Season 3 of HBO’s hugely popular Game of Thrones came to a close in June leaving fans facing a year without its array of lovable dwarves, scheming eunuchs and masochistic monarchs. This hit TV series is renowned for top-notch British talent, casual nudity and – as many a shell-shocked viewer can confirm – a proclivity for violently disposing of its heroes. What’s occurred to me recently, however, is that Game of Thrones also contains some crucial lessons in PR.
Each of the noble houses in the fictional continent of Westeros has a motto that is repeated time and again by ‘high’ and ‘low’ born characters alike. These words unquestionably define the way that the competing dynasties view not only each other, but also themselves.
For the Starks, the words “winter is coming” reflect them: no-nonsense, northern strongmen who guard the realm against what lies beyond ‘The Wall’ – exactly the reputation they want.
Conversely, House Tyrell’s words, “growing strong” are altogether less memorable. When combined with their emblem (a rose) their branding utterly fails to convey the dynamism and ambition of the house, a failure that Diana Rigg’s character Lady Olenna muses about in season 3.
For PRs, the lesson to be drawn is obvious: take time to craft a clear, memorable message and make sure you hammer it in to people (metaphorically speaking of course).
Twitter doesn’t exist in Game of Thrones but if it did, you can be sure that #winteriscoming would regularly trend, given how often the phrase is uttered by a wide range of characters.
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.
Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, is one of Game of Thrones’ most interesting characters: a scheming grasper from a minor house with a talent for befriending the right people, even in the midst of a civil war. In a tête-à-tête with his nemesis Varys, Littlefinger exposes his ruthless opportunism, arguing that for him “chaos isn’t a pit – chaos is a ladder”. This chaos-mantra does raise an important point for PRs: be ready to take advantage of news as it breaks around you. We work in an industry so completely enmeshed with news and current affairs – judging the right opportunities to seize in order to promote your client is a key skill for success. Littlefinger is the ultimate issue-hijacker. The obvious caveat here is that Littlefinger is a man of dubious morality – a Machiavellian menace of infamous ambition. As PRs in the modern world we need to be altogether more scrupulous about which issues we hijack and why.
The night is dark and full of terrors
So, you’ve crafted a clear and powerful message and incorporated it into everything you do. You’re also totally abreast of the news agenda and are ready to respond to any opportunity that arises. All good, right? Wrong. As Red Priestess Melisandre likes to remind us (repeatedly): ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’. A very appropriate slogan coming from someone who can dispatch shadows to murder her unsuspecting enemies mid-sentence.
This is the final PR lesson from Game of Thrones: beware of the ‘unknown unknowns’. Crises can come out of nowhere, and you need to be ready to respond. All the messaging and issue-hijacking in the world won’t save your client’s reputation if you fail to appropriately deal with a sudden turn of events – something Melisandre’s victims can attest to.
This week hasn’t been great for BlackBerry or RIM’s reputation. With severe blackouts reported worldwide, affecting services such as BlackBerry Messenger and email, extreme inconvenience has hit Blackberry users, especially those who depend on the technology for their business and staff. Millions of BlackBerry users have entered their third day of an internet blackout, with no word on when the service will be restored. This isn’t good reputation management – the industry mantra when faced with a crisis is, ‘tell it all, tell it fast, tell it now’. RIM is not telling anyone anything…two tweets during three days of blackout?
Social media has been rife with complaints, with many people threatening to turn their backs on BlackBerry and make the move to iPhone or Android. Since I switched to the smartphone world a few years ago, I’ve always had a BlackBerry and have never looked back. But when the recent blackouts began, I felt worryingly lost without instant access to Facebook, my work emails and BBM. But what really irritated me was the fact that answers weren’t communicated, as RIM declined to comment on the situation, as reported by the national media.
It’s really important businesses are honest and transparent, and keep their customers’ best interests at heart – showing failure isn’t always as bad as they might think! Clearly there was a fault with connectivity and I found it frustrating that these faults were not made public. The RIM Twitter page remained almost silent, at a time when it should have been constantly active. An explanation, even through social media channels, would have made me much more accepting of the problem, as we all understand that technology can be temperamental – even for huge corporate companies such as RIM.
Has my love of BlackBerry been affected? Well, as a loyal user, I haven’t considered switching my phone, but it’s really made me think about reputation management and how important it is, even for the well-established big brands. It’s definitely given me some food for thought this week.
When a PR crisis looms, it can be quite a scary and spooky time for all. Here are a few pointers of what not to do when you find yourself in that situation.
The zombie – being slow off the mark
As soon as you are made aware of a potential crisis, begin planning straight away. There’s no use waiting until it’s public or you’ll be on the back foot. Every crisis is different so it is important to give yourself enough time to devise the best possible strategy. Are you in crisis mode?
1. Is the effect minimal if no action were taken?
2. Can it be contained internally?
3. Will it affect reputation and profits?
4. Is it out in the media already?
5. Could it undermine day-to-day performance or value of the company?
If it’s yes to 3, 4, or 5 – it’s a crisis!
The bat – hiding in the dark
Don’t just hide thinking it will all go away, in a lot of cases this will make it worse. Keeping an ear to the ground and monitoring the media is essential. Take a moment to analyse the situation, look at your options, think of all possible action you could take – and the repercussions of each for your stakeholders – and devise a plan of action. Tell it all, tell it fast and tell it now is the holy mantra against all evil crisis matters.
The gravediggers – digging yourself a hole with the media
Don’t treat the media like an enemy by telling them you won’t talk to them again. Bad mouthing them in public is also a bad idea. In the short term you get an angry reporter, in the long term you’ll have jeopardised a potentially important relationship. Continue to conduct yourself in a calm and professional way putting aside your emotional reaction to the situation. This way you are more likely to better manage the situation.
The hocus pocus – speaking a language no-one understands
React in plain English, using jargon and acronyms will just confuse people further. Ensure you are prepared with agreed language and messages to go out with, keeping your communications succinct and consistent. Effectively handled, this will reassures investors, employees and other stakeholders that the situation is in hand.
This post was written by Charlotte.
Last night I received insight into the running of one of the largest communications challenges ever faced in the UK. I was wowed by the panel at the CIPR’s ‘The Communications Lessons of 7/7’ event, which included the Deputy Mayor of London, Richard Barnes, and the Associate Editor of Sky News, Simon Buck, among others.
Discussion surrounded the difficulties in fulfilling the appetites of 24-hour news crews. Dick Fedorcio, Director of Public Affairs at Met Police described the criticism that the Force fell under for taking 35 minutes to issue a first official statement. The news crews were desperate for spokespeople: Sky News immediately called on Bob Crowe, Head of the RMT Transport Union for his thoughts.
When you look at this figure in isolation, 35 minutes may seem like a long time to acknowledge a major incident like the 7/7 bombings, however last night’s talk was about understanding why the comms teams followed the protocol and acted as they did. When an organisation is held accountable for the management of a major incident, as the Met Police were, statements must first and foremost be factually correct. Confusion reigned within the first 15 minutes of the terrorist attack, with media reporting that there had been a power surge. The official statements were to be used as confirmation of the facts. As Paul Mylrea, Head of PR at TFL (in 2005), explained, ‘There will always be criticism about a lack of information, but officials might not have it.’ Any organisation has a duty of care to its stakeholders, and on 7/7 the Metropolitan Police acted to provide careful clarification of facts.
Interestingly, the impact of user generated content (UGC) and citizen journalism on the communications and reporting of 7/7 was relatively low. Some photographs of the dead and injured surfaced, but not until over an hour after the incidents occurred. So many more people now have smartphones with quick access to a camera and sites like Twitter, that I’m convinced the reporting would be very different today. Do eye-witness accounts blur or help to clarify the true picture? This is up for debate, but what is certain is that the pressure on organisations to respond quickly to a crisis is greater now than ever.
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