If there is such thing as an ordinary week, this week has certainly not been one, by Jess Matthias (@maticah5 and @wordville) a PR account director at London-based communications agency, Wordville.
Needless to say, news of Baroness Thatcher’s death has dominated the headlines and news agendas across the country. Her death has brought some hugely divided opinions out of the woodwork, but what is most apparent is that this is the most high profile death to have occurred during the Twitter age. Everyone with access to the internet was quick to react. Likewise, critics were quick to pounce on celebs like Geri Halliwell – whose decision to couple the phrase ‘Margaret Thatcher’ with ‘Girl Power’ cost her several hundred followers – accusing her of cashing in on the politician’s death. Even Harry Styles – thanks to his tender age – was a target; apparently he’s not entitled to express a simple ‘RIP’, because Thatcher had stepped down before he was born. While there was probably no PR input behind these spontaneous tweets, they are yet another reminder of how easy it now is to damage a reputation in 140 characters; something seemingly innocent to one person is sure to be offensive to another.
One organisation that is now familiar with this concept is Kent Police. Paris Brown’s employment as its “Youth Police Commissioner” was cut short when her unsavoury tweets were exposed by the Mail on Sunday. Her appointment had all the ingredients of a classic PR disaster from the offset – a publicly-funded ‘experiment’, a teenager with a Twitter account and a middle-aged cop attempting to “get to grips with youth” – but the fact that a child could say something silly on Twitter was no shocker. What baffled people more was that the police would not have checked the girl’s social media accounts before giving her the job. Ann Barnes said that maybe the recruitment process for the role was a little naïve, but perhaps it was the organisation’s communications strategy that was so. Barnes and Brown in the end did the right thing and admitted their errors. However, it is part of our role as communications professionals to think ahead and pre-empt all scenarios. All of the aforementioned factors should have set off alarm bells in the minds of Kent Police’s PR team; if the organisation’s HR team failed to check Brown’s social media, then at least the communications team should have done.
Aside from Thatcherites – and all of those with some form of respect for the former Prime Minister – one of the biggest losers this week has been James Crosby. The former HBOS chief asked to be stripped of his knighthood following a damning report into the bank’s performance while he was in charge. There’s no doubt Crosby’s reputation is in tatters, but his communications strategy suggests that he learnt from the public shaming of his peer, Fred Goodwin, who had to be surgically removed (kicking and screaming) from his pension pot and title in 2012. His determination to hold onto his riches subsequently saw him labelled by the media as one of the UK’s most hated men – a fate Crosby didn’t fancy following. Thanks to his swift proactivity – as well as a little help from another certain piece of news this week – the issue was pretty much swept under the media carpet, lost among a sea of Thatcher tributes and stories about teachers starting death parties. The communications lesson for companies facing a fall-from-grace (aside from timing the revelations with a major national death)? Sometimes it’s best to fall on your own sword.
One thing that can’t be denied about Thatcher is her achievements as a woman in a male-dominated environment. No doubt there are many women who feel that she has been an inspiration and a role model. However, the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders this week announced that the number of women being appointed to FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 boards had slowed in the past six months. Lord Davies was quick to defend the slide, saying that Britain is indeed making progress towards gender balance. What is important to recognise is that – although there may be peaks and troughs in the number of high-level female appointments – the UK offers a wealth of opportunities to women that simply were not available when Thatcher came into power. This is arguably due to the highly resourceful and intelligent PR teams behind now household names such as Karren Brady, Hilary Devey and Mary Portas. Of course, these women achieved their accomplishments on their own merit, but it was their PR teams that have made their successes public knowledge. The trio – like many other high-level businesswomen – has been given primetime platforms through which to showcase their knowledge, power and expertise, and have subsequently provided inspiration to other women, driving the battle for gender equality.
Finally, no one is aware of the power of a woman more than Mark Bolland, chief executive of M&S. This week it was revealed that profits for Q4 of 2012 were disappointing. This is in contrast to 2007, which saw the company experience its best profits in a decade. The company credited this to its revamped womenswear range – and the hugely successful communications strategy surrounding this. Now, six years down the line, many journalists are calling for another rethink and perhaps the current communications team should take inspiration from their former success. In 2007 M&S’s reinvention had all the ingredients of a brilliant campaign – it was relevant, impactful and reacted to the demands of its current consumers. Since then however, the retail landscape has shifted. To replicate its former success, M&S will have to reassess what their consumer wants and create the mother of all campaigns to position itself as just this.
Jess is an account director at London-based communications agency Wordville.
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