Brand communications teams could be forgiven for feeling the January blues a little more acutely than usual in 2013. There are few signs to indicate that the country will be shrugging off the by-now familiar economic gloom, at least in the first quarter of the new year.
To make matters worse, UK consumers’ trust in businesses has fallen in the last three months, according to new data from PR firm Edelman’s annual global Trust Barometer survey. Worryingly for brands, the research shows that a steady recovery of consumer trust in business during 2012 has started to come unstuck in recent months due to public anger, caused in part by allegations over the UK tax arrangements of brands such as Starbucks and Google.
The vast majority (69 per cent) of the general public who say they don’t trust business point to a perception that companies are not paying a fair share of tax. Negative headlines for brands such as Barclays, the bank which became embroiled in the rigging of the Libor interest rate, have also impinged on trust. Two-thirds of respondents to Edelman’s survey say that there have been too many examples of bad executive behaviour, and that this is among the biggest causes of their mistrust of business.
It is for this reason that building society Nationwide plans to continue marketing and PR efforts to distance itself from the banks it competes with, taking pains to emphasise differences in its business model and corporate culture.
According to head of external affairs Alan Oliver: “It is no secret that the banking sector continues to be under close scrutiny from the public, media and political audiences. Since the credit crunch we have had to work incredibly hard to ensure we make our difference, as the compelling mutual alternative to the banks, stands out in the media.”
Oliver says that Nationwide will seek to press home the message to national media and politicians in the coming year. But, just as important to building and maintaining trust, are honest customer communications and attention to improving the service. Social media emerged as an important tool for Nationwide in achieving this objective during 2012.
Sainsbury’s corporate affairs director Alex Cole, a forthright PR veteran with broad experience gained previously at companies such as Cadbury and PR agency Freud Communications, says trust will have to be earned this year and cannot be sustained by spin.
She argues that now, more than ever, the word ‘communications’ should be banned and the idea of a PR team or press office within companies should be banished.
“I always refer to a saying by [Abraham] Lincoln: ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.’ If you approach things thinking about PR, then you risk becoming obsessed with how things look to people, rather than how they actually are.
“The risk with concentrating on the shadow, of course, is that the sun, or things you can’t control, will always shift and change how your shadow appears.”
Cole says that it has become even more vital in 2013 to ensure that the brand values that are important to customers are factored into every decision the company makes. “I always tell my team the last thing you want is to be thought of as the press office, because then people [in the company] will only talk to you when they want to put something in the press, when you need to be more involved in conversations about things they don’t want to get in the media.”
The media itself is also a focus of public mistrust in 2013, however, after a year when Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the press took a scathing view of its worst misdemeanours. Phone hacking by newspapers, as well as allegedly corrupt relationships between the police and journalists, have impacted severely on the standing of the news business.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer study lays bare the scale of the damage to the media’s reputation for the first time: it is now the least-trusted institution in the UK. Despite traditionally scoring lower than business and the not-for-profit sector, trust in media has previously stayed at a similar level to the trust invested in politicians. In January 2013, however, following the Leveson report and perhaps owing to revelations about BBC presenter Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children, it has plummeted.
Only 33 per cent now say they trust the media, compared with 44 per cent of people who have trust in the government. Yet the UK media remains an important conduit for brand stories globally, according to Sainsbury’s Cole. She says the effects of social media, combined with globally respected news organisations using the international language of English, mean that stories emerging from the UK are increasingly crucial to a brand’s reputation, regardless of the location of their home market. The growth in customers’ ability to publish their experiences instantly can also spell invaluable positive PR. Cole gives the example of a letter written to Sainsbury’s by three-year-old Lily Robinson, which was uploaded to Facebook by her mother. In it, Lily argued that the pattern on the crust of Sainsbury’s tiger bread more closely resembles a giraffe’s camouflage, and that the product should be renamed.
Sainsbury’s then customer manager Chris King responded to the letter, writing: “It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a looong [sic] time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.”
This too was uploaded to Facebook by Lily’s mother, and after it was ‘liked’ over 150,000 times, Sainsbury’s finally acquiesced and changed the name to giraffe bread. The story was widely blogged, tweeted and covered by national news organisations.
According to Louise Cooper, senior corporate PR manager at John Lewis: “It’s increasingly easy for consumers to comment, so brands need to find a way to engage; to manage issues, problems and requests, whilst making the most of positive discussions.
“No brand is perfect so issues will always happen, but you’ll be judged on how you handle them. It’s also important to remember that it’s a two-way street, so whilst negativity is visible, so is praise,” she adds.
Social media is also increasing the importance of cultivating relationships with vocal and active target markets. Alison Cowan, external relations and communities director at learning disability charity Mencap, says her team will be launching an engagement strategy this year.
Cowan believes that the ever-increasing impact of social networks such as Twitter is helping people feel empowered to get involved (see Mencap box). But she also argues that the new financial constraints placed on people by economic conditions and government austerity measures have become an important factor in encouraging people to get involved in campaigning.
“People across the UK are experiencing hardship in ways that perhaps they haven’t known for a long time, so we’re seeing a rise in empathy, which is driving a rise in activism,” she says.
A more engaged and vocal public with access to social networks is increasingly prompting a blurring of the dividing lines between departments in organisations. Areas of responsibility traditionally associated with PR and media departments are now increasingly overlapping with those of marketers, and vice versa.
Cowan has created a merged marketing, PR, policy and digital team at Mencap in a bid to help it work more flexibly, efficiently and effectively. Meanwhile, Nike’s recent decision to bring its UK digital functions in-house is likely to trigger a ripple effect across brands as others follow its lead.
Emma Owen, PR and promotions manager for Lego UK, says the impact of social media has completely changed her approach to PR planning, with the brand increasingly thinking about creating bespoke content for PR purposes.
“We now discuss how we are going to use Twitter and Facebook as an integral part of a campaign, whereas they used to be an optional extra, depending on the type of campaign,” says Owen.
She adds that the rise of viral content that focuses on being visually compelling and works well across media has been a great boost to Lego, because the brand can literally build playful image- or film-based stories using the toy product.
At the time of going to press, a new Lego PR film, 2012: A Year in Bricks, had already received over 45,000 views. The video recreates popular news stories of 2012 in Lego, such as athlete Mo Farah’s trademark Mobot celebration after winning two Olympic gold medals, and the ubiquitous Gangnam Style dance craze. During the 2012 Olympics, The Guardian news website had also taken the same approach to recreating key Olympic contests in Lego, in the absence of any official broadcasting rights.
Gaining positive PR coverage out of proactive customer communications such as these is a trend being progressed by in-house teams experiencing a continuing squeeze on budgets. The 2011 CIPR survey indicated that in-house teams experienced dramatic budget decreases to an average of £746,000, down from £1,039,000 in 2009.
However, mid-sized budgets increased by 27 per cent, which the CIPR attributes to PR professionals being able to show beneficial results using qualitative as well as quantitative measures, due to the migration of target audiences online.
The latest data reviewing 2012 budgets was being finalised as Marketing Week went to press. However, Andrew Ross, senior policy and PR officer at the CIPR, expects this year’s forecasts to show a continued dampening of larger budgets. He also predicts increased uncertainty among public sector PR professionals, as the government continues to shift provision of public services to the not-for-profit and private sectors.
With money still tight and traditional media suffering a crisis of public trust, PR professionals will be looking to test and develop new, informal media channels in an effort to make their operations more efficient and innovative. This could be the only way for brands to stay relevant in a climate where consumers have become more powerful than ever.
Mencap v UKIP
Learning disability charity Mencap is keen to show how a properly integrated communications team can create a powerful impact, according to its external relations and communities director, Alison Cowan.
Geoffrey Clark, UKIP candidate for Kent County Council, was suspended from his party 24 hours after Mencap successfully created a media storm over his manifesto, which suggested “compulsory abortion” of babies with learning disabilities to prevent them from becoming “a burden on the state as well as on the family”.
Although Mencap’s reaction to the MP’s remarks, which the charity called “abhorrent”, gained blanket press and broadcast coverage, it was the Twitter response that delivered the kind of engagement and empowerment the brand wants to continue to achieve in 2013.
According to Cowan, the #notaburden hashtag was used on Twitter over 700 times in three days, without counting retweets. Parents used it to describe their children with learning disabilities, thereby succinctly demonstrating the whole point of the PR activity themselves, and simultaneously showing how an organisation’s media response can engage and empower its core constituency.
Cowan, who has completely overhauled the charity’s marketing, PR, policy and digital departments into one integrated team after joining from Comic Relief last year, says the reactive campaign demonstrates what a fully integrated team can achieve in an era of social media and rising activism.
“This is a tangible and compelling example of how working in a new way can change attitudes as well as provide support and solidarity to our members, and is the kind of activity we will be doing as a priority this year under our soon-to-launch engagement strategy,” explains Cowan.
“The voices of people with learning disabilities and their families simply aren’t heard, and in the current climate of cuts to benefits and services they are angry and frightened as well. It’s our job to work as smartly as we can to build an angry army who will feel empowered to speak out, and ultimately help break down prejudice.”
Get Ahead Of The Games
The communications element of Transport for London’s integrated marketing, PR and digital Get Ahead Of The Games (GAOTG) campaign during the 2012 Olympics was “vital” to exceeding its targets, according to TfL director of news Stuart Ross. Created in collaboration with PR agency M&C Saatchi, it persuaded an average of 35 per cent of Londoners to change their travel every day during the weekdays of the Games, he says.
Predicted levels of crowding were averted even though the London transport system carried record numbers of passengers with nearly 50 million people carried by 10 August and a record 4.5 million carried on the tube alone on Tuesday 7 August. By the end of the campaign the GAOTG twitter feed had secured over 62,000 followers, 43,638 mentions and a total of 113 million impressions online.
According to Ross, the campaign indicates how potent social networks have already been for brands looking to get active engagement from consumers. “The Games demanded we raise our social media game in terms of our PR planning and promotion, as well as our direct engagement with customers and the provision of real-time information.”
Ross says a range of tactics were employed over a long-term PR engagement programme. They included in-depth briefings and interviews, social media, films, stunts and experiential PR, deployed across all media sectors from global broadcasters to small industry publications. The campaign was also brought to life with photo-friendly stunts, such as the Team GB women’s beach volleyball team stopping traffic in Parliament Square, a key travel hotspot on the Olympic Route Network, where the so-called ‘Games lanes’ ran.
However, Ross says regular open engagement with stakeholders and media, including key correspondents and at senior editorial level, was the foundation of the PR campaign.
“We shared all of the information about the predicted impact on the transport network with stakeholders and media as soon as it was available, as well as with the travelling public via the GetAheadoftheGames website, our campaign hub.”
Ross also says the “collaboration and integration” needed for the Olympics “is helping to inform our integrated communications planning for the future, focused on putting our customers at the heart of all we do”.