When to speak up in a crisis

A head of communications I once knew found himself caught up in a major industry scandal with his firm at the eye of a media storm. His working day stretched out. He’d arrive late at home and be off early the next day, working weekends and, even when at home, he’d be fielding calls and emails.

According to him, his wife had identified a curious imbalance between his time at work and his visibility in the press: “The thing I find odd,” his wife told him, “is that you’re spending all the hours dealing with this crisis and yet all I ever see in the press is you saying ‘no comment’. What exactly are you doing at work?”

That’s the curious thing about a crisis. It can suck up the hours but quite often, in media relations anyway, it involves saying very little. Increasingly though, that approach has changed. The growth of social media and the way in which news – particularly bad news – freely surfs the waves, means control by way of a ‘no comment’ is virtually (and literally) impossible.

Speak up …and quickly
People nowadays not only prefer transparency and full disclosure – they demand it. If you’ve nothing to hide, why not take every opportunity to say exactly that. And if you have something to hide, you’d better come out and give your side of events pretty quickly because it will be out sooner or later.

And wouldn’t you prefer to be the one who manages that story?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be spending any less hours in the office managing a crisis, but at least your wife/husband/partner will be able to see and read a bit more from the fruits of your labour.

Let’s all write like it’s 1984…

Good writing should, quite literally, be quite simple. So why, as we often see,  the temptation to over elaborate? Or, to put it another way, why do we succumb to verbosity as a means of conveying our meaning? (Can you see what I did there?)

George Orwell says a scrupulous writer should always ask ‘ could I put it more shortly’?

So here, courtesy of Orwell himself, are his five great writing tips:


(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.


Mind your message

There’s an old adage in the communications world that goes something like this, ’Your message is not what you say, not what you write, it’s not even what they hear, it’s what they take away.’

Sounds obvious but how many communications plans start out with some key messages that look sensible on paper but by the time they’ve been communicated come to mean something completely different to the people they’re meant for.

The main point is the understanding and appreciation of your audience. Who is it you’re communicating to? How receptive will they be to the particular message? If the audience is your employees how do they like to be talked to? Is it simple language for the shop floor or jargon (hopefully not) for the management?

Writing for a particular audience can be a challenge. Putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what ticks their boxes really demands that you spend time at the outset considering the various target audiences for a communication.

Above all, don’t assume that because you’ve said it that you’ve communicated it.

Citizenship, corporate responsibility, sustainability, society: does it matter what you call your company’s sustainability efforts?

What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot. Just ask Reg Dwight or David Jones*. But does the same principle apply in the slightly less starry (but far more significant) world of corporate sustainability? In days gone by, it used to all be about corporate social responsibility (CSR), but almost no one seems to call it that anymore – it’s become the Reg Dwight of sustainability.

So what should you be calling your company’s sustainability efforts? A random poll of the group websites of a number of FTSE 100 companies proves that there is, as yet, no real consensus.





The 2014 FTSE 100
what we call ‘sustainability’ survey

Aviva – Corporate Responsibility
BAE Systems – Corporate Responsibility
Barclays – Citizenship
Barratt Developments – Sustainability
BP – Sustainability
BSkyB – Bigger Picture
BT – Better Future
Burberry – Corporate Responsibility
Co-op Group – Ethics and Sustainability
Glaxosmithkline – Responsibility
Legal and General – CSR
Marks and Spencer – Plan A
Morrisons – Corporate Responsibility
National Grid – Responsibility
Next – Corporate Responsibility
Persimmon Homes – Corporate Responsibility
RBS – Sustainability
Rolls Royce – Sustainability
Royal Mail – Responsibility
RSA – Corporate Responsibility
Sainsbury’s – Responsibility
Schroders – Corporate Responsibility
Tesco – Tesco and Society
Travis Perkins – Citizenship
Tui Travel – Sustainability
Vodafone – Sustainability
WPP – Sustainability

Corporate responsibility, the child of CSR, is still prominent while a simple ‘responsibility’ (the grandchild?) still features, but ‘sustainability’ appears to be the new kid on the block, with a sprinkling of others: citizenship, ethics and some others,  BSkyB’s Bigger Picture and Marks and Spencer’s Plan A, the stand out candidates.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter as long as whatever you call it resonates with who you’re communicating with. If your employees, clients, suppliers and partners understand and identify with corporate responsibility that’s all that matters. Why not ask them what they think? That said, I applaud the likes of BSKyB and Marks and Spencers for applying some original thought which perhaps suggests they’ve given sustainability more than just a passing thought?

Do customers not care?
What my ‘exhaustive’ survey of FTSE 100 businesses also revealed, was that while most businesses give home page links to their sustainability efforts (with one or two exceptions where sustainability is hidden a level down) on their group sites, when it comes to their consumer facing websites, there’s usually no sign.

Why not? Do they think their customers are not interested? Is it only shareholders and analysts looking at group sites that want to know about a business’s sustainability credentials? Perhaps that was the case, but I increasingly think that consumers are more savvy about the businesses they buy from and often make decisions based not just on price but on a range of other factors. Just look at the tax backlash against the likes of Starbucks and Amazon.

It seems to me
So, you can call sustainability whatever you like in your business provided it has relevance and meaning to your main audiences – don’t call it sustainability if that simply switches off the very people you’re trying to inspire for example. That said, whatever you call it, if its communicated poorly, you might just as well light a candle in the wind…

*Elton John and David Bowie .


We’re all natural born story tellers: so why not liven up your communications and tell one?

“When you have a story it’s absolutely natural to try and tell it.” At least that’s the view of novelist and playwright Michael Frayn speaking on the radio the other day.

From the moment we learn to speak, read and write we all love stories. And it’s a very effective communication method. It’s our brains apparently. Hear a compelling story and the grey matter is flooded with oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin – hormones all associated with rewards, pleasure and well-being.

once upon a timeWhy then, do we lose the art of good story telling in our work lives?

The trouble is, storytelling can seem like a risk. It can be easier to shelter behind the day to day jargon and ‘safe’ harbour walls of the corporate patois. But you know what? That stuff is neither fun to write or to read and nor is it always very effective in getting a message through.

Every story should have…
So what makes a good story? There is no scientific formula for writing a good story but like a good song you’ll want to hear it to the end; you’ll feel engaged with it; you might laugh, cry, or even think deeply about it; and, you’ll remember bits about it.

But there are elements any self respecting story needs to have:

  • A hero. And no, it can’t be your brand but it could be a customer, an employee, or even a thing!
  • Structure. Beginning. Middle. End. No one says though you need to tell it in that order though. Think Pulp Fiction.
  • There’ll be a big issue to resolve
  • There’ll be troubles on the way
  • There’ll be a resolution of some sort – perhaps a big reveal too
  • Or perhaps there’ll be a cliff hanger ‘till next time?

Next time you have a communications challenge, think up a quest, throw in a few ‘mission impossibles’, and let your hero loose!