I had what I thought to be quite an odd Twitter conversation with some respected Communications practitioners yesterday on the subjects of to whom a practitioner has a debt of duty and the probity of PR, particularly with crisis communications.
I said something which seemed blindingly obvious to me, but seemed to upset them. As a practitioner in corporate communications and political campaigning for more than 40 years I have always only ever thought as my duty as being owed to whoever pays me. If I’ve ever thought of it at all.
I’ve worked for five multinational corporations, each at the time the global market leader in their business sector. I’ve also worked for a political party which throughout my employment was the party in government.
Most recently I’ve worked for a global PR agency. My client work there being to support leaders of global corporations and UHNWI to avoid issues unknown to their stakeholders, becoming known and turning into crises.
In each of my roles an employer or client paid me to represent their interests in the ‘court of public opinion,’ to advocate their cause. and to support them in achieving their purpose by avoiding or managing crises, communicating change internally and externally, and lobbying to change or retain legislation or regulation which maximised their ‘license to operate.’
In the case of my political roles, the purpose was more specifically to win election campaigns and raise the funds required to do so.
I have always considered my job to be what the founder of my agency Harold Burson calls “the business of persuasion.” This is in fact the title of his recently published book, but to me it has always captured the essence of my roles in corporate communications and political campaign management.
The job of a corporate communicator and political campaigner is to persuade people who matter to their employer or client to remain or become favourable to their cause. Mostly this involves identifying and neutralising barriers to them doing business (or winning elections). Ideally, but only when we are fortunate, it also involves building on that neutralisation of opposition by advocating the their cause to earn positive support, most often through relationships of trust.
Early in my corporate career I had the privilege to meet and get to know Al Golin, the inventor of “The Trust Bank” concept. Even before becoming familiar with Harold Burson’s approach to communications challenges, Al’s innovation shaped my understanding of how trusted relationships are the key to success for communications practitioners.
These two concepts informed my own development of “The Reality Gap” reputation methodology back in 1995 in response to particular challenges faced at the time in persuading coprporate leaders that their challenge was not to “fix” the perception through “PR”, but to address the reality gap between purpose and promise with performance and practice, that had caused the perceptions in question in the first place.
Much later, when I was a consultant working for a confidential client with a major geopolitical challenge to their reputation in 2013, I worked with colleagues to develop the L.E.A.D.S. analysis tool. This built on The Reality Gap methodology to devise a workshop format to ‘war game’ policy options against four filters ‘beyond Legal.’ These being Ethical, Acceptable, Defendable, and Sensible.
I have already posted blogs about these two methodologies, so I’ll try to avoid bring my reader further here with the detail, suffice to say that as with Harold’s “Business of Persuasion” and Al’s “The Trust Bank”, my paltry offerings, by comparison to these Greats, to the table of Communications practice followed the same line of thinking, addressing matters of perception and each of these cases the reality causing such perception.
In each of these guiding methodologies, and in all of my past practice in commercial and political worlds, my duty has been to serve the interests of my employer or client. It is their reputation, and consequently maybe the achievement of their purpose political or commercial, that was at stake.
The reason for each employer or client to pay me to help them to protect and promote this asset of reputation is for their benefit.
Each company, party, and client was engaged in a battle. Their foes in these battles being competitor businesses, or parties and their candidates. The barriers to be overcome being the prejudices of people who mattered to them internally and externally, and for the commercial world, legislators and regulators.
Identifying people who matter, is one of the first building blocks of communications work. It is a mistake made by many organisations to assume that everybody matters and to devote effort and resource to addressing the wrong people.
What is important is that we understand who matters.
I usually recall an example that not everybody matters equally to organisations with a story from political days.
When I was Margaret Thatcher’s agent (sometimes called a campaign manager these days) she asked me to contribute some drafting for a speech she was to make to the Annual Dinner of Conservative & Unionist Agents.
I told her that agents (jokingly) call their candidates “the legal necessity” because the laws requires us to have a candidate to fight an election but other than that agents tend to think candidates just get in the way.
I put this line into her speech and told her that if she described herself as merely a “legal necessity” in a self-deprecating way it would be sure to get a laugh.
On the night she said “My agent tells me that you call candidates the legal necessity.” It got an awkward laugh from the audience. She paused and then added “But I have to tell you, that some of us are a hell of a lot more necessary than others.” That got the laugh!
I’ve often used this to remind leaders that all stakeholders matter, but some matter more than others.
This was a lesson I learned in my first two commercial roles, the first in the oil industry and the second in the food industry. In both cases there was hardly any overlap between the concerns of people who were customers and those who were legislative and regulatory decision-makers, and their influencers in media and commentariat.
This was so to some extent even when a customer was also a decision-maker or influencer. Most people have a habit of separating how they view issues in the abstract with the issue as it relates top them personally.
Identifying those people who matter most, least, and not at all, is key to successful communications work. All buying and selling, investing and acquisition, employment and partnering, and voting decisions are formed through prejudice.
Understanding that prejudice is the second building block of communications. In my Reality Gap and Leads models, analysis of prejudice is an essential element of the insight required to neutralise or turn an opponent, or retain and bolster a friend.
It is with this background in mind, that I have worked for my employer or client as their adviser and if required as their advocate.
This brings me to the difference of opinion to which I first referred.
I have always considered it to be an essential part of my role to be what some people like to call a ‘trusted adviser.’ To be able to advise the great and the good and the not so great or good) it is first necessary to gain their trust.
When I was a political agent, I made this my first priority when working with each of the five MPs I served, not to mention the three MEPs and countless local government councillors and candidates. To serve their interests I had first to earn their trust, each in a different way depending on the character, temperament and background. In the case of my MPs I can from memory pinpoint the moment in each case when that trust was first formed.
The same is true for each of my commercial world bosses and consultancy clients. The relationship of trust is personal. It is a bond of trust earned from the person in question believing that I am on their side, to coin the much misquoted and abused words of my most famous boss Margaret Thatcher – to be “one of us.” Interestingly two of my commercial world bosses and one of my clients used these precise words when hiring and promoting me. Their test was – “is he one of us?”
Being “one of us” does not, or should not in my opinion, require or imply blind obedience, but rather the opposite. to be “one of us” means that I am trusted enough to say the un-sayable and ask the un-askable. (OK I know those aren’t real words.)
One of my commercial world CEOs wrote a note in my Christmas Card one year which I have always thought captures this spirit perfectly, and which I have always regarded as my best testimony. He wrote “Thank you for all of your advice through this difficult year. I value it more than I knew. You are of course a complete bastard. Merry Christmas!”
This came at the end of what was as he said a difficult year, to put it mildly. On numerous occasions in that year I had recommended courses of action with which he strongly disagreed. I had told him things which nobody else had dared.
One one occasion he told me that if I did “x” then I could consider myself fired. I did “x” and many people consider it to have saved the company. I had earned my place. He still thought I was a bastard, but as one of my political bosses said to me once “at least you are our bastard.”
As a consultant I have on the rare occasion chosen not to work for some clients and not to pitch for business with some potential clients, whose nature of business conflicts with my personal ethics.
One case involved an overseas political movement, another couple of cases concerned animal welfare issues in the pharmaceutical industries and one a rather notorious business whose own ethics I doubted. I am fortunate to be employed by an agency which allows and encourages all employees to raise such flags.
These are very personal, individual and entirely subjective judgements. In each of these cases I was in a club of one.
Also working as a consultant, I once declined a potentially rather lucrative new business opportunity by telling the potential client rather pompously, and to the amusement of my colleagues, that “we did not do that sort of thing” when asked to run a dirty tricks operation against a competitor.
That was from my memory the only time in my career I have mounted such a high horse of haughty disdain, much to the consternation of accountants and financial directors who watched dollars walking out of the door.
Although I suspect in that case the request would have run into the wall of the ethical code of the agency itself.
As an in-house communications and corporate affairs director I have frequently been in the position of challenging a proposed course of action which I believed would be viewed as inappropriate by those people who mattered to us.
However this has not included one of the areas of concern which sparked this conversation which was misinformation, or as those who like to differentiate white, black and grey communications practices often call propaganda.
I have always failed to comprehend the differences some other practitioners see between what they call public relations (or communications) and propaganda.
If propaganda – the propagation of an argument – were to involve lying, then I would agree with the distinction made. but what people like these days to call ‘a red line’ for me would be dishonesty. I would never, and have never lied on behalf of an employer or client.
However, I have definitely practiced propaganda, which I understand to mean to use bias and prejudice and to be misleading. I have frequently defined the role of the corporate communicator and political campaigner as to be accurate but misleading. The trick of successful persuasion is often in the interpretation, something in the eye of the beholder.
Although I had nothing to do with it, and it might be considered to be advertising more than public relations I suppose, I consider the infamous slogan on the official Leave campaign’s bus in the 20126 EU referendum in the UK to be a superb example of this art.
The use of the phrase “Let’s…” made the statement a suggestion not a promise or pledge which it would be impossible to have been as no one was standing for election and a referendum cannot bind parliament unless parliament wishes it to, but it was intended to be misinterpreted as such, I suspect.
The word “sent” communicated the idea of a bag of our money being transferred, whereas the reality is it is a figure on an electronic spreadsheet which was subject to further manipulation by accountants.
The amount quoted was the accurate gross payment, but of course the amount available to spend in a different way would only ever be the net amount.
And the idea that it could or should be spent on the NHS planted in many minds the thought that it would be. The meaning of the words used was very precise. The interpretation to which it was laid open was less so.
It reminded me of an occasion when at McDonald’s we had withdrawn British beef from sale during the BSE crisis and then returned to market with differently sourced product.
At the media launch one of my press managers who was a strict vegetarian asked me what she should say if asked the question – “Is it safe, would you eat it?” I suggested she said “I eat just as much beef as I always have.” She did. It was quoted. Afterwards I described this line as “entirely accurate but misleading.” A bit like the statement on the bus!
Now it may be that some people would think that both the statement on the bus and that old media ‘line-to-take’ are “lies.” I do not. In fact, I’d go further to say that both are good examples of the art of the communicator and the business of persuasion.
On the very odd occasion when I mentioned my work to my late parents, who never thought that any of my jobs were “proper jobs,” they invariably said something like “oh you just play with words” or “it’s not what you know in your game Michael, it’s just who you know.”
They meant these to be rather disparaging of worlds outside their experience. I always thought they captured my work rather well, and to my own satisfaction, if not theirs. Playing with words and knowing people, might be a good strapline for a communicator!
People who work outside my worlds rarely understood it in my experience, possibly because with ‘Cobbler’s Children Syndrome’ communicators are not always the best at communicating about communications.
In every single one of my in-house roles, even when a board member, my non-communications colleagues just thought I was there to “fix things” when other people lied about us. In political campaigning, the expectation was that I would “do whatever it takes” to win, and that fortunately for everyone else in Election Law it is only the candidate and agent who can be legally liable for misdeeds.
The views of others of my occupation usually fall into these camps. Most people outside the world of communications and campaigning just assume that we are there to lie for them. I suspect such beliefs have been encouraged by fictional portrayals of communications work in the likes of “Ab Fab”, “Absolute Power” and “The Thick of It.” But it is that red line that nobody in my trades should ever actually lie.
Once I was to be called a witness in a High Court trial, but our QC refused to call me because he said that as “the PR boy” (nice man!), I was “a paid liar.” At the time the only riposte that came to mind was that as a QC he was “an infinitely better paid liar.” But would I should have said was that as a PR person (hardly a boy even then) I would not lie.
Most of my work in the commercial world, both in-house and in consultancy, has been concerned with things that never happened. I seem to have specialised, by default not plan, in helping people to keep issues which are not known about, stay not known about.
From a finance directors point of view this kind of work makes more sense when I was i-house of course, because as a consultant this means that I have prevented something becoming a crisis which we would then have been in a position to submit fees to the order of a king’s ransom in order to save the client’s bacon.
Clients in a crisis are always nice clients to have. I know because I’ve been one on too many occasions to count. Back in that 1995-97 BSE crisis at McDonald’s I used numerous different PR and PA agencies to support my large in-house teams. Each submitted eye watering accounts at the end of the day, which to my mind were worth every penny.
I only queried one bill, submitted my great friend Peter Bingle for public affairs work. His bill was so astronomical, I called him to ask if the decimal point was in the right place. Sadly for me it was.
Clients whose crises are averted however tend to be less lucrative friends for agencies, but to my mind involving the most satisfying work. One of my well-worn mantras (apologies to anybody reading this who knows me and has heard it a million times) is that “if you know of my work, then something has gone wrong.”
As a consultant I’d go further and say if you know who my clients were/are then something has gone badly wrong. This kind of work is by nature highly sensitive and always conducted under strict confidentiality agreements.
It is also the nature of this kind of work that grasping the methodologies of models such as The Reality Gap and LEADS is essential and that the earlier mantra of being “accurate but misleading” is always in mind. In crisis avoidance, and for that matter crisis management work when it goes wrong, I’ve always found the most successful strategy to be distraction.
I’ve also written of Distraction Strategy elsewhere so I won’t go into detail with this either here, suffice to say that I have nearly always found that regulators, legislators, and for that matter media and other commentators just need a victim for their purpose.
The victim does not have to be my employer or client. If I can distract them with a better victim then they tend to lose interest in us.
This first came to mind when I was managing an extremely complex and expensive issue about to explode as a crisis with the European Commission as the enemy. If there’s one thing above all else that anybody involved with the EU cares about more than anything else it is money, and more precisely money for them.
In EC actions the bigger the victim, the more jobs it creates for regulators and the more money they make. I became most aware of this when a senior official involved with our issue of the moment told me over a bottle or two of extraordinarily expensive wine that he didn’t really care about us or our issue.
What concerned him was keeping a few hundred people employed attacking us. He would be just as happy if not more so if I found him someone else to attack. I did, He did, Crisis averted!
It is with such work that corporate communicators really prove their worth to employers. This is a balance sheet measurable achievement. But in manipulating the situation I was at times either generous or economical with the actuality as required.
What none of these employers or clients has ever done, is pay me to tell inconvenient truths about them. They employed me to help to prevent other people, people who mattered, not to find out.
I’m struggling to imagine exactly how that hiring interview would go. So, you want me to pay you to tell other people things that we need help for them not to know? Sure – you’re hired!
It seems odd to me at a time when some people who ply my trades are so obsessed with being considered to be professionals, that they should think it a good idea to act in such an unprofessional way.
Being professional means being paid to do something. If I’m paid to do something it is ungracious at nest and unprofessional at worst to bite the hand that feeds me.
If I have an ethical problem with doing or not doing anything for money, then as in the case of the opportunities I mentioned above, I should take “a pass.” I have an een bigger problem with people who take “the King’s Shilling” and then help the enemy of the King.
The only duty I owe is to whoever pays me. My duty is to give them the best advice and afford them the most effective advocacy to protect and promote their interests, nobody else’s interests, just those of the people who pay me.
My employer or client has many “publics”, and as I have written, some clearly matter more to them than others. As a corporate communicator or political campaign manager I have only one public, my paymaster. Why on earth would they pay me to act against their interests? How very odd.
And, when it comes to lying for a living, as of course I have not, I’m always reminded of the superlatively brilliant line of the immortal god of satire that was Peter Cook playing the Devil in the film “Bedazzled” – he tells poor Dudley – “Everything I have ever told you, including this, is a lie.”
I have only ever been a very minor princeling of darkness, so I bow to the words of the Master of the art of communication and the business of persuasion (er… only joking … you knew that, right?)