The 3 issues today’s crisis comms professional needs to tackle

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Make sure that you’re prepared for these three big issues which are shifting the crisis comms goalposts (image source: http://www.bairdscmc.com)

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the world is changing, and with it the way that crises develop. I was listening to a very engaging podcast by the Gulf News business team, with communications professional Omar Qirem (check out the post here).

While the conversation touched on a host of crisis issues and triggers, there were three big issues that are relatively new, and which are shifting the crisis communications landscape.

Hacking and Emails

Long gone are the days when whistleblowers would walk out of offices with a suitcase full of papers. Today, information is conveyed electronically, and all it took for Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of US military documents to Wikileaks was a single USB drive. Hacking is becoming a real problem for both governments the world over, as well as corporates (just ask Sony).

Hacking is developing from the well-understood concept of the ethically-troubled whistleblower to groups-for-hire who are ready and willing to hack email servers, or public domain accounts in the search of damaging information. Hackers can also attack websites and social media accounts to fake news, or even create fake sites which are mirrored on the real thing.

We’re going to have to become more aware of these threats, and develop mitigation strategies, including better security (at the very least, please use two-factor authentication as much as you can and don’t use the same password for every single account), and also educate executives on the need to communicate differently. What you write can be leaked; are you willing to see that email on the front page of a newspaper, or a website?

The Rise of Values-Based Communication

Consumers aren’t just interested in what brands make and sell. They want to know what we stand for. This public interest has partly been driven by the political climate in the US and Western Europe and by the behavior of millennials and their increasing skepticism of established institutions. For brands, value-based communications is a key point of differentiation, particularly for industries which have been impacted by technology-driven commoditization. Think of Paul Unilever’s Polman and his passionate belief in sustainability.

Conversely, executive behavior which is looked down upon by the public can have serious business implications. Whilst the official reasons for Uber being stripped of its London license were due to questions around passenger safety and drivers’ rights, the behavior and words of former CEO Travis Kalanick haven’t done Uber any good. The apology proffered by the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to have gone a long way to defusing some of the tension between Uber and Transport for London which oversees the company’s license to operate.

Data and Online Regulation

We’ve been living in the internet age for over two decades now, and business has benefited from a relative lack of legislation and regulation about what can and can’t be done online, particularly with data. That has slowly changed as governments have sought to understand how the internet has changed our lives. Upcoming legislation in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is going to change how corporations monitor and store data (it’s been covered in some detail by Rachel Miller for the CIPR). There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and social media networks will also have to deal with more governmental oversight. There’s been a string of scandals around issues such as extremist content on YouTube,  Facebook and the Trump election, and Twitter’s lack of action on far-right hate speech.

Whilst I’m certain that more regulation is coming, and soon, it’s far too early to say how this will change how we as communicators operate online. There will be more data-related crises, either due to how data is collected and used, or due to an inability to adhere to these new rules.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. What issues do we need to better understand when it comes to modern-day crises? Please do share with me your thoughts.

The PR industry needs to do much more for employees and their mental health

For many of you, the headline will be no surprise. When it comes to mental health issues, the public relations and communications industry just isn’t doing enough. A survey undertaken by the PRCA and ICCO, in partnership with IABC, across Europe and the Middle East underlines the scale of the issue that is facing the industry. Here are my highlights from the 140 plus respondents.

1. Mental Health is an issue for many of us

Mental Depression Suffering PR people

A quarter of respondents to the survey said that they had suffered from mental ill health

A quarter of those surveyed said they’d had mental health issues, the majority of them being diagnosed (either professionally or self-diagnosed) with depression or anxiety.

2. PR Practitioners don’t feel the industry is accepting of people suffering from mental ill health.

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The majority of respondents felt that the PR and communications industry isn’t accepting of people suffering from mental ill health

There’s a widespread perception among people working in the PR industry that the industry as a whole isn’t willing to help those suffering from mental ill health. A quarter did say that they felt the profession was fairly accepting, while almost half said the industry was either not very accepting or very accepting. Almost a third responded by saying they didn’t know.

3. Few Organizations have a mental health policy in place

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Less than ten percent of respondents answered that their firm has a formal mental health policy

What’s most concerning is the the apparent lack of any formal mental health frameworks or policies in place among both agencies and client-side teams. Fewer than ten percent of respondents said their team had any systems in place. I’d assume this would also extend to insurance coverage for mental health issues. If there are policies in place, it’s clear that they’re not being communicated effectively to employees.

4. Workloads up, and Stress is also on the rise

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Unsurprisingly, over fifty percent of respondents felt more stressed today than they did a year back

These responses mirror my own observations about workloads. The industry is struggling with workloads, especially on the agency side where margins are tight. Over half of respondents said they’re suffering from more stress today compared to 12 months ago, partly due to internal pressures and also partly due to client demands (this was a frequent issue that was flagged up by agency people, underlining the lack of understanding many on the client side have on agency pressures).

5. Colleagues, not Managers, are the go-to people to talk about mental health

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Employees are much more eager to talk to colleagues, rather than managers. There’s a 50/50 split on those who would be willing to talk to colleagues, compared to a 40/60 split for those who would prefer to talk to their manager.

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Management need to do more to be approachable on the issue on mental health. This may prove a challenge for some, especially if the employee believes that the manager is responsible for his or her poor mental health.

This is just a snapshot of the research that the PRCA and ICCO will be releasing today. I’d like to thank both organizations for their work, as well as the CIPR, for promoting debate on a topic which has been ignored for far too long. The PRCA will be hosting webinars on mental health and how you can best deal with this issue. The CIPR also has a host of resources online. Please do visit their respective websites to keep up to date on the issue. I hope more associations begin to understand the importance of talking about this issue, so that those in our industry who need help get it, and so that employers realize the importance of promoting mental well being and a balanced approach to how we work.

Can We Please Appoint (Qualified) Comms People to Comms Roles?

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“Did you hear about the time they appointed a banker to head up communications in the White House?”

It’s rant time. I saw the news this morning that President Trump is expected to name Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. This follows the move by United Airlines to promote its general counsel to effectively head/oversee global communications.

When is the last time any self-respecting firm went out and hired a CFO who wasn’t a chartered accountant. Or a legal counsel who was not licensed? And yet, despite crisis after crisis, firms and organizations are still appointing people to look after their reputations who are neither qualified nor have the necessary experience.

While I’ve written before about merit, this is different. As an industry and a function, we need to start promoting the idea of a global qualification that will be a prerequisite for stepping up to a certain role or responsibility. 

Organizations need to know that the person they’re bringing in is competent at all times (particularly during a crisis), is ethical in their behavior, understands how to listen to and engage with all stakeholders, and is able to show a proper understanding of how communications delivers organizational value through measurement. A certification should be able to prove this and more.

The CIPR has developed its accredited and chartered status labels. The IABC also has its CMP and SCMP certifications. As an industry, isn’t it about time that we come together, through a global body such as the Global Alliance, to push for certification for members and for hiring managers and organizations who are looking for communications professionals to favor those practitioners who are globally certified?

I’d say yes, it’s about time.

Join me and pledge to work with and hire comms people on merit

On merit

Merit. I just love that word and what it means. To quote the Oxford Dictionary, the noun merit is understood to mean, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” Hence the phrase, to be deemed worthy of something on merit.

I was reminded of the notion this week, by a journalist who was Tweeting about being treated poorly by a brand. Her frustration was in part to her feeling that she was being mistreated by the brand’s agency due to her cultural heritage. I completely understood her frustration and her sense of injustice, hence why I’m writing this post.

In one sense, we’re lucky to work in the Gulf. It’s an up-and-coming region which has attracted some remarkable communications and media talent and experience from around the world. There’s a dynamic feel to working in such a multi-racial industry.

At the same time, I often get the feel of tribalism, of people in companies and institutions wanting to work with one of their own, not for any other reason than culture or nationality. It probably doesn’t surprise many of us that people stereotype (and if you don’t believe me, look at this research from Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Ming Leung who analyzed 3.9 million applications), but there’s also official discrimination – the hiring of certain nationalities to fill quotas – as well as unconscious bias . Finding people on merit, who can do the best job, seems to be a challenge we employers often get wrong.

The question I then have to ask is what does bringing the wrong people do to our industry, or even people who are too junior or who don’t have the right understanding of the role or the audience? In my own view, it devalues the work of us all, pushes us farther away from the board room, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media professionals or other stakeholder groups.

We have to look beyond traits such as race, nationality, gender, and ask if the person you’re looking to hire and work with has the right attitude, understanding, skills and experience for the role. We need more diversity and inclusion in our industry which mirrors that of our audiences and communities, and that will happen by understanding our biases and looking beyond them to finding the best talent out there, who deserve and will succeed in a role based on their own merit. That includes working with representative bodies such as the CIPR, IABC, Global Alliance and MEPRA who promote skills-based learning and certification programs.

I’m willing to take a pledge now to work with and hire comms people on merit. I want you to join me in taking this pledge. Either share this article or leave a comment below. Together, we can and will change the comms industry for the better, to be a function that respects and promotes the notion of merit.

What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.

A Lack of Quality: Why the Comms Industry needs a professional qualification

Why don't we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn't it time we change this?

Why don’t we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn’t it time we change this?

I don’t want to offend, but enough is enough. I want to tackle the elephant in the room, the issue that many of us face but few of us have the bravery to talk openly about. We have far too many people in the communications profession who haven’t gotten to where they are on merit or who are unsuited for the role.

You know what I’m talking about, the person who got into the job because his or her father is the best friend of the GM. Or the comms manager who has been appointed because global wants to increase their diversity count (despite all of their customers being male). Or the person who is overseeing comms for a specific industry (let’s say, social media), and yet doesn’t even use the product. Or the employee who has been shunted into communications because the company can’t get rid of them. Or the person who has been employed because of their nationality and there’s a quota, despite their lack of experience (or ability).

We have to tackle the issue of quality in the profession. Why, one may ask? Simply because they represent all of us. Their actions shape the views of others. As communicators, we often talk about a place at the table. We won’t claim that board or management seat, unless we’re qualified and able to add value to the organizations that employ us. And, there’s the issue of agencies, which I’ve talked about before.

Who would hire an accountant who isn’t chartered? Or a lawyer that hasn’t passed their bar exam? And yet, there are many who work in our industry without a single qualification. We need to change this approach to professional qualifications. There are many to choose from, such as the accredited or the chartered status from the CIPR. And there’s the CMP examination from the IABC. There’s a host of qualifications out there.

As an industry, we need to change the debate from years of experience to competency and skills. To me, it’s no longer good enough for organizations to seek out communications professionals with little to no understanding of our profession. There needs to be a concerted effort by our industry, by communications professionals who care about how we are perceived by others, for us to adopt a minimum certification.

Only by making a case for a professional certification, which will act as a symbol of our dedication to continuous study and development and our adherence to ethics and best practices, will we receive the respect and trust that we crave and need to be taken as serious as the profession needs to become a boardroom position.

Are you with me?

#CIPRElection – What do the CIPR’s international members want?

The CIPR can do much to promote public relations overseas, and, most importantly, support its international membership.

The CIPR can do much to promote public relations overseas, and, most importantly, support its international membership.

As part of my bid to stand for the CIPR Council this year, I’ve written about what I want to bring to the table on behalf my fellow CIPR members who are not based in the United Kingdom.

I’d like to turn the tables slightly and talk about what the CIPR needs to do when it comes to its members abroad, many of whom (including myself) look to the CIPR for leadership and guidance when it comes to the industry. Let’s start with the obvious.

1) Ethics – While the industry has come a long way in terms of ethics since the days of Edward Bernays, ethics is still an issue for communicators. For people who are tasked with managing reputations, professionalism must be at the top of the list when it comes to engagement with all CIPR members. To its credit, the organization has one of the strongest and most robust codes of conducts I’ve ever read. In addition, the recent launch of a compulsory ethics CPD module is also a step in the right direction.

I’d like the CIPR to build on these steps, and launch ethics campaigns outside of the UK throughout ethics month (which is normally held in September), as well as all-year round. This can take a number of forms, such as social media dialogues and webinars. It could also include working with other public relations bodies, to share best practices. For those of use who care about the reputation of our industry, I’m sure this would be more than welcome.

2) Training and Development – The CIPR has the best development program in the industry, full stop. Its Continuing Professional Development program is exceptional, and covers everything any communicator needs to develop (I’m even talking Chief Communication Officers here). Likewise, the range of academic qualifications offered by the CIPR is outstanding. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has undertaken and completed a CIPR qualification.

This positive attitude needs to spread. We need more communicators outside of the UK to understand the importance of ongoing training and development. We also need more employers to understand that when they look to hire, they should look for CIPR qualifications. We have far too many communicators who haven’t studied communications, either because they don’t understand the importance of doing so (I hope these are far and few between), or because there are no institutions that offer courses in subjects such as internal comms, public affairs or public relations. The CIPR needs to step into this gap, and bring its know-how to bear, to promote a respect for training and development and to offer the tools needed for CIPR members outside the UK to enhance their own abilities.

3) Networking – We’re part of the family, but sometimes out-of-sight can be out-of-mind. One aspect of my membership that I enjoy the most is networking with my fellow CIPR members. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the CIPR offices in London and meet with the organization’s leadership. But many others who are abroad haven’t. We can use technology to bridge that gap (the CIPR International has done great work, with webinars on countries outside of the UK for its home-based members), as well as promoting the development of local chapters outside of the UK where numbers allow. The more we feel that we’re one family, the more we’ll benefit from what the CIPR has to offer.

These are but a few ideas that the CIPR can use to engage with members abroad. I hope to be able to provide a voice for those members, and bridge that gap. The CIPR is an incredible organization, and I have benefited enormously from all that is has to offer. I want others who live outside of the UK to have the same experience that I have had with the CIPR. I hope you agree, and will support me during the #CIPRElection.