How HSBC nearly ruined me – and my story of renewal

Mary Creagh formal opening

The banks are in the news – this time with revelations about HSBC. Here’s my personal story of how the banks, the financial regulators and government losing their moral compass affected one individual.

Last week Mary Creagh MP formally opened a new co-working centre, IndyCube Wakefield, in the Wakefield Media and Creativity Centre.

It hopefully marks the start of a new area creating work and career opportunities and promoting a new style of working for small businesses, freelancers, and remote workers who prefer not to work alone.

It’s a story of hope and honest endeavour, in marked contrast with the news.

It has emerged that US officials refused to prosecute HSBC for money laundering in 2012 because of concerns that it would cause a “global financial disaster”.

The US Congressional report revealed UK officials, including Chancellor George Osborne, added to pressure by warning the US it could lead to market turmoil, reporting the UK “hampered” the probe and “influenced” the outcome.

The report also accuses HSBC of letting drug cartels use US banks to launder funds.

The bank, which has its headquarters in London, paid a $1.92bn (£1.48bn) settlement but did not face criminal charges. Nor have any top officials at HSBC faced any charges.

It reminds me of how HSBC tried to ruin me.

My business, the Wakefield Media and Creativity Centre Ltd was a victim of bank mis-selling.

We were one of at least 100,00 small businesses across the UK which had been sold a highly sophisticated interest rate product, designed for mega-big business as a gambling protection product. The likes of big hedge funds would have a raft of complementary counter swaps to mitigate against major movements in the marketplace.

We originally had a HSBC mortgage when we started the Media centre business in 2003. It came about through a relationship with a local manager, who had local decision-making power – and whom we trusted.

Six years later, the bank by now having dispensed with its local manger, approached us to update our financial borrowings. It offered an overdraft facility along with something called an interest rate swap, designed to protect us against likely interest rate rises, which was a condition of the borrowing for the mortgage.

We asked our accountants about the SWAP and it was something they had never heard of. Reassured by the bank, with no evidence of any downside, we signed.

What followed was a financial nightmare.

Interest rates didn’t go up. They plummeted, triggering the interest rate swap, resulting in hefty extra payments to the bank.

Our Media Centre business was a simple one. We owned a three storey building and aimed to secure rent of £1,000 per month for each floor to pay off our £2,000 month mortgage.

Fully let, we’re making a profit as well as paying off the capital which was to fund my pension. Half let and we break even.

As my successful PR business was the anchor tenant it provided further security, as well as good office premises for our firm.

When the SWAP payments kicked in we not only had £2,000 a month to pay but also an extra £1,200 a month for the SWAP.

The Media Centre business became uneconomic, unviable, and unsustainable.

Stubbornly, we held on. The PR business started to bail the Media centre business out.

We appealed to the Financial Ombudsman, claiming that the bank had misled us, not explained any potential risks and that the product was too complex to be selling to small business.

The response was staggering. The Ombudsman sided with the bank stating that ‘because the product was complex it would have been unreasonable to expect them to explain.’

Catch-22 is one of my all-time favourite books and here I was in my own financial Catch 22.

We tried again. A good legal friend had suggested asking for transcripts of the conversations the bank held, and had used extracts from in their defence.

When we received the HSBCTranscript[1] of a phone conversation between the bank and our book-keeper, which the bank had claimed was the time they explained the risks to us, it was mind-boggling, absolutely damning of their failure to explain the risk.

Even more mind boggling was the response from the Financial Ombudsman to the second submission of our complaint – with the new evidence supplied.

Parrot-like they responded ‘because the product was complex it would have been unreasonable to expect them to explain.’

A third attempt was made with the Ombudsman, after receiving advice to ask for the Bank to supply the whole file on our case. We hoped this could have demonstrated a calculation on their part to assess the risk, which they seemingly failed to pass on to us.

We were astonished when we saw the contents of the file it consisted of half a page of hand-written notes. My teenage daughters at the time would have had a more proficient shopping list than what we witnessed. The bank was either grossly inefficient, or taking the Michael out of the Ombudsman.

Again, the response of the Ombudsman to this third effort at submitting a complaint was a familiar one:  ‘because the product was complex it would have been unreasonable to expect them to explain.’

Luckily, in 2012 I happened to have been on a bargain hotel weekend away in Newquay, where I chanced upon a copy of the ‘Sunday Telegraph’.

It carried a feature about claims of bank mis-selling of interest rate swaps.

I read the article. So had a health spa owner in Devon, a caravan park owner in Cornwall, a golf club owner in Colchester, an electrical shop owner in Norfolk, a care home owner in Essex, and a businessman in Lincoln.

Within two weeks were had our first conference call and a campaign group, Bully-Banks rose up to fight for justice for small business mis-selling businesses.

Being an unpaid PR director of the Bully-Banks campaign is one of the proudest achievements of my life. (We subsequently won various industry PR awards.)

We found we weren’t alone.

We rewrote the script that the banks and the media subsequently broadcasting of ‘unsuccessful business people blaming the banks for their plight’ to one of ‘a major miscarriage of justice needs to be righted’.

Recalling the first Parliamentary debate on interest rate swap bank mis-selling, where MP after MP spoke out against how the banks had lost their moral compass and were guilty of mis-selling, was a  revelation.

We also believed that the mis-selling wasn’t just bad for the businesses affected but for the wider economy as well. Mine was one of the smallest mis-selling cases and I knew definitely it cost at least one job.

A survey of our members revealed an average of 10 jobs per business lost. This, at the height of the recession would have amounted to anything between 500,000 – 1 million jobs lost.

Had it been a steel works there would have been an outcry. Because the scale an impact was diffused over 100,000 plus businesses the effect on jobs was under the radar.

Surely, nothing could stop us now.

And soon the Financial Services Agency (subsequently becoming the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)) investigated and confirmed that mis-selling had taken place.

Ominously, the banks quickly agreed that mis-selling had taken place. The FCA struck a Faustian deal. In return for agreeing to the mis-sale the banks would be in charge of the review process.

Imagine, it’s like the woodcutter in Little Red Riding Hood capturing the big bad wolf but then putting him in charge of dealing with Little Red Riding Hood’s complaint.

The Review had an ‘independent’ assessor – usually some from the Big Four accountancy forms that are intimately linked to the banks.

The Wakefield Media and Creativity Centre Ltd. was deemed to be ‘unsophisticated’ (a ruse eliminating many from the Review process) and we were recognised by both the Financial Ombudsman and the FCA Review policy to have been the victim of mis-selling.

In settlement, we never did get an apology but we received Restitution – the money we paid out plus interest and our case for Consequential Loss – the impact and cost of the mis-sale – was considered.

The Review had a restricted regime. You couldn’t claim for the rows with your family at Christmas over money, nor on your health and well-being, and many other consequences. I felt we should have been entitled to at least £200,000 compensation.

Under the Review we could only submit a claim for £110,000.

The response?

£850.

Non-negotiable, no recourse for appeal.

There’s a scene in a Clint Eastwood film where the Native American tells the cowboy to ‘Stop pissing down my back and telling me it’s raining.”

I know how he felt.

So, life goes on.

The Bully-Banks campaign, which I had to stand down from because of work pressures, still goes on. Occasionally, I give Jeremy the chairman a call with an idea, suggestion, or offer of help.

There may be some form of class action or individual legal action still open to us.

My public relations firm started in 1993 formally ceased trading last year. A victim of having to carry its sister firm.

Do please see the film the ‘Big Short’. Its message, ‘The banks have got away with it’.

During one of the Bully-Banks conferences, a wife of one of our members turned out to be a cabaret singer. One thing led to another, resulting in her singing a variation of Elton John’s song ‘I’m still standing’ with adapted lyrics penned by yours truly.

It was an amazing sight of a conference room of sober, upright small business owners singing along, swaying and clapping to ‘I’m still standing’. Marvellous testimony to their indomitable spirit and refusal to be bullied, lie down or be defeated.

Seven years of living through a financial nightmare, I’m still standing, with a clear conscience, a good heart, and working to create a better future.

I wonder if the bank executives, the financial regulators and the politicians with dirty hands could say the same?

Why the PRCA must keep ‘public relations’ – for the future of PR – and even humankind.

prca logo

The UK organisation currently known as the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) is about to make a decision to change its name – even considering dispensing with the words ‘Public Relations’.

This is a plea to keep the epithet ‘Public Relations’ for its own self-interest and for the wider good of the profession – and the world at large.

For its own self-interest retaining ‘Public Relations’ preserves its acronym and most common usage of its title – ‘the PRCA’.

Neither do you need a crystal ball to predict that at some point, in the not-too-distant future, there is going to have to be a debate about whether there should be a merger between the two organizations operating within the UK public relations sector – the PRCA and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. The PRCA retaining the ‘Public Relations’ part of its name facilitates any future marriage.

It is understandable that an organization formed in 1969 recognized the need to reflect the fact that it was no longer limited to just those working as consultants. ‘Consultants’ has to go.

Yet, the advent of integrated communications, with the blurring of the lines between different communications disciplines such as advertising, brand management and digital marketing could tempt a forward-looking strategist to adopt ‘Professional Communicators’ as a catch-all theme.

This would be fundamentally wrong.

Firstly, there is still a lot of life in the PR dog yet.

Yes, there is a flat-lining in the search words on Google for ‘public relations’. Yet these searches dwarf any rival searches for ‘Integrated Communications’, ‘Content Marketing’ or other terms.

Also, by asserting the qualities public relations possess that other communication s disciplines cannot deliver or match, is the way forward for public relations to give itself a new lease of life.

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identified five  heuristics’, or what I call ‘Brand Heuristics’, that steer people to say ‘Yes’  if something is known, liked, trusted, front-of-mind, and others are talking about it.

All integrated communications such as advertising, brand management, digital marketing and public relations work towards these heuristics with their goals of ensuring something is known, liked, trusted, front-of-mind and others are talking about it.

Yet PR has more in its locker. It potentially is the lead discipline in five key capabilities:

  1. Listening
  2. advising on a Brand’s authentic actions
  3. managing the corporate story
  4. building social capital
  5. earning trust.

 

As a result it delivers five key outcomes in brand reputation, relationships, earned influence, more powerful narratives and greater capability to collaborate.

If the PR profession can get its act together to highlight these key roles and outcomes it can outflank rival disciplines to secure a competitive advantage over them.

It won’t be able to do this however, if we abrogate our name where ‘public relations allows itself to be subsumed within integrated communications.

Lastly, the world needs public relations to survive. Indeed, it will be a crucial tool for the survival of humankind.

Society faces many great challenges and threats. A healthy, vibrant public relations discipline is a crucial tool to enable different groups or tribes to connect, co-operate and collaborate. Without this, humankind is screwed.

Whether our race can succeed will be down to how well the public relations function can work to preserve, build, and nurture its connectivity, co-operation, and collaboration capital.

Over dramatic claims? I genuinely believe not.

If public relations does diminish or die it will be as a result of a 1001 cuts. And the PRCA, should it choose to forsake ‘public relation’ could just be one of those cuts.

So an appeal to the PRCA, please, in your own narrow, specific interest keep the ‘Public Relations’ in your name. And for the sake of the profession – and for the future of humankind – by casting your vote, endorsing PR could propel it to a better, more competitive and successful future.

Please Respect Community Assets.

 

 

 

Lessons for listening for Public Relations from BREXIT

ears

Following the UK people’s vote to leave the UK has there ever been such an important time for the ears of PR people to lead the way in creating a better future?

Listening is not only a tool for the most effective communicators but also one of the key management functions of public relations – PR people need to both good listeners and also be the champion for their organization’s listening.

It is not about communicators asking other people to lend them their ears, but also be mindful of how good is their own listening: are they really listening? If we as PR practitioners cannot listen effectively then how can we ask our targets to do likewise?

Are there lessons for our political establishments – both at a UK and European-wide level – as they reflect on the lessons they could learn from the BREXIT win?

The fallout from the Referendum vote have been profound. There emerged, it seemed, two tribes within Britain, partly defined by age, social class, educational attainment, and geography.

Many Remain voters are embittered and angry about how their future has been decided by a group they label as ‘racist, ignorant, and selfish’. Equally, many Brexiteers are astonished that their concerns about immigration, housing etc. were not heard by the ‘academic middle class’.

Sure, pinning such labels on another group to yours seems to tally with your worldview, your experience, the world that you see every day. Or does it?

Is this a case of confirmation bias, a self-reinforcing spiral where you listen to and only take on board new information that accords with your own beliefs, prejudices and bias?

The EU itself has responded with views that depict a vote that saddens them but was also a product of a misled UK electorate, a referendum solely coming about through internal Conservative party politics.

Yet, is this all there is to respond to the BREXIT decision?

Are there lessons the EU need to take on board? Are they receiving a message that is not just specific to the UK but is evident albeit under the radar, under the surface across the EU?

Humility is, in my opinion, the greatest gift a creative mind can have, and the greatest asset for a communicator. It recognises that you don’t know everything, don’t know all the answers, and there is value in drawing in potentially positive contributions from the world around you.

Possessing humility gets you to ask questions, to challenge the status quo because you have an underlying belief that there is always something greater, better or useful out there.

Possessing humility allows you to read different newspapers and journals, keep listening when a view with which you disagree comes over the airwaves and accepting that the friend who holds different beliefs to you has as much validity as you do.

By asking better quality questions, and listening with a belief that there is something always to learn, will get you on a journey of empowerment. But just asking better questions is not enough, you need to truly listen to what is being said; put your attention onto the listener, not your internal dialogue that is by now ‘dissing’ or working out what to say in response.

Listening is not the same a hearing.

 

Hearing refers to the sounds that you hear, whereas listening requires more than that: it requires focus; listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body, even in what I call ‘Level 5 Listening’ their underlying narrative.

In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages.
 

Listening wins as it gets the respect of others around you.

Listening enables you to learn from others.

Listening creates a bigger picture.

The powerful person, the more capable and resourceful person is the one that sees a bigger picture, operating in a bigger landscape to provide more options, alternatives and room for manoeuvre.

And you see a bigger picture by better listening. It’s a deliberately mixed metaphor.

The binary nature of the Referendum vote necessitated two segmented groups within the electorate. But does that tell the whole story, the true story?

Did the Referendum decision mask a myriad of motivations, points of view and motivations, that for polling purposes neatly wrapped into a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Is your ability to respond to this new world helped by identifying just two groups? Would you be more insightful if you identified other groups within these apparent two camps to build dialogue, engagement and a new way forward?

Would you be more powerful by listening to their concerns, views and opinions and ask ‘What do I need to learn from this?’

As a result, is there anything you need to be doing different? (The answer, by the way, is Yes. Remember that ‘If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got’ – and what you may have got from the referendum stands a 48/52 chance of being not what you wanted.)

Both sides of the Referendum divide need to listen to each other.

Darwin identified that the species that succeed are the ones not necessarily bigger, stronger, tougher. It’s the ones that collaborate.

Maybe on humankind’s evolutionary journey our most powerful asset is our ears.

If we fail to listen in this post-Referendum era then we all in the UK stand to lose. A future of a bitter, divided community. A UK society that creates a lesser future for itself.

PR people need to stand tall in these uncertain post-Referendum times – and lead not with their messaging or soundbites, but with their ears.

Will they listen? Time will tell.

 

[Thanks to additional input of Geoff Roberts of Developing Minds]

 

 

How Leave won the Meme Wars in Referendum and lessons for you

projectfear

The UK is still reeling from a Referendum vote that surprised the global markets, institutions, and even the Leave campaign supporters.

One lesson is how the Remain campaign lost the ‘Meme War’.

Mention ‘memes’ and the fashion now is to think of virial Internet messages that capture people’s imagination and get passed on.

Yet memes are more profound, I would argue they form the DNA of communications, of how information gets passed on, received and crucially passed-on again.

And what’s clear the Leave campaign won its Meme War – by gaining a disproportionate part of popular culture – leading to a majority result in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Powerful memes are ‘sticky’. By that I mean they have a coherence, often easily visualised or memorable in some way, and are easily copyable. As a result, they are easily remembered and can be passed on intact, and can grow and grow.

Think back to the Referendum campaign, what messages can you remember?

The Leave side’s ‘Take Back Control’ message, #Project Fear response to any expert opinion or surveys, the message that the UK’s National Health Service would get each week/month £350 million by not being in the Euro, its flamboyant and charismatic leaders – notably Boris Johnson from the Conservatives and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, Boris’s red campaign bus that toured the country, and the latest immigrant, or manifestation of immigration you saw on your last trip around town.

And from the Remain side…

The Remain side failed to recognise that facts and information alone are weak communications.

The Remain campaign failed to create Brand Icons – the pictures in your head when your Brand name is mentioned.

The Remain campaign had a half-hearted token attempt at creating memes. One of their key messages was they claimed how the average UK household would be £4,300 a year. Yet, I can’t visualise £4,300 a year so the message will more likely wash over me, fail to be believable or stick. I can however, picture in my mind’s eye £330 a month or £82 a week.

Their message of #strongertogether lacked an ability to make people feel better as a result of digesting the information. The Leave’s #TakeBackControl was much more vigorous and self-asserting, making you unconsciously feel better about yourself.

Interesting how the Welsh Football Association (WFA) employed #TogetherStronger as part of its campaign to unite Welsh football fans in the run up to, and during the Euro 2016 football tournament. This word sequence works better that the Remain campaign’s #StrongerTogether, possessing a more inherent logic: first we come together and then we’re stronger.

Also, the WFA had the advantage of possessing a core entity – Welsh football fans’ love of their country and their game – that provide a much more attractive proposition to align and bond with by being ‘together’ and subsequently be even greater as a result of the coming together, than the Remain campaign more wishy-washy ‘Stronger Together’.

Ultimately, the Leave campaign conjured up the most powerful meme of all – a Conspiracy Meme.

Armed with ‘#ProjectFear’ – that whatever other side is saying is part of a conspiracy, every time an expert, authoritative or opposing source opened their mouths they would be met with the response: ‘They’re bound to say that.’

Not only does a Conspiracy meme provide a deflective shield to bounce back any unwelcome messages, it actually gets stronger and deeper every time it’s employed. Instead of persuading someone you end up deepening the strength of their convictions.

So, how can you counter a conspiracy meme? Not by facts. But by counter-memes.

Evidently, the UK is any way not a full member of the existing ‘EU Club’ as a result of not being part of the single Euro currency, or the Schengen Agreement that allows free-er passage within countries. In reality, the UK was, as one expert estimated, just a 65% member of the EU Club.

The Leave campaign talked of establishing a new deal with Europe to retain free trade, and spoke of ‘Norway Models’ – which is not a member of the EU but complies with a certain level of EU rules to enjoy free market trading opportunities.

While you could have rationally argued that the Leave campaign’s message of ‘Take back control’ is a myth, this is a far less effective response than to retort with a counter meme of, for example, all you’re doing is ‘#TakeBack30%Control’.

This is sticky, easy-pass-onable, and ultimately could have toxified the original #TakeBackControl meme. Sure, it is not rational facts. But you can’t beat memes with facts, only by employing other more potent memes.

One of my creative heroes, advertising legend Dave Trott, talks of how middle class people hate jingles in advertising. Despite being meme-friendly, memorable and effective in achieving awareness, message retention, and ensuring front-of-mindedness, the middle class executive is likely to sneer at the prospect of using a jingle in their communications.

Why? Because middle-class executives are successful people on the back of being more intelligent, rational, and logical. Jingles are more likely, and falsely, in their mind just to appeal to unintelligent, lower-class people.

Whenever I run a meme campaign workshop I keep the numbers taking part low. This minimises the risk of logical, middle-class minds expressing their discomfort and undermining the delicate process of creating sticky messaging.

Going forward, the UK needs to create a new narrative, needs to work to build greater Social Capital to bring a divided community together, abut will need to take a lesson from the Leave campaign of the critical need to win the Meme Wars.

Are you guilty of being snobby and reluctant to dirty your hands with memes?

How the BREXIT vote is the latest consequence of our Social Capital crisis

social class

How many working class people do you know? Did half the people you know vote Brexit?

The Referendum result revealed a disturbing reality of two tribes within Britain – and what’s worse they’re increasingly having less to do with each other.

It is all part of a hidden crisis within our society – the decline of Social Capital – and it was partly responsible for the recent Referendum result.

This hidden Social Capital crisis affects the very heartbeat of how our communities work. Fewer people devote themselves to the communal good. Less of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other – reducing our capacity to connect, co-operate and collaborate.

As a result, things we took for granted in our communities start to happen less and less, or not happen at all, and people are increasingly operating within distinct silos of like-minded people – and we are all poorer as a result.

There are less opportunities for dialogue between people. Chances to create alternative views outside your own tribe’s bubble of a worldview.

There are less opportunities to become a trusted source, someone who could be listened to, whose advice and information is not dismissed as being part of a conspiracy theory.

There are less opportunities to be front-of-mind, being able to influence just by the recency of your contact.

There are less opportunities to be at least liked by another person, so that you avoid simplistic labels and stereotypes of other people, even if you hold a contrary view.

Social Capital is not just a nice thing to have. It’s critical to how well we live and work together – and public relations people are in the driving seat to do something about its decline.

PR people need to start recognising the existence of Social Capital – the space to connect, that can range from building on-line and off-line communities, to simple opportunities to be in the same space together.

We need to respect that that building Social Capital is one of the five core pillars of public relations activity, alongside listening, counselling on the authenticity of your Brand’s actions, managing your story, and earning trust.

We need to include in our work recognition that communications and creating change requires managing the gaps within stakeholders as much as the messages to them.

We need to recognise that public relations work is about investing in the Bonding Capital that holds a group together, its Bridging Capital of how it connects with other like-minded people outside of its home group, and its Linking Capital for connecting with others – even if they are not like you, or may even be opposed to you.

I define Social Capital as ‘How we help each other, to help each other’- the capacity within our communities to connect, co-operate and collaborate.

Vibrant communities have strong Bonding Social Capital – the glue to hold a group together

Thriving communities have strong Bridging Social Capital to connect people better with like-minded others

Creative communities have strong Linking Social Capital bringing dissimilar people together

The guru of Social Capital, Robert Putnam identified in his seminal book ‘Bowling Alone’ how bowling alley attendances in the United States are rising but bowling alley leagues have dramatically declined – hence we’re increasingly ‘bowling alone’ – a decline mirrored in every aspect of communal and civic life.

I came across the concept of ‘Social Capital’, and realized its significance, through a community project I ran in my hometown, the ‘Barry IdeasBank’. It started off as an idea of an online repository, a place to share good ideas about where you live.

I discovered that an idea by itself is just an idle thought. You need people to make ideas happen. And these people need other people to realize the potential of their idea and to make it happen – they need strong Social Capital – offline more than online.

A Barry equivalent of Putnam’s bowling metaphor would be the pub game of skittles, played in skittles alleys.

Over the last 20 years half the skittle alleys in Barry have closed. Yes, this reflects changing social habits, the decline in numbers of local pubs, and also the changing nature of employment, evoked by the names of many of the alleys that have closed such as the ‘Dockers’ and ‘Railwaymen’.

Yet the people who used to play skittles have not replaced this activity with another that nudges them to get out of their homes more, mix with people they may not normally have social contact with, or come together to work to a common goal. As a result we have a Social Capital deficit.

In Barry we would have the equivalent book title of ‘Skittling No More’, where the core assets for Social Capital, the hubs for communal activity are being destroyed or significantly diminished – whether it is a skittle alley closing, declining local newspaper circulations, the local record shop or other community retail closing, or fewer milk deliveries – anything where we help each other, to help each other.

This is not about restoring or trying to keep alive what may be commercially or socially unviable or unsustainable, but rather recognising the Social Capital consequences of these trends. We need to invest and create new activities to offset the deficit.

Imagine in the run-up to the Referendum you are in a team or group event with people you don’t normally mix with, and the subject of ‘How are you going to vote?’ came up? You are more likely to hear and respond to a far wider range of views than from your bubble of friends, family and social media contacts.

You would have had a richer discourse, sharing personal experiences, leveraging your mutual trust and also creating a greater sense of mutual obligation to the consequences of your actions.

Once you start wearing Social Capital glasses you see its symptoms everywhere in your work: greater difficulty getting volunteers or participants, more difficult to get your message through, or being failed to be believed and trusted.

The UK faces one of its biggest challenges since World War II. Public Relations people and Communicators need to stand tall. The BREXIT vote is a wake-up call on so many fronts.

We need to create new narratives of our collective story going forward. Yet, we also need to wake up to the crisis in declining Social Capital in our society, and roll up our sleeves to lead the way in addressing its consequences and building new Social Capital for greater connection, co-operation and collaboration.

Charles Darwin observed that the species that succeed are the ones that collaborate better,

We are not just bowling or skittling alone, but could be a country of two mutually alone tribes, failing to collaborate.

Are you going to start the process of reaching out more, and creating richer, more meaningful engagements?

Or are you going to sit comfortably in your bubble, your silo of self-reinforcing, mutually supportive ‘Yes’ people to your worldview?

Facing up to the consequences of BREXIT and working to build a resilient, inclusive and successful UK community could be one of PR’s finest moments. I’m rolling up my sleeves, yet I know I can’t achieve what I want by myself. Are you going to do what you can do to tackle the Social Capital crisis in our society?

 

 

The need for a new narrative post Euro Referendum

churchill

A seismic change in Britain’s history now needs a seismic change in our future story: the UK is in urgent need of a new narrative. One that explains our past and one that works to rebuild our society and create a stronger platform for a better collective future for the UK.

Otherwise, we face up to creating a future destiny amidst uncertainty, bitterness, rancour and despair.

A narrative is like the string in a pearl necklace, providing the thread for connecting your pearls of your story of the past and of the future, that shape your story of the now.

Not since the darkest hours of 1940 where Winston Churchill stood tall and inspired the British people – and history – of a Britain that its people will fight on its beaches has there been a need for creating a new narrative for our future.

Communicators, PR people, all of us who work in our business have a critical role to play.

At the heart of this is how we in the UK go forward as a society – with a new story.

Ian McMillan, the Barnsley poet Tweeted on the morning after the referendum: ‘This is a roar of bitter anger against austerity and powerlessness. It won’t stop me loving the world and its beautiful songs of hope.’

We need to build on this sense of purpose in life to explain our new reality and future aspirations.

We need to create a new script for the United Kingdom, its people, and its role in the world that:

  • Binds our wounds, connects our people together. For 48% of people who voted ‘Remain’ it’s a future they didn’t choose. We face recrimination and polarisation. For the 52% that voted ‘Leave’ there is a temptation for triumphalism. Our reality is that we need to live and go forward together. Democracy is not just about winner takes all, but respecting the whole of the community.
  • Creates a new sense of direction. We now have a pathway without the map that previously defined our route. We need a vision offering a coherent, constructive, and caring mission.
  • Listens and learns from what happened on June 23rd. A majority sent out a signal, beyond the direct question of staying in or out of the EU, of alienation from the political establishment, a lack of trust in previously trusted sources. We need to learn, grow and move on.

The way ahead is to recognise there are inevitable immediate narratives being used to explain what happen.

“The Leave camp lied and misled the British people.”

“We face economic disaster.”

“White Van Man has decided my future.”

“This is one last ‘F*** you’ from the Baby Boomers’

Inevitably, it will take time to heal the immediate anger felt by the slender minority whose future has been shaped by their fellow citizens.

It is healthy to vent one’s immediate feelings. It is unhealthy however, where your emotions and story of rage dictate your script going forward, masking your ability to make a fresh start, to make the most of our situation and our potential.

In this post-Referendum period we need to create a new ground, beyond those defined by the ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ camps, that creates a new sense of shared purpose and common destiny.

We need to build a new narrative, that explains our past, the reason why people acted the way they did, and the story of our future that will shape how we define our story of now.

We need a story narrative not of ‘Tragedy – a ‘Riches-to-Rags’ plot, but of ‘Re-birth’, where it is a plot of how we find the answer, the resource and capability from within us.

This will require open, honest reflection, but crucially listening to and recognizing the narrative patterns that are being used by the different camps of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’- and how we, like it or not, have a reality that we need to move forward from.

Communicators, like Winston Churchill in 1940 now need to stand tall.

Yes, a slim majority of 52% has given its verdict. But it’s a future for the 100% of us we now need to work on. And that will require a new narrative, to paraphrase Churchill, where we need to offer our blood, toil, tears and sweat, but will never surrender to a hopeless future.

Let our new journey of a new truth and reconciliation begin.

The Story of being British, English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish…

god save the queen

Next Thursday as the band starts playing the first notes of ‘God Save the Queen’ ahead of the England v Wales fixture in the Lens Stadium I will be embarrassed, even squirming.

I am someone who was born in England and now lives in Wales. Why is the song that represents my British identity being used in opposition to what I regard as my Welsh identity?

 While my soul will be stirred when I hear the Welsh fans singing ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ (‘Land of my Fathers’) I will be feeling angry about the music played for the identity of my place of birth – even though I’m equally proud to be English.

Everyone in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in my view are members of one club – the club of being British.

What signal does it send out about identity when the English display ownership of what should be a communal asset – that the song ‘God Save the Queen’ is about ‘England’ not ‘Britain’.

If Wales has a national anthem so should England. And ‘God Save the Queen’ should only be played to represent the entire British family.

What I’m witnessing with the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ as yet another example of sloppy management of the ‘British Brand’.

We need to think seriously about what is the story of what it means to be British. We need to respect our icons – the rallying points of our identity and what ways they need to be used – and crucially not mis-used, along with our values and key defining facts?

We have a choice how we manage our Brand for a better collective destiny within these Isles.

The issue has deep significance for the well-being of our society – such as the integration of different groups into the communities of the ‘British family’. British-born Jihadists fighting for Isis is a British Brand question.

This is not about spending lots of money on marketing and promotion. Rather it is about avoiding needless own goals.

The Union Jack emblem for example, should only be used to represent ‘Britain’ not ‘English’.

When I use an ATM in Wales I’m presented with an option for the Welsh language with an accompanying Welsh flag while the alternative option for the English language option represented by a Union Jack. Such divisive use of icons, reinforces separateness and shouts out that ‘You are not really one of us’.

Icons that represent ‘Britain’ should only be used for Britain and not England.

Do we need a new Brand name?

There is even a need to at least explore and debate the question of should we drop our formal name of ‘United Kingdom’?

This may seem radical but do you ever introduce yourself as a ‘United Kingdomer’?

Yet that is your formal title if born or have citizenship within these Isles. Originally devised to provide a formal title to connect Britain and Ireland, the term was a legalistic, diplomatic manoeuvre rather than a core emotional touchstone for your identity.

Do you know the full name of your country? Please have a go. In my tests 9 out of 10 British people get it wrong. (For the record, it is the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.)

What does this indicate, when a vast majority don’t even know their own Brand name?

Who will you be supporting in the forthcoming Olympics? Will it be ‘Team GB’? Yet, who is ‘Team GB’?

The name ‘Team GB’ is a tactical response to overcome the deep strategic flaw in our name and brand.

So, if we drop ‘United Kingdom’ what do we call ourselves?

My vote would go for ‘Greater Britain’. With the political rapprochement with the Republic of Ireland I would argue the international sensitivity around the name ‘Great Britain’ no longer exists.

You don’t have a choice to be a Brand

Being British is about recognising there is a ‘British’ brand

If you mention the word ‘Brand’ most people associate it with consumer goods and names like ‘Microsoft’ ‘Coca Cola’ or ‘Dolce and Gabbana’.

Yet, each and every one of us is a Brand. Publicity campaigns and organizations are Brands – and even our communities and nation states are Brands.

You don’t have a choice about whether to be a Brand or not. What you can choose however, is how to manage your Brand.

Multiple identities

Identity is a complex interplay of many different identities fusing to define who we are.

I’m a Londoner, now Barry Islander, with a bit of Yorkshire, I’m West Ham United and now also Barry Town United. I’m English, but also Welsh, I’m British, European and someone occupying space on spaceship Earth. It’s complicated. But some things are simple in how we manage the badges that reflect our identity – and that means don’t play ‘God Save the Queen’ ahead of the England v Wales game.

Looking ahead to a British victory

On the pitch I hope it’s a draw between England and Wales – and both teams go as far as they can, even meeting again in the Final (OK some dreams may be far-fetched). This is not a cop-out, or sitting on the fence. I see that as the best result for British football.

Off the pitch let’s stop being sloppy about the British Brand. Let’s address what is meant by our ‘British Brand’ – whether it is part of Europe, or not – so we can avoid the own goals off the field, like we will witness in the Euro football tournament.

I’m fed up of squirming when I hear a song that should make me proud.

 

 

Tired of redefining the story of PR? Yet we’re nearly there

google search public relations

A sign of a good friendship is that it can withstand differences of point of view. Hope my relationships with Stephen Waddington – Wadds – stands this test.

We have a shared interest is in the evolving story of public relations – how the profession and industry needs to adapt to revolutionary new circumstances.

In a recent blog Wadds raised the issue of what he calls ‘definition fatigue’ in the efforts to redefine public relations where he states:

“My view is that the constant calls to redefine public relations help no one. They fuel confusion and show public relations to be an insecure and anxious profession.’

He highlights studies that report recording over 476 definitions of public relations.

And he makes the direct point, Practitioners such Andy Green suggest that public relations theory is poor. This too is unhelpful and does nothing to improve to the relationship between theory and practice.”

“A theory is a theory until someone debunks it or comes up with a better one. If you don’t like the theory come up with a better one. But do it properly through a literature review, original research, and critical analysis.”

Wadds is someone I regard as a dear friend, whom I hold in deep respect and regard his stint as CIPR President as one of the Institute’s best-ever leaders.

As I respond, two phrases come to mind:

The first is, ‘If two people agree on everything, one of them is useless.’ The other, by the science fiction writer William Gibson, “The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.”

Our future is already here. It’s just a case of spotting the early warning indicators.

And the future for public relations is going to be much worse than a case of fatigue, but a poorer place for everyone working in public relations and our society.

If we care about our profession, the difference we can make to our world, we actually need to be insecure and anxious, because there’s a certain writing on the wall.

Yes, it is a tiring exercise but if we ignore the wake-up calls then our world, and the wider world, will be a worse place.

The current state of public relations

Where are we now with public relations?

At the very least the well-being of Public Relations is flat-lining. I believe this to be a portent to a long-term decline – unless is something is done.

The volume of Google searches on a subject is a brilliant tool for anticipating the next. Searches for ‘public relations are flat-lining.

In recent weeks I’ve witnessed a host of anecdotal evidence confirming this flat-lining within the industry, such as comments overheard among PR consultants that budgets are flat-lining at best.

And if I needed mega-indications of the significance  of this issue came the announcement this week by the UK Public Relations Consultants’ Association that it is reviewing its very name – where it may not even be called ‘public relations’ any more.

Their announcement contained a fascinating study among UK PR consultancies on whether they include the term ‘public relations’ in their name, or even refer to it on the home pages of their web site, and other key indicators.

The study revealed:

  • Less than 10% of the UK top 50 consultancies have ‘PR’ in their name.
  • Just over 20% have a reference to ‘PR’ on their home page
  • Just over 40% use ‘PR’ in their description of ‘About Us’ on their web site
  • Just over 50% use ‘PR’ in their Google short descriptor.

The PRCA also noted that, ‘Comparable data does not appear to exist regarding the names adopted by in-house teams. Our sense however from speaking with members operating in that part of the industry is that relatively few term themselves as ‘PR Teams’ .

In my own work, I teach part-time ‘international public relations’ on a Masters degree at Cardiff University. The course is not called ‘international public relations’ but rather ‘Global Communications Management.

This is the reality of ‘public relations’. There is a growing trend of people not even using the term ‘public relations’.

My strong belief is that this is part of a long-term decline and downward trend.

And it’s not just a matter of academic debate.

PR agencies are reporting that they are getting further down the line in not being the first port of call with organizations addressing their communications and engagement needs. Digital marketing, advertising and brand consultancies are increasingly getting first dibs, with decreasing crumbs for PR.

That’s smaller budgets, less power and declining prestige and influence.

My experience last year of being disqualified in the CIPR President election because I was guilty of ‘advertising’ shows how pernicious this issue of uncertainty and a lack of definition of ‘public relations’ – and consequently ‘advertising’ – can be. (I still totally refute the charge of ‘advertising’ where my activity consisting of offering a £50 book token prize for a design competition among a creative community. As a consequence, the Institute currently has a formal definition of ‘advertising’ as any form of ‘paid publicity’.)

So, the lack of a clear-cut definition impacts on us in many ways.

And the main reason I believe for the decline in public relations is a lack of clear definition of ‘PR’ with a supporting theoretical framework. In an era of revolutionary change and upheaval in communications and communications channels PR’s response has been hindered by a lack of definition of what it does, and why it exists.

In my work on memes it is not the ‘best’ that survive and thrive. It is the most coherent and easily copy-able.

A future of a lesser public relations is not inevitable, nor the optimum outcome for our society, but a consequence of millions of responses to the challenge of how do we communicate and engage following the paths of least resistance and easiness – all away from ‘public relations’

I can understand Wadds’ fatigue. We worked together on launching #PR redefined project 3 years ago. (And it still contains much valuable insight and this Google community is one of its legacies.)

Yet I’m reminded of something Danny Boyle, the film director once told me: “If success was a door with a neon light above it saying ‘Success’, you can bet there will be a big queue. And the rich will be at the front of it.”

Redefining PR hasn’t been easy.

I believe the task has been hampered by too narrow a focus on its own narrative, and seeking to change from within its sphere rather than from inter-sections with other domains, while also seemingly ignoring the revolution in neuroscience and psychology.

If there have already been 476 definitions I invoke the Thomas Edison quote that he tried 10,000 different ways to invent the light bulb. Yet, each iteration somehow took him a step nearer his destination. It’s been only 476 plus.

To create change we need new concepts and theory which is accompanied by change in the real world.

The irony of Wadds declaration is that I believe we are almost there, nearly at the finishing tape.

Catherine Arrow has produced an excellent case which mirrors much of my thinking.

We have an existing body of insight, including much from Wadds himself, that awaits further synthesis into a coherent conceptual framework and narrative.

We are nearly there.

I would challenge Wadds on how paradigms change. Kuhn’s analysis of paradigm change is not like a new washing powder coming along and people choosing new Brand X over their regular powder.

Change instead, works through outliers, or innovators creating new thinking and ways of doing with Early Adopters creating a new way of doing. The Early and Late Majority only change when upholding their status quo become too painful.

Often, the reality of paradigm change only comes when the upholders of the dominant paradigm start dying out.

And I do take the call from Wadds as a ‘put up or shut up’ challenge, to which I will be shortly responding in the next few weeks.

Yes, I will be supplying a literature review, original research, and critical analysis. And what’s more, will make it meme-friendly with an easy-to-use Checklist to make it easy to put into practice.

The quest for redefining public relations is not about disappearing down a self-indulgent, self-defeating rabbit hole.

Yes, it is a tiring exercise

We are however, near the start of a 5 lane super highway that connects to a better future for public relations and as a vital tool for human society.

Watch this space, but don’t give up just quite yet. It has been a tiring journey but we’re almost there.

 

 

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