How Boris will change PR

Do you want the good news first or the bad news? Chances are the new government led by Boris Johnson will mean a few ups and downs for the PR industry, but let’s start with the ups…

The good news

The power of communications will be appreciated more says Francis Ingham, director general of PRCA: “The new PM is of course a divisive figure. So I hesitate before writing what follows. But...

“In my view, his premiership will be positive for our industry. Or at the very least an interesting case study.

“Now I say this not in relation to his political priorities – the PRCA has no corporate view on such political things unless they relate directly to the clear interests of the industry, for example the regulation of lobbying, or the gender pay gap.

“But what I’m sure is going to happen is that his time at Number Ten – be it long or short – is going to prove the power of communication.

“PMs tend to come in two types. The ones who believe communication can shift the political centre of gravity – Churchill, Wilson, Thatcher, and Blair for example. And the ones who believe that actions speak louder than words – Attlee, Major, Brown, May.

“Boris falls definitively into the former camp. And we shall see whether his oratory lands him in the company of those politicians whose words have secured them victory and respect; or those whose words have secured them defeat and humiliation. An arch of triumph or an inverted pyramid of piffle perhaps... ?”

There will be a focus on positive storytelling says Michael Stott, head of public affairs at PR firm Lansons: “Boris has mastered the art of human communication. You only have to look at the way nothing his opponents throw at him sticks to see that. His reputation has been built up over a number of years – a lesson businesses can learn about getting the right reputation before you need to rely on it.

“As Boris said in a debate recently, after the past few years, people want a bit of optimism in their lives, so a rigorous focus on positive relatable storytelling is most likely to resonate with people in the years ahead. PR has an exciting future if it can tap into the zeitgeist he seems to effortlessly effuse.”

Times will be exciting says Lee Blackwell, director of PR and PA at financial company Key Retirement Group: “As Mayor of London, Boris was seen as a committed advocate for the capital and its role as an international financial hub, so I am hopeful that the positive relationships he built with the city over this period remain. From a communications perspective, he obviously understands the power of PR and I would be unsurprised if we see more resource and thought given to this function going forward.

“There is significant concern about the impact of the various flavours of Brexit on the economy – including within the PR arena – but I from what I can tell most people just want a decision to be made. On a practical level, it’s hard to plan campaigns, agree budgets and finalise strategies if you don’t know what wider economic issues you need to factor in. I suspect the next few months will be far from boring.”  

Clever phrases will be all the rage says Peter Bingle. founder of agency Terrapin Communications: “Boris Johnson is already proving the power of a great brand. His brand values are very clear – optimism and confidence. There is no place or space for people dismissed as ‘gloomsters’.

“Since becoming PM, Boris has been imposing his personality on the body politic. One of his closest aides is Will Walden and another is ‘evil genius’ Dominic Cummings. They both understand the need for simple and powerful messaging which mobilises the base.

“Like Trump, Brand Boris uses clever phrases which then become his mantra. ‘Brexit – Do or Die!’ is a good example. At a stroke the Brexit dynamic was changed dramatically and forever.

“Brand Boris is also Teflon coated. He gets away with things that would destroy any other politician. Personal failings are discounted by voters. His infectious personality seems to eclipse potential or actual negatives.

“As Ken Livingston found out on two occasions, Brand Boris is a formidable political opponent. His elitist background should make him an outsider for most voters. Yet he is a political Heineken, reaching parts of the electorate closed to anybody else.

“In a world of celebrity and reference, Boris epitomises the blurring of fact and fiction. Politics before him already seems distant and slightly unreal. I just hope his brand manager can cope!”

The bad news

It will be harder to gain consumer trust says Richard Cook, managing director of agency Champion Communications: “Specifically from a PR person’s perspective, the political uncertainty and drama that is unfolding is a double edged sword. We can expect readerships to increase as individuals, communities and businesses search for answers. This will boost revenues of media outlets and add to the number of journalists that are creating content. On the downside, trust in the media is fragile. Jacob Reese Mogg’s list of grammar tips and front page features on Bojo’s girlfriend’s dress suggest that the mainstream media is easily distracted and manipulated. In this vacuum, social media will become more trusted by those who don’t care whether Boris gets a dog. Online influence and trust is therefore likely to be at a premium, hard won and easily lost. Earning clients trusted endorsement in relevant environments remains the name of the game, but it is going to get more complex.”

PR advisers will need to emphasise the value of business says Matt Baldwin , co-founder of agency Coast Communications: “There is rarely much to be gained by business being overtly political – the hot air of politics is best left to the politicians. Yet it is important that the hopes and fears of business are understood by the new PM. Our work is primarily with professional services firms, and they are increasingly positioning themselves as an independent and impartial voice offering leadership and guidance for businesses and individuals trying to navigate Brexit. PR advisers will continue to play an important role in helping firms shape and deliver that message and in providing some clarity where little seemingly exists.”

Honest messages will become a rarity says Simon Turton, director of agency Opera PR and Communications: “When the Blair government that swept to power in 1997 all those who were involved in running New Labour — for the first term at least — were very much 'on message’, with hardly any leaks from Cabinet meetings and little dissent from the Back Benchers.

At the helm of the spin machine was Alastair Campbell who ensured that every senior minister relayed the same message whenever they were interviewed or issued a statement and in doing so conveyed a sense of order, purpose and discipline.

Fast forward to July 2019 and we now have Boris Johnson who has set out a confident and focused agenda with everyone in the Cabinet ‘on message’ and repeating the same mantra, especially on Brexit.

So far, so good for the new government that looks to be setting the agenda, but the wheels may come off Boris’s bus if and when the reality of what the government actually delivers is compared to the chutzpah of these early pronouncements.

“Public relations is all about connecting a company or organisation with its publics and everything has to be joined up and it has to play things straight, because as New Labour found to its peril it didn’t take long for their messages to diverge with what was actually happening and this is why the term ‘spin’ started to be used in relation to New Labour.

“Johnson is good orator and has the power to enthral and enthuse, but if I am concerned that even now we are in danger of being drawn in by a snake oil salesmen. In his first address to the House of Commons, he confidently cantered through dozens of ambitions and made several promises If I was one of Johnson’s advisors I would not have been saying that we have the best transport system in the world, because clearly we don’t. And, his ambition that the UK will be the best country in the world by 2050 – or something similar – is meaningless ambition. How can we ever know if we have become the best country in the world?

“So, the PR challenge for Boris et al is being able to keep the hyperbole under control and to ensure that he and his team deliver on their promises.”

Everyone agrees that Boris is good at telling stories, which is bound to be positive for the PR industry, as it highlights the power of good communications. The downside is that people don’t believe everything Boris says, and it is vital that he PR industry does not become associated with telling tall tales.

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