an article in the PR trade media that has genuinely amazed me.

“Ω agency on behalf of megacorp ¥ managed to persuade $% of a consumer sample to change their mind about the behaviour of megacorp ¥ because they’re all extremely clever” There was a lot of attractive visual content to set the story off well, but you get the basic picture. “We’re all awesome”

“But what’s the problem?” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this what PR is meant to do?”

Of course, PR firms have to market themselves. Without context, this might be a perfectly normal “PR firm does good stuff” article in the PR trade media. in this case, I’m not sure the benefit overcomes the potential risks, particularly to their client.

Organisations have to be careful how much they brag about communications success. As part of the same issue, organisations have to be careful how much they allow their PR consultants to leverage the client’s powerful brand for their own marcomms. “We work for megacorp so we must be great”

There are a few potential downsides to consider. The first is prosaic. It’s a little like a magician showing how a trick works. Brag about the smart ways you can control public opinion and they will be less effective.

The second is more specific to this issue (about which I’m being deliberately coy). When there is a significant, influential and passionate opposition looking to exploit any mistake you make, don’t give them ammunition to fire at you.

In this case, it could be argued that the communications campaign that is being lauded by the PR trade media is actually a strategic own goal. It allows the opposition to demonstrate that megacorp ¥ is acting in bad faith. Instead of genuinely reforming its operations, it’s spending $m of shareholder funds on a PR consultancy to change the perception that it’s being more activist on an issue than is actually the case.

Or more simply, “You can’t trust what they say. Again.”

This is the message I’d be pushing were I advising the opposition. Make no doubt about it, this is an existential struggle to influence the publics that can have a real effect on megacorp ¥ continued hegemony.

Maybe I’m being horribly cynical. Maybe I’ve got this one entirely wrong. However, as you can see, it has got me thinking. So I’d like to throw this open to the audience; when is it a good time to PR your PR, and when should you just be internally pleased with the good results?

Boxpark’s a quickie when Croydon needs something more meaningful

This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen https://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/boxpark-quickie-more-meaningful/

 

The Croydon Citizen recently published my not-entirely-complimentary review of Meat Liquor in Boxpark. As the review states, I was conscious that I was being harsher on the place than I would have been had it been a stand-alone venture somewhere else in Croydon. Away from Boxpark, I’d probably have scored it with three or four stars. I gave some thought to my reasons for this, and found myself reflecting more generally on Boxpark and what it brings to Croydon.

Before I continue, I should state that I’m a small investor in the Street Feast group. As well as a vested interest, though, this gives me some awareness of what street markets offer and the reasons that they can work so well. The key to a great street market is that its individual outlets are not meant to be considered simply in and of themselves, but as part of a wider leisure experience. So you go to Meat Liquor Croydon not just to experience Meat Liquor, but to ‘do Boxpark’: to #eatdrinkplay, as the hashtag goes. It’s all about context: grab some wings from one place, then have a beer. Wander over and have a pizza with a glass of wine. Make your own smorgasbord with your mates so that everyone gets a taste. This is how the venue gets repeat custom: people want to go back to try new things, because the venue works as a leisure venue.

And the problem for me with Croydon’s Boxpark is that I just don’t want to stay (let alone play) after wolfing down a burger, wings or whatever. Boxpark Shoreditch does make me want to hang around: it has places to just drink, which are better insulated against the cold and have a much better variety of drinks than those that are available in Croydon.

The layout of Croydon’s Boxpark is draughty. More importantly still, it doesn’t facilitate, let alone encourage, easy moving about the site, or standing and chatting with mates over a variety of drinks, as the Street Feast portfolio does. Doing so can end up as quite an expensive experience but it’s inherently social: you feel inclined to spend time. It’s rather like a night out in Soho; get some food then drink four cocktails over a few hours chatting to mates.

In Boxpark Croydon, the booze-only options are not particularly impressive in their line-up and/or are badly placed. My beloved Cronx Bar is on the outside so that it might as well be a separate boozer, and can’t be accessed from inside Boxpark at all. And don’t get me started on how it’s clearly not designed with either child or disabled access in mind. I have two active young kids and due to sports injuries I’m on crutches for a few weeks of the year. The floors are slippery, the tables too close together, the seats are uncomfortable and the doors very heavy.

There are those draughts to contend with, and the sound of a crowd bounces off all the hard surfaces, meaning that you have to shout to be heard… and that’s before the music plays, as it continuously does. It’s like being at a stadium, but a stadium without the major attraction. Palace doesn’t play here and the gigs are irregular. Boxpark therefore is not particularly well designed for me.

Maybe it will be better in the summer when outdoor drinking on the upper deck seems appealing, but the multiple delays in opening mean that I’ve only seen it on wet, dark, cold autumn and winter evenings.

If Boxpark reminds me of anything, it’s a high quality shopping mall food court of the sort you find in the US. This isn’t a standard British dining experience. There’s lots of choice, and much of the food is high quality. But it’s been plonked on the edge of a building site, which, when combined with brand attributes such as shipping containers/steel/exposed materials that are clearly designed to make it feel ‘edgy’, create the impression of a place designed as a twenty minute wolfed-down pitstop, rather than as a 21st century leisure destination.

I’m happy to admit that I’m not its target demographic, since I both live in Sutton and have been overexposed to the brand after six years of working in Shoreditch. Still, I’ve been disappointed on my four visits since it opened. I also don’t buy into the idea that it will help to create a positive reputation for Croydon as a tourist destination, due to the core nature of the product. If I travel into Croydon, it’s for meeting mates from different parts of London and the south east: finding something not available in Sutton, or because I can’t be bothered to go (back, as I’m a city boy) to zones 1 and 2. Comfort and longevity are important. If I’m investing a fair whack of cash I want to be able to hear my mates and feel like I can sit and chat for a few hours in comfort. Boxpark doesn’t tick these boxes.

If I might end with a crude analogy; Boxpark is full of outlets that offer hot, sticky, salty fun and provide a short term high. It’s fine in short, ahem, spurts, but it’s a naughty thrill that fades from the memory. I loved that sort of thing in my twenties, but now that I’ve settled down, have kids and have moved away from Croydon, I don’t need to make long journeys for a dirty food booty call.

This is probably why everyone else in the joint was ten years younger than me and having fun. Good for them.