PR and politics: the two most intertwined professions.

As the election campaign gathers pace we are reminded once again of how close and overlapping two “professions” are – PR and politics.

A UK general election campaign may not be the biggest spending marketing event – or anything as big financially as a US election – but it is one of the most sophisticated and – potentially – engaging. Last week’s “non debate” was a pure exercise in modern public relations. Little control on the message, two way communications and a mass of white noise in the social media echo chamber. (Our Prime Minister even worked in PR as an in house communications director – I pitched to him once. Didn’t get the business sadly. I also once turned George Osborne down for a job with my lobbying firm, but I did hire Priti Patel, now one of the brightest sparks on the Tory benches.)


Source: Sky News

But is the closeness of our two lines of business, with almost no discernible barrier between, a good thing?

The man who started Shandwick forty one years ago, Lord Chadlington, was and remains immersed in politics. The guy who hired me, Lord McNally, was a Labour and SDP MP, a minister and is a leading figure in the House of Lords. I was a much more lowly Labour spin doctor. (I don’t regard my time working in politics as PR – it was propaganda, but I learned a lot from it and my brilliant ex boss and mentor, Lord Mandelson.)

On Friday I attended a fascinating event at the LSE, Polis’ “Vote 2015″ conference on politics and the media, organised by Charlie Beckett. It was awash with top journalists and broadcasters, pollsters, politicians, marketers,  social media activists and thinkers.

The first person I ran into was my old friend, Tony Blair’s former top aide Angie Hunter. Angie is now a senior advisor at Edelman. In the evening I want to the retirement party of a former colleague and for most of the past decade head of communications at EDF, Andrew Brown, one of the nicest and most effective operators in PR. Andrew worked in both media and politics and at EDF showed modern PR at its best, influencing what the company did rather than just said. Also there was one of my oldest friends, Michael Prescott, a former political journalist, now head of comms at the mighty BT, and a formidable strategic mind.

You get the picture. And there are many other examples, from Charles Lewington to Alistair Campbell. The latest issue of PR Week heralds the arrival of former Labour Secretary of State Jacqui Smith into our fold.

At a fortieth birthday bash I hosted for Weber Shandwick’s London office last year, Lord Chadlington quipped in his speech that back in the 60′s and 70′s PR teemed with failed politicians and journalists. Those who switched to PR largely traded on their contacts rather than their strategic brilliance. Today I think those with political and media backgrounds largely add enormous value, experience and strategic insight to our industry. Politics and PR are now almost indistinguishable as practices.

PR is traditionally a business that “flies by the seat of its pants” as John Lloyd remarked in his recent critique of PR and the media, “Journalism and PR” (published by The Reuters Institute). Still too many of our practitioners skip the strategy bit, or don’t question the strategy they are handed, and focus on tactics. People with good and cutting edge political experience bring strategic insight, forged against a background of the invasive 24/7 real time scrutiny that brands, CEOs and organisations increasingly face.

In his brilliant new book on UK political marketing, “Mad Men and Bad Men”, Sam Delany tells great stories of how myopic UK political PRs and their bosses were back in the 60s, until the marketing and polling folks got involved. That has largely changed.

mad bad


So as we sit back and watch the PR-driven integrated campaigns unfold, hit or miss, I for one celebrate the closeness of our two practices ( of course I am NOT talking about the murkier end of what the press refer to as lobbying, politicians trading crudely on their contacts, often with a bad ending).

Sadly though, and ironically, another aspect our two “businesses” share is a poor reputation and public profile. But that’s another story. 

Archeology of Technology

I have a favourite slide for presentations at the moment. It illustrates, in horizontal bars of different colours, the speed at which various mass communication technologies took to reach a 50 million audience. Radio at the top with 38 years, down to Twitter with just 9 months. It looks like one of those sliced side views the earth, with the various periods of history shown as different coloured layers of soil and rock and prehistoric debris. I call it the Archeology of Technology.


I had a personal Archaeology of Technology moment at the weekend. My 8 year old wanted me to drive him to our nearest town with a toy shop so he could buy a skateboard with his pocket money. It was a mild and sunny spring morning, so we went in my old VW Beetle with the top down. It’s so old it has a cassette player rather than a CD player.

I dug out one of my ancient tapes, a compilation of 80′s stuff recorded off the radio. To do this you had to listen to the chart shows, wait for the idiot DJ to stop babbling over the intro to press record, then wait again, finger poised, until they threatened to start babbling again over the outro to hit the stop button.


The poor kid was treated to me waxing on about the joys of dancing to Clare Grogan and Altered Images doing “I Could Be Happy’ and to Heaven 17, and about how cassettes worked, when all he wanted to do was get his hands on a skateboard.


(And let’s remember than the Walkman was the Smartphone of its day in terms of personal technology and lifestyle desirability.)


Further back in my technology archaeology, before I had a radio cassette deck, we used to practice what would now be illegal downloads by taping friends’ albums live on a little portable cassette player. This involved playing the album on a stereo and painstakingly positioning the little microphone in the right point between the speakers to try and pick up the best recording. Often this involved having to do it several times as police sirens, barking dogs or friends’ little brothers and sisters yelling intruded on the recording. The result often sounded like you were listening through damp cotton wool. It was a labour of love.



I tried explaining all this to my bemused son, whose personal technology archeology starts with the laptop and tablet. He couldn’t figure out all the sweat and hassle involved. Or maybe he was just thinking about his skateboard.


Are we all in “advertising” now?

While I celebrate the PR industry, many of its people, it’s growth in influence and it’s innovation, I do not dance prematurely on the grave of advertising. Any visitor to Cannes or Eurobest knows that is a foolish game.

I spent three fascinating afternoons recently as a mentor on the Campaign magazine/Knowledge Engineers’ Future Leaders Programme. The participants were mainly from ad agencies and media agencies, with the odd in house marketer. I was the only non-ad or media agency mentor. I suspect I was eyed with suspicion as well as interest. I also suspect I learned more from watching them prep a pitch than they did from me.

We talk a lot in our industry about client centricity and gaining a deep understanding of our clients’ business challenges as opposed to communications challenges. Companies and organisations don’t have “PR problems”. They have business challenges which in an always on, sceptical communications democracy, require engagement with customers and stakeholders.

Advertising has always got this. Why? Because CMOs are numbers driven business people – hence so many end up as CEOs of their companies. Their ad agencies have done the creative thing, rooted in the business opportunity. PRs have tended to focus on tactics, positive mentions, raised awareness and “Likes” rather than meticulous measurement of ROI in sales and reputation.

(interestingly some of the participants had “Business Leader” as their job title, not Account Director or Associate Director.)

Back to my observations. Firstly, a big chunk of the allotted time for the pitch prep was analysis of “the customer journey”. Deep insights and research. I suspect that there are still many traditional PR folk who think “the customer journey” is whether a shopper takes the bus or their car to the supermarket.

Secondly, more and more insights and analysis. I have blogged and spoken before about how PR has to get this right and learn from advertising. (Interestingly I recently formed a partnership with Marketing Week to conduct some research amongst UK CMOs about the state of agency relationships. 25% said they still saw their ad agency as their key strategic partner, and 22% their digital agency, as opposed to 13% who cited their PR agency. That said, many felt underserved by their strategic partner agency on insights and analytics, content, social media, and the biggest servicing let down was helping them to futureproof their business and alerting them to changes in the marketplace. So from a PR agency POV, an opportunity as well as a challenge. If we get the analytics, content and business intelligence right.)

Thirdly, for a profession cast largely around paid advertising, the teams I saw in action did not rely on this medium but saw it as just one channel in the Paid/Earned/Owned/Shared matrix. For them the business challenge, the customer journey and associated insights, the killer key insight and the engaging creative response were the main focus. Tactical execution included some advertising, but often to boost earned media (John Lewis penguins anyone). Experiential and social were also at the forefront as well as creative technology.

The new breed of advertising leaders (as opposed to the old guard wedded to client budget zapping shoots on tropical islands and 30 second spots that were usually blunderbusses and increasing are getting ignored) must feel as constrained by the traditional view of their craft as many of us in PR feel about media relations, “free media” as the Cannes old guard refer to it, “spin” as many journalists cast it, and the press release.

We were not born a profession of press release writers. For much of our past “traditional ” media was the main channel. Ditto for advertising – the thirty second spot, the DPS etc.

So, are the next generation of advertising practitioners better prepared and more attuned to the new marketing era, with all the challenges and opportunities, than the current output of PR degrees and PR industry training courses?

If advertising is, as one dictionary definition puts it, “the business of persuading people to buy products and services (or ideas)”, as opposed to the craft of producing 30 second spots etc, then are we all in “advertising” now?

Celebrating our #FathersDayHeroes

Just over a decade ago my Dad died of lung cancer, aged 73. Although as a teenager I crossed swords with him, wound him up, was occasionally incomprehensible and disappointing to this hard manual working, rugby league loving poor boy from Drogheda, he was – is – a hero to me.

Born into a poor, large family in Ireland, he left school and started work in a cement factory at 13 – a year before he could legally but the practice in Ireland at the time was not to register kids until they were of working age, then lie about the birth date so they could work to support the family as early as possible. Only when his own mother was dying did he learn that he was a year younger than he thought, and had a different birthday. “Just like the Queen” he used to joke. When I was in my teens he supported my choice to go to college when relatives and friends were telling him to get me out to work ASAP.

Having met my Mum when she was visiting both their family’s Irish home town, he moved to Salford in his late twenties and started a lifetime of  backbreaking – almost literally after an industrial accident – work on what was then The Port of Manchester and the Ship Canal (now home to Media City)  as a fitter on big transAtlantic container boats. It was hard work, long hours to bring home the overtime, scrabbling around hot oily stinking ships’ engine rooms. He hardly ever complained. There was Friday night watching his beloved Salford Reds play rugby at the ground opposite our house to look forward to, and a beer with his mates.

He was a heavy smoker, liked a drink and a party and an Irish sing song. He could play almost any instrument by ear and gave me my first guitar. As kids, and encouraged by my vehemently anti-smoking Mum, we would buy him pipes for his birthday to try and get him to cut down. They would mysteriously “break” in his overalls pocket.


When he retired he gave up the cigs, spent time with his grandchildren, helped nurse my mum to recovery from cancer, learned to cook, watched the Reds, walked his dog. A legacy of his working conditions, he developed asbestosis on his lungs, which in time developed into an inoperable lung cancer. It killed him before he could see half his 18 grandchildren even be born.

This Father’s Day I will be donating in his memory to The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation (  and be tweeting a selfie with one of my favourite photographs of him using the #FathersDayHeroes hashtag. I know many people, including celebrities and top-followed Tweeters, will have similarly lost hero dads to this disease. And many others will just want to celebrate having their dad still with them or having survived cancer. I hope they will join me in doing the same selfie, with pic or, if lucky, with their large-as-life “hero” dad, and in making a donation to the Foundation and encouraging others to do the same. To help even more, and give the campaign greater impact and reach, I hope they will join me in signing up to support a Thunderclap (it takes literally two minutes) so we can share a collective message of support for the Foundation via Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr on the eve of Father’s Day in the name of #FathersDayHeroes. For this to happen, we need to recruit 100 supporters on Thunderclap to back this important charity and its dedicated fight against lung cancer in men and woman or all ages.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men after prostate cancer, with around 23,800 new cases diagnosed in the UK in 2011. There are around 43,000 cases (men and women) diagnosed every year and it remains the UK’s biggest cancer killer.

Early diagnosis is a really key message for the Foundation. Public Health England ran a Be Clear On Cancer campaign (2012 / 2013) urging people with a three-week-old cough to visit their GP. It led to around 700 extra patients (10% rise) being diagnosed with lung cancer – many at an early stage – and crucially resulted in around 300 more patients getting surgery, which gives them the best chance of prolonged survival.

So let’s celebrate our #FathersDayHeroes in a meaningful way, the ones we have or have lost, and help more to survive.


It has been a busy week on the social media front

Just finished three days in Sweden – one of Europe’s most digitally advanced and creative economies – with Weber Shandwick’s new friends and partners at Prime PR in Stockholm, the world’s most Cannes Lions winning creative digital PR hot shop. Reviewing the work and meeting the great and lovely people behind it was a joy, and the fulfilment of a personal ambition to work with creative wunderkind Tom Beckman and the team there. (Great case studies on

A few days earlier on Tuesday I was pleased to host and be on the panel for the Editorial Intelligence/London Press Club discussion on Twitter and all things future social media along with The Sunday Times’ India Knight, EI’s Julia Hobsbaum, Sky News executive editor John McAndrew and chair Charlie Beckett, director of the media and communications studies department at the LSE.

I love Twitter. As said so succinctly, it is the pulse of the world. I get breaking news, opinion, gossip, recommendations. I share everything from thoughts on PR and music, art, food, politics, fashion to pics of my chickens.

It is a wonderful platform for sharing other social media platforms – blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube etc. Unlike the rush we all went through to acquire as many Facebook friends as possible, and years later don’t know who half of them are or care very much, I tailor my Twitter feed to the content I want, the people who interest me, the news and views sources I trust or arouse my curiosity. (Note – my 80 year old mum recently friended me on Facebook.)

In eight years Twitter has helped fuel the Arab Spring, exposed the nonsense of the UK’s libel laws, bring us news live and bite-sized without having to keep an eye on the telly captions in the corner of the office, and I haven’t seen a picture of a cute kitten falling off a bookshelf yet.

One senior newspaper type opined that Twitter had peaked and would be dead in two years. I bet some said that of newspapers when TV arrived sixty years ago. I think Twitter will thrive and evolve. Facebook is for old pals and family, Twitter is for the curious, the news hungry and the opinionated. Those traits and values never age. Others pointed to the slow down in adoption – up fifty per cent in the UK last year! – and the size of total user numbers to Facebook’s 1.3 billion.  That’s like saying the FT is a failure because it has a much smaller readership than The Sun. Apples and pears.

In my humble opinion, Twitter excels at gathering us around trends and delivering us bite-sized, real time communications. It is designed for modern life, be it media brands, journalists, politicians – Cameron would not make that “twits and twat” crack these days – celebrities, influencers, and the visually inclined, informed and opinionated citizen.

Twitter is the social media equivalent of coffee and adrenalin.

Twitter is also increasingly a platform for what my digital guys politely call “social customer service” – not just engaging with brands but yelling at them in public and inciting other to do the same when they piss us off.

(As for trolls, expose them, shame them, mass unfollow them and if necessary throw the deranged, racist, sexist, homophobic bastards in jail.)

So Twitter is most definitely a key part of the future of social media. What else?

I talked to several of our digital gunslingers at Weber Shandwick London to get their take.

  • emergent technologies around augmented reality and instant video
  • curation, aggregation, mass-sharing a la Buzzfeed will be increasingly important in shaping WHAT people want to share as well as how
  • immersion, the development of filters to help us deal with content overload so only highly relevant content – to us – reaches us
  • a continued move away from one-to-many back to one-to-one and small group platforms. Whatsapp, Snapchat and more to come
  • in marketing, big data analytics will drive a more science-based approach to targeting key audiences and groups (data will increase by 600% by 2020 – that’s every bit of data we have today, times six, in just six years!)

So, lots of exciting stuff. I’ll follow it all on Twitter.

Why don’t you come over?

Twenty years ago I had lunch with an acquaintance who was then one of the most senior ad land figures in the UK. I had been in PR for about ten years and had enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside ad creatives, film makers and planners. My first love had been film, loved visual art, design and photography. I asked his advice on switching from PR to advertising. He told me to stay put – “In ten years ad guys will be wanting to switch to PR” he said.

I recalled that conversation as I sat waiting to present the Golds and Grand Prix at Eurobest in Lisbon on Friday night. Having chaired the jury, I knew that PR agency entries had been relatively few, and only one (Swedish)  had made it Gold award status. Despite our disappointment at that fact, my team of fellow PR agency heads and creative leads enjoyed our two days of studying the work and debating the relative merits. The Grand Prix winner was a great PR campaign, even if a PR agency had been nowhere near it.

I think it is less that the ad guys are switching to PR – though some are, including on my team -  more that they are evolving to add it to their already formidable arsenal of disciplines. Another platform for their creative ideas. And in some cases, because we vacate the space – creatively, not bothering to enter or turn up at Eurobest for example – they are colonising PR.

Here are a few reflections.

1. The ad guys look like they love what they do

When ad folk, particularly the creatives, take the stage to collect an award, its like The Rolling Stones at the end of a gig. They bounce. They dance. They hug. They punch the air. There is joy! Celebration! They love what they do. They create beautiful pictures, film, stories, art. You have to admire that.

Are we as passionate about our creative work?  We need to be.

2. Our ” art” isn’t the same

Though if we are serious about content creation and engaging storytelling  it needs to start being.

We are more about ideas that others bring to life, or from an ad industry perspective (see my Dumb Ways To Die story in previous posts) we are the people who implement ad agency creative ideas. And they are starting to think, given the power of some of those ideas to burst and pop across multiple channels, that they can do that themselves. If that is what our clients chose, it  is our fault.

Digital and social media has to a certain extent levelled the playing field for us and advertising. Particularly goven our heritage of dialogue. But where are the creative technologists, the creative film making talent, the pictorial poets in our industry to help bring our ideas to life. They are elsewhere. We can and must bring in more true creatives, creatives who push the boundaries and challenge the – our – status quo, push our clients into more creative bravery as the ad agencies are already doing. But they need people with the skills to bring their creative ideas to life.

And don’t assume that ad folk are not learning the dialogue game. In some cases they are overtaking us.

3. There has never been a better time to be in PR/There has never been a more challenging time to be in PR (delete as appropriate).

When the press and broadcast media dominated our lives (only really in politics does it still,  and with demographic change and declining  trust in newspapers as well as politicians, even that is changing) we had the public relations world pretty much to ourselves. We were the publicists, the spin doctors, the reputation managers. We were powerful.

But media consumption patterns have changed dramatically in just a decade, and will accelerate as Gen Z comes of age. In the Engagement Era, the engagers will thrive.

Newspaper sales are shrinking. The number of journalists working in news media is shrinking. On the other hand the number of channels to reach and engage with influencers, consumers and citizens is exploding. The key now is engagement, not broadcasting, so it requires a different approach, and different skills and recruitment protocols, but not a crisis of self confidence in our industry.

4. You have to be in it to win it.

I have been passionate about Cannes since my first experience as a juror and Cannes Lions winner. But it goes way beyond the awards. Cannes, and Eurobest, are unique opportunities to bring together creatives from across the marcomms mix, to see brilliant work, to listen to and exchange ideas and experiences. To be inspired and challenged.

We have some great PR industry thought leadership events, in the UK and other local markets, and internationally via Paul Holmes and now a refreshed ICCO. But PR does not exist in a vacuum. Increasingly we are part of an integrated broader industry and ideas maelstrom.

We need more PR firms and PR ideas people to be at Cannes and Eurobest, as well as taking part in the awards.

5. Our future is where Art meets Science

I have said it many times and saw the same chart I present in talks and lectures in an ad agency presentation. For us the science is Big Data and Creative Technology. Collectively as an industry we lack the firepower of the ad agencies. We are trailing in this particular Space Race. We need to prove to CMOs that we are about more than “free media” and “raising awareness”. They want more science, more insights, more evidence in return for their marketing money.

Eurobest day 1 part 2

Got to the end of 117 videos and now awaiting the shortlist which will be published later. Will be rightly shot if I speak out of turn about any individual entries but here are some broad themes emerging in the PR awards category:

  • Scandinavia, and particularly Sweden, continue to dominate entries, and not just in their traditional creative social media sweet spot
  • big PR markets like the UK, Spain, France continue to be under represented in terms of entries
  • continued lack of brave thinking from PR agencies vs ad agencies, particularly in integrated
  • the “stunt” is back with a vengeance, and that vengeance is called shareable content.

Off for fresh air and coffee.

Eurobest, Lisbon, Tuesday

So the judging phase kicked off in fine style last night here at The European Festival of Creativity, with dinner in the elegant and impressive Lisbon City Hall. This is the third year I think that the festival has been held in the city, one of the warmest in Europe for this time of year ( and I am told one of three European cities built on seven hills, along with Rome and, er, Sheffield), though next year, to the sadness of our very nice hosts, it will be moving on.

Nine juries – and delighted one of my fellow jury presidents is the brilliant Matias Palm-Jensen, European Chief Innovation Officer for our sister ad agency McCann – around 120 jurors who will assemble this morning, and some 1,500 festival participants expected later in the week.

Talk at dinner centred on a couple of things (though I was sat next to the fascinating advertising creative wunderkind PJ Pereira from San Fran, who would start lovely little stories off with “I was recently shooting in the desert with Harvey Keitel ….” ) – creative places to live and work,  was PR the emergent discipline that glued all the other aspects of creative communications together, and, in a digital world how will we continue to get paid adequately for what we do.

Today my jury – a kind of Eurovision Song Contest of PR creatives though sadly lacking an entry from Ireland, which I will have to represent in spirit; where are Jedward when you need the buggers – will sit in a small room and watch around 110 campaign videos back to back to get us into the spirit of the work.


Recognising creativity, but don’t forget great client partnership and service

I am fantastically looking forward to my week at Eurobest, where I am delighted to be chairing the PR jury and working with top creatives and PR practitioners from creative hotspots like Bucharest and Stockholm. Eurobest is another chance to celebrate the best European creative communications and engagement campaigns.

(Proud that Weber Shandwick was once again named most award winning agency in the UK, and “most creative” in the world last year by The Holmes Report.)

I love taking part in awards juries, getting to see inspiring and thought provoking work, emerging trends and at Cannes and Eurobest playing the “guess what sort of agency was behind it” game (judging is “blind” to the agency name or sector until the 11th hour).

Most awards are for campaigns, programmes fixed to a single goal or outcome, and a fixed time period, fuelled by a spurt of creative energy and a ripple or roar of Likes, eyeballs, coverage, shares etc.

But let’s not forget the often unsung heroes of our industry, the client leads and account teams who partner with clients year in, year out, often without the plaudits and greasepaint of glamorous awards events but providing partnership to their clients for the long haul. At Weber Shandwick we are as proud of our track record on enduring client relationships – 7 years on average, twice the industry average – as we are of our award winning profile.

So, let’s celebrate creative, effective, eye catching client campaigns. But let’s also celebrate great client service from our teams, and the step by step, month on month, year by year achievements we create together.

Listen to the storytellers

This week I took a small group  of my senior staff, all talented leaders in their own specialist fields who were either new to my firm, to the PR industry, or moving into new roles internally. Nothing unusual in that, we all do it all the time.

They were all successful in own right, and I and they want to be even more successful together in our business transformation goal.

We were guided  by a very talented and empathetic facilitator and coach, Caroline Montagu, who I have worked with for many years. (She is outstanding, gets marketing, gets people. I cannot recommend her enough.)

Some of the team I had worked with or known for years, others for a few short months. I thought I knew some of them well, as colleagues and friends.

Caroline got us to tell our life stories, with all the ups and downs.

It was electrifying.

Suddenly people who I thought I knew, I realised I only knew in one or two dimensions. Suddenly, they went 3D or even 4D. All through the telling of and listening to engaging, often moving, stories.

Whoever said “the personal has no place at work” was indeed a fuck wit.

We talk a lot about storytelling in our various comms businesses. But how often do we take the time to listen?

PR people especially pride themselves on dialogue, but as one PR training consultant said to me recently – we train our people to talk, but not to listen.

Taking the time to listen, really listen, transforms our view of people, ideas, new thinking. Transforms our understanding of what shapes the people we think we know, their hopes, dreams, fears and desires.

So if you are planning a team building session (and not one of those grim build-a-raft or paint balling days), please please please build in time for people to tell their story, and for people to listen to those stories. Scales will fall from eyes, enlightenment will descend, hearts will move and all your aha! moments will arrive at once like so many London buses.

My mother frets about the speed I live at, the pressures and responsibilities I juggle. Like me she loves the simple pleasure of seeing things grow in the garden. Her favourite phrase for such occasions is “stop and smell the roses”.

Let me paraphrase.

Stop and listen to the stories.