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Communications & public relations

Egypt Air Public Relations

It sounds good in principle. A sign in Cairo airport directs passengers to Egypt Air Public Relations. In practice, the desk turns out to be manned by a customer service team. 

The team is friendly, polite and helpful – a credit to the airline. It constitutes good public relations, even if it is not PR as we think of it today.

It begs two questions: What is Public Relations? And is the term fit for purpose?

From publicity to connecting dots

Clearly, PR has moved on since its early days of B.T. Barnum’s publicity stunts. Today’s digitised and accountable landscape means PR is about listening, understanding, outreach, engagement, measurement and evaluation.

It is about advising leadership as well as manning the product and reputational coalface. It is about cooperation and collaboration, joined-up thinking and connecting dots.

Yet the PR industry continues to suffer from a poor name and image. It is seen to lack real bite and C-suite credibility and is tarnished by its association – merited or otherwise – with ‘spin’ and smears.

My own background could be said to be in PR yet, as an observant reviewer points out, I do not use the term Public Relations in my book Managing Online Reputation.

He is correct: I deliberately avoid it, and use the word Communications instead.

Why?

Most importantly, I want to reflect the fact that ‘PR’ people don’t just puff products and salvage broken reputations but provide internal communications, leadership communications, stakeholder communications, corporate communications, corporate marketing, influencer communications, digital and social media communications, and a host of other forms of communications.

I also aim to persuade my readers that the principles and practices of online reputation management – a notoriously shady ‘industry’ – must be approached strategically, appropriately and ethically to be effective.

This, I figure, would be more likely achieved by viewing online reputation through a Communications rather than a PR or digital marketing prism.

Opportunity to own the communications high ground

I am not alone. Most organisations have renamed their Public Relations units as Corporate Communications or simply Communications teams. PR agencies and industry associations such as the PRCA (formerly the Public Relations Consultants Association and now the Public Relations and Communications Association) have followed suit in whole or in part.

Yet the term Public Relations stubbornly persists – in the industry, in business, in the media, and amongst the general public.

With competition hotting up as marketing agencies, management consultants and others encroach on PR industry turf, there are compelling reasons to drop the term Public Relations entirely and replace it with Communications or variants thereof.

Such a move would be brave.

The earned media dimension of PR may lose its pointed edge. And the term ‘communications’ is open-ended, meaning many things to many people.

It would also require real ambition.

Ad agencies have been busy repositioning themselves as marketing agencies in order to reflect their broader capabilities, and to give themselves the flexibility to move into new areas.

This leaves space for the PR industry to occupy the Communications high ground and everything it entails.

A window now exists for PR to own the term Communications, and to rename itself in its own new image.

It should move fast, and aggressively.

Since the start of the year a rumour has been swirling that Facebook has been using a then-and-now facial recognition photo-sharing challenge to collect data about users and improve its AI algorithms. The social network denies it started or is involved with the challenge. 

That people suspect Facebook of being involved, and that the rumour went viral, is indicative of the suspicion with which the company is held since its flaccid approach to privacy became widespread public knowledge.

Multiple data privacy violations

These suspicions are not new. There was the row over Facebook’s Beacon user-tracking service in 2007, concerns about facial recognition, a bungled psychological experiment into the moods of its users, and run-ins with the US FTU, ACLU and privacy commissioners in multiple jursidictions over many years.

According to Google, there has been considerable public interest in privacy (mostly as a proxy for internet and/or data privacy) for many years.

Google: Data Privacy News Trends


Facebook had plenty of time to tackle the problem and prepare a meaningful response. The Guardian’s initial story in December 2015 about the covert harvesting of user data by Cambridge Analytica did not ignite until whistle-blower Christopher Wylie lifted the lid on Cambridge Analytica twenty-six months later.

Yet they did little to address the core of the privacy issue, Mark Zuckerberg disappeared as soon as the story ran, and Facebook’s value dropped USD 119 billion in a single day. Zuckerberg hardly helped matters by refusing to appear before the UK DCMS Enquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

How did Facebook fail to anticipate a major privacy crisis when the writing had been on the wall for so long? Were its leaders truly ignorant and out of touch, or simply failed to act substantively on the many warning signs? Why did they behave the way they did? Was Facebook’s experience isolated, or consistent with other reputational meltdowns? 

Reputation risk management

These are the kinds of questions posed by lawyer Anthony Fitzsimmons and insurance expert Derek Atkins in their book Rethinking Reputational Risk, in which they get to practical grips with the notoriously knotty, slippery topic of reputation risk management.

Rethinking Reputational Risk

Drawing on analysis of recent high profile crises such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, Barclays’ LIBOR rigging, Tesco’s false accounting, and the VW diesel emissions scandal, the authors argue that the problem lies in the complexity of many modern businesses, the emergence of multiple online ‘unseen systems’, fast-changing stakeholder behaviours, inadequate listening, issues management and crisis preparedness, and an unwillingness to get to the root problem of problems and failures, chiefly due to over-confidence, complacency and hubris.

All this sounds familiar. But the book comes into its own when it addresses the failure of ‘classical’ risk management and the three/four line of defence model, which is regarded as overly rigid and ill-suited to handling the many and varied behavioural risks, from weak culture and values and inappropriate incentive schemes, to the blurring of personal and professional lives and the character and personality traits of senior leaders.

The authors rightly argue that reputation risk is first and foremost a leadership responsibility, and too often it is at Board level that things fall down. Board failures were involved in 50% of the 42 crises studied.

Why?

Because Boards are essentially self-selecting, and overly reliant on people with financial and operational experience, as opposed to the forensic, analytical, behavioural and digital skills that are required in today’s globalised, networked and inherently volatile economies. There is much in this.

Since concerns about Facebook’s approach to privacy first started emerging several years before its murky dealings with Cambridge Analytica came to light, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have admitted that they should have taken user privacy far more seriously.

The important question on why they didn’t heed the warning signals earlier appears to have a single plausible answer: user privacy was regarded as a price worth paying for growth, and they would make the most of it while the sun shone and regulators, politicians, customers and the general public had more important fish to fry.

Mark Zuckerberg may insist he is personally responsible for Facebook’s privacy lapses, but Facebook’s board is also responsible and must prove itself equal to the task of fixing the holes properly, and holding its CEO to account. Its members would do well to read Fitzsimmons and Atkins’ excellent book.

Meantime, Facebook must shoulder part of the blame for the many rumours about it – be they accurate, misinformed, or plain false.


Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising. And at least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.

Why?

After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists, write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.

 

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

The rush of tweets, infographics and animated gifs makes it challenging to get a real handle on longer-term communication trends. Thankfully, long-form journalism, storytelling and analysis are in rude health.

Here are the three best books on communication I have read in 2013 (ie. not necessarily published over the past twelve months):

Trust Me, I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday - Trust Me, I'm Lying

Billed as a warts-and-all confessional on modern-day media manipulation and spin-doctoring, Trust Me is actually principally a polemic on the state of the media in the US and a no-holds-barred expose on the inner workings of the blogs re-setting news industry plate tectonics, notably Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Drudge Report, Gawker and Huffington Post.

If you believe your news should be informative and balanced, then this book makes for highly unsettling reading – Holiday’s thesis is that the media industry has effectively lost its bearings in a desperate quest for exclusives, page views and ad bucks, disregarding any pretence at accuracy, objectivity or integrity in the process.

While Trust Me, I’m Lying reads a little like a personal slanging match in places (the author pulls no punches in fingering those he sees as chiefly responsible, amongst them Gawker Media’s Nick Denton and media talking head Jeff Jarvis), it holds valuable insights and lessons for both communications professionals and consumers.

Exposure, by Michael Woodford

When Michael Woodford, newly appointed CEO of medical to consumer optical manufacturer Olympus, got wind of a scoop by a niche Japanese magazine detailing massive financial irregularities at his firm, he could scarcely have believed that he would wind up blowing the lid on a cover-up of some USD 1.7 billion of losses and becoming one of the highest-profile and most effective whistle-blowers in corporate history. (Of course, Woodford has since been knocked off his perch atop the whistle-blower premiere league by one Edward Snowden.) While Exposure suffers from poor writing and can hardly be described as a balanced account (according to Japanese friends, Woodford is seen to have over-egged the publicity pudding and thrust himself to the front and centre of the story in an unashamedly un-Japanese manner), it is nonetheless a fascinating and, in this case, singularly unedifying insight into the culture of the keiretsu and big business in Japan. It is also an excellent example of how a reputable company can be brought to its knees by a rogue employee (or two) through bitter resolve and smart communication on the one hand and corporate secrecy and intransigence on the other. For fuller thoughts see this blog post.

The New Emerging Market Multinationals, by Amitava Chattopadhyay and Rajeev Batra with Aysegul Ozsomer

A book less about communication and reputation than about brand building, the authors use in-depth interviews with senior executives at emerging giants from Brazil, China, India, Turkey and other ’emerging’ markets to identify how a new wave of multinationals are building global businesses and global brands. Full of valuable insights into how firms like Asian Paints, Asia-Pacific Breweries, Godrej, Haier, Lenovo, Natura and Wipro are building their brands, The New Emerging Market Multinationals sets out a step-by-step process for global brand-building, including how to overcome country of origin perceptions, and ends with a look at how companies are – and should – manage their brands across their organisations, making a strong argument for centrally-managed brands. An excellent resource for professionals at emerging market firms and at established players figuring how to take on their new competitors.

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