Bell Pottinger’s David Wilson on how PR has changed

The days when public relations was all about projecting a glossy image are long gone. Today’s reputation managers begin by looking at what’s happening inside, says David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations.

“Once upon a time, in the dim depths of memory, some liked to pretend that newspapers shaped the reputation of their brand. PROs spent undue amounts of time supplying information to journalists who cast a critical eye over the facts and then told your story as they liked. With skill and good fortune, the copy might incorporate some ‘shaping’ from the PRO.

“A press-officer’s skill lay in presenting an attractive story to a writer and getting acres of good coverage … or coverage that was not as bad as it could have been!

“My attitude changed a few years ago when BA took me out of media relations to launch its new internal TV service, with traditional ‘Pravda’ channels simply not trusted. I learnt a vital lesson very quickly – it’s your staff who deliver the brand not the press desk. And, if anyone has missed the point, the web has now driven the message home.

“Consumers get their news and views where they like. They base opinions not on the well-balanced prose of leader writers but on the comments of people like them – citizen journalists who influence minute by minute on Twitter and Facebook. We no longer defer to our betters – we refer to our peers.

“In today’s age of hyper-reference, an authentic experience and a real relationship is much more influential than bland corporate advertising or a favourable letter in The Times when it comes to shaping reputation. Research by MORI highlights that the most potent force in forming our attitudes actually knows someone who works at a company.

“When a friend, relative or acquaintance says something about their employer it has a far stronger impact than a thousand advertisements or a few hundred column inches of great press. Employees live their brands and can be far more powerful or indeed destructive.

“Now that you can connect with more people more quickly than ever before, making sure that staff have something good to say about you has to be a priority. Staff are more than happy to spread the good word – as long as they believe, trust and embody your message. When your people are on-side they’ll be on-message. That’s the simple truth behind the success of brands like John Lewis and the failure of countless strike-prone businesses that have lost the trust of their workforce.

“Emirates is another enlightened organisation, where all communication within the airline group sits firmly within corporate communications. Here, a belief exists that ‘marketing’ too often can be an excuse for excess, but if treated favourably and embedded into the Emirates story, then all staff (40,000 of them today) have an influence on marketing the brand and business.

“This all means that comms directors should be worrying about issues well outside their traditional press desk brief. With PR increasingly concerned with HR and the employee experience, we must make sure that the messages we send internally chime with those we send externally, and vice versa. We have to be integrated in our thinking as never before …”

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