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Meet the People

Cover of  by James Frayne

Gorkana talks to James Frayne about his new book 'Meet the People - why businesses must engage with public opinion to manage and enhance their reputations'. In it he argues that radical changes to the media demand a new approach to corporate communications, how comms professionals need to orientate themselves to a campaigning state of mind and outlines the key skills required to succeed in this new environment.

You start your book on the premise that there?s been an ?explosion of public opinion?. The public has always had an opinion. What?s changed and when?

Businesses operate in a completely different world now ? where the views of ordinary people are the primary influence in defining the reputation of a firm. While people always had opinions on the corporate world, no one heard them. A firm might have used polling to understand what people thought about their products, and they?d always have sales figures, but ordinary people were never a competing voice in shaping the reputation of a business. Businesses did their thing and it either worked or didn?t.

With the rise of the web, and above all social media, people have mass publishing power for the first time - and they?re exploiting it on a huge scale. Think not just of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, but consumer sites like amazon, Money Saving Expert, Tripadvisor, or Mumsnet. By taking part in vast conversations online and elsewhere, ordinary people now compete with the comms teams of even the biggest businesses in shaping what the rest of the world thinks about a business. This totally changes the game for modern corporations.

How is this ?explosion of public opinion? challenging the way companies need to communicate?

Businesses must engage with ordinary people in conversation all day, every day to protect and promote their business. Corporate communications teams that used to think primarily about the views of established journalists and other so-called stakeholders now have to worry about the views of ordinary people sitting at their computers in towns and cities across the country. Direct exposure to public opinion inevitably throws up very different challenges.

Businesses need to radically reconfigure their communications teams ? both operationally and culturally ? to focus overwhelmingly on the public conversation. It isn?t enough simply to develop a better web capability; businesses must change their entire approach so that they?re focused on changing what the public think and say about them.

Businesses need to ask a series of fundamental questions about public opinion. Who is our primary audience? Where does this audience see comment on our business? What do they see? Whose comments are they seeing? What sort of people are they? Why are they commenting in this way? Can we change these commenters? minds? If not, how can we fight back to ensure our primary audience sees the right things? What messages should we use? How should they be delivered and where?

In answering these questions, businesses will start to produce a meaningful communications strategy that is likely to recommend direct engagement in a fast-moving, aggressive, and emotional conversation with the public. Many businesses find this unsettling but there is no alternative but to engage.

Why do you think political campaigning holds the secrets for the new model of corporate communications?

Political campaigns are obsessed about one thing above all ? influencing public opinion. Campaigns want to change what people think and to encourage certain types of voter behaviour ? they want people to become activists, give money, display supportive materials and, above all, to turn out on election day. And they try to do all this in a completely chaotic environment where they?re being scrutinised, attacked and ridiculed. Businesses find themselves in an increasingly similar situation. While businesses aren?t persuading people to vote, they must now seek to create the right image and reputation so that their customers keep buying their products. The same skills therefore apply.

Is this model as equally relevant to brand communications as much as reputation management?

Yes. The scale and influence of the public conversations taking place have the power to completely change the way a business is seen by the outside world. A business can pour vast amounts of resources into their marketing and advertising to generate a particular image, but this can be for nothing if large numbers of people start attacking a business in the public arena. For example, a fast food firm might spend millions marketing a new product, but if the public start saying the product is terribly unhealthy, or that the business should be boycotted because of its work practices, then their millions won?t have the desired effect.

You highlight the importance of research in campaigning. Do you see greater integration between PR and marketing functions as a result?

Traditionally, many big businesses have taken a tripartite approach to corporate communications, with separate teams for advertising and marketing, media relations and public affairs. Sometimes, these teams even sit in different buildings and have separate budget lines. This no longer makes sense ? if it ever did. Given the nature of the challenge these days ? where businesses find their reputations being tested seriously across a broad front ? corporate communications teams should be completely integrated under a Director of Communications. This is the model that exists in campaigns, and it works.

One common aspect of corporate communications has been to develop the corporate narrative. Is this engaging public opinion at an emotional level or do corporates need to go further?

Many businesses are exceptional at emotional appeals, particularly through their marketing and advertising campaigns. Apple is the most obvious example, where they have created a brand so emotionally powerful that people are prepared to pay very significant sums to own their products. Of course, many of their products are excellent, but their marketing is a crucial part of their success story.

Where I think businesses are much weaker is in using emotional appeals in their day-to-day communications with the public. Watch many senior executives on TV and read their statements in newspapers and they sound like lawyers. The same is true when you read most corporate websites or watch their interactions on social media. For some reason, when it comes to public conversation businesses lose their confidence and their humanity. They resort to corporate soundbites.

Businesses need to start developing the same ability to speak to the public on an emotional level as political campaigns and senior politicians. And no, contrary to what some might think, the subject matter in politics doesn?t always necessarily lend itself to a more emotional approach. In politics, people seek to use emotional appeals whatever the subject matter ? think about how politicians turn dry discussions on taxation or pensions into more emotional conversations about fairness, for example.

One chapter highlights the importance of endorsements to campaigning. Hasn?t this always been part of the distinction between PR and advertising in that earned media was in itself an endorsement?

Yes, that?s definitely true. Many businesses and other public-facing organisations have used endorsements for years and some very creatively. However, many haven?t and but few have done so on the scale now required. Endorsements should not be seen as a ?nice to have? in this new world. Rather, they should be integral to every business? communications operation. When you look at what people say about whose opinion they trust, ordinary people ?like me? is always right at the top of the list, along with independent experts. In the context of a major public conversation therefore, the more third parties businesses can deploy on their behalf, the better position they will be in.

You describe elite communications as the traditional top-down corp comms through the mainstream media. Does this still have a role to play in the mix?

It remains absolutely crucial. While the public conversation primarily manifests itself online ? that?s where it?s visible ? businesses have to use every channel open to them to influence what people think and say about them. That means hard copies of newspapers and real-time TV are still extremely important because they reach so many people. They might be relatively less important than they once were, but their reach means they will always have huge influence over public opinion.

Another issue you raise is the speed in which decisions need to be made in the new media environment which requires a degree of decentralisation. Do you think chief executives are prepared to acquiesce to this and what can corporate comms professionals do to help make the case?

This is clearly a serious problem in many businesses. Too often, the CEO will demand that she or he always sees something before it goes in to the public domain or, worse still, that the lawyers take a look. When firms had deadlines of hours, this was irritating but not the end of the world. Now, if it takes hours to clear something, you might as well not bother.
Some comms professionals get around this by implying to their bosses that the web is just a niche channel that they shouldn?t worry about. You can see why they do this but it?s not sustainable because, fundamentally, businesses aren?t just facing a web problem. They?re facing a public opinion problem that manifests itself online.

Businesses need to be able to move all of their communications resources fast to adapt to changing circumstances. That means significant changes to the structure and culture of comms teams that must be signed off by the CEO. Senior comms people need to stress the existential challenge that ordinary people now pose to their business. Unfortunately, the reality is that many comms people will only be able to make this case effectively when the business has suffered a major reversal to its reputation. Crises always make people see more clearly, at the end at least.

There is a common perception that journalism in the US is viewed by journalists as a profession, whereas in the UK it is a trade. Do you think the same distinction currently exists in corp comms too?

The US communications industry benefits from three big things. Firstly, their political campaigning is more sophisticated because they have more elections and the ability to advertise on TV. The campaigning skills that I talk about in my book are therefore more prevalent in the US than the UK. Secondly, their movie industry means there is a massive pool of people with an extremely good grasp of visuals and emotional appeals. Thirdly, their Universities produce vast amounts of extremely useful material on, for example, how the brain works.

Within the wider US communications industry you therefore have a very large number of very able people ? and exposure to a steady stream of ideas and innovation. These skills can and are regularly combined by major businesses looking to defend and improve their reputations. While you have very talented British consultants ? who tend to be very competent at advertising, web design, and traditional media relations (as a result of working with the most aggressive media in the world) ? you don?t have that ability to create teams in quite the same way. So the US comms industry feels very different to the UK industry, both to insiders and outsiders.

What are the skills you believe corp comms practitioners should be trained in?

In my book I focus on five big things that I believe define an effective approach to public persuasion. These are: (a) the scientific approach of testing, targeting, and metrics; (b) the use of emotional appeals; (c) the power of endorsements; (d) creating strategy; and (e) organisational design to produce better decision-taking. Every comms professional should seek to become more proficient in each of these.

Of these, I think the most important for comms professionals are the scientific approach and the use of emotional appeals. Those people that can fuse skills in these areas will be at a massive advantage because they will be able to help their business reach very specific groups of voters logistically, while using exactly the right language and approach to move them emotionally. The fusion of these skills on a truly micro level will be the next really serious development in political campaigning.

What spurred you to write this book?

I wrote it primarily for Directors of Communications and other senior comms staff that are coming face to face with these challenges and who are thinking about the best approach to take. There are many great books out there that deal with persuasion and influence ? some of them written decades ago ? but I thought there was a need for a synthesis of these ideas for the specific challenges business now face.

Are there any examples of people ?getting it right? that you would point to?

There are a number that have taken very positive steps towards a more public-focused approach. The drinks industry in the UK has been one of the pioneers of this approach ? Jeremy Beadles, now of Heineken, was one of the first to see the importance of corporate grassroots campaigning, for example. Car-maker Porsche was also an early mover into this space. More recently, BP have produced some excellent public-facing materials in difficult times, and SABMiller?s digital offering is also similarly good. It?s still quite unusual to take a very public-centric approach, however.

How do you see the corp comms department of a FTSE 100/250 company being structured in five years time?

I think we?ll see firms moving towards a totally integrated communications model, where experts in particular comms fields like marketing will exist, but the constituent teams that they work in will be much less distinct than they are now. The Director of Comms will set the overall objectives, strategy and plan, but clusters of staff with different expertise will work together on specific projects designed to affect public opinion.

I think we?ll also see two other developments. Firstly, I think Directors of Communications will start being promoted to the Boards of major businesses much more so than now. Secondly, I think comms teams will start to recruit different types of people ? grassroots campaigners, pollsters, policy researchers ? and start to tap into unusual expertise on a consultancy basis ? psychologists, neuroscientists, and other experts in human behaviour.

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