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?

Advertisements

Opinion: How to demonstrate the value of PR in the energy sector

I was interviewed – no, really – by leading PR and Communications Media Intelligence firm, Cision Gorkana. The interview coincided with the launch of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ new think tank, the Energy Leadership Platform, which I am co Chair.

Strange being on the other side of the fence, but an enjoyable experience, the result of which is below……

 

Paddy Blewer, co-chair of the CIPR’s new Energy Leadership Platform, explores how the group will demonstrate the value of public relations during a period of near unprecedented change for the entire energy industry.

We may have recently passed a major inflection point for the global energy industry. For many years, there was an acceptance of the standard corporate, operational and financial models. This is no longer the case.

One could argue that for much of the past fifty years, there was minimal difference between either international oil companies, or between large power generation and power/gas retail companies.

One could argue that for much of the past fifty years, there was minimal difference between either international oil companies, or between large power generation and power/gas retail companies.

This is not to deny that they all had different histories, assets and geographical specialities. Perhaps the greatest difference was in their very different corporate cultures but, at the same time, investors analysing their organisational charts, portfolio structures and long term income drivers would see that they had far more in common than not. Then:

  • Our understanding of environmental issues and their importance to the future of the planet and human existence grew exponentially – certainly across my lifetime. There has been an acceptance across the global industrial community that there has to be real and lasting change. The Paris Agreement was, in some ways, a culmination of this decades long trend, but also the start of a new journey. There won’t be a fundamentally strategic reverse to the way things used to be.
  • Technology has advanced at an incredible rate across the energy vertical. From the ability to squeeze more hydrocarbons from the rocks upstream that had previously been presumed uneconomic, down to the non-subsidised profitable generation of power from truly renewable sources, we have entered a fundamentally new paradigm, both operationally and financially.
  • These trends have lead us to what is termed the “Energy Transition” – whereby major energy players have restructured their operations and the capital base that funds them to align themselves with these prevailing trends.

It is the same across the vertical. Refiners and retailers have new regulatory challenges that effect both their businesses directly and, just as importantly, those of their customers.

Gas, heat and power retailers have to take both regulatory and consumer perception into account in a way that was not the case when utilities were far more a commoditised product that we all had to have and we didn’t care where it came from.

The CIPR Energy Leadership Platform (ELP) has therefore emerged at an opportune time. We want to engage with the issues inherent in the energy transition to demonstrate the value of PR and the strategic communication function; both grasping strategic opportunities and managing existential non-engineering risks.

To make it clear, the ELP is a thinktank designed to contribute to the wide ranging international debates on energy issues. It is not (just) a community to share best practice and help train our junior colleagues.

Our combined experience gives us the ability to analyse issues such as geopolitics, capital requirements, regulatory challenges, access to energy and the interaction between organisations and the societies in which they operate – and how PR and strategic comms can be used in such imperative and vital dynamics.

The ELP is designed to further the CIPR’s work in demonstrating that PR is a strategic management function, and that we can add value at the highest levels of corporate and government decision making – “permission to advise” just as many energy organisations require “permission to operate”.

This means reaffirming the request I’ve heard from many fellow PRs (both in-house and consultancy): “Let us help you develop the strategy, not just rationalise what you have decided”.

The ELP Advisory Board has centuries of relevant industry (PR) and sectoral (energy) experience across the globe. The ELP is the first initiative of its kind in the world in terms of both membership organisations and industry at large.

We are not aware of a reputation-led thinktank that focuses on energy issues in such breadth. Whilst we are aware of the potential downside of being the first (there’s no one to learn from directly), we are confident that we can and will make a positive difference both for the national and international PR industry but, more importantly, for the energy industry worldwide.

I have never been this angry at a political decision

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a fairly standard middle class liberal leftie. A champagne (pinot noir heavy please) socialist.

I am very interested in politics but I’m not political because I cant find a party that I believe in enough to make concessions to my beliefs.

For instance, I was genuinely disturbed by corbyn’s long term dalliance with global revolutionary forces that he made sound like freedom fighters but are actually sickening and cynical murderers. Chavez, PIRA, Castro etc  It’s a major reason I’m wary of Corbyn. I like a lot of his domestic policy but on foreign and defence his ideology driven position don’t work for me.

But now the Tories have outdone themselves. By doing a deal with the DUP, I’ve found a politicial situation that has made me so angry it makes me feel physically sick.

Forget the hypocrisy of the DUP deal. It’s frustrating but all politicians can be slippery and campaigning doesn’t mean telling the truth.

However the DUP deal is a moral obscenity for three reasosns.

1- it potentially breaks the Good Friday Agreement. The issues that drove decades long conflict have not been eradicated. It could start again. Anything that raises tension, especially given the failure of Stormomt should be very carefully considered. One of the reasons there’s been (more or less) stability in Ulster is that there is the perception that neither side has an advantage in Westminster. Whether the DUP gets an advantage or not, the optics are terrible.

2 – the DUP have some deeply illiberal policies that are founded in their religious beliefs which are fundamentally opposite to wider eng / Welsh & Scottish law. Religious morality has largely been removed from the UK’s political process for what I feel are good liberal reasons. In a multi cultural liberal democracy, basing legislation on religious dogma feel like a dangerous timewarp.

3- finally the DUP is inextricably connected to odious paramilitary groups such as the UDA. These groups still exist, remain well organised and armed and are funded by the proceeds of organised crime such as drug dealing. There are suggestions that UDA men are instrumental in getting the DUP vote out and making sure the community votes DUP not UUP or god forbid Alliance.

Through my MA I developed a fair understanding of the different combatant parties in Ulster during operation Bannner. All parties did horrendous things. It would be wtong to think of the Loyalist Paramilitaries as anything other than brutal and ruthless people who did truly appalling things.

Considering these issues, the thought that any party would use an alliance with the DUP to prop up a minority government for a short time is frankly sickening.

I’ve never been as angry about anything on UK politics as I am about this. I’m seething that for what can only be a short term hold on power, the Tories are putting so much at risk.

I don’t know what the solution is or when I will calm down but for now I’m finding it an interesting sensation; actually caring about UK politics.

 

Trumpageddon may be some way off; a few thoughts on CI and financial crime investigations

A lot of people on my social media streams are getting rather excited about #Trumpageddon and whether we are closing in on an endgame. Are we reaching the point where evidence can build to a point where the political commentary gives way to legal process?

Social and 24/7 media emphasises everything that might be wrong with the Trump Administration (I really want to call it a regime). Global media orgs are busting a gut to proclaim the next exclusive and get as many eyeballs on their variety of portals. It’s becoming something of an arms race; which media org has the hottest of takes?

The story is self nourishing due to the remarkable series of events and the way Trump and his team have attempted to manage the situation. It must be great fun for the journalists covering it, but the way media organisations are jumping on the issue, you’d think that something is going to happen NOW and we have to keep our eyes on their portal to get the news. It’s becoming a commercial driver for them – clicks = $. In my experience $ can effect objectivity.

It’s the same on social media. If you’re of a generally liberal bent, your social media echo chamber is probably full of “this is another nail in the coffin” post. Trump must go. Putin is pulling the strings. etc etc.

However, something that grabs me as a onetime student of intelligence and then spending a career advising post soviet related corporate and financial affairs, is that whilst the dénouement to situations appears to suddenly happen, there’s often a very long gestation period.

This situation could almost be designed as a perfect storm for investigators and prosecutors.

Both CI investigations and international financial corruption are infamous for the time necessary to compile a case that has a good chance meeting the requirements of due process to even get into court, let alone win the case.

It’s worth remembering that we’re not dealing with an average criminal audience. In some of the classic cases (Kim Philby, Aldrich Aymes, BCCI, Enron) the authorities were dealing with an exceptionally sophisticated opposition who were aware of both the minutiae of the relevant law, and how to find loopholes necessary to do what they wanted. They had planned a strategic operation. They considered not only how to make the operation secret and successful, but how to protect themselves in case of hostile penetration (stop sniggering at the back), incompetence or betrayal.

On the financial side, even when investigators / regulators etc are sure that something morally or even legally compromising has happened, it can be very hard to prove in court. International and domestic corporate law allows for multiple layers of entirely legal corporate vehicles and beneficial ownership structures, which consequently make it exceptionally complicated to demonstrate the flow of assets from Mr X to Mr Y. I’ve seen this numerous times in the post soviet space with acquisition of energy or resource assets. Everyone knows that Mr Y is acquiring an asset, but you’d never know from reading the prospectus.

Then there’s the issue of protecting intelligence sources. The WW2 Allies made a conscious decision not to attack certain targets (eg Concentration Camps) to protect the integrity of the crown jewel of Allied Intelligence, “Ultra”; the ability to read German signals traffic in real time. Many CI investigations will get to a point where a decision has to be made about the cost / benefit of going ahead with a case that may risk an intel asset or capability.

So my point is this. Yes, there’s a hell of a lot of circumstantial evidence flying around that makes the Trump Administration look at least incompetent, or a willing fool, or even knowing tool of a hostile foreign actor.

None of this however necessarily means that we are particularly close to a legal / regulatory / political endgame. In a novel or film, corners are cut. People are disappeared in dramatic twists. However, in what appears to be a situation without precedent, the importance of due process cannot be ignored. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

I don’t know whether we’re at the end of the beginning or the start of the middle. Unless things are far more advanced that would appear (and if so, Chapeau to FBI and wider US IC) we are nowhere near the end yet.

Why Brexit communications make me concerned at a lack of vision

I’ve just deleted 400 words explaining why I don’t agree with Brexit that I realised is superfluous. That’s not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is that from the perspective of the communications consultant I have no idea what either the UK Government, or the wider pro Brexit establishment, actually want to gain from Brexit.

I’m not questioning whether it was the right or wrong thing. The votes were cast and a majority of the population that voted chose to leave the EU.

In general, government communications will give a steer as to preferred outcomes of diplomatic engagement. However, despite the geopolitical, legal, social and economic consequences at stake, at the moment I’ve no clue as to whether HMG has a vision of the UK’s place in the global system. What is the overall strategic objective? What are its ideal, neutral and worst case scenarios realistic scenarios and how will this effect my family’s well being?

Comments such as going back to the Commonwealth, the Anglosphere and even worse “empire 2.0” demonstrate a lack of understanding of how international trade works, the position of the UK in the global economy and the perception of the UK in the countries that used to be run from Whitehall until the middle of the 20th Century. See here for some interesting ONS statistics: http://visual.ons.gov.uk/commonwealth-trade-in-focus-as-uk-prepares-for-brexit/

Then there’s the Irish issue which is not really about the Brexit arguments that have been made in England, but about how the Island of Ireland should function on an economic, trade, social and political level. Brexit is the catalyst for a new conversation about partition, unionism and the future direction of sovereignty on the Island, which Westminster seems singularly unwilling to consider, but whilst they close their eyes and ears, other parties are making the case for change. I don’t think we’ll see a return to the 70s and 80s, but things could get bad quickly. Ostriches that stick their heads in the sand can have their arses shot off.

I’m sure some Brexit supporters will tell me that I’m being unduly negative and that my support for Remain is blinding me to the potential for the UK once it’s free from the EU, or that my Irish connections make me unpatriotic. Then there’s the public affairs advisors that will say “why shouldn’t HMG keep their powder dry until negotiations actually start? You wouldn’t give away your M&A strategy until you make your offer would you?”

I’m not sure I buy either argument. Politics is generally about selling a vision of the future, even if it’s pretty broad brush stuff. I’m just not seeing anything other than the blandest generalities that have little or no meaning. The lack of communication of any sort of detailed vision makes me feel there is a general lack of confidence in a strategy that is already announced. This in of itself invalidates the M&A argument. The initial offer has been made. Now is the time to get shareholders on side.

My genuine concern is that with the massive task approaching them, they are like a rabbit in the headlights, unable to make a decision until the oncoming HGV (probably a Mercedes of VW) crushes it.

I hope they’re just playing clever. I don’t think they are.

PR and stress – its not just dictators that create moral dilemmas

This morning, I was briefly admonished by a senior PR executive on twitter for picking up on a thread about stress in PR. I was in a particularly bad mood due to arthritic pain and consequent lack of sleep, which meant I jumped into a discussion with both of my size 10s without much thought. Silly Paddy.

Now I’ve thought about it, and whilst I think my essential point remains correct, what it actually does is reveal a wider truth and PR in general.

One of the reasons why PR might be stressful is that we are constantly involved in intellectually contrary projects, where we are attempting to change the mind of a constituency for whom we might have significant sympathy over and above the POV of our client.

I mentioned working for dictators as part of this dynamic, and as I said I think this stands, if as an unnecessarily dramatic example for the average PR experience (if not all). Running a programme to drive capital investment into a sovereign state where one would not ever wish to spend a significant amount of time due to the massive difference in moral and philosophical beliefs, let alone physical well being, is an intellectually challenging exercise. This is why I’ve very much enjoyed it in the past.

However, it’s not restful. What makes it stressful is the hostility of much of the audience with whom you wish to communicate and the self doubt of knowing that you’re pushing a boulder up the hill. You know they think you’re an arsehole for doing that work (I’ve been told this forcibly). It’s even worse if you’ve got genuine subject knowledge because you can’t hide behind the platitudes that big companies do: “everyone else does it / if we didn’t, someone else would / we aren’t helping them do x / y / z, it’s just about investment / we’re not guiding policy / maybe we are a bit of a force for positive change”. As I was told, rather directly a long time ago, “you’re helping to normalise evil behaviour. That you know this and continue makes you a [redacted]”

The thing is, it’s the same across comms. As was mentioned in the original (excellent) blog:https://prvirgin.com/2017/02/23/pr-more-stressful-than-most-jobs/ “A PR person is probably thoughtful, empathetic and a bit of a rebel, a critical friend, and that’s not easy”. We know that the product we’re hawking isn’t a “game changer”. It’s probably not going to enrich the life of anyone that buys it. That new perfume or shampoo won’t actually enhance your sex appeal any more than its competitors. That new product from Silicon Valley won’t be anything more than a marginal enhancement without fundamental systemic change to your business model that requires more investment than the overall return.

I reckon this is why PR is an inherently stressful gig. In addition to the many correctly identified systemic challenges within an industry notoriously for appalling management practice; at the heart of it we often don’t quite believe what we’re saying. For a smart bunch of men and women, this is an equation perfectly designed to create stress.

Aggression Trumping Nuance? The rise of the commentator as General of the troll army

I was reading an excellent blog by fellow communications professional Karan Chadda last week, when an idea for this blog started to crystallise. Karan was considering the technique of the professional commentator and their use of rhetorical tricks to communicate their attention grabbing point of view. It’s a short piece but makes some punchy points about how much opinion is spouted and how a lot of it is pretty tenuous if exposed to calm, sober analysis. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/inside-mind-mediocre-opinion-writer-karan-chadda?trk=hp-feed-article-title-like

Simultaneously, I observed a twitter dust up between Piers Morgan and David Baddiel, regarding the content of the US Presidential communication to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Baddiel believed ignoring the unique targeting of Jews for racial extermination and instead considering the Holocaust as a period of more generalised mass slaughter and repression could be seen as deriving from a seemingly moderate and therefore insidious form of Holocaust denial. Morgan was pugnacious in his responses, essentially defending the content of the speech by saying that there was no way that President Trump and his team could be anti Semitic because the author of the speech is Jewish and that Trump is very pro Israel.

Most of the discussion can be found here: https://twitter.com/Baddiel and here: https://twitter.com/piersmorgan on 1 February.

What interested me as a communications advisor was the technique. Linking back to Karan’s article, there was a certain amount of “whataboutery” and “straw man” going on from both sides, but what really jumped out were a number of issues that seem to be something of a trend in the universe of the commentariat:

Generalist commentators lack detailed / sophisticated subject knowledge. Morgan chose to engage on a high profile historical issue that has contemporary political relevance about which he would appear to have a limited historiographical understanding compared to his counterpart. Something similar happened a few days later when he was interviewing Owen Jones http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/piers-morgan-owen-jones-awkward-argument-live-tv-good-morning-britain-anti-donald-trump-muslim-ban-a7555721.html

Aggression. Morgan’s short, clipped responses on twitter did not engage in the nuance of the wider issue of the perception but attempted to turn the debate into a binary question: “is Trump racist / anti Semitic?” Baddiel acknowledged that the subject was too complex for 140 characters when posting a JPEG of Deborah Lipstadt’s detailed analysis of the historical development Holocaust denial. Morgan however eschewed nuance with threatening and bombastic language designed to threaten and belittle his opponent – https://twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/826846995893669890

Perhaps some commentators are playing a game. Morgan has turned himself from a fairly respected journalist and media executive into a showbiz brand and mouth for hire. He represents a self fulfilling prophesy; the more the likes of Morgan speaks aggressively, the more high profile he becomes and the more he can monetise his fame / notoriety. A recent profile in the Guardian bears this out “Everyone on TV is [trying to maximise publicity]. I’m just better at it than most of them.” Then there’s the old columnist get out: “But I’m just putting opinions out there. I’m a columnist, it’s my job.” https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/28/piers-morgan-im-just-putting-opinions-out-there-its-my-job

Anyone reading this might think that I’m complaining about a long standing media position of commentator as provocateur and therefore income stream. We buy newspapers because they fit our personal views and we like having our preconceptions confirmed. Whether it’s Richard Littlejohn or Nick Cohen, newspapers have used columnists to get people talking about the product and therefore drive demand. However, it’s the interactive nature of social media that adds a new and scary element – that of the commentator acting as a general directing an army of supporters.

I used the above scenario because I studied the Holocaust in depth as an undergraduate and it caught my imagination. I also used it because I don’t think Morgan is a denier and / or anti Semitic, but he got involved due to his wish to self publicise as much as possible and he’s ended up in the position where he has to play to a certain constituency. Unlike Littlejohn or Hopkins, I think Morgan is more of a gun for hire, rather than committed crusader; which adds a layer of dramatic irony and nuance to the situation. But. Take a look at the comments connected to this “debate” and you’ll see two sides of tweeters drawn up for war, mimicking the bile of their commentator generals and attacking the other side with passion.

Perhaps I’m just a sensitive snowflake. However I have a bit of personal experience in being on the end of digital attack. Thanks to some poor decision making, I was attached to an article that placed me on one side of a divide. It went viral. I suddenly acquired a LOT of followers. Threats to my well being were made. Due to professional confidentiality issues, I couldn’t (and still cant) say anything and therefore ignored the issue, bar one particularly dramatic evening where I consumed most of a bottle of Manzanilla. Don’t judge me, I was in Spain on holiday and it was very tasty.

The connection between my scenario and the other is the role of the commentator. I felt that the attacks were permitted by the poorly researched and aggressive tone taken by a bunch of commentators who should perhaps have known better. They didn’t tell people to troll me, but their pieces created the atmosphere where trolling me seemed morally acceptable. I was the bad guy that needed to be told what I bad guy I’d been.

I hate anything that has the whiff of bullying, and when it comes down to it, this is what has motivated me to write 1000 words on this subject. Whether it’s the left of right, all sides have weaponised comment for use by their provisional wings. There’s probably no way back from this abyss, but as communications advisors potentially involved around this dynamic (or members of the church of Wittertainment) we should be aware of the result of looking into the abyss for too long.

 

Post script: A few days after publishing this blog, the #shitgibbon issue went public. President Trump threatened to “ruin the career” of a Texas legislator who opposes a policy that is a favourite of  the conservative Trump supporting constituency. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-destroy-state-lawmaker_us_5899fde8e4b09bd304bdd5b9

The casual and brutal comment, made as an aside in a meeting with Texas Sherrifs was later described as a “joke” by a White House spokesperson. A Pennsylvania Senator, Daylin Leach, then referred to Trump as a “Shit-Gibbon” on twitter – which is what originally grabbed my attention and made me and Kirsty chuckle at 0630 this morning. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pennsylvania-senator-calls-trump-a-facist-loofa-faced-st-gibbon_us_589b6cd2e4b0c1284f2a1456

This is a good example of violent language that can enable a violent response from a supportive constituency. We all know that “it was a joke” is often the excuse of last resort of the prejudiced who can’t quite bring themselves to publicly identify with political extremists.  It’s something I recognise from my own experience. I’ve been called “working class Irish navvy scum” and been asked for “90 years back rent from my ancestral lands” by 2 very senior PR professionals. When I suggested they back down or face an aggressive physical response they said “calm down, I’m only kidding”.

What is interesting for professional communicators is that Trump is normalising the communications tactics of the extremes of political society. Trump’s use of the alt-right as cheerleaders and footsoldiers (or are they using him to further their agenda?) has brought what had been the periphery to the centre, both ideologically but also in terms of multi channel communication tactics. One could make similar arguments to the current UK Labour Party leadership’s alliance with Momentum. This is not just an issue of right wing communications. As communications advisors, we have to get our heads around the fact that, for now at least, the rules have changed.

This could mark the point of departure of radical long term change. We must not ignore this. The trouble with  sticking your head in the sand is that you can still get your arse shot off; and the other side in this dynamic has a lot of guns.