Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy.
I have met Alastair a few times and spoke to him this week. He has a reputation and is probably one of the fiercest, toughest and smartest people I have had the privilege to spend time with and learn from.
Alastair gave a speech last week at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs Annual Oration in Melbourne, Australia – it offers insights on the importance of dotlanding…and is entitled, Why the World of PR is Changing.
The vast majority of what Alastair says echos our own views. From the “friend imperative” and the power of horizontal/peer-to-peer in building trust…to his notion that how you do is more important than what you do.
It is not a short piece but well worth taking the time to read over a coffee.
We don’t make enough time to stop and consider objective, strategy tactics but, as Alastair and President Clinton point out in this piece, those things are the number one, most important elements of successful leadership and communications.
You can find the full text of the speech here:
I have also copied the entire speech below to save you another click…
Why the World of PR Is Changing
I’m in Melbourne, Australia – I love this place. I have no Irish or Aussie blood, but once said I felt half Irish and half Aussie. Suppose it means I used to like a drink and I still like a fight. I feel very British but have never felt English despite being born there and lived there most of my life.
So I was a bit hurt to find on this trip that since my last one you have to have a visa. But I suppose the Aussies had to get their own back on us one day. World of change indeed. Applied online. Two weeks later nothing to say it was happening.
So I used, or maybe misused, Twitter to ask @aushouselondon and the immigration department and it was sorted immediately, for which, thanks.
Good PR, I say. I love the place, but the need for a visa made me love it less. Spending 10 minutes mistyping my passport number online made the love die a little more. Not hearing made it worse. Then one Twitter exchange and all is happy and I love Australia even more.
And actually that little exchange brought home to me the central point I want to make here anyway. That the PR landscape, like the media landscape, has changed beyond all recognition, and that public affairs now covers any interaction between any two people or organisations. That exchange was between me, my phone, and a guy on the other side of the world who saw a relevant Aussie address come up, and who got a grip. No journos, no PRs, no marketeers, just someone with a sense of the product – in this case one person’s feeling for Australia – and an understanding it was worth stepping in. The product, large or small, is what will decide the strength or weakness of the PR. Strategy, to me, has always been about the joining up of dots to paint a picture in the public mind as close to the one you want them to see. @sandihlogan landed a dot on my Aussie landscape that erased the negative dots my application had been landing. More about me and my dots later.
Any of you who have been in London recently, may have seen an exhibition at the British Library, on the history of propaganda. Some great stuff there.
Theres the UK government tracking of national morale during the 2nd World War – and we were meant to be the first to use focus groups!
There’s the fantastically successful Norman Rockwell posters urging Americans to buy bonds in the war.
Speaking as someone whose next book is about a young woman alcoholic, I also liked the anti alcohol poster from France from way back.
As well as those examples, there are some wonderful quotes and speeches going back over time, and then an amazing wall showing the Twitter activity on the night Obama was re-elected and the world’s most retweeted Tweet was sent… ‘four more years.’
There has always been comms. There has always been public affairs. There has always been PR. There has always been spin. Read the bible for heaven’s sake. What is new is not spin but the reality of a globalized media age, an information economy, a world where technology is accelerating the pace of change on an exponential basis. Nor have there been political and media systems which for most democracies mean that even if people wished not to tell the truth, the pressures are all to do so, and woe betide those who don’t.
That’s not always been the case. I read a book recently on the relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle, who could regale each other with stories of their public deceptions, and perhaps in doing so deceived each other too. Another recent book, Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross, showed how Churchill got actively involved in the preparation of what he called the “bodyguard of lies” to accompany the truth that an invasion across the English Channel was being planned. Macintyre states as a fact that after the invasion, Churchill lied to parliament to keep various deceptions going.
Yet if the pollsters were to do a survey, who had a greater commitment to wartime truth, Churchill in World War 2 or Tony Blair in Iraq? I think we know what the answer would be… it just wouldn’t be true. Interesting paradox in a world full of them.
Here is another one.
As the PR industry grew up, for the brains and brand gurus, it did a lousy job on its own reputation, and indeed terms like “PR” and “spin” are synonyms for bullshit, lies, deception.
So if PRs were so good at PR, why did PR get such a bad reputation? Answer, in my view, partly because some PRs aren’t actually so good at it, but also because the real spin doctors in the modern world are journalists, broadcasters and bloggers, and they want their readers, viewers and listeners to think they have the monopoly on truth, and so subtly and not so subtly suggest people ignore everyone else – politicians and their spokesmen, companies and their advisers, countries and their brand managers.
And that is a change from most of the past decades covered in that exhibition, when news and comment, fact and opinion, were more separate than they are today, and when people assumed that governments and leaders and brands would want to propagandize on their own behalf, and had every right to. It’s just that it got a lot harder.
So does the bad PR matter? Well if you look at the stats for the growth in your industry, maybe not?
Despite its PR problem, the comms industry is still growing and still fundamental to economies, governments, businesses, individuals in the public eye. People think about it more, act on it more, because whether we like it or not this is a media age, and for the communicator – be that a government or a minister, a brand or a business leader, a charity or a celeb – the interaction with the public space has become more complicated, and therefore the demand for simplicity is stronger.
In a world of greater chaos, people search for greater clarity. In a world of ceaseless innovation, people take comfort from the known and the familiar. In a world of more negativity, people look for more hope. But in a world of more choice and more information, people are getting better at knowing reality from spin, separating good from mediocre, they’re faster at making judgments at which is which, and often they are right.
So the driving question should not be ‘what will the Daily so and so say if we do this?’ but what should we do, and what should we say about what we do, to help meet the objectives we have set for ourselves and pursue the strategy we have agreed to meet those objectives, and take the public with us as we go?
And to illustrate that point, I am drawn to the observation by Wayne Burns that ‘PR is dead’, in that excellent journal, Corporate Public Affairs, where he wrote:
“… core activities once comprising core PR (‘press’ and media relations, ‘push’ and marketing communications, crisis communications, product launches) are siblings to a much larger family of public affairs elements–issues management, internal communications, investor relations, stakeholder engagement, government and industry relations and corporate responsibility.”
Certainly the definition of PR as being focused on getting a good press, whatever that means these days, is close to being redundant. Here I think you are ahead of us in the language, though I like to think London is still the comms capital of the world.
So if no longer PR, what?
To give you the answer I want to tell you a story about Bill Clinton. It used to upset Tony Blair when I said Clinton was the greatest strategic communicator I worked with. Tony thought he was.
Now if I say to you ‘when Bill Clinton had his troubles …’ what image comes to your mind? The wars he dealt with? The economic crises? The public service reforms? No, every single one of you thought of Monica. Now how much bad press did he get during that period? Tons of it, global.
Yet on the day the Starr report came out, Clinton was on the phone to TB. They talked about Ireland and Russia. I know, because I was listening.
A few years later, when his book came out, I did an interview with him for TV. I asked him if he remembered the conversation. He did. I asked how he was able to focus on something like Ireland and Russia when his whole life, personal, political, professional, might be about to crash around him.
He said this… “I had a simple objective – survival. My strategy was to get up every day, focus on those things only I could do, because I was the president. And my tactics were to make sure the people knew that is what I was doing. They sustained me throughout.”
I love that story. Not least because Objective, Strategy, Tactics had always been No. 1 on the list of 10 guidelines for leadership and strategy that I had on a postcard I always carried with me. 1. OST. 2 Be bold. 3. Be adaptable. 4. Best team leaders are best team players. 5. Stay calm in a crisis. 6. Listen but lead. 7. Get good out of bad. 8. YOU set the agenda. 9. Head above parapet. 10. Visualise the victory.
But OST is the most important of those.
Clinton said something else that stuck with me that day: “Too many decision makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.”
Tactics have taken over in so many organisations. Governments which drift from day to day. Products which think that a bought trend on twitter equates somehow to a product being popular. It might be. But is it selling? Is the strategy clear?
I did some work recently with a political leader who asked the question: “How do I do the right thing and stay popular?”
My answer was: “You do the right thing.” But you do it within a clear strategic framework, you engage the public in a much more sustained way, and you run co-ordination systems that work, so that over time your messages get through, over time your changes are understood and they deliver, and over time people become much more reasonable in their analysis. What you do is more important than what you say, but how you say what you do will help you if you are doing the right thing. Every time you say or you do, you land a dot.
Let’s take my own experience with New Labour. Okay, in 1997 we were up against a tired, weak and divided government, but that is never enough, certainly not enough to win a landslide. Yes Tony Blair was a young, exciting leader and a good communicator. That is not enough either. You need strategy and one that is so clear, so strong, so thought through that nobody can be in doubt as to what it is. Nobody internally, nobody externally. And the best strategies can be communicated in a word, a phrase, a paragraph, a page, a speech, and a book.
The word – Modernisation.
The phrase – New Labour New Britain.
The paragraph – Many not the few, future not the past, leadership not drift, education the No 1 priority.
There is no more direct public affairs relationship than that between a political party and the electorate, particularly if you are coming from opposition. We had three years with TB as leader before an election. My goal was that by the time of the election, when his face came on screen, or people saw that slogan, they had an idea what was coming, regardless of what the newsreader or any other intermediary said. And they got that idea by the dots joining up to paint the picture. If it did not say modernization, don’t say it. If the policy said past not future, don’t do it. And understand that like anything good in life, the communication of a strategy over time is a team game in which there is the internal team, and the development of an external team, those you are reaching, turning them from passive supporters to activists.
No surprise that Obama has the most retweeted tweet. His campaigns took social media to a new level. Lots of the focus has been on the fundraising. Let’s be clear – their money came from big money, and the line that it was all a dollar here, 50 dollars there was, dare I say it, good PR. The real genius was the way they used social media to find supporters they didn’t know about, turn them into activists they did know about, and get them finding more supporters and turning them into activists too.
Here is the thing. People do not trust politicians like they used to. They don’t trust the media to tell the truth like they used to. They don’t trust banks or brands. So who do we trust? We trust each other.
People trust their friends – that is the genius of Facebook, the concept of the friend. I met a woman in Liverpool recently, who introduced herself with the words ‘you don’t know me but I’m your friend.’ Took me a moment to work it out but yes, there was a bond, and the friend of the friend of the friend is a key strategic tool in joining up the dots to paint the picture that you want to paint. And your message has to be so clear that even a child with a paintbrush could get it and pass it on.
This clarity is what people like you, and people like me, can help others with, governments and companies and causes with a mass of interconnecting but often confusing and contradictory activities going on. Think about why people come to people like us. Often, because things are going awry. Because they have an idea but they are having trouble explaining it. Because they have a plan – but the plan is not going according to plan. Because they think that what they do is great but the media don’t seem to agree, and they want help getting the message out. So they want a new digital presence or they want a series of meetings with opinion formers or they want a new slogan and strap line. And all those things might be doable. But they all jump ahead of what is usually their problem. They are not clear about who they are, what they are doing, their DNA.
Getting to the heart of the DNA is the heart of good PR and public affairs. It is little or nothing to do with whether you can place a puff piece here or get the CEO into an airline magazine feature or have a nice dinner with a bunch of self important columnists.
They are all tactics. But objective and strategy should always come first.
I get calls from people out of the blue – again the new world. I am on Facebook, Twitter and people can email me direct on my website. Helps me cut out middle men and agents and get better deals for what I do. Makes people feel you are accessible – which I am. But when a government or company or a big brand comes on, I always assume two things – they have a problem, and they think it is about the communications. They think they need a spin doctor.
So I go and see them and the first thing I do is say who are your key people, and I ask to see them too, at the same time. And I get out some plain white postcards.
And on each one is written the words ‘The main objective of our organization is…’ and I ask them to end that sentence. Then I ask them to turn over the postcard, and it says ‘The strategy to meet our objective is…’ and I ask them to fill that out too. Then I gather them in. And nine times out of 10, I gather in a stack of different objectives, strategies which are tactics, or strategies which are objectives, and I say to them… you don’t have a spin problem, you have a reality problem. And I say if you are not aligned on strategy, you the key people running the show, why should the public be expected to know and hear what you are trying to say or sell to them, and why should the media not take every chance it can get to make your life more difficult, pore over your errors, ignore your successes?
So good public affairs is not about spin; it is about strategy, and reputation.
Ask most leaders, most CEOs, charities, generals, doctors, teachers, policemen, scientists, celebs, or private citizens now too because of social media – what is their most important commodity, and high if not top of the list is reputation. That is built on many things. CV. Values. Attitudes. Record of achievement. Record of failure. Ups and downs. Looks or charisma. Media skills. But above all in my view it is built on strategy.
And it is amazing what you can survive if you stay true to your own values and you stay strategic. Think of Clinton, again.
A story of myself at the time of the Hutton Inquiry. Woman up the street who stopped me as I was out for a run, escaping the media pack outside my house. ‘You do realise,’ she said ‘that if we believed everything they are saying, you wouldn’t be able to go out on your own.’
Ten years on, for all the bad publicity I have had – and there has been plenty – you still want to hear what I have to say. That to me stems from putting reputation and strategy ahead of giving a shit what people say about you on a day to day basis.
So whether you call it PR, marketing, comms, public affairs, or a mix of it all, what I think matters is strategic advice and reputation support.
Even now, even though much of what I have said is blindingly obvious, in many governments and businesses and organisations, comms is not at the top table.
TB understood instinctively that in the modern world comms is not simply the means by which you explain, it must be integrated into your strategy. Churchill knew that too. So did Lincoln. They just did not have to have someone thinking about it for them 24 hours of every day
So did Paul Keating. So did Bob Hawke. Maybe Howard in the early years. So did Muhammad Ali. So does Angela Merkel. So does Richard Branson. So does Jose Mourinho.
And how odd that someone like Rupert Murdoch, his papers so brilliant at tearing down the reputations of others, couldn’t see that if their fell way below the standards they expect of people in other walks of public life, his reputation would be hit hard, maybe irreparably.
24/7 media and technological change have upped the tactical pressures, so the response must be more strategic. A harsher, bigger, coarser media has made the reputation game one that never ends, and that needs planning and support.
So surely the days have to be behind us when comms is NOT at the top table.
And yet, and yet …. Whatever else Tony Hayward was, he wasn’t the guy to do the public facing stuff when disaster struck BP with the deepwater crisis. But did they have the conversation they needed to have in any crisis management planning, the one that said you might not be the best guy to do the front of house stuff when the shit hits the fan?
These days smart companies have communications at their top tables. Directors of communication have teams, budgets and access, and get taken seriously.
Social media is the big buzz thing right now. Real change. But here above all, in the world of instant fusion of news and comment, I say again, social media’s pressures are to be tactical, so the response should be strategic.
I love Twitter. I love the instant platform it gives. I love the way people send me things they think I will be interested in. I love the arguments I can get into. I love the way I can get straight into the guts of a Tory minister. I love getting my visa sorted. And people assume I must have tweeted when I was in Number 10.
Twitter didn’t exist when I left Number 10, let alone when I started. Nor did Facebook. BBC online was like a new fancy thing that at the start nobody took seriously. Now Twitter is a major news source. Facebook 1bn plus people. Youtube with more video content uploaded every month than the three main US networks broadcast in their first 60 years. I do not see Twitter as tactical, but as one of many tools with which to take forward a strategy based on landing the dots.
New world. And with change comes new threats, but also new opportunities.
Sure, in some ways, the digital age threatens the PR industry. It means that information is democratized. Things get picked up virally, not from conversations between PR men and hacks in pubs, whose agenda setting powers have diminished. Kids can build websites in their bedrooms, anybody can Tweet and get picked up, people can blog their opinions, respond in comment forums
These are trends which could threaten traditional comms with extinction. Why do people need, for example, 350 offices around the world, when they can meet virtually and Tweet?
But for comms at its best, the new world is an opportunity to be taken more seriously. Not least by together putting over the message that at its best it is an economic force for good, and can be a political and social force for good. And by understanding that the one thing the kid in his bedroom is unlikely to be able to do is good strategic and reputational support, which is what the team I work with at Portland aim to do. So you need to bang the drum for comms, not defensively, but with a sense of how much it matters and how much it can achieve.
And for the brands, worth remembering that with very few exceptions public affairs people are paid less than lawyers, accountants, auditors or other professional services – back to the reputation issue eh?
It’s true you don’t need to pass an exam to be a spindoctor. There are still a fair few chinless wonders in the game, and yes, one or two women who got hired because of looks not brains.
But really good operators can add a lot more value than just another lawyer. In fact one of the lawyers I was once involved with, at the time of the Hutton Inquiry, said to me sometimes law is just PR with a wig on. And more expensive.
But the experience, expertise and judgement of the very best people is rarer and more valuable than what you pick up slogging through accountancy or law exams.
So the question for the industry is how to be taken more seriously, and how to change.
Some of the most challenged are financial PR shops. For companies, financial market comms are not enough. For years, City PR was a closed world of analysts and business correspondents, AGMs and RNS feeds. But these days share price and operating environment depend on much more than what the City thinks. Barely a week goes by without a company, and a big one at that, being forced onto the back foot by a genuine public reaction to something it has done, sold, said.
Or take the banks more generally. When the crash came, the politicians had to step in. They sorted the mess and took a lot of the hits. Fred Goodwin of RBS became the banker bogeyman. The other bankers kept their heads down. They mistook lower profile for higher reputation. Rubbish. They were never going to get away with it. So – Witness Barclays in the UK: markets and commentators were firmly behind Bob Diamond, but he was swept away by views of other stakeholders.
It is also a challenge for consumer PR. People care not just about the brands they buy, but the companies behind them.
Take some of the extraordinary success stories of the new economy – Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nestlé, Vodafone. People may love what they do and give, but they also want to know whether they respect their customers, pay their taxes, use slave labour, cut down forests or whatever.
And in this future driven by digital trends, what’s happening is the convergence of corporate reputation and consumer behaviour. If customers suffer a bad experience, their stories can be shared and amplified online and picked up by the mainstream media, policy-makers and regulators. And, in turn, if brands are seen to behave poorly as a corporate entity, people now have the ability to connect and create mass movements against them.
It is people who wield the influence, not their job titles.
As I Tweeted when I was writing this speech a couple of weeks ago, the ability to self publish and make digital links across normal boundaries gives the opportunity for new players to emerge and become important voices. Their sway is driven by their connectivity, their ability to make others listen and share their thoughts and opinions. Content may still be created on television, in newspapers, in books and so on, but it is shared by social media. Lots of dots, some landing for you, many landing against you.
If you’re not on social media, you are dislocated from your markets. You are simply the subject of other people’s opinions, whether right or wrong, about your business. If you’re there, you can help shape the dialogue, demonstrating a willingness to engage and explain, building trust and, crucially, shortening the gap between the institution and the audience. It may all seem tactical. Social media used properly is a modern strategic tool.
You’ve seen Obama’s most retweeted Tweet. What about mine?
Well I campaign for better understanding and treatment of mental illness. Not a sexy subject. But when Stephen Fry tried to kill himself, and people asked what he had to be depressed about, I said would you ask what someone had to be cancerous, diabetic or asthmatic about. It got into five figures of retweets and favourites. That is reaching a lot of people and maybe changing a few minds and outlooks.
One of the books not out there is one I have out in October, on Ireland. TB has kindly written an intro for it, in which he talks about the lessons of the peace process, but he says in passing that when people think back on his time, as with other PMs, they do tend to think of the big things that happened, good and bad, not the million and one frenzies that most of us have forgotten.
I thought the same when Mrs Thatcher died; and again when Alex Ferguson announced his retirement. Both have had plenty of enemies, ups and downs, things going wrong. We won three elections in part by saying Thatcher’s day was done. Alex Ferguson was once one game away from the sack. But come the reckoning, even Thatcher’s enemies acknowledged, as did Fergie’s, that when it came to the battles between the long term and the short term, the tactical and the strategic, they won. Their reputations over time strengthened by knowing that it is a battle. Amid the noise of play, the strategist must dictate the game.
And I leave you with this thought. I am not the world’s biggest monarchist, and I am not just saying that because I’m here. The first ever political argument I can remember was on Christmas Day when I was about seven and I could not see why I had to sit down and listen to the Queen telling me what she thought, when I wanted to play football. And it was weird, the week Princess Diana died, being effectively seconded to the palace to help them deal with the aftermath in the extraordinary days following her death, when it felt at times like there was something close to a revolution in the air.
But if you were to ask yourself which public figure has enjoyed the most sustained positive image around the world, over our lifetimes, I think.
The Queen would be close to No. 1. Plenty of ups and downs for sure. But she is the embodiment of lesson one – you just keep going.
And here’s something interesting. She has never ever given an interview. But she sure as hell has had an objective – to stay there, not least here in Australia. And she sure as hell has had a good understanding of strategy in meeting that objective, as Murdoch, Turnbull and many others will testify. And every time she landed a dot, in what she wore, how the spoke, where she went, what she did… she pretty much said and did the same thing, again and again and again.
When I started writing this, I did not imagine I would end singing the praises of the Queen as one of the great strategic communicators of our time but, as I said at the top, it’s all about landing the dots where and how you want them, and if I am the King of Spin, she is the Queen of dotlanding.
This is from a speech given at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs Annual Oration on 27 June in Melbourne, Australia