Be a despot, be an adviser, have a clear narrative: Tips for PR success at Leaders in Comms

Lively debates and intriguing insights were in abundance at PRWeek's Leaders in Communications conference in London last week. John Harrington summarises some of the main arguments and lessons.

Chatham House Rules means we cannot identify who said what at the event, or delve into the details of particular campaigns or case studies. However, our overview offers plenty of food for thought:

1) Four tips to campaign success
One speaker outlined some top pieces of advice for an effective campaign:

I. "Have a clear narrative. Repeat endlessly." Too many smaller messages can dilute the overall message and cause confusion. Similarly…

II. "Variety doesn’t mean creativity."

III. "Plaudits do not equate to success." Examples were given of early versions of campaigns that received good feedback but failed to resonate with the target audience. Therefore, it is important to…

IV. "Test ideas constantly with your targets so you don’t go off on a tangent."

2) Bad crisis comms can hurt more than a bad crisis
One speaker plotted Talk Talk’s share price on a graph during the recent hacking crisis and found the biggest dips came not immediately after the news broke but later, as it emerged that some information initially provided was not correct.

Interestingly, the speaker said the investment community inflicts a share price "penalty" on those corporations that cannot deal with crises, but attaches a premium to those that can. The most important thing is to have a system in place to manage the crisis, which represents an "enormous opportunity" for comms teams to show they are able to help.

3) ‘Be a despot’
A number of speakers stressed that being in charge of a PR team requires toughness. One even urged their colleagues, probably jokingly, to "be a despot".

Perhaps more realistically, there was a call to be "more argumentative" among senior colleagues at organisations, "to bring any problems to the surface". The need to "ruthlessly prioritise" and "let go of a lot of things" was emphasised, alongside the importance of managing expectations.

"We are going off in many directions; if we are not careful we will drop the ball somewhere," said one senior PR figure.

4) Don’t ‘shoehorn’ your branding during interviews
One comms director who is often used as an expert interviewee on TV urged delegates not to plug their organisations or brands during broadcasts (especially if the topic under discussion is a serious one). As a result, you will be trusted more and are more likely to be invited to return. "It’s not about shoehorning your commercial message, it’s about getting into their mindset," the PR professional advised.

5) Prioritise personal relationships over press releases - and go the extra mile
"I haven’t sent out a press release in about two years," said one comms chief. "Press releases are dead. It’s about having one-to-one relationships with key media partners."

Asked how to get journalists’ attention without press releases, the PR professional replied: "Be targeted. Map out circles of influence, who to speak to. Sometimes go to their office. Don’t expect them to come to you. They have less time, and because they have less time, they need you more."

6) Be confident, stick to your guns, and be an adviser
"Have the confidence to pick your position, even if you come under a lot of pressure from people who think you are wrong," said one PR professional. "Everyone thinks they are right about communications. It’s one thing having confidence but you’ve got to have the judgement as well.

"One of the reasons communications has grown in importance to the board is we are not just PR people. We are essentially the guardians and protectors of a brand’s reputation.

"You have to become an adviser to the board. As a board member it’s important that I know they look to me to bounce ideas off."

7) Comms directors grow in importance
One comms chief stated that 24 per cent of company boards feature a comms director: "It’s something that’s certainly grown and at the heart of it is the relationship between the chief communications officer and the CEO. I believe in the years to come there will be more of that."

The PR added: "The director of communications is getting closer to the CEO role. They have to understand the stakeholders inside and outside the company, they have to be ahead of the CEO in assessing risk."

Meanwhile, a survey was flagged up showing that of 9,800 board members at major organisations, just 38 had worked in comms. This emphasises even more the importance of comms directors on the board.

8) The truth, the whole truth…
Probably a little obvious, this one, but worth including. "Nothing beats the truth for building trust," remarked one speaker. "If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Where you can tell the truth, tell it early and tell it often. Then you don’t have to remember because it’s the truth."

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