The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Privacy on life-support?

The Week put forth a pithy summation of Robert Cyran’s (Reuters BreakingViews) perspective on privacy, in which he holds that privacy has been the main casualty of 2010.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been crowned Person of the Year by Time Magazine, and Wkileaks boss Julian Assange, has topped the associated reader poll, notes Robert Cyran. Both have “uncommon levels of self-belief and superior coding abilities” – and both are leading “the technological assault on privacy”. There are obvious differences in scale and intent between a social networking business with more than 500 million users and a small, non-profit which uncovers “censored injustices”. But the two outfits share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public. This may, however, be their “golden hour”. The costs of bringing formerly private things to light are becoming increasingly evident: even the relatively benign-seeming Zuckerberg is likely to face calls for far greater accountability from Facebook’s mass of users, if not regulators, one day. Whatever constraints are eventually imposed on either model, however, the genie is out of the bottle. The chief “casualty” of 2010 was privacy.

Enough said.

Note that the readers went for Assange not Zuckerberg ... hmm, interesting.

Downstream of Wikileaks

What a Kafuffle (old English word) Wikileaks has caused. Governments are moaning and getting quite aggressive, activists are up in arms and getting quite aggressive, the media are stoking it up and getting more excited than aggressive – all wonderful stuff.  People are taking sides and the noise of opinion, dissent, anger and outrage is pumped up to maximum volume.  But regardless of whether Wikileaks is a good thing or not, whether Julian Assange et al are the new media Messiahs or Cyber-Satans, the whole notion of what Wikileaks represents and the impact of this new ‘cost-effective political action’ is worthwhile pondering.

Media Messiah or Cyber Satan?

Is the phenomena anything new?  The capability to issue confidential information to a global audience – leak – has been gathering pace since the internet became a mainstream interactive information platform, or Web 2.0.   Wikileaks itself is in fifth year and had garnered over one million documents within its first year.  And as a phenomenon, the are other organisations akin to Wikileaks such as the Chaos Computer Club, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and more recently openleaks and tradeleaks.  Being an information guerilla is suddenly all the rage.  But that’s the thing – it’s not new, it’s just become fashionable and has gained prominence in the mind of the public, despite being a fundamental part of the developing networked world.  To those in smeared or embarrassed governments who have been shocked and surprised by this phenomenon, the question must be asked, where have you been for the last few years?  And where they, and many of us, have been, to paraphrase BBC’s Bill Thompson, is ‘calling forth the network age, whilst carrying on in our daily lives as if nothing has really changed’.  Wikileaks and all it entails is a fundamental and immutable fact of life in the 21st century information environment – that’s just the way it is going to be, rightly or wrongly.  And alongside that will come a general recognition that information, whilst always a powerful tool, has become a lot easier to wield to massive effect, not only by governments and corporate behemoths but by the common man, sometimes called the ‘Whistleblower’.

Alongside this potential information tsunami, is the issue of privacy.  What the Wikileaks phenomenon is doing for secrecy and privacy of diplomatic information (and let’s not forget also of corporate information) may have repercussions on personal privacy and our view of it.  Facebook, wifi networks, internet purchasing, personal databases, google streetview etc have come under scrutiny regarding the breaching of personal privacy.  If mighty governments cannot protect really important classified stuff what hope for me and my bank details?  Undoubtedly many computer security consultants are already licking the lips in preparation for cyber-fortresses to be built to protect information.  Despite the fact that it is a human being, not a machine at the core of leaking, via the internet or otherwise, will general concern generate universal measures over time which will drive the information environment back to the 1980s?  Remember when there was no wifi, no USB memory sticks, no internet in workplaces, you still bought stuff using real money not electronic transfer?  Are we heading back that way?

Perhaps not completely, but there will be no doubt some sizeable shifts as the potent mix of wikileakmania and IT security bubbles up.  And then there’s cyber-warfare.  The Chinese are often accused of being a menace in cyber-space, or the Russians when they close down It infrastructures of tiny Baltic states. Yet the activist backlash against suppression of Wikileaks – attacking Paypal, Visa etc – has highlighted another potent threat, one spawned and aided by a positive internet-age outcome: collaborative networking.  Through collaboration, focussed around a passionate cause, a mighty army of computer-literate operatives, from Delhi to Dallas, can present a cyber-threat that maybe even the Chinese may baulk at.  This may be slightly far-fetched but does indicate that cyber-conflict is not the preserve of governments or the occasional lone-wolf hacker and powerful counterinsurgencies have the potential to cause huge effect not only in cyber-space but on our daily lives.

Cyber warfare - like a big computer game that everyone can play - but with massive consequences

The stuff that is being released by Wikileaks is undoubtedly of interest and in some cases has strategic significance, but is not necessarily all that shocking.  What may be more of a shock is where the consequences of the Wikileaks phenomenon takes us.

Communication Lessons for Cambridge Businesses (and elsewhere!)

Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

No Deepwater Horizons here?

But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.

Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.

Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless.  The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products.  This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century.  Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.

The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly.  Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again.  Management, at the very least, need to be fully 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.

But why bother?  Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

These little things make traditional media skills even more vital.

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television.  Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

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 do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations.  This 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.  It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.

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 rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, the bottom line?   While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble.  Just ask Tony Hayward.

Digital Britain, the local TV revolution and what they mean for media relations

A few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the UK coalition government’s Culture Secretary, unveiled new plans for media provision in the UK.  “We need to do something to stimulate investment in new media services that give a proper voice to local people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.   He is seeking to encourage commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) including BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to back a new generation of local TV and online services by making the provision of local sevices a condition of their licences.

There have been many moans and groans from several quarters, not least the PSBs themselves over the viability of these grand plans.  Indeed it is proably internet TV, not digital terrestrial television, that is most promising in the local TV revolution. Internet TV also presents an opportunity for other organisations such as local newspapers and smaller niche outfits to get into the game.    In a major sense this is already happing through digital convergence, as video becomes a major factor in online publication.  There are already many local internet based news outlets using existing broadband technology.   There has been an interesting comparison between two cities, one here and one in the US:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx         xxxxxxxx Birmingham, UK  Birmingham, Alabama

Population 1,028,700 229,424
Local newspapers 8 4
Local television 0 8

This may be the trajectory we’re already on.

So the notion of Digital Britain charges on.  But what does it mean for businesses and their handling of this media in the UK?

Let’s recap. Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

As successful UK companies ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.  And with the approach of more localised digital media capability, that impact and likelihood increases even more.  Well, that’s our contention anyway.

Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

Local media .. Coming your way?

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a tidal wave of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  And with increasing decentralisation and access to media bandwidth for local PSBs, the camera will be ever closer to one’s business. The chances of that interview being required, especially during a crisis, are increased. Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Counter-intuitively, digital Britain and the local TV revolution merely increase the need for good old-fashioned media skills.

You have been warned.

Media Interviews: Avoiding the Pitfalls

You can be articulate, gregarious, the finest after dinner speaker, suave and sophisticated, witty and always with a quick turn of phrase but amid the heady and complex environment of a media interview, a real cerebral battleground, even the best can slip up and produce that damaging but newsworthy soundbite.  Then, all your fine words and sound arguments are wasted.  It’s so easily done but can be also easily mitigated against.  Here, several tips to avoid those “I want my life back” moments:

1.  You or your PR/Press office get that phone call requesting an inteview. Seriously analyse the offer and the interviewer. Interviews are a good thing, don’t go away thinking anything else, but closely examine each interview request and do some research on the journalist – what’s their objective, do they have an agenda, what have they reported before?

2.  Consider the “what’s in it for me” question. You need to know your own objectives.  Without knowing that, how can you measure your success or ROI after a media engagement?  If doing the interview doesn’t service your objectives, then consider why you’re doing it at all.  As we said, generally interviews are a good thing, especially when they serve the interests of all parties – you, your organisation, the journalist and the public.  If not, alarm bells should be ringing.

3.  Contextualize. You are unlikely to be giving an interview in isolation, others will be talking – in the media, on the internet, in pubs and cafes.  Be aware of the situational context you are entering, including who your audience is and how they see the world.  Claiming one thing but being unaware that others are seeing it very differently will place you in a far from influential position – even if you are speaking fact.  It’s the ‘nothing to see here’ factor when it’s obvious there is quite a bit to see.

4.  Plan it. Based on your objectives, develop messages to service them (not just say the right thing).  Identify supporting ideas, get hold of supporting information, identify your ‘red lines’, seek out newsworthy soundbites, garner and be utterly sure of critical facts.  Prepare for obvious and tangential questions.  This is where a bloody great big whiteboard comes into its own and writing down your thoughts and ideas wil help mentally anchor your plan in your head.

5.  Practice, practice, practice. It’s an old cliche but if you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. Do serious Q&A and make sure that whoever is helping you gives you a hard time – if you are senior in your organisation, they have to be confident enough to deliver a little truth to power.  Further, that Q&A (as well as your planning) must not be ego-centric, it must be coming from a perspective outside the organisation.  What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others and vice versa.   To this end, an external mentor or media trainer may be worthwhile investing in. And it’s not just about your words – visuals, or non-verbal communication, have to be practiced.

Investing time (if you’ve the luxury) in all of the above is vital.  A good PR/press office will have a lot of this already done beforehand, although obviously not all.  Take the time and the interview will go smoothly, as long as you use the usual tips and tricks of media interview conduct (bridging, rhetoric, using figures, soundbiting etc).  But just two other things to do during the inteview:

6.  Listen.  Journalists and the public can easily recognise when you’re in transmission mode and it will annoy them.  They both want a flowing dialogue, with reasonable responses to reasonable questions.  If it’s apparent you’re not listening, you’re on the way to alienating them, regardless of what you say.

7.  Think before you speak. Your first answer may not always be the best.  If you’ve planned and practised, it probably will be but just pause to check.  If the interview is a pre-record, then time is on your side – even ask for a break before you answer,  if need be.

The research, preparation and planning can pay huge dividends in interviews but unfortunately too few invest in it.  Those minutes in front of a camera or microphone can only be quality and service your needs if hours have been spent beforehand preparing.  And remember that if you’re fortunate enough to have a team to help you, use them, or call in others who can.  There’s no need to deal with this alone, after all, millions may be involved on the other side of the process.

Shooting the Messenger

Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, Act 1 Scene 1: Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office. Pretty eloquent stuff (well what would expect of the Bard?) but basically in modern parlance we’re talking “Don’t shoot the messenger”.  Bad news is often reason enough to feel like pulling the trigger, but just plain bad communicating is just asking for the metaphorical bullet between the eyes.  So how can we try to avoid the bullet?

Rule one in ensuring an effective message is carefully selecting the appropriate words and phrases. Culture, education, gender, language skills, age, even things as nebulous as emotions play a role in the way in which words, phrases and sentences will be perceived, and that’s not even catering for the vast number of words in English which possess differing meanings to different people.  Context and the syntax applicable to that context (the rules of the Queen’s English do not always apply) also have significant effect.

Simplicity is key, and especially in media engagement, where context, culture etc will be a much more amorphous.  The more simple (without losing the essence of the message) the less likely to be misunderstood, cause confusion or, even worse, offend. And this is where your average technocrat, official, reasonably educated guy or gal, often goes astray.  When writing documents, briefing panels, scribbling papers, especially in an official capacity, there is often a mesmerising desire to use distracting, confusing, misleading, obfuscating, imprecise wording (try reading an official document – corporate or public sector – you’ll see what we mean).  Now that’s acceptable (to a degree) on paper, but not in speech.  If the audience is struggling to merely comprehend the wording, any message those words should convey, are going to be lost.  At this stage, the receiver may well, check the magazine for bullets.  So, for simplicity’s sake, what to avoid:

  • Slang, jargon or regional expressions, as they might not be understood by everyone.
  • Abbreviations or acronyms unless well-known.
  • Technical terms unless the audience is fully aware of the topic.
  • Neologism (see point above*)
  • Politically incorrect words (unless of course that is the objective and also remembering the context (some audiences may be receptive)).

Now, in public speaking often we can gauge the crowd and thereby the context, but it’s a little more difficult over the media.  Simplicity here really is key.  And being simple in the explanation of a complex issue is far from simple.  It takes time and preparation and is as far removed from technocratic, business speak as possible.  Some see rapport as a major player in communication, or a common ground between speaker and listener (or viewer).  But when millions are watching or listening, rapport as such doesn’t exist (it may between journalist and interviewee, which can help (if the journalist is respected/liked by the audience)) and the common ground will lie in simplicity and ensuring that as little effort as possible is required of the audience to decode the words and ‘get’ the message (and then hopefully do something with that message).   It’s worthwhile pondering here that giving a presentation is very, very different to giving a media interview – the mechanics of the former, we practice every day when talking with others, the mechanics of the latter (talking to one person, whilst actually trying to engage with thousands, even millions, through that person) are rarely experienced.  Being a good public speaker doesn’t necessarily make media interviews easy – it could even be a hinderance.

* By the way, it means the use of newly coined words or phrases

Keep the ego out of it

As mentioned above, keeping it simple, stupid, isn’t all that simple to do in practice.  And that’s often because of ego.  We all naturally communicate ego-centrically – I’ll say it this way because if I heard it, I’d certainly understand it.  Yeah, well, the message isn’t for you, it’s for your audience.  Public speaking and presenting always involves assessing your audience and servicing their requirements.  Those audiences tend to be smaller and, to a degree, homogenous.  In a media interview, the audience is as heterogenous as they come.  Of course, if you’re really up to the mark, you’ll know exactly what your objective is and who, of that audience, you need to convince or persuade to achieve it.  If not, or you’ve got to carry the vast majority of the entire audience, then the communication, the words, phrases, construct, need to cater for the needs of the entire audience.  And that means decoding your syntax into theirs.  And the more heterogenous the audience is the more neutral that syntax, and those words, are going to be. Note, this is not about being neutral in terms of position or passion but in syntax and style.

So it’s got to be as simple and as neutral as the audience, not the speaker or interviewee, dictates.  Otherwise, the gun’s hammer gets cocked.

But there’s got to be flair

Brilliant – it’s got to simple and neutral, and that’s difficult to do, especially with a complex subject or issue.  Well, we’ve not quite finished.  Simple and neutral is getting there but there’s a hitch – too simple and neutral and the audience will fall asleep, and that’s only assuming the journalist or editor has bothered to air what’s been said and recorded.  Got to have a little flair, a little ‘sizzle’ to it.  If it’s boring, it’s going nowhere – the media will shun it and the audience will ignore it.  Both will go elsewhere for their information.  Of course, credibility matters, but many will be claiming that credibility and the ones who can be credible but interesting with it will win out.  And that’s not just about words but also in the way that their said, both verbally and non-verbally.  If the delivery doesn’t have that something special, fingers will tighten on the trigger.

Words simple, syntax neutral, delivery exciting and all via a third person or filter, the joutnalist/camera – easy!

If it’s bad news, the messenger often gets shot, but by preparing carefully and considering the above, then hopefully the wounds won’t be fatal.

Video News Releases – Dumbed down content?

Isn’t technology wonderful?  In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content.  In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre.  Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).

As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted.  Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast.  If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them.  Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times.  In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.

But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR)  Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production.  Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc  are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data.  One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!).  Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.

Wow .. you can do all sorts with these things!

The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere.  The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control).  That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart.  But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting.  They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness).  The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention.  (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience.  Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.

It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it.  They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.

Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release.  But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).