Corporate Communication: Speaking Simple Truth to Power

Reading, the other day, that French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his thought processes are too complex for the media to understand, and thus has cancelled a traditional Bastille Day press conference, made me consider (again) two things:

  • The core of communication is simplicity
  • Speaking communication truth to the very powerful is a vital, but thankless, task

Clearly, Msr Macron was ridiculed roundly for his perceived arrogance, and there were those who accused him of having a Louis XIV complex. (Which appears to have some substance, if you read the reportage following his speech at Versailles on July 3.) He is obviously an incredibly intelligent man and has crammed more into his 39 years than I could hope of achieving in as many lifetimes, however, from a communication standpoint, he has alienated a key stakeholder group, who will have gone on to influence a large proportion of his supporter base.

Some have said that he may have been misrepresented or misconstrued, but my own experience leads me to believe that he simply saw no issue. He’s the cleverest boy in the room, why would he waste his time on people who aren’t going to understand what he’s saying? And that will be his experience of the media. They keep asking questions, the answers to which are, to him, blindingly obvious.

I say my own experience, because it’s happened to me on at least three different occasions – and by different occasions, I mean different companies and different C-suite executives. ‘Why, oh why, oh why’ they said ‘do I have to do this early morning call to the media? They never really understand what I’m saying, it’s all too complex for them, and we often have to go back and mop it up later. Why?’

Sometimes they were a bit harsher than that.

The real question, of course, is not why don’t they understand the complexity, it’s why can’t you make it simpler and easier for everyone. Those in the public eye or in a position of power – our heads, our leaders – are expected to be on top of their material, their field of expertise. They are rewarded for so being.

The media, on the other hand, are – in the main – overstretched, underpaid and covering a wide variety of different topics. Their audience – the public, the consumer, the voter – has neither the time, nor the inclination.

Thus, and as always, the truth of communication is ‘the simpler the better’. Simple, however, is not to dumb it down, but to express it in a way (or ways) that all your audiences will understand and relate to – this will undoubtedly involve a layer of extra work, on top of the work you’ve done to get to where you are. Which is inconvenient.

Speaking this truth to the very powerful, thus, is an extremely dangerous occupation. Someone who believes that their thought processes are too complex to be understood doesn’t take kindly to being told that they can (and should) be simplified.

it is vital that the communication expert steps up to the plate however – the alternative is a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and possessed of delusions of grandeur – or, in a more corporate context, a leader viewed as aloof, arrogant and out of touch. And with today’s focus on customer experience, inclusion and satisfaction, that’s simply not going to work.

(A final thought – if Emmanuel feels that the media are going to have a hard time understanding him, why has he issued an invitation to Donald Trump? Maybe it’s a President thing.)

 

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Corporate Reputation: Not enhanced by Gurus, Black Belts, Ninjas or Masters

Way back when – 1985, to be precise – a gentleman called Nick Graham founded an underwear company called Joe Boxer, and appointed himself Chief Underpants Officer. And why not? It was irreverent and amusing and – this is the key element – it reflected what the company actually did, and his role in it. His claim that “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir” provides insight into his thinking and an interesting take on customer relations, not suitable for all, but worth a moment’s consideration.

The point is that it is possible to break away from the conventions of job titles and role profiles – Chief Executive Officer, Sales Director, National Accounts Manager, Head of Human Resources, IT Analyst – and, in so doing, enhance corporate reputation and make a clear statement about strategic direction.

This piece, by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester for the BBC, provides a couple of further examples. Let’s hear it for the Captain of Moonshots at Google, who heads up research and development (and whose name, brilliantly enough, is Astro Teller). And take a bow, Berkshire Hathaway’s Director of Chaos, who manages the organisation of the company’s annual shareholder bunfight. From the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s not forget the sandwich artists at Subway.

There’s a point to all of these and even Captain of Moonshots is sufficiently evocative that it’s clear what the job entails and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs/merits an extraordinary descriptor. However, there is a newer and perhaps slightly worrying trend towards ‘differently naming’ roles and positions, and Sir Cary’s article goes on to discuss it.

Coming from the private sector, and having worked in environments where ‘process efficiencies’ and ‘continuous improvement’ (read cost saving and downsizing) had become central to the culture of the business, I am no stranger to people with ‘guru’ in their title. I have met those called ‘ninja’. I have held meetings with ‘commercial black belts’ – people whom, I suppose, will cripple you on price.

Sir Cary says that incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation.  All of this stuff surely adds value, but not knowing what the job title means, it’s difficult to ask the right questions about the job, and not asking the right questions means not getting the right answers, and thus not being certain of the value added. But, and going back to what the Chief Underpants Officer said, an organisation which allows incomprehensible, and above all unfriendly and slightly intimidating, job titles – for whatever reason – is not going to have the cultural mindset to be an amusement park for its customers.

For the record, the latest examples appear to be the job titles of ‘scrum master’ and ‘agilist’. The first, ‘scrum master’, gives little clue to what it might be, save (for me anyway) a vague sense of foreboding that it might involve large, sweaty men tearing each other’s shorts. The latter, ‘agilist’, for which you can train and obtain a qualification, is someone who promotes agility in an organisation (I think). And – as an aside – for anyone who’s ever spent time in a large organisation – well, I don’t have to tell you how well that’s going to work.

So what does it all mean for the Corporate Affairs/Corporate Reputation manager? Well, it’s an object lesson in how reputation enhancement and good public relations start at home. An internal view is as important as an external one. It’s no good focusing on overall customer experience and corporate image if – to over-extend the metaphor – your publics cannot relate to those who run the amusement park. And if the corporate culture allows for ninjas, black belts, gurus and masters – then it’s probably about due an overhaul.

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No Measurement, No Value

One of the things about being an old communicator is that you’ve seen such an awful lot of it before – and never more so than in the field of evaluation and measurement. Without wishing to bore the pants off of anyone, in the nigh on three decades that I’ve been a jobbing spin doctor, no-one – but no-one – has come up with a robust and meaningful method of measuring the results of communication/public relations activities.

There have been attempts, sure, some more successful than others. Six years ago the Association for Evaluation and Measurement of Communication formed to address the issue, led by some of the biggest names in the global communications industry. Credit where credit is due, they made a good fist of it and, for those who want to have a look at the results, here’s a link for you.

Problem is, I’m afraid, that it is unutterably complex and, unfortunately, carries with it considerable cost – even if it is just the cost of the human resource that you have no choice but to allocate against it. You see, complexity and cost are the downfalls of any half-decent attempt at cracking the evaluation and measurement conundra.

The communication function has never enjoyed the budgets that are allocated to the marketing/advertising functions and thus the proportion of total budget that meaningful measurement would suck up is far greater. Given a straight choice between greater levels of activity or a nicely-produced report measuring the effectiveness of much lower levels of activity – well, rightly or wrongly, it’s more activity, every time.

And did I say that meaningful measurement is also very complex? Meaningful measurement, simply put, revolves around understanding the impacts of your activity against your varying target audiences and aligning the impacts against the various goals that you agreed at the beginning of the campaign.

And that’s in its simplest form. Never mind – should you wish to examine your return on investment – putting a price on the attainment of those goals (which won’t always be increased unit sales, or net promoter scores, or share price increments) and then balancing that cost against what you paid for the campaign. And it is, I am afraid, an eternal truth that the more complex it is, the less time the intended audience (senior management, of example) will spend trying to understand it.

Which is why, for so long – and still today – Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) is many communicator’s measurement of choice. Even I have used it – albeit apologetically, and with a full disclosure of the system’s inherent limitations and less-than-robust nature – because when you can’t afford anything else, something is better than nothing. If you don’t show some form of evaluation, you don’t get accorded any value and if you’re not accorded any value, then you’re not going to be top of mind when the FD’s divvying up next year’s spend.

So I was interested to read about Earned Media Value (EMV) – via Stephen Waddington’s excellent blog – which is, to all intents and purposes, AVE brought up to date. Or at least, AVE for the PESO media environment. (OK, OK – Paid, Earned, Social, Owned.) It’s still hogwash, it’s still fatally flawed (some might say meaningless) and it’s still chock-full of limitations. But – if you’re all out of alternatives…………..

Let’s be clear. Right at the beginning of the planning cycle, we need to ensure that we (or our client, dependent on whether we’re in-house or agency) are lobbying for a budget allocation that allows for proper measurement and evaluation.

Very, very simply put – we need to explain what proper measurement is and get the blessing of the exec directors and the board. This will be difficult first time round and then progressively easier as it becomes accepted. We need to shield them from the complexity of it and present the results to them in top-line findings aligned to the agreed goals – which, clearly, should be, or should closely mirror, the overall corporate objectives.

The problem is – if you’re not successful in this course of action, what do you do? I am not advocating listening to the snake-oil salesmen who would make AVE or EMV industries in themselves and money-spinners for the unscrupulous.

But you might look at them and think – without any form of measurement at all, no matter how flawed, what we’re doing is simply tactical, not strategic and of little perceived long-term value.

But that’s another can of worms.

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Scaffolding

Not so much scaffolding, actually.

What I’ve got in mind is the sort of thing that used to come up in EVERY SINGLE creative ‘brainstorm’ (why does my computer desperately want to correct that to ‘brianstorm’? Are they building these things with senses of humour these days?) that I attended in the heady days of agency and then when I scored my first in-house job.

The brief would be something along the lines of ‘no holds barred – we want a really big idea – one that’s going to translate across marketing, advertising and PR – doesn’t matter where it comes from – simply has to be big and attention-grabbing – yes, yes, if it’s good enough, we’ll find the money, never you mind about that – we don’t want anyone to be negative – no ideas are bad ideas’ etc etc. This would be followed by a sort of free-form bunfight as the various different functions, including serried ranks of consultants and agency bods, all tried to out-creative each other, the ideas getting more and more ludicrous and spiralling further and further out of control.

And, no. Before you ask, there was never any money for the big idea. A small fortune would be spent on getting everyone to the brainstorm – remember, the agency bods and consultants are charging by the hour – but when the sparkledust and dreamtinsel had settled, there was never, actually, the enormous pile of wonga we’d been promised. Maybe the ideas weren’t the right ones. Who knows?

But I digress. In every brainstorm – for a while, part of the zeitgeist I guess – the idea was put forward that we should get ‘those guys, you know, the installation artists – the ones who wrapped the Reichstag – Christo et Jeanne-Claude‘ to wrap a building in corporate colours. Overnight, obviously. To ‘surprise and delight’. (That combination of words still makes me shudder.) The choice at the time was usually either the Empire State Building or One Canada Square. (Yeah, overnight.)

So. I’m going to have a go at curating this blog. Make it easier to find stuff. Get rid of some of the self-indulgent twoddle (don’t you be telling me that I’m not self-aware) and get a focus on the stuff that might be useful in some way. Crisis Management. Media Training. Language and Writing. All that good, good stuff (as a rather strange ex-boss of mine would have had it.)

So – in the meantime – while I do a bit of bumbling workery on it – just imagine that, overnight, it’s been wrapped in thewordmonger’s corporate colours. Money no object when it comes to you, dearest blogsnorkellers.

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Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan 1

2009 Research by Burson Marsteller (a PR company) into European companies’ level of crisis-preparedness revealed that while 60% of companies polled had encountered some sort of crisis, 53% didn’t have a plan in place to deal with a crisis when it happens to them. Just so the full horror of this has time to sink in – I’ll repeat it in slightly different terms.

Over half of European companies, it would seem, are wholly unprepared for the ‘phone call at 3.00am that tells you your factory’s on fire, or one of your planes just came down. The Monday morning call from the Department of Health to say that hospitals up and down the country are stuffed to the gunwales with patients, poisoned by your range of ready meals. The sight of two of your workforce plummeting past the window, having been issued with badly-maintained harnesses. Your CEO shooting himself in the foot, describing your product range as ‘off the record, real shit, know what I mean’, or your CEO simply shooting himself, having realised that the whole fraud game is up.

Do I need to go on? Everyone knows that a good crisis – or sometimes just a minor issue – can destroy a company, brand, organisation, or person’s reputation overnight if it’s not handled in the right way. Think of the examples. Hoover and the flights debacle, Ratners, Nestle and the baby milk, Coke and Dasani, Thierry Henry, Goldman Sachs, Britney Spears, Enron, Exxon Mobil – the list is, quite literally, endless.

And still, over half of European companies do not have a crisis plan in place. Without labouring the point, a crisis can happen at any time, and it’s one of those strange serendipity things that at any time is exactly when crises do happen. There’s no warning and it will be the middle of the night – that much is guaranteed. It is tantamount to malpractice for any communicator daring to describe himself or herself as professional to ply their trade in, or on behalf of, a company that doesn’t have a plan in place. Think about that for a moment.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you’ve not created a plan before it might, understandably, seem a bit daunting – and it’s not made any easier by the fact that there are a million conflicting opinions on what a plan should look like and what it should contain.

It’s also all to easy to put off, or ignore. Hey – your company, or your client’s company has never had a crisis – why’s it going to start now? Anyway, how difficult can it be? And just think of the cost, time and effort involved in putting a plan together! All perfectly good arguments – until such time as you are bitch-slapped by the big, wet, metaphorical haddock of crisis. At which point you are going to be really, really, abjectly sorry. Trust me.

In a perfect world, one would expect the industry bodies, or the industry’s ‘bible’ (copyright PRWeek 2009), to provide a handy cut-and-out-keep guide for the benefit of their members and readers – something to get you started. But it’s not a perfect world, and they don’t. In fact, as far as I can see, during the lazy and brief trawl of t’internet I conducted earlier today, there’s not much out there that doesn’t have a price attached to it.

So, for the good of mankind, I’m going to do a partwork here, just for you, my faithful blog snorkellers. Over the next few days – could be weeks, depends how deeply I dive into my subject – I shall, I hope, give you enough information on the key aspects of crisis management for you to develop your own skeleton plan. I shall deal with what constitutes a crisis, when issues become crises, who is responsible for the various facets of a crisis, preparing for a crisis, communicating during a crisis, business continuity and getting back to normal after a crisis. And, most likely, one or two spin-off topics.

So – tomorrow, in Creating A Plan 2, I’ll deal with What Is A Crisis.

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Now I’m a Remoaner……..

I guess I should get this out of the way at the very start. I am what I believe is now termed a ‘Remoaner’. Yes, I lost, suck it up, don’t get in the way of the will, stop talking it down, it’s like I don’t want it to succeed and if it doesn’t, it’ll be because I questioned the magic.

To my mind, of course, and I’m vaguely paraphrasing and appropriating from another source, I find it strange that Brexit – such a generally fabulous idea – could be derailed by simple questioning of its finer points. I mean, you’d almost think it was lacking substance, wouldn’t you.

Again, to paraphrase and appropriate, many of those who voted for Brexit, when asked about how it’s going to work, seem to fall back on ‘oh – it’ll be OK’. So there’s not a real understanding of what Brexit is, and what it’s going to look like post the negotiations in two years’ time. And there doesn’t appear to be any idea of what the impacts – economic and social – are going to be either.

But far worse than all this – because without the lies I suspect we wouldn’t be in this position in any case – of the three reasons why most voted to leave, only one still stands up. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating.

The UK parliament has always been sovereign – this was acknowledged in the government’s white paper on Brexit – there is no £350m a week to be spent on the NHS (or anywhere else) – however we might be able to assume greater control of our borders. (Xenophobic and short-sighted though that may be.)

So – there you have it – the ‘will of the people’ is based upon a desire to see less foreigners entering our country. Sorry – I am aware that putting it like that is to imply racism, and I am not doing that. Paraphrasing and appropriating again, not everyone who voted ‘leave’ (on the basis of the immigration thang) is a racist. But there is little doubt in my mind that all the racists that voted, voted ‘leave’.

And let’s get back to that ‘will of the people’ thing again. 33.5m people voted. That’s 72% of the electorate. Incidentally, Theresa May, in that same White Paper on Brexit, claims that 65m people are ‘willing (her) to make it happen’. As that’s almost 20m people more than the total number of eligible voters, I’m not quite sure how she arrived at that number, but hey, we live in Trumpian times.

The number of Leave voters was greater, by some 1.3m. Which, if my math is no more than usually cock-eyed and cack-handed, means that if 650, 000 more people, from those who cast a ballot, had voted remain, rather than leave, it would have been a tie.

Again, I’m not trying to be deliberately provocative here, but doesn’t that mean that this much vaunted ‘will of the people’ which shouldn’t be questioned and should be carried out slavishly, not to do so would be treason, suck it up, don’t question it, liberal elite etc etc etc is in fact the will of 650,000 people? 1.3% of the electorate?

And, let’s be clear, what’s being done in the name of the will of the people is permanent. There’s no cooling off period, or a chance to voice the will of the people again in four or five years time. In fact, this ‘will of the people’ thing, is a little too near the ‘voice of the people’ – the vox populi.

Of course, we all know that ‘vox populi, vox dei’. The voice of the people is the voice of God. But of course – it isn’t. That’s not what Alcuin of York, in his letter to Charlemagne, in 798, actually said. He said, and with apologies to Alcuin, I’m paraphrasing and appropriating, ‘do not listen to those who are accustomed to say that the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the tumult of the masses is often close to madness’. Seems like Alcuin was advocating against the idea of letting the people have a say.

But regardless, the people did have a say and more of them said Leave than said Stay. But, triumphant Brexiteers, this does not mean that you, in some way, ‘won’ something. It was not a first past the post. There was nothing to win. It was a yes or no – leave or remain and the majority voted to leave.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s being viewed. Apparently – and getting back to the idea that Brexit will somehow be derailed by the questioning of those who are concerned by it and how it is to be carried out – to voice doubt about Brexit is to be in denial about being a loser.

Thus we have the Remoaners – a derogatory epithet coined by those with their eyes firmly fixed on the sunlit uplands of Brexit rather than, perhaps, on the road immediately in front of them. It is dismissive and denigratory and diminishing – and as such attempts to belittle and suppress any sort of contrary point of view. It is almost as if those who see themselves as ‘winners’ now believe that, as the people have spoken and ‘vox populi, vox dei’, that any opposition should simply melt away (in the sunlight from the sunlit uplands, I suppose).

And it’s a shame. Because the most vocal proponents of the idea that Remoaners are somehow betraying the people and therefore betraying the country itself seem to be those with an apparently limited understanding of the incredibly complex process that is Brexit and the very many unpleasant and detrimental outcomes that are ranked alongside any positive outcomes as being the possible results of that process.

And the very first of those outcomes? The one that arrived the moment the results of the referendum were announced? A division within the UK itself – a division that spawned the Remoaners and the Brextremists, that set people against each other and made (makes) the UK look like some vision of a dystopian world as imagined by Suzanne Collins.

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Internet ‘not all bad’ shocker

There are over a billion websites. 17% of people admit to arguing with their partners every day over their use of mobile devices (read ‘looking at Facetwat during dinner’) – 17%! Every day! I’ll admit to not being certain that either of these statistics are correct – but it’s that sort of order of magnitude and if it’s not that’s because I’m slightly ahead of my time, but given the way that anything to do with technology is growing these days, then it will be very soon. Alternatively, I’m way behind the curve, the actual numbers are much greater and if this is the case then we can only but sit here with our mouths open at the sheer gigantic aweseomeness of it all. Anyway, whatever, I think we can all agree safely to assume that most of the internet is bad, unnecessary and destructive.

What do you mean, you’d like me to explain that?

Oh – so you’d like me to explain that then?

OK. Supposing I’m within the ballpark and there are a billion websites. (It’s certainly not a million, definitely had ‘bill’ in it, so it’s a big number. Well, it is to most of us. Not so much to Len Blavatnik.) So you got to ask yourself why there are a billion websites. My money’s on because none of them are very good. If they were any good, then, d’you see, there wouldn’t be any need for more than say – ooooooh – ten? 20? 72? Definitely not a billion.

And if they were just ‘not very good’, then there would be less than a billion, I’m guessing, because, let’s face it, it can’t be that hard to make a decent website and once you’ve got some, then you wouldn’t need any more. No – we’ve got a billion websites because some of them are not just ‘not very good’, they’re the complete opposite of good (which isn’t ‘evil’, it’s anti-good, where no good exists in any form) and these sites act as a negative number and require correspondingly more good websites to – I believe the phrase is – ‘net them out’.

And the fact that the internet and its proliferation of anti-good sites can cause 17% of us to have a row every day – well, do I really need to spell it out? What kind of dystopian dysfunctionality is this that we (as a society) seem to be accepting, here?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The internet has coerced many into selling their souls for the proverbial mess of pottage (apart from me, of course, I’m in PR and I sold mine a long time ago for a pot of messages) – easy access to news, film, music in return for your personal data and your privacy. Now looms the Internet of Things – not content with having created an internet for people, the shadowy people who control the whole show – yes, they do – have created an internet for things, over which 17% of your fridges can have daily fallings-out with 17% of your toasters, and, of course, in many ways, it’s already here and – here’s the kicker – nobody has noticed.

It’s all gone rather Aldous Huxley, I fear. With a smattering of George O. But if you want to see what it’s going to be like in the very, very near future, then can I suggest ’12 Tomorrows’ – 2014’s MIT science fiction anthology? Or perhaps just pick a Bill Gibson, any Bill Gibson. The truth is that the access to all this stuff that has been granted over the last 15 years or so is now inseparable from daily life and the loss of a few secrets seems a small price to pay.

Like I said, bad, unnecessary and destructive.

And then yesterday, as I was walking through Piccadilly on my way to a reasonably acceptable luncheon, I was stopped by a Australian lady, who asked of me directions to Warwick Street. Now I’ve been living in the Smoke for years, but – dear reader – I had no idea where Warwick Street was. All seemed lost – I know, I know, you can see where this is going and, yes, were I much younger I’d have got there quicker too – but, of course, it wasn’t because in my pocket, I have an internet-enabled device with some of that good, good 4G onnit. So, with a flourish of buttons, I was able to furnish lost Australian lady with directions and we both went our separate ways.

And, in truth, I am prepared to give up a little privacy – in this case, for Google to know where I am – in return for that sort of informational access.

 

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