Issues Management: What keeps you awake?

It could be a train crash, a political indiscretion, the press pack or even the relegation woes of Southampton FC. Peter Crush asks senior communicators what they worry about.


If you asked my girlfriend, she'd say the one thing I have no problem with is sleep. Seriously though, the things that keep me awake at night tend to be operational, rather than media, issues. There are no particular journalists or media that I will lose any sleep over. I tend to get on pretty well with all the regular correspondents we engage with. But I have awoken in a cold sweat from more than one nightmare about a Tube derailment, massive power cut or terror attack on the Underground. That would mean many long days and nights of relentless, intensive media coverage and weeks and months of further scrutiny after the event. Basically your whole programme and strategy is put to one side, when you mop up all the media and political interest in a big 'Tube chaos' story. I've been sleeping well lately though - no major incidents and London Underground's performance is improving. But another long, hot summer on the Tube may cause me the odd sleepless night yet.


I have a word of advice for any would-be comms directors. If you have trouble sleeping, think about a career change. This is a job where you never win ten-nil. On the day when there are great headlines in very nearly every paper there will always be a single rogue headline to spoil it.

The internal comms plan that you thought had reached every corner of the empire has missed one critical group. The parliamentary reception that went so well ends with an MP cornering you with a humiliating tale of woe from one of his constituents. To do this job and enjoy it you have got to believe the story you are telling. You have got to have a board that's convinced about the power of communications. And you have got to engage your audiences. Being the director of communications in a company whose story I did not buy, or in which the board had a bunker mentality - now that's what would keep me awake at night.


For me it's how to turn consumer knowledge into corporate action. On average, everyone in the UK is exposed to 1,500 media messages a day, and I worry about breaking through the noise in such a fragmented environment.

I also worry about anticipating the next big thing and communicating it where there will be a proper debate. The obesity issue has been one where journalists have not had an honest debate with us. They have tended to pick up on one point, such as additives, and exaggerated it. Given this criticism, it has to be a case of giving background briefings to ensure journalists are well informed and keeping our message about 'everything in moderation' consistent. PR must also become more accountable. We're facing competition from advertising and marketing and I need to convince the board of my worth - and not just by showing press cuttings.


At a PR-industry level I lie awake at the continuing lack of adequate comms representation at the top table, even in high-profile sectors. As a profession, we're still too much the messenger and not enough the shaper of decisions and messages. However, PR's potential is gaining greater recognition in business boardrooms. Professionally I fear that in a fickle and often risky world, GNER's hard-earned reputation for excellent customer care might diminish over time or be lost overnight due to some awful, unforeseen event. Also, I have concerns over the railways' lack of sustained advocacy and co-ordinated campaigning, despite the industry's real progress and the efforts of many dedicated and talented people. Personally, the nocturnal goings-on of the dog, the cats and my young children cause endless, sleepless nights, but that's nothing compared to the fact that after 27 years in top-flight football I share the horrible prospect that Southampton FC might never return to the Premiership.


What makes me think about a bunch of broadsheet journalists at 4am? Surely there are better things to think about. However, this is the time I tend to wake up thinking. It could be a problem that needs solving or a creative moment (not often). Recently it has been about the broadsheets. Each new edition seems to show examples of how their style is moving towards the tabloids. It's been happening for a while. It probably started in the personality politics section, but can be found in the money-dominated sports, the 'rip-off' personal finance and the 'fat cat' business pages.

I know - it's about the commercial environment the papers operate in.

Other news sources, fewer journalists, more pressure to catch and keep readers. We're not going to stop it. So shouldn't we accept it, embrace it, work with it? Many people are stuck with an out-of-date vision of how to treat the broadsheets. It's time to adapt the way they're handled.

Change the tone, tighten up the message, put greater focus on the opinion provided around the news, change the style of photo-op and never mind the facts, let's start some speculation. I really should be asleep.


Happily, I've always been good at switching off. So to lose sleep there really needs to be something new to worry about. With the internet moving so quickly, it does occasionally mean the pace of change and the communications challenges that come with it does cause me the odd spot of insomnia. As a business, we are constantly battling with hackers, virus writers and scammers. The only long-term solution to security issues is to educate users on how to stay safe in a changing world. Communication has the biggest role to play. Making sure we succeed in spreading the word about keeping users safe from fraud, from losing money or their personal details causes an occasional restless night.


The press officer's worst nightmare must be the 'die is cast' realisation.

You've spent the afternoon handling a series of increasingly hostile enquiries about one particular aspect of policy or party strategy. You haven't yet got a grip on whether the story will run at all or whether you've managed to squash it. You know it will depend on the determination of the specific journalist and the editorial stance of the paper rather than the strength of their attack or the robustness of your defence. You are unsure if the broadcast media will pick it up and whether you'll need to field well-briefed spokespeople by crack of dawn. The only thing comparable to the 'die is cast' pit in the stomach is the 'could I have done more?' guilt syndrome. And the only solution to these two grim afflictions is to build into your life reasonable chunks of downtime, when you refuse to monitor or engage with any media coverage whatsoever. But this professional respite tends only to mean that I end up lying awake at night worried by the ever more pitiful performances of my beloved Southampton Football Club.


The financial services sector has come under close scrutiny over the past year, which has made the task of comms much more complex. Not a lot keeps me awake, but profit products - a core part of our business - have been much maligned. Telling people that we are leading performers in this market, and not being ashamed of this, is a hard message to get across.

There are regulatory challenges too, stakeholder products, depolarisation, and regulation of mutuals, which all present additional issues. Mostly, these involve getting up to speed with them quickly enough and working out what our view is on them from a media relations point of view. But one worry that I have is how to manage my resources, yet still hit targets which tend to increase.


Network Rail inherited a company (Railtrack) that had a dreadful reputation, but we've made real progress. With any turnaround, I think the thing you will always fear the most is a loss of this positive momentum. We're painfully aware that events can happen on the railways which are out of our control, and this is something else we always bear in mind. I'm also mindful of the weight of public expectation. The public's understanding of what Network Rail does is very high - something we're responsible for achieving - but it also means people can still want more. But, the one thing above all this that keeps me thinking is that any comms function is only ever as good as the people in it.


There is a new agenda in the media for talking about the earth. The media seem more ready to question the Government's record on it, and the part I worry about is making sure we capitalise on this. It's not the media per se that keep me awake, but making sure we don't talk about the issue to journalists in an 'it's all too overwhelming' sort of way. Channels will tell our story, so we need to make sure our communication stays relevant and tangible. There is a slight worry that our message is getting diluted with the Trade Justice and Make Poverty History movements, but that's why we're joining something called 'The Climate Movement', which will be launched in July. Here though, I still need to make sure each head of comms member adds something distinct.


Getting to sleep is not a problem, it's what wakes me up - that early-hours call telling me we've picked up an intruder in Windsor Castle, arrested a politician or a celebrity, or that an officer has been seriously injured or killed. Fortunately these are rare. This week we all got a late-night group pager message to ring the office - 30 of us did only to discover it was sent to the wrong number. Most mornings I wake up at 5.59am and hear the time pips giving me five seconds to anticipate the headlines on the Today programme. That tends to set the agenda for the day.

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