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Circle Rehabilitation

An exciting project that I’ve been working on at Circle Health over the past few months is Circle Rehabilitation. The service is a game-changer in UK healthcare, because it will help fix the flow of patients through acute hospitals – at present, patients too often have nowhere more appropriate to go than stay in an acut

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: January 26th, 2017, In Categories: Blog

PRCA’s name change cements the organisation as the voice of the industry

PRCA - Logo Blue

Last week the Public Relations Consultants Association tweaked its name. It is now the Public Relations and Communications Association. A tiny alteration, you may think, but it is one that helps the organisation more accurately describe what it does. It also reflects the fact that many people in our sector would say that they work in comms in preference to using the term PR.

As a term, public relations has its devotees. Some try to claim that PR is strategic and comms is tactical, but given that the largest companies have a “comms strategy”, that doesn’t seem a particularly plausible distinction.

In practice, communications or comms is what big, in-house employers call the function officially. Indeed, it’s very rare, for example, to find a “director of public relations” these days. Recently, Tony Halmos, the revered director of public relations at the Corporation of London, retired – and the job title has disappeared.

PR, as it tends to be used by practitioners, is a useful colloquialism for comms, a term for communication that is aiming to increase sales to consumers, or a reference to media relations. Its two-letter initials are short and the general public has a feel for what it means – a good, well-paid job which is something to do with image or getting your message out.

I don’t think we should get too hung up on defining these terms – or being po-faced when they are used in ways normal people use them, rather than complying with the definitions from PR textbooks.

The PRCA name change will undoubtedly make the association appeal to people in marketing departments who wouldn’t naturally think of themselves as working “in PR”. And some internal communicators object to being called PR practitioners as they don’t deal with “the public”.

So the PRCA’s name change is a shrewd move that both cements the association as the leading voice in the comms world and also sets itself up for further growth.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: August 24th, 2016, In Categories: Blog

Bosley wood mill explosion: how companies fail to communicate during a crisis

ON SUNDAY, something odd caught my eye on the television. Sky News was reporting on a massive fire of a large mill which had started on Friday, in which four people were missing. The local MP, David Rutley, was being interviewed and seemed to think that the firm’s employees were in the dark about what they needed to do on Monday. What’s more, no statement or talking head seemed to be forthcoming from the leadership of the mill.

By Monday, ITV News had reported that the families of those trapped in the remains of the plant were “very, very angry” that the firm had not been in touch. Indeed, Sky reported that “The company which owns the mill, Wood Treatment Ltd, part of the Boden Group, has not made any public comment since the explosions on Friday morning.”

So why was the company silent? Well, on Monday a police officer said that: “The company has not been in touch with the families because they have been unable to do so. They have not been reticent or unwilling to do so. They are working with us to seek to establish the cause of the explosion and the fire.”

Eventually, on Monday night, the Press Association reported that the firm had issued a statement – after damage to the reputation of the company not just from the explosion but also because it didn’t communicate well. The statement said:

“We are shocked and saddened by the incident at our mill in Bosley and our thoughts and sympathies are with everyone affected and their families. The mill has been part of the community in Bosley since 1927 and we take the safety of our employees extremely seriously.

“We are committed to establishing the cause of this incident and we will continue to co-operate fully with the emergency services and Health and Safety Executive. However, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time while investigations are ongoing.”

Silence in a full-blown crisis is never a good idea because it encourages stakeholders to think that you don’t care or that you have something to hide, even though the exact opposite may be the case. It causes anger and allows rumour and misinformation to circulate uncorrected – and in the worst cases can cause an organisation’s reputation to be mortally wounded. Yet in crisis situations, in the sheer all-encompassing horror of dealing with operational matters, time is in short supply.

Effective crisis communications doesn’t just start when the crisis hits. Organisations of all sizes need a crisis plan, with template statements, and they need to line up the required resources (e.g. have a specialist PR agency available) and the procedures to deal with the communication needs when all hell breaks loose. Organisations also need to practice scenarios so that they can pick up potential gaps or limitations in their understanding and procedures. Stakeholders expect good communications in a crisis – and will be judged on them.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: July 21st, 2015, In Categories: Crisis communication

Companies fail to reinvent themselves quickly enough. What can PR people do about this?

Acorn ArchimedesIN THE mid-1990s, the British computer manufacturer, Acorn Group, stumbled in the marketplace. Its subsidiary ARM, which made processors (the brains) for all manner of electronic devices, was increasingly successful. But the group’s core business of making PCs was in terminal decline.

The firm remained committed to developing new computers that did not run industry-standard software by default – and the size of its shrinking market did not justify enough software developers writing for its systems. Yet it had a strong brand in its core market, education, which would have remained valuable had the company ditched its non-standard equipment and listened to its customers, as its key rival Research Machines had already done.

From 1994 onwards, the company remained unprofitable, but – despite a change of chief executive and continual restructuring – it kept developing new, non-standard machines, while also failing to market them properly. Losses mounted and turnover collapsed. Meanwhile, buyers, spooked that the company’s computer platform would not be around in the future, deserted the platform at increasing velocity.

It was not until 1998 that a second new chief executive, Stan Boland, realised that enough was enough and stopped flogging a dead horse: he cancelled all development of computers and split the company up, ensuring that shareholders were rewarded with shares in ARM Holdings, unburdened by an computer company diluting their value with unprofitable business.

Apple was in a similar position in the late 1990s. Cheap PCs running Microsoft Windows were hammering its market share, after the launch of Microsoft Windows 95, which made its operating system considerably more user friendly than it had been. In response, Apple made a fundamental mistake. Its management decided to start issuing licenses to other companies to make Apple clones. Rather than expand the size of the market, these clones took market share away from Apple, leaving the company with less revenue.

Meanwhile, the company’s attempt to produce a next-generation operating system of its own struggled on – this system was later named by American computing magazine PC World as one of “IT’s biggest project failures”. The problems at Apple were only solved by bringing in fresh blood – it acquired an operating systems company called NeXT, which brought both new technology and the return of Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder.

Jobs cancelled the clones programme and turned the company’s focus to premium-priced, beautifully designed products. He did a deal with Microsoft to ensure the continued availability of Microsoft Office and get $150 million in investment, while resolving a long-standard patent dispute. And he cut down the Apple product range from 350 items to 10 in 1998, making the company focus better. The result is that Apple recovered from being a wounded player to one of the world’s most valuable brands.

Kodak cameraYet many companies fail to reinvent themselves quickly enough or get bogged down in an over-complicated strategy – before bankruptcy or hostile takeovers occur. In 1996, Kodak was ranked by Interbrand as the fourth most valuable brand in the world – at a time when digital cameras were still to take off. But the company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, failed to transition effectively from its legacy business of producing films, by running a business that was just too complicated to manage effectively, and which applied its brand all over the place.

It introduced a range of low-cost, cheap-to-run inkjet printers – the problem is that they were so cheap, they were loss making. Rivals, such as Epson, however, provided higher-quality photographic inkjets, which became popular with art galleries, amateurs and professionals wanting to produce framed pictures.

For digital cameras, Kodak likewise focussed on the cheap end of the marketplace – whereas rivals such as Canon, Nikon and Sony also sold high-cost models, gaining good reviews and support from influential photography enthusiasts. Ironically, Kodak had actually invented the digital camera in 1975, but failed to turn that leadership into commercial success. In the end, Kodak was forced to sell off a massive patent library and flog its consumer film business to its UK pension fund.

In cases such as these, a PR practitioner has an important part to place in acting as their company’s eyes and ears. The problem isn’t that stakeholders, including journalists, don’t understand their employer’s activities. It is that their employer is out of sync with what the public wants. So issuing more press releases, taking more journos out for breakfast and developing some creative publicity campaigns won’t solve the problem. But helping executives understand better the direction of public opinion could make an important difference.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: July 15th, 2015, In Categories: Crisis communication

Good PR doesn’t spin bad news: it starts with ensuring an organisation’s policy is right

Ivy Lee at his desk

Critics of public relations describe its practitioners as “spin doctors” and believe that its role is pernicious. Spin is not good public relations. It is counterproductive idiocy. The term arose during the late 1990s, when political figures in the UK and America ditched authenticity and just put out what they thought was politically palatable.

The result? Lots of news stories appeared discussing how the government was issuing fake data and announcing expenditure in a misleading way. The spin doctors themselves become the story, damaging the reputation of their masters.

Ivy Lee (pictured), the inventor of the press release and a pioneer in crisis communications, had a better approach. He traded under the slogan “Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest”. These three terms were not a sign of uncommercial naivety. The man was extremely well paid and was retained by the Rockefellers and the steel magnate Charles M. Schwab. Instead, his ethical position ensured that his messages were convincing.

In the 1930s, A. H. Wiggin, Chairman of the Chase National Bank, ordered Lee to get a newspaper to kill a story. “I won’t do anything of the sort,” Lee replied. His advice, instead, was to issue a statement so that their side of the story would be aired. Those three terms in Lee’s slogan, “Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest”, remain today at the core of good public relations. Lee’s “Declaration of Principles”, issued to newspapers in 1906, outlined the duty of public relations practitioners. He declared:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business [advertising] office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. Upon inquiry, full information will be given to any editor concerning those on whose behalf an article is sent out. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

Fraser Seitel, a heavyweight of the American PR industry, who, like Lee before him, has represented the Rockefeller family, says: “Ivy Lee really, really preached that the public has to be informed, and if your policies are not good and not in the public interest, you have to change the policy. And I think that this is what a lot of people don’t recognise about the practice of public relations … it starts with policy, it starts with performance, it starts with action.”

This is based on an extract from The PR Masterclass, out now from Wiley

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: July 11th, 2015, In Categories: Crisis communication, Media relations