ARE YOU CLOSE ENOUGH?

The untimely death of Remi Ochlik, the award-winning French freelance photojournalist who died on duty in Syria last week, led me to re-read “In Our Time – the World as Seen by Magnum Photographers”.

Robert Capa, the Hungarian photographer and a co-founder of Magnum, famously said: “If your pictures aren’t strong enough, you’re not close enough.”  The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the theory applies to those of us in the communications department just as much as it does to war photographers.  Of course, we have the benefit that, unlike Mr Capa, our life is unlikely to end on a landmine if we get too close.

Communicators need to know the business they represent, the industry they inhabit and the key stakeholders inside and outside the business that can positively or negatively impact that business’ health and wellbeing. We also need to understand the business and the industry’s past and present, and have a nodding acquaintance with the future.

This insight is a task that can’t be delegated or passed up the line or outsourced to an agency.  At it’s best, it stems from natural curiosity.  That’s not to say that agencies shouldn’t have the same awareness of a client’s business, an industry’s challenges or its stakeholders’ views.

In another parallel with photojournalism, the intimacy of knowledge within the communications department should not be allowed to undermine it’s objectivity – we’ve all worked with senior executives who have an unshakable self-belief in their ability to spot a story that should make the front age of the Financial Times, usually featuring their profile picture.

If the journalist knows more than you, you’re on shaky ground; if the analyst has better insight, you’re at a significant disadvantage; and if the local MP knows about job losses at a regional facility before you do, you’re not doing your job.

The best communicators invest time to get on first name terms with every relevant issue. They consume the pages of the media they’d paid to manage and they’re forever asking questions of subject matter experts across the business.  Genuine knowledge is what makes us trusted advisors and spokespeople. Knowledge makes us corporate assets.

Armed with knowledge, we debate the issues as a team and pull the pieces together into a coherent whole, to join the dots if you like. That’s when the team can start building a communications strategy.  Building a strategy without insight is certain to generate activity that is highly unlikely to further the business’ objectives.

I’ve met and worked with communicators who see their role as administrators, there to transcribe the daily demands of senior managers. For these administrators, the details and the meaning are an inconvenience at best or a mystery in the very worst cases.

This brings me back to Robert Capa, because that should surely be the equivalent of stepping on a landmine for a career in communications?

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WATCHING THE CLOCKS

Today is national ‘Work Your Proper Hours Day’ in the UK.  It has become an annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) initiative to highlight that five million workers in the UK collectively donate an estimated £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their employers each year. For those of us working in the communications and PR industry, has there ever been a more important, or a less relevant initiative?

For sure, a healthy work life balance is important, and the principle is enshrined in the European Working Time directive which stipulates that we work no more than 48 hours per week, unless we choose as individuals to opt out.  Everyone needs to recuperate and maintain domestic harmony.  We also like to watch our team play on a Saturday.

Some in agencies will say that a billable hour is a billable hour, while others argue that as we endure the harshest economic environment in living memory, with headcount within agencies and in-house communications departments declining while workloads rise, free overtime is a necessary evil for career survival.  The level of over-servicing within agencies is on the rise as they try to keep their remaining clients happy and their clients’ fees flowing.  Many within in-house teams are on first name terms with 12 and 14 hour days.

Do you feel short changed? The vast majority of us get paid multiples of what a nurse gets paid, and they save lives.  Our jobs see us travel the country and the world, dine is reasonable or better restaurants and drink wine with table service as perks. Many on the outside believe that we lead a charmed life in this trade.

I’ve made a few phone calls to friends in the industry today. Most of us, it seems, like our life this way.  We’re grateful to operate in an always-on world where t’interweb and and mass media keep our fingers on the pulse.  We like to be the first to know what’s happening and we love to share that when we do.  Maybe we just like to be wanted or maybe it’s why we work in communications.  Yes, we’ve been known to moan about it from time to time but we’d complain a lot more if the clocks were to change on us.

Personally, and like the people I spoke with today, we’d like to thank the TUC for raising the issue but feel just fine with our choice.

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LOBBYING FOR CHANGE

For as long as the UK economy remains in its windowless, airless and damp basement with neither sight nor smell of those elusive ‘green shoots of recovery’, the reprisals and recriminations will keep coming.  People are angry and politicians in power don’t like angry voters – anger tends to colour views when the angry enter a polling booth.

Greedy bankers and their bonuses, politicians and their expense claims and newspapers with underhand access to our private conversations have each been demonised in turn.  Tax-evading Greeks, the feckless unemployable, the travelling community, striking public servants, immigrants to these shores … even the disabled have had a public roasting.  People are angry and anger needs a target.  Estate agents have got away with it so far, but their day is surely not far away. Political lobbyists are also in the firing line.

Mark Harper, the Cabinet Office Minister, came face to face with a pretty irate public affairs industry last night.  His department has introduced a consultation designed to create a statutory ‘Register of Lobbyists’, part of the coalition government’s strategy to make politics more open and transparent.

The Government proposes that only public affairs agencies that conduct the black arts on behalf of third parties will fall within the remit of the register.  In-house lobbyists will be exempt.  The authors of the consultation are not sure whether pro bono work would need to be declared and are open to suggestions on whether trades unions should fall within the remit.  The selective nature of the proposed register is discriminatory, the industry counters, and may even break EU laws.

It doesn’t take a fertile imagination to foresee a significant reduction in agency fees and a mass exodus of lobbying talent from agency to in-house roles if the proposed legislation becomes law.  Does the Government think in-house lobbyists are less effective at their jobs, and therefore less worthy of attention? Or perhaps, they recognise that the Government itself regularly lobbies big business when it wants a discretionary investment made here or support for a policy change there?

The public affairs industry is broadly comfortable with the introduction of a universal register, provided no commercial sensitivities are breached and it doesn’t add unnecessary red tape or expense to their bottom lines.  The Government says it wants to foster an environment that enables business to lobby parliament easily.

The real bottom line, however, is that people have lost faith in the moral fibre of our politicians and public figures.  People no longer trust public servants not to be unduly swayed by the views of the clandestine lobbyist.  It’s easier, of course, to attempt to muzzle the shadowy lobbyist than to admit that their parliamentary peers are often morally weak, devoid of real world experience and if left unchecked, may perform regular acts of policy-making stupidity or simple self-interest.

Whether it is possible to talk an economy into a recession is a mute point, but talking up a negative environment can certainly defer the prospects for economic recovery.  Am I alone in my boredom of this Government’s daily pronouncements and tough talking witch-hunts to explain the state we’re in?  Maybe we’d all be better served if the Government were to focus its attention exclusively on accelerating economic recovery, rather than playing games and electioneering with their messaging and their time.

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