A Victory out on the front line for Harry

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The decision to allow an extended interview with Prince Harry at the end of his tour of duty as an Apache helicopter co- pilot/gunner was an exercise in pragmatic media management with unexpected consequences.

After his last tour, which was cut short when the media revealed he was with his Regiment on the ground in Afghanistan, the MOD decided to take a co-operative approach, offering the media an opportunity for an extended  pooled interview to be broadcast at the end of his deployment if they stayed off his back whilst he was on duty.

Whilst there was some limited PR value for the MOD,  there is no doubt in my mind that the real hit here was that the interview did much for “Brand Wales”.

Prince Harry is someone the media ( and hence the public) have enjoyed seeing make a gaff or two – from Nazi costume at a fancy dress party to candid shots snatched in a Vegas hotel room – he has been called the “Party Prince”. Yet here we saw a young man, clearly uncomfortable with the rigmarole of the media circus imposed upon him, showing how much it means to serve his country, and to “belong” to something where he is valued for who he is and what he can do, rather than what he represents.

To some who are less familiar with the culture and language of the Army (and Officer’s Mess in particular), he might have come across as diffident. But to me this was his clear reluctance to engage except on his terms. His interview showed he holds a genuine love for soldiering, which it is clear gives him an environment in which “he can just be one of the boys”, getting on with an important job without the superficial judgement of journalists. At one pont he even alluded to the fact that the interview was not what he wanted, but part of the deal to make it possible for him to serve on the front line again.

In the business of reputation management honesty and openness are priceless assets. Whilst the interview may have been seen as a PR opportunity for the MOD the real winner was Harry himself, with his reluctant yet revealing words he has shown that behind the picture painted remotely by the media stands someone keen to be his own man.

Five a day – Fibs or Fitness?

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I came across this article today on the BBC web site about the “Five a day” healthy eating campaign which has been running in the UK since the 1980’s and it’s prompted me to offer some thoughts.

Apart from making me feel quite guilty about my Christmas and New Year eating the article reminded me about this classic health promotion campaign, with it’s simple, easy to follow mantra that eating five portions of fruit or veg a day is the secret to good health. What interested me in particular about the article though is it exposes the space between the people who know stuff, and the people who communicate it.

Looking at the background to the campaign it’s clear that there is actually little evidence for it’s core strap line. There can be no doubt that eating more fruit and veg is good for you, and the campaign was and is a positive influence within society, but there is a gap between this and the specific “Five a Day” statement.

Why not four, why not six (one response from a Canadian reader on the BBC web site says it is five to ten portions recommended each day). The answer is, of course from a PR point of view, that the language has to be simple and memorable and it’s specific detail is not important as long as it covers the essence of the message.

Yet when a message carries with it a suggestion of a scientific basis I believe this can become an issue , and part of the Five a day campaign’s history has, almost from the start, been an undercurrent of questioning it’s validity.

What is a portion? What constitutes fruit and veg? Does preparation have a bearing? Now, perhaps the very act of asking these questions achieves the campaign’s aim to make us more aware of the importance of what we eat on our health, but as far as advice or guidance is concerned it leaves much to be desired.

All in all, a classic health promotion campaign and an interesting article from the BBC about it, and one that prompts real consideration as to how important the interface between science and PR is.

Ambush tactics

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HIT for David Cameron

MISS for ITV This Morning Show


The Paedophile scandal tsunami sweeping Britain at the moment got close to getting out of hand this morning when Phillip Scofield (not someone known for his investigative reporting) ambushed the PM on his “This Morning” TV show on ITV with a list of names gathered from the internet of alleged paedophiles in the Conservative party (Story here.) The reputation of one was enhanced, the reputation of the other degraded.

Schofield asked Cameron if he would be speaking to the people named, and the PM responded with a warning about “a witch-hunt” driven by unsubstantiated rumours about party members past and present named on the internet.

First of all, David Cameron scores a hit for the way he dealt with this live TV ambush. His media skills were well up to the mark this morning. When something like this happens on live TV it’s hard to maintain composure and with an issue like this easy to respond in a populist manner, yet he rightly stuck to his line that any allegations need to be directed to the Police, and pointed out very firmly that there is a real danger in picking names off the internet which may be there without any basis whatsoever. As a result he appeared in control, capable of seeing the wider picture and offered a degree of gravitas lacking in the event itself.

Second I think this is a Miss in PR terms for ITV as not only did it make the presenter look rather poor in journalistic terms (no self respecting journalist would admit to taking information from the internet at face value) but the stunt of passing the paper to the PM over the table on live TV risked the names being seen opening up the potential for legal action by people potentially slandered. (The Telegraph blurred the paper to obscure the names when re-running the footage for this very reason, and the PM himself placed it face down on the table). Furthermore, just as New Labour shunned The Today programme on Radio 4, it would be no surprise to see “This Morning” getting the cold shoulder in future from the present government.

The issue of child abuse in institutional settings is clearly a serious one, but crass, opportunistic stunts like this do nothing to shed light on the matter, nor do they treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

The man who fell to earth and the brand that soared

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Red Bull scored a real coup this week when Austrian Felix Baumgartner become the first skydiver to go faster than the speed of sound, reaching a maximum velocity of 833.9mph (1,342km/h).

Felix was supported by Red Bull, the energy drink brand which has a strong track record in extreme sports sponsorship, and in a weekend when their F1 cars did well in the Korean Grand Prix it was clearly a good couple of days for brand exposure and identity.

What was striking about the free fall attempt however was the confidence shown by the brand – a less established brand might have wanted everything stamped with the logo – everything colour co-ordinated.

Red Bull however played a more subtle game – sure the capsule that took Felix up to the edge of space was called the Red Bull Stratos, and logos did appear on jump suits and parachute, but their use looked unforced, natural and above all confident.

Even the web site for the programme – http://www.redbullstratos.com/ – carries pretty minimal visual branding.

Red Bull have recognised that sometimes it’s the doing that is important in terms of brand building rather than the look – and here they have excelled themselves. The man may have fallen to earth, but the brand soared.

Taking the rap.

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I feel a bit bad rating the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville allegations a miss – because I’ve been there and know how hard it is, as a corporate body, to take the rap for the behaviour of an individual employed by you.

Loyalty between an organisation and its staff, and staff to an organisation is a laudable trait – but it has a dark side for people working in PR tasked with protecting an organisation’s reputation.

The gradual shift of approach by the BBC in response to allegations about Jimmy Saville reflects many an organisation’s reaction to a member of staff being the focus of criticism, not about their corporate behaviour (ie their actual work on behalf of the organisation), but their personal behaviour.

The initial response is to protect the individual (in the BBC’s case an individual with a high public profile and massive public appeal who had been an employee for decades), this protection becoming more and more difficult and strained as more information emerges (as it always does in crisis situations) until they have to respond with a commitment to investigate.

Of course by then the damage has been done, the corporate body has been seen to be slow / reluctant to act and therefore becomes implicated in the story – a passive accomplice to the personal actions of the individual.

Now, clearly in the case of the BBC there are other issues – some of the allegations are said to revolve around activity carried out on BBC premises and with other BBC staff “in the know” – but the general pattern of response is a common one.

Organisations do not like to turn on their own.

Yet people who care about organisational reputation need to be able to push the pace of response, and have to be prepared to cut individuals loose early on if necessary. The truth is no organisation sets out to have staff doing the kind of things Jimmy Saville is accused of, and the organisation’s trust in him as an employee has been betrayed. In reputational terms the organisation becomes another victim.

When an allegation like the Jimmy Saville stories breaks it’s like a bottle of ink being knocked over – the stain spreads quickly and over a wide area if it isn’t blotted up at once.

What the BBC are saying now, some three to four days after the story broke, is correct – it’s a Police matter first and after they have investigated the BBC will look at their own failings. It appears as though  they have now “cut loose” Sir Jimmy.

The problem is, the stain has already spread, and there will be an awful lot of people wanting to look into a great many areas of the organisation to see how deeply tainted they are.

As always speed is of the essence in crisis comms – but it’s not just communication response time that matters in these kind of issues. It’s the will to act, and act quickly against individuals who threaten your corporate reputation, distancing the body corporate from their personal behaviour and acts that really matters.

Sorry should never be the hardest word

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The apology, 50 years after the event by German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal to the people affected by its Thalidomide drug in the 1960s should act as a lesson to any company dealing with the consequences of corporate mistakes.

See – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19448046

When I am counselling clients about corporate crisis situations I recommend, that if there are victims of their corporate mistakes, they apologise as soon as possible – to fail to do this leaves a stain on the corporate reputation which will always be pointed out.

The way I like to describe this is to imagine you are walking through a bar and you accidentally knock someone’s glass of wine over, covering them in house red. What would you do?

Our natural human response is to first apologise (and probably say what a clutz you were for brushing against their glass) and then probably offer to buy another glass and , if the spillage was bad, to pay for dry cleaning.

What you would not do is walk away without a word, intending to write to them in a few weeks time.

Think how you would now feel as the diner sat wearing that glass of red if someone knocked over your drink and walked off without a word –  it’s just asking for a fight to start isn’t it?

So why do corporations act so differently? Is it that they don’t value their reputation? Is it that they just don’t care as long as they are making money?

I don’t think so. Strong influences are certainly the lawyers with their “Say nothing, admit nothing and it will all go away” approach (thankfully less common now than in the 1960s), but I believe there are more human forces at work.

Caught in the storm of a corporate crisis the behaviour of senior executives changes – shock, fear, confusion bear down on their thought processes making basic human responses (like apologising) difficult.

So 50 years on Gruenenthal say sorry – no doubt a difficult thing for Harald Stock, Gruenenthal’s chief executive to do – but it’s something which should have been said 50 years ago but was just too hard. Senior executives need to remember that whilst they are human, with all the weaknesses and frailties, so are the people their actions affect.

Olympic lessons

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With the Olympic flag now passed on to Rio we can certainly look back at a games which brought the best out of the country.

Two aspects in particular should resonate with the voluntary sector – the mobilisation of thousands of people as volunteers and the funding the games and individual athletes attracted from the private sector.

Both of these achievements were rooted in effective marketing and communication, and the way the “promise” of the games was sold to prospective sponsors and volunteers to get them involved.

Clearly most organisations don’t operate at the Olympic level, but like the thousands of Britons now taking to their bikes, spurred on by Team GB’s efforts in the velodrome, I belive many can find inspiration in how the games were delivered to help them attract support.

PR and marketing were never a bolt on extra for the Olympics – they were always central to the plan for success. Organisations hoping for growth and development in these straightened times could do no worse than follow the lead of the Olympics and set PR and marketing centrally in their operation.

Brand bullies bite the bullet

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The involvement of big multi national sponsors in the Olympics was always going to create brand bullying stories, and today the papers have been running more stories about how the big brand sponsors are protecting their investment.

The temptation , I’m sure, when so much money has been spent on being a keynote sponsor is to jump on any other branding appearances by competitors.

The problem is it’s marketing executives who push for the brand police to act, and marketing execs so often get blinded by brand in isolation and lose sight of reputation.

This Olympics organisers’ the statements today are that other brands can be seen – ie you won’t get turned away if you wear a Pepsi T shirt because Coke are the sponsors.

But the damage is done to Coke’s reputation as soon as the idea even emerges – and I’ll wager we’ll see more coverage of the big bad brands acting “irrationally” against some individual or small business before it’s all over.

They should remember that with great power (and big brands do wield power in the minds of consumers) comes great responsibility, and no-one benefits from being seen to be a bully.

Think PR before calling in the lawyers

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The story about Minster Caroline Spelman’s son being caught taking banned substances shows what can happen to a story when Legal advice overcomes PR sense – see BBC news web story.

Clearly concerned that the story would take off in the media because he is the son of a government Minister it appears the first course of action in managing this situation was to call in the Lawyers and get an injunction. However the very fact an injunction had been sought made the story even more news-worthy.

It’s not as though Spelman junior had been doing crack cocaine or anything – he was merely misguided in taking steroids to help him recover more quickly so he could return to his rugby. So why be so sensitive about the story?

Surely the most sensible response would have been to openly admit what he had done, take the sanction from the RFU (Rugby’s governing body) and explain it as a youthful misjudgment.

As it is, the involvement of Lawyers and first recourse to a super injunction leaves people feeling the Spelman’s have tried to use their power and influence to keep the story suppressed.

The moral is don’t forget the PR implications of your decisions, and what might feel safest (getting the Lawyers involved) may not be the best thing for your reputation.

When you’re in a hole….

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The cancellation of the rugby match between Ireland and France at the weekend was a fine example of poor crisis communication, and like all crises the signs of an impending problem were there for all to see well in advance.

As the Daily Telegraph article today about this says, many people had questioned the wisdom of an evening kick off in February at a ground without under pitch heating, but the French Rugby authorities refused to change their plans.

Inevitably the problem came to a head just before kick off when the game was called off with just 10 minutes to go leaving fans feeling cheated and mislead.

But there was worse to follow. Having failed to plan ahead and assess the risks properly (the root of many a crisis), the French Rugby authorities then kept the world’s media waiting for a statement (with deadlines looming) before finally saying they would make no comment.

I wonder what the French for  “When you’re in a hole… stop digging” is?

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