I must have attended around twenty Labour Party conferences over the years, first as an activist, then as a party staffer and spin doctor, and then as a lobbyist. Not an evolution that will play well with the average member clapping delightedly at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday and celebrating “getting our party back”.

(Back from who? The Blairite control freaks? The voters? Worth bearing in mind that Labour members may have elected Corbyn, but voters elected Labour MPs, most of whom regard Corbyn and their potential political oblivion with horror.)

While he was speaking back home in the UK, I was giving a speech on public relations, truth telling and reputation at the excellent IPRA Congress in Jo’burg. Big themes of the event and the many great presentations were the death of spin, and the need for authenticity, dialogue and real engagement by business and business leaders.

One senior in house Corporate Communications Officer I interviewed for my talk had commented on the irony of PR people being dubbed spin doctors by journalists when it was often us trying to seek out and tell the truth, a truth often then “spun” by reporters to reflect their or their proprietors world view. I am sure Corbyn’s team will be feeling the same way as they sift through today’s headlines.

A similar theme was playing out back home it seems. Commenting on Corbyn’s debut, The Guardian had this to say:

“With his overwhelming support from party members, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to do things differently and in his own way. Today he did both. His speech trashed almost the entire playbook of modern media-savvy political orthodoxy, with no conventional clap lines, few soundbites, and in all likelihood not a single focus-group-tested theme.”

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the party's annual conference in Brighton

Mea culpa. There is some truth to the assertion that Corbyn’s election by the majority of Labour members and three quid texters was a big “fuck you” to the years of careful message management, a formidable media machine and even “control freakery” that has its roots back in the 80′s when I went to work for Peter Mandelson on Labour’s press team, a time of horror at Labour’s near annihilation in 1983 and the start of the long road back to electability. Yes we did focus groups, yes we used modern marketing techniques, yes we put voter friendly faces on TV and kept vote frighteners on a leash. Guilty as changed. And yes, maybe it all went a bit too far.

So is there a similarity between the way Corbyn is trying to do things differently, be the antithesis of spin, and what we were talking about far away in sunny South Africa?

On the surface yes. People want authenticity, from brands and CEOs and politicians. They want to be talked by humans, not pre programmed marketing machines churning out key messages and soundbites. Human to human communications,

People are more savvy, sceptical. People are more connected and resistant to being talked at and down to, including by the media who they often distrust as much as they distrust business, governments and institutions.

So is Corbyn just trying to do what enlightened CEOs and brands are trying to do? Be authentic? Connect?

To a point Lord Copper.

The best CEOs engage internally and externally. (At Weber Shandwick we have researched these trends and our “CEO Reputation Premium” report is available on our various websites.) Corbyn is engaging internally with those who elected him. But the Labour conference, and God knows I have experienced my share of them, is just a physical incarnation of the Twittersphere echo chamber. It’s not the real world. That is outside the conference hall. Voters. The “customers” of politics.


Customers want authenticity and engagement, but they also want products and services that work and make their busy complex lives better. Time will tell if a Corbyn led Labour Party will deliver those as opposed to another new style of politics and making elements of the party feel good about themselves again for a while.


I have been having some interesting conversations with senior political journalists, new media leaders, digital & social media managers for press and broadcast organisations and social media political consultants in recent weeks. It’s part of a study I am doing, with The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, on how social media might be used to engage people more in political debate and the forthcoming general election.

I will be looking specifically at engagement, as opposed to the media using social as just another channel to broadcast their coverage.

A dominant theme is control. Or loss of control.

Pre social media powerful media brands told us which way to vote. Who The Sun would back was almost as important an event in politics as the outcome of the election.


Source: Wikimedia

I still expect press & broadcasting to be a major influencer of how we make up our minds, but given the woeful state of political disillusion at the moment, it would be nice to see the media engage and inform more – and social media is ideally suited for that. An early good example is Sky News’ #Stand Up Be Counted, where the main party leaders faced questions live both from a studio audience of young voters and via Twitter and Facebook, and was produced in collaboration with Facebook. There was huge buzz on social media, from reactions to Ed talking about his career to Dave’s bafflement on tampon taxes.


Source: Twitter.com/skySUBC

Back to control.

Parties – and I speak as a former political spinner – try to control the dialogue and stage manage everything in a campaign. The media try to disrupt that. The most obvious recent example of control are the negotiations over the party leader TV debates.

The media in turn have liked to drive their often partisan views through their coverage and comment.

Social media has disrupted everything. I hope for the better.

Established journalists are no longer the sole source of information and views on politics. There are other voices now, other sources of information.

A gaff or offhand comment can now fly round the web in seconds on Twitter before established media even get their stories out.

The wrestling between the party campaign machines and the media, aside from the wrangling between the parties, was something we were spectators to. Now we can be players.

Friends and family have always been major influencers of how we vote. Now Facebook amplifies our take on the candidates and issues to our virtual friends and family. Hence the Conservatives spending over a million a year on their Facebook profile.

So the parties are losing control. The orchestration and spin will continue, but it’s just not as effective any more.

The media are losing control. They don’t dictate our views any more, and there are so many voices and influencers out there on social media.

The question is will we use social media to get engaged in the debate and take more control on politics ourselves. 

Thoughts on communications in Europe

Yesterday I was in Brussels meeting staff, clients and helping celebrate our new merger with Swedish communications firm Prime on the ground in EU Public Affairs with a nice party.

As I walked around the city, now with the strange – for that sedate businesslike city – sight of heavily armed soldiers in full battle dress guarding EU institutions following a rumbled terror plot, I thought about lines for my speech on communications in an EU setting.


Here are some of them.



The Economist


Our world is restless.

Much of that restlessness, insecurity, fear, centres on Europe and EMEA.

From terror attacks to Ukraine, from the Ebola epidemic to continued financial insecurity, from a new generation of restless, digitally empowered but often unemployed youth to the potential fragmentation of the EU itself in the face of rising populist anti-EU parties on the right and left, fueled by frustration at years of austerity and Eurozone crisis.

Challenges to free speech, open borders and free markets. The decline of trust and confidence in governments, institutions (including the media) and business.

According to the OECD only 40% of citizens around the world trust their governments. Business fares slightly better but the lowest trust in business regionally is in Europe.


Belgian soldiers guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, near the Belgian Parliament

Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/

[As I type there are armed soldiers patrolling Calais station platform outside my stalled Eurostar train - "Je Suis Charlie" ]

Overlay this with the digital & social media revolution. The levelling of the communications playing field, the empowerment of citizens and consumers. A most dramatic shift of power. Whether it is the huge growth of mobile phones in Africa  where more people have one than have a toilet, to teenager vloggers like Zoella building a following over over 6m for her hair and make-up tips, to civil rights activists toppling governments – but also a scary new platform for hate merchants.

The overwhelming expectation in our digital, restless, sceptical and insecure Europe is that corporations and institutions will be transparent, held to account.

Reputation and trust have never been so highly prized, yet have never been so easily lost. Maybe in a tweet.

In this restless, noisy world, communications, dialogue, engagement, have never been more important. Public relations – human relations – has never been more important. Engaging, authentic storytelling that cuts through the hubbub and connects, one to one, person to person,  has never been more important.

So, in this restless world of changing and challenging power structures and power elites, with the remorseless rise of the Millennial workforce and voter, and the imminent arrival of Generation  Z as consumers, employees, voters and citizens – it all requires new communications thinking and innovation.

And communications, dialogue, listening, engagement, have never been more important than now.

[It was a speech at a party, so don't worry I told a few jokes as well and got to wear a glittery top hat.]


EU Public Affairs team, Brussels 2015.

PR isn’t dead, spin is dead, and the future of PR is female.

I have been doing a lot of university talks and panel discussions recently, broadly on the “Future of PR” theme. I have debated with my friend Robert Phillips, whose crowd-funded book “Trust me, PR is dead” is out soon and worth buying.

I have made some statements that have caused disagreement, concern, alarm and pained expressions, and been retweeted without the supporting evidence.

So for the record, let me elaborate.


PR isn’t dead

If anything, it is growing in numbers and influence and “beyond traditional PR” reach. It is evolving, not dying.  62,000 professional PRs in the UK alone and rising. Attracting talented young people who previously would have gone into law or finance or management consultancy.

With digital and social media changing everything, it is moving beyond the media relations silo that it has been in for most of our profession’s lifespan. We were not created as a profession of press release writers, but print and then broadcast media were the main channels. That is no longer the case.

There is a lot of debate about whether, in a post (traditional) media world, “Public Relations” is an adequate descriptor for what we do. I am less concerned about this navel gazing. When I fell sideways into PR, having failed to make a living as a budding music writer, my first boss gave me a sort of idiot’s guide to PR. The opening chapter led with a definition of our practice: “The dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Now we call them stakeholders. In a fast changing world where trust is challenged, dialogue and authenticity and transparency are demanded, it strikes me that dialogue and communications are more important than ever.

But to Robert’s point, the role of PR has to change. To summarise a point Paul Holmes made recently, PR has to move from trying to spin that a company hasn’t really polluted a river, to telling the CEO the firm has to stop polluting the bloody river.

colin and dude2.jpg

Colin Byrne and Robert Phillips

Interestingly this month PR Week in the UK published their PowerBook of the 500 most influential people in the industry. Leaving aside my own modest showing at, ahem, #9, the really interesting thing was their choice for #1. It was Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. The point is that whether it is the Dove campaigns, or Project Sunlight on sustainability and genuine brand purpose – witness the new corporate advertising campaign – that company and CEO are leading examples of authentic, engaging communications, business with purpose and what my pal Robert calls “public leadership”.

power dude

PR Week Power Book 2015 issue cover

Growing in influence

We do a lot of research at Weber Shandwick, so these are not just my opinions.

Our Rising CCO survey charts the growth in influence of chief communications officers. Circa 60% of CCOs at world leading firms now report to the CEO, Chair or the Board – interestingly the region with the lowest percentage of seniority is Europe.

We also monitor the growing trend for convergence of the in house marketing and communications function. – the rise of the Chief Communications & Marketing Officer or CCMO. More than a third of CCOs now also oversea merge ting, a 35% increase at world-class firms globally in the past 2 years.


Spin is dead

I confess, I am a reformed political spin doctor, a phrase imported from American politics by Michael White, The Guardian’s political editor, nearly 30 years ago after his spell in Washington.

Reputation is what you do and what others say about you. Spin is what you say about yourself, and sometimes to vainly attempt to divert gaze from the truth.

When I was in politics, spin was hand to hand combat with bastard political journalists who were in turn controlled by the political agendas of their proprietors. I also lied. But I wasn’t in PR really. I was in propaganda. Very different thing.

So when I say spin is dead, and others cry no it’s not, what I mean is it is no longer effective, not that it is no longer used. Research shows that only about 40% of global citizens trust their elected governments.

I shared a panel with a journalist recently who complained of corporate PRs aggressively selling her stories, and cited this as evidence that spin was alive and kicking, I am not sure that being aggressive in dealing with journalists is right – and anyway they are only one route to  communicating with our audience in this digital world, not the only one, something that many journalists find threatening – though as a political spin doctor I did spend a lot of time slamming the phone down on hacks, telling them to fuck off, threatening to go to their editors etcetera. But that is not spin. It is hand to hand combat, and not very enjoyable in hindsight.


Malcolm Tucker, BBC’s The Thick Of It

I get a bit pissed off with journalists who project themselves as the love children of Joan of Ark and Woodwood & Bernstein, because in truth there is good  journalism, and bad journalism that is slave to the political agenda of their proprietor or just downright lazy. PR does not need morality lectures from journalists. But we do need to scrutinise our own ethics and behaviours.


The future of PR is digital, visual and female.

This is the one that really divides my student audiences. The digital bit speaks for itself. The visual bit is based on a number of facts about communications and consumers, as well as my own love of visual arts and storytelling. (Frustrated film director.) People assimilate visuals 60,000 times faster than text and only remember 20% of what they read. Average attention spans have fallen from 12 seconds to just 8 seconds – 1 second less than a goldfish! – in just a decade. Half the photographs every taken in history have been taken in the last two years. The fastest growing and most influential aspect of communications is engaging video-based storytelling, from Like A Girl to Dove Sketches to the Epic Split.


Source: http://www.bethkanter.org/wp-content/uploads/what-is-an-infographic.jpg

The future is female gets a mixed reception. It shouldn’t. (And one of my top moments of 2014 was hosting Emma Watson and the HeForShe campaign at our London office. Her UN speech was one of the epic YouTube moments of the year.) Despite the male dominated PR power lists, women rightly drive evolution in our industry. And yesterday I was proud to name Rachel Friend as MD of our London operations. The three largest Weber Shandwick offices worldwide are now run by talented, inspirational women.

But my point was gender neutral and about behaviours. Men have traditionally dominated advertising because it is a broadcast industry. Big budgets, macho ideology, a “push” communications discipline. PR is about dialogue, A lot of PR people think their job is to talk. It is more about listening. To the client, to colleagues, to the beat of consumer insights, global trends and inspirational thinking. Listening, emotional intelligence, are female traits that we all need to adopt. The future of PR is about young talent, thinking like and supporting young female talent.

Have a great Christmas and here’s to a transformational year for PR with Purpose  and bigger ambition in 2015.

PR by numbers?

I was pleased last week to be a speaker and panelist at an excellent PR Moment session on big data. This post is based on my research, talk and interactions.

When I first heard the topic I was kinda surprised – prior to a PR agency I worked in politics where research and analytics were a core currency. Been there, done that. But the more I talk with clients and PR practitioners, the more I look at PR industry evolution and talk to the (often woefully underprepared) PR people of tomorrow, the more one grasps the scale of the data & information avalanche, the more I see this discussion is live and urgent. Hence, post Cannes, a timely issue for PR Moment to tackle.

So here goes….


Like many other phenomena from the digital revolution, the emergence of big data is often described in a plethora of big statistics and ‘blimey!’ gee-whiz facts that illustrate its incredible growth. For example, KPMG reckons the total volume of business data in the world increased by 30% between 2010 and 2011.

Eric Schmidt of Google claims that every two days we produce as much information as had been created since the dawn of time and 2003. We also heard scary stats like the fact that 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every second. Likewise 100,000 tweets generated. Etc etc.

The growth of mass information has been a catalyst for, if not the source of, a degree of introspection and self-doubt, if not occasional blind panic, within the PR industry. There are some legitimate fears. How we best incorporate data and data scientists into our industry, an industry not widely known in the recent past for a hunger for numbers?

How do we measure and sift this mass of data and where are the industry standards that measure this information? These are some of the big issues perplexing PR industry thinkers and leaders. Despite all this, a recent survey by Ragan showed that 54 percent of public relations professionals didn’t really know what big data is, let alone what to do with it.


If data is the ‘science’ and creativity the ‘art’, we have to get the right balance between the two – they are mutually supportive, not at odds. Using data to create efficiently targeted ads that inspire no one is not progress, and neither is a piece of zany creative designed just to win an award as opposed to truly engaging people. Our clients are not in the Gutter Bar – they want our help to look at the stars (sorry, been wanting to use that gag for ages).

Big data should be an opportunity for us to improve our offering, not a threat to our creative instincts. In the words of my chief creative officer Gabriela Lungu: “Creativity is not the fruit of lucky inspiration or a one-off stroke of creative genius, but rather the result of an entire operating system; this is how we make sure we deliver creative, innovative ideas, fuelled by deep insight and analysis, over and over again”.

It’s an attitude that my firm Weber Shandwick, which has always focused on engagement, has long fostered within the business.

This was part of the thinking behind the development of our Science of Engagement brand health tracker tool. Using sophisticated research gathered from experts in the field of psychology, neurology and anthropology, the Science of Engagement offering gives brands the opportunity to explore how effectively they are engaging with their customers and the wider world, through understanding behaviours and analysing the numbers.

In advertising, data and concrete evaluation methods – along with creativity – have always been at the heart of the business. The only real restriction on a firm operating in an environment with so much data is its capacity to collect and analyse that information effectively.

But it is not just a matter of asking more questions. It is about asking the right questions. As the economist Ronald Coase once said “torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”. An over-reliance on data, gathering the wrong data, or twisting it to suit your objectives can be disastrous for a brand, company or organisation.

As I stressed in a previous post clients look to us for creative bravery. You can do PR by the numbers but the results are likely to be thoroughly disinteresting. At the core of what we do are our “incites” – the original creative thought and call to action at the heart of a campaign, based on deep and thoughtful insights.

Science + Art.

Image: Jackmalcolm.com

Yes we Cannes (and do)

PR people often remind me of my kids. They moan how unfair things are but do nothing to help themselves make it better. Thus it has been – again – in Cannes this week as ad agencies continue to sweep the board in the PR awards.
I am unphased by this.
Firstly, although this is PR’s fourth year being represented at Cannes, it is still pretty much advertising’s party and we are the gatecrashers drinking their free booze, nicking the CDs and occasionally breaking the plumbing.
Secondly, as its new name spells out, Cannes is basically a festival of creativity. PR has to be about creativity – as my team know it is one of the four strategic pillars of our business at WS in Europe – but about creativity with consequence. For our clients that is about creating real engagement and dialogue with customers and stakeholders, engagement that entertains and informs and drives more than just brand awareness. Story listening not just story telling. Not just creativity that wins gongs.
I don’t entirely agree with my friend and sister-agency colleague Matt Neale at GolinHarris who talked with UK PRWeek of a groan when briefs come in stressing the importance of national print media. It still takes a good deal of creative thinking to get break through in an increasingly stunt and spin weary mainstream press, but I do agree with Matt that clients need to take a more holistic view of engagement in an INLINE world.
Thirdly, Cannes is a huge learning experience to be embraced. It is a unique melting pot of people and ideas and entrepreneurs and cultural influencers. For me it is an opportunity to cherry pick ideas and adapt them to my business, and learn about the roads we just don’t want to go down. One of the most professionally rewarding experiences I have had in recent years was as a judge in Cannes. Yes an ad agency won the top prize, and deservedly so (though WS London won a Lion that year also, which was a blast), but boy did I learn a lot.
Fourthly, as my chief digital creative James Warren put it to me over a bleary eyed expresso session in Nice airport yesterday, we do different things to ad agencies in PR. We don’t sell a one off idea, we sell services and insights to drive engagement around that idea, from traditional media to social media to experiential etc.
Fifthly, our industry is in the ascendancy. We should enjoy the ride, not moan that we have not got it all and got it now.
Earlier this week we had a really interesting round table of clients and agency creatives jointly with US PRWeek, which they will be reporting on on their website, where we picked over the key issues for PR raised by Cannes. For me one continues to be our recruitment strategies. I worked in house for years before moving into consultancy. I love talking with in house folk about how they see their role and the client-agency relationship. Truth is we as agencies have whole ranks who go straight from college into consultancy. They see public relations as activating a client initiative. In house people see the initiative itself as real public relations. I think all agency recruits should be made to spend time seconded in house to learn, not just see in house jobs as less risky and better rewarded jobs after they have put in their time agency side. Otherwise we will end up like UK politics, dominated by very clever people but who have never done anything but work in a bubble. Our people need to understand the clients’ businesses, not just their short term communications goals.
So, let’s not be downhearted by what’s happening in Cannes. Let’s look, learn, party, recruit more broadly, take the best ideas and strategies from disciplines like advertising but not beat ourselves up that we don’t beat ad agencies at their own game. For me Cannes really is about taking part and not just winning.


Two weeks ago I found myself heading back from Brussels to London and the Jubilee Weekend after the annual Sabre Awards and Holmes Report Think Tank.

Managed to stay sober enough the pick up the EMEA Consultancy of the Year Award from Paul at the end of a long but fun evening without falling off the stage.

A big theme at the conference, and most PR gatherings these days, was Storytelling. Now we are all storytellers – some of us in more ways than one – and really we always have been. But the presentation from my digital dynamic duo James Dot Warren and Mark Pinsent posed a twist. It is not about storytelling, because if you tell a story and no one is listening or likes it you are wasting your time. In the Engagement Era it is about “story listening.”

As Mark pointed out, in PR we traditionally told our story to a relatively small group of journalists and relied on them to retell it for us to our target audience.

This reminded me of my time working with Peter Mandelson on the overhaul of Labour’s communications in the run up to the launch of New Labour, one of Europe’s most successful and dynamic political brands post-war.

We had a problem. Much of the media was anti-Labour, following the wishes of Murdoch and other proprietors. We needed to tell our story directly, bypass the print media and take our story direct to the voters. Our digital channel then was television.

The other similarity between politics and modern brand engagement I picked up from the guys’ presentation was around the measurement of how stories are heard. They illustrated it with a quote from Obama, “I am a big believer in reason and facts and science and feedback.” Amen to that.

In politics, long before brands really got the hang of it, we were testing the soundbites and having folk dial up and dial down their responses to policies and the way politicians put them across, the language used etc. That’s why agencies like mine are hiring strategic planners and researchers, often from ad agencies. They always understood the measurement thing, but not always the listening thing.

I loved one of their phrases, “content with contact.” That’s what effective story telling – and listening – is about.