December 5, 2016 Andy Green

Interview: Chris Lewis, founder of world leading PR company Lewis Global Communications

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Chris Lewis is the founder of Lewis Global Communications, one of the world’s leading public relations and communications agencies, with 600 staff across 27 offices throughout Asia, Europe and North America.

He is the author of three books; ‘The Unemployables’ a profile of 40 high achievers from all walks of life, ‘Brilliant Minds’ a satirical novel about politics and advertising, and his latest ‘Too Fast To Think’ – highlighting ways of reclaiming your creativity in a hyper-connected work culture, which recently topped the Amazon Hot New Releases chart. (All proceeds from his latest book are going to the creative arts foundation Kupambana.)

[Please note this interview was recorded before recent events in the Presidential elections in the United States.]

 

ANDY GREENThe frustration I get with most PR people is they think they’re news storytellers, yet they don’t then listen to a wider narrative. It’s no good saying ‘we’re thinking of doing storytelling: you’re doing storytelling whether you like it or not – and most do it badly or blandly. It seems to be a very myopic view of PR, like ‘I’m sorry I’m essentially a news storyteller, and don’t listen to the wider narrative’.

CHRIS LEWIS – Well, this is a bit of what my book ‘Too Fast To Think’ is about. It deals with the difference between the ephemeral and the enduring. As journalists we deal with the ephemeral – what happens on a daily basis – but in actual fact, history records the enduring. To use a geological analogy, the marketing, the narrative that comes from a company is like an igneous process that represents their brand vision. The PR people get handed this to defend. In BP’s case, the brand was impacted by Deepwater Horizon which created a much wider narrative which eclipsed whatever story the company wanted told. There may have been much more detail to the story, but when everyone’s moving so fast, they don’t really have any time to nuance the information. It has to be either black or white, and so, consequently, the pace of overload also makes people filter their news.

So, in ‘Too Fast To Think’ it recognises some of the filtering that goes on; the first filter, is all bad news gets through, all terrorism gets through; everybody knows everything about every terrorist effect everywhere in the world, all the time.

 

ANDY GREENThat all goes back to basic anxiety, reducing dissonance.

CHRIS LEWIS – Yes basically, any journalist would recognise that as a ‘threat to the community’ story, and that means they hear all bad news all around the world all the time, which creates a wider narrative that the world is getting more chaotic, that we’re killing more people, there’s more poverty, there’s more disease, there’s more famine, and that’s simply not true. By any economic statistic the world is getting healthier, wealthier and living longer by any measure. When you look at Steven Pinker’s work, he points out that there’s dissonance between the way the world actually really is and the way people think it is.

So the way people think it is demands a strong person to step up and do something about it. So we see a Donald Trump or a Marine Le Pen – an unorthodox politician coming in with a simple answer. For instance, with Trump it’s ‘put up a wall, stop the Muslims and everything will become safe again and we will return to an Eisenhower ideal 1950s period.’ That’s an interesting aside that people use Eisenhower as an example, because Eisenhower was the leader of the Allied forces in Europe, yet was the only President in the whole of the 20th century, ironically, that didn’t fight a war, elected after Korea and before Vietnam.

 

ANDY GREENThey’ve got a narrative of what I call a ‘rags to riches’; there’s a third party with a magic wand who can transform your situation.

CHRIS LEWIS – I think journalists can do very well in the world of PR, because they always have a mandate to look at things on a wider contextual basis. The BBC is very good at creating a global narrative around individual news stories to create the first draft of history.

It’s said that history is nothing more than fossilised journalism, in this sort of sedimentary process that we’ve talked about. And so there’s a huge advantage for media people, particularly British ones. Britain still has many national newspapers and even though they’re in decline, they still account for a third of the country; millions of people every day see a national newspaper. There’s a real sense of a national news agenda – you don’t really have that quite so much in any other country in the world.

 

ANDY GREENYou mentioned decline there, so how is the PR communications scene changed in terms of how we go about the business of doing communications with people?

CHRIS LEWIS – Well it is changing but there are some things which are good news, I mean the amount of journalism is going up; the amount of journalists perhaps is going down, the amount of information flow is going up tremendously. The question is whether people are going to pay for those stories to maintain the quality of the journalism. People will pay for quality. I think ‘The Times’ is now profitable on its paywalls. We know there’s a future for newspapers, but some of the trends that we see is that the stories are getting shorter, text is becoming less important, and because it’s becoming more global, the stories are becoming more visual.

So if it becomes visual or televisual, then it gets access across the world, and I think, you know, even in Hollywood the amount of scripted dialogue in movies is dropping because it makes it easier to sell in China where the translation of the text is minimal, because there are more explosions or more a visual narrative or whatever in the story, so the world is losing its fetish with text. Not losing its fetish with information, but losing its fetish with the printed word.

ANDY GREENIt’s like a ‘counter Caxton’.

Chris Lewis –  When you look back at Caxton and the relationship with the printed word, well, people forget that for the best part of two thousand years The City of London did most of its trading not with any form of printed word; ‘my word was my bond’, it still is in the City – ‘my word is my bond’, not ‘my contract’, not ‘my letter’, not ‘my written document’, ‘my word is my bond’. And consequently, in the City people did business for two thousand years without being able to read or write. You know, hence the shops with, you know, three balls for a pawn broker. So the City of London had a prejudice against anything that was written, largely because it came from an ecclesiastical environment anyway, because it was written in Latin and usually associated with things that garnered suspicion at the time, like the Catholic Church.

My early career was in print and you felt that Fleet Street was always outside the City, it was the other side of the river Fleet. The City was bounded by the Walbrook in the east and the Fleet in the west, and London Wall across the top of it with the two hills of Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill.

Fleet Street grew up in the ecclesiastical sense, even, you know, the print unions are still known as ‘chapels’ or ‘fathers of chapels’, measures of paper are a ‘quire’. There was all this religious stuff still embedded in the old print mentality. But the important thing is that media, the fourth estate, was always outside of the City culturally, philosophically, historically, economically…

ANDY GREENBut all connected in a way to be relatively close but separate.

CHRIS LEWIS – Yes, as an observer to what went on, always looking in on The City, because, you know, journalists have historically had nothing to do with trade or with commerce. And so the tradition of journalism as informed observation goes back many years.

There’s never been a time which is more important for journalists and for media people to actually study the wider horizon. The world is moving much, much faster in directions which are concerning to people. There are few people that can provide that type of situational fluency to advise companies on, you know, what is really going on because change brings opportunity.

Brexit will bring opportunity to companies, change always does. Entrepreneurs will say ‘Well either the world’s coming to an end or it is going to get better, the question is timing’, and that’s all it is.

 

ANDY GREENAnd so what ways do PR communicators need to do things different now in this era?

CHRIS LEWIS – Well, the opportunities are global. There are huge opportunities out there and advantages to speaking English. For instance, the business language of the world is English; secondly, the UK time zone is in the middle of the international business day; thirdly, people malign it, but Heathrow can still get you anywhere in the world in 24 hours. And probably there’s other subsidiary reasons; English contract law forms the basis of business dealings in America, India, Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa and Singapore.

ANDY GREENOne of our biggest exports.

CHRIS LEWIS – I mean that’s still a really big factor. And also when you look on the global stage the British Brand in relative terms, I believe it is still trusted, it’s still credible.

You know people forget the Latin roots of credit ‘to believe’. All business is about belief in somebody and trust in somebody’s integrity, and the British still have that around the world. Some people think the British are always arguing, but disagreement is the parent of all creativity.

ANDY GREENYes, absolutely.

CHRIS LEWIS – You know you might find that less in China where dissent is much more nuanced, and has real implications for creativity because it’s very difficult to be creative unless you can openly disagree.

 

ANDY GREEN In terms of seeing it as a PR agency, I mean a) do you call yourself a PR agency? And b) if you’re working in a field that’s labelled as ‘PR’, how has the world changed for you, what do you need to be doing different?

CHRIS LEWIS – Well I think, as I mentioned, it’s certainly more globalised, it’s certainly faster. It’s certainly got to be more gender balanced as well, and that’s particularly important because if you’re really serious about engagement with people, it’s not just an international community that you need to engage, it’s also both genders.

If you look at any consumption figures in terms of how statistics look, in terms of women and men engaged on social media, it’s very different. There are some channels which are almost entirely female and some channels which are used much more effectively by women. In the consumer area, channels like Facebook are actually a much more powerful method of reaching groups online, whereas men tend to be perhaps less engaged on social media.

So when you look at the opportunities there, it certainly has to become more female.

ANDY GREENYou’ve done very well with recent events by the way!

CHRIS LEWIS – It’s getting better, but in order to recognise the importance of that, you also have to recognise that if a modern organisation is going to be successful with its engagement policies and its narrative, it has to look like the constituency it’s seeking to serve. And that means it’s got to be global, it’s got to be gender balanced, it’s got to be young and old at the same time, it’s got to be able to recognise how the communication process is changing; becoming more visual, for instance.

 

ANDY GREENYou mentioned narrative there, I mean, what’s the role of narrative in terms of communication and communication management?

CHRIS LEWIS – Well, narrative has to espouse the difference between the ephemeral and the enduring, as discussed. We know sometimes what the company wants to say about its long-term narrative, but that can easily be eroded by a global narrative which is, which diverges from that.

So the idea that some companies can have a fixed global narrative for a three or five-year period that bears no resemblance to what’s going on globally is really a nonsense. If you looked at a company that was planning, say six months ago, they would have been planning for a Britain in Europe, they might have been planning for another Democrat president, they might have been planning for a period of extended peace. Yet now we are looking at a UK coming out of Europe. We’re looking at potentially all sorts of asymmetric warfare at the borders of Europe.

 

ANDY GREENYou mention about difference between say marketing and advertising, and what was it you said about the PR person speaks to the client every day of the week and twice on Sunday, while advertising doesn’t?

CHRIS LEWIS – News brings change. Change brings a change in value and opportunity, and so the media never stops, and the same applies to the marketing mix elements.

The time-specific nature of what we do dealing with news is particularly important, because often these types can speak to the client every day of the week and twice on Sundays, because there’s always something that is changing.

They should be the people who are like the radar on a board; they should be able to advise the board on its narrative in relation to the global narrative, and to see the implications of threats that can blow up out of nowhere. Particularly this time of the year I’d say, [in August] when everything’s very quiet from a news point of view, and then suddenly a very small thing pops up, and then it can blow up into quite a big thing. And you get a lot of crises that come out of nowhere in August because they’re stories that wouldn’t otherwise get noticed.

 

ANDY GREENAnd you mention about a radar there; what sort of tools, you mention like RSS feeds?

CHRIS LEWIS – RSS feeds are very old these days so it’s an aggregate way of having websites push you stories you’re particularly interested in, searching by people or by subject matter…

ANDY GREENYou mention you had about sort of 40 going on…

CHRIS LEWIS – Yeah, I mean I probably have about 200 RSS feeds.

ANDY GREENAnd what makes you…do you have criteria upon which feed you choose to subscribe to?

CHRIS LEWIS – I look for signals. I look for organisations that could provide signals that can build up an overall narrative to what’s going on, and what’s likely to happen. So RSS is one of the technologies but, you know, there is a lot of online software like Sysomos which allows you to produce things like Tweet clouds and look at what the tone of the conversation is around a particular brand, and that’s a very useful way of eavesdropping on what’s going on.

So people underestimate social media because they think it’s a device for transmission, but it’s actually more of a device for receiving. If you listen to the conversation, listen to the tone of voice, listen to what people think and feel about a particular subject, because if a company’s got a narrative on its own which isn’t informed by what its stakeholders think or feel, then it’s no narrative at all.

 

ANDY GREEN Lastly, are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to the future of public relations?

CHRIS LEWIS – Oh definitely an optimist. I mean, what’s the alternative? I think, you know, if you looked at three things, why PR is not going to disappear, the first one would be this notion of situational fluency. Who is best in any company to provide situational fluency and commentary on markets and evolution in global trends than news people? Not all PR people come from a news background, but news should be right at the core of that.

You can’t teach PR or practise PR without an understanding of the news environment. That’s why, you know, this notion of the ephemeral is really important. It’s also a huge opportunity for journalists who may be being laid off to go into these organisations because, in reality, the story remains the dominant feature…

ANDY GREEN The news story, or the broader story?

CHRIS LEWIS – The news story certainly because, you know, people might say ‘Well I don’t want to work for client messages’ but, we all work for editors; you know if you work on The Times you have a certain narrative, if you work for The Guardian you have a certain narrative, if you work for Unilever you’ll have another narrative.

It doesn’t interrupt your ability to create the story or to craft a story, and indeed if you were a photo journalist or a picture editor, there’s even more of an opportunity going forward because stories are becoming much more visual.

So I’m optimistic, but we’ve got to change the way the industry works; it’s got to be much more global, it’s got to be faster, it’s got to be more visual, and also, and this is a bit more obscure, but we need new capital structures – there has to be a greater role for employee ownership, just like any other profession. You know, if you went to accountancy or management consultancy or law, all of those big professions are owned by the people that work in them, and that’s a really important thing.

It’s only in marketing and marketing services, by dint of history, that we’ve allowed public ownership to creep in to the point where such a large number of people in this industry are effectively working for a pension fund in Zurich.

You know, that’s not good for innovation, it’s not good for standards, and it’s not good for competition. Our top 20 brands in the communications industry account for half of the expenditure on their own, and they’ve largely been unchanged for 20 to 30 years.

ANDY GREENBut there’s hope in terms of, do you see any good examples of like ‘the agency of tomorrow’, in terms of its structure and what it’s going to be like?

CHRIS LEWIS – There are loads of really good agencies out there. It’s not difficult to be good for a couple of years. Yet long-term and consistent growth, where there comes a point where people aren’t really interested in the long-term, and that’s a narrative which has been completely lost from all industrial enterprises, not just in PR. it’s been lost in general from life, in that people have ignored the long-term.

So somehow, the idea that a brand can be around for any length of time has become kind of ridiculous, and I think that’s a great shame because, you know, ultimately, in times of volatility, people go back to things they trust.

 

ANDY GREEN Any other key developments that are influencing how we communicate?

CHRIS LEWIS – Once upon a time Google was relatively simple. It started as algorithmic search, and then somebody layered social, you had a social search, and then somebody layered mobile in there, so you had mobile, social, search algorithms, and now you’ve got geotagged, mobile, social, search, on top of that.

And then you’re looking at how you tag the individual elements of the digital assets, which is a mixture of art and science – there are whole companies now growing up in the area of tag management, so that anything that a company emits as a digital asset can be tagged on purpose for search, because the ultimate implementation of that right at the top of the pyramid is ‘Are you on page one of the search engine results page?’

And that’s what companies have got to come back to focus on, and if you can exploit news stories and hook into that narrative, it does wonders for your organic search responses.

One thing I’d also encourage is a more global, more international narrative, because, you know, what’s going on in the UK is not what’s going on all over the world and the UK is becoming heavily influenced by what’s going on elsewhere.

ANDY GREENBut you can travel without listening …

CHRIS LEWIS – Yes if you go on holiday to, you know, to Spain and come back again, I don’t think it’s going to fundamentally change your view; you’ve got to go and immerse yourself in that culture.

 

ANDY GREENJust one, one quick one to run past you. I don’t know if you’re interested in the situation of social capital?

CHRIS LEWIS – The more diverse communities are, they’re more successful, in terms of generating social capital, because that social capital is the foundation of commercial capital later on. After all, in a modern sophisticated economy, if everybody’s the same, it makes it very fragile. If everybody’s dependent upon other people around the world, you tend not to kill them, you know, because you need them for the process.

The average Chinese worker saves more in US Treasury Bills than in any form of local currency, perhaps as much as 30—50% of their income, and they put it in a safe source.

And so, consequently, the US level of debt has grown dramatically, but not necessarily driven by American spending but by Chinese investment in safe stock. And now the Chinese are trying to desperately put in place a welfare system because they want their people to start spending, because all the time they’re saving half their income they’re not spending it in the local economy and they’re not getting a Henry Ford effect to bring standards up.

And so now they’re using UK government experience to consult on how to put a welfare system in place, which is kind of interesting in that if you really want people to spend, they’ve got to feel like the state will look after them.

ANDY GREENI agree but I’m thinking about PR, one of our missions is, not just the message but the social capital in a way, which is something advertising can’t do, digital marketing can’t do…

CHRIS LEWIS – Yes, I think this is part of the overall company narrative which assumes that what the company says really matters. Rather than understanding the source of the company’s success, there’s always the communities that it draws upon, and it has to reinvest in them.

Particularly, the bee in my bonnet is that companies must train, they must reinvest in training and they must create ladders within their own organisations.

Whether people want to learn that’s another case in point, but the company must offer the training, that’s why we created the Rise Academy globally where we teach people how to read balance sheets, we teach people how to lead, we teach people about economics and we also teach them how to paint.

 

ANDY GREENYou’ve got a new book out. What next?

CHRIS LEWIS – I hope to do an American version of it. I think that ‘Too Fast To Think’ will be worth a think tank. I find some of the people in there are so interesting that I’d want to bring them together and listen more, rather than me talking about their own particular area. But, you know one of the things when you go back to this notion of social capital, you’ve got, we’ve got to look after young people coming through. There’s no point asking them to climb a ladder if the first rung’s a thousand feet over their head. We’ve got to reach down and train and get those people interested in the whole process of elevation. It’s the whole thing about like you were saying earlier about being from the East End. If you and I have climbed a ladder we must spend time making sure it’s still there for others.

 

ANDY GREEN Chris, thank you very much for providing ladders for the rest of us to climb in getting a better understanding of the challenges we face.