PR has come a long way over the last 40 years I’ve been messing around in it.
Not least in where it reports within an organisation, and perhaps even more importantly where people working in t think it should report.
When I say “PR” I tend to mean corporate communications or corporate affairs. Confusing isn’t it! PR is one of those catch-all titles which is used to cover a multitude of sins concerned with publics and relationships with them.
I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, so I’ll try not to repeat myself (again!) here.
In most organisations I’ve known corporate communications/affairs includes executive and leadership comms, internal comms and employee engagement, crisis and issues management, and proactive corporate reputation building with stakeholders including shareholders, investors, partners and potential partners, government and regulatory authorities, NGOs, and basically anybody else who might be considered to influence or determine a “license to operate.”
In some businesses Social Responsibility, Financial PR, Investor Relations, Analyst Relations, and Public Affairs (Government Relations) are included, in others these have been disciplines in their own right, often with different reporting lines.
In my very first job after leaving, or more accurately after being thrown out of, university I was a legal & corporate affairs assistant with Shell UK. My work was mainly concerned with corporate governance and what we would now call CSR, but it also included some issues management.
I say “some” because in 1977 issues management, at least in my little world at the time, seemed to consist of a ‘keeping our heads down and hoping it would go away’ strategy.
We ‘engaged’ with nobody as far as I recall. Stakeholders were shareholders and government, nobody else.
At the time there was a very real feeling that the latter might soon become the former and the overriding preoccupation throughout my time there until the Conservatives won the 1979 general election was that the oil industry might be nationalised.
Our bosses had open doors to the corridors of power or more often the bars and restaurants of London Gentleman’s Clubs. Even during years of Labour government this was still where influence was wielded.
Journalists were to be found in The Coal Hole, the pub which neighboured our head office building in The Strand, The Cheshire Cheese or El Vinos among other Fleet Street watering holes. Occasionally they were wheeled out of the pub for a press conference, but more often simply plied with virtual press releases attached to bottles.
I was mainly an observer of all this rather than participant as I was the lowest of the low, and basically a “bag carrier” for my boss who was the Head of Legal. Corporate affairs and communication such as it was very firmly the preserve of the legal department.
Other “PR” did go on, really publicity attached to sales and marketing, but in the three or so years I was there I didn’t meet anybody from the “press department” as I think it was called.
After a thirteen year break from corporate comms messing about in politics I returned as head of communications for McDonald’s responsible for the UK, Ireland and Iceland. Apparently if you are looking at the world from Chicago, Iceland is quite near to Scotland.
Communications in McDonald’s sat inside Marketing, but in the month I was appointed the Marketing VP was “restructured” and so bizarrely I ended up reporting to the Purchasing VP, because he had the fewest number of direct reports. This led to some interesting episodes, not least the appointment of comms consultancies. My boss insisted on treating them in exactly the same way he managed the “bun suppliers.”
The advantage of having a boss who knew nothing and cared nothing about “PR” was that he basically left me to get on with it which allowed me to start transforming the function from a reactive press office and sponsorship team into a full service comms function, and to reposition it first with Marketing and then directly with the CEO.
This change was achieved, as such things generally are, courtesy of a crisis. Well, two crises really depending how you define crisis.
In my first week in McDonald’s, the infamous “McLibel” trial started in the High Court. It was to become the longest trial in English legal history lasting for 3 years in London and another two in Europe.
At the time we didn’t know that. Our QC told us it might run for a month or so. This was the first time I got to understand that when lawyers mean “or so” that could mean to infinity depending how long we were prepared to pay them.
Nobody except the people who decided to go to court thought the trial a good idea. McDonald’s UK’s PR consultancy at the time Scope Communications led by the now late James Maxwell advised against it. My predecessor as head of comms advised against it.
But as is so often the case the loudest voice in the room was not from PR, it was from the lawyers.
The reasonably successful (you have no idea how badly it could have turned out) reputation damage management of the trial by my team earned respect, and more than a little gratitude, from the executive leadership.
The Chairman & CEO, MD and other directors started to see PR in a different light, perhaps as the trusted counsellors we had not been when the decision to go to court was taken.
The conclusion of the trial in London overlapped with the BSE (Mad Cow Disease) Crisis in 1995-97. This was when PR really came to the fore.
On 19th March 1996 the crisis really kicked off. I remember the date only because it was my youngest daughter’s 7th birthday and I missed her party! As it happens on that day I was due to present McDonald’s first ever crisis management plan and training programme to the board for budget approval.
My presentation consisted of me showing them the front pages and asking if they would take my presentation as read and sign it off. They did and it seemed to me to be the opportunity not just to run crisis communications, but to lead the management of the crisis as no one else wanted to.
The next 18 months saw the PR team repositioned as corporate affairs function with a newly created CSR and government relations responsibility and all internal and external comms collected in one place, with a seat on the board and direct report.
Although now a board member, my advice was still not always taken. When New Labour PM Tony Blair came courting my CEO to be a Millennium Dome sponsor I was one of only two directors who voted against it.
My reward was to be put in charge of the programme I had opposed which included all of the non-comms aspects of it as well as PR.
As it turned out we came up with a little winner to turning what was otherwise a reputational disaster for the country into a considerable triumph for McDonald’s.
Much to the annoyance of the government mafia running the Dome, we declined to sponsor a “zone” at the Dome as other corporates had and instead came up with the idea of “McDonald’s Our Town Story” a two-year long programme which would involve every local education authority (and therefore planning authority) in the country, creating performance arts in every community and at the Dome in a Richard Rogers designed theatre.
The programme involved every school and every McDonald’s restaurant in the UK, and every part of the company through franchisees to suppliers, forging new partnerships and lasting community and most importantly for McDonald’s, government relationships.
On the back of this success, the newly appointed European CEO of McDonald’s, and global CEO to be, the now late Charlie Bell, looked at the UK as the benchmark in international comms work.
I became his first European VP for corporate Affairs bringing together Environmental Affairs, Government Relations and Communications for Europe for the first time, and with a seat at the European board table.
These three events, two crises and a spectacular community sponsorship, were the principle ways in which comms was seen as a strategic function, one to be there when decisions were being made, not picking up fire-fighting instructions afterwards as it had been when the McLibel case started.
My tenures which followed with Microsoft, BT and G4S were shorter and so there was little opportunity and no time to change the way communications was positioned or contributed as a strategic function.
But the existing reporting positioning of the functions tells a story about the way these organisations saw communications.
At Microsoft corporate communications work is divided. Part sits in PR reporting through Marketing, and part sits in the Legal & Corporate Affairs function (as in my old days at Shell).
During my time there which was during the EU Anti-Trust actions against Microsoft, our main focus was on the LCA side and the need to protect reputation with EU and other government stakeholders and mitigate the business damage being caused by them.
BT has a group communications function which at the time I was there was mainly focused on financial PR and investor relations concerns. This function has a direct report to the CEO. My role was for BT Major Programmes and BT Global Services. In both of those lines of business as BT calls them, the comms function is a corporate comms role with a CEO report.
My main focus during my time with BT was on business transformation and change communications. This had an internal and external dimension. The main stakeholders included global banks and UK government departments, as well as internal audiences for the turnaround of the businesses.
As a former public owned utility, BT’s structure and approach mirrored a government department more than a commercial organisation with comms people sitting all opver the businesses with diverse responsibilities and every reporting line imaginable.
In G4S the group comms function and the comms for the then two divisions of the company also each reported to their CEOs.
As a B2B and B2G organisation with no consumer audiences, the stakeholders for G4S were more concerned with business relationships and government policies worldwide, than with product or services related PR which was the province of sales teams.
These five companies each had a very different view of, approach to, and positioning of the PR/corporate comms/corporate affairs functions, and with markedly different budgets.
In McDonald’s communications budgets come from the franchisees and each year it was part of my job to tour the Franchissee Co-Operative Meetings to “sell in” my comms plans to win budget.
In Microsoft the comms budgets were the size of small country exchequers. In BT there practically were no budgets and so very little external resource hiring. In my part of G4S we were creating a new global communications role for the first time and budgets were yet to be won.
The media relations of El Vinos is long gone. During my career we moved from filing cabinets and shorthand typists, through fax machines, pagers, mobile phones, and computers to what my old Microsoftee pals would call a “seamlessly connected world” of digital communications.
We now have more data and greater ability to analysise and apply it than ever before. Communication is instant and unlike back in those old days there is no ‘no place to hide’ in matters of corporate reputation. Stakeholder expectations, and so engagement, has changed out of all recognition.
We have moved from not communicating (at all!), to communicating at then to stakeholders, and now communicating with them.
Communication is now about communities and conversations.
Some of the lessons from the personal history I’ve just outlined may still be relevant, others not. What hasn’t changed in my view is the need for communications to earn its place at the table by moving beyond measurement of communications output to creating real money-related business outcomes.
In all of my roles the most satisfying work was when we stopped, changed or created government lergislation to further our business interests. The problem with that kind of work is it’s almost impossible to talk about even internally, so getting credit for the function for achieving it is near impossible. In virtually every case I can think of I just had to pretend that so and so would have happened anyway!
In each of the cases where communications has been more stretegic in the way it has worked and been positioned and perceived, it was the consequence of “whole company” thinking – of reachoing beyond the role of a “support function” to be seen to contribute in a leadership role.
Put bluntly, if you behave like a specialist supplier you will be treated as one. If you behave like you are more concerned about the business than communications, then people might start taking you more seriously.
The role and positioning of communications in each business was affected by the differences of business maturity, nature of the business market sector, history and track record of comms, the people employed in comms, and most importantly the value which CEOs and boards saw as ROI on communications budgets.
Those were the differences. The commonality was that respect for and use of communications as a more strategic function was earned through winning prizes for our masters.
Whether through crisis or opportunity, communications was seen in each case to sit on the profit not loss side of the corporate balance sheet. In my opinion, and based on this experience over the last 40 years, I would say this is the single most important critera – do you make money, save money, or just spend money?