A (wildly optimistic) take on modern-day communications

Plenty has been written about post truth, fake news, alternative facts et al. And it’s bleak. For good reason: while fake news alone cannot be blamed for the election of crazies and other alarming events, it does debase trust and delegitimise traditional figures of authority (think “experts”). Once citizens begin to believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, the crazies get to present themselves as peers or respectable alternatives, with all the scary ramifications that carries.

For communications professionals, fake news carries particular challenges. The organisations we represent may become victims of fake news. The thought of a carefully crafted, fact-based storyline, being discredited by a spate of bogus news stories, keeps many talented PR pros awake at night. Moreover, in a world of discredited experts and media, how does one build credibility if no one is credible in the eyes of a disillusioned public?

None of this is helped by the behaviours of members of the so-called elite. Modern day corporate scandals from Enron to VW, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires, arguably do far more damage than fake news (and allow fake news to be plausible in the first place).

Even the communications profession itself appears to have given up on truth. The UK Vote Leave Campaign was celebrated by PR Week, despite the many absurd inaccuracies it presented as fact last year. Just a month later, a Swedish campaign about the merits of eating organic food, won the top PR gong at Cannes Lions despite using highly questionable data.

BUT while not at all questioning the perils of fake news, might the doom and gloom be overblown? Is the scale of fake new exaggerated a tad, for instance? It involves subject matter on which people have strong opinions. Granted, that covers a lot of ground, and debates around politics, migration, trade, climate change and so forth are likely to be tarnished by fake news. But surely most topics, and channels, remain uncontroversial? Most (not all) of the communications work I advise my clients on is hardly going to make Russia Today or Breitbart’s hit-list in the morning.

And are we exaggerating the gullibility of those exposed to it? While the scale and prominence of fake news has never been so great, it is not a novelty. Think of the doctors sponsored by tobacco companies arguing that Brand X cigarettes were great for digestion through to anti-everything activists peddling pseudo-science today. Each wave has helped to make people’s bullshit gauges more effective. How many people’s views are nowadays truly shifted due to fake news? Is it not arguably consumed more by people who like that it cements their own world view? Is fake news, and people’s ignorance and credulity in relation to it, not just a handy scapegoat?

Which brings us to a potential silver lining. Corporate and media misdeeds are the main root of mistrust; fake news merely reinforces it (read Robert Philips for a longer and better take on this here). Might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saintly organisations. Activists have for years attacked certain banks, agrichemical and oil companies more than others because they are poor corporate citizens, making their attacks more credible. Genuinely behaving well (not just having slick spokespeople and pretty communications material) is a precious long-term investment, against fake news and much else.

There is also a potential communications upside (again, very spurious and with plenty of caveats). Might the diffusion of fake news represent an opportunity for some organisations to enhance reputations (and even build new revenue streams) by becoming purveyors of high quality information? Many people are appalled by the fake news phenomenon. With BS sensors on high alert, they are less likely to trust little-known news sources, bloggers or citizen journalists. Recognisable and trusted organisations could help fill the information gap through high-quality content provision if they play their hand right (read/listen to more on this phenomenon by the clever chaps at CMI here and here).

Again, there are enormous caveats: in our age of elite mistrust, organisations with less than stellar reputations, a poor record of corporate citizenship, or who patently engage in spin rather than honest and authentic communications, will not succeed. And information needs to be high quality, credible, informative, useful and/or entertaining. But those who tick the many boxes and can become trusted, high-quality sources, may well (perversely?) benefit from the fake new phenomenon.


Brexit and Trump: observations on media influence

Most mainstream British media outlets are calling for the UK to leave the EU, and its single most potent media entity, the BBC, has to remain on the fence somewhat given that it is publicly funded. As things stand, just about as many Brits would like to leave the EU as favour remaining.

In the US, other than a couple of New York tabloids, mainstream media describes Trump as an inept, vile and dangerous charlatan. Yet a majority of Republican primary voters across every demographic would be comfortable having him as their President.

Clearly, we’re not comparing like for like. Referendum polls comprise every UK demographic, while Republican primary voters represent a very small proportion of all Americans. If the entire US were polled, support for Trump would be lower than support for Brexit in the UK. And while Trump and Brexit are both populist-driven phenomena that portray a paranoid worldview in which elites and foreigners are ganging up on the common man, non-swivelling Brexit types do have some intellectually legitimate claims, although they’re largely crowded out by vitriolic, tabloid inspired foreigner-bashing, while Trump is pure populism.

But the paradox of simultaneous, populist spectacles occurring within such wildly contrasting media realities does raise interesting questions about media influence.

Does the volume of pro-Brexit press simply imply that British mainstream media is more influential than its American counterpart? Quite likely. The US media landscape is far more fragmented, comprising highly partisan radio stations and blogs that constitute the only source of news for many people. Despite dwindling readership figures, mainstream media remains quite dominant in the UK.

A more interesting nuance is the notion that media influence can work back to front. Media opposition in the US is inverse to Trump’s popularity, given that his entire campaign narrative is that out-of-touch elites, including mainstream media, are the enemy of the common man. So the theory reads that US media remains influential amongst Trump’s constituencies, but in persuading them to take the furthest contrasting view possible.

Another theory suggests that the Republican establishment and conservative media – Fox News in particular – have been instrumental in creating an environment in which Trump is an acceptable candidate. David Remnick of the New Yorker has written that the Republican establishment has exploited the “darkest American undercurrents” from Nixon’s Southern Strategy of attracting voters opposed to civil rights through to the birther movement. Their perpetual hostility and intransigence, with the likes of Fox as their mouthpiece, have gradually changed the nature of what is tolerable in American political discourse, and Trump is its ultimate consequence. Although Trump is too extreme now even for Fox News, media has arguably been highly influential in paving the way for his ascendance.

A further interesting area worth exploring is media influence vs. personal salience. Supporting Trump often represents a response to personal grievances, while Brexit remains a fairly distant and abstract political matter. Trump supporters grew up in a world of simple certainties: America was the greatest nation on earth, the American dream was alive and well, and Americans could look forward to a life of prosperity and happiness. That’s not entirely the case anymore, and however misguided, they believe in the simple and brutal solutions Trump espouses, and think that he will turn the clock back. Brexit is about the EU. No one cares that much about the EU. For all the jingoistic talk of taking power back and controlling borders, most Brexit supporters do not think quitting the EU is a last resort to making their deteriorating lives better. They support Brexit because it is broadly in line with their worldview, as represented by the media they consume. I suspect there is near perfect alignment between papers people read and how they will vote in the referendum. In summary: most Brexit supporters don’t know or care all that much about Brexit, however excitable they get in the run-up to the referendum, and choose to adhere to the views of their favoured news source, while Trump supporters care very much about their livelihoods and fervently believe in Trump, but are more likely to have relied on gut instinct and their peers to decide he’s their man, rather than some newspaper.

So what do Brexit and Trump tell us about media influence? All wild conjecture on my part, but probably the following: that it still matters greatly, but in a more fluid and complex way than ever; and that its influence is greater on matters that people are less committed to, as they require the media outlet that represents their world view to define their position.

An overblown business truism: behaviour as a driver of consumer purchasing

Companies that are good corporate citizens should sell more stuff: 55% of consumers claim they are more likely to purchase from companies they deem ethical (Nielsen, 2004).

As a result, corporate communicators and marketers spend lots of time telling us about the good deeds of their employers. Those who intellectualise the phenomenon cite buzz-terms like reputation economy, conscious capitalism and shared value. Everyone agrees: being good is good for business.

All true, but not to the extent that most claim.

Companies should do good. It’s the right thing to do. And it does make business sense. Being good means a company is more likely to attract good employees and investment. And less likely to be targeted by activists. And more likely to limit damage in a crisis.

But surely it’s not that great for sales. In the long term, probably. And in some sectors more than others, no doubt. If you’re a smoothie producer you’re more scrutinised than if you make ball-bearings, one would assume. But in any case, at this moment in time, how many people are truly fussed whether a company limits carbon emissions, has sound financials and treats its employees well? In the real world, Apple is the most highly valued brand in the world despite not being an especially renowned corporate citizen. Unpopular companies like Nestle and Monsanto are doing pretty well. In the real world, most people don’t even know whether the company that made their product is a good corporate citizen. They purchase based on habit, price or how pretty the packaging looks.

And the figures? Consumers claim they are more likely to buy from companies they deem ethical. Sure: but who gets polled? And what are they asked? If it’s something along the lines of “are you more likely to buy from a company that is ethical?” most people would say yes. If asked: rank the 5 top determinants of your purchasing decisions from the following list (price, habit, quality, ease and ethical manufacturer) would most not place ethical manufacturer quite far down the list? Probably.

Doing good is noble and beneficial to business on some level, and will be a prerequisite for success in the future. Is it an absolute prerequisite for immediate success now? In most cases, no.

My run-in with UK border police at St Pancras

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.

Who are the good guys?

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.

Campaigning vs. communicating

Given that there’s lots of overlap between the two, and the fact that the toolkit for each is the same, we often fail to differentiate between campaigning and communicating. But we should.

Campaigning has a single goal and an end-point (e.g. an election, a parliamentary vote, a product launch). It tends to be about framing or reframing the prevailing view (or in the case of defensive campaigning, defending against someone who is). Timeframes are usually tight. Campaigning is a slog and most top campaigners are tough and combative.

Communicating is an ongoing endeavour with no specific cut-off point. It should centre on maintaining (and gradually improving) relationships and the status quo over time. The best communicators are patient, and are as good at listening as they are at getting heard.

Most organisations invariably need to do both, often at the same time, so does this matter? Yes. Longer term communications builds the foundations for successful campaigns. And in practical terms, strategy, process, team composition and urgency will likely need to differ – often radically.

Better communications

The full-service communications agency – and the generalist communicator – face a number of challenges.

The communications landscape

Media complexity:  it goes without saying that channel proliferation, low barriers to entry and information overload conspire to make reach, engagement and persuasion more difficult.

Evolving service offering: media complexity, coupled with the continuing commoditisation or insourcing of previously lucrative activities (from monitoring a few years back to the likes of community management now) means that the service offering needs to constantly adapt and expand.

The nature of opinion formation: communications alone cannot dictate opinion formation (which then shapes reputation, purchasing decisions etc.) Peer recommendations matter, so product quality needs to be optimal, obviously. In addition, an organisation’s behaviour can dictate opinion, and communicators are often powerless to affect areas that shape it, like culture, leadership, structure and business model, either because they don’t have the skill-set or a seat at the right table (usually both).

Specialisms: scores of agencies specialise in individual elements of the communications landscape; their ability to focus means they’ll invariably be best at what they do. Do-all agencies and generalists struggle, given the sheer number of specialisms. In the “beyond communications” space, dedicated digital transformation and change management players, as well as professional services companies moving into the intersection of their traditional offering and communications, present a real threat.


Enduring paradigms: in my previous stomping ground, Brussels, the government relations paradigm was seemingly shatterproof; in London, media relations still rules the roost (get a headline in a paper and self-satisfied back-patting ensues). Unless an organisation truly commits to specialising, focusing on a single component of the communications suite is too narrow given the intricacies of modern-day communications.

Measurement as an afterthought: the metrics for success in PR/PA used to be basic, not much beyond a story in a target publication (PR) or a meeting with a decision-maker (PA), for instance. Now, organisations demand measurement set against real business objectives. Despite some improvement and all manner of models, sophisticated measurement is not yet the norm.

Low bar-setting in execution: possibly due to the simplicity of traditional outputs of communications e.g. the press release, communicators too often fail to raise the bar for elements of our work where the output itself needs to be exceptional e.g. gorgeous creative or highly insightful research.

Rudimentary approach to assessing opinion formation: as a follow-up to the previous point, communicators too frequently fail to adopt a methodical approach to assessing what makes people tick (what makes them support a cause, make a purchasing decision etc.) Pollsters and market researchers have been doing it for decades, yet communicators in the PR/PA space have bizarrely neglected it.

So what do we – agencies, generalist communicators – do about it?

The obvious: hire specialists and pick up tricks from other disciplines (marketing, political campaigning, management consulting etc.)

Genuine commitment to partnering: this should already be rife, especially within the giant marketing and communications conglomerates where scores of agencies supposedly share their specialisms and guarantee economies of scale, but it’s not ubiquitous yet. No surprise, given that the prevalent business model still favours keeping work in-house.

Eradicate the junior generalist: not literally, but a young communicator who isn’t specialising in a particular discipline of communications is an anachronism, given the complexities described above. Assuming they’re talented, experienced counsellors can still be generalists, as their role should centre on translating business problems into strategy. So knowing what the smorgasbord of specialties without actually being an expert in any of them can suffice. But what good is an inexperienced junior whose role is to execute, when they’re expected to do so across multiple disciplines, none of which they’ll ever master.

Phase out the alpha fixer: too many experienced communicators belong to the school of the alpha fixer – confident, with a quick and irrefutable answer to every concern. Given the complexities of the communications landscape, the alpha fixer cannot know it all, and should change tact. Their role should be to ask the right questions, translate business problems into strategy, then point to the experts within specialisms.

Europeans and Obama (not another post on Obama?!)

As if enough hadn’t been said or written already (and I don’t profess to be an expert, by any stretch). An interesting thought nonetheless: why are we Europeans still so enamoured of Obama?

A mix of some of the following perhaps.

To many, he’s still a rockstar

The US and Obama are always big news, but not that big compared to what’s happening here, and the fact is, he’s miles away and can’t by nature have as much impact on our day to day as our own politicians. The freshness and star appeal of 2008 thus hasn’t waned as much as it might have done if we’d seen him dominate the headlines night after night or if we could realistically blame him for our own ills. So as trite and sensationalist as it may seem, as far as we can tell, he still nearly looks and sounds the part – just as he did when he captivated the world back in 2007-08.

If not a rockstar, he’s the sort of American we feel most comfortable with

Right or wrong, we see him as professorial, smart, honest, engaging without being overbearing, seemingly willing to listen rather than act on instinct. This contrasts with the type of American some of us feel slightly uncomfortable with i.e. unashamedly brash, impulsive and unselfconscious.


Despite his relative disinterest in our continent, we still think his values are European in nature: his penchant for soft power, universal healthcare, wanting at least in principle to shut down Guantanamo, gay rights, women’s rights et al. Sure, Guantanamo remains open, the healthcare bill has no public option, the use of drone attacks under his watch has been boosted, his support of gay marriage is a fairly recent development BUT we assume that these are compromise measures, not his personal predilection.

We don’t care about his supposed biggest failure (and in any case it’s not entirely his fault and it seems piffling compared to our mess)

The recovery has been slow and unemployment remains too high? Big deal, that’s their issue, and in any case, the US is doing better than we are; frankly their woes seem piffling compared to the Eurozone travails.

The Republicans partly got us into this mess in the first place

Most of all, the reason many Europeans remain keen on Obama is the other guys. True or not, the 2008 collapse which then led to all sorts of other troubles, none more so than the Eurozone crisis, is blamed on Obama’s predecessor and his party.

The Republicans are creepy

A lot of us still view the Republicans as a sinister lot: virtual pantomime villains; certainly not the responsible party of smaller government and sensible regulation. Rumsfeld’s eerie glare into the camera as he said Old Europe didn’t matter and the subsequent cataclysm that was Iraq still grates. As does – to many – their view on universal healthcare, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation, guns, the death penalty and gay rights, as well as their hawkishness on foreign relations. More than belief, it’s perhaps the tone used by many in the party: the visceral hatred and virtual foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of another opinion on the aforementioned issues makes us feel as tad uncomfortable as this sort of belligerence is usually reserved for extreme fringe parties on this side of the Atlantic. Couple that with many Republicans’ endorsement and continual espousal of their particular notion of American exceptionalism which we would dispute, to put it mildly, and it’s perhaps no wonder that most Europeans – left and right – were pleased with the outcome on November 6th.

Am I forgetting anything?

My new blog on Italy

Some readers may remember a number of angry, annoyingly righteous and humourless posts I wrote about Italy a few years back. After a couple of people I know and trust told me that the posts were annoyingly righteous and humourless – and made me appear a bit angry and odd – I got rid of them.

They’re now back in a more appropriate setting: a new blog entitled Occasional Italian, where I’ll write about Italian stuff once in a while. I’m not trying to be an authority on Italy and the Italians but I love the subject matter and enjoy writing, and sometimes getting things off my chest is rather therapeutic.

So to any Italophiles out there, feel free to visit Occasional Italian and if it takes your fancy, comment.

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