PR or PM? Half time for Cameron.

Before his elevation to the highest office in the land, David Cameron plied his trade in PR.  He was director of corporate affairs for Carlton, the broadcaster and television production company, between 1994 and 2001. He left to become Member of Parliament for Witney in Oxfordshire before his promotion to Leader of the Opposition.  He’s been Prime Minster for two years now. It’s half time and right to ask, on a non-scientific sample of one, whether PRs make good PMs?

Successful PRs share a range of common traits.  They know a little about a lot of things and know a lot of important people, but not all of them very well.  They are charming, sociable problem solvers capable of thinking quickly on their feet. They have an answer for every question or, if they don’t, will know a man who does.  The Prime Minister, on the other hand, does a very serious job of national and international importance.

This serious job usually includes creating policies in areas such as healthcare, education, policing and defence and social welfare. These policies should lead to general happiness aboard the good ship ‘United Kingdom’.

But Cameron’s Government’s policy is austerity. This means cutting jobs and reducing the cost of healthcare, of education, of policing and defence and social welfare. The result is that the good ship United Kingdom is, well, not that buoyant.  In the absence of policies, Mr Cameron appears to revert occasionally to his old job in PR.

Let’s start with The Big Society, the brainchild of Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former director of strategy. If ever there was a PR stunt masquerading as policy, that is it.  The presentation was a mess, the message not understood (despite a few attempts) and the few who think they got it weren’t big fans.

Then we had the Leveson Inquiry.  When the News of the World phone hacking scandal went mainstream, Cameron ordered a public inquiry.  This was an action straight out of Crisis Comms 101, paragraph 4.2, which states: “When something has gone wrong but you can’t put your finger on exactly what, announce an inquiry.”  It’s tried and tested, except in this case the investigation is managed by individuals who take their responsibilities very seriously.  Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Hunt and others have seen their reputations sullied by the whole affair.  A PR own goal.

Then we had the EU Treaty Walkout, or Operation ‘Act Tough, Talk Tough’ when Cameron stormed out of Brussels with the ball under his arm after Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy upset him during a discussion on the Eurozone crisis. The idea of an Old Etonian being ‘tough’ itself raises a giggle, but in PR, we call this ‘re-positioning’.  Still, the the most vehement europhobes liked it.

We won’t talk about the mis-management of Stephen Hester’s bonus at RBS, the ‘country suppers’ with an ex-editor of the News of the World, the appointment and resignation of Andy Coulson as comms director or the mystery of Raiza, the borrowed horse.  Nor will I hear another word about the ‘pasty tax’, ‘Angry Birds’ or ‘chillaxing’.

To be fair, no political party would want to sacrifice their strongest side during a bloody and drawn out global recession where doing what’s necessary creates few future voters, but for a PR man, Cameron has yet to show the presentational instincts of an Alastair Campbell or Bernard Ingham.

It’s half time and no one can yet be sure that history will be kind to Cameron’s premiership.  Let’s hope he has a better second half.




When operating at the tippity top of it’s game, the comms department can find itself in the business of sustaining corporate myths and legends.  Corporate myths are stories fortified through regular re-telling. They usually represent the human face of the corporation and survive the years and generations, often in the absence of evidence or fact.

“Everyone knows that Rolls Royce cars don’t break down.”

My favourite corporate myths include the wooden garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard are said to have created Silicon Valley, the mountains of sand that 3M was left with after failing to find gold so decided to make sandpaper instead, and the reliability of Roll Royce cars.  The Rolls Royce myth is less well known and a noble example of the genre, and so deserves further detail.

A man buys a second hand Rolls Royce.  While on a driving holiday a few years later, it breaks down by the side of the road.  He’s a long way from home so calls the nearest dealership. They send an engineer who gives him a replacement car to continue his journey in and then takes charge of the broken down vehicle.

A few days later, his car is returned, fully repaired.  After a few weeks, the man realised he hasn’t paid for the repairs and, not wanting to be accused of being negligent, calls the garage again and speaks to the office manager.  “My Rolls Royce broke down a few weeks ago. You repaired it but haven’t yet sent me an invoice,” he said.

“Sir, you must be mistaken,” said the office manager.  “Everyone knows that Rolls Royce cars simply don’t break down.”

Corporate legends are similarly made from a leader’s character retold as anecdotes and discussed around the water cooler long after the leader has moved on.  The late Steve Jobs at Apple, Jack Welch at General Electric and Richard Branson at Virgin are prime examples of corporate legends.  Each has had his reputation transcend the realm of business and enter general conversation.  Each of these legends had also mastered the art of managing their personal profile and reputation.

Corporate myths are always manufactured, either consciously or unconsciously.  I have no doubt that Google, Facebook and Twitter all have the ability to create their own corporate mythology, and the early signs can be seen in their choice of office décor that they are trying to build something.  Time will tell if they survive and thrive long enough for the mythology to mature.

I have never seen the concept mentioned in a communications plan or agency pitch. Perhaps that’s because the time required for a story to become mythical is longer than the tenure of the average comms dept’s membership.  But that, as an excuse, is as flimsy as a Prime Minister not making the right decisions in the long-term interest of the country because it’s unlikely he or she will be in office to benefit from it.

The new focus on content curation as part of many corporates’ social media strategy surely provides us with the opportunity to start building some future myths.



Life for the employee communications team would be much more agreeable if only employees could be insulated from communications not sanctioned by the CEO.  But because life isn’t always fair, employees will occasionally read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch News at Ten.

It’s difficult to imagine a business story that would compel a journalist to publish that wouldn’t be of interest to staff in the business that’s featured.  So why do internal communications departments not take more of an interest in what the press office is up to, and vice versa?

Because life’s unfair, journalists won’t always accept at face value the details provided by the company.  They have this irritating habit of challenging stories presented to them, especially when they’re not convinced that ‘the truth’ and ‘what they’re being told’ amount to the same thing.

This means the message conveyed internally by the boss isn’t always amplified exactly the way he’d like by the external media and can present two versions of the story for staff to compare and contrast.

So, when the negotiations to renew your largest contract aren’t going well, and the customer is minded to give the other guy a shot, the journalist is likely to use the words ‘contract’ and ‘under threat’ in a story.  In response, the business might feel compelled to tell staff that the customer is simply playing hardball over price, just to spare their feelings.  But guess which version of the story the staff is more likely to believe?

Every time a CEO is briefed before a press interview, it’s likely that someone will have thought through the key messages for customers, for shareholders and even suppliers.  But how often are the key messages for employees or potential employees considered?

When the press office is asked for a reactive comment on a potentially negative story, how often do they consciously check with their colleagues in the internal communications team to test how the response might sound to staff?

The external media is one of the more important and credible internal communications channels a business has but isn’t always seen that way.  This is a shame, because better inter-working between the internal and external teams could really press home the message.