I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that many of us are very much looking forward to saying farewell, au revoir and auf wiedersehen to 2020. It has been quite the turbulent year, to say the least, and I’m sure almost people are exhausted and ready for the Christmas break. With vaccines preparing to be rolled out, 2021 is already starting to look more hopeful and ‘normality’ may actually start to return.
Whilst we’ll be quite glad to see the back of this year, we shouldn’t totally forget it. We’ve seen a lot of great things come out of 2020 that had a real impact on lives and society – from the generosity of people and companies offering their money and support to those in need, to finding a better work life balance through remote working –, so it’s not all been doom and gloom.
Here at Firefly, we have had many moments of inspiration throughout the year. If anything, the whirlwind of 2020 got us talking, debating and sharing so much more, with lots of great new ideas and reflections in the comms space. Launching Reputation Shapers was most definitely a highlight for us – more on that below! With every crisis comes creativity, new thinking and differing outlooks on life, and so I wanted to share some of our best pieces of content.
We look forward to writing more inspiring and thought-provoking content in 2021 and continuing to shape the reputation of tech-driven companies. Bring it on!
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.
We all went on a summer holiday… or maybe not if you happened to book your flight with BA.
Strikes and IT outages wreaked havoc this summer, with numerous cancellations and delays (in one instance, all apparently due to a plug being pulled out). Not only could this quickly turn your dream vacation into the holiday from hell, it’s also a PR person’s nightmare.
In any industry, there’s never a good time for something negative and unwanted to crop up, and certainly not during the height of summer in the travel industry. And of course, the challenge with crisis situations is that seemingly minor incidents need to be handled correctly. If not, they will also slowly chip away at that reputation you’ve worked so hard to build up and eventually crack it completely.
It’s inevitable that there will be tricky situations to navigate through, but for the comms teams, you shouldn’t need to panic, strap on a life jacket or make your way to the nearest emergency exit: you’ve got this.
All too often though, many businesses are still doing exactly that, getting their approach and reaction wrong. So, if something does arise, what should you say, how and when should you say it, or should you take a leaf from Ronan Keating’s book and say nothing at all?
Staying shtum – the no comment predicament
“No comment” is a famous phrase uttered by many a celebrity or politician, but in today’s media landscape not saying something is a comment in itself. Aston Martin has recently featured in the media over serious losses after its IPO, but most notable of all was the lack of anyone to comment. Indeed, just a day after the news broke, the Daily Telegraph followed up with publishing a whole piece analysing why the CEO didn’t say anything.
It seems that many companies still have not learnt from Facebook’s hard lesson last year during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as many media sources asked, “Where’s Zuckerberg?” With so many ways to share news and communicate with the public and customers, companies are expected to say something. Not doing so can be taken as a snub, not taking an issue seriously or caring about customers, or even an indication of guilt.
However, there can be a right time to say nothing. In any crisis, it’s important to establish the facts: who is calling you and are they who they say they are? If it’s an unhappy customer, then should you pass it on to customer services? Similarly, is this something that has been a problem in the past? If it is just someone with a personal vendetta now is the time to decline to speak. When it comes to social media trolls, do not engage!
Saying nothing can be a bold move, so just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Fanning the flames
When we were kids, we were all told: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While as grown adults we may not always quite follow this mantra, when it comes to the world of comms, there can be something to be said for it.
If you do decide to speak up, it’s important to keep your emotions in check and stick to the facts. An extreme reaction may be seen as providing grounds and proof to accusations and can make the situation a whole lot worse. Few of us have forgotten Elon Musk’s Twitter debacle over Space X’s submarine and the Thailand Caves.
Similarly, don’t make any promises or claims you can’t stick to. When TSB experienced service outages last year, it jumped the gun, explaining that the service would be down over the weekend but up and fully running again on the Monday. This was not the case until many days later. TSB’s continued customer dissatisfaction (not to mention subsequent summons by MPs) are testament to hasty promises doing more harm than good.
The biggest faux pas? Shifting the blame to another party. Here TSB also made a false move, trying to push the problems onto Sabadell. But when it comes to trying to manage your reputation, this is not going to sit well with your customers ‒ always take responsibility and hold yourself accountable.
If what you have to say is only going to make things worse, it may well be time to heed your parents’ advice.
Having your say
So how can you differentiate and make sure that you’re putting forward your view, rather than just setting a match to the situation? Here are some top tips:
In many countries, the summer is a quiet period, but this isn’t always true – and many firms have found that out the hard way! With September around the corner and a new year less than a hundred days away, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. So, buckle up and with some preparation, even a bit of turbulence can still result in a smooth landing.
When my son was three, he very innocently let slip to his teachers, friends and their parents that ‘my Nanny sleeps in Daddy’s bed when Mummy is away’, sending the local parental rumour mill into overdrive.
Of course, our son forgot to mention Daddy was away with Mummy at the time – and I haven’t let him forget it since! But false rumours have more serious consequences, especially in the corporate or commercial world.
A rumourtologist can suppress inflammation of a false rumour, delay or halt the progression of any false rumour, or ease the pain generally for all those affected by a false rumour. Time is of the essence. According to a study at Warwick University, it takes two hours for a rumour to be resolved as true, normally by someone confirming it online. However, it takes more than 14 hours for a false rumour to be debunked.
In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, a false rumour or #fakenews can travel a very long way in 14 hours. Social media users are especially inclined to make extra effort to propel a rumour before any validity is resolved. And false rumours can lie dormant and then pop up again when least expected and propel again, and again. How many times do we see the same fake news reappearing? Therein lies the danger of false rumours, and the human frailty and bias towards negativity.
So how do rumours spread, how do we establish their veracity, and how do we tackle them? Let’s look at these one by one.
Heard it through the grapevine
How rumours spread has been analysed scientifically by institutions including Indiana University, which looked at 14 million messages on Twitter in 2016 during the US presidential election. Twitter bots, which accounted for 6% of the accounts analysed, spread 31% of the fake news – or ‘bad credibility items’ as the university rather diplomatically puts it. Similarly, bots act very quickly, taking a mere two to 10 seconds to latch onto news and spread it.
We all know how easily manipulated we can be by the sensational news on social networks or on media sites like the Daily Mail or the Express and this can fire up an almost explosive reaction that is hard to ignore. Online, it’s so easy to send a quick retort – so easy in fact, that any YouTube comment between three and eight words has a 72% chance of being abusive. “What a pile of (add expletives!).”
A lot of truth is said in jest
Thankfully, there are very clever scientists out there trying to help us understand this, to determine how and why false rumours spread faster and further than the truth. And what is true and what is false. These include:
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
Tackling rumour and speculation is something that a lot of organisations do very badly – because it’s not easy. After all, if you say nothing or ‘no comment’ that is often taken as an admission of guilt. Similarly, commenting on an issue can also fan the flames – and for all those who say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’, talk to Tesla’s shareholders; when Elon Musk was sued by the SEC, the communications reverberations wiped $200m off its market cap.
And it’s our job as communicators to manage reputations and minimise the impact that rumours have on a company’s image. It’s a fine balance, and we will often differentiate between ‘issues management’ – minor, occasionally challenging issues that are unlikely to reach the outside world – and full blown ‘crisis management’. If you’re facing a rumour, here’s a short test to help you evaluate where it falls:
If the answer is “yes” to points one or two, it’s a rumour to be monitored carefully. If the answer is “yes” to three, four, or five – it’s time to react.
Once you’ve worked this out, how do you cope? Here are my eight principles for being a top rumourtologist so your communications plans don’t get disjointed.
Fake rumours, especially those without a shred of reality or any truth behind them, are wearing at best and devastating at worst. It’s almost impossible to control how rumours start – but you can influence how they develop.
Similarly, you can also control how you choose to respond – you need to dig deep to find that inner or corporate resilience, but dignity, honesty and fairness will always win over lying, cheating and dishonesty.
In our communications roles, we’re all rumourtologists and we’ll continue to face issues over time. But we all need to hone our containment and handling skills … especially when they also transfer so handily to school scandals about any sexual shenanny-gans!
As the nights draw in and Christmas approaches, thoughts of 2019 planning are well underway but instead of looking to the future, we’re going to take a look back over the past year and highlight some of the key trends and events that have taken place in world of communications to give us some inspiration for the year ahead.
A lesson in ethics
Although it began in 2017, the fall of Bell Pottinger shocked the communications industry. The ill-advised campaign that led to a host of troubles in South Africa highlighted the need for proper ethical standards in the comms industry. In response to the Bell Pottinger downfall, the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) launched the #PowerofEthics campaign this year to encourage comms professionals to promote ethics in PR.
GDPR, the acronym you cannot escape. The General Data Protection Regulation can into force in May of this year and certainly shook up the industry. Despite knowing about the upcoming deadline for two years, businesses were still unprepared for the legislation. GDPR touched every industry and marcomms was no different. To prepare for the changes, we held a session on GDPR and what it meant for marketing data, to ensure industry experts were up to speed and in the know.
The rise (and fall) of the YouTube star
Celebrity YouTuber, Logan Paul, sparked outrage this year after posting a disrespectful video. After the event, the discussion around social media influencers and the monetisation of videos rippled through the industry. Social media influencers are growing and becoming more popular, perhaps in 2019 we’ll start to see some regulations surrounding them and their content?
The pace of growth
The industry is changing at a rapid pace, and the growth of digital channels has profoundly changed the way we work. New technologies, tighter budgets and politics are all major drivers of change and the changing media landscape is just another hurdle that marcomms professionals have to deal with. In 2018, PR professionals said they need new expertise in social media, data and analytics and multi-media content development to ensure they stay relevant in the ever-evolving world of work. It looks like we’ll all need to be comms chameleons.
A big tech crisis
For much of this year, Facebook and its owner Mark Zuckerberg, were in crisis mode. The revelations that Cambridge Analytica gathered the personal data of millions of Facebook users sent the company into a mass PR crisis. Facebook’s reputation was on the line and they suffered some serious damage. However, there was some light at the end of the tunnel, for us at least. Although this was of course, an incredibly serious case, we did enjoy the hilarious memes that were created off the back of the hearing.
The Christmas countdown
And of course, to wrap up how can I forget to mention this year’s Christmas adverts? Here at Firefly, we love an emotional advert and Iceland’s ‘Rang-Tang’ certainly tugged at the heart strings. Although it was pulled from TV for being ‘too political’, it became viral across social media with nearly half a million views on YouTube. Similarly, the long-awaited John Lewis advert returned this year with the legend that is Sir Elton John and the premise of their advert ‘Some gifts are more than just a gift’, captured the hearts of British viewers. If you want to take a look at more of these powerful PR campaigns, check out this roundup of 2018’s festive ads.
There we have it, a look back at the big marcomms industry trends and events that occurred in 2018. As we reflect on the past year, there are certainly some lessons to be learned and, as the pace of change continues to grow in our industry, we as comms professionals need to ensure that we can keep up. So, as the festive season gets into full swing, start looking ahead to next year and see how you can focus and improve your marcomms strategy — who knows what 2019 has in store?
I really enjoyed listening to this Guardian podcast on ‘reasons to be cheerful’ despite the glum economic environment. A key topic was Tony Hayward’s departure from BP, and with it, the end of some truly lamentable public statements. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know that Mr. Hayward plus the word ‘gaffe’ have gone hand-in-hand since the explosion at the Macondo oil well that triggered this human and environmental tragedy.
What I found interesting was one of the podcaster’s comments which suggested that Hayward’s many PR failures (the key reason he’s going) may have seriously overshadowed fundamentally ‘OK’ managerial decisions he made during the crisis. There are two different but related themes at work here: ‘good’ PR can define leaders. In the case of Hayward and his predecessor, ‘bad’ PR also has the ability to also take them down. Secondly, I personally don’t believe PR is enough to paper over, or indeed, obscure (business, ethical, environmental) cracks of as profound a nature as those which led to the Gulf oil spill. Which also raises a third question: what is your best asset when fighting a crisis of BP-sized proportions?
The incoming CEO, an American, will have a major job on his hands in helping repair the ocean-sized reputational damage to BP. Let’s hope he and his advisors understand that good communications, as part of a bigger whole that includes accountability and responsible action, are not mutually exclusive.
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