ANALYSIS: How to manage the rumour mill

When Ford finalised the sale of Jaguar/Land Rover to Tata Motors, it was the end of eight months' of media fire-fighting for its comms and public affairs director Simon Warr. He tells Matt Cartmell what he learned.

Simon Warr
Simon Warr

1. Plan for the worst and expect leaks. 'With something like this, there are so many people becoming involved so quickly that you're very likely to get leaks,' advises Simon Warr, who had taken up his role just months earlier and was handed the onerous task of handling communications around Ford's sale of the company.

PODCAST: Communication Group CEO Michael Hayman discusses potential comms gaffes around a company sale

Once the sale process started, there were hundreds of people involved - not only Jaguar and Land Rover employees, but an array of legal, financial and management consultancy firms, as well as potential new owners.

'It is inconceivable that media will not find out what is going on, often within hours of decisions being taken,' says Warr. 'Rather than hope there isn't a leak, the comms strategy has to ensure you will still be OK when the leaks come, leaving you in PR profit if they don't.'

2. If you can't put out a fire, use it to your advantage. 'No matter how high your profile beforehand, a sale will increase your newsworthiness. The media will pay much more attention than normal to all your PR activities,' says Warr. 'At times it feels like the mere mention of your company is worth a few paragraphs somewhere.'

Companies should use this to their benefit to maximise positive coverage. It helps if you have some new products to launch or announcements to make during the process, as Jaguar and Land Rover did with the new Jaguar XF and the Land Rover LRX concept vehicle, which were launched in September and December respectively.

'We attracted the kind of coverage we haven't seen for years, including headline news on the BBC in the UK,' says Warr. But there is also a heightened risk of negative publicity at such times, and so PR departments should deliver those campaigns to the peak of their capability.

3. Keep control of your timelines and manage your positive assets. 'You have to know all the possible triggers for news stories, good and bad, and deploy your positive news assets accordingly,' says Warr.

A PRO cannot always fully control the timing of a major product launch, so that should become a 'hard point' in the PR plan, around which the other activities can be flexed. As Warr says, assume leaks, but also look for when they could happen and plan on-the-spot adjustments to your normal agenda. PROs are advised to keep a store of non-time-specific positive news stories that can be deployed at times when media interest needs to be redirected.

4. Use your brain and creativity, not just the PR rulebook. Before entering the private sector, Warr was a PRO in the Home Office, dealing with issues such as the Dunblane massacre. One of the rules he learned was to trust his own wits.

'There were times during the process when we deviated from PR 101 for crisis comms. Going against received wisdom is scary at times, but for us it proved the right thing to do.'

Common sense, combined with a deep understanding of your subject and where you are in the news cycle, are more valuable guides, he thinks, than the advised way of doing things.

5. Non-media audiences may be the most important. Whereas received knowledge tells PROs to own their story and make sure the media come to them, the Jaguar/Land Rover team sought other avenues to promote the company during the sale.

'Employees, unions, government, dealers, suppliers and industry pundits were the content generators for our media coverage,' says Warr. 'Focus on them and their issues first and the coverage will largely look after itself.'

The reality is that a PRO cannot influence all the people all of the time, so companies should accept that sometimes a neutral outcome is a good result.

'In many ways we let other people tell the story for us,' says Warr. 'Third-party endorsement is very powerful - if someone else says something positive, it is much more useful. And journalists are going to call other stakeholders. If you are attentive to their needs, they're less likely to run a bad story.'

HOLDING BACK THE TIDE
March 26, 2008: A paper-only confirmation is made that Tata has agreed to buy Jaguar/Land Rover. A much larger package of communications goes to employees, unions, suppliers, dealers, government and other opinion-formers.

February-March 2008: One thousand global media and VIPs drive the new Jaguar XF in Monaco.

January 2008: Ford confirms it will pursue more focused negotiations with Tata Motors. Jaguar wins WhatCar? Car of the Year for the new XF. Land Rover debuts the LRX concept in Detroit.

December 2007: Positive reviews for Jaguar XF. Land Rover launches LRX concept car. First coverage from media visits to the Land Rover-funded carbon offsetting programme in Uganda. Double-page spreads in The Sun and others.

October 2007: Ford introduces government and unions to bidders.

September 2007: Launch of the Jaguar XF series in Frankfurt. Land Rover also announces a major association with the Red Cross and the first demonstration of new technology to reduce CO2.

July 2007: Jaguar and Land Rover PR teams begin a positive news blitz, including stories of Land Rover vehicles being provided to support police and Red Cross rescue operations during UK floods.

June 2007: The story breaks that Ford is considering the sale of Jaguar/ Land Rover. An employee comms programme is initiated and Jaguar/Land Rover kicks off rebuttals with journalists who have factual inaccuracies in their coverage. Key stakeholders are briefed.

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