A CONTROVERSIAL TALE

“When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.”  – William Hazlitt

Have you been to an industry conference recently where the panellists had a good old ding dong, where one executive took a fundamentally different position from another and a passionate debate, the type that changes an industry’s direction, or company strategy, followed?  No, me neither.

Have communicators become too risk averse?

We used to be able to depend on politicians from either end of the political spectrum to air their differences of opinion in public.  Voters would, occasionally, change political allegiance as a result. But with the Tories moving west and Labour moving east, that’s a dying art too.

Have communicators become a bit too frightened of debate?  I’m not talking here about the cheap shot approach of briefing a reporter without leaving fingerprints that a particular competitor doesn’t treat its customers well, or that a competitive product is inferior to your award-winning offering.

I mean meaningful, intelligent, perception-changing public debate, involving customers and investors and others with a valuable (and sometimes an unwelcome) view.  Is everyone too much in polite agreement these days? Have we grown afraid of controversy, more risk managers than reputation managers?

More often than not, it’s left to journalists to stir up controversy but that typically provides a story masquerading as controversy. Yet genuine debate is often the most direct route to genuine insight and altered perceptions.  New technology is probably the most fertile ground for discussion and debate, but if fireworks do happen, it’s usually behind closed committee room doors.

On the rare occasion when an executive says something interesting, the company’s press officer is usually quick to jump in to put out the fire, rather than help build the debate.

Social media provides a great debating platform.  The UK faces many challenges today.  Two such issues are economic performance and how to create an Olympic legacy.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the coalition Government put their petty squabbles about House of Lords reform and Boundary Changes away somewhere safe and used social media to engage in a big conversation on the really big issues that affect the electorate, rather than what interests the political parties?

Someone would no doubt point out that such an act signalled a lack of political ideas but would better answers to both questions not be worth the abuse?  In any event, it could be positioned as democracy in action, a recognition that the best answers might reside outside the Palace of Westminster among the governed.

A key objective of a company’s communications department should be to help to differentiate the business and brand, to foster better understanding and insight among stakeholders  and reflect the world’s view back within the organisation, not simply to outgun the competition in terms of press coverage or re-tweet volumes, while in political circles, communications success is measured on points scored for and against.

Taking too risk-averse an approach to external communications will surely lead to missed corporate opportunities and a failure to create subjects of genuine interest.

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PLANNING TO SAY NO

Oscar Wilde would have struggled had he chosen a career in public relations. Few professions offer the range of daily temptations to do ‘just one more thing’.

We can always write another press release, sell-in to another reporter, post another blog or tweet, draft another speech or two or pitch the CEO’s public speaking abilities to another event producer.  The downsides of giving in to these temptations, however, are often an upset work-life balance, unpaid over-servicing by the agency and the undermining of key message delivery.

The roots causes of the problem are easily understood.  They include fear and targets; everyone wants to succeed and to please their boss; no one wants to fail.  Journalists and competitors, meanwhile, don’t always buy-in to our neat sequencing schedules. Sometimes, of course, the unexpected happens.

So if the volume of press cuttings is coming in below par, issuing another press release or organising a quick press round table might help get the cuttings analysis across the line.  We can always say yes to an unexpected speaking invite at short notice, even though the topic and audience is of secondary interest – someone in management will deliver the presentation.  And we can never do too much with social media, can we?

The biggest challenge comes when this work, which is usually performed outside normal working hours, dilutes rather than enhances the company’s public positioning.  This is where campaign planning has to earn its keep.  Without a strong plan, with clear objectives and clearer, scheduled deliverables, saying ‘no’ to anything becomes nigh on impossible.  Only a solid plan can give us the permission to do that.

Sometimes, the PR plan can be bit front end heavy.  Unchallenged, implementing all the good ideas in the first few months of the year can leave the comms dept on its knees and the customers, employees and other stakeholders a bit confused over exactly what the key messages are. It can also lead to bouts of random PR activity for weeks on end throughout the rest of the year.

Saying ‘no’ more often would be a very good thing, but that requires a plan that tells both ourselves and our bosses what it is we’re saying ‘yes’ to and why.  The right plan will enable us to say: “No, we’re not prepared to put a spokesperson up to talk about that. Sorry,” or “No, our CFO won’t travel to Warsaw to deliver a keynote on corporate financing to a room of 30 people next week.”

The focus that a good campaign plan provides is the ability to say ‘yes’ more often.  “Yes, I’ll be there on time,” or “Yes, I will meet you for a drink.”

Planning can be dull. It can make your head ache.  It’s time consuming and complicated.  But strong planning at the outset helps us all to remain clear on what’s strategically important for the business and on our priorities. That can be very liberating indeed.

The US military’s ‘7Ps’ puts it more succinctly.  “Proper prior planning prevents pitifully poor performance.”

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AN OLYMPIC LEGACY

It was July 2000 and it was bloody hot in Athens.  My employer at the time was a worldwide Olympic Games sponsor and the guy who’s job it was to manage all aspects of the sponsorship was due to retire. Someone thought that maybe I’d like to take over his role. This trip was my recce.

Taking on the role would have meant moving home every two years to prepare for both the summer and winter Games. The role itself included responsibility for stuff like operations.  I knew bugger all about operations and the prospect scared me a bit.  In the end, I decided against.  But the trip gave me an insight into what it takes to stage an Olympic festival and a respect for the people and teams that do.

With four years to go to their opening ceremony, the Athens Organising Committee had only four employees: a CEO, her assistant, a property expert and a recruiter.  They were housed in a prestige headquarter building in the heart of Athens that had the capacity to house a few thousand more. In the four years that followed, that office filled out and four employees grew to more than 150,000, including volunteers. Building the Olympics is like developing, and then dismantling, a FTSE 10 company in the space of just four years.

The Olympics is still the pinnacle for the world’s leading, mostly amateur athletes but my about-to-retire colleague explained that the only true amateurs are the organising committees. Recurring sponsors, he explained, had an important role to play in bottling their previous experience and transferring it from city to city to help ensure things went smoothly.

With a week of the Olympics to go, it’s ‘so far, so very good’ for London2012.  Following Danny Boyle’s stunningly choreographed opening ceremony and the unexpected sporting success of Team GB, the country has got truly engaged and enthused by the Games.

Athletes – doing their bit to create a positive legacy

While the Olympic experience will live long in the memories of the athletes and spectators alike, LOCOG is rapidly approaching the end of its journey.  In just a matter of weeks, even before the Paralympic Games start, the breaking down and packing up will start.   The thousands of journalists, VIPs and athletes will have left town and the LOCOG team will be effectively dismantled.

The gripes that dominated the news headlines before the sports started, about ticket allocations, transportation, empty seats, overly-aggressive brand censorship, missiles on the roofs of apartment buildings and G4S’ struggle to deliver on its commitments will have left town and been forgotten too.

London2012 has given the UK a renewed sense of optimism, pride and confidence at a time when the country, our economy and society need it most.  It’s not too early now for everyone to help ensure an enduring legacy for London and the country, not just in a sporting sense but as a nation.

Greece, as we all know too well now, completely squandered theirs.

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