Bill Nichols

26 January 2015

Bill Nichols

Justifiable Ambiguity: Shades of Grey in Strategic-Communications (January 2015)

Working in strategic-communications, is it ever acceptable to lie? (writes Dr Bill Nichols).

If strategic-communications is confronted by say terrorism, financial implosion or executive misdemeanour? When unvarnished truth meets e.g. risk of public panic, loss of jobs or investment damage?

Note this is a double challenge: acquiescence in falsehood and strategic purpose.  The conflict lies at the heart of PR’s classic dilemma.  Is the PR executive ‘truth-guardian’ or ‘client-advocate’.   The ‘lie-test’ demands a strict ‘no’. But it also prompts a compelling – and exceptional – case to deploy ‘justifiable ambiguity’.

In this zone of conflict ‘should’ tussles with ‘is’.  Resolution, in my view, marks a mature profession.

Here’s why and how.

 ‘The Truth, The Whole Truth…’

The ethics ‘lie-test’ is commonplace in my University PR classes. At first pass, it’s black-and-white. Most day-to-day PR emphasises clarity.  It serves and engages the information-recipient as ‘customer’.  It does not require the ‘dark arts’.  I.e. the “stunts, spin, lies and assorted PR ‘b******t” – dismissed with alacrity by most students.  Frequently, indeed, PR practice is undermined by them.

But ‘shades of grey’? Pause for thought

Duty and Justifiable Ambiguity

‘Should’ inclined textbooks and codes generally deny this issue.  PR’s excellence tradition exhorts us to embed ethics in planning and to become guardians.  Ultimately promoting ethics “will result in your helping the organisation to improve not only its image but its reality…. the real duty of a strategic communications manager (*1)” .   This approach leads, for example, to active and thoughtful corporate social responsibility (per my earlier blog).

But, as a thoughtful new case-based study evidences, this ‘guardian’ duty ultimately must defer to the real game-shifter.  It’s the ‘S’ word.  Strategic – properly understood – spotlights organisational purpose, intent and, consequently, selection.

Where ends and means conflict, ‘strategic’ shows us the communicator’s first duty to his organisation. It is – to paraphrase St AugustineSt. Augustine’s famous concept of the just war – to seek ‘order, the right disposition of things according to their proper end’.  War is acceptable if it serves peace.  We should also observe J S Mill’s framing of liberty: ensuring that our exercise of liberty does not make ‘a nuisance to other people’.

So, in making the best possible presentation, corporate communicator-advocates must not lie. But conversely they are neither judge nor jury.  They must deal in shades of grey which embrace both ‘ambiguity and deception’ (*2).

The Practice of Ambiguity

The practice of justifiable ambiguity, suggests the new study, comes in three flavours: syntactical,  the crafted positioning of phrase or clause; lexical, the precise practice of semantics; and pragmatic, the visual production of mitigating context and indicative image.

More on strategic-communications practice and ambiguity in a future blog. Your examples, ideas and feedback are hugely welcome here.

-ends-

*1 Powell, M (2011), Ethics and the Public Relations Process in Moss D., and DeSanto, B (eds) Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective. London UK: Sage.

*2 Dulek, R.E., and Campbell, K.S. (2015). On the Dark Side of Strategic Communication, International Journal of Business Communication, 52 122:142

Bill Nichols

15 September 2014

Bill Nichols

Devolution for All

018 – 15 September 2014

It’s almost done (the independence debate).  But (devolution) far from dusted.

If the ‘No’ camp scrapes home on Thursday, it is critical that the UK’s citizens have the opportunity at the next General Election to press a long overdue ‘reset’ button. And to create a balanced federal constitution and devolution settlement for this united kingdom’s nations and regions.

Most of us did not vote for, or support, the inept, illogical 1997 devolution settlement which led inexorably to today’s situation.  A classic case of the ‘Lonminster Elite’ peeping out from its bubble and, under pressure, handing out ‘sweeties’.

None of us voted for Gordon Brown’s new ‘devo-max’ offer to the Scots.  More sweeties like a panicked parent.  And I’ll wager that few support the ‘sweeties to the major cities’ proposal by deputy PM, Nick Clegg.  (PS Nick: check the preamble to your party’s constitution.  It commits to “a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom”.)  .

Yet we must all live with the consequences of these foolish interventions.  If ‘yes’ massive political and economic disruption over months and years. If ‘no’ – and Lonminster is left to its own devices we will suffer a byzantine muddled settlement.  Substitute ‘Any Small Town in England’ for Tam Dalyell’s still-unanswered 1977 ‘West Lothian’  question.   Call it – in tribute to my home – the ‘Farnham Question’.

Instead???  A new federal constitution will re-set things nicely.  Standard devo-max for say 10 equally balanced nations and regions (including Greater London – first minister, Boris Johnson?). It will  give us all an equal say, stimulate regional economies and provide the Scots with eight potential buddies next time Lonminster gets out of hand.   It will allow very divergent approaches to flourish (check out the US) if that’s what the voters want.  And it will also provide a logical basis upon which to reform the House of Lords as a working federal senate.

PR aficionados, meanwhile, win out whatever happens.  What a wonderful case-study!  Narrative (yes) vs. Messaging (no).  Careful planning – a repeat of the last Scottish election manoeuvre by Salmond,  undoubtedly the finest politician of his generation (not a compliment) – and apparently none.  Did Darling & Co undertake any scenario planning? Heigh ho.

-ends-

Bill Nichols

29 January 2014

Bill Nichols

Maturity and The New PR Measurement Dashboard

Dr. Bill Nichols  – 012 – 29 January 2013

It’s one thing to measure, say, reputation:  quite another to understand and manipulate what influences that metric.  And for all the brouhaha about PR measurement, here there is silence.  More or less.

For some answers,Vital Signs Report (2014) publishes today.  The first in a benchmark series, its insights flow from my recent collaboration with leading tech PR firm, EML Wildfire (1).  Its data is provided by some 80 clients and contacts across the firm’s network in the UK, US and Europe.

Unusually, we assessed the combined impact of in-house and agency teams: i.e. the total PR competency.  From the literature (2), we identified 10 possible factors or influences.  And we concluded by creating a three-part ‘dashboard’ for any PR organisation.

First up – ‘Business Results’ (i.e. leads, sales, profit)

In PR this is the P&L equivalent.  It tracks immediate gains and losses.  Here our top factor is ‘strategic planning’ (SP).  In fact, statistically, it’s the only significant factor that explains a substantial component of ‘Results’ (3).  Overall our sample is most positive about near-term SP.  It commends teams for such aspects as messaging, business strategy alignment, action plans and focused campaigns.

But our respondents are far more cautious further out.   To improve effectiveness, they highlight:  applying evidence consistently, sustaining a mission and pursuing long-term advantage.

And?  Other factors like creativity or techniques?  Actually not much else has any impact. Sobering given all the chat.

Second up – target ‘Reputation’

We see reputation as the ‘balance sheet’ equivalent.  The long-term tracking of net PR assets on the PR dashboard.  Here two factors are in play.

First, and unsurprisingly, ‘relationship orientation’ is the strongest influence on reputation. Attitudinally – the soft stuff – our teams are particularly well-placed.  They are, our sample reports, committed.  They seek authenticity.  They respect stakeholders and they will ‘go the extra mile’.  But they’re less effective at the practical execution of relationship-building.  Such as the analysis of broader perspectives, dynamic tracking of the influencer landscape and (again!) planning.

Second and intriguingly, limited evidence suggests that PR’s prized ability to generate ‘opportunistic’ activity may be a negative influence on reputation.  Short-term results gain: long-term reputational pain.

Third, bonus ball – ‘Maturity’

Our study also introduces a third lead measure: maturity.  It’s the equivalent of cash-flow and it’s a potentially major contribution suggested by the EML Wildfire team.  Maturity is a well-established construct in organisational studies.  Operationally it’s best characterised by that PR jewel: the ability to manage the unexpected and to cope with ambiguity.

To create a clear blueprint for managing maturity, we identified three factors at work.  They are professionalism, engagement and, especially, leadership.  Specifically maturity deepens as PR seniors acquire serious leadership skills and, above all, the confidence to play an active role at the C-Level.

Seeking enlightenment

As business gurus confirm, the act of measurement adds value if – and only if – it helps define and deliver a desirable outcome. Such as, in PR, a behavioural change.  This presupposes we understand the mechanism.  That we know what and how to influence the target.  A little more ‘X’, a little less ‘Y’ – that kind of thing.

But, as the Headmaster of Eton observed recently, “we live in an age of measurement and not of enlightenment.”   How true of PR.  Some cling to the old-time religion of the AVE. Others evangelise Barcelona and the new analytics.   In this ‘promised land’ we measure anything – and everything.

But we have little understanding of the influencing factors. Vital Signs Report (2014) offers our starting point.  Especially that new measure of maturity.  It correlates well with both results and reputation.  It may, we think, be the key moderator – a crucial focus for out study’s next round.  Join us at EML Wildfire to add your inputs to what is planned as a long-term project.

More to follow and, meantime, here’s to enlightenment! And better PR measurement.

-ends-

(1) Special thanks to directors Debby Penton, Lorraine Jenkins and Richard Parker.

(2)  Based on the Nordic three-dimensional service quality model.  So (A) hard/technical = (i) media platform, (ii) measurement and evaluation, (iii) techniques; (B) functional/integrating = (iv) resources/budget, (v) strategic planning, (vi) leadership, (vii) creativity; and (C) people/reputational =  (viii) professionalism, (ix) engagement and (x) relationship orientation.  Each factor successfully tested using Cronbach’s alpha: eight > .7 and two >.6.

(3) Using the 95% confidence level and multiple regression analysis.

 

 

Bill Nichols

4 January 2014

Bill Nichols

011 – January 2014

Bye Bye Scepticism: How and Why CSR Communications Works

If the PR world has an equivalent of the UK’s PPI mis-selling scandal, it is surely the CSR-based communications campaign.   .

Note, this isn’t scepticism about underlying policy or philosophy.  Heavyweights on either side – e.g. Forbes (for) and WSJ (against) – continue to debate.  Companies may, or may not, have a social responsibility.  But, motivation aside, behaviour indicates value.  90% of Fortune 500 companies have explicit CSR objectives.  Half issue specific CSR reports1.  Even two-thirds of crusty CFOs see return, says McKinsey.

But it is serious scepticism about the current value of CSR presentation investment.   All too often CSR campaigns appear worthy and unfocused.  Just-in-case insurance policies, they ‘tick’ the politically- correct compliance ‘box’.  Yet how they work – or to what intended hard business outcome (if any) -remains unclear.

But the research case for the value of strategic planned CSR communication really is building.  And, as Keynes supposedly said, “when the facts change…”  Here’s how.

Evidence and Engagement

The B2C research ‘jury’ is already long-term supportive.  Active CSR promotion drives positive brand and product evaluations.  It also increases both satisfaction and loyalty2.

Now new US research3 is surprisingly positive about B2B.  For corporate comms professionals, it offers a practical evidenced prescription.

As a necessary preliminary, the new work distinguishes two forms of CSR engagement for B2B:

  • Business practice (BP) CSR focuses on e.g. employees and customers: think brand     sponsorship or cause-related product marketing.
  • Philanthropic (PH) CSR addresses e.g. community and third-sector: think community volunteering, social marketing or corporate charitable contributions.

BP CSR and Trust

In the B2B context, BP delivers trust and (ultimately) enhanced loyalty.  The BP toolkit is particularly powerful, the research finds, in three specific scenarios:

  • Compensating high market uncertainty or turbulence
  • Supporting/shifting product perceptions
  • Offsetting infrequent customer engagement and shallow relationships.

How and why does it work?   BP is practical or ‘instrumental.  Grounded in classic social exchange theory, it’s based on competitive ‘survival’ drivers and highlights concrete actions. This is active stakeholder marketing in which something is clearly ‘traded’.  And the acquired strong CSR reputation signals trustworthiness.

PH CSR and Belonging

But now posit situations where trust is necessary but not sufficient.  Where, say:

  • Competitive market intensity is high
  • Or the customer itself reveals a strong CSR orientation.

If your task is to create a strong association – or ‘belongingness’ – then, prompts the research, switch to the PH toolkit.

How and why?  PH activities are soft: expressive, emotional, even ‘warm and fuzzy’.  They  signal the societal or ethical.  Their outcomes are human welfare and goodwill.  They drive measurable customer identification.

So let’s leave philosophy and political correctness to others.  Even this long-term sceptic concurs: as a communications toolkit, it seems to work.  Embrace it!

-ends-

Hope you enjoyed the latest blog.  Thanks for reading and do please comment.  For earlier and regular updates join me on Astrophel for publications and blog or on Linkedin and Twitter.  

(1) Luo and Bhattacharya (2009), Journal of Marketing, 73 (6) 198-213.  (2) Bhattacharya and Sen (2003), Journal of Marketing, 67 (2) 76-88. (3) Homburg, Stierl and Bornemann (2013), Journal of Marketing, 77 (6) 54-72.

 

Bill Nichols

31 July 2013

Bill Nichols

After the Crisis: What Price Recovery?

008 – Jul-August 2013

Picture the scene:  negative coverage fading; bloggers sand-blasting someone else; a desultory tweet or two; and the press office phones silent(ish).  The CEO has cut the decibels.  And, yes, stock is trickling back onto the shelves after the recall.

Crisis over? Job done?  You’d forgive exhausted comms and marketing chiefs for thinking so.

But they’re less than halfway there.  After containment, how next to recover on share, volume and margin?  The crisis recovery task is (at least) to restore – and (better) to exceed – the ‘status quo ante’.

Now, at this point, many a company tosses a coin.  Heads,  it’s the expensive advertising accelerator.  Tails, the price-discounting brake.  Or maybe both – and the kitchen sink.  But which choice is preferable? When and why? Surprisingly, and unlike containment, little robust recovery research evidence is on offer.

Until now.  A new study, which reviewed the aftermath of some 60 UK and Dutch product recalls (*), highlights two key influencing factors.  They are (i) the acknowledgement of blame (if/how) and (ii) the extent/volume of negative publicity.

To own up or not?

For many senior managers, ‘owning up’ (admitting blame) generates almost atavistic fear.  But it’s a powerful and cathartic PR move. It draws a line on the crisis and begins to restore trust.  If implemented (the study finds), it tends short-term to halt sales decline and sustain market share. Competitors, too, may quietly applaud since the entire product category may benefit.

But, medium-term?  Typically, advertising effectiveness decreases. So less bangs per buck and harder to grow the brand.  Conversely price sensitivity increases.  So far tougher to recover costs.

Any publicity may be good?

So what about negative coverage?  Not helpful you’d imagine.   True, on the downside, large-scale negativity associates with increased price sensitivity.  And the blight affects both the crisis firm and the whole category.  (No competitor applause on this scenario!).

But there is an upside.  It partly validates the old ‘any publicity is good publicity’ mantra.  Because, typically the raw power of large-scale heightened awareness outweighs its negative direction.  So it actually supports increased advertising efficiency.  On this tack, counter-intuitively, the greater the volume of negativity the faster the recovery!

Now, speculatively, throw in sustained PR (not a study variable) to further minimise the residual negative.  This may explain the rapid ‘bounceback-ability’ witnessed in some product recall scenarios.

Which way?

These, then, are complex effects.   Far from a toss of the coin (hit the advertising, crash the price), the  study pairs the factors to identify and support a much more nuanced four-way response:

  1. Low coverage/blame not accepted: focus on advertising, leave price alone
  2. Low coverage/blame acknowledged:  discount, withdraw from advertising
  3. High coverage/blame not accepted: go heavy on advertising, leave price untouched
  4. High coverage/blame acknowledged: the one case in which increased advertising may go hand-in-hand successfully with price discounting.

Now granted none of this is likely to set the adrenalin pumping.  It’s hard to match the buzz of fire-fighting.  Even prevention strategy development can seem more attractive than picking forensically through the ruins!

But there is a massive challenge here.  For recovery to succeed and deliver business benefits, both forensic style and careful manipulation of the key variables are crucial.

For some, crisis recovery could be just as structured as crisis management – and perhaps just as much fun!

-ends-

(*) Cleeren, van Heerde and Dekimpe (2013). .

Bill Nichols

1 June 2013

Bill Nichols

Beyond Magic: Making Your Client Referrals and Testimonials Work Harder

007 – June 2013

Most agency and B2B-firm bosses appreciate fully the power of their client referrals and recommendations.  Such positive ‘advocacy’ often delivers warmed-up prospects – half-inclined to buy.   In some cases, it contributes up to 50% of converted new business.

And it certainly beats the hard slog.  All those cold-calls.   Expensive pitches.  And, worst of all, those bible-size procurement tenders.

So wise managers work on advocacy.   They apply popular techniques such as the ‘net promoter score’.  They cultivate loyalty and goodwill (http://therightthingtodo.co.uk/index.php/2012/07/hunters-got-us-into-this-mess-will-farmers-get-us-out/).  They cherish their advocates’ willingness to encourage friends and contacts privately over a drink or two.  But, best and most powerful of all, they seek to achieve open public advocacy.  That is published testimonials delivered via print, website, conference or collateral.

Now stir in the ripple effect of social media distribution.  And settle back…

Magic or Model?

But (interesting but) how and why exactly does this testimonial ‘magic’ work?   Which carefully-crafted testimonial has greatest resonance and works hardest?   What, if anything, could deliver more?

Is it just a case of ‘any reference is a good reference’? Or is there a secret ingredient:  personality or brand; client size or value; intrinsic newsworthiness; or the techniques and results reported?

The answers come in a new concept: ‘Business Reference Value’ (BRV).   A new study (*), founded on some serious number-crunching, will help you unpack the magic.  And compute, analyse and apply the hard cash value of your testimonials.

The study tracked the BRV mechanism over a six year cycle.  It explored its impact on conversions and profitability.  And it found four major drivers of BRV.  They are the:

  1. Size of the client firm (generally the larger the stronger the impact)
  2. Length of relationship reported (the longer the stronger)
  3. Media format employed (generally the richer the better e.g. video over audio over written case-study) and
  4. Congruency or relevance to the prospect (generally the closer the better).

Typically size and relationship longevity lead.  But they do not dominate.  They add up to about 31% of the impact while media format delivers a potentially amplifying 14%.   Interaction effects between drivers chip in 9%.  Meanwhile congruency – the largest single effect – contributes 17%.

For many this last finding will be intuitive.  No matter how fabulous the brand, washing machines (say) will simply have less resonance for a fashion prospect than another fashion brand.

True, but the relationship is more subtle.  Within congruence, matching prospects to (1) a similar service or product client certainly has the largest individual impact.  But it is enriched (2) by industry association and, further, (3) by role alignment with the advocate.  As a prospect, as social influence theory predicts, we want to hear from someone like us.  Someone just like us.  So, for example, the mid-ranking marketing manager will – by far – prefer his own industry/own product peer to the glamorous if alien global VP from another sector.

Increasing Power

Perhaps most intriguingly the study indicates that BRV is playing a steadily growing role in a prospect’s decision to adopt and buy.   Speculatively, it’s a case perhaps of an increasingly virtual social community re-imposing itself over complexity and distance.

The lesson?   Construct, maintain and constantly build a comprehensive portfolio of references.  Recognise that – for someone somewhere – even the dullest sounding reference may count.  And count significantly. Deploy and target them carefully in each case.  Seek total congruence on the ‘less is more’ principle.

Next start to build up a tracking mechanism for your referrals.  What works, when and how. What yields most.

So, yes, referral (BRV) is the major asset wise managers always knew it was.  But it doesn’t just happen.  And it’s certainly not magic.  You can deploy it and target it actively and precisely in your business development toolkit.

-ends-

(*) Kumar, Petersen and Leone (2013).

Bill Nichols

6 April 2013

Bill Nichols

Something Fishy and A New Narrative for Misunderstood Bankers

005 (April 2013)

A fun week for communicators.  ‘Candour’ duly re-appeared.  Fresh from its outing in the Francis NHS Staffs report, it featured in the Salz review of the Barclays Bank brouhaha. And alongside the ‘mass bloodletting’ (Financial Times) of ex-senior HBOS figures by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

So candour is now definitely the ‘new black’ in comms and the poster-child for authenticity.

Meantime, please also welcome back the horsemeat saga. This time though in the guise of dodgy and decidedly not-so-candid fish.  (A development predicted, note, with unusual foresight in my previous blog!).

So consumer trust is getting a battering (sorry couldn’t resist) on all sides. But how do you restore a bank’s – or, er, a fish supply chain’s – reputation?

Reflecting on this rather seasick week, here are comments and recommendations from an anonymous banking insider.

“All this vitriol is unfair.  Simply out-of-order.   We need a new narrative.  Truth is we’re just an ordinary bunch of corporate managers.  Just like you’d meet in any wine bar, five-star hotel or business class anywhere.  We’ve the same motive as everyone else too.  It’s just that our opportunity was that much greater. Not our fault that it was more than the usual fiddled expenses. And the means?  Well what a smokescreen: no one understood how it worked and, let’s be fair, neither did we!

“Actually it’s doubly unfair to blame us current senior bankers.  Banks have been in the reputation ‘toilet’ for decades.   Back before 2008 they didn’t give a fig for the average lazy ‘can’t be bothered to switch’ customer: couch cash-cows we called them.  Consumers’ problem: not ours.  And as for the typical SME, to be honest banks provided a social service.  I mean, imagine looking after the local corner-shop?  All that cash, greasy banknotes, messy transactions and endless aggravation over the overdraft.

“So what then about candour and transparency?  Simply isn’t going to happen.  Give it a couple more years and it’ll all blow over.  The politicians and the lawyers, they know it.  They’re all in the same game.  £17 million for the Salz report: see what I mean?

“Now if you really wanted to fix the banks (or any other large corporate), you’d first, as the Yanks say, put the bosses right behind the eight-ball.  Never mind BASLE III and some computation no one understands.  You’d enshrine in statute clear lines of responsibility and accountability for company officers alongside total individual liability. Like the old partnership model.  Then reputation would really count.  It would be a constant risk – every moment of every day.  The senior guys would have to care!  (But imagine that principle applied in government departments or the NHS.  The politicians would never dare!).

Second, build reputation management into the banks’ risk assessment structures alongside the numbers.   That would put reputation clearly and decisively on the board.    But hey the comms girlies just do that CSR flannel right?

Third, devolve power consistently to the local branches.  Make community engagement (community knowledge and practical empowered local communications) a fundamental principle of how we banks do business.  It would transform perceptions – and performance.

Fourth and finally, take a lesson from all those proud fish-and-chip shop owners on TV this week.  The best of them know all their customers and can tell them which trawler caught which fish – even at what time!  Now imagine you knew your banker’s name. Met them socially.  Bought local services from local people.  That they could even confirm – like the old-style local building societies – the source of your loan.  In short imagine that you were connected. That you trusted and were trusted.

“Wow, what a fantasy.   Isn’t going to happen.  We’ll be more careful.  Maybe bung the government some more tax.  OK there’ll be something fishy from time to time.   But what’s to worry in the odd bad smell?  Or the odd Salzy report?”

-ends-

Bill Nichols

16 December 2011

Bill Nichols

One More Time: Authenticity vs Perception – Which Rules in PR?

001-November 2012

For product marketers, the ‘proof of the pudding’ is key. Truth, they assert, will out. Only once can you sell someone a dodgy motor, shoddy clothing or, yes, a bundle of subprime mortgages. Commit to consistent high quality every time everywhere and it will deliver brand loyalty and positive reputation.

“Ah yes, but”, respond the communicators, “perception is king.” They will argue that it’s what people believe that counts. With the right messages, positioning and narrative, blue can be red, up down and hot cold. You can paint Obama as a rabid socialist, Romney as a 21st-century Gradgrind and shove any mediocre also-ran product into the limelight. Continue reading