James Frayne: How public affairs agencies need to up their game

UK Plc has been under attack for months. Our clients have taken a near-daily hammering and we in the public affairs world need start helping them fight back.

James Frayne
James Frayne

Unfortunately, few firms seem comfortable offering the sort of services that clients need to deal with these attacks on their reputation.
In the UK the small number of elections, the absence of political advertising on TV, and the centralisation of politics and the media in London, all mean most firms are Westminster focused, obsessed with the press, and are unused to dealing with hostile attacks.  We have evolved a system which is highly accomplished at spinning the press, but which is uncomfortable with conflict.  This may suit the bulk of public affairs work but has without doubt stifled the creation of an effective crisis communications industry in this country. 
Unlike in the US, where the endless cycle of cut-throat elections has created an army of people for whom conflict is the natural state of affairs and who can be called upon by any business in trouble, few consultants here have this sort of experience.  Most UK consultants therefore put too much emphasis on conventional communications and on accommodation at the expense of counter-attacking properly.
This has massively strengthened the hand of those organisations that smear our clients.  If all a public affairs agency is going to do when a client is attacked is recommend they keep their heads down, there is no risk to the attacker and this encourages more attacks.  There are still too occasions where a whole range of third party organisations feel completely free to go after businesses and get coverage for themselves because they know they can’t get hurt.  This will not change until public affairs firms change their approach to dealing with crises.
The changes required are partly cultural and partly operational.  Culturally, public affairs firms need to do two things.  Firstly, they need to stop viewing conflict as unsophisticated and accommodation as nuanced and clever.  Consultants need to become more confident in recommending a counter-attack and articulating it as a less risky option the client’s reputation.  Secondly, as indicated above, public affairs firms need to stop thinking that spin and positioning are always the answers.  Sometimes the best solution will come from a legal route, or from extensive opposition research to unpick false allegations, or from the mobilisation of respected third parties.
Operationally, there are also two main changes necessary.  Firstly, public affairs firms who want to be effective in this sphere need to start recruiting consultants who have expertise in less conventional skills.  That means giving sympathetic hearings to the hyper-political student who ran grassroots campaigns at University or the internet geek who will be perfectly suited to opposition research or the middle-aged posh guy who can make the calls to community leaders.  The least typical people can often be the ones who give you an edge in a fight.
Secondly, it also means developing extensive links with businesses who offer the expertise that you cannot bring in-house.  Most obviously, it means getting links with decent lawyers who can be trusted to offer frank advice and who will charge sensibly because they know they will get more work in the future.  But there are other people who will be useful too: pollsters, researchers, media trainers, web designers, and so on.  Again, these relationships will give a whole new dimension to anyone putting together an operation in a crisis. 
Our clients need us to start thinking differently, recruiting differently, and working out ways to start the fight back.

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