In March 1973, exasperated sub-editors at the London Evening Standard were desperately seeking new ways to spin a depressingly familiar story.
This time it was a rail strike, so had made the paper’s splash. But the subs knew their audience of cowed commuters was exhausted by years of strikes and economic turmoil. Why would their readers care about one more piece of bad news? What headline would persuade punters to part with their newly decimalised currency? A twist of humour, or a subtle punning headline? No. Their response was to double down and go for broke with a classic of slap-in-the-face messaging.
“Absolute Chaos Tonight: Official” was the unambiguous, throat-grabbing story that shook London’s weary workers from their stupor that night.
You can still hear the capitulation in that four-deck headline on street vendors’ boards. It was written with feeling, perhaps the last ounce of feeling those hacks retained in a country near expiry from dragging itself from one week to the next in a never-ending cycle of decline.
Except the cycle did end. In the same time it has taken us to get from the Brexit referendum to the Boris resignation, it took the UK to go from the media’s Absolute Chaos to a general election in May 1979 that changed everything. Six years.
My point is simple. If you’re suffering the same feelings of exasperated helplessness as the Evening Standard sub-editors of 50 years ago, pause and take stock.
We have our own forms of chaos: Boris Johnson, Ukraine, inflation, supply chains, railways (no change there) and airports. We’re still feeling the effects of COVID-19. People are waiting two years for NHS treatment and as for the climate, well, just don’t go there. It feels like Absolute Chaos is back.
Navigating change, or chaos, is what we all do for a living. In the past two years most of us will have advised boards and leadership teams on their responses to some, or all, of the following: the existential threat of a global pandemic; Russian sanctions; headline-grabbing political leaks; redundancy programmes; distracting M&A; cyber threats; culture wars plus constant other change that seemingly has no end. For those who shoulder responsibility for reputation and communications within companies and organisations, trying to impose some strategic thinking on these craziest of times will have felt like whistling in the wind. And if it’s been bad for you, no wonder the mood in the boardroom has been fraught.
The outside world’s understanding of your organisation is only as good as your understanding of the outside world, which is what makes the job of a communications professional so unique.
So if you have the ear of the CEO or chair, what’s the best advice when everything in their control is being derailed by what’s out of control?
Being in charge of communications actually means being in charge of understanding – the understanding of your organisation by the outside world. This is your audience, including your workforce. The outside world’s understanding of your organisation is only as good as your understanding of the outside world, which is what makes the job of a communications professional so unique. The better your understanding of the outside world, the better informed you are, the better equipped you will be in providing the most important thing we can bring to the boardroom in febrile times: perspective, the first principle of communications.
It’s hard to maintain perspective when running an organisation during periods of intense change. Negativity and a bunker mentality can easily take hold. Leaders need advisers who can bring perspective and place a current predicament in accurate historical context. This is not about donning rose tinted spectacles. Sometimes perspective is required to reveal risks previously underestimated or unseen. But more commonly it’s required to help organisations understand the big picture, of which they are a detail. With clear understanding and perspective of the here and now, you can get back to more strategic concerns, and success, with more confidence.
We have a dysfunctional government; Europe can’t decide how to deal with its latest aggressor; China’s shadow looms over its neighbours; and markets are tanking. But in the short time it has taken you to read this article, about 200 people will have escaped extreme poverty according to the World Data Lab which includes World Bank and IMF data, continuing the steady trend toward beating this global affliction. The world’s largest geophysical survey to build the world’s largest offshore windfarm is not happening in the world’s largest economy, but the fifth largest – the UK - where Dogger Bank Wind Farm will soon power 6 million UK homes. In April, The Guardian reported there had been no fatal shootings in London for six months with the gun trade successfully halted. And COVID vaccines (including our own) prevented 19.8 million deaths during their first year of rollout, according to The Lancet.
Bad things happen, which can’t be ignored, but they’re only half the story; the half that sells newspapers. Understand the world better, and the world will start to understand you.
Damian Reece was The Telegraph Media Group’s first head of business from 2007-2013 and is now senior counsel at Instinctif Partners.