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Interview with Paul Holmes

Interview with Paul Holmes

link to Forum 2010 video with Paul Holmes part 1
link to Forum 2010 video with Paul Holmes part 2

Ňhe world has gotten much more complicated and much more difficult for co-operations and over-organizations. There’s a much higher level of transparency than ever before, there’s more information and misinformation out there. It travels around the world far faster than it ever did, so today a crisis in a small country becomes a global crisis very quickly. Social media is out there – that means that customers have more power to share their views than ever before. So customers, and employees, and shareholders, and communities have more communications power than they ever had in the past. That creates a very difficult environment for co-operations: one in which their reputations are constantly under threat. As a result of that, PR people need to get involved in decision making and in handling communications at a much earlier stage than they had in the past. Bad PR can hurt a company much more quickly and much more severely today than it ever could in the past.
However, I don’t see a reason why PR shouldn’t continue. Well, if we’re in an environment where the information out there continues to expand, where transparency continues to expand, where democracy and freedom of choice continue to expand, then I think PR will continue to expand also.

I think that the words “Public Relations” describe perfectly what it is that our job should be. Our job should be: managing the relationship between an organization and all of its publics. You do it by how you behave, not by how you talk. You do it by what your actions are, rather than what your communications is; and I think that for PR to be generally more effective, it has to be about organizational behavior first and foremost, and only about communicating that behavior as a last step in the process. Sometimes the best PR activity might be: not to communicate at all. I think what happens when you define this business purely as communications, is that other people make decisions, and then a PR person is called to communicate them, which really means to tell the company’s story, to explain the company’s position. I think the PR industry has to be involved in setting a policy, not really into communicating it. I think that if we’re talking about building relationships with the public, that’s a fairly obvious part of it.

The only problem I see is that the PR industry is not very good at a couple of things:
- It’s not very good at recruiting the best talent;
- It hasn’t done a very good job, ironically, at building its own image and reputation;
- It’s also not very good at research, and evaluation, and measurement, and ROI, and it needs to get much better at those things;
Last year was very clearly a difficult year for everybody – for public relations people and advertising people. The global economic crisis created a very difficult environment for everybody. I think PR will bounce back very quickly from that. I’m not sure that advertising will, but I think PR will. The only potential problem that I see going forward is that I think there will be more competition for PR people, for management consultants and others, who think that they can do the job just as well, and if the industry doesn’t address some of the big pressing issues, then I think we could have some problems.
We try very hard to nudge the industry in the direction we think it needs to take, but there is an English and American phrase, which says: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The PR industry is very reluctant to drink.

I think that 5 years ago it was quite possible to believe that your brand was everything you’ve told people about your products and services. So your brand was defined by your advertising, by your sponsorship, by your events, by your corporate identity, by your logo, by your press releases. That was your brand 5 years ago – or that’s how the marketing was doing it. Today your brand is all the conversations people have about you, when you’re not in the room. Your brand is all the things that people tell each other about your company, your organization, your country, your government – when you are not listening. And that’s what makes up your brand. And in that kind of world, if your advertising isn’t authentic, if it isn’t honest, if it doesn’t have integrity, if your PR isn’t authentic, there’s nothing that it can do to overcome the brand messages of being communicated by people who know your organization.

I think that social media in particular are much less forgiving of the kinds of corporate behaviour that we’ve taken for granted. So if you put out a statement that sounds as if it was written by a lawyer, for example, you’re going to be criticized very heavily for that in social media. If you are slow in responding, you will be criticized much more severely, so things will happen much more quickly. And because we are not depending on reporters for information any more, we are depending on ordinary people – it only takes one or two angry people to create a huge problem for a corporation. And I think the penalties for getting it wrong are going to go through the roof!

There are employees out there blogging about your company, and if you are telling a lie, they will tell the truth. There are customers out there whose experiences with your company are being shared every day on the internet on blogs in social media. When I talk about social media, the most obvious thing that I’m talking about is in the digital ground, but the fact of matter is that people are holding conversations about your products and services all the time: over their backyards, in the street, at conferences like this one, in the coffee breaks – I went to tea with some of the people in this room, and I was going to say how stupid TOYOTA is, during the coffee break, because that’s the hot story of the day. You know these conversations take place at the real world as well as our life, and it’s very important to remember: that’s happening!

I think to a certain extent you are seeing it right now. We have TOYOTA, where TOYOTA is trying to communicate about its crisis through regular channels – through mainstream media, through official organizations. And what you’re seeing is that all of the commentary is happening online. TOYOTA owners are going online and telling their stories about what happened with their car. And it is incredibly difficult for the company to control. But there have been particularly in the US and the UK a lot of cases, similar cases. DELL, who had problems with its computers and found that the problem had become huge in social media, even before their PR people knew what was going on. McDonald’s ran into a problem where it was boycotted in China, because some students from China had found an add in Germany that they didn’t like. This kind of problem is going to become universal and companies need to be alert. I’ve been writing about public relations for 25 years: I have now been writing about PR for more than half my life, which is very, very sad. It’s a strange way for a grown man to make a living. The PR industry has become more global and we realized about 5 years ago that we couldn’t effectively serve the PR industry, if we were focused exclusively on North America. If you live in New York, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing that all of the interesting developments are happening, you know, in the US. And the reality is that, as I travel around to China, to Eastern Europe, to Western Europe, to the UK... There are very sophisticated, very advanced public relations, companies, firms, people, and ideas in all of those markets. And I think that by focusing on the whole world and trying to make sure that ideas from one place are translated into others, we’ve really helped broaden the view of PR, but I think, actually, that moving to Europe did more to help the American readers, than it did to help Europeans, in a way.

I remember growing up in the UK – one of my first jobs after high school was as business reporter on the Political Poster “Echo”, which was one of the larger regional newspapers in the UK. This was about 25 years ago. We wrote about whether the SHELL price went up or down, and we wrote about whether anybody was on strike. Fortunately this was during the Thatcher era in the UK, so there was always summery on strike, otherwise it would have been a very boring resistance. But as a business writer, those were really the only things that we cared about.

I think there are 2 ways to respond to crisis:
- One is to see it as an opportunity to innovate and offer new products and new services, and try and grow your business that way;
- And the other way is to, sort of, hide, to hunker down and wait for it to be over;
I think that those firms that decided they were going to innovate, that there was an opportunity, have performed much better during the recession than those firms that decided to sort of dig themselves a whole and hide.
And, certainly, I think that we’ve tried to expand; even though it was a difficult year. We’re looking at new products and revise our website, in general, with a broader scope of what we’re doing.

Today, if you are a business writer, the list of things that you care about is almost infinite: you care bout where a company’s forces throw its raw material and how much of the environment it destroys; you care about the supply chain and how many factories in Indonesia are employing 7-year-old children, to make sneakers, or footballs, or any other product; you care about how many women there are on the board of directors; you care about how many minorities work for the company and whether they are well-treated; you care about how the company disposes of its waste materials; you care about everything – you care about product safety. There’s literally no end to the number of things you could write about.

What I and how I work is: I try to steal ideas form as many different places as possible. So there are probably 40 or 50 blogs about public relations and reputation and business that I go to almost every day. And those are my authorities. There are people who are doing and thinking about public relations on a regular basis and they are the people that I try to get information from.

I think that the strongest examples probably come from the sort of public sector education campaigns about diseases. If I go back, one of the best that I ever saw was about 10 or 15 years ago in Germany – a massive communications campaign to raise awareness about AIDS. And it saw a lot of the top agencies in Germany working together; the communications materials were very frank, they were very open, they were very honest. And I think they had a huge effect on the sexual activity in Germany – condom use, and a whole host of other issues, so that was a very eye-opening case study for me.

I’d love to see more events like this (Davos). As I travel to developing markets, particularly Eastern Europe and Asia, there is a huge hunger for knowledge, the people are very eager to hear best practices, and to absorb and analyze them. You know, I’m sort of interested in what people accept and what they reject. And I think Eastern Europe in particular is in the process of developing its own model of communications, which is, you know, not the US model and not the western European model, but the best elements of both.

The more events that there are like this (Davos), the more information the people have – the quicker that will develop, and the better it will be for everybody. Yeah, I’d love to see it become a tradition, and, frankly, if you can get an attendance like this in a very difficult year, I think next year, when things get better, it will grow and grow.

So, certainly, you have my blessing, you know, and I’d love to come back next year and the year after.

WCF in Africa, 2020

24-25 November,

Women Influence Community

26th-27th November,
Bonanza resort


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