An after-thought to a previous post – Storytelling over big budgets – which I’ve just re-read. I implied that companies need to tell a good story rather than just rely on facts and figures, but I want to stress that storytelling alone won’t do the trick. It might if you’re an organisation that is highly trusted by the public e.g. an NGO but not if you’re a corporate player, with trust in industry far lower than even back in the Enron heyday.
Ever looked at an old ad? First thing that comes to mind is often: “can’t believe people were so gullible back then.” Same holds true with PA/PR now. You look back 5-10 years (I was a student then, so this is an assumption!) and it’ll likely look hollow compared to what’s come to be expected now.
Which is what? That companies are real, open, honest and transparent. That their stories are rooted in action not spin, and that they engage closely with stakeholders and respond actively to their queries and concerns – hence the shift from Public relations to Public engagement. A large part of this engagement needs to take place online. It’s a natural fit: the web – social media in particular – represents a communications model that defines the new era of public engagement; one where companies are more decentralised, they inform the conversation rather than leading it, and they engage with stakeholders of all stripes (not just a chosen few.)
I’d stress thought that what’s required to keep this all together is a set-up that goes way beyond communications and right into the core of how a business operates. Communications alone can not turn a dud into a winner. Success requires real business commitment to “do the right thing” in anything from reducing carbon footrprints to keeping employees healthy. And if it’s being done half-heartedly, it won’t work; people are too smart.
What’s more, to make the the two parts come together and really work – the business and communications – further work is required. Silos need to come down; communicators need to tell business units how they shold operate in light of PR best practice anno 2009 while business units should be loud and proud of their initiatives, at least internally.
A tale heard many times in varying incarnations in Brussels:
- Big company X spends hundreds of thousands to get an independent report published by a reputable institution.
- Takes months, the report is finally published and the company is happy: the facts support its side of the story (e.g. product Y is not nearly as dangerous as some say) and the report is truly independent, so case closed – or so they think.
- What’s the story? Company X publishes “independent report” which proves so and so? No, that’s not interesting enough. The story becomes company X publishes supposedly independent report but pressure group Z says it can’t be trusted as it’s industry sponsored. The report flops in PR terms.
This is another tale that’s been around the block a few times:
- Pressure group Z doesn’t have any budget but understands PR far better than industry behemoth X.
- It makes a mountain out a molehill by taking a nothing story and relating it to a day-to-day human experience e.g. the equivalent of say “paracetamol will kill you” without mentioning that you would have to take 100 tablets or whatever to do so (to be fair, plenty of NGOs and the like publish material that is much less controversial, but you get the gist.)
- Pressure group Z gets loads more press than Company X got for its crumby report.
- Company X responds to the story with a press release a week later rather than responding to it immediately using online crisis communications tactics that have more impact.
What are the lessons for corporate players in all of this? Each of these points could be a blog post in itself (if not something much longer), but in short:
- Re. the last point, clearly, your crisis communications requires an online element.
- Most of all though, don’t get caught up in trying to win hearts and minds through science and fact alone. Nobody cares about science, however spuriously, if their family’s health may be at risk.
- Don’t let business people, academics, engineers or scientists decide on your story. You need communicators on board.
- Don’t just make it about defensive communication and proving that you’re not as bad as they say. So your substance isn’t that harmful (or whatever) but is your organisation really doing good deeds in the long run? If not, it should.
- Treat pressure groups with respect, engage in dialogue, show them that you do good things, and they might even be nice to you. Or at least be less outrageous.
- And I have to say this considering my line of work… Go online and develop a super web presence to engage directly with the public and explain your story to them without intermediaries. Media relations is important, of course, but the press is likely to side with pressure groups more often than not, no matter what you say or do (and if you’re truly nasty, deservedly so!) Why? Because they’re the nice guys and readers like them more than you.
Who says the web is new, odd and different? I’ve just read a memo from 1999 which outlines recommendations to a chemicals company on how to engage positively so as to improve its standing with the general public and in turn regulators i.e. what actions it should take to try to “shape the debate” within the sector in which it operated.
The cornerstones of the memo were in line with best practice in communications, urging the company to provide better content, and to educate and engage the public. Specifically, the four main points were as follows:
- Showcase scientists and the scientific rationale.
- Try to push for “informed decision” i.e. educate people; let them come to their own conclusions instead of preaching to them.
- Form coalitions and showcase strong centralised action to further outreach and credibility.
- Promote dialogue amongst stakeholders.
So what’s the big deal? Just that when people think “online communications” they often focus on what’s different in communications terms. Social media is different because it gives everyone a voice. Online crisis management is different because it needs to be more immediate. Online advertising is different because pay-per-click is more targeted.
This is all true, but people often lose track of the fact that the web is just a set of tools that can improve, expand or speed up existing communications strategies. Just look at the examples above. I won’t go into detail, but the scope for improving all four elements are immense:
- Showcase scientists? Use multimedia to improve the user experience and hyperlink to show relevant content at source.
- Informed decision? Again, multimedia. Or use aggregation to bring in third party material automatically. Blog to showcase more regular, less formal information. Use search tactics so that people who are looking for information on your subject matter come to you.
- Form coalitions? Adopt the “web as a hub” approach and bring it all together in one online space to ensure better integration of activities and joint action in one place, rather than having it scattered about.
- Dialogue? Duh.
Moral of the story? Don’t look at the web as something far removed from what came before (or as merely technology for that matter.) Instead, view it as a set of tools that makes reaching your communications objectives that little bit easier.
An organisation called Forum Nucleaire, made up of a number of companies that invest in nuclear energy, has launched a campaign aimed at kick-starting a debate on nuclear energy in Belgium.
Their angle is unusual. It’s not, as one might expect: “nuclear is cheap, nuclear is clean, nuclear is not dangerous if safety standards are adhered to, oil is a lot worse, we rely on Middle-East or Russian oil, and in any case – it’s running out.”
Instead, they highlight that the debate is a complex one and acknowledge that there are good arguments on both sides. By doing so, they are hoping that people will want to learn more and make an informed decision on whether they support nuclear energy or not, instead of agreeing with the hype, which tends to be anti-nuclear.
Seems smart. Attract goodwill by opening up and admitting that there’s a viable position which does not necessarily support your commercial interests. And seek to raise the level of debate so that it is more rational (without presenting a rational view).
GlaxoSmithKline have pledged to cut prices of their pharmaceutical products in poor countries, to pump profits back into medical care, and to share details of patented products. This is an amazing development, but frankly, it’s bizarre that no pharma company has done anything like this before.
So why have GSK done it?
- Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that maybe they’ve done it in part because it’s the right thing to do.
- In the long-run, it might very well be commercially rewarding. When most people think pharma, they think profit-driven behemoths. What a waste, given that it would be so easy for pharma to develop a positive image of itself. After all, it has played a large part in developing the standard of life we all take for granted; it’s an industry that cures diseases, prolongs life expectancy and saves lives. Who else can claim that? By being the first to make this sort of pledge in their industry, GSK are carving out a position for themselves as the “nice guy” of pharma that may very well stick for decades, even once the others have caught up. In an age where people expect companies to be ethical and to give something back, this will mean that plenty of people will pick GSK over their competitors when purchasing a product or making an investment.
- As mentioned in the Guardian article linked to above, the open-source approach would likely improve R&D by allowing the best minds to work on products simultaneously no matter where they work, rather than keeping everything in-house. It’s worked in the software industry, why couldn’t it do so elsewhere? So others might have access to GSK’s trade secrets, but GSK will improve their products and as the “nice guy” of pharma will be most consumers’ brand of choice.
Hats off to GSK, and let’s hope other pharma companies follow suit immediately rather than trying to fight it off for as long as possible. They’d only be postponing the inevitable.
A friend told me a story this week which gives some real insight into how sly lobbyists can be. A few years ago in California, Toyota and the US big 3 (GM, Ford and Chrysler) lobbied hard against stricter regulation governing emissions. This seemed odd at first. Toyota have spent years and billions in developing cars that produce fewer emissions – surely they’d want stricter emissions regulations as this would enable them to exercise their competitive edge?
Not quite. As ever, Toyota are a forward-thinking company (see my previous post):
- They understood that they have a competitive edge over the big 3 globally because they produce cars that are more environmentally friendly.
- They understood that the prospect of losing out on a huge market like California might finally move the big 3 to start investing more in hybrid technology and other less petrol-guzzling alternatives.
- Conclusion? They prefer having to compete with the big 3’s SUVs in California than have them invest in R&D which might in a few years make them viable competitors in the global hybrid car sector.
That’s clever. What I’d be curious to know is: Toyota and the big 3 presumably sat down and co-ordinated their efforts at some point. Did the big 3 know they were being duped? And could the Toyota execs and lobbyists keep the smirks off their faces?
I caught a few minutes of a show on TV this afternoon (sorry, no reference) comparing the state of the US and Japanese automotive industries and tracing it back to 1993, when Al Gore led a government-funded initiative to develop environmentally friendlier cars. During the Clinton administration, $1.5 billion was poured into this initiative, but American car manufactures opposed it very strongly throughout and set the following conditions:
- It would be entirely government-funded
- They did not have to produce anything, simply show that they’d done the research
In the end, shock horror, nothing came of it: they did some research but continued to focus most of their attention and production on very profitable, petrol-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks. However, Japanese manufacturers, Honda and Toyota in particular, were a lot more concerned by Gore’s initiative, assuming (correctly, as it turns out) that this was only the start of a process of government demanding that industry start paying heed to environmental concerns. Without any government funding whatsoever, they conducted their own research into developing cars that were less damaging to the environment, resulting in the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, while GM et al. carried on churning out their SUVs.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and the state of affairs couldn’t be more different. The credit crunch has hit, oil prices are fluctuating wildly, and many citizens are concerned about climate change and want to do their bit. Combined result? GM, Ford and Chrysler may go bust, while Toyota and Honda and holding up reasonably well, and certainly have a lot more sympathisers than the US behemoths. If they manage to survive, the US manufacturers are now clearly going to have to start playing catch-up and they’ll be cursing themselves for not grasping the opportunity back in the stable 90s, when they had the time and resources to develop both the relevant products and the goodwill of consumers.
Lesson? Yet again, that industry (not just automotive) should stop thinking that concerns regarding the environment (or health for that matter) are a passing fad that will go away. Rather than being opposed to radical change, industry should study societal developments and try to be one step ahead of the game by accepting that there is a price to pay and trying to be part of the solution. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it invariably turns out to be commercially viable down the line. Just look at Toyota and Honda.