How the Bell Pottinger scandal made me think about Public Relations as a force for good and the inherent challenge of moral relativism

The Bell Pottinger row got me thinking about wider issues 

I’d imagine most people involved in the UK PR industry and many more around the world are aware of the situation around Bell Pottinger and their involvement in the deeply complex post Apartheid political dynamic in South Africa.

This is not an article about the Bell Pottinger scandal. I don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a lot of covering going on. I’m not a South African expert in any way shape or form.

The reaction to the situation has driven a bout of self reflection by a lot of highly respected comms consultants. The commentary all comes down to a few apparently simple questions that the PR and comms industry has been asking themselves for some time. How does PR create value? How do we best interact with a range of “publics”? What is acceptable corporate behaviour? Do we have responsibilities to our industry and publics?

As someone who fell into the communications industry following the realisation that I didn’t have what it took to make it in investment banking or diplomacy; I still feel like an outsider, especially on the occasions I put my thoughts on paper. I haven’t studied PR as an academic subject and my professional experience is through a series of specialised roles that demand either capital markets and / or geopolitical understanding. I therefore don’t necessarily know the rules of the wider game and can no doubt appear somewhat naïve or ill informed to wide sections of the PR / communications industry.

My reactions are based on personal experience of similar work, including a stint at B-P and reading the thoughts of more experienced industry practitioners, such as the links at the bottom of this article.

Something went very wrong on a well remunerated strategic communications project of the sort that is far more common in our industry than many PR practitioners might realise. It has given the industry pause for thought and has driven a lot of us to examine the way we look at PR as an industrial discipline. What conclusions can we draw?


PR’s reputational challenges whilst operating in a globalised economy

One of the reactions to the B-P situation has been to reassert a common aspiration within the PR & communications community that PR can be a force for good. That we can be the soul and conscience for an organisation and that PR & communications can help mould organisations into better citizens.

This is an entirely legitimate point of view and I agree with much of the aspiration behind it. An effective grasp of the potential of communications can make an organisation more focussed and effective in reaching its goals. An understanding of the wider needs of its publics and hardwiring them into its operations can have significant benefits for the organisation, its people and the balance sheet.

However, who defines what is moral and a force for good? How far along the value chain should PR advisors go to work out if they are genuinely on the right side, or whether they are part of what could be considered a reputational laundering structure?

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Old certainties that we understood who we were doing business with and why are gone. Industrial supply chains have diversified, capital moves around the world at the speed of light and our socioeconomic and cultural certainties have also changed, as we now operate within a far more diverse community than was the case 20 years ago. To be a successful global business you have to have high standards but you also have to be able to work with a multitude of diverse communities whose sociological / philosophical background might not match your own.

There are numerous tools and cut outs that allow international communications consultancies to feel more comfortable about certain sorts of work. Generally it’s about putting space between the consultancy and the ultimate beneficiary of the work. It could be a foundation; a stock market listing; a trade association; or a seemingly strictly delineated brief – all of these cut outs avoid the contentious stuff and appear to focus on apolitical, non contentious themes such as investment or diversity or competition.

Step back a bit however and this sort of projects can be seen as part of a wider pattern by a sovereign state, multi national corporation or ultra high net worth individual to project an alternate, more positive narrative, or to distract attention from some local unpleasantness.

The system therefore benefits three parties: the cut out itself that will benefit from the communications consultancy; the comms provider that will be paid handsomely and finally the “beneficial owner” whose wider reputation will be enhanced by the service, if only tangentially. In fact for the cut out to be a truly successful communications platform, it has to be seen to be successful in its own right, otherwise it’s transparency as a PR platform undermines its original purpose.


The challenges of moral relativism

This system allows international consultancies to operate within a globalised commercial system. The system both acknowledges the challenges that are inherent to cross cultural commerce and finds a legitimate solution that meets the needs of the majority of parties and stakeholders.

Once you start on the road of moral judgement, the endpoint is difficult to discern. Where do we draw the line? Why should PR providers be singled out for such a challenge? Lawyers, accountants, bankers and other service providers that offer a combination of C-suite strategic counsel and a commoditised suite of tactical operations do not appear to be going through similar existential angst.

A few examples of entirely legitimate and legally approvable work that might be challenged by the need to follow a more moralistic approach:

• Should we refuse ANY mandate from certain sovereign states or their paratstals (another sort of cut out) because of their involvement in (to us) morally challenging issues such as military conflicts, or their internal policies that us appear discriminatory but to them follows the teaching of their religion?

• Should we as PRs, refuse work from companies that generate power through burning coal, despite the multitude of evidence to show that it both damages the environment and kills people through higher levels of pollution derived respiratory disease?

• Armaments is a morally challenging industry, given what they are for and more specifically who buys them. When fuel air, cluster munitions or urban pacification tools are put in the hands of certain regimes, bad things can happen. It could be argued that the arms industry runs PR programmes to help clean some of that dirt off and ensure that they are not regulated to the point of significant damage to their balance sheet.

• Tobacco has been a constant challenge for the PR industry since the linkage between smoking and cancer became accepted. It’s not just a moral issue though. You probably can’t work for Philip Morris and Glaxo. You have to choose.

When it comes down to it, we all have our own “sniff test”. Some people have a sensitive nose and cannot stand the smell. For others it’s got to be really bad before they back out.
Speaking to a range of my peers and senior PR practitioners whilst preparing this piece, what is clear is that there are very few moral absolutes. Some would work for tobacco but not arms. Some would work for X country but not Y.

As mentioned, this bout of soul searching in PR is not necessarily shared in other industries. Much of the work I used to do as a communications consultant is increasingly becoming part of the management consultancy offering – in part because it dovetails neatly with their risk / corporate structure / fundraising / HR offerings and can be done by small teams for significant fees. It’s as likely that the same advice will be given by Mckinsey, or Deloitte as Bell Pottinger or Ketchum (two of my previous employers).

Perhaps this shows the direction of travel for the industry? Either willingly or due to a lack of care, this sort of business could be lost to a different industry.

I’m going to conclude with an example from a BBC comedy sketch show that makes my point and exaggerates for comic effect. It’s a discussion between two Waffen SS officers who are trying to work out whether they “are the baddies” –


Some more reading on the subject:




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:

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.

Imagine Brand Was Worthless….

This is going to be a fairly brief blog that might turn into something longer that involves proper research depending on feedback from peers and (ex)colleagues.

3 months after leaving agency for a new role in house, I’ve had a few offers of support from my communications advisors. I’m always happy to meet and chat, although as I’ve told everyone, I’m not looking for external support at the moment. My initial role as an inaugural Head of Comms is to properly define the value proposition of communications to my new employer. They’ve shelled out on me and the associated costs of hiring, I’m not in a position to justify further investment at the moment.

Anyway, a few people I’ve met commented something along the lines of “if I had any spare budget that had to be used by the end of the year, they’d be happy to take it off my hands”

I know it was a joke, sort of, but that line has combined with some long standing misgivings about our industry and associated trades (marketing / advertising etc) and has led to the title of this blog.

I wonder how much communications / PR / marketing / advertising work carried out in London has virtually no value – or at least nowhere near the value of the services that are actually paid for?

Take a fundamentally commoditised product sold wholesale to cost conscious clients. There is no difference between this product and that sold by rivals. They both create the same outcome. Often they are created in the same place and traded multiple times. They are entirely interchangeable. Let’s say this product might be quite close to my heart and professional experience.

Does brand really matter in this case? Is there truly a justifiable benefit for the $millions spent on any number of communications services designed to help drive sales of this and many similar products?

I’m honestly unsure of the answer. I have deep respect for senior ex colleagues & peers who have had very successful careers doing exactly this sort of work. I also respect a number of the companies that have committed both philosophically and financially to this approach. Obviously it gets more complicated if one is dealing with a consumer product, however I still have this little nagging voice at the back of my mind.

This isn’t about agency or in house. It’s not about big or small agencies. I’ve now worked for a small agency, one of the world’s largest and I’ve just gone in house. It’s about communications as an industry and whether we can be accused of maintaining a loop of self justification for what can be extremely expensive products that have limited discernible benefit?

Of course evaluation methodology is improving but equally this could be included in the self justification argument; as to be truly objective, we should consider what the commercial outcome would be without a communications solution, or at least a more limited baseline. Think about that for a second. Would products still be sold if our work didn’t exist? AMEC’s “Barcelona Principles” are a strong step in the right direction here, but I’m not sure they answer that nagging question in the back of my mind.

This isn’t a Jerry Maguire moment. I’ve seen people fall out of love with PR and say, “It’s all a load of BS; I don’t believe in what I’m doing and certainly don’t believe what my clients are selling” – this isn’t the case for me. I love working in the communications industry and I’m committed to doing the best job possible for myself, my employer, and more so now than earlier in my career, for the wider industry.

I would however welcome thoughts and feedback from peers or all levels, as this is the sort of thing we need to work together on. We’re naïve if we don’t recognise that communications can have a negative perception with those outside the industry – some of whom we need to persuade to sign off on budgets and / or hire us.

All thoughts welcome, thanks in advance

National Oil Companies: when financial communications plays a genuinely strategic role

There are two big oil IPO stories circulating through global media at the moment: Saudi Aramco & DONG Energy. What links these two transactions is the sovereign element – and this raises a communications challenge.

National Oil Companies are not designed to run in the same way as the global oil majors we’ve all heard of. Shell, BP, Exxon etc are all designed to facilitate combined equity growth / yield by hitting quarterly profit targets and report profit when calculated through reserves replacement – finding oil as well as producing it, to ensure the core valuation of the company remains constant.

NOCs are different. They are designed to extract long term benefit from the natural wealth of the sovereign. Long term value creation is the name of the game. Short term profits are often eschewed for strategic gain. Reserves are often so massive as to not need replacement in the same way.

Communicators have to explain this contrast in a positive context. Financial communications is essentially a process of providing context to a process of comparative analysis. “Why should I invest in Aramco rather than Exxon?” “How is DONG valued compared to Conoco?”

Our role is to disrupt standard practice and demonstrate that NOCs should not necessarily be compared to other companies, but should be understood on their own terms. Aramco to Exxon is essentially a false comparison due to their fundamentally contrary strategic drivers.

The other thing to remember is that the IPO creates a prism for a much wider audience. Global regulators, diplomats, politicians, media and business partners take more notice when an NOC goes public, due to the increased transparency (although DONG is typically Scandinavian in its transparency) An IPO is a brilliant opportunity to introduce the corporation, its people, operations, strategy and ethos to a global community of stakeholders that will influence the long term success of business strategy.

The core communications challenge of an IPO is not therefore financial; it’s more about strategic identity – demonstrating why NOCs should not be compared to the dominant IOC model but judged on their own terms.

That’s before we get to the geopolitical angle and role of resources liquidity / volatility in foreign policy, but that for another blog.

“Myopia caused by dollar signs in the eyes is a contagious condition. Still, it is sensible to question how realistic the Saudis are about this float. If Aramco wanted to list shares in London as depositary receipts, it would need to go halfway towards meeting UK governance standards. “Comply or explain” does not sound like a very Saudi Arabian concept.”

The article above shows that Aramco and the wider Saudi communications establishment still have a little further to go in terms of educating their audience. This is a classic case where “classic” finacnial communications needs to be tempered with a more strategic understanding of both the energy industry and the perception of the sovereign accross a range of audiences.

The Saudi PR offensive is a really exciting development. The challenge for those managing it is to take a wide range of views into account, and also to consider long term reputation drivers as well as messages that will drive positive coverage in the short term.

Saudi Aramco: when IPO communications is about more than just $

The recent announcement in the Economist of the potential for a Saudi Aramco IPO got the energy, capital markets and communications community in a bit of a flutter. After waiting for the dust to settle, and a bit more information to come out of the Kingdom (eg this won’t be a full IPO of the holding company), I’ve attempted to put my thoughts on the matter into some sort of cogent order.

As you might know, I’ve advised 4 national oil companies, a number of energy ministries and some sovereign state; so I have a certain amount of experience around this subject, but cannot claim any sort of inside knowledge and understanding. I could be as wrong or right as the next commentator.

An unusual announcement:

The recently announced intention by Saudi Armaco to consider some sort of IPO is, as has been noted by an anonymous banker in the FT, rather against usual practice. (behind paywall)
Bankers would have us believe that it’s in the reputational interest of the client to keep quiet until a transaction is all but guaranteed. Whilst I remain agnostic on this, as the reputational risk is far greater for the investment banks than it is for the corporate; the greater control exerted by the primary advisor to IPO over the last decade or so means that corporate actors and their communications advisors today rarely get the luxury gauging market reaction through a bit of strategic communications. The news about Saudi Aramco considering an IPO is therefore very rare.


Consider the motivation:

This discussion is derived from an exclusive interview in the Economist (paywall) , not with Saudi Aramco, but with Kingdom’s deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. We must therefore consider this news through a wider prism than a normal IPO. Corporate and financial considerations will be central to the campaign, but the needs of Saudi Arabia itself are interlinked.

Consider the current reputational challenges that KSA faces. Geopolitical conflict in Yemen and beyond; low oil prices and their consequent internal financial challenges; a lack of consensus within OPEC to Saudi production targets and finally the fundamentally cultural perception challenges when Saudi politics and society are viewed in Europe or North America.

The Kingdom took the brave decision to go on the front foot and tell their story directly. I’m sure there will be been long negotiations between the Economist and the Kingdom as to what areas were “fair game”, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was both a serious coup for the Economist and a brave and rare decision by the Saudi leadership to make a balanced on the record statement of belief and positive intent. The long interview with Prince Salman shows that there is another way to look at the myriad of dynamics in which the Kingdom is involved. Whether you agree or not, the article is persuasive that the Saudi point of view is worth considering.


The Sovereign / parastatal reputational connection

Sovereign states have every right to use their operational and financial assets as communications exemplars to enhance their reputation. Even Aramco’s harshest critics admit that it’s incredible that such a massive, complex corporation manages to run as effectively as it does. It is very much a potential jewel in the crown of Saudi global communications; an example of the way Saudi Arabia has developed both in corporate but also technological and financial terms.

This status would only be enhanced by the transparency and corporate rigour necessary to list equity on any stock market, including the Tadawul (Saudi Stock Exchange). In fact a listing on the Tadawul would be perfect, as it would enhance global interest and liquidity in the Saudi Stock exchange – raising the global profile of another Saudi institution, and demonstrating the continuing development of the modern Saudi state.


A PR Stunt or combined value narrative?

Matching the needs of the Saudi Arabia, the NOC and wider stakeholders = Great PR
So the big question here is whether this all a “PR stunt” designed for short term gain? In general terms, it depends on the commitment of the State in question (in this case Saudi Arabia). Good PR demands true operational commitment. For a narrative to resonate, there has to objectivity. For Saudi Arabia to truly enhance its reputation through an IPO of one of the most important companies in the world, it has to be genuinely committed to the success of the IPO and provide ongoing growth to the stock – or at least guarantee yield.

If this is part of a reputation enhancement campaign for Saudi Arabia – and Aramco probably doesn’t need new capital – investors have no reason to be concerned. Their interests and those of the Kingdom are in fact intertwined.

By choosing to IPO Saudi Aramco, the Saudi political leadership may well have created a positive ongoing narrative that will allow it to continually present a successful, modern, innovative face to the world. Assuming the listed vehicle is commercially successful, everyone’s a winner.

Energy Communications in 2016 – Paddy’s Crystal Ball

The energy industry in a post COP21 environment: a view on 2016

(written in partnership with my colleague Daniela Stawinoga-Carrington)

The last minute agreement at COP21 in Paris has been hailed as an “outstanding achievement for French diplomacy” and “an end to the fossil fuel era”. Apart from a very vocal but tiny minority, we all accept that the world is heating up due to human activity and unless carbon intensive practices are constrained in some way, life will become intolerable for billions of people around the world. Something clearly must be done. 2016 could be the first year that the energy industry, as one of the major carbon emitters, is forced to genuinely re-evaluate its business model, and the way it communicates across all channels and audiences.

However, it’s worth stepping back from much of the supportive editorial coverage the Paris Agreement has driven. It has been noted that much of the cheering and hugging on the floor at COP21 was actually being done by journalists, who appeared to forget their role as objective observers. Many environmental journalists are advocates as much as analysts – they start from the point that “something must be done” as opposed to “what is happening?”

There is a perfectly acceptable view put forward by different sections of the commentariat that whilst COP21 shows a significant amount of international support there is no legally binding mechanism and limited policy or commercial rationale to fundamentally transform international industrial paradigms.
So what will happen in 2016?

1. Coal to get a kicking
Spend a few days in a coal fired city wearing glasses or contact lenses and everyone will understand the basic truism that coal fired powerstations are a bad thing not only for the environment in a carbon sense, but also for the lungs of anyone breathing in various pollutants. The health effects are crucial here. Carbon is a long term problem that can be put off by policy makers. Hospitals filled with asthma and emphysema patients and the wider societal and economic effects are a major challenge for today – across all markets, but particularly in APAC.

2. Gas to try and differentiate itself from “fossil fuels”
Gas has been fighting hard to break away from the “fossil fuel” tag beloved by the environmental lobby. Gas will look to use its inherent advantages over coal and oil (it burns much cleaner) whilst also making the case that it can be the best partner for renewable energy. It’s also worth noting the significantly enhanced percentage of revenues generated by natural gas by companies such as Shell & Exxon. Oil companies are becoming gas companies, thereby enhancing the likelihood of enhanced gas advocacy.

3. Renewables to try and hold on to the COP21 feel good vibe
Renewables now have their big chance to force policy makers and investors to take them more seriously than may have been the case up till now. Get ready to see the ongoing references to “promises made” at COP21 as the renewables industry looks to both capture the optimism of the Paris Agreement and turn it into an issue of trust with policy makers and investors alike. “#COP21promise” anyone?

4. Fear grips the oil industry
Will oil hit $20 a barrel as some predict? As Saudi Arabia keeps pumping and Iran is set to start production again after the end of sanctions, the oil industry is likely to continue having to deal with a glut of supply and a low-price environment. 2016 is likely to see more job cuts and projects being shelved for companies to even have a chance to maintain dividend. Topped by the latest COP21 “the end of fossil fuels” agenda and the clearly needed re-evaluation of the energy industry’s business model, makes for challenging times for communicators.

Finally two major issues for consideration. Money & technology. Without major technological leaps forward, “green” energy is often significantly more expensive than the alternative or is simply not an industrially viable competitor. In an era of constrained capital, the environmental lobby will have to work very hard to convince policy makers, industrial executives and finally the average consumer that higher bills are an acceptable price to pay for cleaner energy.

It’s not impossible. It’s happened in Germany – all be it with some major compromises. What is certain that COP21 has the potential to change the game for energy communicators the world over.

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CLIENT’S REPUTATION… When you don’t have the full picture

Originally written for my mate and ex colleague’s rather good PR blog

There’s a silly picture of me at the end of the article that I’m not putting on this blog

Q: “I’ve started working at a new agency and my core client is a big name in an industrial sector. It’s a change to anything I’ve worked on before and one of the things I’m struggling with is the lack of information the client gives us. Twice now the client has been featured in a big news story but we’ve been provided with little or no information as to what is happening. I feel like I trying to protect my client’s reputation in the dark and I’m also putting the new relationships I’m making with journalists under strain. Worst of all, it makes me look stupid! The rest of the team seem to accept the situation without question but I’m at a loss how to work this way (and keep my contacts onside). Thoughts?”

A: It’s a great question – and one that I’ve asked my old colleague Paddy Blewer from Ketchum to answer. With more than 13 years advising the energy industry (amongst others), spending time in the former soviet union, the middle east and sub Saharan Africa. Paddy’s deep sector knowledge makes him well-placed to offer advice. This is his response:

“This is an issue that everyone in communications faces at some point, because it is challenging to know every detail of a deal, a new product or a senior hire unless you are 100% immersed in the team running that project. My basic advice is as follows:

Hoover up every fact and opinion you can, and if possible, talk to the client honestly about why you need further information. Then its time to use your objectivity to put their narrative into a wider context.

In practice this means understanding where our clients fit in, whether that’s their vertical industry, policy area, investment cycle or across differing geographical regions.

Let’s take your client. My advice would be to read everything you can about them and their industry. You should always start with the company’s annual report to understand what their purpose is; and how their structure and operations are designed to help them meet their mission statement. Next talk to your colleagues and learn from their different perspectives. Try out different ideas and scenarios. Immerse yourself in the client’s world.

Then there is their key media. Search out key profiles written over the past few years to develop an understanding of how they are viewed both in terms of themselves and in terms of comparative analysis within their peer group. What’s worked and what hasn’t?

There may well be relevant analyst reports on this client. Either analysis of their products, or on a different level investment banking reports analysing the equity and debt investment propositions.

Finally you’ve got to get out there and meet people. It’s incredible how many serious and important people will give you the time of day over a drink in the hope of getting a nugget of valuable information from you. Meet your client’s other advisers, be that legal, comms or financial. Meet their rivals’ advisors. Network furiously to get a more personal feel of how the client is viewed and how their industry works – you could even try potential messaging ideas and platforms out on a strictly background or off the record basis.

You won’t become an expert overnight, but in an ideal world you should be able to develop a deep understanding of the client’s core communications profile, alongside the business itself quite quickly.

Once you get the above sorted, you won’t be losing credibility with journalists. You’ll be providing them with useful perspective.

This is why some agencies have vertical industry teams, or individuals develop as broad and deep understanding of a number of vertical industries. After multiple years advising energy / real estate / banking, you’ll know as much, if not more than many journalists covering the sector.”