Leading from the front

The panel

Andrea Dalglish, head of communications, The NFC Group
Helen Dickenson, head of communications, John Lewis
David Hamilton, head of public relations and engagement, Action for Children
Edmund King, president, The AA
Fiona Wilkinson, senior vice-president, corporate communications, Visa Europe

london
The London 2012 Olympic Games presents a variety of challenges for firms this year

Marketing Week (MW): Is PR seen as a strategic business tool within your organisation?

Edmund King (EK): PR is essential to let our diverse audiences know what we are up to. For example, our rewards programme is conducted via marketing and social media to highlight membership benefits. We also run a panel of 180,000 members for monthly polls on issues such as speed limits, cameras, potholes or MOTs. We average response rates of 15,000 to 25,000 and these results are used both in the media and campaigning work.

Helen Dickinson (HD): In 2000, PR was seen by the business as largely irrelevant. Today it is seen as an essential strategic element – in reputation management through corporate PR, sales driving through merchandise and brand PR and employee engagement.

David Hamilton (DH): Communications is represented at the highest level. Building good relationships with our stakeholders through effective communications enables us to campaign on the most important issues and provide the best service we can.

Reputation, trust and values are central to people’s decisions to donate, volunteer and work for you. People need to have confidence in the services you provide and that you are campaigning on the right issues.

Andrea Dalglish (AD): Over the past decade, corporate communications has become recognised as one of the most valued strategic tools for reputation management – in strengthening brand trust and relevance.

We live in an era when building and protecting this is becoming increasingly challenging, especially when reputations can be crippled in seconds by an ill-advised Tweet or spokesperson gaffe going viral. Not understanding the role or value of PR leaves organisations exposed.

MW: Should communications have a seat on the board?

EK: Communications is well represented on our boards. It is essential that the communications expert knows what the business is up to both in terms of crisis management but also for spotting PR opportunities. Our April Fool’s spoof about a supposed Pothole Assist service was discussed at board level, as was our involvement in the Channel 5 Dangerous Drivers’ School TV series last year.

HD: Yes, since both reputation and employee engagement are vital to any brand. However, a board director representing communications from another remit can be as effective provided they fully support PR and communications as a collaborative and supportive function to marketing.

FW: I don’t think it’s essential. The important thing is to be close to the debate and decision making to have understanding and influence. I attend all executive meetings so know what is being discussed and can help shape plans and raise concerns before it’s too late.

DH: Companies should have a corporate reputation ambassador in the boardroom. It is vital to have a trusted member who can be frank and honest about what others are saying and feeling about an organisation, and intervene if necessary.

I believe we will see more executives with a background in communications becoming managing directors and chief executives, as an organisation’s reputation is now critical to its success.

AD: Job title is less important than the level of access communications directors have with a board. But PR has definitely grown in influence within organisations in recent years. It is increasingly being viewed as a proactive means to building and establishing relationships.

The respect earned by PR as a profession is evident with PR practitioners more active at board level, because loss of corporate reputation is now more of a worry for chief executives than ever.

MW: How can communications gain greater visibility or authority within businesses?EK: It has to prove its worth and communicate successes to board members. Tell the chief executive that you were, say, on BBC Breakfast or Radio 4’s Today Programme. Illustrate how beneficial your plan is to the brand, with examples not just words.

HD: By demonstrating through results its effectiveness in driving sales and enhancing and protecting the business reputation in the press. Advising and managing key directors in media involvement is crucial.

FW: Communications has to demonstrate real understanding of the business and the competitive landscape by speaking to the specialists within it, and show how it adds value. That might be through mitigating an issue or giving advice that avoids a reputational problem.

DH: Communicators must remember that if they want a seat at the top table, they have to earn it. Confidence, experience, sound judgement and authority are essential. The industry still has a long way to go in demonstrating the value it brings to the bottom line.

AD: By demonstrating evidence of success. Good evaluation raises the profile of communications and brings boardroom credibility.

MW: How much of your time is spent communicating externally to the media and consumers versus internally to staff and stakeholders?

EK: Probably 50/50. If we have a major campaign running, I can spend all day with external media from BBC Radio 5 Live through to News at Ten. At other times, I might be working flat out internally on communicating employee survey results or pension changes.

HD: The majority of my time is spent on external communications, particularly promoting the brand and corporate issues. But I also oversee the internal communications team, which is dedicated to engaging with staff on all levels. FW: Most of my time is non-media because we are not listed or directly consumer-servicing. The main part of my role is working with stakeholders across the business to understand priorities and design communication programmes to support them.

MW: How has the scope of a PR role changed over the past five years?

EK: I don’t think the actual scope of PR has changed but methods of communicating have. You still need a good story, regardless of the medium. Some communicators have fallen into the trap of believing that the channels of communication via social media are more important than the actual message.

HD: Our way of working is totally different, with the insurgence of online making news 24/7. Today, embargoes are often unrealistic and no longer do we wait to see what comes out in the press tomorrow – it will be online during the evening. If you add to this the growing consumer involvement in social media, it means that businesses are having to invest in dedicated resources for both online and social media monitoring and proactive involvement.FW: The speed has changed, and now there is real penetration of online channels. It means that as we are talking about new mobile payment facilities, we are as interested in technical sites as we are in print media. We monitor what’s said on Twitter and other social media sites in case issues are developing because we know that’s where stories often begin.

DH: The job of the communicator has become more complex. Crises can spring up in minutes through social media. The traditional contact book has gone from a manageable list of key influencers to an ever-changing list of opinion formers.

However, this direct exposure to your audiences provides a powerful range of new opportunities to engage people directly. Understanding a more sophisticated public’s desire for honesty and transparency is essential, as is realising that the complexities of protecting reputations in this fast-paced digital world requires constant planning and evaluation.

AD: The media landscape is expanding with numerous options for consumption. The media wants more than just text and are looking for pictures, video and content for the iPad and iPhone. PRs need to know how that works.

The biggest change is that PRs are now content producers, managers and influencers. We can write the story we want about our brand and not rely so much on the media, because we can build and engage our own community.

MW: Is the measurement of PR changing from column inches to something more representative? Why?

EK: We don’t measure average value equations or column inches but hits per campaign – we have targets to beat the number of radio interviews we conducted last year. We measure success against campaign objectives rather than column inches. Examples are how our media coverage pushed the government to act to outlaw cowboy clampers or our successful campaign for MOT frequency to remain unchanged.

HD: PR is now an integral part of the reputational and brand fabric of the business, and addresses this function both proactively and reactively. However, success in this arena is hard to measure. Column inches are still the most effective way of demonstrating the power of PR and gaining the support and engagement of key business spokespeople – including directors – to work with PR and engage with the press to speak for the brand.

DH: This is where PR has to catch up with marketers. For too long countless executives have been relying on ambiguous and meaningless metrics. I believe we are about to see a turning point. Savvy executives want to know what difference a campaign has made to their overall goals.
A smart communicator will have integrated corporate objectives into their strategy and decided upfront how they will be measured. They will be tracking reputation, sentiment and engagement with the brand. They will be able to show how their actions have contributed to furthering the organisation’s ambitions.

AD: Measurement of behaviour, attitude and opinion should be the focus, not column inches. With more communications taking place online, more thought and resource needs to be put into evaluating this area. And with many evaluation tools on the market, the key is knowing what to do with the data produced.

MW: What types of training are useful in your role? Has this changed over the past five years?

HD: High-level management, coaching and presentational courses have been useful. There has been a stronger requirement for social media courses as well as for public affairs training, as understanding government initiatives and their effect on the retail environment grows in importance.

DH: Leadership and business-focused development is important if you want to move into a top job. Thousands of digital communications courses are appearing on the market. I would recommend ones that don’t just cover the technology, but look at the most appropriate uses of it.

AD: With online content creation, there is a need to not only understand social media but how the content connects with searches, and then how you build more or optimise content based on traffic levels – an SEO for PR course almost.

MW: How do you work with external agencies? What are their benefits and challenges?EK: In our mainstream communications for divisions like AA Breakdown, AA Driving School, AA Insurance and others, we have the expertise in-house. We occasionally do bring in external agencies for specialist launches or detailed financial PR.

HD: We employ several agencies who have individual responsibility for promoting key areas of our business. Most of them have worked with us for many years. The initial challenge for all of them was to get to know, and understand, our unique business and the people working in it. The longevity and build-up of real integration into the business has reaped substantial rewards.

FW: Our core business is based in the UK but we have a network of around 20 agencies across Europe that help us manage our presence in these markets.

DH: External agencies can bring fresh ideas and new angles. But we develop our in-house talent first, before turning to outside agencies for support.

MW: Which brands do you think handle PR and communications effectively and why? Do you use any of their techniques in your operations?

HD: I admire Marks & Spencer for consistently placing beautiful fashion shots in the business pages of influential newspapers. That has spurred me on to achieve the same for John Lewis.

FW: John Lewis has created an aura around its partnership model. It is seen as very trustworthy. Visa Europe is also a not-for-profit membership association, so I can draw some parallels.

DH: Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis has carried out an excellent audience-led, long-term PR strategy. He communicates complex and technical issues in a way that is easy to understand. He has built an impressive community of engaged money savers.

You can also learn from PR blunders. New Covent Garden Soup Company recently landed itself in hot water with a competition that had no winner. Disgruntled entrants vented their anger online. It was all down to a subtlety on how the contest worked, which was a risk that should have been identified from the outset. The brand’s response was inadequate.

AD: Starbucks, for its online and social media activity. Directly asking consumers what they want, and then acting on that information in a public way has been key to its success.

MW: What are your biggest challenges for the year ahead?EK: Pulling together and co-ordinating our social media efforts more effectively. We have recently set up an in-house team for this. We are also gearing up to deal with any traffic and breakdown issues around the Olympics.

HD: Keeping pace with the growing influences of social media, and continuing to find a stand-out voice in a very crowded marketplace.

FW: As an Olympic sponsor, we want to ensure we get our share of voice versus other sponsors to get value from our investment. We will be working with the athletes we have in Team Visa, and showcasing new payment technologies.

DH: There is a perception that charities are not as well organised as corporate organisations and we have to spend a lot of time communicating how unfair that is. The challenge is to show the value of our charity, and we have to demonstrate that in our work.

AD: We have to master content marketing and take it to higher levels. It’s becoming an important strategic weapon as traditional advertising and “push” marketing campaigns fail to get results with jaded or overwhelmed consumers, and budgets are not increased.

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