Stop people in the street and ask what they think of when they hear the term. Chances are that Max Clifford and spin would feature. Do people trust the phrase? Not, really.
That’s not to say there is no-one in the profession trying to change things. There are. Some are doing it by trying to professionalise what is there. Robert Phillips is doing it by starting a debate. Or rather he has lit a molotov cocktail and thrown it. His book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ is that incendiary device.
There is much in it to debate.
It’s been fascinating to watch much of the debate centre around the title rather than the contents. For me, that misses the point as much as the urban myth of the journalist who when Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s theatre was supposed to have asked: “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”
But who is Phillips? Some bearded revolutionary? Actually, no. He was the former President and CEO, EMEA of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm. He co-founded Jericho Chambers and advises companies at a senior level on strategy, policy, comms and trust.
That this comes from someone who was the cornerstone of the PR profession means the argument demands attention.
What is threatening PR?
A resistance to change. In five key areas, Robert Phillips says. The industry is not across data and insight that can offer greater chances of measurable success. Outputs are often still measured over outcomes. Whizzy numbers are put forward when the answer should be what have people done as a result of what you’ve done? The world is about networks and not heirarchies and PR doesn’t get that. Creative ideas are too small to scale and make a difference and there is a lack of talent, he argues. Phillips writes:
“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.
“It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or ‘managing the message’ anymore. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.”
Don’t say ‘trust me’ do things that make others say ‘trust them…’
Phillips argues that too much attention has been spent on the polishing the message that says ‘trust us.’ More needs to be spent on actually doing things that earn that trust. Don’t say you care. Do the right things first. Maybe people will see that.
This can be summed up in the phrase: ‘It’s what you do what counts, not what you say.’
Stop and reflect. If you are a PR person how much time did your organisation really spend on doing?
The final death of spin…
Beautifully, as if to support the theory that networks are replacing hierarchies the book is interspersed with ‘wise crowd contributors’ or short essays from those with supporting views. If that were me, I’d be doing that for safety in numbers. One such contributor is George Pitcher who quotes from his 2003 book ‘The Death of Spin.’
“We have covered politics and business with the tarmac of a spin-culture and then wonder why the grass isn’t growing. There is more to life than what we think about it. We have to do it too.”
So, what’s next…?
Of course, it’s easy to throw half bricks at a system that is creaking. It’s a lot harder to construct a vision for what should replace it.
What leaders should do next
Phillips calls for ‘public leadership.’ He wants leaders who are activists and he wants them to make decisions that are co-produced. In other words, he wants them to allow others a voice to shape those decisions. He wants leaders to be ‘citizen centric’ and connect the core purpose of the organisation to how they can help real people. He also wants them to be society-first and to think of the society they are part of.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But there are examples in the book where this is happening.
A few months back we helped facilitate a comms event for Foreign & Commonwealth Office comms people out in the Middle East. British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher stopped me in my tracks with his call that we should communicate like insurgents. We should, of course. They move fleet of foot without having to report back. They create bite sized content using platforms where they know people will be. If Our Man gets it, shouldn’t we?
What communicators should frame their communications next
In a networked world where spin can be exposed within minutes Phillips argues that new ways to communicate are needed. Interestingly, he advances what he calls ‘Seven Strategies of We.’
The strategies in brief are: accept chaos as reality, radicalise honesty and transparency, build coalitions, take to the social dance floor, be the media, love the citizen crowd and communicate through actions not words.
Of course, each strategy could be a revolution in its own right but taken together they are dynamite. But are they too much to take as a whole?
Of course, good ideas written down don’t change the world. History shows that the Diggers in 17th century Britain had this crazy idea that all men were created equal and that land had been stolen from them by a foreign monarch. It didn’t end well.
So, will Phillips’ ideas end well? There are certainly those in the PR establishment who loathe this book. Is PR dead or evolving? The book’s success will be judged in time, no doubt. The forces that drive the books ideas, the web, citizens being more networked will happen anyway. But how is it is possible to take these ideas as a reader and influence change?
It is too arresting a book to read in one sitting. Pick up the book at random and there are ideas that fizz and challenge you to disagree with them.
But it is entirely wrong to think this is a book about PR. This is a book about everything from how we react to organisations, press for change, communicate and navigate change. Too ambitious? A PR person on their own with this book is like a stoker looking out of a Titanic porthole spotting an iceberg. It needs those at the top on board too. Without that, can its ideas fail? Maybe not since it talks about forces like the internet and social change that are outside our control.
Can change be done from within? With that in mind, it’s also a book that should be read with Liam Barrington-Bush’s excellent ‘Anarchists in the Boadroom.’ This book was written from first hand experience of the Occupy movement. It’s a cookbook for how to make organisations more approachable and more like people.
‘Trust Me: PR is Dead’ is more Occupy than Mad Men. It challenges you. Like a tent village outside a closure-threatened hospital it may not be liked. The suits who are walking past the encampment eyes down on the pavement would be foolish to ignore it.
It’ll be fascinating to see how these ideas play out.
You can buy Trust Me, PR Is Dead by Robert Phillips here via our Amazon Associates page.
Robert Phillips will be taking part in a discussion titled ‘PR is Dead… in Brum: Leadership and Communications in a Citizen Centric Society’ at the Impact Hub Birmingham from 6pm to 8pm on March 25. Joining him on the panel will be Darren Caveney of comms2point0, Nick Booth of Podnosh and Lorna Prescott of Dudley CVS and Impact Hub Brum. Tickets which are free are available here
Not only that but I also followed in Jonny Ive’s footsteps and went to the same University too.
Of course, when I say I went to school with, what I really mean is that I was a first year at Walton High School in Stafford when he was in the Sixth form. I’ve a vague recollection of him as being this rather tall student who walked everywhere with an art folder under his arm.
By pure co-incidence I was at Newcastle Polytechnic too years after Ive had left and just before it turned into Northumbria University.
He, I’m quite sure, wouldn’t have even the slightest recollection of me and good thing too.
For some reason I chanced upon a profile of Ive written in the New York Times. It’s that’s the text of the Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher poster on his wall that jumps out.
“Believe in your f*cking self. Stay up all f*cking night. Work outside of your f*cking habits. Know when to f*cking speak up. F*cking collaborate. Don’t f*cking procrastinate. Get over your f*cking self. Keep f*cking learning. Form follows f*cking function. A computer is a Lite-Brite for bad f*cking ideas. Find f*cking inspiration everywhere. F*cking network. Educate your f*cking client. Trust your f*cking gut. Ask for f*cking help. Make it f*cking sustainable. Question f*cking everything. Have a f*cking concept. Learn to take some f*cking criticism. Make me f*cking care. Use f*cking spell check. Do your f*cking research. Sketch more f*cking ideas. The problem contains the f*cking solution. Think about all the f*cking possibilities.”
That’s a really good set of advice that should be taught in schools.
Not only that, but as I get to grips with understand the web, the social web and how it affects digital comms that’s also a set of advice to live by.
Nobody tells them to do it, but off they head travelling 200 miles a day with just the urge to head south.
Swallows, ladies and gentlemen, are rather like politicians.
At some point the beacon of the election pings and they start changing behaviour. The normally relaxed cabinet member starts to behave differently. Requests for coverage become more pressing. There can be the photo requests, the press releases and the subtle pressure can sometimes begin.
By subtle pressure, I mean the request to maybe send across that stock pic. Or maybe the request for a quote that damns a different parties’ policies. In short, the local government comms team can risk being ‘leaned on.’
It doesn’t happen everywhere of course. Sometimes it’s an innocent question asking to help them out.
Q – That stock picture of the town hall. Can you send it across? The printers are waiting for it.
A – It may only be a stock picture of a town hall but if public money paid for it it can’t be used for political purposes.
Q – That quote in the cabinet members’ statement? He wants it changed so he can attack the Prime Minister.
A – It may only be a quote but you shouldn’t be allowing political comments into content you are issuing.
There is so much more to comms than Purdah. That’s the period where it is acknowledged that politicians can’t be quoted. Knowing what you can and can’t say and do is just common sense.
You can have a row very easily. But what you need close at hand is the chapter and verse of what you can do and say before it escalates.
As the comms visionary Chuck Norris once said, men are like steel. When they lose their temper they lose their worth. So don’t lose your temper or get the politician to lose theirs. Have a list to hand of what you can do and say and make sure your team know too.
Remind yourself of what you can and can’t say…
It’s an uncomfortable time of year and there are steps that every head of comms, comms manager, press officer, web officer and marketing assistant needs to know about. Make a list of exactly what document says what so when challenged they can quote it.
One of the best afternoons in my career was spent going through a sheaf of documents that governed my job. What was in that sheaf? The authority’s constitution, the DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity and the media protocols. The Holy Trinity of local government comms documents. By all means start off with the media protocols, but people will argue the toss. A few people may mess with the DCLG. You’ll find very few people mess with the council’s constitution.
The DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity
Contrary to myth, comms teams do not work for the Leader or the administration. They work for the Chief Executive and the authority. The comms team that forgets that is likely to land up in trouble.
Councils are required by legislation to consider the code of practice before they make decisions. You can download it here.
Here’s a couple of keepers:
19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner
34. During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
The media protocols
This document will set out what you do and don’t do. Know what it says. Make sure your team knows what it says. In all likelihood, this document will have been worked out in advance and possibly when an administration is incoming. This gets them signed-up in peacetime to the governance of the comms unit.
Why the constitution is like Chuck Norris
It’s difficult to describe the reverential awe that the constitution has in the place of local government. When faced with the constitution they ususally don’t argue.
What is great about the constitution is that it governs the behaviour of the officer and politician relationship. It may mention that undue pressure may not be put on officers. It may also refer to bullying, intimidation and a list of other things you’ll probably never need but it’s useful to have at your finger tips.
Like Chuck Norris, nobody messes with the Constitution. If they do, there’s a chance they’ll come a cropper.
Often the Constitution will point to professional standards being standards to be observed. There are three for comms teams. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the National Union of Journalists and the Public Relations Consultants Association.
Will the constitution insist you belong to them? Take a look and I’ll bet it’s not vital although I’d suggest you do.
You’ve read all this, what next?
Put the salient points and the sections they come from onto one side of A4. Two at most. Get your legal team to add their name to it to give it an added layer of Teflon.
If you work in the public sector, you’ll have your own guidance, constitution and approaches. But the principles remain the same. It’s best to be independant as a public servant rather than partizan. And as housing, the NHS and the work of government gets more politically charged its useful to know where you stand.
It’s also good to know what you can and can’t say and do. That’s worth knowing all the year round.
“So what,” they will ask “difference do you make?”
If the answer is that you helped save the organisation by better communicating with people by working with the contact centre better or some channel shift then you’ve got a chance. If you know you saved £500k through that campaign on recruiting foster carers even better.
If you can’t do that you probably won’t be around. It really is that simple. Forget reputation. That doesn’t show-up on the balance sheet and at a time when budgets are tight helping people with their budgets makes you part of the solution. That’s a really powerful place to be.
A masterclass on campaigns that make a difference
We’re staging a masterclass in good campaigns on February 26 at The Bond Company in Birmingham with speakers who won an unaward at our end-of-year bash. They will be telling tales of how they are making a difference and showing their worth. Five confirmed are:
DVLA head of communications Victoria Ford on building a culture of no cost / low cost campaigns. And how they get over obstacles.
Shadow Giants’ founder Amy Kiernan on how they staged the #backtonursing campaign for the NHS’s Health Education England. A new nurse costs £70k to train while re-training a lapsed one is just a few thousand pounds.
Sandwell Council’s web and digital manager Matt Johnson on the innovative ‘No S**t Sherlock!’ campaign that used humour to shame dog-owners in a perennial problem.
Leed City Council’s Phil Jewitt on how they made their organisation more #trulysocial and how they changed the culture.
Stafford Borough Council’s press and communications manager Will Conaghan will explain how a small team can punch above their weight with some practical examples.
And unconference sessions and a download
The afternoon will see unconference sessions where the agenda is shaped by attendees on the day. Maybe there is an issue that needs tackling or there was something from the morning that needs looking at in more detail.
Attendees can also have a special campaigns download to help capture best practice and some of the stories from the day.
Six ways comms can make a difference to make a good campaign
Everyone likes a beginning, a middle and an end. Screenwriters talk of a three act play. In communications it runs from this is the problem. This is what we did. Here’s the difference we made.
Help identify the problem with just one word: ‘why?’
Often people will beat a path to your door to run a campaign on an issue. The most powerful word in the communications officer’s vocabulary is ‘why?’ It’s ‘why’ that leads you to the heart of the matter. You need more foster carers? Why? To give children a better start in life and if we don’t it costs us money. How much money? We save £10k a time each one we recruit.
Your aim should be to tackle a business objective
A housing association looks after 1,000 properties. They need people in the homes to pay their rent. They need 95 per cent to pay or else there is a serious headeache. Everything the comms person does should point at that. Otherwise, why bother? How can you look finance in the eye?
Once you have the problem don’t have a comms plan for the sake of it
When I was in the public sector, I grew slightly tired of writing Linus blanket comms plans that nobody looked at. A plan is fine. But it only works if there is a commitment on both sides.
Let your comms plan tell a story
That story is the chart that paints an epic story of where the organisation was and where you are headed. It was here and the problem was do big (THE ISSUE). So we decided that it needed to move by that much to make it better (THE TARGET). We understood what the pitfalls out of our control were SCENARIO PLANNING. We worked out who we needed to talk to (AUDIENCE). We worked out the best way to talk to them (CHANNELS). And we asked them to do something which we then counted (MEASURED). And as we went along, we checked that all of those things were working and we were heading where we needed to be (EVALUATED).
Be creative. Experiment. See what works. The tried and tested may not be the path to take.
Never end the campaign
There is a logic that sees a push against smoking one week of the year. But what happens if that smoker doesn’t want to right there and then? Maybe its six months down the line? What happens then? Make sure the door is still open and the helpline isn’t turned off until the same time next year.
comms2point0’s comms campaigning masterclass: key lessons from the UnAward winners is staged at The Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Digbeth, Birmingham from 10am to 4.30pm on Thursday February 26. For more information and to book a ticket click here.
It was probably the most fascinating, fun and untaxing job I’ve got on my LinkedIn profile.
The request to serve on it came out of the blue. A phone call asking if I’d like to. I would? That’s great the story was going online later that morning.
As a former journalist who cares passionately about the public sector this appealed to me. My job? Occasional meetings in London as part of a panel of half a dozen or so and the bouncing of ideas.
There’s no question that The Guardian take coverage of the public sector seriously. Jane Dudman and her team have grown that part of the newspaper. If there is an issue you think should be tackled you really should get in touch with her.
What did I learn now my 12-months is at an end?
That broadly speaking everyone is facing a difficult landscape in the public sector.
That The Guardian have very funky offices and serve good coffee.
That from an editorial point of view, one good, well written piece will attract more traffic than lots of not that great pieces.
That an online news platform needs to keep an eye on the analytics but not be slavishly driven by them. The right numbers work for the Public Leaders network rather than buzzfeed list numbers for the sake of it.
That Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, is as engaging in real life as he is when interviewed on the radio. But I’ll never understand how he cycles around the streets of London.
That editorial ideas in a web-focused newsroom are as much around content as they are about ‘stories’ and word counts.
That stories around how to cope with the stress of public sector life are probably more engaging than a story about who has succeeded who and who loves working where.
So, it all boils down still, despite the internet and everything, the old maxim Iearned early as a junior reporter that news is people and still is. Which is oddly reassuring.
There is a real tangible mood of optimism sweeping Birmingham and the West Midlands as 2015 comes into view.
Lonely Planet named Brum as one of the 10 best cities in the world and there have been a raft of stories of the flow of 30-something entrepreneurs and tech people leaving London for Birmingham and finding life better there. It’s nice to get external recognition. But in our corner of the world the West Midlands has been a bit great for a while. There’s a community of digital people. Many first met at events like the long-running Birmingham Social Media Cafe or at coffee houses or unconferences where people collaborate and meet people.
We’re also backing the Impact Hub Birmingham Kickstarter to build co-working and events space in Digbeth. It’s a venue and an idea whose time has really come. You can read more about it here.
Why are comms2point0 backing Hub Brum?
A couple of reasons. We’re backing it so we can have some co-working space a few times a week to get things done, use the WiFi and enjoy a cup of coffee. In my first year concentrating on comms2point0 full-time I’ve recognised the need for a regular space. But not a full-time office. Sometimes, this is to stick headphones in and zone out. Other times, this is to bounce ideas around and contribute to other ideas. We also rather like the social change stuff too. The people behind it are keen to collaborate on projects to make Birmingham a better place to live. That rather appeals. There is work to be done and there are people who want to see it happen.
We’ll be using Impact Hub Birmingham as a physical base. The comms2point0 website, of course, will continue and thrive.
Why am I excited about 2015?
Eighty per cent of new businesses fail in the first 12-months. We’ve celebrated 12-months being registered with Companies House. Geddin. I’ve been full time. The long nights staring at the ceiling wondering if this can work have gone. They’ve been replaced by a wish there was more hours in the day and more capacity. If I’m honest, time spent with my family has suffered. My wife Clare has been amazing. Time spent with them in Wales between Christmas and New Year has been valued.
Mary McKenna once wrote that running your own business means one day off a year. I can see what she means. When I explain the time, love and effort it requires people almost always look horrified. The man who wrote that you work 80 hours a week for yourself so you don’t work 40 hours for someone else is dead right and I’ve a long list of people to thank who have helped, given advice and have hired both me and Darren.
If 2014 was a start then 2015 is when comms2point0 really takes off. There are ideas in the pipeline we think you’ll love.
Why are we excited about 2015?
In all the fun and excitement often people think that comms2point0 is just me. That’s not true. It’s always been a collaboration between myself and Darren Caveney. The original idea for the platform was Darren’s and we fleshed out how it would work watching a game of cricket. Our plannning meetings are a thing of wonder and it is amazing what you can produce when you have enough cake and coffee. But the black and white images and the look and feel of the website? That’s all Darren, that is.
I’m pleased to say that 2015 will see an even greater input from Darren and ideas that will push things on.
Here’s a look at last year and what I got right and wrong.
What did I get right?
Comms teams overall have got smaller although a minority have grown. A survey comms2point0 ran for LGComms showed 57 per cent working in teams that have shrunk since 2008. Anecdotally, there have been fewer heads of comms as the duties are shared for cost saving. Better evaluation remains to be needed. Local government comms has become become the poor relation of public sector PR. It looks on with envy at others’ budgets. Digital comms has continued to go mainstream but there is lipservice to it. Many teams have been outsripped by the pace of change.
Anecdotally, poor internal comms remains.
What did I get wrong?
Digital comms has not stepped-up a gear from simply tweeting press releases to tackling the really thorny problems. That’s a source of real worry. Elsewhere, social media remains a frontline task but the pace of change here has slowed. There was no major emergency where social media shone.
Too early to say?
Comms teams still need content creators although this hasn’t happened. There will be more shared comms teams. People will look at how this can work across a geographical area and also between authorities.
So here are 11 more for 2015
Some councils will no longer have a meaningful comms function. Cut to the bone, they will do little more than answer the phone and answer media queries.
Social media will stall. After early innovation, the time and space to experiment as part of the day job has gone. The door has closed. Twitter and Facebook will be it.
New platforms continue to go untouched. As new platforms grow and develop like SnapChat, Instagram and WhatsApp there will be no capacity to experiment with them leading to a section of the population disenfranchised.
Evaluation will become a case of do or die. With budgets being cut, the comms team needs to justify what it does before it is cut. Unless they can look finance in the eye and demonstrate why they should live they will go.
People who bang the table and say ‘no’ will stand a chance. Those who don’t won’t. There has never been a more important time to say ‘no’to meaningless fire-and-forget blunderbus comms. But this argument needs to be one had strategically as budgets tighten. Comms teams can deliver real change at a time of problems. But they need to fight their corner.
There will be fewer press releases written for fewer newspapers. An easy one. At some point someone will notice and ask what the point of comms teams are. The window where people can get their story straight is about to end.
It will get more fractured. Content tailored for those keen on one country park or a care home needs to be created and be more sharable. This is where comms teams can help and enable service areas.
Video gets more important. But the skills need to be learned.
Social media accounts need to be reviewed and closed. That arts centre that played their face for a Twitter account and then updated it three months ago? It needs to be taken down. There is too much bad digital in local government.
Customer services, social media and comms need to become best friends. At present, this is happening sporadically. This needs to be hapening everywhere… and six months ago.
Facebook pages will become pointless unless supported by a budget for ads. This is the reality which many are struggling to catch-up with.
Creative commons credit
Mobile and cutting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48503330@N08/5871393799/