Monday, 30 November 2009

Honesty - A business imperative

Today's guest blog is by Mark Knight, Director at Broadgate Mainland.

The infamous ‘Hand of Henry’ incident in the week-before-last’s world cup qualifying match generated a media frenzy of indignation in support of the hard done by Irish, victims of Gallic dishonesty.

This controversial event has already kicked off debate on how it represents the erosion of sporting standards.

The public relations industry is no stranger to the honesty argument. How many of you can put your hand on your heart and say that you have not lied as part of your job? Cue howls of indignation at PR offices around the country!

Okay, the vast majority of these are probably white lies: client tied up in meetings so can’t return your (journalist’s) call and the new product/service is generating huge interest (not) from customers and prospects.

The world post the economic recession is going to be a different place with the share of voice tipping the scales in favour of empowered consumers and make-or-break word of mouth endorsement. The general public and the media will simply not accept the levels of subterfuge that some PR agencies and company press offices have adopted as the norm.

Will companies dare to run the risk of PRs causing an outbreak of hysteria on blogs and forums or even worse a negative SideWiki next to a hard earned page one entry on Google?

A reputation of a company is built on honesty and trust. While these rules may get bent when times are good, they undergo intense scrutiny when life gets tough.

PR will always be about presenting situations in the best possible light. But to avoid a ‘Hand of Henry’ incident it’s best to remember PRs and their brands do exist in their own scrutinised, multi-view world. Adopting the highest standards of honesty is not only morally right, it is a business imperative.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Leading Public Sector Communications Teams

Today's guest blog comes courtesy of Ian Ratcliffe,Head of Marketing and Communications for Stockport Council, and Vice Chair of LG Communications.

Stockport Council is an Associate Member of the PRCA

Yesterday in Stockport, as Vice Chair of LG Communications, the national body working to raise the standard of communications in the public sector, it was my pleasure to host a day’s seminar involving notable speakers on the subject of Leading Public Sector Communications Teams.

It was a great day that allowed everyone to get together and discuss how communications has an even greater role to play than ever before.

We are all facing difficult times ahead so it was timely to see what we’re up to and look at the key issues concerning leaders of communications.

We had a fantastic group of speakers starting with our very own Leader of Stockport Council, Cllr Dave Goddard who made a strong case for organisational leaders valuing and resourcing their comms teams. In turn, it is essential that the communicators themselves demonstrate huge civic pride in everything they do and bring passion to their role.

Joe Simpson, Director of Politics and Partnerships at the Leadership Centre for Local Government made a fascinating presentation on the importance of storytelling and the transition from ‘communications’ to ‘conversations’ – mirrored in the transition from print to social media.

Next up we then learned some interesting lessons from Mike Greenwood, Chairman of Stockport PCT, as he described this time in the public sector. Mike is an ambassador of strong and effective brand in engendering public pride in an area and made reference to the importance of effective partnerships.

Attention was then turn to an individual level, with the focus on the skills that communicators will need in this new changed and changing economic environment. David Broome and Lucinda Barber from VMA made a thought-provoking presentation on the skills required from a comms leader, which had us all thinking about the passion we need to instil in every part of our role.

Paul Newman, Head of Comms at MediaCity:UK gave us some great leadership advice on not being sidestepped by the small issues – it’s not about where you are now, but where you want to be. Wise words! Paul also updated everyone on the progress of the wonderful Media City project at Salford.

I was very pleased to see that Andy Carter, Head of Communications at Leeds City Council was able to join us for the day. After 12 weeks of the bin men striking, he had us all intrigued by his experience of leading a crisis communications strategy – which I am glad to say has now come to an end! Exciting times and some good lessons learned.

With the perspective of someone who has been both a long-serving council leader of a major city and now a senior executive at a leading communication consultancy, a big thank you to Donald Anderson, Director at PPS, who travelled down from Edinburgh to tell us about his time as Leader of Edinburgh Council. His experience of comms during the Cowgate Fire and the G8 summit certainly gave us some perspective and showed us how the personal touches are often the mark of real leadership, and how they can make a big difference.

We closed the day with Nick Jaspan, founder of the phenomenally successful Nick’s switch from print to online media stressed the ever growing importance of social media and networking in the comms world. On a personal level, if we do not adapt to a rapidly-changing environment, we will get left behind.

I have chosen to end my blog with thanks to your very own Director General, Francis Ingham, who I am sure will be blogging about his day with us yesterday! Francis’s presentation focused our attention firmly on the future of communications and about making the next few years about opportunities – as PR thrives on change! I also found his words on taking our own professional development seriously, as comms leaders will only be accepted on the top table if they have the skills top people expect!

So much to take in, but a great day overall. I hope that everyone who attended can take away the good advice and use it to forge a path for themselves and their teams over the next few years.

Hope to see you all at another LG Communications seminar in the near future.

Ian Ratcliffe

Vice Chair, LG Communications

Head of Marketing and Communications at Stockport Council

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In defence of the public sector

An interesting night last night, as PRCA in-house associate member Keith Johnston (from STEP) and I defended the public sector's use of PR and PA agencies in a debate with the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA).

It happened because we wouldn't let a TPA 'research' report into public sector comms stand. They argued that public bodies were spending vast amounts of money on comms and lobbying, and should somehow be legally prohibited from using PR and PA agencies. In fact, they went further than that, and argued in favour of a slash and burn programme of cuts to public sector comms. To their credit, they accepted our challenge to a debate, and the English Speaking Union was kind enough to host us.

The TPA's argument was the bizarre one that all comms serves to reinforce the status quo, and to cement the Government's position. They use the word 'government' to cover any public body, including, for example, all local authorities. I really must break the news to the 200+ Conservative Councils that they are , in fact, doing Gordon Brown's work...

We disagreed naturally. And we made three points. First, that public sector bodies have a duty to communicate with their voters, their taxpayers and their customers. Second, that to suggest this comms activity is all intended to support Central Government's agenda is patently nuts. And third, that using an agency to bring in special expertise is often the sensible, financially responsible thing to do.

Well, it was an interesting debate, and in my thoroughly biased opinion, I thought we edged it. Even if we were up against someone who was specifically -and rather strangely- introduced as the 'World Debating Champion'. Just who did he beat to get that title? Was it a United Nations hosted face-off with Obama and Blair that he just edged on points??

The result? Well, we lost by a few votes. But then again the TPA had brought along more staff than we had. And they all voted for their boss, natch.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

PR - The pivotal player

With the promise of thought leadership from the PRCA, I’m pleased to announce the first in a series of guest posts from the PR Industry’s finest. First up Mark Stringer, Founder of Pretty Green.

Being asked to write on someone else's blog, is a bit like staying at someone else’s house; it's nice to be asked round, but once you get there you realize you prefer the comfort and security of your own home where there's a lock on all the toilet doors - There's nothing more embarrassing than walking in on your best mate’s wife and trying to explain that you didn't realise she was on the toilet.

Anyway, here I am, sitting in Francis’ front room, having a good snoop around. First impressions: It's obvious that he is passionate about the industry, what it stands for and what it can achieve. I think we might get along, as long as I don’t overstay my welcome…

I share his views, but, having not come from a public affairs background, I'm less ‘Minister’ and more ‘Court Jester’, whose perspective is that our role as PR Professionals is to create and harness content to drive positive brand reputation through the way we behave.

I've a great respect for public affairs, stakeholder management, NGOs; the hard-nosed, behind-the-scenes aspect of the industry. But, I still believe that PR can sit on the top table, without having to be a Corporate Agency. It just means we have to be more strategic and more creative.

Undoubtedly the pet hate for every agency-person is being perceived as the agency that simply promotes what someone else has created. "We've got this (insert Advert, promotion, new bottle etc), can you just get some coverage". A frustrating but popular misconception of what PR is all about.

In today's combusted landscape the beauty is that creating and distributing content is easier than ever before and the PR industry now has a great opportunity to become not only a seat warmer at the top table, but the pivotal player.

We're better placed to lead Digital than the media agencies or the Ad agencies because we know how to integrate it into the editorial mix rather than looking at it as an isolated entity. We are skilled in creating experiences that not only bring brands to life but also deliver editorial and we know how to build strong brand reputations.

But the magic happens when we are able to create as well as distribute. What's interesting is you're often a minority if you talk about your creative director, or creative team, something I've never understood.

Yes PR people are generally more creative than a lot of other disciplines, due to the need to write and create stories on a daily basis, but true ‘creatives’ will always be an essential part of the mix; people who stretch the boundaries and make us feel uncomfortable. The big thinkers, whose ides continue to push us and excite us (and initially leave us dumbfounded).

Anyway, now's the time for us all to believe we belong round the top table, and that we can drive the full marketing agenda, not just the news agenda, and organisations like the PRCA can help us achieve that.

But, as I said before, I feel like I'm sat in someone else's front room and I shouldn't really be ranting too much or I might not be invited round again. Besides, we've got Beyonce in town, so I'm off to find some buskers as we've got some content to create and distribute for Trident and given that as of Friday we've got one less paper to sell-in to, we're going to have to work that little bit harder.

And as one person asked in the office, does the decline of London Lite mean that we'll return to the halcyon days of hearing "Standard, Standard! Read all about it"? We do hope so.

Thanks for having me... I’ll make sure I shut the door behind me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

PRCA in strong financial position

Following the CIPR's announcement regarding its finances, a number of members have asked me to reassure them as to our position.

It's a reassurance I'm delighted to give, because we are in an extremely healthy position.

Our reserves are very significant because of sound financial management over a number of years. The Association has produced a surplus in each of the previous four years, and confidently expects to produce one in 2009/10 too.

Our agency membership has grown by 50% over the past two years, and we recently announced in-house and international membership programmes too, further diversifying our revenue streams. Income from our business partners, training and events has significantly increased over the past two years. As a result of strong performance in all of these areas, turnover is up by around 50% compared with two years ago.

So, we entered this recession in a strong position, and we will exit it in an even stronger one.