Colin Byrne has been in both the private and not-for-profit PR and Communications Sectors for over 30 years; now CEO, UK & EMEA at Weber Shandwick. Byrne’s Political Communications background includes joining the British Labour Party’s Communication team in 1987 as Head of Press & Broadcasting, later promoted as deputy to the Communications Director.
The business school had the pleasure of welcoming Colin Byrne on Wednesday 1st November, to gain an understanding of the ‘New Driving Force in Public Relations’. Colin explained how Business communications are changing forever. We are living in one of the most turbulent times with the likes of Brexit and the ongoing sexual harassment debate, and it is this lack of ‘trust’ which provides a darker side to the communications industry.
‘Trust is a human instinct which is essential for our survival”
Trust is a concept which first evolved when we lived in tribal groups. Those groups who were better at working together, i.e. more trusting, were more likely to survive. So, how healthy is a society where we don’t trust institutions? Or where consumers don’t trust brands?
The Era of Distrust
Colin identified three very different generations in the audience; Generation Z, younger millennials and older millennials. This changing audience is divided into two groups, the Informed and Uninformed. Colin stressed the importance of not ‘living in a bubble’, ensuring we are listening more and researching our audience properly. If you were running a FMCG or financial service business for example, the informed group would be your consumers.
“Feelings are just as valid as facts”
Combating fake news
Fake news is sometimes hard to distinguish and can ruin a reputation for years. One case study shown was the McDonalds ‘pink sludge’ and chicken nuggets scandal. Fake information led to years of crisis management to combat rumours around their food process. In the past, legally watertight statements released days after a crisis could go a long way in resolving the situation. Now, McDonalds has had to spend years using Marketing and PR material to discard false claims. 5 years later and the fast-food chain is still forking out huge budgets for positive chicken nugget adverts! One campaign even involved recruiting Grant Imahara to investigate their suppliers – ‘Is there real beef in their burgers?’. Colin argues, ‘Fake news is often worse if you’re a bigger corporation than if you’re an MP’.
In the modern day there is a spotlight on corporate activity, with the average number of headlines signalling corporate reputation risk rising from 130 to 1,030 in only the last 10 years. There is a greater demand for corporate transparency which requires avoiding the credibility gap, (the difference between what is said or promised, and what happens or is true).
‘Many company incidents remain hidden – but recent evidence suggest that more are turning into full-blown crisis’ – Mckinsey
Low trust clearly leads to a demand in action, with figures showing that 74% of the public believe the government need to be tougher on business. Colin explained, to be affective we should ‘listen and act on deeper insights to fuel our PR strategies, which deal with distrust and scepticism’. Corporations should consider employing anthropologists and behavioural scientists if they really want to understand people.
The Gut Feeling
We learnt that most trust their own gut over data analytics, although bigger brands really cannot afford to do this. There is a changing role for head of communications, with what was seen as a traditionally niche function, now being spread over those working in bigger corporations. Now, almost half of chief officers have responsibility for Marketing, Advertising and Branding with a 30% increase in CCO and CMO roles merging.
“Increased demands for transparency and authenticity mean that companies must speak with one voice. Achieving one voice starts with integrating the outward faces of the organisation – communications and marketing. With those functions properly integrated, everything else is aligned to be credible and compelling to every stakeholder to maximise the company value proposition” Micho Spring
The use of Social Media by CEO’s is significantly important in driving more engagement between brands, consumers, institutions and corporations. The ‘Social CEO Study’ from 2015 analyses how active the top CEO’s are around the world. In 2015 about 42% of CEO’s were active on Social Media, whilst estimating that in the current year there would be an incline to over 63%. With the likes of our current American President Donald Trump using (or in some eyes violating) Twitter’s site, there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true. In fact, 24% of twitter uses were found to be highly regarded CEO’s… Colin even claimed he had to re-invent himself as a ‘social media animal’.
Traditionally, a business’ primary focus would be on giving services and selling their goods. Now they are having to directly and publicly face social and ethical issues, such as global warming and even sexual harassment charges against employees.
“CEOS can’t sit on the shelf anymore”
So, What is our role?
We need to understand that society’s trust for business’ is slowly shrinking and we can no longer ‘assume’ or ‘guess’ the behaviour of our audiences. We need to become behavioural scientists ourselves.
Engagement with consumers is crucial. Creating content which is credible rather than spin is more likely to be shared with friends and family.
In an internet driven world, we can no longer wait for a crisis, instead monitoring Social Media platforms 24 hours of the day. Be fast, be responsive and be vigilant.
“PR needs to be a bit more like Marketing”
Colin showed us an incredibly innovative and creative campaign from the Swedish Office, ‘The House of Clicks”. Hemnet’s aim was to be the ‘future of property development’, collecting 200 million clicks used on their property website in 2014 and creating the home Swedes ‘dreamed about’. With the help of two architects, the ‘Most wanted home’ was created. Over 600 people signed up to invest in the property, opening a 200 million dollar market. The audience helped create the content and provide the data, resulting in a perfect narrative and story.
- Focus on business objectives, rather than just communication objectives
- LEARN from the success stories of Marketing and Advertising
- Put creativity at the centre
- Use BIG data in an intelligent way
Colin concluded, “Whilst on the one hand there is fake news and negativity, there is hope. Business people, generation to generation must change their attitude and tap into their social media selves”