The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Public relations

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.


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!


Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


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.


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.


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.


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!