When should business take a stance?

PRCA Corporate Group event hosted by Adam Honeysett-Watts | Wednesday, December 2, 2020 | 4:15-5:00pm

Pandemics aside, 2020 has been a tumultuous year politically and ideologically. Brexit has never been far from the headlines, racial justice demonstrators have swelled streets across the globe, and public debate has become ever-more polarised on issues from vaccinations to lockdown freedoms to trans rights.

In October, the BBC introduced new guidelines that prohibited journalists from attending ‘controversial’ events such as marches or demonstrations. Insiders have since confirmed that Pride events and Black Lives Matter marches would likely be included in this directive. In September, the CEO of crypto exchange Coinbase, Brian Armstrong, released a statement explaining that his company did not take a stance on political or societal issues, as it distracts from their business focus, and offered staff who disagreed with this position the option to take voluntary redundancy (an offer 5% of their workforce has since accepted).

These episodes raise interesting challenges for corporate communications professionals. With so many polarising issues on the news pages this year, when and how should your organisation take a stance? When does a matter of principle become a matter for business? With inclusive employment practices now higher on corporate agendas, executives must acknowledge space within their organisations for people from across the political, ideological and religious spectrums. Taking a stance risks alienating some, but taking no stance at all brings with it the potential for even bigger issues, as Coinbase and the BBC are finding.

In this virtual event – to mark the re-launch of the PRCA Corporate Group – we will explore how corporate communications pros can help their organisations to identify when to take a stand, how to remain authentic and how to navigate the potential risks and benefits.

The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for The Telegraph.

Networking from the get-go

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and works at WA Communications. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

As the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) demonstrates, Covid-19 – and the government’s response to it – has impacted every sector, including the communications industry. The pandemic has brought new challenges to light, such as re-shaping ways of working and re-prioritising the skills required of effective consultants. But one thing that hasn’t altered, rather is being reinforced – by what is becoming an increasingly multifaceted profession, is the real significance of networking.

Admittedly, I am in the early stages of my career. However, even during this period of working within lobbying and communications, I have discovered and experienced first-hand how networking can positively impact you both professionally and personally.

In the broadest sense, networking is about people and relationships. Don’t just take my word for it, check out Lionel Zetter’s blog. In practice, this means identifying opportunities – such as events organised by Tories in Comms – to connect with people who share similar and different viewpoints (and politics), and life stories to your own. Hopefully, if the feeling is shared, you’ll develop a fruitful relationship that is mutually beneficial over many years.

The rise in cross-departmental cooperation, inter-organisational collaboration and connected working practices have demonstrated the importance of being “tapped-in” to a variety of people. Be that across government departments, a breadth of officials and journalists, and among peers with different skillsets who work across multiple sectors.

Government and businesses alike are turning to problem solvers, critical thinkers and creative employees to help weather this turbulent period. If you can establish yourself as someone who has a diverse network and range of connections, then you’re likely to be one of these people, and if you’re not, then at the very least you’re likely to know the person who is.

I’ve drawn together six tips that I’d recommend as you start networking:

  1. Identify those networking opportunities. For example, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and their various national, regional and special interest groups; the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and their national, regional and sectoral groups; the Conservative Party and affiliate groups (and annual party conference), and of course – Conservatives in Communications! Sign-up and get stuck in. Several of these events are even taking place online throughout the lockdown.
  1. Figure out the purpose of attending an event. Are you going in a professional or personal capacity, or perhaps both? Are you hoping to learn something or generate new business leads, or again both?
  1. Go prepared. Look the part and, if you can, take business cards. Bring a friend or colleague or try to know at least one other person going (sometimes organisations make lists available). Ask to be introduced.
  1. Be engaged. Be kind and curious, ask questions and reach out to people you find interesting or have a shared interest with. People like to talk about the things they’re passionate about, so give them the opportunity to and they’ll likely oblige. 
  1. Every person does matter – from the chairman to the janitor. The people you meet and the peers you have during every stage of your career will end up in all sorts of places within the industry.
  1. Follow-up. Add the people you meet on LinkedIn and drop them a personal note the following day while it’s all fresh. You can simply say thank you for the introduction or think of arranging another conversation in the future.

I have been tasked with bolstering the network’s offer for young people, while diversifying the pool of industry people involved. As I’ve set out above, the value of networking cannot be overstated. I’m determined to make Young Conservatives in Communications the organisation that provides you with the opportunity to nurture a diverse and resilient network that will support you throughout your career. 

While we continue to plan our networking calendar and forge new partnerships, including with Conservative Young Women, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on what you might like, in terms of events, content and support. Share your ideas with me here.

This piece was written for our website.

Networking – the key to success

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

Conservatives in Communications is open to all communicators who identify with the aims and values of the UK Conservative Party. Its chair, directors, patrons and supporters include politicians and journalists as well as communications professionals from every branch of that broad discipline.

However, given the political connection it is not surprising that public affairs professionals make up a substantial proportion of the CiC membership. Public affairs – or lobbying – is often regarded by outsiders as being some sort of dark and mysterious art. In reality, it is a straight-forward trade, with few secrets, but also few short-cuts.

I have worked in public affairs for 40 years, at large and small consultancies, in-house and as a freelancer. Sometimes, I am asked if there is a secret to the (admittedly modest) success I’ve enjoyed. My response is always that there is no secret, but there is a key. That key is relationships.

But, relationships have to be instigated and established, and then constantly nurtured. And that takes time. Because instigating and then establishing and then deepening relationships can only be done through networking – often outside of office hours.

So, over the course of my career, I’ve joined every trade and professional body I can, and used every networking opportunity that presents itself. Apart from Conservatives in Communications (which I helped to set up), I’ve joined (and sometimes headed) the CIPR, Government Affairs Group, PRCA and The Enterprise Forum. On top of these formal bodies, I have also supported and attended events ranging from PubAffairs Networking to (back in the day) Village Drinks. Then, of course, there are the party conferences – every networkers’ wet dream!

I did all this because I enjoy socialising, and let’s be honest – I also enjoy the occasional drink. But more than that, way more than that, attending networking events enables you to make new contacts and reinforce relationships. They help you to break out of the echo chamber and talk to people with different political views and colleagues from different communications disciplines. They enable you to promote your own views, but even more importantly, to listen to and argue with people from different backgrounds who hold divergent views. And, if you decide to write a book (plug alert), such as Lobbying, the Art of Political Persuasion, networking will help you to persuade people to contribute passages to the book – and maybe even to buy a copy!

So, if you want to get on in the wonderful overlapping worlds of politics and communications, my advice is to network like crazy, and to cherish and nurture the relationships that flow from those varying events.

And, if you are a Conservative and work in communications – I’m sure that you know what to do…

This piece was written for our website.

Lionel’s pub quiz

Lionel Zetter, Patron, has put together a quiz for PRCA members / guests, and they invite Conservatives in Communications to participate.

  1. Who was the only post-war British prime minister who attended university not to have gone to Oxford? The Rt Hon Gordon Brown
  2. Name one sitting MP, other than Dominic Raab, who is a martial arts black belt. Shailesh Vara
  3. Other than Boris Johnson, who is the only other prime minister to have been born outside the UK? Andrew Bonar Law
  4. Which sitting MP has a quadruple barrelled surname? Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax
  5. Which school gives pupils a day off when a former pupil becomes prime minister? Eton College
  6. Which Labour frontbencher’s father was a tool-maker? Sir Keir Starmer
  7. Which Lib Dems first name was a hit for Derek and the Dominos? Layla Moran
  8. Which sitting MP is the only MP to have appeared on BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’? Pete Wishart
  9. Which MP shares a name with a power station? Richard Drax
  10. Which hereditary peer and current government minister had previously founded (and then sold) his own public affairs consultancy? The Lord Bethell

Please email your answers to him before 5pm on Monday, April 27. Thanks in advance for your entries!