A year ago I ran in the elections for President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). I only decided to stand a week before the deadline, while working in Ghana, to ensure there would be an election.
What started out as a last-minute, genuine desire to do good became horribly distorted with the divisive nature of electioneering; imagine the recent Referendum campaign but this time it’s personal, coupled with the ignominy of my being disqualified, and got even worse.
Standing for election was a huge cost in time, energy, health and well-being – even hurting those I love the most in this world.
Like any negative experience, time can often be a great healer. It enables you to put the torrid times in a wider perspective. You unearth dividends from disruptive thinking – sparking new insights and ideas you wouldn’t have garnered had you not found yourself in an unexpected situation.
Crucially, the bad times provide valuable lessons to learn and grow from.
Here is my account of the positives gained and hopefully serve as a guide for the 3 excellent candidates standing in this year’s CIPR Presidential election. (I happen to be backing Sarah Hall.)
I am sure they won’t have to go through what I did, but there’s still some wider lessons.
1).It’s not all about you. A weakness in life is to interpret other people’s actions as being about you.
My opponent’s campaign featured 150 personal testimonials from supporters within the profession, a number of whom were people I regarded as friends, or held in high regard.
It hurt to witness these people pledging not just their allegiance but extolling positive virtues about the other candidate: I wrongly took it personally, allowing myself to be wounded by interpreting these statements as not being a positive endorsement for someone else, but also a put down to me. For every virtue extolled, I interpreted a negative opposite about me.
I should have known better. People act with regard to their worldview, their interpretation of what is in their interest, or just through circumstance. It’s not necessarily about you. I now know that.
2). No pain, no gain. Dealing with conflict can help you grow stronger, boosting your resilience. In perspective, the election was a relatively insignificant thing in my life. On reflection, I grew stronger as a result of the pain endured to be better prepared for any real serious issue in life.
If you are looking for an optimum training course to provide even the most experienced or capable practitioners with greater insight and learning on crisis management, brand management, PR strategy, understanding politicians and creative campaigning you couldn’t go far wrong in choosing to stand for CIPR President.
It is weird being the product, the client and the PR adviser all wrapped into one. Yet, it’s also proffers an extraordinary rich, immersive, and profound learning experience.
3). You appreciate that everything runs to wider narratives. In my instance, while there might well have been sympathy and appreciation of what I had gone through, although I raised some critical issues about the CIPR there just wasn’t the wider appetite or desire to rock the boat. It didn’t rank on other people’s agendas, so there was no momentum, no critical mass for change.
I could have pushed against the tide, maybe with Herculean effort, changed the direction of that tide. On reflection, I felt it just wasn’t worth it.
4). I gained new intellectual insights from disruptive experience. For three years I have been supporting a global network #PRredefined on a quest to find new definitions and theory for PR practice.
One of my core tenets of thinking was the need to take on board new knowledge from the revolution in neuroscience and psychology. If we had a blank canvas, knowing what we now know about how we think and make decisions, how would we define public relations?
I believed the ideas of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his theory of heuristics (or what I call ‘Brand Heuristics’) – where we say yes if something is 1. Known, 2. Liked, 3. Trusted, 4 Front-of-mind and 5. Others are talking about it – frames public relations activity.
Think about it – these five Brand Heuristics frame any PR brief.
As a result of being disqualified for ‘advertising’ in my campaign – a charge I denied at the time and still strongly refute (I defined ‘advertising’ as any communication using a third party-owned paid-for medium. I had sponsored a design competition among a creative network who Tweeted their work on a shared medium) – it got me to address a much broader question of ‘What is PR?’ within the spectrum of all communications’ disciplines.
I now realize that Kahneman’s Heuristics frames the communications task for all disciplines whether it is advertising, brand management, digital marketing and public relations. It is the canvas for all integrated communications.
This inspired me to identify how PR is defined by its broader qualities of doing five things – listening, advising on authentic actions, managing the story, building social capital and earning trust in order to achieve 5 goals – create better brand reputation, relationships, earned influence, narrative and collaborations.
An insight I may never had identified had I not had the disruptive experience of being disqualified in the election
5).Chance to show your talents – and be proud of yourself
Looking back I’m rather proud of my election campaign. From a standing start, with absolutely no preparation before the election while working in Ghana I decided to stand. The first week of the campaign I was on holiday in Corfu.
The Green campaign office consisted of working for 45 minutes in the morning and in the evening with my laptop on our holiday apartment balcony – accompanied with the occasional ouzo. Probably the best office I’ll ever have!
Yet, I can be proud of my manifesto, campaign pledges, idea to stimulate reading of manifestos with Election Trumps cards, and the sponsorship of the design competition among the One Minute briefs community.
From a fear that I faced being whitewashed – I was being slaughtered on social media – I came within 150 votes of my rival. Who knows what would have happened had I been allowed to continue to campaign. (Although, in hindsight I’m mighty glad I didn’t win.)
6). You need to recognise an election campaign is like being inside a tiny bubble: inside it is an all-encompassing, insidious passion – and occasional venom. Outside this bubble, no gives a ___. Most remain ignorant, impassive and indifferent.
During the election by pure chance I happened to be running courses on Brand Storytelling to three regional CIPR groups across the North of England. Among the 60 odd people on these CIPR Group-run courses there was just a handful who had the vaguest idea of anything going on.
A great bit of sage advice the young me was given, was with any problem you have, run out into the street and tell a stranger it, and see what their response is to put what you perceive as humungous into its real perspective.
Unfortunately, being in a bubble you lose your perspective. Believe me guys, what you think is important, ain’t.
7). Be positive. I’m usually a very positive person and always sought to be on good terms with people. I’ve always advised clients to avoid knocking copy.
In 23 campaign blog posts, one for each day of the election – about 230 paragraphs – I wrote two paragraphs posing critical questions about my opponents manifesto.
It was the wrong call in principle and tactically. And I apologised for it.
I was driven by the frustration of what I perceived as a lack of critical analysis with an uncritical clamouring for all what my opponent said.
The lesson. Always be positive
7½). . Yet, the most profound insight and lesson is a simple one.
In times of crisis, duress or suffering the outrageous slings and arrows of outrageous fortune you discover who your true friends are. You encounter the wondrous quality of people. Some were previously barely known. Others I’ve known for a long time yet had been guilty of failing to appreciate their true qualities.
To them I still owe an inordinate debt. To them they make me realise how rich I am. Thank you.
So, a year on, older wiser, more scarred, but I’m still standing – not for Presidential election, for the CIPR Council instead.
Primarily though, I intend to be standing for a more profound constituency, should I be needed – to be there for the good friends I am privileged to have. Hopefully, I will be at least half as good as they were to me.
That’s the most valuable lesson of all.