The end of the road

Events last week prompted me to write two blogs and it wasn’t surprising given what happened. Bell Pottinger expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) was a significant moment and brought the issue of ethics into sharp focus.

Over the last 24 hours we have had it confirmed that the company has gone into administration. My heart goes out to the staff who have been caught up in this and now have lost their jobs. I would not wish that situation on anyone and particularly as I am sure many were in no way involved in the events that have led to the collapse of the company.

It is a reminder of the critical importance of reputation to any and all businesses and organisations. This is not for the protection of the reputation itself which could lead to perverse behaviours but more for what having a positive reputation brings. It can mean customers wanting to use the product  or service, it can mean people willing to engage with the organisation and it can mean advocates for the business. 

In some places managing reputation has become a ‘dirty’ phrase because of the connotation it has. We need to reclaim the definition so it shows it is done ethically and for the right outcomes for the customer or service user. 

I agree with some commentators that while the events have cast a shadow over the world of PR and communication it has also given us a chance to move forward. This is a time to explain what we do, bring people into the industry, keep a focus on ethics and demonstrate we are stronger for the learning.

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Crisis? What crisis?

The team were lucky enough this week to pick up the Public Sector Communication Award for communicating in a crisis. I am incredibly proud of the team and the work they have done during the past four months. But the award sparked some social media discussion about whether it really was crisis communication or was it just comms at high speed.

When a disaster hits whether it is natural or man-made it needs swift and effective communication to protect lives. Emergency services have to step in and get the right messages to the right people at the right time. It is high stakes stuff. Get it wrong and people may lose their lives. 

We also have to deal with reputational crises. These are times when the business we represent or company we work for is threatened by actions or perceptions of what they do. We have seen it with BP, Alton Towers and most recently Bell Pottinger. But with both the most important thing is to maintain confidence in the organisation or business.

In both circumstances the approaches are similar. You need to be quick to respond and then to maintain a consistent and constant flow of information. You need to be open and honest with the communication and if something has to obviously gone wrong then say so. You need to recognise the public mood and take notice of it when you are providing a response. You need to plan for the long term. The initial moments in any crisis may be critical to protect lives or reputations but the work will go on for months and even years. You have to be on top of things every step of the way.

The possibilities of getting it wrong are many and the impact can be tremendous. Speed alone will not mean effective crisis communication and neither will slow but honest communications. It needs a blend of all the elements I have outlined in the right proportion at the right time. 

This year we have been through some testing times with unbelievable pressure and complexity. We have managed to deal with it, keep going and hopefully help to support people, most importantly the victims families and those affected. 

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Why the Bell Pottinger scandal matters

When I made the move from journalism into public relations I didn’t lose my sense of right and wrong. As a reporter there was a very clear code of conduct and your reputation mattered. It made the difference between getting the story and facing a wall of silence. 

My first day in PR was interesting but not once did anyone talk to me about a code of conduct or ethical practice. It was a positive working environment with skilled and professional individuals but it was not a priority conversation to have.

More than 20 years later and we have seen one of the biggest PR scandals in a long time. We have seen decisive action from the  Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). There has been much condemnation from across the industry but in the cold light of day we have to make this a game changer in the world of PR.

I woke this morning with more determination than ever to ensure the image people have of PR is not that seen on the front of the Financial Times today or on Newsnight last night. For years we have tried to demonstrate things are a world away from the comedy Absolutely Fabulous but now we face a bigger threat to our reputation. The actions of the few should not define the many but how we deal with poor behaviour is another way we will be judged.

From today we should ensure all entering PR and communication roles are given a clear understanding of ethics and behaviour from day one. It is not good enough just to know there is a code of conduct you have to know what it means in your daily business whether manager or new recruit. Discussions on ethics and approaches should take place on a daily basis.

In policing there has been extensive work taking place to embed the code of ethics produced by the College of Policing. It is discussed regularly, it is considered in decision making, it is part of recruitment and promotion and after a number of years it is well understood. We also have an independent ethics committee who can review policy and activities across policing. Having met some of them I know they can and do scrutinise the media and communication activity and decision making.

So what now? We have to see a change in the way we approach the question of ethical standards and behaviour.

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A question of ethicsĀ 

The decision today by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) to expel Bell Pottinger is brave and decisive. For many years the industry has been trying to demonstrate it values an ethical approach to the work and has invested time in training and publicising this approach. But this feels like a turning point.

The industry body has to uphold the highest standards and membership should never be taken for granted. It is reassuring to see strong action being taken. 

The behaviour has been highlighted by the media and once again means people will question the activity of all communication professionals. Over the years I have spent a lot of time trying to explain what PR is about and to demonstrate the positive impact it can have on life. We cannot let the actions of a few tarnish the work we all do. If we let them continue unchallenged it will be hugely damaging to us all.

I am proud to be a member of the PRCA at a time when they have taken a significant stand for the industry. From the report issued today there is a salutary lesson about the importance of senior people understanding what activity staff are involved in and what work is being undertaken. Ignorance can never be an excuse when organisations fall below expected standards. 

As communicators we all need to ensure ethics remain in the forefront of our minds. We need to train and discuss issues, we need to demonstrate ethical working and continue to challenge those that could bring the industry into disrepute. Let us use this difficult situation as a turning point for us all.

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Adapt and survive

I was very sad to learn a few days ago of the end of the line for the Oldham Chronicle newspaper. After 160 years the daily newspaper closed with around 50 people losing their jobs. The loss of the jobs is awful but also is the fact that print journalism will no longer cover the town. After starting my working life on local newspapers I have a love for them and the coverage that is from investigative reporting through to attending local events.

There are a number of newspapers I have worked on years ago that also don’t exist anymore. It isn’t unusual and can be seen happening up and down the country and over the past few years. Many will blame the rise of social media but it is more about people changing the way they consume news and information.

It made me reflect on my current work as I have been in my post for the past almost 10 years and have been at the same organisation for 16 years. The blink of an eye in Oldham Chronicle terms. When I first started we didn’t have social media and the Internet was a novelty. The work was almost totally focused on providing information to the various media outlets.

Even 10 years ago we had only just dipped a toe in the water to establish social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. When a major incident happened we looked to the media to broadcast key information and in some cases agencies would resort to using loudhailers.

There have been huge changes in the world of communication that we have had to adapt to. We have seen tremendous change with new channels of communication and the emergence of new phenomenon like the citizen journalist. At the heart of it though the job is still essentially the same. It is about effective communication and engagement. It doesn’t matter whether this is face-to-face or through new digital channels the purpose remains the same.

The news media that survive are those that understand what their essence is and can keep a focus on it in a changing landscape. They are providing news, information and entertainment. For years this has been through the printed newspaper or TV and radio bulletins but now they have to think differently. They need to look at the digital developments, online trends and how people are behaving and be able to adapt.

As communicators we live in exciting times but we absolutely must be able to adapt if we are to survive or even thrive.

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Small but mighty

The world is full of the big things that shout loudest and make the most noise. It is those elements that capture people’s attention and are in the face of everyone around them. But in the silence is often the strongest action and it is those who go about their business behind the scenes that can have the most impact.

As communicators we have to be behind the scenes to really be effective. The minute that we step straight into the spotlight we have damaged our credibility at least that is my viewpoint. I want to be able to operate with openness, honesty and accountability but off camera. Recent events have shown us examples of communicators who became the story and ultimately had to step aside for their positions.

The most effective people are not those who have to shout about what they have done, but are those who get their head down and are focused on achieving results. It isn’t about them although they do have a pride in their work. It is about doing what is right and best for the people and businesses they are supporting. I am pleased to say I have met many people like this and I am honoured to know them.

When we step away from our current communication role what will people say about us? Will they say that we get the job done and that we did it without demands for recognition? Will they say that we shouted loudly but didn’t always hit the mark?

I know we are in the business of publicity and building reputations and brands. There is a lot written and shared about building our own personal brands. For me, it has to be about growing our own reputation based on sound advice and making things happen. We must have the best for the organisation at heart even if that means challenging circumstances for us to face.

A few days ago I had to say goodbye to my little rabbit companion Coco. His had been an interesting life which often appeared to be him going unnoticed by the world around him. When I posted the sad news of his death on social media I was overwhelmed by the messages that remembered him and the impact his short life had. It was a quiet existence but it had left touched many people and had a big impact. Perhaps more of us should aim to be like Coco.

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We are stronger together

I was busy sat at my desk concentrating on clearing a few tasks before I left the office for the day. The rolling news is always on in the office but the breaking news banner caught my eye. Another potential terror attack on the streets of Europe and I couldn’t quite believe it.

From that point I have been grabbing as much information from the news reports as possible I had to try and understand what happened. My thoughts immediately were with those injured and the grieving families of those who lost their lives. I also thought of the emergency services who responded swiftly and were rushing into face the danger.

It is nearly three months since terror was brought to my own home city. I wasn’t in the frontline and have total respect for those that are. But I was affected by the work I had to do and have taken some time to manage my thoughts. Events today have weighed heavy on my mind. I thought of all those affected by events in Manchester, the victims, their families, those injured and still recovering and all those who went into face the danger. I am sure many will be affected by what has happened in Barcelona today.

Terror attacks have a significant impact and while the day-to-day business will continue many will be living with the incident for a long time. It changes people’s lives and many need support to help them not just in the immediate aftermath but in the future.

When we join together and unite in the face of terror we gain strength. It is when we are strong that we can ensure there is support available for those who need it. We can look out for those who are struggling or in need. We can help to rebuild are communities. 

My thoughts are with all those affected by the incident in Barcelona and with all those living with the impact of terror attacks around the world. Love will always shine through.

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