View from the top: Leaders in Comms conference

PRWeek's Leaders in Comms conference gathered some of the industry's biggest names to discuss the key issues facing it. Kate Magee reports.

PRWeek's first Leaders in Comms conference took place last week in London's Oxo Tower. The audience of senior comms directors discussed issues including growing and retaining talent, integrating social media and declining consumer trust.

The evening ended with a speech from Bob Leaf, inspired by his 50 years in comms. The conference was under the Chatham House Rule, but the following speakers have agreed to be featured.

SOCIAL MEDIA

VIRGIN GROUP'S APPROACH


Nick Fox, Director of external relations, Virgin Group

'When I joined Virgin, social media sat in the marketing/customer relations bucket. But one Christmas, Sam and Holly gave their father Richard Branson an iPad. That's when my life got more complicated. I started getting phone calls from Richard saying: "Have you seen Virgin Media's outage? Can you sort this?" Social media are a way for him to look at a snapshot - albeit a skewed snapshot - of the overall Virgin business.

We try to use social media to spread Richard's personality. Unlike some other holding companies, we can intervene in customer issues and offer free upgrades or meals.

But we've also found that sometimes it's easier to post a statement on a story on Richard's blog than go through the media. A press release can lack immediacy and personality. We're lucky to have a personality that overshadows the technology.

We won't do straight promotion through his channels, but we will do mentions, for example competitions, amusing tweets or feelings on a political issue. This forces the individual companies to engage with us in a more cerebral way than just "can Richard tweet about Virgin Atlantic's new flight to Moscow?" It becomes more than marketing, it becomes content.

We collect the good questions on social media and film Richard responding to them once a month. The best questions we turn into blog posts. There are too many questions for us to reply to them all individually so we set expectations.'

MESSAGES

THE MYTH OF CONTROL


Jane Wilson, CEO, CIPR

Wilson kicked off her presentation with a story called 'The Knight's Tale' set to medieval music. The story explained how in the past, the king would have one knight who would control the messages outside the castle. But now the people living outside had burst into the castle and were demanding conversations.

She argued there had been major changes to the PR landscape: 'Technology enables everyone with a computer to publish content. They don't have to have a brain, intellect, talent, creativity or be interesting.'

But she also said the key principles were still the same. 'Learn to lose control - it was always a myth. Your organisation is at the mercy of events. Reputation is not what you put out, but what comes back at you,' she said.

Her advice was to give your organisation a human face, understand audiences as individuals and 'open up the castle and let them in'.

She also argued that PROs needed to have confidence and be well informed: 'Journalists don't like dealing with people who don't know what they're talking about. This forces PR professionals to get closer to the business strategy of their client or company.'

THE CEO'S VIEW

PR'S JOURNEY TOWARDS THE BOARDROOM

Tom Wright CBE Group CEO, Age UK and Pete Constanti group destination management, Thomas Cook

ON PR AS A FUNCTION

PC Comms is all about preparation. You need to regularly practise what you can prepare for, but also have the speed of thinking to react to things you don't have foresight on. You need to make sure comms is at the top table, not only from a crisis point of view but for internal comms, external comms and investor relations. Outside of a crisis or a launch, I spend around 20 per cent of my time on comms.

TW Part of the reason comms is at the heart of our organisation is the bang for buck you get. As a CEO you need to see it as far more than just a marketing function. Comms people are very good at pre-empting issues and helping to build better positioning for an organisation. I'd say around 30 to 40 per cent of my time is spent 'engaging' in some capacity with stakeholders.

ON THE CHANGING ROLE OF PR

PC The quality of practitioners in PR is improving dramatically. It's something CEOs are taking more seriously and seeing its value. People who are professional PR practitioners are starting to see themselves as broader business figures. This is good, because people can often become siloed in their functions, when they need to think about the broader picture.

TW PR used to be a relatively junior role when I started in marketing. It's right up there now on the board of executives. The expertise and quality has become highly professional and has to be so, because there are more demands and challenges.

THE CEO/COMMS DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP

PC The most senior comms person has to be a trusted adviser to the CEO.

TW There has to be a backstop of a senior comms executive in the room, particularly when you are facing short deadlines. If you as a CEO try to take over messaging in a crisis, you'll struggle.

THE NEW LANDSCAPE 

Fraser Hardie, Senior partner, Blue Rubicon

'The more real-time nature of comms is presenting both structural and governance issues for comms functions. We are increasingly advising our clients on their structures and how to change them for the new landscape. They are having to unpick legacy positions such as how they channel money and prioritise skills.

The industry has traditionally been weak in strategy. So much of PR is sub-scale and doesn't have any impact. There's lots of work that if you turned it off, it would make no difference.

As an industry we are too apologetic in the way we ask for money. We can create value much quicker than other functions because we don't have to protect IP or do R&D, we just have to explain.'

THE DAY'S KEY QUOTES

'A good reputation buys you the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.'

'Any strategy is trumped by culture.'

'PR without an objective is dangerous for us as a function. When I'm asked to do something I always ask, what are you trying to achieve from this that you are not getting from the other marketing functions?'

'We always ask, what is the contribution you want us to make, how much will it cost us to do that, and is it worthwhile for the business?'

'It's a duty for me and my senior management team to make sure employees leave with a better level of professional quality. If they just come in and do a good job, that's not enough.'

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