One of the numerous slightly artificial splits in communications is between brand (seeking to reach a consumer with a view to selling) and corporate (seeking to reach audiences that don’t necessarily purchase, but are otherwise essential, like investors, regulators, employees or analysts).

Brand and corporate people tend not to like each other much. Brand think corporate are dull, smug and behind the times. Corporate think brand are vacuous and gimmicky.

But in the digital age, it’s harder to keep the two separate: brand and corporate audiences consume the same media. Moreover, brand and corporate positioning increasingly overlap. An organisation’s purpose beyond profit, the way it treats its employees, or how it manages it books – for instance – are of interest to audiences across the brand/corporate spectrum.

This also means that people like me, whose comfort zone is corporate, can’t avoid brand gigs. Indeed, I’ve done more brand than corporate over the last few months, and it’s been an eye-opener.

What key lesson can each learn from the other? (NB: I’m generalising, clearly.)

Corporate communicators tend (stress: tend) to value knowledge more. They know more about the sectors they operate in. They need to, given that their audiences – investors, regulators and the like – know their stuff. Brand folk can indeed be a bit vacuous in this regard, choosing not to value and accrue deep product and sector knowledge. Instead they focus on short-term attention grabbing, rather than imparting expertise and building relationships over time. Given the nature of present-day content and influencer marketing, this is a mistake. With mountains of content a mouse-click away, consumers often know more than they are given credit for. They may wish to examine a product in detail, learn what others say about it, or determine whether the company in question aligns with their values. Meanwhile, consumers who adore a brand have the means to be its most potent advocates. In both instances, provision of top-tier material and ongoing interaction are what’s needed, not another bloody discount coupon.

Meanwhile, brand people tend (again, I stress: tend) to be more results focused. Corporate communicators can talk for hours about the intricacies of pharma pricing or preferred climate change mitigation mechanisms. However, while wooing analysts – and their bosses – with their know-how, they often fail to think about, let alone measure, whether they are having a genuine impact on awareness, influence or sales. They often act as if metrics were somehow beneath them, arguing that their environments are too complex to measure. Tosh. Given that brand folk don’t have much knowledge to woo their bosses with, they need to impress through results. So they have clear, measurable objectives that all activities stem from. Although I many not agree with some brand folks’ preferred metrics (often short-term awareness and sales rather than long-term preference and advocacy) at least we know whether they’re meeting objectives and they are held accountable.

There you have it: brand folk, do more reading and don’t treat customers like fools; corporate, get off your high horse and determine whether you’re having an impact or just making noise.


A visual from a recent presentation of mine on stages of digital and social media maturity in corporate communications (including public affairs):

digital & social in corp comms

p.s. if you’re still in basic, fret not: 90% of the organisations I come into contact with are. This is fine, as long as there’s a vision for where the bar should be set (i.e. intermediate then advanced).

Returning from Brussels on my customary trek last week, I did something a bit silly. Probably driven by exhaustion. And my chronic impatience with authority figures. Especially when I think they’re strutting their feathers to feed their narcissism.

The backdrop. When arriving at St Pancras station from the continent, UK Border Police sometimes asks to see your passport and ticket. Apparently this is due to the Lille loophole. Someone with a Brussels-Lille ticket could conceivably stay on the train past Lille and enter the UK illegally, if they are a non-EU citizen and are unentitled to be in the UK.

I have never understood why they ask EU citizens to show their tickets. EU citizens have a right to be in the UK even if only bearing a Brussels-Lille ticket. Surely Eurostar, not the border police, should care whether you have the right ticket (I assume?)

Hence why I always ask why they want to see my ticket, given that I am an EU citizen. Answers have varied from “I don’t know” to “it’s the Lille loophole” to “the UK has a strict asylum policy” to “I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you” (best reply ever). Clearly none of these answers are satisfactory (apart from the latter, clearly). I suppose the honest answer would be “I have no idea what countries are in the EU so I had best check all tickets and passports.”

Here’s what happened to me last week:

  • Border Police (BP): Can I see your ticket?
  • Me: Sorry but why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why. I’m a Danish citizen; I believe I’m entitled to be here, why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why? You’re wasting everyone’s time by asking EU citizens to show their tickets.
  • BP: OK, TAKE A SEAT OVER THERE (pointing at bench).
  • Me: (Thinking, shit, I should have showed him my ticket). OK then, here’s my ticket.
  • BP: TOO LATE! (Changes mind about me sitting down). Come with me. (We step behind booth). What do you think this is (signals room around us)?
  • Me: Um…
  • BP: It’s a border! Why do you think I’m asking for your ticket?
  • Me: Because you want to show us ghastly foreigners and Daily Mail readers that you mean business? (Immediate regret, clearly).
  • BP: (Fuming). COME WITH ME! (Takes me to baggage checking area by exits, which is empty. Asks a colleague to observe. Puts on rubber gloves).
  • Me: (Oh dear).
  • BP: Is this your bag?
  • Me: (Phew). Yes. (BP proceeds to open it, slowly removes everything. Looks through all pockets. Looks through all books. Runs weird gadget along inside lining then puts it in machine, which then beeps lots. This takes ages. He snarls at me. I assume he was beaten as a child, has self-esteem issues etc. and really wants to teach me a lesson. I worry a bit).
  • BP: Give me your passport. (Looks through passport – slowly). Do you travel a lot?
  • Me: Yes.
  • BP: Have you ever been arrested or stopped by us?
  • Me: No.
  • BP: Wait here. (Leaves me waiting for 15-20 minutes with other officer near me).
  • Me: (Crap).
  • BP: (Smiling, hands me back my passport). OK now listen. If you’d shown me your ticket and THEN asked me why I was checking your ticket I would have told you. Your manner was suspicious. I see all sorts in my line of work, so I had to check. But you’re fine to go. In future, just do as we ask!
  • Me: I’m sorry, I appreciate I may have come across as rude. I have lived here for a long time and am annoyed with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nonsense, and I assumed tough border checks were part of all that.
  • BP: Not at all, you’re very welcome in the UK (smiles, shakes my hand, pats me on the back).

Why the volte-face?

Was he first strutting his feathers because I dared to question him – but then having sensed that he’d made me suitably uncomfortable, felt he’d won? Had I truly been suspicious? I look more like a choirboy than a crack dealer, and surely a crack dealer with a bag full of gear would have shown their ticket pronto.

Who knows. In any case, lesson learned. Count to 10 next time. It’s probably not a Daily Mail inspired conspiracy. More likely, they’re instructed to check tickets due to the Lille loophole. And given that they can’t be expected to know all EU member states, they’re told to check ALL tickets.

I’m bored of hearing how people “don’t get it.” Supposedly, people do not do data mining, advanced analytics, mad large-scale content programmes or community management across every imaginable channel (or whatever) because they’re too thick to see the value.

Sure, some people are obtuse. But most aren’t.

Perhaps they work in a highly scrutinised sector and have weighed up benefits and risks, and decided that for the moment, it’s not worth the risk.

Perhaps they’re doing just fine and have other priorities for the time being: they’re still making money (if they’re a business) or otherwise succeeding (a politician winning elections, a fundraiser raising funds, an activist winning over public opinion).

Perhaps budgets are tight and they find they get more bang for their limited buck doing other things. They might not just assume this, they might know it for a fact.

Perhaps siloes and cultures are so entrenched, that doing anything beyond traditional is utterly impossible, and what is required is cultural change, not new communications activities.

Perhaps the people trying to peddle the fancy stuff are doing it badly: are they making it seem smart, strategic, achievable, scalable and can they prove ROI?

Imagine a world where all lawyers were judged by the standards of those that defend wealthy criminals. Or doctors by anti-vaccine nut-jobs. Or journalists by cowboys distorting the truth for populist rags a la Daily Mail. It happens, but not always.

Yet communicators are continuously being collectively judged by the lowest standards of their profession. I’ve been reading Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian and recently finished Robert Philips’ Trust Me, PR is Dead. Judging by their writing, you’d think all digital marketers and PR professionals respectively were snake-oil peddling incompetents. And I don’t know how many pieces I’ve read by journalists describing the ineptitude of PR professionals.

No doubt communications is flawed. We have no professional standards, which means everything from quality of output to hiring can be arbitrary. As can evaluation. A doctor’s success is largely judged by whether they are able to cure patients. It’s not quite that clear-cut in our profession given that we do not always define success and measure ROI (although we should). As a result, some poor practices seep through, unfortunately.

But all communicators I know are ethical. Most know what they’re doing and provide value to clients. Some are even very talented. However fashionable it is to deride the entire profession, I suspect most would agree.

Who are the good guys?

August 9, 2015

I had fine intentions last year. I left big agency land looking to work for organisations on the “right” side of the public debate. Most likely, I assumed, charities, NGOs and foundations, but also corporates in un-evil sectors. The logic was two-fold. First, representing good guys would mean doing more fun, grassroots type stuff. And it’d be easier to get sign off as the organisations in question would be less risk averse. Second, it’d provide more sense of purpose than representing corporate drones peddling useless and/or nasty products.

Fine thinking. But naïve: defining good vs. not good is not as easy as the Birkenstock crowd might claim.

The good guys

Some are in it for the money as much as any supposed blood-thirsty corporate, but crave public funds and donations, not revenue. They prioritise battling similar organisations for access to funds and donations over saving whales (or whatever), thus saving fewer whales in the process. Decision-making has not proven to be any faster by any stretch. Some so ardently believe in their cause that any wavering, like expecting to get paid properly or having a child, is frowned upon. No doubt plenty of non-profits are ethical and brilliant while making the world a finer place. But it’s not quite so cut and dry.

Nasty corporates

The profit motive is not in itself wicked. I have a bloody profit motive, sod off. Corporates employ shedloads of people and tend to treat them better than non-profits. And many are getting nicer. Perhaps because the market place dictates that they should, but so what? Yes CSR is mostly a load of guff but many companies are genuinely moving towards real shared value and sustainability practices. And while plenty sell crap, others do not. And all companies are not the same. And a company one person might deem evil, might be considered saintly by the next (agrochemicals?) And so forth.

The quest for purpose continues.

Social media is a bloody big deal if you’re in business. Not because cat videos get 100 million views or some pre-pubescent twit has 50 million Facebook followers. Too many communicators see social media through the prism of the cat video. They pump out endless amounts of stuff, hoping it will “go viral” or whatever. Hence why I’m bored of social media. It’s underused and abused. Social media is bigger than communications. Along with other forces it creates enormous risks and opportunities and what a business chooses to do about it will likely dictate whether it stays in business or business




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