ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: 'Don't be distracted by spin'

PR shouldn't be a matter of gate-keeping or fire-fighting, says the former No 10 communications director. It should be right at the core of your business.

by Alastair Campbell

Anyone who saw the fascinating British Library exhibition on propaganda last year would not fall into the trap of believing that reputation management is some fancy new phenomenon. Flattered though I am by those who seem to believe I invented 'spin,' using communication to pursue strategic goals has been with us for centuries. He may not have used the phrase 'PR' but Admiral Nelson owes his national icon status not just to tactical genius and courage but also to great communications skills.

What is new, of course, is the extraordinary pace of change in communication, the reality of the globalised media age and the challenges – and opportunities – they bring. The landscape has been transformed. There was no twitter, YouTube or Facebook when I left No 10, let alone when I started. On-line journalism and blogging were in their infancy. TV news and the traditional media still set the agenda.

Twitter is now a major news source. The opinions shared on Facebook count far more than those dictated by the traditional media. There is more video content uploaded to Youtube every month than the three main US channels broadcast in their first 60 years.

These changes are sweeping away divisions. National frontiers no longer count in communication terms at least. A mistake or crisis in one country can damage companies and, very quickly, sales across the world as it is shared and amplified globally by millions through social media.

Consumers care about the behaviour of parent companies as well as the brands they buy. Many different audiences and their interaction impact on profitability and share price. It’s no good simply talking to shareholders or giving different messages to different people, according to what you think they want to hear.

In this world, communications – its speed, tone and nature - is more important than ever. Companies have to be aware what is being said about them, not a day or a few hours later but immediately. They have to have the systems and tools in place to respond in a way which helps defuse criticism or make the most of opportunities.

There has to be a realisation, too, that communication is now about engagement and genuine two-way dialogue. Otherwise, the conversation will go on without you. The days of simply putting out a statement and retreating are as dead as the carbon on a typewriter.

So communications clearly cannot be an after-thought or an optional add-on. It must have a permanent place at the top table.  We have seen, too, the boundaries between old-style financial communications and traditional PR broken down.

But it does not mean that it is communications or media reaction which decides what an organisation does. That’s looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope.

The question to be asked is not 'what will the papers say?' but 'what should be done and what should be said about it to help meet the objectives we have set for ourselves and the strategy we have agreed to meet those objectives?' And this, of course, is not possible unless there has been agreement on what those objectives and strategy are.

It is remarkable how many organisations fail to take this basic step yet wonder why their communications efforts fail. In short, they have not spent their time thinking about who they are and what they want to do before they set about communicating. Without these basic strategic steps, your responses are likely to be confusing, contradictory and ineffective. With them, you have the framework to achieve your aims and to survive the worst of times.

This was brought home to me when, at Downing Street, I listened into a call between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Starr report had been published that day but the conversation was mainly about Northern Ireland and Russia. Years later, I had the chance to ask the former President how he was able to do this when it appeared his whole world, personal, political and professional, was about to come crashing down.

He said he had a simple objective - "survival.' 'My strategy was to get up every day and focus on the things that only I could do because I was the President. My tactics were to make sure people knew that was what I was doing. " Objective. Strategy. Tactics.

It worked. Despite everything thrown at him, Bill Clinton not only survived but left office with the highest end-of-term approval ratings of any President since the Second World War. Most companies face fewer and smaller challenges, but the lesson remains the same.

- Alastair Campbell is chief strategy adviser at Portland and a former Director of Communications to Tony Blair

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