Monday, 1 June 2015

Making a statement; hitting back or hitting yourself?

Something has hit your organisation. It could be a critical press story. A barbed dig at you on the Today Programme. Perhaps it’s an unhelpful comment in Parliament by a senior MP or member of a key select committee. Maybe the government has not followed through on a promise it made to you or has done the opposite of something it said it would do. You’re possibly seeing the start of a social media storm with folk questioning your competence. Alarm bells go off. The CEO is not happy. The Chair is ranting. Board members are emailing asking what’s going on. In short, there is noise. And it’s annoying. Very annoying. It's a communication crisis.

The pressure to respond is often intense. Tempers are running high. Egos are bruised. Professional pride is damaged. Something must be done. We can’t stand for this. We must hit back.

I have lost count of the times when this happens that I’ve been called into the office of the CEO, Chair, etc and had to listen to them read out a statement they have prepared, often “on the train coming in to the office”. This instinct to punch back is a natural human one - you are under attack so you have three options - fight, flight or freeze. For comms people we need to ensure a fourth option is discussed - fink. Sorry - think. I couldn’t find something that fit to began with ‘f’!

The thinking needs to take two forms. Before you put pen to paper with a statement of response there are two questions; should we respond? If we respond, should we do it publicly or privately? Then, and only then, if you have decided to respond do you start writing down what you want to say. Like so much in communications, this all seems painfully straightforward and yet so often the CEO's “I’ve scribbled down a few thoughts” bandwagon is already hurtling down the road, cleaning out everything in its path and is past the point of being stopped by the time the thinking is done.

In these crisis moments, comms people earn their money. It is at these times where the comms folk need to be strong and challenging - whilst always - as I have written here before - be in the business of looking for solutions and answers and not just saying “I wouldn’t do that if I was you”.

When considering whether to respond the key is to think about what are you trying to achieve. Is it about correcting an inaccuracy or unfairness that others may repeat and so it needs niping in the bud? Is it an isolated criticism that will only gather pace and “get legs” if you respond? Will it prolong the story by responding? Will it open up more questions that are harder to respond to? Is it a good use of your time - not in writing the statement but in dealing with the follow up that may arise from issuing the statement?

In short, is this a storm in a teacup that will pass and you should let pass? Maybe it's time to take a few deep breaths and count to ten. Often the way that organisations get off message and off track from their key objectives is to by getting distracted by trivia - it is important in message terms to stay focused on your your story and your agenda - sometimes saying nothing is the best policy.

Each situation is different and will require a different response - or not - but it must be properly thought through and properly discussed.

BTW, this is very, very different to receiving a media question where you have been asked a direct question about your organisation or your view. I need some persuading that “no comment” is the right answer, ever. In my experience it very, very rarely is.

Having decided that you want to respond, the question then is whether it is a public or private response. This goes back to how strong your relationships are with the journalist or stakeholders, or more importantly those who may be influenced by the original criticism. It can often work much better if you can smooth things in private, rather than in public when everyone sees you taking the bait or be seen to be hitting back with criticism of your own. You can look petulant. Sometimes you do need to say something in public - sometimes it’s important to be seen to respond; by your staff, the Board, shareholders or others. The question of how public you are is again a question of what do you want to achieve and every situation is different. Sometimes a public display of frustration is necessary to show you will not be pushed around but at other times it may alienate key stakeholders you may need in the future.

In the cases where you have decided to issue a response the next decision is to agree what will you say; what is your response. There are pitfalls to avoid here which may organisations fall into.

How you speak in your statement or response should be how you speak. What? Well, I have often been passed a draft statement to review and found it written in a different tone of voice to the normal press, media or other communications lines. This is because people feel this new crisis needs a new tone. Something grave and serious. Something reflecting the dark times we are now in......“We are dismayed/bitterly disappointed/deeply saddened/ distressed etc. Wrong. It needs to sound like your organisation. It doesn’t need to sound like you are appearing in a Shakespearian tragedy.

It needs to be read out loud - several times - before it is sent to the CEO/Chair etc for sign off. Actually, this is a rule with all statements, press lines etc. It needs to be something that a human being, preferably the person whose name the statement is in, would say. It also needs to sound like the person themselves - using language they would use. I always ask my media team colleagues to imagine walking out of the front door of the building and reading this statement out loud to the waiting press. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right.

The overall concern with issuing statement in response to something - usually bad news - is to be clear what you want to achieve and how it will look the next day, the next week, the next year. Like the quickly written email rushed off when someone has annoyed you, the speedily-issued and later-regretted press statement is a communication sin. An overriding question worth asking is whether this is a battle worth fighting. As has been said many times, sometimes it's not what you say that matters, it's what you don't say.

The key thing - like all things in life - is to think (fink) before you act.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

What’s the point; are you meeting the challenge?

In a classic episode of ‘Yes Minister’ - is there another kind of episode (?) - Sir Humphrey is talking about the Minister and how he likes to panic; “Ministers need activity Bernard, it’s their substitute for achievement”.

This phenomena is not limited to Jim Hacker and Humphrey’s Whitehall. I have seen it so often in organisations in the public and private sectors. The need to be seen to do stuff - any stuff - as a mark of busyness or success.

It is often the lot of communications people to deal with such demands from their CEOs or Boards. How often I have heard people - often very senior and experienced people - say to their comms team 'I want us to host an event'. I want to send out a leaflet or flyer. I want us to be in the local paper every week. I want to send out a newsletter/eBulletin to our key contacts. The need is often expressed with such force, such certainty and urgency, that it starts to get immediately actioned. The seniority of these requestors - they are often instructing not requesting - helps get the ball moving quickly - with the comms team swinging into action.

The comms plan gets written, the draft materials start to get produced, designs are mocked-up, lists of attendees are put together, QA groups are established and other work is reprioritised to make room for this key new piece of work before anyone asks the question; what is the point?

What is the purpose? What are we hoping to achieve? Why are we doing this?

An old boss of mine used to often quote the mantra ‘form follows function, follows purpose'. In other words let’s be clear why we are doing something - what is its purpose/why does it exist- before we start designing and delivering. How often this simple rule of thumb is ignored, often with disastrous effects - loss of time, money, staff morale, the missing of other deadlines etc.

Where does this leave the comms team? Comms people walk a fine line between being seen as the nae-sayers who are barriers to change and progress and performing a vital challenge function in organisations to check that what is being done is linked to some overall business objective, the strategy of the organisation or the long term aspirations it has. But for it to succeed and be the best comms team it can be it must challenge.

This is not a pious post. I have not always done this or if I have I have accepted quickly that sometimes resistance is futile and delivered the said roadshow, letter, flyer etc but tried to do it with the minimum of impact on other stuff. I capture this discussion here to acknowledge one of the key roles that good comms people can play - it is never wrong to check that what is being done is necessary or whether there is a better way of doing it to achieve the stated purpose - assuming it has one.

The best leaders listen to the challenge and can have their minds changed. An example. 'I want to hold an event or series of events to engage (insert the name of a group of key stakeholders)' - it could be clients of a professional services business. If the purpose is to improve relationships or perceptions of the organisation than perhaps an event(s) is not the best way of doing it. It could be by making better, more targeted use of social media, hosting virtual/online events such as Twitter chats to discuss key issues/share ideas or just having more focused discussions with these key audiences, that the goal is delivered.

It is the role of the comms team to help find the best way of achieving the organisation's goals; of bringing together message, audience and tactics without assuming that an event (in this case) is the right answer. Challenging is a vital role to play but challenge with a focus on helping solve the problem not creating a new one. Constructive challenge with ideas and suggestions. Always rolling up the sleeves to get the job done.

I am yet to regret asking the question 'why are we doing this/what are we hoping to achieve?'. I always regret it when I don’t ask.

Monday, 11 May 2015

#GE2015 result; message, audience and tactics

It’s over. No more opinion polls. No more TV debates or non-debate TV debates. No more excruciating photo opportunities involving selfies, non-voting celebrities, baby-kissing or high-fiving small children. No more hi-viz jackets or stone masonry.

No more general election action for another five years - Fixed Term Parliament Act and events, events permitting. No more blog posts from me on this election - except for this one!

The press, TV and blogosphere are packed full of views on why the results happened and why the polls were so wrong. There are some common themes that run through the analysis about ’shy Tories’, the political earthquake in Scotland, the collapse of Lib Dem support and so on. It is hard to find something unique to say or an interesting way of saying it but I’ve had a go in sharing my thoughts.

I have looked at the outcome of the election (not every party's outcome before I get hate mail from UKIP or Green voters!) by looking at three key things that make up good communications - message, audience and tactics.

On message………..(what)
There are three aspects to message when it comes to politics- is it clear, do people respond to it, does it come together as a story; is there a narrative?

The two big winners of the election - the Tories and SNP - had a clear message - repeated over and over in words of one syllable. They were consistent. They were clear. They also had a message that the people they were targetting were open to hearing. Labour had some slogans and some repeatable rhetoric but overall it fell short of being a coherent narrative. Ed Miliband had started to talk about 'One Nation' and used that as an organising idea before the campaign but it was missing from the last few weeks and we were left with a series of individual policies and ideas - often expressed in the negative (i.e. we are getting rid of something or against something like non-doms or zero-hours contracts) but not an overall story as to what their vision was for the future. Labour also seemed to define themselves as being worth voting for because they were not the Tories - this only has limited appeal in England and as the result proved none in Scotland as hardly anyone thought about voting Tory there anyway!

The two biggest issues at the election - as at most elections - were economic competence and leadership. Labour allowed the Tories to make all the running on defining their economic record - ’the mess we inherited’ - and Ed Miliband as weak and easy to push around by the SNP. Whether either of these things is true or not they became the message, the story, that everyone heard without Labour having a strong enough and oft-enough repeated response.

The Tories message was all about their long term economic plan and finishing the job they had started. The SNP’s was about a strong voice for Scotland. Easy to remember and easy to hang all subsequent policies announcements and statements off. On the downside, there was some language used by the SNP - and others, including the Lib Dems that falls into the category of language only used by politicians or political commentators; ‘progressive’. This language switches people off. It is jargon. It alienates.

The Lib Dems had a message but the people did not want to hear it. No matter how clear or coherent it was, no-one was listening. It is the great irony of election campaigns - many people don’t make their final decision until very late - often just before polling day - but to have a convincing story to tell you need to have been telling it for some time - way before the election. The Lib Dems never recovered from their tutiton fees problem - although that was as much as failure of message as of policy for me - and that drowned out everything else they said during the campaign.

On audience………..(who)
The next key aspect is who are the parties trying to convince - who is their audience. This sounds a silly question - surely they want to try to get everyone’s vote but not so. Labour famously had a 35% core vote strategy and then built their messaging and campaign around delivering that - speaking about those at the top (millionaires, bankers, no-doms and those at the bottom of the income ladder (people using food banks, on zero hours contracts etc) but saying very little about those in the middle. They focused on getting Labour’s core support to the polls. It worked for the most part - except in Scotland. I would argue that like the Tories - as Michael Howard proved with a very similar strategy in 2005 - the core vote of both main parties is around 30% not 35% - the remaining 5-10% that vote for them come from floating voters, the centre ground or from parties where they had voted to express a protest.

Labour failed to reach out to the millions who voted in their huge numbers for Tony Blair’s New Labour. That sounds like they tried and failed but I’m not sure they did - they just didn’t bother. They thought that given the electorate maths and their assumption - a very, very bad one which unravelled in the last year - that they would keep most/enough of their Scottish seats - this would be enough to deliver them enough seats to form a coalition with others to keep the Tories out.

It’s not hard to see who the SNP targeted. It was pretty easy for them to follow a map but they did also try - and not really succeed in reassuring English voters that they were no threat to England - a fear that the Tories used to their advantage. The Lib Dems focused their efforts on a small number of target seats - seats they held - a defensive approach designed to help them limit the damage of the expected loss of support following the unpopularity of their decision to join the coalition and then be held responsible for all its worse policies. Their problem was not the audience strategy but again that the audience wasn’t listening.

The Tories for their part had their own 35% strategy, trying to convince some of their former voters who had gone to UKIP to come back with the promise of a referendum on Europe and focused on core Tory ground of lower taxes, squeezing welfare and supporting pensioners. But the key difference to Labour was that they also had a further 10% strategy - targeting - pretty ruthlessly - their coalition partners' seats - not just during the campaign but way before by busing activities to Twickenham, Yeovil and the like. It paid off. As did their relentless targeting of English voters who had concerns about the power the SNP could yield over a dependent Labour minority government. It wasn’t always pretty but it was hugely effective. In audience terms, the Tories fought on a number of fronts and as result they spread their risk and their reward.

On tactics…………(how)
Having a message and being clear who your targetting those messages at is one thing but you then need to execute - you need to do stuff.

As we are so tired of hearing, elections in the UK are now very presidential and follow the American model. That means the party leaders play a hugely important role as the person most likely to be doing stuff - the stuff we see on our nightly news - meeting people, speaking at events, being interviewed by key journalists etc. In this election we saw very little of anyone from the major parties outside of the leaders - except the Chancellor, who wasn’t hard to spot in his hi-viz jacket! That meant their personal appeal, their individual credibility and their ability to look Prime Ministerial (in the case of Messrs Miliband and Cameron) really mattered. This is one question were the polls were spot on - with the Tory leader being streets ahead of Labour’s top dog consistently and comfortably throughout the campaign.

There is no doubt that Ed Miliband was a weakness for Labour and therefore their many tactics failed as he often fronted them, including the excruciating carving of pledges in stone. By the way, Labour were destined to lose (i.e. not win a majority) the day they picked him as their leader. David Cameron was once the best thing going for the Tory party but that changed in recent years with some of the gloss coming off him. He was having a very average campaign until the fire was lit in his belly and he become 'pumped up' PM. This was a turning point in the campaign and came at the time when most normal people (i.e. not like me glued to politics 24/7/265) started to pay attention to the campaign.

The rest of the tactics were the usual stuff - very little difference between the parties - all doing the same old, same old. Walk about in town centres, events with supporters waving flags or placards disguised as real people, factories and large machinery as backdrops to make them seem connected with 'hard working people' etc etc. All very tedious and all very predictable. But as the were all doing it no-one lost out and no-one took advantage in their use of innovation here, except perhaps the Tories who made more consistent and I think better use of social media marketing.

In conclusion………..
As professional golfers say, ‘you can’t win the tournament on Thursday but you can lose it”. The same is true of elections. They are not won before the campaign is officially launched and the ballot papers sent out but you can lose it there. In the four or five years before the election the parties and leaders need to start to build their narrative, start to change perceptions of them (as needed) and start to answer the questions they will face in the heat of the campaign. When historians look back at the key moments which led to this result they will highlight the SNP’s 2011 majority win in Holyrood in a system designed to avoid majorities; Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader and then his increasingly old school left-wing, anti-business, anti-wealth creation, class war approach and rhetoric - coupled with some clangers like his conference speech were he didn’t mention the deficit - the Lib Dems politically damaging (although national interest-enhancing) decision to enter coalition; with the signs that the economy was improving to seem to vindicate the Tories pitch to the electorate - this laid the foundations for the campaign to build.

The campaign itself was seen as lacklustre and at time very boring and safe. That changed at 10pm on Thursday when the exit poll was unveiled. Underlining it was a sense that the winners have delivered the right messages to the right people in the right way. Elections are won by giving voters something to support, something to believe it, something the electorate can aspire to. A lesson the Tories surely learnt from their shocking 2001 and 2005 campaigns and that now needs learning fast by others unless they wish to spend the next 10 years in the political wilderness.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My general election predictions.........#natesilverneednotworry

In the spirit of openness and at the risk of looking very silly by Friday lunchtime, I have included below my predictions for the general election. I have also included the odds with PaddyPower.

Those predictions of a more speculative nature have been marked *.

Enjoy and don't laugh too hard if I end up looking like the 1992 BBC Exit Poll!

Turnout to be over 67.5% - 5/6
Tories to win the most seats - 1/5
Tories to win the most votes - 1/5
Tories to win over 286.5 seats - 5/6
*Tories to win a majority - 6/1
Lib Dems to win over 25.5. seats - 5/6
UKIP to win less than 2 seats - 8/15
NI - East Belfast - DUP to win from Alliance - 1/6
Fermanagh and South Tyrone - Sinn Fein to hold - 4/11
*Upper Bann - UUP to win from DUP - 13/8
*Foyle - Sinn Fein to take from SDLP - 4/1
Belfast South - DUP to take from SDLP - 5/2
South Thanet - Tory to win (i.e. Nigel Farage not to win) - 11/8
Sheffield Halam - Lib Dems/Nick Clegg to hold the seat - 1/4
*Weaver Vale - Tories to hold the seat - 9/4
Scotland - SNP to win 48 seats - 10/1
Scotland - SNP to win 49 seats - 9/1
Scotland - SNP to win 50 seats - 9/1
SNP to win seats under 51.5 seats - 10/11
PM after election - Cameron - evens
Clegg to be Lib Dem leader at year end - 2/1

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A very different general election experience

My wife and I have just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. A cause of celebration and perhaps not an inevitable milestone for us to reach after our first meeting. We worked at the same organisation - the GMC - and were introduced in a professional capacity by a colleague. She - thinking I assume that it may impress the future Mrs J who has a PhD in Public Policy and worked for several years in Parliament - mentioned that I was a parliamentary candidate and wanted to be an MP. “You know what they say; politics is showbusiness for ugly people” came the reply.

I reflect on this at a time of other anniversaries. I was 37 yesterday (more birthday than anniversary I guess!) and typing this nearly five years to the day since my name appeared on a ballot paper in a general election.

I was the Tory candidate in the Labour stronghold of Halton - combining parts of Widnes and Runcorn in the north west of England. I spent 18 months as the candidate and consider that time to have been a real privilege. I was given the opportunity to meet many fantastic people, doing superb things for their local communities and caring passionately about the future of their families, their towns and their country. It was an amazing experience and one I will treasure forever- but there is a but.

When you are a candidate you are in a local bubble. You spend your time knocking on doors, posting leaflets through letterboxes, giving out leaflets at railways stations, putting leaflets on car windscreens, dreaming about leaflets and generally being obsessed with leaflets. You take part in some hustings where you debate in front of an audience with your fellow candidates and discuss some of the big issues of the day but outside of that you spend the campaign in your world- in your constituency and neighbouring marginal seats. You think about - no, worry about - the national picture and its impact on your result and the country but you can do very little to influence it - unless you do something very stupid!

In truth, the overall campaign happens to you. It happens around you. Although you are in the middle of your small piece of it, you feel like you are on its periphery of the main event. And you are.

This election - in 2015 - is the first since I joined the Conservative Party in 1992 that I have not been actively involved as a candidate, party officer or hands on campaigner. My involvement has been as an observer - a passionate, interested and committed one, but an observer none the less. It is a strange and enjoyable vista. It has allowed me time to really follow the campaign - the Daily Politics and BBC radio have been my essential companion - and reasonably objectively assess the campaigns of the parties, including my own. It also has allowed me time to see the whole picture and what has happened. It has allowed me the opportunity to feel in the middle of it. What have I observed this time?

* The Tory campaign has done what it always seems to do at every national election - start slowly and pick up speed and build momentum (I am ignoring 1997 or 2001!). There have been famous wobbles in past campaigns and then a seemingly change of emphasis, drive and effort. This time is no different.
* David Cameron looked far too relaxed and too cool for many’s tastes in the first few weeks and so now is ‘banging the drum’ and generally looking very excited and passionate - in shirt sleeves and no tie. I think he was playing it safe (hoping, perhaps expecting Ed Miliband to implode) and being very British about it in those early days and it came across as being ambivalent, aloof. He has put that right now. He has said he is “pumped” and he looks it. Anyone tuning in to the campaign late having missed the early skirmishes will see him as the leader with the bit between his teeth and the man with fire in his belly- has he left it too late?
* Ed Miliband has done much better than many thought he would - me included. He started from a low expectations base but has exceeded those and then some. He was doing very well until his stumble - no not off the stage but with his response on borrowing and spending under the last Labour government. He lost momentum then and the ‘can Labour be trusted with the economy?’ narrative has been reinvigorated.
* Nick Clegg continues to be the outstanding communicator in British politics and has performed consistently better than his opponents in all parts of this campaign and yet the electorate appear to have already decided about him. He is damaged goods. That is a real shame. His ‘betrayal’ on tuition fees reflects two things; some naivety on his part when the promise was made and how its subsequent breaking was communicated but more importantly, how immature coalition politics still is in Britain. Hung parliaments and coalitions mean more of this not less. More compromise. Less dogma. More ambiguity. And perhaps better government.
* A main theme of the election has been trust. Who do you trust? Do you trust any of them. The parties - all parties - have struggled to respond to the concern of the public who say can we believe your promises. Pledges carved in stone or promising to change the law to prevent you breaking your promises strike me as profoundly silly ways of building trust. We will see if they work on Thursday.
* The era of two or three party politics is over. This election more than any other has shown that as a country we are looking for different solutions, ideas and personalities than we have been used to receiving. As a long-standing supporter of electoral reform, I hope this campaign will help the drive for a fairer voting system in future, which reflects our country better than our current system.
* That said, I think the Greens and other smaller parties (not the SNP) have blown a big moment. They were given much greater profile this time through the debates and haven’t made that pay.
* Interestingly, people would like the coalition to be on the ballot - they would like a more sophisticated choice than we are offering them - back to electoral reform!
* The pollsters don’t know who is going to win or what the outcome will be. I think the result will look very different - certainly across different parts of the UK - than the polls suggest and that we will need a better model of polling next time.
* It feels a lot like 1992 to me. A very close election. I expect a big turnout - by recent standards. A government emerging from recession asking for more time to finish its work. An electorate not quite sure of the leadership qualities of the main opposition. A number of key marginals deciding the election. I think we could be surprised by the final results when they come in - it may be more decisive - at least for the biggest party than the polls are suggesting.
* We are just around 36 hours from the polls opening and it is still up for grabs. As someone once said, ‘we all start from zero when the polls open”. It is in the people’s hands and I expect some late movement to be decisive as those who have remained unsure have to make a decision as they pick up that pencil on Thursday.

Even though the consensus view is that this election has been dull - perhaps the least eventful in recent campaigns, I have enjoyed it immensely. I will enjoy it even more if - bleary-eyed and tired on Friday morning the country has delivered the verdict I hope desperately for.

On Thursday millions of us will make the short trip to our local poling station - commandeered for the day from local schools, churches and community groups- and place a cross on a piece of paper with a stubby Ikea-like pencil. By doing that we will help pick the government of our country. We - not the media, not the pollsters, not politicians- we get to choose who governs our magnificent country. What a wonderful feeling it is to live in a democracy. What a wonderful feeling it is to have that freedom. Five years ago, 8339 people used that freedom and trusted me with their vote in Halton. Showbusiness it wasn’t but it was a wonderful, humbling feeling all the same.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Stakeholder management; serious relationships or a one night stand?

At election time you often hear the same complaint; “we only hear from politicians once every five years when they want something!”

Those MPs or Councillors who have been visible throughout their terms in office - turning up on wet Wednesdays for coffee morning with local community groups, attending long and dull school governor or local Council meetings, relentlessly appearing in the local newspaper to join the latest campaign for a new zebra crossing or against a proposed Tesco (it’s always Tesco or Starbucks!) - they get credit and votes when the ballot boxes are opened.

Those who appear every half decade once the election starting gun is fired, clad in rosette, cheesy grin from ear to ear, kissing as many babies as they can find before disappearing quickly again often get fired. And they deserve it.

What is the lesson here for communication professionals who help their organisations and clients with their stakeholder management? Having great relationships with your key stakeholders is a long term effort. It requires hard work, stamina and patience.

In my experience, organisations often make the same mistake as those pesky politicians- the only get in touch when they want something; help with a consultation, a supportive quote for a press release, someone to sit on a panel at an event or on an advisory board, the use of a logo or support for the latest CEO or Board pet initiative.

It can be even more brazen when dealing with politicians themselves - seeking their support to change the law or lobby government on their behalf or to give them a sympathetic hearing at a Select Committee. These leaders do not invest the time to build a relationship with the key individuals and organisations they may need and want to work with or do anything to help them with their agendas. As a result when they go asking for help they often find help cometh not. As Publullius Syrus said (over 2000 years ago); “The person who receives the most favours is the one who knows how to return them."

If you want to have strong stakeholder relationships you need to do some simple things. You need to keep in touch and keep them updated on things they care about. Meet up, have a coffee, say hello by email, even when you have nothing you want or huge amounts to say. Send them a note about something you know they will be interested in but that might not directly help you. Retweet something they've said or like an update their shared on LinkedIn that they clearly feel strongly about and you liked when you saw it. It’s about give and take. Not just the latter.

You need to understand your stakeholder’s agendas and the challenges they face - which mean they sometimes take views and positions that are unhelpful to you. They may be in a tricky position - caught between competing agendas or loyalties. Good communications are two-way. They are based on understanding your audiences and crafting messages and approaches that fit best with them. The best way to do this is not to sit in a dark room and produce material alone but to talk with your key audiences (talking with means listening too!) and build your understanding of them.

You need to treat them properly - with respect and with courtesy. This sounds so obvious - almost patronising to mention it. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen CEOs, Chairs, Directors, NEDs or others talk to or about some of their key stakeholders as if they were employees in a big house, below stairs, 100 years ago. Just as bad - they talk at their stakeholders - Gladstone to Queen Victoria - in meetings or just about their agenda. I would love a pound for every time I heard a senior person say “I’ve brought my list” when they start a meeting with a key stakeholder. It’s not just about you!

These thoughts about how to cultivate and manage important relationships at work are just as relevant in the rest of our lives. Like all communications, they are about people and how we build trust and mutual respect. I wonder how many people asking for our votes over the next nine days bemoan the lack of trust in politics and politicians but are not prepared to put the work in. I wonder how they will get on when those ballot boxes are opened in the small hours, a week on Friday.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

"They don’t understand us"

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard down the years from consultants or in house communications people is that their client or colleagues don’t understand comms. You hear it time and again.

They think comms is all about making PowerPoint slides, designing posters or screen savers, printing a colourful leaflet, arranging a meeting or acting as their PA when dealing with key stakeholders! I have lost count of the times I heard this in my project work or when working in house. The Chief Executive doesn’t understand how hard it is to deliver a comms campaign or secure good media coverage, he just wants to get on the telly. The Board don’t appreciate how much time it take to maintain our social media profiles. The Chairman thinks good comms is him writing a letter to The Times and getting it printed. And so the list goes on.

These complaints sometimes have truth within them but making them misses the point. I am reminded of this quotation - although I never thought I would positively quote Enoch Powell (!); “A politician that complains about the media is like a ship’s captain that complains about the sea”.

I take the view that when someone doesn’t understand what you do that is your responsibility. As a communications professional is it your job to demonstrate what you do (in simple terms), why it is important and how it adds value. If you cannot persuade and convince your colleagues or clients what chance do you have or persuading your key internal and external audiences.

Comms people - and I say this as a comms person - can be too precious about what they don’t do - I am not a PowerPoint monkey/glorified PA/it’s not my job to draft thank you letters to staff from the CEO etc etc - or try to make it seem like a complex science of stakeholder mapping, matrix drawing, plans and impact assessments - instead of being prepared to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done and use that as a platform for doing more and for extending their influence.

My experience tells me that you often get the chance to do the cool, fun stuff - the stuff you know can really help your organisation- and play to your strengths and make the most of your experience - only when you have put in some hard yards and made some stuff happen that people think is important. Starting by telling senior folk their ideas are wrong when you have not convinced them yours are right is the road to hell, a life of marginalisation in the office or a P45. Comms teams who spend their time complaining that the organisation is doing it wrong and doesn’t understand comms are themselves part of the problem.

The most successful communications teams I have worked with or seen in action do two things; they deliver and they shape. They deliver what is needed - even if that is an event the CEO really wants to do but they don’t think it will work; a roadshow with staff that has no purpose except to give senior people a stage to stand on; or a newsletter that no-one will read - and they shape the strategic thinking or the organisation and the direction it takes.

Alistair Campbell is one of the most successfully communication professionals in British public life. Why? He was able to deliver - his teams did the day to day stuff really, really well - they secured the media coverage or ran the events or produced the briefings or letters that folk wanted and needed - whilst also being in the room for the key discussions about policy, strategy and the way forward. They were in the room because they - he - proved that communications can add value to achievement of the big goals and aspirations or their bosses and their organisation.

They proved that communications input can help deliver the key relationships-building with people and organisations that can make or break their plans (MPs, regulators, the media, influential opinion formers such as think tanks and the like), proactively manage reputation by getting the organisation on the front foot and ahead of their rivals and competitors, manage risks that stuff will go wrong and help focus on the priorities that will have the maximum impact with key audiences (e.g. customers).

Great comms people bring more than a bag or toolkit of templates and creative ideas - they bring an understanding of the environment in which the organisation is operating in and some insights on why some messages, ideas or approaches will have more or less impact. They bring the outside world or internal views of staff to the boardroom and in a way that is constructive and focused on how to achieve the goal of the organisation. They are strategists as well as tacticians.

Adding value and showing that you can add value is the secret to being understood as a communication professional and the path to getting to do the work you really want to do. Rather than complaining about the weather, communications people should make it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of Hillsborough.

Like so many people I’ve thought about it every day since. I’ve written about it. I’ve talked about it. I've cried about it.

Each time I try to write something about Hillsborough I want to find something fitting to say. Something that captures the feelings of devastation. Something that adequately captures the respect and admiration I have for those incredible families. Something that would make them proud. But every time the pen approaches the paper I know I will never quite be able to do it.

This year there is so much I would like to write as the new inquests have developed and things have been said in the witness box - but that is not a good idea. It is right to wait until the legal process has concluded before commenting. That time will come.

So for the moment, I fall back on my memories. Memories of that sunny day 26 years ago. Memories of being a 10 year old boy, playing football in the back garden in my Liverpool kit with the radio for company, listening to the match. Memories of my Mum and Dad coming home early from their wedding anniversary weekend away - we gave our tickets away for the game (Upper Tier, Leppings Lane) - and seeing them cry, and cry and cry.

Watching the simple commemorations on TV last night at Anfield brought those memories flooding back. Hearing George’s voice before the minute’s silence was wonderfully warming but desperately sad. Tomorrow I will think about myself and my Dad and once again feel lucky that we were not there. But like every other day I will think mostly about our 96 brothers and sisters, their loved ones and their memories.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Election campaigns are about the people not the politicans

Hillary Clinton showed us how it’s done. The response from GOP heavyweights to her announcement; not so much. The UK election campaign so far; nowhere near.

Secretary Clinton started her 19 month job interview (with apologies to 'The Apprentice’) by placing the most important person at the heart of her campaign; the American people. Despite the horrid logo (looks like a cross between a re-run of Dad’s Army and something you’d buy at the chemist) and questionable music, her announcement video was perfect. It reminds us that elections and election campaigns are about the people, not the politicians. Or at least, they should be.

It’s as old as time. Elections are about two messages. Things are going really well, don’t let the other lot in to spoil it; or, it’s going really badly, it’s time for a change. The way these messages are delivered and packaged is what decides the outcome. It need to be something positive. That inspires and motivates not divides. That gets people to the polls on a day when there are always 10 more important or pressing things to do.

Yes, fear has played a role in elections down the years. But elections are very, very rarely won in fear. There are lots and lots of examples of were fear has failed. Tony Blair’s three elections were won by optimism and hope in the face of fear: ‘new Labour, new danger’; demon eyes; save the pound; are you thinking what I’m thinking, etc etc. Please don’t make me go on!

The electorate need to know what’s in it for them; why voting should matter to them and their family; why the vision they are presented with will improve their country, community and lives. They need to know that the person asking for their vote gets it. Gets them. Is in touch with them.

Governors Romney and Bush immediately sent their own message to the electorate yesterday. Their “stop Hillary” message missed the point - the electorate do not want to hear this (apart from a small group whose minds have already been made up and will never be changed). Of course, this is part of a fundraising effort to compete with the oft-quoted $2.5bn Clinton archest (that phrase will be used a lot over the coming months) and there is time for them (the GOP) to get positive and sell a vision for America. But what a depressing way to start a conversation with the electorate.

The current UK election campaign is faring no better. It has so far been a series of statistical exchanges on whose figures are more believable, more robust etc……ZZZZZZZZZ. Sooner or later - please, please - someone needs to offer a positive reason for voting for them. A vision. A message beyond don’t vote for them, they’re rubbish. We need to hear about how our country will be better for ourselves, our families and those who will follow us. There is still time for this but the danger is that by the time we get there (if we ever do) the electorate is so fed up of hearing about the politicians, they won’t listen when the story turns to them.

It is always a balance between leading and listening on the campaign trail and it’s a long, long game, especially in the US. But Secretary Clinton has made a great start. She has shown others the way. It’s is only the top of the first innings - but at least she has started on the right foot.