I take a step back, let you go: On having the courage to do what you’re good at

The news that the founders of Hope & Glory are taking a step back from day-to-day management in order to get closer to clients and to ‘the work’ will have struck a chord with many people in communications.  It is a reminder of a couple of long-standing debates within our industry.

The first is a very broad one about management in all professions.  All too often people reach executive positions purely on the basis of being great at their ‘real jobs’, with no thought given to whether they have the attributes or interest needed to become good managers.  How many partners in law firms, say, end up in charge of teams of people because they are the best tax lawyer in the room?  It doesn’t matter if they are utterly uninterested in the development of their colleagues and more at home with figures than people, because they are the best at their job they are inexorably elevated to the top of the pyramid.  What could go wrong?

This tendency to promote people without any regard for their ability to do the next job is compounded in the PR industry, other perhaps than in some of the better resourced network firms, by the fact that many agencies are relatively small, do not devote as much attention to training and HR as they should, and have a tendency in all things to hurl people into the deep end to see if they can swim.  It takes a brave and self-aware person to say no, they want to carry on in a different role, doing what they are actually good at.  So the Hope & Glory announcement really is welcome, if unexpected.

The second debate is about the other side of the same coin.  Most senior folk in comms are good at handling clients, or at providing creative solutions or at giving sound advice.  And so they are promoted and start to devote time to managing colleagues, developing business plans, explaining themselves to shareholders and the like.  They have less time to spend with clients, who naturally become annoyed and may start to look elsewhere.  And they may even become disillusioned themselves, because it turns out they enjoyed doing ‘the work’ and even if they also like managing they can’t do both.

So what should comms agencies and the individuals within them do about this?  It would be tempting to say they should model themselves on virtual agencies like Park Street Partners, where I have been able to get back to working much more closely with clients, which I am enjoying thoroughly.  More realistically they should take a look at what has happened at Hope & Glory and create senior creative roles for people who are creative, and senior client management roles for people who are great with clients – and put good managers in managerial positions.  New ways to be senior and respected (and rewarded) should be created that do not necessarily involve scaling the managerial ladder.  There is a better way for agencies to organise themselves and this week’s news shows us how.

General Election: We were crazy to think that this could work

A few weeks into the election campaign and the landscape is becoming clear.  The SNP will dominate in Scotland.  The Liberal Democrats, despite their embarrassing early optimism, are settled into the slog of trying to win 30-40 seats – although hobbled by a leader who voters dislike more and more whenever she is seen in public.  And the Labour Party is chucking spending pledges at everything in sight as it tries to get voters to think about anything but Brexit: a wall of money and radicalism that it surely has no real belief it will ever actually have to deliver.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are fighting a deeply conservative campaign.  Boris Johnson is serving up cup after cup of Brexit coffee occasionally sweetened with some populist magic money tree flavourings of his own.  One slight surprise is that the Tories have not been hammered from the right by those who are terrified by the fiscal incontinence they are suddenly showing.  Yet again, the ability of Brexit to mask realities and cloud everyone’s judgement is revealed.

A cynic would say that all election campaigns involve politicians over-promising, and that they are always followed by a period in which the new government has to explain why this or that pledge turns out to be undeliverable in office.  What is extraordinary about this election is the extent to which the whole exercise is being based on whoppers, the biggest of which is that voting on 12 December is an opportunity to deal with Brexit once and for all.

As many commentators have pointed out, the idea that Brexit will “get done” or “sorted” anytime soon is utter nonsense.  In truth we are faced in 2020 with either another negotiation and then a long referendum campaign or another year of brinkmanship and rollercoastering towards a free trade agreement or no deal whatsoever.  Even then we will not be done, as Brexit will continue to dominate our politics for years and years and years.

In a narrow sense the outcome of the election remains uncertain.  Whether the Conservatives can turn a double-digit lead in the polls into 40-50 extra seats in the Midlands and the North is still an open question and, with two-and-a-half weeks to go it still feels like some event or issue could pop up to change everything.  But in another way the result is nailed on: an enormous sense of betrayal and disillusionment as it becomes clear that Brexit is still lingering and dominating everything.  And so the inability of the political parties to provide any sort of genuine leadership will be once again exposed and our collective spiral into cynicism and mistrust will continue.  Fun times.

This blog was originally posted on the PRCA website: https://www.prca.org.uk/GE-We-were-crazy-to-think-this-could-work 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word – by Adam Batstone

Twice in recent weeks a high-profile TV interview has prompted headlines because of the interviewees’ refusal to say sorry.

First it was Prince Andrew whose ill-judged Newsnight interview provoked a storm of hilarity but also real outrage because he steadfastly refused to acknowledge the suffering of his pal Jeffrey Epstein’s victims.

Last night it was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to decline Andrew Neil’s invitation to say sorry to the UK Jewish community, because of allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party.

Sorry is only a small word, but it is remarkably powerful and its presence or absence from the mouth of an interviewee in difficult circumstances can change the nature of subsequent media coverage.

There is no doubt that both Prince Andrew and Jeremy Corbyn prepared for these interviews. Only a fool would agree to an in-depth TV interview with either Emily Maitlis or Andrew Neil without having spent a bit of time thinking what they may be asked and how they might respond.

While the charges against both men were very different, they were both extremely serious and it was obvious that careless (both nonchalant or lacking in thought) answers would inevitably lead to criticism.  In these high-stakes circumstances, it is not simply the words you do or don’t say that matter, but also the tone you adopt.

Prince Andrew clearly decided that it would be ‘honourable’ and ‘show leadership’ to front up and give full answers to all the questions. Nothing, no matter how awkward, would be out of bounds. But he ended up coming across as entirely unrepentant and solely focused on saving his own reputation. Despite being given numerous opportunities with questions like: “Is there anything else you would like to say?” he resolutely failed to say sorry to the women who were sexually abused.

His lack of compassion was compounded by his expression of regret for having gone to visit Epstein in New York after his release from prison. He was sorry for himself and sorry for getting caught out. In that context his other answers, explanations and excuses about Pizza Express in Woking and the mystery ‘no sweat’ condition just made him seem absurd.

Jeremy Corbyn (veteran leftie) quizzed by Andrew Neil (ex-Murdoch editor and Tory supporter) was always going to be incendiary. The match was provided by Britain’s most senior rabbi writing to The Times to accuse Labour of antisemitism.

Corbyn sought to adopt a calm and measured approach. But he was clearly riled by the intensity of the questions and at times struggled to keep his temper. His attempts to keep cool misfired and he appeared to dismiss the serious charges as vexatious or nothing new. Asked several times if he would say sorry, he steadfastly refused to do so.  Presumably this was so as not to appear weak or on the back foot, but as with Prince Andrew, he was left looking at best unsympathetic and at worst guilty.

The clear lesson to be learned here for anyone unfortunate enough to be facing tough questions, no matter what the context, is that expressing sympathy for victims is always advisable.

If someone feels aggrieved (regardless whether you think their grievance is legitimate) expressing sorrow for their suffering is OK. It is NOT an admission of guilt to do so and ‘sorry’ immediately changes the tone of the interview.

It will be interesting to see Boris Johnson in the Andrew Neil hot seat and how he deals with the list of tough questions he will doubtless face.

Neil can choose from a long list of aggrieved parties who Johnson has insulted or let down including Muslim women, the city of Liverpool and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to name but a few.

Will Boris Johnson deploy the S word – or will he seek to dodge the question with his tried and tested Cicero meets The Beano rhetoric?

Adam Batstone is a journalist who has worked for newspapers, radio, TV and the BBC News website. He spent three years working in corporate communications before setting up his own consultancy offering media training to a wide variety of clients www.adambatstone.co.uk