The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: political communications

When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.

But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b)  if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove.  Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.

Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum.  Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services.  As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so.  Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations.  And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  By this time it may be too late to consider training.

Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.

Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.

What, with wikileaks, phone hackin’ journalists, social media on the interweb, a new UK Prime ministerial spin meister and things called quora, it’s all enough to give you a migraine.  Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and occasionally it is good for the soul to hark back to more tranquil times, just as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian did recently:

“Isn’t it a reflection of modern times that the prime minister’s appointment of a spin doctor has attracted as much attention as any new cabinet minister might? Rightly so – Craig Oliver will probably be more influential than almost all of them.

Only one kind of spinning here ...

More than 60 years ago Clement Attlee had to be persuaded to install a Press Association ticker in Downing Street and only agreed when he was told it would allow him to follow the cricket scores.

One day Francis Williams, his press secretary, gave his usual briefing to the lobby. Later Attlee exclaimed in astonishment: “There’s an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine!” He didn’t even know what his spin doctor did.

I think that, on the whole, that was a good thing, and we were better off.”

Hear, hear!

A letter to the Daily Telegraph (22 August 2010) recently caught CB3’s eye:

SIR – The parlous state of the public finances in Britain provides the perfect opportunity for British taxpayers to end their half-century-long experiment with “development aid”, which has, since its inception, stunted growth and subsidised bad governance in Africa.

As Africans, we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need. A real offer from the British people to help our development would consist of the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy, which keeps African agricultural exports out of the European marketplace.

It is that egregious policy, combined with the weight of regulations, bad laws and stifling bureaucracy, subsidised by five decades of development aid, which prevents Africans from lifting themselves out of poverty.

Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, speaks about a “moral imperative” to combat poverty around the world. We could not agree more. The British have a unique opportunity to cut the deficit and help Africa: please, ask your new government to stop your aid.

Andrew Mwenda
Editor, Independent newspaper, Uganda
Franklin Cudjoe

Executive Director, IMANI Center for Policy and Education, Ghana
Kofi Bentil

Lecturer, University of Ghana and Ashesi University, Ghana
Thompson Ayodele
Executive Director, Initiative for Public Policy

Give him a wad of cash or give him a chance?

Now, the notion or concept of free market trade, tariff barriers, CAP, competitive advantage etc do not tend to feature in the public’s eye when considering providing aid and succour to the African continent (or elsewhere for that matter).  Charities, doing sterling work, do concentrate on gaining funding from a variety of donors, but with cries of rampant corruption in aid-receiving nations, an increased desire of the public to see where there hard-earned cash is going and severe cuts in government aid packages, perhaps now is the time to look again at campaigning and lobbying for regulatory change, requiring people’s support, some of their time, but less from their currently beleagured financial coffers.

Of course,the major charities do so already, but is it a time to increase the emphasis on this tack, and tackle what many, including the contributors above, consider, with reasonable justification, the main obstacle to real development?  It’s a difficult sell, but with the current problems of aid funding coupled with the continuing recession, the timing may be prescient.

Policy, relationships, practicalities, even thinking about a little bit of governance and leadership – these will all undoubtedly all pre-occupying the minds of many senior LibDems (and no doubt Conservatives).  But right from day one of this coalition, the LibDems, probably more than any other party, will need to keep two things clear in their consciousness – those of identify and narrative – in order to survive the next few years.

The LibDems for generations have enjoyed an easy identity – the third party, centre-left, progressive even maverick – even though it didn’t feature strongly on the radar of the general public.  Well it does now – with many who may have only had a vague, hazy idea of the party struggling to understand it.  Yet in coalition it has already lost some of those identifying features – its connection with the left appears diluted, its radical outspoken tone muted and its position as the ‘progressive’ party will quickly be filled by Labour.

Liberal Democrats - has the identity crisis already started?

Regardless of how this identity has been shaken by recent events, the party will in five years time, possibly earlier, go back to the polls.  At that time, the public will either know who the party is and its story  or that public will be unsure of the party’s narrative and identity, both having been obscured by coalition dynamics.  It is in the gift of the LibDems themselves to choose which outcome will prevail.  This eventuality will also apply to the Conservatives, but their legacy of mainstream government or opposition has enabled a deeper impression in the public psyche – unless Team Cameron are transformed within a heady atmosphere of new concensus politics, and seen to be transformed, they will still be seen as the Tories – love’em or hate’em – at the next election.  And Labour, with a rich and vibrant seam of history, unshackled from the constraints of power, can regroup and develop a powerful  image within the vacated progressive left political sphere.  But the LibDems, if they fail to maintain and enhance their sense of who they are as an individual party, may enjoy a brief moment of government only to be returned to the political hinterland.

As they say, a reputation takes years to develop but can be shattered in minutes.  For the LibDems this hasn’t happened yet (although it has been shaken).  In the medium term, actions and consequences – sheer bloody politics –of the Coalition will of course take their toll on the reputations of those involved.  But if active measures – the determined maintenance of party culture, vision, ritual, ideals – are not taken quickly, to capitalize on the fact that the public are watching them,  LibDem reputation – the very identity and narrative of the party, diluted and fragmented – could easily melt away anyway.   Reputation management is an awful buzzword from the PR industry but, if anything, the LibDems will have to quickly start practicing serious identity management, in order to come out the other end of this Coalition intact.

What happened?  The UK is constitutionally in uncharted waters.  After weeks of political campaigning no party won outright and a massive surge by the Liberal Democratic party fizzled into nothing (although in a remarkable turn of events they now have unprecedented power to decide the political future of the UK)

But after weeks of high profile, in which they went from years of dismally polling a fairly distant third to the other main political parties to sporadically outstripping both of them, to only for that ‘surge’ to melt away on the day that it mattered, even though they gained almost a million more votes ( a one percentage rise) than in the previous election in 2005.  Of course, a presidential-style set of three television debates with the party leaders, a first for the UK, contributed to the media melee.

LibDems couldn't capitalise on their surge - but are still at the centre of the media's glare.

There are several lessons to learn here about political communication.

Firstly, the glare of overexposure threw the LibDem’s campaign. Absurdly, a communication and reputation crisis was spawned from an unmitigated success, not a failure.   Caught out by their sudden success, they had to maintain momentum but remained overfocussed on the Clegg effect and failed to spread the focus of attraction consistently.  Differing messages were given to different media outlets, pandering to the audience without fully understanding that in the modern media environment, whispers get everywhere.

Secondly, CB3 always warns of the problem of over-messaging.  But, being candid, this is in fact a misnomer.  The message must be maintained but the data or information required to support the message – the flesh on the bones – must be varied, otherwise publics will become inured to, or at worst bored of, the same justifications.  The LibDem message was good but the supporting data not varied enough – the public, initially made to sit up on the appearance of the third man saying new, fresh things, became tired of  fresh ideas as they were represented in the same fashion repeatedly.

And thirdly, message momentum has to be maintained and increasingly detailed.  The LibDem stance, and therefore message, on issues such as immigration and Trident, to name but a few, was never fully developed and given substance in terms of supporting data.

Of course, a largely right-wing press contributed to the failure of the surge, but a failure to develop arguments, spread the spectrum and loss of message momentum equally contributed to the failure of the LibDems to capitalise on brief but significant public adoration and the delivery of what is now a constitutional conundrum.

These are lessons, quickly observed but not assessed in detail.  Importantly, they are not criticisms of actions taken or not taken during what must have been a whirlwind ride in the media glare which few could have foreseen or easily dealt with.  CB3 doesn’t wish to be an armchair general and recognises that the challenges faced by the LibDems, especially their campaign team, were massive and little understood by those looking in from the outside.

There is a conventional wisdom when in media interview that the interviewee always address the journalist – and rightly so.  At that moment, one is in a dialogical process with the journalist which is then transferred to the public.  Journalists as media trainers, as well as professional media trainers, teach this.

However, CB3 has always thought that occasionally a direct appeal to the audience, by addressing the camera, does have some utility.  Take for instance the recent prime ministerial debates in the UK.  It is widely considered that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, won the debate and much has be said and written on how he did it.  Now, none of the candidates are great orators, and Clegg may have had the advantage of being an unknown underdog, but some have reported that his use of the camera, specifically adrressing it directly, may have gone some way to him ‘connecting’ with the audience.

Nick Clegg - Used the camera to his advantage

Although this was in a debate, not a strict media interview, this is a lesson how addressing the camera directly may be beneficial.  In interview it is not a recommended tactic but if a heartfelt appeal is to be made to an audience it may be worthwhile considering this direct approach, only briefly, for certain phrases or messages.  Journalists may not like it but, from a public affairs or media relations perspective, there is a certain power of connection that can be derived by doing so.  It is unconventional and must not be overdone – the context must be right and it is risky – but as they say ‘ do what you’ve always done and you get what you always get’.  Think creatively in the conduct of an interview – live on the wild side!

And a little update after the second debate: Lo and behold, David Cameron is now doing it too – if a little more awkwardly!