For the last few years, Greece has been a byword for financial and political upheaval and associated with one catchy word: ‘Grexit’. The fear that Greece’s unsustainable debt and sclerotic economy would lead to the country crashing out of the Eurozone was the spectre that haunted world leaders and financial markets throughout 2011 and 2012.
This panic was fed by ever-rising public debt, an unending recession and alleged ubiquitous corruption. Whilst these are all valid reasons for investors to be wary, it’s my view that the global hysteria surrounding ‘Grexit’ was aided by undisciplined communications and ill-judged media appearances.
The Greek economy undeniably has structural flaws that caused serious problems in the Eurozone, but a great deal of the hysteria surrounding ‘Grexit’ could have been ameliorated by PR basics: careful positoning and disciplined messaging.
Ever since 2010 when then-Prime Minister, George Papandreou, announced that Greece would be seeking an EU-IMF ‘bailout’, these PR basics have been lacking. The media has received confused, contradictory messages from the IMF, the various EU institutions and members and – above all – the Greek government.
A stream of negative pronouncements from leading figures served only to compound the hysteria building in the media. Papandreou himself made several misjudged performances, first announcing that his country was riddled with “endemic corruption” and then – just a few months before Greece’s first bailout – telling a forum in Davos that the country’s problems were “home grown” and “required no foreign loans”.
For the representative of any organisation to talk to the media in such terms is, as any PR will know, ill-advised. On the part of the varying EU stakeholders, the “will-they/won’t-they” vacillations of Merkel, Sarkozy et al concerning a potential bailout simply allowed the noise surrounding ‘Grexit’ to grow.
When faced with a crisis, beware: the media abhors a vacuum. Fail to issue a coherent message and this vacuum will be filled, one way or another. In the case of the Eurozone crisis, the media filled it with ‘Grexit’, an angle that nearly became a self-fulfilling prophecy – such is the power of communication in a globalised world.
In recent months, the negative narrative surrounding Greece has begun to lift. This is the other side of the communications coin: careful positioning and a disciplined message will yield tangible results.
The coalition government of Antonis Samaras, put together in June 2012, has made a concerted effort to sing from a positive hymn sheet. Adapting the popular ‘Grexit’ portmanteau, stakeholders have begun to push the narrative that the country has turned a corner. With the worst behind it – they claim – Greece can now be associated with a new word: ‘Grecovery’. What is fascinating about this from a PR perspective is that, despite very few actual green shoots, the ‘Grecovery’ narrative is taking hold in the media. In spite of an economy that shrank by a whopping 5.6% in the first quarter, 2013 has seen comparatively few negative stories about the Greek economy.
Just as speculation surrounding ‘Grexit’ pushed the country to the brink, so too could ‘Grecovery’ become a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. In a globalised economy, confidence is paramount. Investors reading stories couched in the language of recovery, who perceive the country to have turned a corner, will be all the more likely to invest and actually help make those perceptions a reality. Already Greece is predicted to experience its best year ever in terms of overall tourists visiting the country, with an unprecedented 17 million arrivals are anticipated.
There is no doubt in my mind that many of the visitors, travel agents and airlines involved are doing so thanks to the ‘Grecovery’ narrative, a clear demonstration of the power of good communications. For PR professionals, the lessons to be learned from Greece’s travails are simple: disciplined messaging and a coherent narrative are paramount. In other words, whatever the crisis, keep calm and carry on.
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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