August 31, 2015
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.
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.
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.
Amidst my rambling on a recent webinar for the Public Affairs Council, I was asked how PA practitioners in Brussels should handle diverse communications disciplines. The premise is that policy-making is often dictated by external events. This makes lobbying less effective than it might have been in the past as a stand-alone tactic to influence policy. In other words, good behaviour and high levels of trust, transmitted via brand and corporate communications, can play as much of a role, if not more, than lobbying.
Having thought further about it since then (and wanting to purge the memory of my rubbish answer) here are some thoughts on the matter.
Easy, in principle (not in reality): structure and access to different skill-sets. Within organisations, the public affairs function should not be in its own silo (or sit with legal). It should integrate with other communications disciplines, from internal through to corporate and marketing. All of these should apply a unified strategy and a somewhat integrated programme, with each making use of skill-sets prevalent in other teams.
I do appreciate this is unrealistic in most organisations: structures and cultures are entrenched, and individual disciplines usually do pretty OK as it is. Given this, public affairs departments that appreciate they may need a bit of the other stuff frequently attempt one of two short-cuts (or both). They hire a specialist (or two) or seek to transform PA practitioners into communications generalists.
I’ve been guilty of endorsing both in the past, but no longer do so. Hiring one or two specialists is not enough as culture and structure remain the same. Their impact will just be cosmetic at most and their hire does not represent a true statement of intent. Turning specialist practitioners into generalists is worse. It dilutes their expert knowledge when communications requires more specialisation, not less. There is room for generalists, but they should be experienced and very talented.
In short: do it properly (i.e. full scale integration with subsequent access to multiple people and skill-sets) and don’t bother with quick fixes until you can; government relations-centric public affairs done properly and in the right conditions remains effective.
June 14, 2015
Some communicators do this: think of lots of potential “messages” to communicate; have a message workshop/session/get-together/pow-wow to decide which ones they like best; test them on a focus group (sometimes); get back together for another workshop/session etc. to finalise their messages, probably ignoring the focus group findings and reverting to the messages they like best (can’t blame them in truth: most focus groups are iffy); blurt them out with a (metaphorical) megaphone over all their channels ad nauseum; sit back and wait for everyone to like them more because their message nailed it, upon which they win an election, sell more stuff, or have less regulation imposed on them (or whatever).
Except the latter does not happen because A MESSAGE IS NOT A STRATEGY. A strategy is action-oriented: it requires you to do something (or not, but only if that’s your strategy). It starts with words like position, re-position, differentiate or leverage. It is based on a thorough analysis of the convergence of three elements: what you want or need, what an audience wants or needs, and what you can really offer, and delivering on it.
Messages (if there’s even a need for them) stem from the strategy; without it, they’re hollow words.