Comms Voices: Michael Lea Rock

Michael Lea Rock has enjoyed a stellar career in communications.

He served David Cameron and Gordon Brown as Chief Writer to the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street before spending four years as a speechwriter at the US Department of State, where his material was used by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He recently spent five years as a senior writer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he worked as a speechwriter for Melinda Gates. At the start of his career, Michael spent 12 years as a news reporter and political correspondent for two UK national newspapers, The Sun and Daily Mail.

Here he talks to Harpswood founder James Clench about how digital communication is causing “news” to be replaced by “views”, which PM failed the football fan test and how whiskey helped him to think differently about speech writing.

You have worked with some amazing communicators. Who stood out for you and why?

Every person I’ve worked with has taught me something—and each has their own style and unique qualities that set them apart. Obviously, communicating—whether through speeches, interviews, or social media platforms—comes more naturally to some than others. I’ve always been especially impressed by those who recognise that public speaking or media engagements are not their natural habitat but work hard to get better at it by listening to people like you, James, who know how they can make it work for them. In terms of individuals who stood out for me, I would pick two. Melinda Gates puts other people’s stories and experiences at the heart of her communications. This not only elevates other voices, usually those voices that typically go unheard, it also creates empathy—a hugely powerful communications tool. Matthew Barzun, who was US Ambassador to the UK, gave me a whole new way of thinking about speeches—from how they are structured to how you can use analogy to make a point. We wrote one speech about UK-US trade through the prism of how you make whiskey!

You have written speeches for people who are operating at a global level and calling for international action. Are there differences in the fundamentals of communicating at that level compared to trying to reach a more localised audience - or are the basic rules of communication always the same?

I think the same basic rules apply. The difference comes more in what your specific message is than in how you present that message.

Tech has transformed communication in the last 20 years. What has been the most important change in that period? Also, what has been the biggest danger caused by those developments? And what do you think is the next big transformation in comms coming around the corner?

I’d say that the most important change is the ability for people to respond or react in real-time to an interview or speech. Danger comes from the fact that many of these comments go out uncensored—and can spread far and wide at breakneck speed. The trend for soundbites and limited character posts also diminishes the purpose and potential of making a fully reasoned, logical argument, which is what you get through speeches and op-eds. We’ve also seen the demise of traditional media powerhouses. Consider how Radio 4’s Today programme is no longer treated with such reverence by politicians (especially the government), or that The Sun and Daily Mail don’t lead the national conversation in the way they once did. In some ways, that’s a refreshing change but at the same time, they’ve been replaced by “views” over “news”, which I don’t think is ultimately a good thing. There’s also been the explosion of podcasts, which has given politicians, organisations, and individuals a chance to speak more directly to their audiences. What’s the next big thing? I wish I knew. I suspect it will be something around more direct communications. I’m also intrigued by the potential of what’s called ephemeral content—that’s social media content which is available only for a short duration and then disappears. I can imagine the hype created around these, coupled with audiences’ fear of missing out to be a powerful new tool.

With so many communications channels now available, how can individuals, businesses or organisations cut through the noise?

Authenticity, absurdity, and creativity.

Social media channels are an extremely effective form of communication. How should innovative business leaders use them? Should they be on TikTok or stick to appearing on a business podcast?

They should be (a) where their audience is, and (b) where it is most authentic for them to be. That said, there can be great rewards in counterintuitive comms—especially if you’re trying to change perceptions.

Some businesses and organisations bury their heads and hide away when it comes to communicating. Are there risks to that insular approach?

Absolutely. In an age where openness is ubiquitous, and publicly sharing personal information is so instinctive, then appearing to be secretive, aloof, or opaque can be risky. Without a clear, consistent message it can be much easier to fall foul of conspiracy theories and misinformation or disinformation.

Coronavirus has obviously had a huge impact on how we communicate - from the rise of video conferencing to (perhaps) the death knell of the handshake. Do you think this has changed how we communicate forever?

It’s certainly changed how we interact with each other on a personal level. But I think there’s been less of a change in how businesses and organisations communicate with their audiences since, in most cases, these were always done virtually or remotely.

A quote that’s been attributed to American comic George Burns (and others) is “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” How easy is it to pick out inauthentic communication?

Very easy. And that’s why authenticity is so important. David Cameron claims to be an Aston Villa fan, then suggests in a speech he follows West Ham. No football fan would ever confuse their club with another. Ever. Now, I know that Theresa May was widely ridiculed for her “running through fields of wheat” answer but it was totally authentic. Whatever they thought, everyone knew it was true. Imagine how different the reaction would have been had she claimed that the naughtiest thing she had done was steal a car or vandalise her school.

Is there a business/organisational use of jargon that irritates you? Is there any place in communications for jargon?

All of it. I hate acronyms especially and actually have a self-imposed rule that I never use them in emails, even to people who know what they stand for. For me, jargon—and every industry has it, including media and communications—just makes people feel like outsiders. And that’s one of the worst things you can do in communications. Now, having said all that, I do believe a case can be made for its (limited) use, and that is when an individual needs to get across that they know what they’re talking about. I once heard Trevor Phillips say something similar that has always stuck with me. One accepted rule of speeches is that data and statistics are dull and unmemorable (unless they’re truly amazing) and so should be used sparingly. However, Trevor said that as a Black man, likely to be challenged as uneducated given people’s prejudices and biases, he needed to use lots of data and numbers in his speeches to back up his arguments. I can see how jargon could perform a similar role for some.


We are hiring

Are you the kind of PR ace who:

  • Wants to work with clients who are making a difference?
  • Gets excited when they land a great piece of coverage?
  • Loves the idea of shaping and growing a new PR agency?

Then hello! You've come to the right place.

We’re looking for an experienced Senior Account Executive or recently promoted Account Manager to join us.

We’re after a smart, ambitious, collaborative and sociable team player who eats news for breakfast, loves to write, talks with confidence, is super-organised and wants to learn.

Above all else, we value a can-do attitude.

What do you get in return?

  • A friendly, supportive and inclusive culture
  • An agency that invests in your career with coaching and training from experienced media professionals
  • A chance to get in on the ground floor at an agency that’s going places
  • Shiny new MacBook and iPhone
  • Friday 4pm finish
  • And, of course, money in the bank – we’ll pay a competitive salary

More about us, the role and our culture and benefits below 👇👇👇

If you think it’s for you, ping an email to abigail@harpswood.com saying why you are the person for this role. Or send a video, a voice memo... there are no rules.

About Harpswood

Harpswood is a new PR agency that does great work for great clients.

We help businesses and organisations who want to make a difference speak to their audiences through the media.

We believe in putting people first. We listen to each other, collaborate in everything we do, support our collective goals and share in success.

Clients include...

  • Octopus Energy: Britain's fastest growing private company which is providing cheaper, greener energy globally
  • New AutoMotive: Transport research group supporting the switch to electric vehicles
  • Subak: Not-for-profit accelerator helping other organisations tackle climate change through data
  • SAFERjobs: Raising awareness of criminal activities facing job seekers and recruiters

Harpswood is backed by Blackbridge Communications, a people communications agency launched in 2004 which has a number of blue-chip clients on its roster, including Amazon, Aviva and Clifford Chance.

Harpswood's employer PR offering adds an earned media element to employer branding and reputation. We're helping financial services giants and public service recruiters among others promote an inclusive and diverse culture in their organisations.

Our work in the last six months has included:

  • Securing an interview for Octopus Energy CEO Greg Jackson on the BBC's CEO Secrets that was read by more than 2million people, made the BBC homepage and was the second most-read story on the BBC that day
  • Landing dozens of pieces of positive coverage for Octopus as it launched in Japan in a deal with Tokyo Gas
  • Generating numerous TV interviews for electric car drivers on behalf of New AutoMotive as we helped them persuade the UK to join the electric vehicle revolution
  • Helping Police Now publicise its campaign to recruit more black, Asian and minority ethnic officer in the police force, with interviews in The Observer and The Sun

Our founder is James Clench, a former senior national journalist who spent 17 years in newspapers including a period as Head of News at The Sun. James has an in-depth understanding of communications and is well-connected in the media. He ran a successful business PR team at a top 20 independent London PR agency before setting up Harpswood.

About the role

This new hire will become a vital part of the Harpswood team. They will have a rare opportunity to help create the culture of an exciting new agency that is in a hurry to make an impact. They will be based in Harpswood’s offices in Shoreditch, east London (once the government say it's ok to do so) and can work flexibly.

They will support with the PR delivery for our exciting roster of clients and will also be part of the agency’s drive to win new clients, receiving training and support on strategy and tactics.

Responsibilities

Harpswood gives its people the responsibility they crave with the support they need to ensure rapid career development.

You will want to be brilliant at:

  • Building relationships with clients
  • Developing and maintaining relationships with journalists
  • Drafting press releases, comments and op-eds
  • Delivering coverage for clients through regular media sell ins
  • Running regular client calls
  • Pitching and presenting
  • Thinking up proactive ideas to generate results for clients

Attributes we’d love to see:

  • Can-do attitude
  • Enthusiasm
  • Ideas and initiative to share them
  • Genuine excitement/passion for clients
  • Love of media and awareness of the news
  • Desire to learn

We will give you:

  • Friendly, supportive culture
  • The chance to get in on the ground floor of an ambitious business
  • A path to career success
  • Training from genuine media experts
  • Access to successful business leaders/clients

Harpswood culture & benefits

Culture is everything. We think work should be fulfilling, thrilling, challenging and enjoyable. Here’s our commitment of what we offer when you join the Harpswood team:

  • Opportunity to learn and grow
  • Empowerment to do your best work
  • Great team spirit
  • Meaningful work/life balance
  • Career accelerator

You’re our greatest asset. We want to help you grow to become the best professional communicator you can be. We’ll do that by ensuring you have regular catch ups with your line manager to keep on track with agreed objectives. You’ll have quarterly one-on-one meetings with our MD James to talk about your progress – and that’s on top of the constant informal access to everyone in the business.

Soak up the knowledge with seminars...

Harpswood “How To…”

From writing better thought leadership pieces to improving how you present, our Harpswood “How To…” sessions will help develop your skills. We use both internal and external experts for these masterclasses.

Comms Voices

Learn from some of the most interesting people in media and communications as they come in to Harpswood HQ to talk about what they’ve learned in their careers, what skills you need to master comms and what’s coming around the corner in the industry.

...and amp up the atmosphere at socials

Harpswood Hangout

East London has the pick of the best bars, restaurants, galleries and events in the capital – and it would be a crying shame to waste them. Harpswood Hangout is our regular team social… and you could be choosing the next one.

Your Culture

As we grow as a business, we want your ideas on how we can make our culture better. You are part of the culture, shape it!

Don’t procrastinate, apply: abigail@harpswood.com

 


Cherry blossom to Bloomberg: Octopus Energy Japan launch

Brief

  • Global entech giant Octopus Energy wanted to tell the world about its latest deal with Tokyo Gas which valued the business at $2bn (making it a double unicorn)
  • Part of the deal would launch the Octopus brand in Japan as a joint venture with Tokyo Gas
  • Octopus wanted the latest chapter in its trailblazing story of global expansion covered in the media with recognition given to its tech and green energy credentials

Challenges

  • The deal was sealed at 4am UK time on December 23rd
  • Journalists were preoccupied with another deal – the impending Brexit agreement, borders closing due to a new strain of Covid and the ever-changing UK lockdown measures

Approach

We worked closely with the Octopus in-house team to agree strategy and build a media list that covered international and domestic newswires, print, digital and broadcast. We worked collaboratively, agreeing our approaches to different contacts and making sure there was no room for misunderstanding. We identified a handful of titles and journalists to which we would offer interviews with Octopus Energy CEO Greg Jackson.

Announcement 

Just before 6am on the morning of the deal, the Harpswood team met with Greg, Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, Head of Product & Marketing, KPMG partner Gavin Quantock, who led on the deal, and the in-house comms team for a virtual briefing. After confirmation that the deal was done and an explanation of the final details, Harpswood started contacting trusted media connections to tell them the news, run through the key details and explain the significance. We kept in constant contact with the Octopus comms team, notifying them of every journalist who wanted to run the story and interview Greg. We coordinated on those interviews to ensure Greg’s time was put to the best use.

Results

Media coverage for Octopus’s move into Japan was positive and prolific with more than 200 titles covering the story.

These included Bloomberg, Reuters, PA Media, TechCrunch, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Mail Online, The Express, the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and City AM.

Despite a difficult backdrop of Brexit and Covid, the news of Octopus’s deal with Tokyo Gas was unmissable - and the key messages hit the mark too.

"You've heard of challenger banks? Now meet challenger energy suppliers." TechCrunch

 

“Greg Jackson has the kind of ambition Britain needs from its tech stars.” Evening Standard interview

 

"The Japan move follows forays into the U.S., German and Australian power markets." Bloomberg

Last word

Greg congratulated Harpswood and in-house team for our collaborative work, describing it as “a phenomenal effort against a backdrop of PR no-nos – Dec 23rd, 4am, Covid, Brexit, borders closing… you still managed to get such an astonishing amount of great coverage.”

 


Electric dreams: winning hearts and minds in the EV revolution

Brief
  • New AutoMotive is a transport research group that supports the UK’s switch to electric vehicles (EVs)
  • Its board members wanted to get a share of voice in the debate over the government decision to bring forward the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars to 2030
  • New AutoMotive worked collaboratively with multiple stakeholders and were clear that positive messages about electric cars were more important than brand recognition

Challenges

  • The electric vehicle sector is growing rapidly. We knew that many industry leaders would be lining up to have their say on the ban
  • We recognised that there were powerful arguments on both sides of the debate and it was vital to get a share of voice

Approach

  • We knew that case studies would play a key part in persuading the public of the benefits of the electric vehicle revolution
  • We worked with stakeholders including the Electric Vehicle Association England and Octopus Electric Vehicles to gather those case studies
  • We created a Q & A document to address challenges over charging infrastructure, range anxiety and skills training for mechanics
  • We jumped on the news hook of the 2030 petrol and diesel new sales ban to generate media opportunities for New AutoMotive chairman Gi Fernando
  • We targeted national media for its reach and regional media for its ability to cut through to a dedicated audience in an authentic way

Results

  • Broadcast interviews with case studies on Good Morning Britain, ITV News, ITV Meridian, BBC Radio Sussex, BBC Radio Nottingham
  • Broadcast news interview with Gi Fernando on BBC Radio Humberside, BBC Radio Shropshire, LBC and Magic FM
  • Hour-and-a-half long phone-in on BBC Radio Devon with Gi answering questions on electric vehicles
  • Letter to Editor from Gi published in Daily Telegraph
  • Harpswood worked over a weekend to issue a quote from EVA England and generated more than 200 pieces of coverage
  • Landed the message that “people like you” are driving electric cars without range anxiety or charging problems

Most powerful PR tactic? Case closed

If you doubt the power of employer PR, here are two words to convince you: Rachael Trigg.

Ms Trigg, a 24-year-old maintenance and repairs hire for Thames Water at its Chieveley Sewage Works plant in Newbury, Berks, appeared in five different national newspapers to illustrate a story about the importance of language in job adverts.

Thames Water, it was reported, had changed the wording of a job ad for the £13-an-hour technician role to transform the masculine coding into a form more likely to attract women.

Words like “competitive”, “confident” and “champion” were ditched and phrases like “we welcome people who want to learn and be team players” were included.

Results showed that applications from women had risen by an impressive 46 per cent.

A good outcome and also an interesting example of using inclusive language, an innovation that, while not universally followed, is certainly widely known.

Masterclass

So why did this story cut through when thousands of other businesses are doing exactly the same thing to ensure diversity?

When analysed, it’s a PR masterclass from Thames Water.

The story was pitched out to coincide with the seventh annual Women In Engineering Day. While journalists can be deeply sceptical of awareness days, they do provide a hook for a story and some eventually start to gain traction.

Thames Water had statistics to show their new job advert had been effective in doing what it had set out to achieve.

The business had sensibly picked a spokeswoman, Lucia Farrance, part of Thames Water’s women’s network, to talk about why the language in the advert mattered. (It seems obvious to select a spokesperson appropriate to the subject matter, but it is surprising how many businesses get it wrong.)

She landed a cast iron key message: “We are extremely passionate about championing the importance and benefits of a diverse and equal workforce. Gender should never be a barrier.”

Cut-through

But above all, the story cut through because of Rachael Trigg.

Wearing a hard hat and high visibility jacket with her arm leaning on an industrial pipe (possibly flowing with raw sewage), she told a journalist: “There might be certain things I can’t do, like heavy lifting, but we’re a team so we help each other out. Women are really missing out if they think a job like this isn’t for them.”

News editors do not have much time to pitch a story to their editor and here was one that could be summarised and sold easily: “A water company changed the wording on its job advert at a sewage plant to attract more women. It’s worked and they’ve hired a young mum. Here’s the picture.”

The result of all this was widespread national coverage, showing that a relevant case study with a compelling image is a powerful tactic.

It also demonstrated that nothing beats the power of earned media for impact in getting your message across.

Interested in seeing what employer PR can do for you? Get in touch: hello@harpswood.com


Flushed out: why privacy beat compliance in home worker software controversy

PR is about the framing of ideas and winning people around to your point of view.

Get the positioning of your new employment policy right and you might land a sympathetic hearing for your plan. But get it wrong and it may never get off the ground.

Rarely has this been better illustrated than in the news coverage of the facial recognition software developed to monitor the thousands of City employees forced to work from home during lockdown.

Financial News, the Dow Jones-owned news site, broke the story that accountancy firm PWC had developed such software to log employee absences.

Compliance rules in the City exist for good reason. The likes of Nick Leeson, Jérôme Kerviel and John Rusnak lost their respective institutions billions of pounds thanks to rogue trades.

Dubious dealings in the years running up to the financial crisis of 2008 led to demands for greater scrutiny, for records clearly showing how and why decisions had been made.

As a result, bankers are used to the idea of their work and communications being monitored, reluctantly accepting it as a necessary evil in the office.

Placed within that framing – that compliance needs to cover you when working from home too – PWC’s software does not seem an unreasonable leap.

But spin the argument around and change the language and it suddenly seems very unreasonable indeed.

One person’s “safeguarding of personal time” is another person’s “huge intrusion on privacy”.

George Stylianides, the PWC partner chosen to speak with the press, no doubt sensed the way the story was going when asked by Financial News if the new tech would capture bathroom breaks.

He responded with some circumspection: "There is that danger, of course, there is with all these things. This is about how you tune it to actually find the information that you're looking for without being too intrusive on people."

A cautious answer, but not an unequivocal “No”. And certainly not enough to stave off the headline “PWC under fire for tech that tracks traders’ loo breaks”.

The story revealed that traders would have to provide a written explanation for breaks from their screen of more than a few seconds and focused heavily on concerns over the privacy rights of employees.

The story was followed up in The Times and The Telegraph with similarly negative headlines, including the stark “Is your boss spying on you?”

Faced with this negative coverage, it is not surprising that PWC has already been forced to ditch the element of the software that tracked background noise.

A development in working policy that creeps into employees’ homes and private lives is always going to be controversial – no PR in the world could change that.

But PWC could, perhaps, have packaged the innovation differently.

It could have been armed with figures estimating the vast sums of money that have been lost in recent years as a result of weak compliance.

It could have lined up an independent, credible expert to put its side of the argument and explain why, on the sliding scale of privacy versus compliance, this software was a reasonable compromise.

It could have shown evidence that it had consulted extensively with privacy campaigners during the development of the software to take into account their concerns.

And it should definitely have prepared for the tricky questions which any journalist worth their salt would ask, starting with the entirely predictable inquiry about loo breaks.

Don’t be surprised when this software or similar is eventually rolled out – but perhaps with a more rigorous comms plan.


Putting the purpose into a CEO profile interview

It isn’t rare to see an interview with a chief executive in the media.

Every weekend, they fill newspaper business pages informing their inquisitor of the brilliance of their latest product or service, the strength of their balance sheet or their plans for the future.

And all of these are strong messages to land when given the opportunity to spread the message about your organisation.

But hearing a CEO speak with authenticity, conviction and evidence about the culture and values of their workplace isn’t such a common occurrence.

The frustration for their HR teams must be immense.

In a media interview with a national paper or broadcaster, their leader has the platform to articulate their employer value proposition, to shout about all their great employee initiatives and to attract top talent to the business.

More often than not, the opportunity is spurned.

But some leaders don’t waste their chance.

If you doubt the power of employer PR, reading through a recent profile interview with Louise O’Shea in The Independent may change your mind.

The chief executive of Confused.com used the high-profile opportunity to speak with conviction about improving gender diversity within the business.

She told journalist Zlata Rodionova how the comparison site had joined the Tech Talent Charter, the non-profit organisation driving greater inclusion and diversity in technology roles.

She spoke of her own actions, revealing how she took her eight-week-old baby into the company’s Cardiff office with her when she started as CEO.

Her focus was on the company’s culture and values, she said, and she told how she put recognition of employees and good communications at the forefront of her work.

She proudly lauded the agility and adaptability of staff who had taken to working from home in response to Covid-19.

There was high retention at the business because of its core purpose of helping Confused.com’s “David” customers taking on some of the “Goliath” businesses that weren’t giving them the best deals or service.

If you were trying to attract talent to Confused, you wouldn’t hesitate to wave that interview under the nose of a candidate.

Lousie O’Shea isn’t the only leader who knows the importance of speaking externally about internal culture.

Angela Cretu, the CEO of Avon, used a profile interview in The Times to highlight how she was transforming the business by putting inclusivity front and centre.

Referring to Avon’s five million representatives, she said she wanted to “destroy the idea of a global company… transform our culture and become five million small companies.”

She told Retail and M&A Editor Ashley Armstrong that she had dismantled the corner office at Avon’s HQ in Chiswick, West London – a powerful metaphor for her inclusive leadership style.

And she explained that she was a passionate advocate of empowering women – but did not believe in burdening them with the unfair “superwoman” tag, calling it an unfair expectation.

Again, it was an interview any HR lead would quite happily frame for the boardroom and point out to prospective talent as they considered whether to join the business.

Perhaps the most impressive recent example of conveying company values in the media belongs to David Potts, the chief executive of supermarket Morrisons.

In a profile interview with The Guardian’s retail reporter Sarah Butler, Mr Potts paid a heartfelt tribute to Morrisons colleagues.

He lauded them for “putting their bodies on the line” for the public and said that next to public health, his workers provided the most important service.

He spoke powerfully about the business’s purpose, saying that it had “galvanised over 100,000 people – to serve people of Britain.”

And possibly with one eye on a headline quote (if so it worked) he said: “Our people are the new rock stars. They are working with the British public and doing their thing in society.”

He managed all of this against the backdrop of a shareholder revolt over the proposal for a 24 per cent pension contribution rate for himself and Morrisons COO Trevor Strain.

The potential controversy was swatted away at the end of the piece with the 63-year-old saying that he never thinks of retirement because, “I feel fully employed in my job of feeding the nation.”

To speak with Harpswood Employer PR about leadership EVP media training or other employer PR services, contact hello@harpswood.com


Comms voices: Jodie Ginsberg

Jodie Ginsberg is a recognised expert on media freedom.

She was chief executive of Index On Censorship, the global freedom of expression group, and is now CEO of Internews Europe, an organisation which empowers people worldwide with high quality news and information. Jodie started her career as a journalist with Thomson Reuters.

Here she tells Harpswood why communicators in countries with limited free speech tend to be better listeners, why Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is effective at getting his point across… and why organisations should never bury their heads in the sand.

You have worked with some amazing communicators. Who stood out for you and why?

The most outstanding communicators I have ever come across were two young people from RECLAIM: a youth leadership and social change organisation based in Manchester. Invited to speak about their experiences at a YouTube event where all the other speakers were well-known communicators, these two put the others to shame. They were articulate, passionate, clear and concise: a model for all communications, whether written or verbal.

Your career has focused on fighting for free speech in countries in which it is restricted. What can communicators from countries where free speech is taken for granted learn from communicators in those more restricted countries?

I think it is easy to assume in countries where free speech is taken for granted that people in those countries are therefore tolerant of dissent and difference. In fact, communicators in countries where free speech is restricted tend to be much more respectful of, and willing to listen to, ideas they disagree with than many of the most outspoken people I meet in the UK and similar countries. For me, good communication is just as much about how willing you are to listen to others as it is about how well you can articulate your own opinions and ideas.

Tech has transformed communication in the last 20 years. What has been the most important change in that period? And what has been the biggest danger caused by those developments?

Personal tech devices coupled with social media are without a doubt the most important changes over this period. It's amazing to think Facebook is only 15 years old and yet it is now one of the most powerful communications platforms in the world. The ability to communicate your thoughts and opinions to an audience of people whom you have never met - worldwide - at the touch of a button has transformed society. It has enabled groups and individuals who previously had no platform to make their voices heard. But it has also unleashed armies of trolls and abusers who feel empowered to abuse and attack those they disagree with. Working out how to walk the line will be the key challenge.

What do you think is the next big transformation in comms coming around the corner?

The COVID pandemic is already changing the way we use tech to communicate, making it more possible to have group discussions virtually. I hope the big change we'll see in comms is an ability for people to communicate opposing ideas and beliefs in a way that allows for nuance.

With all the communications channels now available, how can individuals, businesses or organisations cut through the noise?

Individuals, business and organisations can cut through the noise by having something different to say -- but that doesn't mean they should be forced to be contrarian. Honesty and transparency about mistakes cuts though - and so does commitment to, and demonstration of, action. Lots of people talk the talk but very few actually walk the walk as well.

Social media has played a huge role in opening up free speech. How should innovative business leaders communicate in 2020? Should they be on Tik Tok or stick to appearing on business podcast?

Innovative business leaders should be communicating on a variety of channels -- it really depends on who your audience is and who you want it to be. The most innovative business leaders will also recognise that they don't always need to be the ones who are front and centre - the best change you can make is to use your platform to elevate others.

Which business or organisation has been effective in its communications in recent years and why?

Ryanair is an effective communicator, but mainly because it has a figurehead who is willing to stick his head above the parapet. You might not always like what he is saying, but it's almost always clear what Michael O'Leary and Ryanair are thinking. I'd also highlight Greggs as a business that has worked out how to use social media to good effect. Conversely, many of the big tech companies are terrible communicators: often on the back foot, and great at making big pronouncements that say nothing.

Some businesses and organisations bury their heads and hide away when it comes to communicating. Are there risks to that insular approach?

Burying your head in the sand is a terrible way to communicate. People will always project the worst into the silence. The most effective way to deal with any issue, good or bad, is to deal with it proactively -- and recognise openly when you have been too slow to react or made a mistake. People respect organisations that demonstrate honesty, humility, and humanity.

Coronavirus has obviously had a huge impact on how we communicate — from the rise of video conferencing to (perhaps) the death knell of the handshake. Do you think this has changed how we communicate forever?

I think it might reverse some trends that I think were damaging our ability to communicate effectively - such as a reliance on email and text. people are now being forced to communicate through video conferencing and audio calls, and while that is sometimes not as effective as an in-person meeting, it can certainly be more effective - and engaging - than doing everything via email.

A quote that’s been attributed to American comic George Burns (and others) is “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” How easy is it to pick out inauthentic communication?

I think it's pretty easy to pick out inauthentic communication. You can always hear it in Donald Trump when he's forced to give speeches or use phrases that are not his own. But that doesn't mean an 'authentic' voice shouldn't involve work: it is tough to work out as an organisation how to represent an organisational voice and it’s something that requires craft and thought – and involvement from the top.

Is there a business/organisational use of jargon that irritates you? Is there any place in communications for jargon?

I hate all business jargon but there is a special place in my jargon hell for acronyms.

 

Photo: Taken by Elina Kansikas, courtesty of Index on Censorship

You can’t stall in a crisis, Zuckerberg finds to his cost

Sometimes in business, a hand grenade lands in your lap. You know that grabbing hold of it will be perilous – but you can’t ignore it.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was left such an incendiary problem when Donald Trump posted on the world’s largest social network about the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the US President wrote, tastelessly invoking the words of bigoted 1960’s white police chief Walter Headley.

When Trump had posted the same message on Twitter, the platform responded quickly by hiding the tweet behind a label warning that it glorified violence and stopped it being shared.

Zuckerberg had a crisis on his hands that left him balancing ethics, political interests, PR, internal communications and employer brand.

Censor the message and be attacked by Trump. Leave the message up and anger millions of Americans, including his own employees. Was the post tolerable in a land of free speech? Or was it incitement to violence at a time of intense civil unrest?

His dilemma was further complicated by his long-standing insistence that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher.

Twitter’s swift and decisive action piled on the pressure. Messaging app Snapchat followed suit, refusing to promote the President’s account because it would “not amplify voices who incite racial violence”.

Zuckerberg tried to steer a middle course, writing that while he had a personal “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s sentiments, he (Zuckerberg) was also the leader of an institution dedicated to free speech.

This did not play well. The argument did nothing to assuage the anger of civil rights leaders, the American people or his employees. Four hundred staff staged a virtual walkout and two resigned. Senior leaders in the business called for Zuckerberg to change his mind and remove the post.

In a bid to win them round, Zuckerberg held a virtual Q&A for 25,000 Facebook employees where he reiterated that it had been a tough call.

He took questions from employees, including one who asked if any black people were involved in his decision. Zuckerberg confirmed that one – but only one – had been among the small group who took the call, according to US news site Vox.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would not take a knee-jerk decision on the Trump post and said it was considering labelling posts, rather than taking them down. He pleaded that policies needed time to develop.

But the man who became a world powerbroker by inventing the social network – ironically the very medium that sped up communications – has discovered that time is the one thing you can’t buy in an explosive crisis.


Does your business need communications help in a crisis? Get in touch: hello@harpswood.com


Comms voices: Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher CMG spent four years as foreign policy adviser to three Prime Ministers and four more representing the UK as Ambassador to Lebanon.

He led reviews of British diplomacy for the UK Foreign Office and on the future of the United Nations for the UN Secretary General. His book on the future of statecraft, The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age was published by Harper Collins. In 2018 he co-founded The Foundation for Opportunity. He is a Visiting Professor at New York University, and chairs the International Advisory Council of the Creative Industries Federation, promoting Britain's most dynamic and magnetic sector overseas.

Here, he tells Harpswood about the communications strengths of the different PMs he worked with, the pros and cons of Zoom and why it’s getting easier to pick out phoney communicators like Donald Trump.

You have worked with some amazing communicators. Who stood out for you and why?

UK diplomats have had to become much more active communicators over the last decade. The best are those that can combine authenticity, engaging content and a sense of purpose. Karen Pierce (Ambassador in Washington) has a unique, charismatic style. John Casson (ex Ambassador, Cairo) found a way to reach millions by combining his excellent Arabic with videos that showed he really connected with people's lives. Of the PMs I worked with, Tony Blair was great at setting out the dividing lines of an argument and then simplifying it; Gordon Brown could communicate moral heft; and David Cameron was strong on giving an opposing position and then challenging it.

Tech has transformed communication in the last 20 years. What has been the most important change in that period? And what has been the biggest danger caused by those developments?

Social media has upended everything we thought we knew about communicating and campaigning. The danger I didn't properly anticipate when I wrote the book was the extent to which it could be weaponised by the Trumps and Putins.

What do you think is the next big transformation in comms coming around the corner?

I think there will be a backlash against overload and people will seek more high quality, curated content.

With all the communications channels now available, how can individuals, businesses or organisations cut through the noise?

Too often they are polishing a turd. Often in government someone would say 'we need a better comms plan'. Often what we needed was a better policy. I think it is better to start by identifying your purpose, and then show how that connects to greater equality of opportunity. If it does, you can create compelling content. If it doesn't, you're struggling.

You played a leading role in changing how diplomats communicate by fully engaging with social media as well as traditional media. How should innovative businesses leaders communicate in 2020? Should they be on TikTok or stick to appearing on business podcasts?

I think it depends on the individual. What are they good at? What is their personal brand? I'd advise against getting hung up on the specific platform. In my review of the FCO, I recommended that fewer ambassadors join social media - there is no point forcing it if it is not your style.

Which business or organisation has been effective in its communications in recent years and why?

In the diplomatic space, the anti-poverty campaigns at the turn of the century were pioneering and extremely effective. They transformed comms. But we then got kind of stuck in that approach. You now need to be less top down, embrace the anarchy, and be prepared to ride waves you weren't expecting.

Some businesses and organisations bury their heads and hide away when it comes to communicating. Are there risks to that insular approach?

Depends on the business. For some they have little choice. But I think that will be increasingly difficult to justify. Social media makes people more sceptical and more demanding. If you can't explain in simple terms what you do and why, you will find it harder to survive.

Coronavirus has obviously had a huge impact on how we communicate - from the rise of video conferencing to (perhaps) the death knell of the handshake. Do you think this has changed how we communicate forever?

It's odd for diplomats to imagine fewer human connections and the end of handshakes. But it is a reality. The challenge with online comms - Zoom etc - is not necessarily with people with whom you already have a rapport. Much harder is connecting with those you have never met in the flesh.

A quote that’s been attributed to American comic George Burns (and others) is “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” How easy is it to pick out inauthentic communication?

Easier and easier. I think and hope that Trump and his ilk are the last yelp of that insincere and untrustworthy way of communicating, and that they immunise us against future leaders who want to sell the snake oil of hatred and extremism as a panacea for the genuine challenges people face.

Is there a business/organisational use of jargon that irritates you? Is there any place in communications for jargon?

In diplomacy I have waged a long campaign against phrases like "warm bilateral relations". Meaningless platitudes that turn people off.