Do it. Do it now. Do it until it is done.

A diving experience I had in Iceland recently made me consider the importance of fully committing.

The Silfra Tectonic Fissure is a unique phenomenon with some of the clearest water in the world, which has taken 300 years to filter through into this gap between the American and Eurasian continental plates (you can touch two continents at the same time!).

But the water is a little chilly. In fact, the water temperature is 2-4°Celsius/35-39°Fahrenheit all year around. Of course, I wore a drysuit but my hands and face were still exposed.

Diving in the Silfra, Iceland.
Diving in the Silfra, Iceland.

One person had travelled thousands of miles to have this diving experience but didn’t know if they wanted to be that cold. As he floated on the surface, the indecision was clear.  “I will try it for a moment and see if I can handle it,”he said to the expedition leader. Of course, slowly lowering your face into near freezing water isn’t pleasant and he immediately returned to dry land and missed out on the spectacular views. (For diving enthusiasts, visibility is more than 100 metres!)

The initial shock soon wears off. Body temperature adjusts. Experience teaches you not to move hands too fast so that water trapped in the neoprene gloves can warm up. The amazing underwater vista more than compensates the initial pain.  But you have to commit.

When I lived in Ohio in the 1990s, I reflected about the impact of commitment on performance. Sometimes I’d observe people who thought they wanted to follow a path of action but couldn’t fully commit. In pondering this, I was deeply affected by the following thoughts from an oft-quoted German writer and statesman.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”  

In other words, press forward. Have faith. If you have an idea, see if it will live by giving it some intense attention. Take away the safety net that seems sensible but may soothe you into not quite committing. If you’re going to fail, fail faster and then commit to the next iteration.

As we often teach people to present using the Rule of Three, I have tried to capture my thoughts in the following phrase:

Do it. Do it now. Do it until it is done.

This is what separates people who have ideas (we all do) from entrepreneurs. When a good idea comes along, they know the only way to see if it is a great idea is to commit time, energy and other resources to it. If it turns out not to be a great idea, they move on and pour their commitment into the next big thing.

What can you learn from this?

GO SMALL (What will you DO differently?)

Less than 1% of leadership training is applied just three months following the training. Well, that is the received wisdom. Which is why our leadership/team development sessions focus on actions, concrete observable actions – the sort that you can instantly recognise whether you have done them or not.

Delegates are inspired during the workshops and start making grand plans for how their teams will operate in new, improved ways.

Training must have impact.
Training must have impact.

But I challenge them to “go small” with their commitments. I’d much prefer something small that actually gets done to the loftiest ambition. We structure the learning to build momentum. This has to make it past the weekend. It needs to carry on when people get back to their desks. It needs to breakthrough the barrage of emails that participants will have received when they were out of the office in our training session.

To quote one of my all-time favourite passages from an ancient text: “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.

Go small. Build momentum. This is the key to bigger, longer term impact.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

No one will complainI was recently teaching MBA students at HEC Paris, one of the  world’s leading business schools, about the crucial role of communication in both the development and delivery of good strategy.

To make this point, we deconstructed reports from some of the biggest names in business consultancy, filtering out the jargon and non-essential words to reveal the essence of their recommendations. The more we stripped away, the plainer the meaning became.

I agree with Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I think it is worth remembering the maxim: No one will ever complain that you made the strategy too easy to understand. 

Simplicity is challenging to achieve. But the more consistently you strive for clarity, the easier it becomes.

Luther Pendragon – Dancing with the Devil

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The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has dropped Luther Pendragon, claiming it did so as soon as it learned the agency has decided to work for tobacco company Phillip Morris.

Good! I’m glad that the ABPI has distanced itself from an agency that is prepared to promote a company that sells products that kill and injure the health of millions each year.

But why would a firm like Luther Pendragon be willing to damage its own reputation? Taking  cash from PMI comes at the same time as a new graphic ad campaign showing a cancerous tumour growing from a cigarette. 

Perhaps this conversation that I once had with the leader of an international PR company sheds some light.

Me: With the rapid expansion of the business across the world, how can you be sure that the company is acting ethically in each territory?  For example, how do you know that there is no “rogue” office working with the tobacco industry? Or working with a despotic regime? 

Leader: It is not as easy as you make it sound with obvious Good Guys and Bad Guys. Many believe that everyone has a right to PR representation, including the tobacco industry. Some people might feel uncomfortable knowing that we represent a pharmaceutical business that manufactures anti-depressants or that we have links to the defence industry. Where would we draw the line? 

Me: Just because it is difficult to draw a line does not mean you shouldn’t. Why don’t you draw the line with any products or services that harm or kill the users – and innocent bystanders? You cannot “smoke responsibly.” Draw the line around the tobacco industry. And then see what else you can push over that line. Which other potential clients would be toxic? Build compelling cases for walking away. That is corporate social responsibility. That is strategy. That is moral.    

Leader: Tobacco is very big, lucrative business. There is also responsibility to shareholders and to make profit. One contract could change the course of our business. And if we don’t take it, you know another agency will. 

Me: I’m sure that is true. But companies that dance with the devil will have a price to pay. Clients will be lost. Good staff will leave. Reputation will be damaged. 

In fairness to this senior figure, I do know that they turned down the next approach from the tobacco industry. I know because the man that ran the procurement process told me. He gloated that the contract was worth millions and that Agency X had missed out. He wanted that message to reach the leader I had spoken to. Apparently the next approach was not re-buffed. This allegedly lead to the loss of a pan-European anti-smoking campaign, which the agency had been trying to run concurrently with “Chinese Walls.”

Every business should be out and proud if they believe representing a client is the right thing to do. If you are not proud to represent a client: don’t do it.

Let’s stop this cancer within the lobbying and PR industry. Let’s draw a line.

What if Max Clifford was an axe murderer?

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Max Clifford, Keynote at CIPR Northern Conference

Given the news that he has been found guilty of indecent assaults, I feel queasy… Max Clifford was the reason I nearly didn’t start a career in corporate communications; and, perversely, he was the reason I eventually did!

When I moved back to the UK, having spent two years in America as a volunteer missionary, I was preparing for higher education. I was attracted to a degree that seemed to combined the things I was interested in (news, current affairs, journalism) with some of the things I might just be good at (English, creativity, presenting). A newly formed degree in public relations was suggested. But, with my history of volunteering for moral causes, I was reluctant.

For those who remember the early 90s, the buzz word was “spin” and the face of spin was Max Clifford. The only person who ever seemed to be rolled out in BBC News interviews as a “PR expert” was Max Bloomin’ Clifford… every time.

I wanted to feel like I was doing a worthwhile degree that would lead to a meaningful career which would contribute to society. Ironically, the field of reputation management, as PR is sometimes known, had a terrible reputation. Spin was a thinly veiled euphemism for lying and misrepresenting the truth. Clearly, there were PR practitioners that contributed to this image. But if one man personified the role of Chief Liar, it was Max Clifford.

As a result, I planned to find another field to study. That was until I spoke to the inaugural course leader for the BA (Hons) Public Relations degree, Anne Gregory. Anne, who later became the UK’s first professor of PR and served as President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), shared a vision of public relations that was markedly different from the caricature in the mainstream press. It was not, she said, about distorting facts and being fluffy. No, rather it was about truthful two-way communication. It was about honesty and honour. It was about democracy and engagement. Or, at least that is the vision she had for future of the industry.

When Anne looked me in the eye, and said “we need people to come and help change the industry,” I took the challenge. I am a sucker for a cause, especially one where the odds are stacked against success. I believed we could become agents of change and take on the charlatans, with Max Clifford as the figurehead.

And then, something happened that I didn’t expect. I met him.

I first encountered Max Clifford in the flesh during the first year of my public relations degree. He won’t remember but I do. Some fellow students with sufficient chutzpah invited Mr Clifford to face a lecture theatre of undergraduates at Leeds Metropolitan University.

A number of us were quite animated over the chance to put the sword to this man than skewed the reputation of the industry we were preparing to enter.

And then he spoke.

As an introduction, he explained that he didn’t describe himself as a PR expert. Rather he was a publicist. He blamed lazy, inaccurate media for giving him the title of public relations guru.

Then he stated, for the record that he tells lies for a living. “I lie on behalf of clients. Sometimes I lie to get them in the papers and sometimes I lie to keep them out of the media spotlight. That’s my job. Now we have got that out of the way, who has another subject they have a question about…”

It was masterful. Max Clifford was charming and disarming. He had drawn the sting out of the debate by admitting the greatest accusation. And most of the audience seemed satisfied to move on to other subjects.

But I was incensed… No! You can’t brush past this fundamental issue! What if someone was suspected of a heinous crime? What if they simply said: “Ok, let’s get this straight – I’m an axe murderer. I kill people from time to time. Now let’s move on to another question…” No, we wouldn’t just obediently introduce another subject. We would all insist that we deal with the worst accusation, which he had just admitted! But I was incensed in a very English, well-mannered sort of way. I wanted to shake my fist and say: “You might just get away with this you rotter… but I heard what you said and you still have big moral questions to address.”

I wrote this piece when Max Clifford was returned to Leeds to speak at the CIPR Northern Conference in 2012 to address privacy and the media landscape in a post-Leveson world. It made me mad.

Do some people in PR lie and mislead the public? Of course. But my position is that this should never be acceptable. Never. Ever.

Not even when someone as Teflon-coated as Max Clifford is operating (or should this now read “was”?). Not even if he is otherwise a wonderful human being (which a jury has decided he is not), who dotes on his family (as his daughter testified)  and does things for the charitable causes (which he does).

I have been consistent on this subject, I hope, throughout my career (see previous blogs). Let’s be honest. Let’s not turn a blind eye. Let’s raise the standard.

Leaders: Are you fixated on psychology?

How we frame and re-frame circumstances has a profound impact on perception. Brand value, change management and even our happiness in life can all be altered… so why don’t leaders (and communicators) invest more effort in understanding  psychology?

This week I’ve been counselling a global brand facing some delicate issues which will affect employees, customers, suppliers and a number of communities. The company has studied the economics of the deal and concluded that the interests of all the major stakeholders will be best served by a specific course of action. And, I am sure they are right.

However, I’ve been doing some work around cognitive dissonance and challenged the company on whether it had assessed the choice from a psychological viewpoint as well as economic and technological angles.

Certainly since gaining a degree, I’ve been fascinated with psychology and public relations. In writing my dissertation, I spoke to Robert Blood about how he was applying psychology to understanding the work of pressure groups. My research supported his view that the reputation is valuable and is never determined by logic alone. Perception is a psychological process.

Perception not only creates our experience of the world around us; it allows us to act within our environment.

My position is that leaders in all walks of life and communication professionals ought to be fascinated by, if not fixated on psychology.

How audiences perceive their ability to affect a decision is critical in how well-received the decision will be. Framing and reframing is the major purpose of any public relations programme. [NB – this is NOT implying manipulation. Understanding the psychological impact on perception should result in organisations changing their actions to be more appropriate – not simply increasing semantic subtlety!]

An example is given by Rory Sutherland, in a recent TED Talk. He suggests that “perspective is everything.” He cites the example the London Underground. The single biggest improvement in customer satisfaction on the tubes, per pound spent, was not adding extra trains but putting dot matrix displays on the platforms. This is because the nature of a wait is not just dependent on its numerical quality (the duration) but the level of uncertainty experienced during that wait. Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, not knowing when the train going to arrive.

Sutherland is not suggesting we should value psychology over technology and economics (and neither am I) but that we should view them equally and try to find the “sweet spot” where they overlap.

It may actually be that the circumstances of our lives matter less to our happiness than the sense of control we feel over our lives. As a result, reframing may actually be the key to our happiness.

So, in summary, I believe leaders and communication professionals ought to be deeply fascinated by psychology. Perception is not (necessarily) reality. But how people perceive reality will affect their attitudes and actions.

PR Census: What’s the PR industry worth?

I was fascinated to read the latest PR Census, the largest-scale research project into the UK PR industry in years. About time too, as I was still having to quote figures that were probably accurate while I was still studying a PR degree Leeds Metropolitan University!

Well done to PRWeek and the PRCA who joined forces to produce a comprehensive overview of the size, shape and scope of the UK PR industry, carried out by research agency Harris Interactive.  The PR Census presents a comprehensive picture of the UK PR industry as it is today.

The PR industry is worth £7.5bn, which is more than gambling (hurrah); on average we’re pretty well paid  (hurrah) but the massive majority are white, like me (not such a hurrah). This is why I am involved in the Northern Lights Interns initiative which aims to break down barriers for BAME graduates to enter the industry.

Here is an infographic snapshot of some of the key findings of the PR Census. Read more at PRWeek.

As Richard Bagnall points out, the general health of the industry doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges. One of the biggest threats maybe how we measure and evaluate activities in this digital media age.

My weblog, mainly about strategic thinking, leadership, communications and ethics.