BANKING THE OPPORTUNITIES

I can’t imagine any less comfortable a place these days than managing PR for a major UK bank. Checking the press cuttings each morning must be a chore best undertaken only after a hearty breakfast.  If it’s not an IT system collapsing and withholding cash from its rightful owner, it’s devil-may-care traders playing fast and loose with LIBOR rates.  An opportunity for a bit of good press must be like seeing a swallow in winter.   

Royal Bank of Scotland, [don’t forget to insert mandatory line about being 82 percent owned by the British taxpayer – ed], having been properly wrong-footed by its Geek Department, decided – probably rightly – that entertaining clients at Wimbledon, at a time when thousands of customers can’t pay bills or buy food for hungry children, was a risk best passed up.  They would also, no doubt, have been acutely aware that details of RBS’s role in Liborgate (if such a role exists) could break during the tournament.   So they cancelled Wimbledon.

Champagne and strawberries – sent back to cold storage

Still, cancelling would have been a difficult decision. The bill for hospitality, said to be in excess of £260,000 (the bank won’t confirm or deny this but it sounds reasonable) had already been paid. The package provided for 42 guests for each of the first nine days of the tournament and 24 guests for both the ladies’ and men’s finals days.  Invites had also been issued and the refreshments carefully selected and ordered.

Now, no RBS staff will attend to host any guests. The champagne, seafood roulade and strawberries have been returned to cold storage.  The already invited guests are free to use the tickets to watch the tennis and scavenge for refreshment among the various traders.  Given the likelihood that small business owners and punters considering a new mortgage provider won’t feature prominently on the guest list, it’s not clear now many of the invited guests, all on first name terms with a prawn sandwich, will appreciate the alternative DIY arrangements.

RBS could have uninvited their guests properly, explaining that in the changed circumstances they were no longer able to honour the invitations but would find an appropriate way to make up for the disappointment.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of entertaining opportunities this year.   This would have given the bank the opportunity to talk to Help for Heros, Carers UK or a host of other charities.  “Really sorry about the late notice,” they could have said, “but we’ve been idiots. Everyone deserves a break.  We want to acknowledge those who give to others and would really like 420 of your most deserving to come enjoy Wimbledon, on us.  We’ll pay the travel too.”

Cynical?  Perhaps.  But then ‘the people’s bank’ wouldn’t be a terrible positioning for RBS to try on for size and I’ll wager that the unsung and under-compensated bank employees taking abuse behind the counters wouldn’t disagree much either.  Game, set and match.

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THE DIGITAL WATER COOLER

One of my favourite lines from a CEO, under the cosh from journalists demanding news of impending job losses, was that the company’s most important assets “turned up for work every day on two legs.”  Whether he actually believed it or not is a moot point – businesses have claimed it to be true for years.  A logical progression is surely to want those ‘most valuable assets’ to be as engaged as possible too.  So the advent of social media must be manna from heaven for the internal comms and engagement teams, right?

If you throw a paper plane across the lobby of any large corporate headquarters today, the chances are it will hit a digital marketing or social media consultant. They’ll be sitting there, MacBook pro on their knees, just waiting to sprinkle magical digidust on the company’s external brand.  In the vast majority of cases, no one from the internal comms team will even hear about this new magic dust.

Today, email and the intranet (or ‘oneway’ and ‘passive’, to give them their proper nicknames) remain the dominant channels used to carry key internal announcements and news of corporate developments to the company’s ‘most important ‘assets’ today.  Email and the intranet serve a number of business objectives very well; it’s just a shame that internal communications and employee engagement aren’t among them.

Could social media become the digital water cooler?

I’ve tinkered with all kinds of internal comms channels over the years in a bid to come up with something half as powerful, as efficient and as fast as the water cooler (or smoking hut, if you’re so inclined).  A secure social media platform dedicated to the needs of the corporation might be the closest anyone has come up with.   But so far, apart from isolated, informal projects managed usually by the Geek department, it’s been generally under-utilised as an internal comms tool.  You’re doing it and doing it well?  Great. You’re a leader and the exception that proves the rule.

The corporate finance folk at Microsoft will be hoping that’s about to change. They’ve just agreed to fork out $1.2 billion for Yammer, a social media technology that is as easy to use as Facebook or Twitter but is designed for use within an enterprise organisation.  If Microsoft doesn’t smother or starve it to death, Yammer could become the digital equivalent of the water cooler.  But there are at least three key issues that need addressing within the businesses themselves.

The first, is that the internal comms teams need to get more engaged in the planning, design and development of the strategy, to understand better how social media can work for them alongside, and not instead of, existing internal channels.

The second is that the army of social media consultants cluttering up the lobbies start to apply some serious strategic thinking and creativity to social media as an internal comms, engagement and collaboration tool.

And finally, CEOs need to accept that the world won’t end if their employees are given free access to a platform where they can say pretty much what they want about what they want.  These people might even have some good ideas worth consideration, if only someone is prepared to invest the time to listen to what they are saying on the platform.

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IN PRAISE OF PROCESS

You could have heard the wailing and gnashing of PR teeth from here.  Off they’d gone to the South of France in search of awards and recognition.  They schlepped back with little more than a hangover and hurt in their souls, and not a single Gold Lion between them to show for an industry’s best efforts.  Advertising had beaten PR hands down.

Speaking afterwards, Gail Heimann, vice chair at Weber Shandwick and one of the judges, said that PR firms needed to “think differently” if they want to compete with advertising agencies to win gold at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (why never Solihull or Scunthorpe?).  That’s what really hurt – the PR entries were said to be short of big ideas and simply not creative enough.  The soul searching has begun, in blogs, on social media and no doubt in boardrooms too.

Clearly, not the best outcome but I sometimes wonder if we’re not a bit too obsessive as an industry about creativity at the cost of process.

How often have you observed a member of the comms department spend several hours drafting an internal announcement.  They invest time editing and refining the text, re-writing sections, getting quotes approved and coming up with a compelling or witty attention-grabbing headline, only to distribute the announcement in a rush at 4pm on a Friday with scarcely a thought for those receiving it.  That’s poor process.

How many businesses have missed calendared PR opportunities such as Mothers Day or a key client’s birthday because someone wasn’t paying attention to the forward diary?  That’s poor process.

How many opportunities to entertain key customers or potential customers at sporting events have gone AWOL because someone hadn’t checked beforehand when the tickets became available?  That’s poor process.

How many forward feature lists have fallen into disrepair or press release distribution lists fallen out of date because the process wasn’t in place making it someone’s job to manage and look after them?

There are two rules for process.  Firstly, whatever it is has to be repeatable.  This doesn’t mean ‘usually’ but every time.  If it’s not repeatable, it’s not a process.  Secondly, it needs to be people independent.  That means that if Mary and Jane do it perfectly, the same way every time, but James doesn’t, it’s not a process.  Or it’s at least a flawed process.

Good practice would also suggest that a process should be written down somewhere that’s easily accessible. Importantly, however, we need to recognise that writing something down doesn’t necessarily mean that the steps have been put in place and that they are being followed.

Process is like planning.  It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s dull and it’s not PR.  Process is also as much responsible for the overall success of our campaigns as any creative work we do.  But then no one ever got a promotion or won an award in Cannes for doing it well.

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