THE COMMS HAND OF THE LAW

The Metropolitan Police is on the trail of a new director of media and communications.  The vacancy has arisen after the previous incumbent resigned rather than face a gross misconduct charge. He was accused of hiring a former News of the World ‘reporter-turned-PR’ on a consultancy contract without paying due attention to the Met’s procurement policy.  He was 14 years in the role.

The force employs 50,000 officers and is responsible for law and order in one of the greatest cities in the world. The Met’s jurisdiction takes in 7.8 million citizens, the world’s second largest financial services centre, the world’s busiest international airport and this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games.  It also boasts the busiest 24-hour press office in Europe.  On the face of it, this is the prime cut of communications roles.

The institution has faced some very real public relations challenges over the last decade or more.  In every major category of crime, the Met underperforms average detection rates across England and Wales.  In the late 1990s, it was accused of institutional racism in the MacPherson Report, a condition that has not been fully put to bed.

In 2005 came the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by Met officers after he was mistaken for a terrorist.    In 2011, the force was widely criticised for what many saw as a flaccid response to the London riots, which themselves were blamed by some on the killing by Met officers of Mark Duggan.

More recently thanks to the Leveson Inquiry, the Met’s senior officers have been shown to be too close to media executives whilst a number of front line staff enhanced their lifestyles by systematically taking cash for information from (mostly tabloid) journalists.

Today, the Met is being squeezed on all sides.  The Government is demanding savage cost cuts, while the governed have all but lost faith in the Met’s performance.   Older citizens have lost faith in the police’s ability to solve crime while the youth have little fear or respect for the badge.

The Met’s 50,000 staff, 5,000 of whom are volunteers, feel increasingly disengaged and believe they spend more time on administration than enforcement and expect legislation to undermines their efforts.  At the same time, the risk to their personal well-being has never been higher.

On the face of it, this is a meaty communications role with the opportunity to rebuild trust in the police force, to re-engage the work force and re-build bridges with the policed.  These are important and interesting communications challenges that need to be addressed.

Every senior comms role includes an element of stakeholder management.  This post holder is required to build and maintain appropriate relationships with the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the London Mayor’s Office, the Greater London Authority, Parliament, each of the 32 London councils and a raft of policing bodies.

And that’s the rub.  It’s more likely the candidate will spend their time playing politics and avoiding blame missiles with politically-motivated and competing parties than addressing the comms challenges that would improve the Met.

The job is a vocation, not a career opportunity and one that promises scarcely enough money to compensate for one role, never mind two.

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SOCIAL MEDIUM WAVES

It’s a struggle these days to find a traditional PR agency that offers, or admits to offering, old school media relations as its core service.  The traditional agencies have adopted, acquired or built digital teams and repositioned themselves. Across the UK, Facebook has captured the attention of 30 million people.  10 million of them have Twitter accounts too.  Social meeja has become both the nerd’s revenge and the new black.

This is entirely understandable.  Social media enables businesses to engage in ‘conversations’ with customers in new ways and too listen to what those customers are saying about their brands, their products and services in real time.

Social media has also given birth to a new vocabulary, with terms such as return on influence, search engine optimisation, social search and content curation.  In the analogue days, we called content curation ‘research and filing’, but we can’t restrain progress.

While still relatively immature as an industry, social media has successfully passed the technology exam and the maths test and has now graduated to college.  It might have been considered for a university place but Facebook mucked up its IPO.

Some people are amazed at the number of social media advisors and consultants that have sprung up in recent years.  A combination of hype and fear among business leaders has always bred consultants and social media is no exception.  It has created a skills gap, too.

The PR industry went through a similar growth spurt in the late 1980s and early 1990s are businesses fell under the spell of the new religion of public relations. Each new PR consultancy that sprung up fathered several more as individuals left to set up their own operations.  The industry expanded fast but struggled to find the skills and quality it needed.  PR’s reputation and credibility as a profession almost didn’t survive the experience.

I’m a social media disciple and proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.  Social platforms have already changed the way we communicate, learn, interact and engage and has changed forever the way the comms dept works.

So what’s my point?  You could argue that the first social media platform was invented 100 years ago. Through advanced mobile technology, radio offered the ability for people, for the first time, to interact both globally and hyper-locally. Radio offered the opportunity for direct engagement with end users. Unlike Facebook, it had ‘the wireless problem’ licked.

Today, over 90 percent of the UK population listen to radio every week.  That’s more than Facebook. More than Twitter. The technology behind this wireless platform has evolved too.  Today, radio is digital, available over the web and available as an app to download for the iPhone too.

With so much attention being paid to social media, why do so many talk radio production teams faced with hours of on-air debate and discussion to fill, feel they could do with something more than an irrelevant press release sent their way from time to time?

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TIME FOR A NEW MESSAGE

The Government and its communications team likes to tell us every day that we face a choice between the awfulness of austerity on the one hand, and the dreadfulness of austerity on the other.  There is no alternative because growth prospects have evaporated and the Eurozone is on fire. Oh, and the last Government dealt them a rotten hand, so austerity it is.

A psychologist could no doubt prove the theory that austerity before the fact is preferable to austerity afterwards.  For example, going without because you’re saving for next summer’s holiday to the Maldives will feel less painful than still paying down the credit card bill from last year’s cruise months after the tan has faded.

Let’s say we do manage, somehow, to reduce national debt, address public sector pensions, get to grips with unemployment and sell on, at a profit, our investments in failing banks.  What then?  What’s the upside?

It’s time for the Government, after more than 18 months of droning on and on about how terrible it all is, to change the message.

People are more tolerant of pain if they can see a future upside.  If the future is just more of the same, we’ll be underwhelmed and Government ministers will be looking for new jobs come the next election.

The country appears, so far, to have avoided the majority of trouble with the Eurozone suggesting that keeping sterling was a good thing.  We seem to have accepted that an economy based almost exclusively on financial services is risky, and that we have to reinvest in making things again.  We’ve accepted that the state employs too many people and we’re ‘right-sizing’ that.  All good, but what does it all mean for the future of UK plc?

If the UK was a business reducing costs and cutting jobs, the management team would be travelling up and down the country setting out not just the scale of the challenge to be addressed, but the size of the prize for success too.  They’d be saying things such as: “It will be tough but when we do, we’ll be a stronger business, more competitive than ever before and able to offer those of you still here better career opportunities.”

There’s no equivalent rallying cry from the government. Some will say that nobody required to reapply for their job every four years can be expected to take a longer-term, strategic view.   Really?  The average tenure for CEOs of FTSE100 businesses is 3.5 years.

Others will say that it’s just too difficult, that the current residents of no’s 10 and 11 Downing Street inherited an economic mess. The thing is, they knew that before they applied for the job and campaigned on the basis that they were the team to fix it.

The current Government looks more interested in power than people.   If they want to stay in the job for a second term, they need to quickly find the vision, imagination and passion necessary to create and communicate a future for the country that will make the pain we’re enduring feel a little more worthwhile.

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