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Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

Public relations: to promote and protect

27 Jul

Here’s my belated contribution to Andy Green’s #PRredefined initiative – and also to those who would separate craft from professional public relations, or internal from external comms.

The interesting question for me is not ‘what is PR?’ but rather ‘what’s the purpose of public relations’?

Publicity is not an end in itself, but a means to some other end. The purpose of publicity is often to serve a sales or marketing end. There”s nothing wrong with this except that it makes it hard to distinguish public relations from marketing.

Yet if we separate publicity from public relations, we lose the base of the pyramid, the most widely-practised part of the business. We also lose our foot-in-the-door since the desire for promotion is universal, and by no means limited to the private sector. (Just think how charities and campaigning organisations use public relations).

So I’m happy to accept the promotional aspect of public relations – and would argue that the proliferation of media channels and rise of social media makes public relations a more broadly-useful approach to promotion than advertising. The decline in trust also makes it more valuable than SEO or search marketing.

But PR’s trump card has nothing to do with one-way publicity. It’s to do with reputation and relationships – with an end goal of maintaining an organisation’s ‘licence to operate’.

Let me back up a bit in order to explain this. Let’s take the long view of the promotional industries.

In the nineteenth century, promotion was in its infancy. What mattered most was resources: capital, energy, raw materials and cheap labour. Making things was the hard part – promotion could come later.

In the twentieth century, the means to make things became more widespread. Many people could make chocolate, or cars, or fizzy drinks. So the differentiating factor became the ‘brand’ – the recognisable quality that set a Cadburys, or a Ford or a Coca-Cola apart from their many competitors. Public relations became a part of the promotional industries serving these brands (though as public relations historians point out, it had not begun there.)

What’s changing in the twenty-first century? We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight but it seems to me that brand is a diminishing rather than a growing concept. What’s becoming important is ‘legitimacy’.

Let’s take an example. Marlboro was an exemplary twentieth century brand, complete with memorable advertising. What’s changed is the public acceptability of smoking – and the tightening restrictions on tobacco promotion in western countries. No amount of brand recognition counts against the legal and societal constraints on smoking.

The only credible strategy for Philip Morris it to de-emphasise its tobacco business in favour of its food and drink brands (in other words to save the business, not the brand).

Which business will come next? It could be a fast food supplier like Macdonalds (because of concerns over obesity and over meat production) or energy or transport companies (environmental concerns).

Promotion and promotional culture are not about to vanish, but they are becoming less important than the other role of PR – the defensive and adaptive role that helps organisations manage society’s expectations (or to argue for society to change its view of an industry as has been happening with nuclear power generation in the context of the need to meet low-carbon energy needs).

That’s why I view public relations as a double-edged sword (‘to promote and protect’) and that’s why I believe it has a bright future.

Book review: Loose

13 Mar


Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go
Martin Thomas, Headline Publishing Group 

Marketing consultant Martin Thomas was co-author of Crowd Surfing, one of my favourite books in 2008. When I saw the new book's contents page containing such chapters as 'Not a place for tidy minds' and 'The end of planning?' I knew I was in for a treat.

In follow up to Crowd Surfing and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (my top pick from 2008), this feels like a radical manifesto. It's certainly a challenge to the micro-managers, the planners and brand consultants whose traditional role has been to offer predictability and certainty.

We live in a complex, non-linear world – and the challenge is how to 'embrace the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.

The author is keen to stress that this is not a web phenomenon. 'Something interesting is happening beyond the world of social media: public meetings are suddenly all the rage.'

It's a social phenomenon – and an understanding of behavioural economics is more useful than mastery of technology, Thomas argues. 'The simplistic view of man as a rational economic animal doesn't appear to fit the mood of the times.'

Simple prescriptions obviously won't do, though the author does offer some broad guiding principles for successful loose organisations (on page 168). He also gives many case studies to show where loose principles prevailed (ASDA, Pret a Manger, First Direct and Unilever among them).

He quotes Google's Shona Brown discussing loose management: 'The way to succeed in fast-paced, ambiguous situations is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either.'

Those singled out for criticism include business schools that have inculcated a rational approach to business. 'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'

Thomas writes well of the millennial generation who 'take great pleasure in subverting any attempts by authority figures to silence them.' But I should say that I'm more likely to be criticised by my students for teaching in too 'loose' a way by those who want me to give them much more precise instructions ('just tell me what you want me to do').

The author is an articulate and well-read guide. Though it's a business book and not an academic text, he frequently makes me feel inadequate by his erudition.

While there's nothing I can disagree with the in the book's premise, it's not an original idea. I'm surprised the author makes no reference to open source, whose concepts have already been taken beyond software development into politics and marketing.

And a book that makes an even more compelling case for creativity and innovation in business is Charles Leadbeater's We Think (not cited here).

But it's an enjoyable and valuable read and the challenge for many will be to learn the lessons and put them into practice.

'The principles that appear to determine the success of any social media initiative are becoming well established: be responsive, be human, be transparent… Unfortunately, most institutions struggle to live by them.'

Pan-European PR

20 Apr

Bolognablog I'm researching some case studies and inviting expert opinions for a class I'm teaching this summer.

One of the assignments – which can't be researched in any textbook – involves proposing a suitable PR and comms network for a US technology startup newly arrived in Europe.

  • Where to place the headquarters?
  • Where else to locate team members?
  • Which languages are essential?
  • What combination of in-house and consultancy expertise would you recommend?
  • Which PR and comms specialisms are vital at the outset?

I'll be approaching some of the larger PR consultancy networks to hear what advice they can offer, but I'm happy to listen to a range of opinions on the topic – and would welcome your input (in public or in private) via:

  • Documents or slides
  • Video or audio interviews
  • Hyperlinks to online content

I'm also recording contributions from country and regional PR experts (practitioners and academics) and am collecting the thoughts of some European thought leaders in public relations research.

A brief history of briefing

1 Mar

It's the public relations story of the past week, the rather sinister power of PR to damage and undermine through the process known as briefing. Even experienced hands are surprised by the viciousness as we saw from an interview with the Chancellor Alistair Darling and from the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley. As for less experienced people, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline must be regretting her tangle with the 'forces of hell'. She's enlisted the help of Max Clifford so she knows she's in a fight.

In an ideal world of transparency, there would be no unattributable briefings – and no 'off the record' comments. But we don't live in that perfect world. Briefings – often resulting in coy comments such as 'sources close to the Prime Minister confirmed' – are a form of institutionalised insider gossip that suits the media and PR people close to power.

In a world where everything is on the record, attributable and recorded, people would speak much less freely. The media would lose its privileged access to insight and information. PR people would become pointless intermediaries and the public would be less well informed. Is a lack of truth-telling preferable to truthfulness constrained by, say, anonymity? Few would argue that it is.

What principles can we apply to guide us through these murky waters? Remember that one guiding principle – to tell the truth – often conflicts with another principle – to respect client confidentiality.

  • Assume that everything can be made public. In a world of small, ubiquitous cameras and recording devices, we shouldn't assume that our comments will stay private. A private email can easily become very public.
  • Do you have good grounds for keeping something private? The most obvious example is national security (the 'lives are at risk' argument). But there are others: commercial negotiations could be scuppered if made public, so jobs could be at risk. There are also competitive reasons not to disclose future product developments. It may even be illegal to use privileged information as you could be convicted of insider dealing.
  • Non-attributable: do you have a good reason for keeping your name out of the story beyond saving your job and reputation? The answer is when you believe it's in the public interest for information to be made known, but the information would be compromised if its source were made public.
  • What is 'off-the-record'? The simple answer is that nothing is off the record, so don't use it. But there are occasions when there are conflicting principles. We saw this with the MMR vaccine when former Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to say whether his youngest child had received the vaccine so as not to breach the child's right to privacy. Yet this risked undermining the government's case that the vaccine was safe, so the decision was taken to brief senior journalists on an 'off the record' basis. A much better phrase is 'background briefing': is it important to explain the wider context that requires potential breaches of confidentiality or national security? Is the briefing the lesser of two evils?

Corporate reputation management: Nestle

8 Nov

Here are some links for a case study we'll be exploring in class on Monday.

What is Nestle best known for? Confectionery (KitKat) and coffee (Nescafe) are the most recognisable of its many brands.

What about the company's strategic direction? Nestle says it is 'the world's leading nutrition, health and wellness company' and that it is committed to increasing the nutritional value of its products while improving the taste. The UK site is more explicit, claiming it's 'putting health and wellness at the heart of our business'.

As The Economist explores this week, this is a bold claim for a chocolate company ('The unrepentant chocolatier'). What are the risks and challenges arising from this focus?

We'll be analysing whether this corporate strategy is consistent with what we can know of the organisation's culture and values. How should this strategy influence corporate communications?

And then there's the long-running saga of the promotion of infant formula in the developing world. Nestle defends its actions as responsible and agrees in most cases that 'breast is best'. Yet the campaign isn't going away, and has become a defining issue for anti-globalisation activists. What can and should the company do about this? What effect could this have on its reputation, particularly in light of the focus on health and wellness?

Markets versus stakeholders

20 Aug

I've been hearing lots of hints lately to suggest that PR people in the public sector feel at some disadvantage compared with their colleagues working in the private sector. (The suggestions make it sound like like it's an envy of larger budgets and also an inability to innovate and take risks).

I'm still puzzling over this perception, but here's one possible explanation.

Successful private sector business tend to adopt a market-orientation. The more customer-focused, the argument goes, the more successul will the enterprise be for all stakeholders (shareholders, employees etc). This market-orientation gives a clear focus to efforts, and leads to some simple and definitive measures of success (like sales).

Compare this with the more confused stakeholder orientation in a public body, trying to balance many different interests without any simple outcome measures.

But I can see an immediate flaw in this argument, because public relations within a market-orientated business is a less rounded and less strategic activity (ie marketing communications) than public relations within a stakeholder-orientation (where it's usually known as corporate communications).

Add to this the effects of the recession, which have to date mostly been felt in the private sector, and I remain confused as to root of this apparent insecurity.

The unacceptable face of public relations

20 Apr

There's a case for viewing commercial public relations as the 'acceptable face of capitalism'. Championing an organisation's responsibilities to all its stakeholders balances the pressure always to put shareholders and profits first. Corporate Social Responsibility and environmental statements play their part in this.

Contrast this with party political public relations where there is a long tradition from Bernard Ingham to Damian McBride via Alastair Campbell of the PR adviser as chief 'attack dog' for his (my examples are all male) political boss. The unacceptable face, if you like, of public relations.

Why such a contrast between the corporate and political worlds? David Starkey, I imagine, would talk in terms of courtiers and princes. The political PR adviser is a courtier whose power comes solely from their close proximity to the prince, hence the need to take risks and retain the favour of the ruler. Call this the Machiavelli theory.

Politicians, in a democracy, stand or fall by their electoral success. So successful politicians tend to be an everyman (or woman) causing least offense to the electorate (and the Daily Mail). Maintaining an inoffensive public persona requires some strong arm tactics behind the scenes and (unelected) courtiers are more expendable than political princes.

Private sector bosses do not have this pressure to stand for election; they are undoubted kings of their courts. Yet they know they are accountable: to shareholders for profits, to employees for strategic leadership, to customers, regulators and communities. These various accountabilities need careful balancing, the role of corporate public relations.

Turning shares into stakes

5 Feb

I've enjoyed a sporadic virtual presence at Davos thanks to many media reports and online commentary. My highlight? This phrase stands out in Richard Edelman's summary:

“You cannot think about shareholder value without considering stakeholders. Any business that wants to endure must have trust and agreement of society for legitimacy." Ian Davis, McKinsey.

It's interesting to note that management consultants are focusing on more than the bottom line (perhaps it's inevitable). But it poses a challenge to PR consultants, because this should be our natural territory. What's the purpose of public relations? To help establish and maintain the social legitimacy of organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. We've recommended and conducted communications audits for many years; who's going to be first to conduct a legitimacy audit?

Welcome to the age of legitimacy. Prepare to move on from the age of marketing and branding.