The story of how the fake design agency Madbird ensnared unsuspecting job seekers into its web has gone viral, leaving readers shocked at the façade that was created.
Can you blame these unsuspecting employees who trusted that the company they were working for was in fact legitimate? The evidence presented across all aspects of the company set-up was convincing. After all, we were in the thick of a global pandemic and relied heavily on technology (and still do). It’s become an important conduit of communication in our professional and personal lives.
I myself made the decision to accept a job offer in London and immigrate to the UK – based solely on communication and interaction through technology with a dash of blind faith. Job interviews over Zoom/MS teams have become the norm. Fortunately, I evaded becoming a casualty of jobfishing and joined an established, reputable, and dynamic European tech PR agency.
Madbird was built lie upon lie and rotten to the core, using a technology-built façade as a blunt instrument to lure clients and employees. It created fake characters, fake imagery, fake campaigns and fake clients and it nearly succeeded. Is it possible the PR and comms industry might have fake imposters?
Let’s assume our industry is not immune to imposters – what steps can you take to flush out the fakes when looking to partner with a PR or communications agency?
Choosing a European tech PR agency
The first step is to establish if the agency in question is registered and has passed management consultancy standards by a notable industry body or association such as the PRCA. The agency should be accredited and committed to the development of its own industry.
Word of mouth
Reach out to your network to see if they’ve heard of the agency or its founder and establish if they have a favourable reputation, not only in the communications industry but business circles too.
Don’t be blinded by the flash
Establish whether the PR agency you’re considering partnering with has a passion for and experience in effective communications. Any company can put together a flashy presentation that is hugely impressive, but is there substance? Will the team deliver on promises? Is the agency demonstrating a proactive and brave yet focused? Is it an agency that could align with your company’s strategic imperatives and would the team know how to translate that into a communications strategy?
Chemistry is key
Your PR agency should be an extension of your team and be able to integrate seamlessly into your company and team culture. Setting up a chemistry session (in person if possible) should quickly tell you if these are the type of people you would like to work with – do they have the right energy and could you see them building strong interpersonal relationships with you and your team? Remember to trust your gut.
Take up referrals and references
Review the case studies or work the agency has executed (and verify it if you can) and don’t be afraid to ask for referrals whether from clients or journalists.
As a communications agency whose core business is servicing technology-driven clients, Firefly has been fortunate to collaborate with many great companies, large and small, whose technology has made a strong case for impacting human lives, business and our planet positively.
Technology may be our passion and an enabler in business, but we spend as much time as we can listening mostly but talking to our clients, and talking amongst ourselves about different ways, better ways or faster way to achieve results and greater impact. Speak to the people proposed on your team, and interview them as you would any potential joiner to your business. You buy into an agency culture, but really you buy a team of people.
January has long been known as the time for creating new plans and pushing for change in our personal lives. The same goes for our professional lives, as we set new priorities by embarking on new projects as much as driving forward older ones.
2022 is set to be a unique year in the comms world, as after two years of riding the wave of the pandemic, we are finally starting to see light at the end of what has been at times an incredibly dark tunnel. Although, that light is not the ‘normal’ pace of business as we experienced it pre-2020, nor should it be. We should celebrate the developments that have come out of this difficult period, taking what we have learned from a moment of crisis to put our best foot forward for our campaigns in 2022.
Some things to consider in your comms planning.
Investing in sustainable climate action
As consumers and investors alike increasingly value strong action when it comes to the environment, brands can no longer afford to announce a climate target and call it a day. Businesses are being scrutinised more than ever for their action on climate change and must therefore ensure that their operations are consistent with what is being communicated externally.
To put it simply, a climate-centric PR campaign will not work unless it’s authentic. However optimistic your external communications, if these are not backed up by a firm commitment which can be measured regularly and fairly, external stakeholders will easily see through the mirage. Today’s consumers and investors are used to seeing companies take misguided, vague climate action, and demand more as a result. Businesses that have little-to-no experience in this area should see this period of mounting pressure as an opportunity to possibly seek expert counsel from consultants, start building a narrative that is relevant to their business and back up their decisions with concrete action.
Navigating the waves of social media regulation
Social media has progressively become a core part of any good communication strategy, but as its use becomes more widespread, so does its regulation. Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s testimony before the US senate in 2021 shed light on the damage that has been caused by the social media giant to its users, leading to legislation such as the Online Safety Bill in the UK being strongly considered by lawmakers.
The bill mandates that social media platforms have a duty of care towards their users in protecting them against potentially damaging content, which is absolutely a step in the right direction when it comes to more responsible social media usage. Companies must ensure that they keep their finger on the pulse when it comes to regulatory changes, as increased legal scrutiny often results in new user guidelines. Businesses not only need to ensure that social media as a communications channel is integrated into their overall communications strategy, but also need to comply with new guidelines.
Maintaining synergy through employee comms
Hybrid working continues to be favoured by the vast majority of businesses, having taken on board the benefits of a blended model over the past two years. Most companies are putting trust in their employees to choose the approach which works best for them, whether that be coming into the office every day, or on a less regular basis. As a result, teams are often working with a mix of colleagues dialling in virtually, and physically present in the office.
Hybrid working allows staff to fit their work around their lifestyle more than ever before, which can lead to increased productivity and certainly boosts employee wellbeing. But, at the same time, it can naturally lead to a fracturing of teams. Any divide is certainly not the fault of the business, nor the individual staff involved, but rather a natural progression brought on by inconsistent face-to-face contact. But the response is not necessarily to revert to mandated physical working, which is not always possible these days. Companies must instead focus on improving their internal comms strategies, ensuring that messaging is clear, and any change is regularly and effectively communicated to staff. This will be more important than ever in 2022, as hybrid working is solidified as part of our reality, and no longer is acting as a temporary measure implemented during the pandemic.
A New Year is the perfect time to reconsider your comms campaigns and building your brand’s reputation. Want to learn more about how you can shape your greatest asset? Download our guide to reputation management here.
During a mere number of years, many of us have the felt the effects which followed on from the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been bombarded with constant negative news from the spread of new variants, to reports of impending climate doom and political upheaval. In many ways, the negativity has been almost inescapable. Happy stories have certainly been in short supply, but now that we’re finally starting to see the blue skies shining through, there is no reason to repeat this trend in 2022.
The start of a new year is an opportunity to shift our thinking to that of optimism. Amid the chaos of the pandemic, good news stories have been buried in favour of stories that stoke fear and anxiety. A new term even came to prominence during the pandemic – ‘doomscrolling’ – or the act of continually consuming negative news on social media. Reports have also revealed a steady decline in news interest during this period with many saying they find the constant barrage of negative news repetitive, confusing, and frustrating. Evidence that people prefer to hear good news in the face of such overwhelming information fatigue is mounting.
As communications professionals, we have the power to shift the narrative – both in the stories that we produce and in our own lives. In an industry where we are required to be creative and constantly on the point, harnessing the power of optimism is a requirement to meet our goals as the new year dawns.
Optimism builds resilience
A new year brings with it an opportunity for a fresh start. Naturally, the new year also brings on challenges and the need to adapt to changes in the form of new campaigns, new clients, or new colleagues. During this time, it’s important to remain positive and take advantage of the opportunities that come our way – in both our personal and professional lives. In the face of adversity, a positive mindset can work wonders.
We have to be resilient to work in this industry. If something isn’t going quite right, communications professionals need to keep reinventing the wheel and try new things. If a story isn’t landing, or if the days just seem too short to fit in all our tasks, we need to keep adapting and innovating even in stressful situations.
We have to expect that good things are coming our way. Optimism gives you the power to keep forging ahead even in the sea of constant ‘no’ – the ability to recover from failure, learn from it and move forward stronger than before.
Optimism leads to creativity
As we search for opportunity in the adversity, we should look to create new ways to get our voices heard in an industry that is evolving as quickly as the news cycle. It’s been proven that when we think positively, it leads to improved motivation, productivity, and wellbeing.
Communications professionals need to constantly learn about different perspectives, view the world from multiple lenses and speak to our audiences in ways that will engage and inspire them. A positive outlook on the world can be the motivational tool needed to truly invent something new and different that will make a lasting impact.
Optimism inspires those around us
Positivity is infectious. Studies show that optimists are more confident, and often have a more positive mood, higher morale, and better physical health. Setting a positive tone in your workplace environment is critical during chaotic times, because if negativity takes over it can be difficult to roll back.
To start off the new year right, promoting positivity in the workplace is one of the most important things we can do. Take the time to recognise the achievements of others and give praise where it’s due. Establishing optimism at the outset will encourage people to express their ideas confidently and motivate them to get the job done even when time is running short. The new year is also the right time to re-evaluate what it is that we want and how to get there. The confidence boost from a positive work environment may empower people to speak up for what they believe in and ask for what they want.
Making a positive impact on the world starts with the small things – believing the glass is half full and sharing that perspective with others even in tough times. If a culture of optimism is established in our organisations, it will permeate into the work that we do as communications professionals. Even in challenging moments, tapping into the power of optimism will ensure the people around you, and those who consume the content that you produce, are also enabled to see that blue sky.
Data floods us with an incredible amount of insight on people and our behaviour. Online retailers, for example, can see age, demographic, how long customers spend on each page, where the mouse hovers, what’s in a person’s basket, what’s abandoned… and so on. But what data like this doesn’t tell you is the why. Of course, you can do surveys and find out what your customers are thinking, but be careful. Is that what they’re really thinking or are they saying something that seems like the right, logical answer?
For instance, when you think of glasses, what’s the most important part? The lenses, to be able to see, right? So, with this logic, lenses should be the determining factor when buying glasses, yet the frames are the big sellers. It’s the frames we care about the most when selecting glasses. Why? The frame is the emotional connection to the glasses, which makes you think things like “do I look more intelligent?”, “do these accentuate my facial features?”, and “I hate glasses, so I want the most subtle ones”.
We have to look beyond what people say. I was reminded the other day of the brilliant Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked what people wanted, they would’ve said faster horses”. And of course, we all know that’s not what Henry Ford gave them, instead it was the first mass-produced automobile in the form of the Ford Model T In this scenario this focus on speed was actually about time gained. The Ford Model T allowed the average person to own an automobile and, as a result, spend more time with friends, family, acquaintances, etc. I mean, just look at the many car adverts out there that show good times with family and experiences. The adverts are rarely ever about the features in the car.
Think gain and maintain
Now, we’re not all trained psychologists, but it’s worth spending some time thinking about how you communicate benefits for your organisation. Whether that’s the benefits to employees, or the benefits to the customer. Often, we find ourselves talking a lot about pragmatic benefits, for example, how this solution or product will enable growth or success. And in some cases, it’s not about communicating a ‘gain’ but communicating about what you ‘maintain’. Take a new learning platform as an example – you may get some whizzy new features, but it also offers your employees a way to stay and grow within the company.
It’s worth looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – most of us are very familiar with this – but have it in front of you when you’re thinking of communicating benefits. In the B2B space, you’ll often be looking at the ‘Esteem’ category which includes achievement, respect, confidence, status, and recognition. Of course, it’s important to communicate the impact on an organisation, but to tap into the needs of the human buying the solution, you need to think at an emotional level. Why are they really considering this purchase?
There are also psychological beliefs that you may think you know, but you don’t.
The words seamless, frictionless, easy, intuitive are bandied around a lot. But actually, there are moments where frictionless isn’t the best option. Think about relationships, the more time you put in, the more invested you are. That’s not to say make everything difficult, but there are occasions where it’s important to create a relationship over time, particularly when trust is an important factor to make that sale.
As simple as you may think you’ve made something, it’ll still be open to interpretation. Remember the white and gold dress, or was it blue and black? It should’ve been a simple thing, but our differences in colour perception created huge disagreement. Your brain makes quick decisions, quick judgement calls, and that can often lead to misinterpretation.
When we sell, we think we should just communicate the positive. But that’s not always the right approach. Like a story, something bad may happen before the good, that’s what creates the arc and the intrigue. It’s worth communicating the negatives, along with how you’ve removed these as a brand. The brain is wired to assess for risk, so it’s best to be authentic and transparent. That also creates an honest dialogue, and we all appreciate honesty.
We all have split personalities. We’re ourselves, our avoided self (who we don’t want to be, the days we see all our flaws) and our ideal self. So, you may carefully analyse the personality types you’re communicating to, but bad news, these are personalities that are in constant flux. It means careful positioning, framing and use of language, knowing that it may not hit the spot on the wrong day at the wrong time.
Hopefully this has got you thinking in terms of how you communicate the benefits of your products, services and/or company. Now, although this is psychology at a really basic level, there are organisations out there that can dig a lot deeper and help develop psychological insight. This piece was inspired by a webinar run by InnovationBubble, who are a whole team of psychologists specialising in different areas.
We’ve all been through quite a year with a lot of change. So, ask yourself, how are you relevant now? And are you communicating that in the right way?
With so much innovation coming from today’s tech firms, the number of major announcements they’re making on a regular basis has skyrocketed. Nowadays, companies aren’t relying solely on the media to get their news out into the world. They can use their owned channels and upload an announcement to their website and social feeds in a matter of minutes. They’re usually drawing attention to the wonderful new things the company is doing. Every so often though, they upload something very different.
I’m referring here mainly to announcements that reveal cultural changes, which have become something of a normality in recent years. Coinbase banned discussions around politics and social matters last year, for example, which was followed by Basecamp banning those topics on its company-wide Basecamp account and even taking it a step further by stopping 360 employee performance reviews and disbanding all of its committees. Both companies’ announcements raised eyebrows and concerns across the industry.
The crux of the matter
What’s fascinating about ‘no more politics’ announcements is the manner in which the message is delivered. As someone with their ear to the ground on all things reputation, I found the Basecamp statement was especially interesting. This was a bold, confrontational announcement that explained a number of changes in the company, some of which have proven unpopular externally and may be disliked internally too. The tone was almost daring the reader to challenge them. It was the higher-ups saying “this is what we’re doing, deal with it”.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decision to ban political discussion in the workplace, there are lessons to be learnt here. Let’s not forget that this wasn’t a reaction to a crisis, it wasn’t a story uncovered by an investigative journalist, there haven’t been any laws broken – the company opted to share private information willingly.
They identified that these are contentious matters and sought to disclose the decisions to remove any risk of a potential white blower sharing the information externally anyway. There’s nothing wrong with getting out in front of a story and it can often be the correct strategy in certain circumstances. In this scenario though, three things really niggled me.
Firstly, Basecamp’s announcement didn’t just reveal the banning of political talk on its company channel. It included the revelation that it was disbanding all committees. It also revealed the decision to no longer use 360 employee performance reviews and, instead, managers and team leaders would be solely responsible for performance reviews. In this one announcement, they released three decisions that arguably could result in question marks over the health of Basecamp’s culture and conditions employees face. Would it have been better to reveal such decisions one by one over a longer time period instead of dumping all three at once? Did the committee and 360 reviews decision even need communicating?
Secondly, the importance of reading the room and getting the tone right cannot be overstated. Every business operates differently in one way or another, sure. And, for some, maybe committees really don’t work. Whatever the activity a business pursues or stops though, explaining the reasoning and decision for doing so clearly and in a way that doesn’t provoke is critical. For example, explaining the removal of 360 feedback because they’re “not very useful” isn’t sufficient. After all, any seasoned professional knows that reviews such as this, like almost any activity, is only effective if implemented correctly. At the moment there is growing pressure to improve business culture and look after employees more. The messaging for an announcement that in any way touches on employee performance should reflect that.
Thirdly, business decisions are made with the best intentions most of the time. Sometimes, they’re made on gut feeling and with minimal data and insight. Political discussion, the effectiveness of committees, and the usefulness of 360 reviews aren’t exactly quantifiable. Therefore, a decision on them is based on the hope that doing something different will work out better. If you’re communicating a change around matters such as these, there’s an element of humility needed, and ego has to be left at the door. No company knows categorically whether banning political discussion will be better, so communicate your hope that it will be and your desire that employees’ work lives will be improved; don’t simply position something as bad and must be banned.
Do these decisions really matter?
In a word – yes. They should matter, anyway. Now, don’t get me wrong, political discussion can be challenging, draining, and can drive a wedge between even the closest of colleagues – so I understand why an employer might want to minimise this.
It would be interesting to know exactly how this decision was reached though. Did this come from the workforce as a request and, if so, did a majority of employees approve it? Or was it a dictatorial decision, forced upon employees? One suspects it’s the latter.
Furthermore, who determines what is and is not ‘political’ and what falls under the umbrella term ‘social matters’? My take is that topics such as diversity and climate change would be off limits, given their political and social nature, and that is to the detriment of all parties. Without discourse on these topics, employees have no power in holding their employers to account for failures or lack of action on important global and societal issues. Boardrooms become echo chambers for the white elite, because they’re not tuning in to what the workforce cares about.
What’s the alternative?
As the CEO and leader of Firefly, my view is that there are viable alternatives to the ‘no political discourse’ approach. Businesses should trust their employees to know when to speak up about what’s important to them politically and to know when it’s appropriate. They should listen to employees’ views and how that affects the organisation and consider what the business could or should be doing in response.
What it really comes down to is that employers should trust that the employees will know when to get on with the work and deliver what’s needed to clients and customers. Set clear work objectives, help people stay focused, and ultimately treat people like the adults they are. Yes, it’s more effort than a ban, but businesses of today can’t simply restrict the things that require more effort.
An open culture will reflect well on company reputation. Just look at the extremes to which many tech companies go to so that, on one hand, their employees feel heard, valued, and respected, and on the other hand, they can be seen as good companies to work for and invest in. The likes of Microsoft, IBM, and many others, wouldn’t be driving diversity and sustainability transformation to the degree they are if it weren’t for sound business and reputation reasons.
As for an alternative for 360 employee performance reviews, I would ask any company that’s not found 360 reviews successful whether they simply need a different approach to how they undertake them, instead of discarding them altogether. Maybe they could benefit from changing the tools they use for the reviews, or train people to improve how they complete reviews, or even bring in professionals to complete them so it’s more objective. It seems to me that the senior management at Basecamp might benefit hugely from a good, constructive, and positive 360 experience, because more self-awareness builds stronger relationships and stronger relations aids a more positive reputation. More impactful 360s start at the top and, if it is done well, it will reverberate a positive change for the better down through the organisation.
I’m looking forward to seeing how other well-known tech companies communicate changes such as this in future – whether they follow the ‘drop all the changes in a single update’ approach, keep quiet and wait for information on updates to be leaked, or drip feed the information gradually over time. When it comes to banning political discussion in the workplace, the industry has been going in the opposite direction in recent years, but it’s possible we’re about to witness a change. It would be a major shame if bans on conversation around politics and social matters become more widely adopted, at least in my view. What’s yours?
I’ve always been a fan of Greg James and his light-hearted morning show on Radio 1 and since lockdown began, I’ve found the radio show even more comforting, especially now that the comedy and silliness has ramped up. Just the other day, Greg was talking about a quote he gave for a press release about Radio 1’s Big Weekend – he said when he gets asked for a quote, he’ll always try and add something funny, knowing it would likely be deleted but with the intention of making the recipient laugh. This time round, his quote was left in, it read, “And if it all goes wrong, we can just blame the pandemic and say that at least we tried.” It certainly tickled me, and to hear that Greg James had included it just to make the person reviewing it laugh, made me realised how important humour and laughter is right now.
Laughter as a healer
The pandemic has had a profound effect on our lives, including our mental health. Whether we’ve been directly affected by the virus or not, the uncertainty and being away from our loved ones has been difficult to process. But when our friends have sent us a funny meme or we read or listen to a funny story and laugh, we almost forget about what’s going on – even if it’s just for a few minutes. That’s why you’ll often see news broadcasts end on a light-hearted story after giving the main updates, and we do the same with our daily Firewire newsletter. You want to end on a light-hearted note, so that recipients don’t dwell too much on the potentially doom and gloom stories.
Comedy is also a comforter for many of us because we feel that we can connect with the person that made us laugh. I’ve never met Greg James, but I feel like I know him because I listen to – and am amused by – him and his stories every day, just like with my friends on WhatsApp. Comedy podcasts, like My Dad Wrote a Porno, No Such Thing As A Fish and Help I Sexted My Boss, are formatted in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting in the pub, chatting with your mates. Of course, not everyone has the same sense of humour but when we do find what makes us laugh, we search for similar material.
Being the funny one
From the comedian’s perspective, making jokes and wanting to make people laugh is part of their personality. However, being the class clown is one thing, but being funny and making jokes as a brand or company is something else altogether. It can appear risky, sometimes daunting, but it can done right.
Innocent Smoothies, for example, is known for its Twitter feed, where almost every campaign is centred around being funny – from their debates on whether new smoothie is blue or green (it’s definitely green by the way), to commentating on TV shows like the Great British Bake-Off, and even the way they handled their mini crisis around the misinformation of ‘conker milk’ was executed in an overtly apologetic but amusing manner. Humour has become part of their brand identity and they’ve used it to personify their brand and give it an authentic voice, which in turn receives a lot of engagement from their audience. It’s clever because it is likely that when their followers see a new Innocent smoothie on the shelves, they’ll remember something funny they said about it and likely purchase it. The power of endorphins, aye?
Using comedy as a tool to evoke an action is also used to raise awareness of more serious causes. The Comic Relief charity and, more aptly, Doncaster Council’s explanation of the government’s ‘Stay Alert’ announcement, both used light-hearted content to spread awareness of a serious message. People tend to remember something if they find it funny, and will often share it with their peers, thus spreading the message further. In these types of instances, especially when coming from a brand, it’s important to find the balance as there can be a fine line between being funny and being offensive. Think of it as laughing with someone, not at them, and focus on the wider story rather than pinpointing a specific person or aspect.
Reading the room
Getting humour right in your communications, whether it’s internal or external, requires a careful balance. ‘Reading the room’ could be a room of 200 people in a highly targeted campaign or a room of potentially thousands or millions, depending on your platform and audience. Within that ‘room’, you might have individuals with different opinions and different senses of humour, so it’s best to accept early doors that you’re not going to please every single person. Take note of the situation and the surroundings around you and avoid stepping over the line if your message or take on the situation could cause offense.
Sometimes funny messaging doesn’t quite sit as well when it’s text only, so it can help to include graphics and images too. At other times, funny images or animations can be powerful on their own. One of my favourite YouTube channels, Kurzgesagt, provides explanations to science’s most difficult questions through beautifully animated illustrations – for people who respond to visuals, like me, the graphics and bright colours really help to understand the message and remember what they’re saying!
Lockdown has shifted expectations immensely and we’ve all had to adapt to the new way of working and living, whether it’s working from home, dealing with the supermarket queues or spending our Saturday nights Zooming our friends. It has been a strange and scary time, and definitely one that we won’t forget, but thanks to comedy and the people that continue to produce funny content every day, it’s been easier to laugh and see a bright side.
Firefly’s Tim Williams has last month wrote about the gathering pace of deepfakes. The term deepfake refers to artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technology that synthesises imagery and voices to present something that didn’t occur, usually in video form. Highlighting this deepfake danger is a video clip of Bill Hader who’s face morphs into Tom Cruises and Seth Rogan as he does his impressions of them. More on this story in The Guardian.
The UK government is considering giving powers to Ofcom to impose fines on video-sharing apps and website. The UK regulator will be able to fine platforms who fail to prevent youngsters from viewings harmful content such as pornography and violence. If plans go ahead, this would start from September 2020, more on the BBC.
Twitter is testing a new arrangement of timelines so users can better follow topics they’re interested in. It’s currently a manual process for Twitter but soon the company will look at machine learning to intelligently populate topics. Head to TechCrunch for a full overview.
KPMG’s UK Tech Monitor indicates that growth the British tech has begun to slow. Respondents to KPMG study blamed the subdued UK economic conditions on the drop of business activity. CityAM covers the report.
After facing scrutiny for a growing monopolisation of online advertising, Facebook is reportedly in talks with US news publishers and rumoured to launch a ‘news tab’ in the autumn. The Guardian goes into more detail.
iFall – Apple is no longer in the world’s to three smartphone makers. iPhone shipments keep falling, whilst Samsung and Huawei take the lead. You can read more in this article in the Daily Telegraph.
Want more tech news? Each morning, the Firefly team creates a wrap-up of the most important news from across the technology and comms space. Sign up to Firewire by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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