CONTROL

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.

sun

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.

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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. 

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”.

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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.

malcom

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.

what-is-an-infographic

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.