PR Lessons learnt from the UK Elections

Posted May 12, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Crisis Management, pr, Public Relations, Social media, Uncategorized

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Well, the election furore is all over now so what can professional communicators take away as some of the big lessons?

First, even if you have media trained a client it is worth reminding them of a few practical points whenever they go afresh into the media spotlight – this includes a reminder that nowhere is ‘off limits’ if the story is big enough. You don’t say anything you don’t want broadcast until you are safely home, preferably alone and de-miked. Foot learnt this lesson many years ago over ‘off camera’ remarks on The Falklands to Robin Day but Gordon Brown was forced to learn it all over again with the Mrs Duffy remarks in the apparent haven of his car.

Second, traditional broadcast outlets are still ‘king’ when it comes to reaching large audiences in a compelling way. Television is like a strong raised stage versus the bear-pit come noisy public meeting space of the Internet. And much like the stage, broadcast is kinder to those who are physically attractive or enjoy mellifluous voices.


Watering down of libel and privacy laws are not in the public interest

Posted February 22, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Crisis Management, pr, Press, Public Relations

A number of cases in the business world and, of course, that of footballer John Terry have put British libel law back in the spotlight.

The use of libel law to force media retractions of untruths and injunctions to stop press intrusion into people’s private lives when there is no real national interest, has always been the very last resort. In honesty, both are used much more rarely than they could be.

In most cases, journalists want to get it right and will issue corrections quickly if you point out to them that a genuine error exists. However, there are a small number of cases where media are irresponsible and where they do trample over people’s privacy and lives in order to sell more of their wares.

Yes the law is flawed. If nothing else because it is so slow. But tales of libel ‘tourists’ don’t really stack up and the media only squeal because it means they can pay a very heavy price if they get something wrong. Well people, responsibility is the price of power. Whilst a small minority may be at fault, the damage done to people’s lives and to the staff and shareholders of businesses who are wronged is so serious that any significant watering down of our libel and privacy laws would most definitely NOT be in the public interest.

The power of the visual image

Posted February 19, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Crisis Management, icesave, pr, Public Relations, Toyota

Toyota did itself no favours by allowing an executive wearing a surgical mask to make a statement about its product recall on television. It is actually not uncommon in some countries to wear these masks, but for most countries it is, and wearers communicate a powerful message of disease, contamination and attempts at distance.

There are two related reminders for the public relations professional. First, if you provide a powerful visual image then it will up the amount of coverage you get. Bad news in a crisis, good when you are talking about more positive things than product recalls. Secondly, when you are a business serving international markets, you do need to take on board different national attitudes to appropriate attire and the related images dress conjures up.

I still remember, many years ago, as a ‘baby’ PR, rushing out to meet the directors of a major Italian company that was embroiled, unfairly, in a bribery scandal. They were heading into a press conference all wearing near identikit overcoats with the collars up and, despite the winter gloom, sunglasses. Any photographs would have made them look like Mafia and a quick change was required.

Sometimes, even the imagery public relations people provide to support positive news stories come back to bite them when there is a crisis. The images of ice skaters and powerful geysers exploding through the ice were manna from heaven for picture desks when my team launched Icesave. Two years later, when the banking industry hit metaphorical icebergs, the powerful imagery undoubtedly increased the number of times Icesave was referenced in the context of banks that faced problems. It wasn’t what sunk Icesave, but it certainly didn’t help.


Posted February 10, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Crisis Management

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A reputation for quality is a huge asset for any manufacturer but, as Toyota has found to its cost, it takes years to build and only moments to lose. And when you add in a failure to take a fast and zero tolerance approach to any threat to customer safety, you risk gaining a very unwelcome reputational replacement.

Unless Toyota wants to risk being seen as cavalier about the safety of its customers it will need to respond fast with complete transparency and the rapid firing of anyone involved in the delay of international warnings and product recalls.

This will need to be followed up, and fast, with a well communicated and financed programme to ensure reparation to anyone who has suffered and to improve future product safety and recall processes.

Toyota has failed to deliver a number of the actions essential to surviving a reputational crisis. The company was slow to respond and it failed to understand that any problem that threatens public safety will prompt strong action from third parties – in this case the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You need to act before you are made to and to go further than you probably need to. And the top man must take public ownership of the problem from the outset.

Product recalls are common in manufacturing, and the car industry is no exception. They don’t have to be a disaster. But fail to act fast, even if this makes the remedy more costly, and you will pay a heavy price for decades to come. No-one will forgive a company seen to put money and short term discomfort ahead of safety.

Crisis Preparation needs Systems Testing

Posted February 9, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Crisis Management

Tags: , ,

An undercover Dispatches team has just added to the woes of the Royal Mail by exposing poor security, inefficiency and possible insider thefts in its 8th February programme. Ahead of what is clearly a well promoted programme, other media piled in deliver their own damning verdicts. Only a few days earlier The Times Money team sent 100 birthday cards to 14 different addresses across the country, each containing a £1 National Lottery scratch card. Only 93 arrived with the scratch card. This is not the first time that media have tested The Royal Mail and it certainly won’t be the last.

It’s high time the Royal Mail started a process of regularly sending its own undercover agents in so they can root out bad apples and poor practices ahead of those who will, quite justifiably, air the findings in public forums. Testing systems and quality processes and acting rapidly on the findings is part and parcel of any good crisis prevention programme. You’d do well to remember that if you look after a service important to the general public.

Climate Lobby Must Stick to Facts

Posted February 8, 2010 by Sara Render
Categories: Environment

Addressing the probably causes of climate change will require popular support. The damage done by over-claiming and ‘bad’ science is therefore very, very serious indeed. A poll by The Times reveals that the number of people who believe that the climate is not changing has risen from 15% to 25%. Furthermore, the percentage of people who believe climate change is happening but that the risks have been exaggerated has risen from 22% in November 2009 to 36% at the beginning of February.

I am amongst those who believe we have a problem. Even if I didn’t, I would argue for cutting carbon emissions on the basis that there is enough credible scientific research and opinion out there to suggest that we owe it to future generations not to take any chances.

The IPCC and scientific communities around the world now have their work cut out for them in re-making the case on climate change. Hopefully a few lessons will have been learnt that most PR professionals learn in their first days in the job; never ever lie and don’t compromise a good strong case by exaggerating it – the facts should speak for themselves and an exaggeration uncovered can blow the strongest case out of the water.

On Social Media

Posted December 3, 2009 by Sara Render
Categories: Social media

Tags: ,

Too many PRs are still working on the assumption that social media requires an understanding of technology, it doesn’t. This assumption is one of the reasons that social media programmes are all too often led by web agencies whose real expertise lies in the building of web sites and other information ‘carriers’. And that’s why most social media programmes don’t work. It’s the skill of the PR that is most critical.

Web site builders work on the basis of ‘build it, get some good content, do effective search engine optimization and our customers and key stakeholders will come’. Well, yes and no. People will come if they know that your organisation has something they need or want, but without this certainty you still need to go to them. Furthermore, they will go to a web site to browse and gather information; they don’t go in the expectation of getting good impartial advice and the sort of third party endorsement that lies at the heart of both social media and effective public relations programmes.

Effective social media strategies are about achieving dialogue with key stakeholders in the places that they are, rather than the places you want them to be. They are not a hard sell, they are not a mere presentation of your wares and they are certainly not a showcase for technical wizardry. This is why the lead players in a social media strategy will increasingly be drawn from the public relations profession. Our territory, after all, is the art of conversation, persuasion and corporate social responsibility. Furthermore, we are the most comfortable of all the disciplines in circumstances where we do not have complete control of the conversation.

Ad agencies also lay claim to the lead role, but their skills of delivering messages in an entertaining and brand enhancing manner are also, like web agencies, only a small part of the picture. I am not denying that the skills of both are needed within a good social media strategy, but I am arguing that the lead lies, like it or not with PR.

The reason is that most of the mindset and skills required for effective social media are the same as those held for decades by the public relations profession. Who else manages multiple voices in open public meetings, where many of those present are uninvited? Who else is trained to pick up threats to reputation arising from rumor, misrepresentation of facts or misunderstandings and to respond fast? And who else is used to presenting strategies, products and services to audiences, such as journalists and analysts, who will ask searching questions and certainly not be satisfied with flash presentation and one-way monologue?

ECCO has produced a Social Media Guide to help PR professionals to understand that social media is not a black art where you have to be under 25 or a technology wizard to engage in it. We hope it will help the senior PRs within more than 3,000 client companies around the world to stop backing away from taking ownership of a responsibility that so clearly lies within the PR domain.