PR must not be knee-jerk, says Caroline Cecil, chairman of CIPR Corporate and Financial Group

Twenty-four hour news journalism does not mean that there has to be a PR response to every story. Unless the response can change the story, it may be best to do nothing. William Hague may be feeling the same after his decision to highlight internet gossip resulted in a story that had been in the shadows becoming headline news. 

Significantly, in a speech at the end of last month in London, Simon Lewis, who was Gordon Brown’s official spokesman, made the same point. Lewis knows both politics and business – he was communications chief at Vodafone before arriving at No 10. He posed the question that a response to a news item should not be, “What is our response?” but instead, “Do we have something to say?”

Everyone in PR knows that “no comment” can be a very loaded statement and any lack of response needs to be phrased better. But we must not be afraid of having a “lack of response” strategy because we fear that a “no comment” will be attached to the company and make it seem guilty.

It can be difficult to judge when to jump and when to stand back. Ill-informed social media “pub talk” tends to fall to the bottom of the heap – and often extreme views are cancelled out by opposing ones – while informed comment comes to the top of the pile. But, the first step before leaping in, should be to ask how any potential communication ties in with the company’s strategy and key messages.

Having clear, concise messages is as important as ever. Television news, however good quality, is like tabloid journalism. It depends on pictures, and a reporter’s word count on most news programmes can often be no more than 140 words. And Twitterers delight in the confines of 140 characters. So, if a company cannot explain itself succinctly, misinterpretation is inevitable.

There are some great examples of companies communicating well and fast when problems have arisen such as British Airways during the strikes and the ash cloud, and less good ones such as Eurostar when the wrong kind of snow fell. Of course, the best comms strategy cannot cover over operational cracks such as the “insufficient contingency arrangements” for Eurostar’s stranded passengers.

And the strongest communications teams are the ones that are least visible, so communications people becoming the story can be a sign of things going wrong – just think of BP and its spokesman Andrew Gowers.

We talk of globalisation as though this is a new concept but in fact it has been going on for a long time. My husband started supporting Tottenham Hotspur when he saw a back-page newspaper photo of the team celebrating on an open top bus after winning the FA Cup. He was brought up in Mumbai and the paper was The Times of India. Which neatly illustrates the point how the speed of globalisation has changed. Today he probably would be able to see the pictures live, not two days later.

In PR we need to stick to our strategy and messages, but be fast on our feet with our tactics. Instant response without any anchoring strategy is like politicians changing policy on the basis of focus group meetings.

Caroline Cecil is director of communications consultancy Caroline Cecil Associates and chairman of the CIPR Corporate and Financial Group

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