SPIN CITY

When your job is to manage the media and you resort to issuing direct threats – of the ‘my dad’s bigger than yours’ variety – because things aren’t going your way, you’ve already lost the argument.  Intellectually.  Ethically. Practically.

Emails leaked this week highlight how Guto Harri, the Mayor of London’s former communications chief, was seen to threaten the BBC with a ‘huge public fight’ if it aired an interview recorded with author Sonia Purnell discussing her unauthorised biography of the Mayor late last year.

The emails seem to suggest that the comms chief, a former BBC man himself, threatened to turn the newspapers and what he called “our good friends in Number 10” against the public service broadcaster if it failed to do as it was told.

Purnell, writing in the Guardian on the matter, claimed that other reporters were threatened with loss of access to the Mayor if they spoke to her, while a playwright advised that no London theatre would stage a production based on the book for fear of the City Hall reaction.

Either there was a systematic campaign mounted against her by City Hall or Purnell’s next book should be a conspiracy theory thriller.

Harri recently mounted a Boris bike and cycled the relatively short distance to Wapping where he has taken on the challenge of rebuilding the now dilapidated reputation of News International, publisher of the Sun, the Times and the new defunct News of the World.

From the vantage point of his new office in Wapping today, the “good friends in No 10” might be unnecessary as News International executives and Cabinet Ministers look to distance themselves from each other in the shadow of the Leveson enquiry into phone hacking.

Commenting on the leaked emails, Harri told the Guardian that: “It was my job at City Hall to ensure fair coverage for the mayoralty and I did what I could over four years to deliver that in a professional and courteous manner.’  He denied the reference to ‘good friends in No 10’ was a threat, calling it an expression of widely-held frustration about negative coverage by the BBC.

Presumably the commitment to impartiality enshrined in the BBC’s charter, a feature of the corporation during his time there, ended only after his departure in 2007?

The role of the comms dept is to work with the media, to help them understand the facts, the context and the background to a story to ensure that the clients or employer is well and fairly represented.  I have yet to see a job description for a communications director that required censorship skills.

The BBC reporter who received the original ‘threatening’ email is William Walden, then the BBC’s Westminster news editor.  Today, he is Boris Johnson’s new director of communications.  The scriptwriters of Spin City would surely have rejected the plot as too implausible.

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OUTSOURCING YOUR REPUTATION

Lots of businesses consciously, happily and successfully outsource their reputation management to external PR agencies. That is not the subject of this post.

But a company’s words, easily written and effortlessly spoken, can become a major threat to its reputation.  Words can be dangerous because they constitute promises and create expectations. Unfulfilled expectations damage customers’ confidence in the business that created them in the first place and undermine its reputation.

With a few notable exceptions, businesses typically emphasise customer service among their top strategic priorities. Often, however, customer service is seen as a cost of failure, the price of getting it wrong in the first place.  When viewed in this light, customer service becomes an unnecessary cost to be minimised.

The drive to minimise cost gave birth to the global outsourcing industry.  The logic of outsourcing is irrefutable. Give those aspects of service delivery to a third party organisation that can do them better or cheaper than you can do yourself. On a good day, maybe they’ll deliver both better and cheaper.

But eventually, the economics get bumptious and then aggressive.  “I need it 10% cheaper than last year,” he demands.  The outsourcing provider eventually agrees and that’s when corners get cut, attention gets lost, care gets cast aside and quality falls away.

As anyone who travels by train in the UK will understand, outsourcing is the perfect alternative to accountability. “Your train is cancelled because of a fault with the track.  Nothing to do with me, I’m afraid. That part is done by a different company.”  Or ask BP about the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and the roles played by both Halliburton and Transocean.  Then ask yourself which brand was most damaged during and after the crisis.

Similarly, when I ordered a new cable broadband service recently, all was going swimmingly until the installation engineer came to do the work and found he’d have to carve a channel for the cable along the concrete drive. That would require power tools and more time than he had in mind so he tacked the cable, unprotected, to a railing.

He explained that he wasn’t an employee of the cable company. He worked for a sub-contractor and his instruction was to get in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible.  In short, I wasn’t his customer so he didn’t care.

It’s relatively straightforward to pass operational responsibility to a third party.  It’s more difficult to pass on the sense of respect and commitment that a business has to its customers, particularly if that partner is based in a low cost economy on a different continent.  It’s a risk handing over the promise you’ve made to your customers – you’re outsourcing your reputation.

There are three ways I can think of to mitigate the problem.

The first is to not outsource in the first place, but that may make you uncompetitive.

The second is to be so careful with your words that you never make a promise to your customers or set an expectation with them, but that could make you unattractive.

The third is to have the comms depts. from both parties work together in a truly collaborative relationship that enables your messaging to find its way seamlessly into the hearts and minds of your partners’ employees.  This is a route many have tried but where few have truly succeeded.

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QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

A headhunter blogging on the topic asked recently what I thought the main differences are between working in journalism and working in communications.  Part of my response was that working in journalism means you focus on the questions whilst, in communications, you concentrate more on the answers.  It’s a simple and sometimes fraught relationship that can enrich mankind’s bank of knowledge.

The professional life for anyone on either side of the fence is dominated by five words:  ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’.  Each of these words requires very careful handling – every time a company spokesperson lies to or misleads a journalist a skeleton is consigned to a darkened, underground cupboard to plot its reappearance at a future date and maximise the embarrassment for a senior executive.

Questions and answers are the stock in trade of any journalist or communications department.  That’s what attracts the naturally curious and the downright nosey to both the ‘poaching’ and ‘game-keeping’ ends of the business.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a collection of tens of thousands of carefully constructed, reviewed, re-written, edited and legally approved Qs and As for events as diverse as quarterly results, contract wins, new appointments and one marital break up caused by extra curricular events that took place on an overseas business tip.

I also estimate that some where between two and three in every twenty questions anticipated have never been asked – by a journalist, analyst, Member of Parliament, employee or passer by.  This isn’t inefficiency. It’s done to satisfy that well-known PR law that the chances that an awkward question will be asked is in direct proportion to your level of preparedness to answer it.  The Boy Scouts had that particular law under control.

Good questions need good answers. “No comment” is an answer that no spokesperson should give in response to a question because it not only defies the dictionary definition of ‘spokesperson’, but to the eyes and ears of the general public, it sounds remarkably like “Yes.  We’re guilty as charged and have something to hide.”

For the communications department, difficult questions from stakeholders fall into a number of key categories, including:

The Embarrassing (“So, Mr Clinton, can you tell us more about what happened in the Oval Office with Ms Lewinsky?)

The Awkward (“Mr Goodwin, your views please on whether the bank’s collapse was the result of corruption, or merely incompetence?”)

The Unwelcome (How would you describe being the overlooked partner in a relationship, Mr Clegg?”)

The cheeky (“Now that you’ve been charged, Mrs Brooks, can you tell us if you’ve had any supportive texts from the Prime Minister?”)

Whether embarrassing, awkward or unwelcome, there are two lessons I’ve learned over the years about answering difficult questions.  The first is to be entirely honest.  The second is to be brief.  The more words you use to answer a simple question, the less likely people will believe that you understood the first lesson.

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