Ethics and why it should matter more than ever to today’s communicators

If there’s ever a word to kill a conversation, it’s ethics. Despite our job being all about reputations, we’ve not given ethics the importance and time that it deserves. This is changing, thanks in part to the efforts of a number of associations, including the Global Alliance, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), there’s a renewed focus on putting ethics at the heart of what we do and why we do it.

But why does ethics matter, really? Let me first state the obvious; communications has undergone a drastic change over the past decade, owing to the rise of digital channels and social media platforms. Today, it’s easier than ever to reach a global audience through the likes of Facebook or Google. And it’s also easier than ever to manipulate these platforms, to share messages that are false through personas which are fake.

I’m not talking theory here. We all saw the work that was undertaken by Bell Pottinger in South Africa, which led to its collapse. I live in a region which is being consumed by online trolls, botnets and other unethical activity, much of which is reported to be undertaken not by individuals but by organizations.

It is in this context that we need to renew our commitment to undertaking the best ethical practice, which will apply to every single one of us, no matter where we work and how long we’ve spent in the industry.

The sixteen principles which were announced this week by the Global Alliance are a guide that we should all use in terms of how we ourselves practice and represent our profession. We have a responsibility to society, to our stakeholders and to fellow professionals to uphold these principles in everything that we say and we do.

Looking back, what I’m most proud of when I read over the ethics announcement made by the Global Alliance today is that the taskforce that has worked on this represents the majority of associations and communicators worldwide. There’s a growing realization that we need to step up and not just demonstrate that we are against unethical practices as one, but that we’re adopting best practices. We want to be an industry that promotes positive messages, rather than a profession which is known by monikers such as ‘spin doctors’.

Jean and the other task force members have put significant thought and energy into this project, and this is only the beginning. You’ll find resources such as case studies, podcasts, newsletters and advisories that will bring ethics to life through storytelling. This archive will grow, thanks to you and your submissions from around the world. We have to ensure that ethics remains at the core of our industry, and that we feel able to stand up when we see or are asked to do something which is unethical.

I’d like to thank Jean, Jose Manuel and everyone who has given time to bring this project to life. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts to promote a stronger, more ethical communications and public relations industry. My last request is to all of you. Please use these resources, learn from them and let them guide you when it comes to ethical communications. Let’s be known as an industry that is one of, if not the most, ethical in terms of what we say and what we do.

This post first appeared on the Global Alliance website.

Lessons from Cannes (and other awards) on what makes for great PR campaigns

There’s an art to creating great communications campaigns (image source: Cannes Lions)

I’ve just finished judging hundreds of entries for the Cannes Lions. The experience has been overwhelming, not just due to the amount of work submitted but also due to the work’s quality. I’ve judged for years, and there are few competitions that come close to the overall level of excellence (I’d say the Effies, the IABC Gold Quills, and the Holmes Report’s Sabres).

Throughout all of my judging experiences, there’s a couple of simple lessons that communication professionals need to bear in mind. These four steps will help create powerful campaigns that should be worthy of putting into any top-tier awards competition.

1. The Why – Is What you Want to Say Powerful Enough?

First of all, why do you want to communicate. Are you launching a new product, or do you want to improve your company’s reputation. The clearer you are on why you want to engage, the simpler it will be to come up with a narrative that your audience will understand. There’s got to be a strong purpose to your communications, which then links into the second step.

2. The Insight – Listen to your Audience

You know why you want to communicate, but how does your narrative tie into the interests of your audience? Far too often communicators don’t take the time to listen and observe their publics, and simply go out, all guns blazing, with messages that don’t resonate. Powerful insights connect your audience with your narrative in a way that engages them and makes them want to listen to you. If you don’t do this well, your campaign won’t cut through the thousands of messages that we process on a daily basis, and you’ll have made no impact whatsoever. Take your time, do your research, and get out of the office (and off the Powerpoint presentations) to understand what your audience cares about and how you can tap into those emotions. In other words, bring the outside in.

Bold communicators are also ready to tie in their narrative with social issues. This isn’t always easy, and can alienate certain groups if your target audience is the public. However, as business becomes more politicized, I expect communicators (and organizational leaders) to realize that companies can’t shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter both to them and their stakeholders.

3. The Strategy & Execution – Go Personal or Go Mass, Blend Online with Offline

Now we get to the fun part, which can make or break a campaign. No matter how good your planning and research is, all your audience will see is the execution of your strategy. Effectively, what do you want your communications to achieve and how are you bringing it to life?

There’s a couple of themes I’ve noticed of late. Either campaigns go as big as possible during their execution, and include as many people from the target audience during the execution itself (this is different from sharing the campaign’s content). Or, they execute an execution with a handful of people, and use that content to tell a person narrative. Both can work very well if tied in well enough with the brand/product narrative and with the audience insight.

What’s also not surprising is how the best campaigns are using both online and offline mediums to amplify the narrative. Print, radio and television plays a role in engaging an audience, whilst digital keeps the engagement alive and allows for dialogue. Some of the most recent campaigns I’ve seen also use dark social; one smart team were creating content solely to be shared on WhatsApp. I expect this trend to gather pace as communicators realize the power of one-to-one or one-to-a-few messaging platforms.

Another noticeable trend is the use of paid media to boost the reach of content. The social media platforms have become masterful at ensuring we have to spend money to reach our audience, no matter how good the content. Influencers help to mitigate the anti-viral nature of social media platforms. Either way, it’s going to cost more to reach your target audience today online than it would have done a couple of years ago. At the very least, creating content has never been easier (or cheaper).

4. The Measurement – Use Indicators that Align with the Business (not AVEs)

Finally, how do you prove your success? The most common measurement was AVEs or advertising value equivalency. Communicators are dropping this measure, but at a rate which is slower than I’d like. Most of the work I’ve judged this year uses AVEs. Another common measure is impressions, basically the number of people exposed to the message.

Smart communicators are shifting to more meaningful indicators. A simple one which does crop up more frequently is sentiment, either in traditional media or online. Communicators are also borrowing from their marketing colleagues, and are using some digital metrics (engagement, CTRs etc), as well as brand measurements focusing on reach and response. Brand measurement helps us understand if the campaign has won viewers’ selective attention and leave a brand-associated impression and if the campaign has triggered a change in behavior or attitudes favorable to the brand.

The ultimate measures are those which are tangible. Has the campaign helped sales, has it raised more money? Has the campaign resulted in a behavioral shift, has it resulted in new regulations? Some communicators are capturing and sharing this, but it’s still only a small percentage (I’d say single digits). This needs to change, especially if communications is to be seen as a strategic function within organizations.

Here’s my four pointers to what makes for an award-winning campaign. As always, I look forward to hearing your inputs. Please do share your thoughts with me.

And best wishes for all those who have entered this year’s Cannes Lions! There’s some outstanding work.

Journalists, Respect and why Communicators should deal Honestly with the Media

The region’s independent media are under pressure like never before, either financially or from online harassment. Comms people should treat the media with the respect they’ve earned (image from Sri Lanka’s Awantha Antigula)

I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.

Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.

Media Still Matters

First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:

  1. The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
  2. Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
  3. At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.

The Media owes us Nothing

We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.

Let’s be Respectful of the Media

We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.

Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally

Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.

Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

VMA Insights: CEOs and what they’re looking for in today’s chief communications officer

VMA picture

I’ve been doing some late night reading of a rather interesting piece of research. Commissioned by the recruitment firm, the VMA Group, the study reached out to business leaders across Europe to ask a simple question: What do CEOs expect of today’s chief communications officer?

The research looked at a number of key areas, and I’ll outline the key findings below.

  • The Value of Communications
  1. Although the value of communications as a central business operation is implicitly accepted by CEOs, many communications directors still need to make a more convincing ROI case for the impact of their own work.
  2. CEOs are still uncertain that the company’s social media activity is driven by either a strategic purpose or a clear sense of the desired returns.
  3. Reputations are more fragile than ever. CEOs frequently see this as the key value point provided by the communications director.

“We see a corporate communications director as the builder of the brand value proposition, the custodian of the corporate reputation – not in a reactive way but proactively. In order to sell our products and services, increasingly we first have to sell the company. Whether it’s government giving you incentives, or it is customers buying because they trust you. Unless you’ve got a meaningful brand proposition you can’t get off first base.

A strategic communications director understands that and understands that’s their role, and it really ought to have as much value on the balance sheet as other assets of the business because any strategic move will create stress points in the brand proposition that need to be managed.” David Lockwood, CEO, Laird PLC

  • Strategy: Is Communications Trusted
  1. Communications directors are frequently involved in strategy creation; almost always at least with some input.
  2. The Majority of CEOs actively involve the communications director when there is a demonstrably ‘communications-centric’ issue.
  3. Three core strategic viewpoints that communications directors bring to the discussion: how to translate the strategy into content and channels; and the reputational rewards and risks of strategic decisions.
  4. CEOs from multinationals see communications’ input more broadly and progressively – as a vital strategic voice in all business decisions, especially from the perspective of reputation and brand.

“I think it’s obvious that a communications professional needs to be closely linked to the strategy because what they work on – formulating the communications and regulatory environment – is of strategic importance. So communications and public affairs needs not just to be ‘part’ of the company strategy but actually linked to the strategy – wired into the board and well resourced. If it’s an afterthought you might as well save yourself the money and not do it.” Wim Mijs, CEO, European Banking Federation

  • All Change – The New Communications Culture
  1. The digital revolution has brought arguably even more significant changes to the approach and culture of communications than to the core skills of the job.
  2. The ‘message control’ model is over. Key challenge: communications professionals must somehow now find a new way to create alignment among audiences without ever dictating to them.
  3. Authenticity and transparency are the essential tonal cues today – otherwise your communications will be dismissed out of hand.
  4. Audiences expect evidence of a new type of business model – socially responsible, publicly responsive, democratically inclusive.

“We’ve noticed a big and increasing demand for transparency. Our consumers and stakeholders at Arla want to know where their food is coming from. They want transparency in the supply chain. And I would say that the balance between a ‘communications’ approach to stakeholder engagement and a ‘marketing’ approach is shifting in favor of communications. In my business, that’s manifested by an increasing preference for having very honest, authentic, transparent conversations, and moving away from grand claims, mass advertising and so on.” Tomas Pietrangeli, MD, Arla Foods

  • The Challenge of Filtering in an Age of Noise
  1. Discernment and filtering have become core skills – the ability to select from a vast and noisy information flow what is of actual value to the business.
  2. Communications professionals need to rise above the manias and mass panics the online world can create, providing a cool head in a crisis.
  3. A key, proactive part of filtering is to anticipate major disruptive events coming down the pipeline and to have a plan of action for how to deal with them.

“I don’t think anyone’s figured out quite how corporate communications works in a world where social media is on the scene before you are. Trying to control the message is really tough in that environment, of course. But it’s the speed with which other people out there react – with real-time messaging before you’ve even had a chance to get your messages out and establish the facts.” Mark Tanzer, CEO, ABTA

  • The Need for True Leadership
  1. Core technical skills are still important; they must now be supplemented by more core business skills.
  2. CEOs want more than support, counsel or executive ‘translation’ services. Businesses now need true leadership from communications directors.
  3. Proactive endeavour is the critical element – delivering new business growth, rooting out commercial opportunities, driving change internally.

“I find that communications people should be closer to the business. They should be able to understand the company figures properly – to understand the business, but also where it’s heading and what issues it’s going to face. In general, if communications people have sufficient insights in the business, I truly believe they are able to generate more value.” Paul de Krom, CEO, TNO

  • The Future: A Profession in Revolutionary Change

There’s no key findings here (I’ve highlighted the capabilities required by CEOs today in the image at the beginning of the article). However, I do want to pull up one last quote, as it’s particularly apt to the Middle East, where we have an issue with speaking truth to power and instead focusing on political maneuvering inside the organization.

Before that, I’d like to say thank you to the VMA Group for this thought-provoking report, especially the International Association of Business Communicators EMENA board member Willem de Ruijter, for handing the report out to IABC EMENA and pushing this onto the agenda.

“The communications director works in the same room in the building as the secretary of the board – in fact we are all now on one floor, we do not have separate rooms anymore. S/he has full access to everything, no restrictions. S/he is actively involved and is asked to stimulate and to give feedback. Her/his message should be frank when required… and provocative too. S/he needs to be able to tell a senior leader who has worked at KPMG for 25 years that he or she does not possess the correct KPMG vision. That takes a certain character.” Albert Röell, CEO, KPMG NL

For your own copy of the report please reach out to the VMA Group via this link.

 

 

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.

MentalDepressionfour

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

MentalDepressionthree

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

MentalDepressionsix

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

MentalDepressiontwo

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.

MentalDepressiontwo

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?

people talking

“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.