Tuesday, 12 May 2015

English cricket and why sports PR is so hard

The words "English Cricket Board" and "PR disaster" are being used in the same sentence again. This week Strauss v Pietersen. Last week Peter Moores sacked by the rumour mill. Last month, new chairman Colin Graves doing the West Indies' team talk for them. Before that Graves on Pietersen and Downton on Pietersen.

To be fair to the ECB they are not alone on the sports PR own goal front. Football chairmen from Massimo Cellino at Leeds and Vincent Tan at Cardiff, to Venky's at Blackburn and Karl Oyston at Blackpool are recent offenders. And among governing bodies, how can we forget Sepp Blatter at FIFA, almost everyone involved in cycling, and the British taekwnodo association which refused to pick its world number one, Aaron Cook, for the London Olympics.

Why are sports bodies so bad at PR? And what does that say about the state of our profession? In my view there are two main factors at play, so to speak - the skills at the top of our profession and what some employers want from their PR appointments.

First of all the skills. When we join the ranks of communications and PR professionals, it is usually because we have some skills at media relations. You know, getting good news in papers and keeping some bad news out of them. But for a head of communications this should be the easiest part of the job. Too many comms leads still act merely as media relations officers with a "senior" or "head of" in their job title, still sweeping up the mess their leaders have made, but now it is higher profile and more costly mess than before.

The most difficult part of a comms lead's job, and one that we are collectively nowhere near cracking, is having a sufficient number of professionals with the skills we need at a senior level to stop our leaders making that mess in the first place - the influencing and negotiating skills to tell a chairman or chief executive: "You can't do that."

This is exacerbated in sport because, with the exception of a handful of clubs and organisations that are truly professional in their outlook, most sports bodies actually think they need someone to sweep up their mess, rather than preventing them from making it.

Very, very rich people would be regarded as being among the employers it can be most difficult to do PR for. Volunteers, potentially, are even more difficult because the rational, business reasons you may suggest they consider might not apply. If you put those two factors together into a chairman who has made lots of money in his (it's usually a his) chosen business; is now stepping into the completely different and irrational phenomenon that is sport; thinks that the things that worked in their gas or chicken business will work with millionaire sportspeople, under the media spotlight; and is in the role not necessarily to make money but to stroke his ego/play the patrician volunteer, that is a toxic combination for a head of communications to have to deal with. That chairman does not want to be told "No" under any circumstances. These are some of the reasons why sports PR is so hard, and done badly so often.

Having explained why this happens, I can't offer any solutions. But for all of us involved in reputation management, we should constantly evaluate whether we have the skills and authority we need in our role to successfully give unpopular advice in difficult circumstances. As a profession, we are not as good at it as we need to be.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Back to the future

Our fire service will shortly be changing its logo back to an updated version of its traditional eight-pointed star, on my advice. Naturally, I'm getting a bit of stick for this - so here's why I think it's a good idea.

First, it's an invest-to-save. The updated logo is costing us £640 and will be implemented on a replacement basis - so existing stock using the current logo will be used up first, not thrown away. The new design will also have a two-colour version that will be used on our printed materials, instead of the current six-colour one. Our printers have told us we will save £50 just on one order of letterheaded paper, so I think we'll make the £640 back on the first order of new community safety leaflets.

More importantly, I just think it's the right thing to do for us to re-adopt the eight-pointed star that is so synonymous with the Fire Service. The current logo had already been approved when I came into the Service eight years ago, and its implementation was the first job given to me upon arrival. Everyone I've spoken to about it believes it was the wrong decision and I agree. The current logo looks like a dull school badge. It definitely doesn't look like a proud Fire Service one, like the eight-pointed star does. I know that's a view particularly held among our operational staff.

I've wanted to change back for years but then austerity came and it never seemed the right time. I realise I may be criticised for doing it now but sometimes you just have to go back to your values and do what you think is the right thing, even though others may disagree. It will save us money and reconnect us with a past we should never have abandoned. I'm prepared to stick my neck out for that.

*If you're interested in the fire service eight-pointed star and what it stands for,


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Maybe We Can Make This Work

Our Safer, Stronger Communities Fund has had a bad rep at work. People, including me, have questioned why our Authority would "give away" £2m to other organisations at a time when we're making frontline cuts and letting support staff go.

I've got a new perspective on this after listening to a seminar given by Bruce Katz in Sheffield last week. Katz is a former advisor to President Obama who is an expert on urban development.

The most interesting part of his presentation for me was learning that the spending culture of US public organisations is to fund academic research and private companies. The Americans believe that produces better value and more innovative and creative outcomes than public bodies spending the money directly.

It's worth thinking about as we prepare to embark on round two of our fund. I'm sure we can all think of small projects that make a big difference if only they had a bit of funding.

Instead of complaining maybe, as staff, we should focus on working with partners to help them develop really excellent bids to fund great projects that just need a kick start.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A New Beginning

Ok, so I've been meaning to blog more regularly for forever. Today we had a managers' meeting to go through our recent staff survey results. Two of the key issues are senior manager communications and employee involvement, so now seems like as good a time as any to make a start. I'd be pleased to get your feedback on what I write, whether you work in my function, elsewhere in South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, or for another organisation.

Our staff survey results weren't great, but probably in line with my expectations. The important and positive thing is that they're slightly better than last time and, we discovered today, comparable with the other fire services which use the same survey.

The key take-out from today, for me, was that as a management team we are absolutely committed to accepting the results and determined to improve for the next survey. I'll admit that going into the meeting I wasn't entirely sure that would be the outcome.

So now the hard work starts again. Today we talked a lot about the fact that only 18% of our staff believe things will change as a result of the survey (the same as last time). We are all determined to change that next time. So here's a little blog which is my first step towards achieving that. It's only a small step but it's a start.

Finally for today I'd like to send my congratulations to Jill in my team and her husband Lee, who are expecting twins. It's only a few days since my colleague Alex became a dad for the first time. And my other colleagues Nicola and Michelle are off on maternity leave. It all seems apt considering this blog has been about fresh starts.