Own goal: A footballer’s injunction looked to have backfired spectacularly when he appeared on the front page of almost every national newspaper, after being named in Parliament. The injunction aimed to cover up an alleged affair with reality TV star Imogen Thomas. The player’s lawyers courted further controversy by threatening to sue Twitter. As PRWeek went to press, the injunction remained in place.
HOW I SEE IT
Jonathan Oliver, Director of media relations, TLG
This will surely enter the pantheon of PR disasters alongside the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Gerald Ratner’s four-letter critique of his eponymous jewellery range.
The mistake was not the decision to take out an injunction last month – the big error was to use the Twitter innuendoes as an opportunity to create media case law.
The decision to sue the Californian social networking site may make the reputations of the lawyers who issue the writ, but it has helped detonate the good name of their client.
A bit of PR common sense could have ring-fenced this tawdry kiss-and-tell story in the red tops. Instead, these allegations have been aired by what feels like every media channel from the Radio 4 Today programme to the Adelaide Advertiser.
There are many lessons for team BP and others from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. From a communications perspective, five stand out. They have a common theme: defining the situation, so it is not defined by others. To be successful requires a knitting together of a compelling narrative and influential alliance of advocates.
When disaster strikes, it is not just a test for crisis management. It is an opportunity for leadership. This is the first lesson that needs to be learned. In other words, you define corporate values and reputation by making a virtue of the situation.
Lesson two, taking responsibility. Legal complexities always abound, but it is critical to the reputation of the company that they are seen to be taking responsibility. Any attempt to distance a business from ‘the scene of the crime’ as a tactic rarely works. It is usually counterproductive, as the story becomes about what the company is not taking responsibility for.
In such emergencies, think local, as it is the local market and media that will define success. This is lesson three. And in this case it stretched from the local fishing community to the White House. President Obama was quick to spot the need to be seen to be involved and visible, thus learning the lessons from the failings of the Bush White House’s response or lack thereof to the New Orleans disaster. Hayward and co were notable for their absence, leaving the 24 hour news channels to carry local reaction minus BP.
Honda is planning to ramp up its corporate PR in the UK, as the firm restarts production following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Japanese car maker has called in TLG to conduct a review of its ‘leadership credentials’ as part of a new wide-ranging retained corporate PR brief.
Honda, which employs more than 3,000 workers at its flagship Swindon plant, is boosting its PR capacity after the launch of a campaign to celebrate British design and manufacturing.
TLG will report to Honda UK comms director Paul Ormond on the newly created brief. TLG director of media relations Jonathan Oliver said: ‘We are very excited to be working with Honda. It is a brand with a great leadership potential and an important position in the UK plc.’
There are important lessons to learn from the coalition’s woodland U-turn. Members of the Government have learned the hard way that some measures to balance the budget deficit are more toxic than others.
It is not good enough for ministers to give the go ahead to the pet projects of civil servants without first holding them up to the lens of political common sense.
If the issue is emotive, the opposition well organised and the media mobilised, initiatives designed to save comparatively modest sums can quickly consume vast quantities of ministerial capital. The restructuring of No 10 should ensure unforced errors are minimised.
The printed press is influential, but its power is in inexorable decline. Digital media is growing exponentially, but it is not yet the primary source of news for most of us. However, broadcast – and more specifically the BBC – is the unchallenged king of the media jungle. Those were the headline findings of TLG’s recent research into how the media shapes corporate reputations.
The BBC is equally important in the making and breaking of political reputations – as demonstrated by Craig Oliver’s appointment to the most powerful job in political public relations. Government ministers and spin doctors already have close relationships with the broadcasters’ on-screen stars such as Nick Robinson or Robert Peston.
The practical pressure on any business to comply in such a situation is immense, as is the potential to undermine reputation. This is particularly stark for a company such as Vodafone that trades on empowering the individual through communication. The company should be assertive, sufficiently contrite and candid about the reasons for doing what some will see as compromising its consumers’ and its own integrity. Plus, demonstrate its support for freedom of expression. The combined impact can maintain trust in the brand. The company needs to ensure it does not slide into “anti-brand” status and join a hall of shame that has included BP and McDonald’s. When faced by crises, they did not admit errors until their brands were tarnished. It can be a long road back.
The Andy Coulson affair has put a strain on the relationship between Number 10 and the political media. Those deputed to speak for Andy were put in the position of having to deny he was under pressure – just days before he walked.
The atmosphere in the Press Gallery is not yet as poisonous as it was before Alastair Campbell’s resignation in 2003. However, David Cameron should be mindful of the parallels and promote a non-political career civil servant to fill some of Andy’s duties.
There will still be the need to recruit a senior figure to advise on strategic political media, the bookies suggesting a small list of flamboyant former political journalists. Such figures can provide a boost for leaders of the opposition. But PMs can benefit little from spin doctors who are predestined to become stories of their own.
Malcolm Gooderham, managing director of strategic communications consultancy TLG, says that, as with other attitudinal and behavioural change programmes, the key is sustaining a company’s licence to operate whilst at the same time enhancing its ability to grow.
He has worked with Diageo on responsible drinking and believes the difference between traditional corporate social responsibility campaigns and the way the drinks giant is tackling this issue is the level of investment and commitment involved.
‘Diageo has really grasped this and is investing a lot of resources in genuinely trying to understand what it can do to help people drink more responsibly,’ he says.
‘It will invest as much money in a behaviour change programme as it might spend on a product launch and that is rare.’
The question is whether such campaigns can overcome increasing consumer cynicism and perceptions that they simply amount to the self-interest of a multi-billion pound industry.