Australia’s Very Public Breakdown

Australia’s Government is in disarray. And, this morning, Australian’s everywhere have their head in their hands. 
What was, yesterday, a bemused response to  a schoolyard fight that never happened has become, today, an embarrassment of the grandest scale. It is beyond remarkable that a governing party can tear itself to pieces in such a public forum.
For some in the Northern Hemisphere, Australia’s little hissy-fit is what you might expect from those who live in a country that’s far too hot. But for those whose interest touches international affairs, the consequence of such a spat is more apparent. 
With a resourcing sector that is currently fuelling much of China’s growth (on Monday China broke the magic 2.2 million-tonnes-of-imported-coal-per-day record), a stumbling Government is unnerving, and its consequences more profound.
This week our Head of Public Affairs, Jacquelynne Willcox, has provided two very insightful pieces on the impact of Australia’s political turmoil and the contextual relevance of Sino-Australian relations. It’s both insightful and somewhat scary stuff.
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Behavioural Economics

Ask a group of public relations executives what they do for a living and the more articulate of the bunch will likely tell you that they’re storytellers. That’s cute, but it’s wrong. What they do is shape opinion. How they do it is, or might be, through storytelling.

However we might choose to couch it, the PR business is in the business of behavioural change. And that means we have to grasp the dynamics of emotional, cognitive and social influence on decision-making behaviour. It also means we have to accommodate structural change, engaging people who bring a very different perspective to communications problem solving.

So what’s fuelling this particular strain of business reinvention? After all, the PR industry seems to have been reinventing itself for a while now.

If digital was the agent provocateur that incentivised the PR industry to think differently about its place in the communications mix, then behavioural economics will be the catalyst for a reframed hiring policy.

The reason is relatively straightforward. Only when we understand behavioural drivers can we develop initiatives that are sufficiently robust and grounded in fact rather than being wholly reliant on the imagination of the creative few. And that puts a whole new perspective on who might be involved in the process, and why.

Such an evolution does not come without challenges. Populating a business with specialist functions is clumsy if the organisation does not accept the need for a cultural shift that accommodates a revised service landscape. Science and creativity are rarely happy bedfellows, which means the context for their collective use is pivotal.

In Australia, Weber Shandwick is tackling this head-on. Through the development of an ideation tool that leverages a science-based process with a creative-based outcome, we’ve established an ideation process (or what we used to call a brainstorm) that provokes a healthy tension between art and science. Because of it our thinking is more grounded, our ideas better placed and our approach far more streamlined.

There’s an inherent resistance to such an approach. That’s to be expected. Tell a team of creative PRs that you want to fuel their imagination with science and, at best, they’ll say something mildly offensive. It’s because we’ve long prided ourselves on being all things to all people – strategy planner, creative, finance manager, account handler and entrepreneur – all of the time.

So the biggest barrier to the effective adoption of behavioural economics in our industry, and with it a more scientific scientific approach, is ourselves, not our clients. We might think that clients brief us to deliver great campaign ideas. But what they always need are great business solutions. We have to continually remind ourselves of that simple, but often illusive, fact. If behavioural economics is anything, it is the science of common sense.

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Old Rules. New Problems.

The Advertising Standards Bureau’s (ASB) decision to make companies liable for user-comments posted on branded Facebook pages raises more questions than it answers.

The gathering storm of corporates bemoaning the prospect of a Herculean online community-management task is already here. But it’s consumers who will feel more constrained by this decision. And that, inevitably, will only serve to create more tension in the corporate/ consumer relationship.

The consumer concern is justified. By raising the self-regulation bar, the ASB has inadvertently given organisations the mandate to remove comments that they may argue are offensive, but that are also considered detrimental to their own brand. The opportunity for the orchestrated management of brand-damaging commentary is hard to ignore.

We should not be surprised by the consequences of such action: a series of legal precedents around interpretation are bound to follow; consumers will cry ‘foul’ at the decisions made; and we’ll see a spike in negative (aka defamatory) commentary about the decisions made. The outcome will be, in many respects, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the ASB decision to resonate, the self-regulatory circle needs to be completed. That demands clear policy guidelines that anticipate the interpretation of issues, yet accommodate what will undoubtedly be a moving legislative target.

The UK’s own standards body, the Advertising Standards Authority, has been grappling with similar issues for some time. By necessity, it has found itself gravitating towards the application of a “common-sense” test, which has instilled some public confidence. But that is administratively cumbersome and remains subjective in its approach. After all, one man’s aggravated commentary is another man’s unsubstantiated criticism.

Back in Australia, the debate has naturally become a political hot potato. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has publically stated that he’ll be setting up a Coalition Taskforce to review social media, including “stronger take down powers for the regulator”.

But that, too, may be under-estimating the challenge of re-applying a mainstream media regulatory model to a predominantly consumer-driven operating environment (in which content is often created outside of Australian jurisdiction).

There’s no easy fix to managing online content. Few would disagree with the need to curb the availability of material that is explicitly offensive in a corporate-hosted environment. But a simple shift of blame and responsibility by the regulatory authority is not the answer when undertaken in the absence of guidelines.

Regulators need to build mutual confidence into the system, not apply the rules of old to the problems of the future. The voice of the media and the voice of the people are wholly different beasts.

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The Fear of Failure

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. How quickly can you rattle off the names of five Fortune 500 companies who are proud of their willingness to fail? Your instinctive response: probably, none.

But think about that again. A willingness to fail is a whole lot different to failure. It’s about culture, not outcome; optimism, not pessimism; confidence, not doubt.

A willingness to fail has sat at the heart of the R&D function forever. But it seems counter-intuitive to other disciplines within an organisation. Consider that the conditioning of market expectation.

But business success – particularly business success in the midst of faltering markets – demands a changed mindset. A mindset that accepts the rather dry and chalky taste of business reality.

At the heart of that reality is what we now call an engagement economy. A place where the authenticity of purpose, resilience of thinking and originality of ideas is a prerequisite to business and communication success. A place where consumers tire easily and loyalty wains with equal pace.

At Weber Shandwick we have embraced the engagement economy. It has shifted our outlook to the way we build advocacy for our clients. And it has re-calibrated our own environment, building a culture where our people’s imagination can flourish without being unnerved by the prospect of a failed idea.

Cultivating the collective imagination may sound like a noble purpose, peppered by slick ambiguity. But is far from both.

The best place for any organisation to start such a cultural (and probably philosophical) journey, is to accept the possibility of a failed idea. Because a business that is not prepared to be wrong, must also be prepared to accept the permanent illusiveness of original thought.

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The Science of Original Thought

Creativity is one of those things that everyone gets, but no one really understands. Its output colours every detail of our lives, yet it remains an intangible on account of the fact that its impact is judged by emotional connectivity. That makes it – and I’m searching for a technical term, here – fluffy.

But, it seems, fluffy is the new black. The search for a creative nadir has spread its wings. In the past month I’ve seen, heard and facilitated more discussion about the role of creativity and ideas in public relations agencies than I have in a lifetime.

There is a slow-burn realisation that PR in all its forms is indeed a place of original thought – or at least, to misquote Voltaire – places in which judicious imitation is applied in the construct of a new idea.

For many of us who’ve worked in the industry over the years, the question of the natural nurturing ground for original thought has always been a vexed point. We’ve never quite understood why those whose task it is to create 30 second TV movies seem to hold a perceived monopoly as to the source of great ideas.

But perception is reality and perhaps why so much of the discussion we’ve witnessed keeps coming back to the default question that rests somewhere between structure and aptitude. Is there a legitimate and necessary role for Creative Directors in PR agencies?

The response to such a loose question is an equally ambiguous answer: it depends.

It depends on the propensity for creative intent within the agency at any given point in time; it depends on the infrastructure that might support such a role; and it depends on the ability of the individual to channel the process of ideation to deliver a commercially relevant and meaningful solution.

But let’s step beyond the obvious. To grasp for a world in which Creative Directors become the imagination provocateurs and source of the ground-breaking idea, is troubling.

Part of that concern rests in the fact that there’s something inherently retrospective about the appointment of a Creative Director to fulfil a very contemporary opportunity for PR agencies. I can’t help asking myself why an industry in the ascent might choose to snatch at roles that have traditionally belonged to industries that are now in decline.

The PR industry has the opportunity to reframe its potential as a reference point for creativity. There’s no small irony in the fact that the appointment of a Creative Director in an effort to bring more creativity to an organisation might well lack creativity in itself.

For a start, if we’re going to borrow from the past, we should be looking to hire Planners and Strategists to provide the context in which the creative genius can be released. And then there’s the thorny issue that PR agencies are populated with people who might just consider themselves imagineers – or at least as people who’s contribution goes beyond account management. That brings the possibility of a cultural upheaval into play.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s not creativity lectures for the masses. Nor is it a hefty upgrade in a suite of devices that promise far more creative output. And if the relaxation of dress code rules at the office constitutes a more creative outlook for you, then you’ll be disappointed.

It is science. Now there’s a word to drench the fires of imagination.

Yes indeedy. In an environment where creative thinking has long been attributed to the colourful genius of the inspiring few, the prospect of applying science and analytical thought to determine a creative solution by the masses is akin to putting Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon through the Hadron Collider. It’s an exercise grounded in a complete and utter misunderstanding of the point.

And yet there’s plenty of room for both art and science in the search for an original idea. It’s a place where the rigour of formulaic thought combines with the liquid flow of creative juices to define an idea that not only inspires, but resolves a commercial need.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what needs to go into the creative melting pot.

A New State of Mind. Surrounding yourself with the same people and the same tools will put you on a merry dance towards the same idea you got so excited about last time. Which rather misses the point.

Naïve Experts. Someone, somewhere, has tackled the same problem as you. The fact that they are completely disconnected with your industry should be considered a benefit, not a hindrance. So find those ice-cream tasters; hunt down those pit-stop engineers; and grab those arborists. Their respective knowledge of flavour, service and growth could be remarkably insightful to the task at hand.

Space Travel. We rarely give much consideration to the impact of the spaces in which we choose to think. But they have a profound impact on our mood and the flow of people that might result in a collision of ideas. So if, for example, you want to find a creative solution that supports the launch of a new hearing aid, walk your colleagues past the brainstorm room and head straight for the quelled silence of the library to tease out your ideas – or, conversely, the mania of a ship’s engine room. Go on. See what happens.

Sensory Candy. Our brains are not passive receptors. They are fuelled by each of our senses every single day. So explore the new and look for the same from a different angle. In fact, just challenge yourself to do something different once a week and surprise yourself by your own imagination.

A Fear of Failure. One of the most viewed segments on TED Talks is Sir Ken Robinson’s glorious articulation of the role of schools play in killing creativity. At the heart of his argument is the belief that our education systems stigmatise failure. In other words, from an early age, we are educated into believing that we are either right or wrong – that there’s no middle ground. Whether you’re an advocate of Sir Ken’s determination or not, the fact is that we limit our creative spirit because of our concern about what is possible. So go back to your pre-schooling days for a moment and pretend that anything is possible.

Find a Killjoy. Stuart Kauffmann wrote of the “adjacent possible” – an environment that is limited by the constraints of reality. Be as bold and ambitious as you dare, but always have someone on hand to ground your idea in reality.

The Swiss Cheese Theory.  Airline accident investigators have a term they use to describe the statistical likelihood of multiple factors contributing to a crash. They call it the Swiss Cheese Theory. In other words, the prospect of a number of disconnected forces lining up to reveal an unlikely event. It’s what you and I might call serendipity and it’s the point at which you stumble upon something that you least expected. So keep your eyes open. The best ideas can be found in the most unlikely of places and rarely where you thought they might reside.

Hunch-back. This is the guttural stuff. The place where experience, intuition and good-old-fashioned hunches come to the fore. These are the thoughts you should never rely on but always go back to. This is the place where art and science meet. Hunches are the filters through which our rationale thought must be squeezed. And, let’s face it, they can be the magic dust too.

Original ideas are little without original thinking. And that requires more than a new job title in your midst – it demands a strategic approach to problem solving which absolutely has to be at the heart of the creative output.

Nothing within the strategic approach has to be either unique or particularly ingenious. But, combined, they acknowledge the extraordinary potential for original thought within an organisation and go some way in ensuring the PR industry makes the most of the opportunity now afforded to it.

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Avoiding the Cracks

All of us in the office were buzzing last week, as news came through that the Australian team had been shortlisted for no less than five gongs at the Campaign Asia Pacific PR Awards to be held in Hong Kong later next month, including the prestigious Agency of the Year. By all accounts, that makes us the single most nominated office of any PR agency in the region.

But of course being shortlisted is a long way from winning. So we’re all getting on with the business of our business and doing a terrible job of skirting around the issue at the water-cooler for fear of jinxing our chances.

In fact, so hilarious has the subversive no-speak policy become, that we’re toying with the idea of re-badging the awards Voldemort or Macbeth or something equally non-conformist and luck-testing in the hope that such irreverent humour will stop us thinking about it.

For some of our colleagues in Asia Pacific, a willingness to even consider the prospect of flying in the face of good omen is insane. But then it’s the Australian way, isn’t it – a tendency to buck the trend, say it as it is and get on with the task at hand rather than worry too much about what anyone else thinks. Or at least that’s what we like to believe.

The fact is Australians are as superstitious as anyone, despite themselves. Our history is built on stories and beliefs passed from generation to generation. More-so, the ever-evolving cultural diversity of our nation has brought a richer tapestry of traditions and superstitions to our shores. And of course pavement-crack avoidance remains as popular on our city streets as does hopscotch in our junior schools.

So for all the collective unspoken thoughts across the agency that “what will be, will be”, I’m now waiting for someone to plonk a golden dragon on my desk with the assurance that it might improve our luck at the Campaign Awards given the location and its significance to Chinese culture in 2012.

And whilst I’ll chuckle at the ridiculous notion that at $5 trinket will secure our good fortune, I’ll also quietly ensure that it sits at right angles on my desk, adjacent to the window that over looks the courtyard so that its glow reflects gently across the office floor. It is, after all, wholly un-Australian to decline someone-else’s well-meant generosity.

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EQ vs IQ

Earlier in the month I was asked for some belated comments on the GQD (The Great Qantas Debacle) of 2011 – specifically in relation to the timing of its ill-fated Twitter campaign that invited consumers to define a luxury in-flight experience. Having now been published, it’s worth sharing those comments more broadly. As follows:

 For all the vitriol about the Qantas’ decision to ground its fleet, it was a bold move that made commercial sense. Where the airline failed was in its understanding and response to market sentiment about that decision.

That response might have ticked all the communications boxes – CEO as flag-carrier; daily briefings; powerful ad campaigns in the aftermath – but the company made the serious error of putting IQ above EQ. And Australians felt let down.

There’s no small irony that part of that sentiment can be attributed to the success of Qantas’ own marketing campaigns in earlier years. As the self-appointed “Spirit of Australia”, and with the glowing halo of a children’s choir singing “I Still Call Australia Home”, the campaigns became the soundtrack for a nation.

But just as the marketing push strengthened the Qantas brand, so it made that brand all the more fragile. When Qantas let down Australians, it did far more than inconvenience a few thousand travellers over the course of a weekend. It pummelled the trust they’d invested in the brand.

The Twitter competition brought the issue to a head. In the context of market sentiment, and with very little sign of good old-fashioned authentic empathy being shown from the management team, consumers fired back.

At worst, the competition in itself was lame. But its’ timing was appalling. The fact that it was promoted when consumers were still searching for reasons why they should remain proud of the national carrier only amplified the sense that the airline’s management was completely out of touch.

As a consequence, Qantas now has its work cut out to regain consumer trust. That will take time, patience and some delicate marketing initiatives. And yet, strange as it may be, Australians want the airline to succeed. Not simply because it is the national flag carrier. But because Qantas says as much about Australians as it does the brand itself. Lesser brands would struggle to recover from such a breach of consumer trust.

Whilst Qantas might have inadvertently provided students with another crisis management-failure case study, its real dilemma was an inherent over-reliance on empirical data. In other words, the research seems to have been mis-translated as the facts, particularly in relation to perceived consumer sentiment towards the airline.

Research is not only big business, it has also become something with which we are all familiar and, perhaps, increasingly adept. Or at least, we think so.

Except we have to remember that information is nothing without insight. And we absolutely have to remember that Google, for all it’s recent innovation, is not an insight tool, it’s a search platform.

Nor is a focus group a viable research forum. Instead, it is a validation of risk.

For all the offers of free wine; extended points programs; and short-haul upgrades, we saw little in the way of sincerity, authenticity or apology in the aftermath of the grounding of the Qantas fleet. Nor did we see any willingness to interact with the customer directly during the difficult weeks in November and December.

Therein lies the most significant aspect of the airline’s ill-conceived response, and of its failure to provide an adequate defence to its reputation around what was ultimately a necessary commercial step. It showed all the signs of a company that put its faith in selective research whilst it had become increasingly detached from true consumer sentiment.



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