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What does Russia need? Gunship diplomacy or better PR?

From the ongoing crisis in Syria, troop movements close to EU borders, warships sailing through the English Channel and accusations of conducting cyber warfare against Western targets and widespread doping in Olympic sports, the Russian’s aren’t getting a lot of good press in the UK at the moment.

And while some of this “news” is undoubtedly part of the tabloid press’s constant desire to scare the wits out of the general public and find a boogie man to replace Osama Bin Laden as the next big threat to global civilisation, it’s clear Russia does have a bit of an image problem in Western Europe.

With this in mind, it’s little wonder the Russian state is reportedly looking to spend between $30-50 million per year with Western PR agencies to clean up its image.

According to PR Week, an anonymous source from the Kremlin has confirmed that the Russian government is looking to hire three or four “leading Western PR agencies”.

However, it appears the search for the right PR partners is proving rather difficult.

Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, told journalists: “There have been two attempts to attract other foreign companies. However, their work has not satisfied us. Still, there is a possibility that Ketchum’s replacement might be found by the end of the year.”

PR firm Ketchum has a long history of working with the Russian government and the state-owned natural gas company Gazprom – but has confirmed it won’t be bidding for the work.

A number of London-based firms, including Bell Pottinger and Portland, declined journalists’ requests as to whether they would be pitching for the work.

While any PR contracts commissioned by the Russian government are going to be incredibly lucrative, it’s clear that taking on such work might also raise some ethical questions.

Is brand Russia too toxic to touch or is it just misunderstood and in need of a little PR?

Collaboration is key to the future of public affairs

Design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins hosted an Intelligent Mobility summit this week, which brought together the biggest industry names to discuss the future of transport design and delivery. Speakers discussed everything from decreasing emissions to the impact of autonomous vehicles on our quality of life, but one of the key points of the conference wasn’t so much what they talked about, but the theme of cross-sectoral, cross party collaboration which ran through it.  

The variety of guests points towards a broader, and more open, approach to lobbying and public affairs. Government, academia, clients, providers and business leaders came together for a frank discussion of the opportunities and threats which will likely arise in the future and, far from being a closed doors session between industry and government, this was an open policy discussion.

It also wasn’t a single issue conference: the variety of guests meant everyone had their own take on the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.  Tough questions were posed to speakers, ranging from the government’s bureaucratic tender process to the environmental impact of encouraging a new transport boom in the form of autonomous cars.

Despite the disparate group of guests, there was broad agreement on one thing: there needs to be real collaboration between the transport, infrastructure, digital and housing sectors in the future if the UK is going to successfully counteract the challenges facing each one. There was a ready acceptance that there isn’t enough being done to get cross-industry representatives round the same table, and because of their interdependence, this means a risk of duplication between sectors if this isn’t done.

 

Does Brexit mean new avenues for lobbying?

Despite very little discussion during the referendum of how a pro Brexit vote would actually be translated into Britain leaving the EU, since the outcome of the vote this controversial topic has built considerable momentum, shifting further into the public eye and rising up the government’s agenda. Last week we saw this topic take centre stage when investment banker Gina Miller took legal action against the government in high court, something which could have far broader implications in terms of non-traditional lobbying processes.

Miller made the case in that the Government does not possess the legal authority to wield royal prerogative to enact Brexit without parliamentary approval. The central element of her argument rests on the fact that, legally speaking, ministers cannot use prerogative powers to remove rights established through an act of parliament. The Government enacting Article 50 would violate this and therefore she argues they must seek parliamentary approval.

While this particular news piece is interesting it opens avenues for perhaps a more engrossing debate around circumventing more traditional lobbying routes and using the courts as a means of enacting change within politics.

Recently we have seen the BMA and law organisation ClientEarth launch legal action against the Government with varying success. While the BMA failed in their attempt to block the junior doctors’ contract through the courts, ClientEarth had far more success and the High Court granted their request to pursue a Judicial Review against DEFRA as a result of their inadequate plans to tackle air pollution.

This hearing will take place this week. Regardless of the outcome, ClientEarth has made great strides in bringing public attention to this issue, as well as evoking some fierce media criticism towards the lack on action from the Government.

 

The rise of digital politics: social media and political engagement

A new report from Demos, released yesterday, has continued the conversation surrounding the role that social media plays in political engagement. Twitter and Facebook are now a platform for groups who largely reject the political establishment to engage in a non-traditional way. With social media beginning to play a key role, what does the future of democratic engagement hold?

Since last year’s general election and the EU referendum in June, the role of social media in galvanising groups who would otherwise not engage, and perhaps don’t actually vote, has become more apparent. As outlined in yesterday’s report, social media is at its strongest when it comes to encouraging engagement from 18-24 year olds.

This group is least likely to vote or have an attachment to a particular party, yet it’s the second most likely group to use social media for politics, something which is particularly important considering the steep decline in voter turnout in recent years. This decline has been an area of concern for parliamentarians and in particular, those parties which don’t enjoy the reliability of the ‘grey vote’ as the Conservatives do.

The question now is how this new political space can translate into better democratic outcomes. While some envision the political conversations we see on social media leading to more votes cast on election days, there is still a major disconnect between the ease of writing online and actually voting: a large proportion of social media users are happy to talk about politics online but far less eager to cast a vote.

This is one of the fundamental issues concerning the relationship between social media and politics: there is still some way to go before we see political conversations translate into this kind of democratic action. The Demos report gives some recommendations for social media to be used in this way:

  • Listen to the electorate and treat social media as a two-way street

 

  • Recognise new online groups and mobilisations, and the power they yield

 

  • Move from online discussions to something that can contribute towards the political decisions that are taken

 

  • Be aware of the dangers of digital exclusion

Boris Johnson’s classic PR blunder (or was it?)

OK, let’s assume for just one moment that former London Mayor, current Foreign Secretary and let’s not forget, until recently one of the best-paid newspaper journalists in the country, did just pen an article about remaining in the EU as an elaborate exercise when compiling the pros and cons about the situation before making his mind up about which side to back. Seems feasible – right?

Although, I would have to wonder where this (seemingly) incredibly busy man finds the time to write articles that he has no intention of publishing.

Following publication of the leaked article, Boris told Sky News: ““Everybody was trying to make up their minds about whether or not to leave the European Union and it is perfectly true that back in February I was wrestling with it, like I think a lot of people in this country, and I wrote a long piece which came down overwhelmingly in favour of leaving.

“I then thought I better see if I can make the alternative case for myself so I then wrote a sort of semi-parodic article in the opposite sense, which has mysteriously found its way into the paper this morning because I think I might have sent it to a friend.”

But continuing to assume that Boris uses this process when “wrestling” with important decisions, you have to wonder why he shared it (assumedly via email) with anyone knowing that it might end up in the hands of the press.

I mean, according to reports in The Times, where his alternative view was published, Boris was reassured by a colleague that the article wouldn’t appear for years. Surely, Boris has enough experience in Westminster and in journalism to know that, should something like this leak, the press are going to jump all over it.

Was he naïve, stupid or is there more to the story than it at first might seem?

There is of course, one very clear PR lesson to this rather bizarre political story.

Email is not secure environment to share anything you don’t want in the public domain. It’s PR 101 stuff really, so I just have to assume that Boris wanted to story out there.

Twitter: making political soundbites go viral

Politicians using Twitter to talk, debate and sometimes argue with the public may seem normal now, but this type of interaction is something which would have been hard to imagine fifteen years ago. Twitter is helping to shape a new type of politics where, theoretically, politicians can be held to account by the people who elected them. As well as this, it’s a whole new platform for gaining votes, the perfect way to push easily digestible soundbites to a public that doesn’t have time for large swathes of information.

It’s also increasingly likely that the next day’s news will come from Twitter, with politicians’ tweets often filling more column inches than politics itself. Trump is the poster boy for this, and having mastered the art of using the platform to provoke, has dominated the presidential election with an antagonistic style that journalists find hard to resist. This is a smart move from someone without the financial backing that US presidential hopefuls generally need: what he lacks in funds for advertising, he makes up for in the publicity he generates through his posts.

 

 

Taha Yasseri, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, highlights the importance of Twitter for Trump’s style of politics. He told the Guardian that evidence shows that tweets which use “very extreme words either positively or negatively’’ will be most shared and liked. ‘’A lot of people don’t have much chance to get into the details, and the fact that they hear a name a lot can be enough to persuade them to vote for that person.”

Twitter has also become a mouthpiece for politicians other than Trump, offering an insight into their world which previously only journalists had access to. The Labour party has become particularly vocal in this sense: Owen Smith not only set out his leadership agenda through a series of tweets, but also directly tweeted Jeremy Corbyn to accuse him of inaction over a potential party split.

 

Such confrontation suggests a change in the way that MPs engage both with each other and the public: this type of disagreement would previously been leaked to the press, rather than made public on social media. If politics is becoming a more transparent space, then Twitter is playing a key role in shaping the new style that’s emerging.

Conservative Conference 2016: The party with real momentum?

In his second guest post for Vuelio, Stuart Thomson rounds up the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.

The differences between the two party conferences, Labour and Conservatives, could not have been more stark.  The Conservative conference differed in a number of significant ways, not least in the party’s ability to demonstrate unity.

From the atmosphere to the number of attendees, the number of fringe meetings to the queues at the conference bars, the Conservative Party conference was how a conference should run.  Despite attempts to gain some space for Labour by the #JC4PM campaign, this week was all about showing how different the Conservatives were and could be from Labour.  Even holding an event such as that broke the generally accepted unwritten convention that the parties keep away from each other’s conferences.

The Conservative Party followed some basic rules with their conference:

  • Boils lanced – by getting Brexit out of the way on the first day of conference, Theresa May was able to move on. Things may not be that easy again as the negotiations progress but by talking about Article 50 being triggered before the end of March 2017, she got proceedings off to a bang and kept potential opponents quiet.
  • Unity – differences of opinion were expressed around the fringe meetings but nothing approached a challenge to Mrs May. Proceedings were all about discussion and policy development, not dissent.  It would be easy to forget that she wasn’t elected by her party’s membership but Jeremy Corbyn was, and only the day before Labour’s conference started.
  • Presentation, presentation, presentation – there was no altering of speeches at the last minute, this was a conference which was planned and then delivered to that plan. People clapped at the right time and gave very little away with their body language.
  • Mrs May looked like she wanted to be there – unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s general demeanour especially when arriving very late for business events, Mrs May gave the impression of wanting to attend.
  • Playing the media game – it is a deliberate strategy of Corbyn’s Labour Party not to play the media game. Whilst Mrs May is already setting some clear ground rules about her media engagement, or even lack of it over the summer, she did the right thing at conference with interviews, a few gentle personal revelations and an obvious grid for announcements.

In her end of conference speech, Mrs May tried the same trick that Tony Blair did for Labour in the run-up to 1997, stealing the political clothes of the other party.  Labour won in 1997 at least in part because of Blair’s ability to talk meaningfully about the party’s core issues of health and education whilst stealing the Conservatives’ traditional strengths on the economy.  This was in part down to the Conservatives vacating the economic competence space because of Black Wednesday.  This week May took on Labour by talking about workers’ rights, an industrial strategy and building houses (amongst others).  She is obviously assuming that Labour has vacated those spaces in the eyes of many voters.  If successful, it would be one of the most successful political land grabs of all time.

At the end of the two conferences it is clear that the Conservatives have a unity of purpose that is lacking across Labour.  The Conservatives are the ones with all the momentum.

Lobbying post-Brexit: time for a shake-up?

The lobbying industry is going through some changes at the moment. The referendum result created a level of uncertainty which initially left lobbyists anxious, and firms are having to quickly come to terms with not only Brexit negotiations, but also a new Cabinet and potentially a new leader of the Opposition. Alongside this, a bill going through the House of Lords is calling for greater transparency in the industry: given the level of change already underway, could this be the ideal time for the industry to open up?  

There have long been calls for a register that requires all lobbyists to reveal who’s being lobbied and on what issues. The current register, introduced during the coalition government, was designed to allay fears that there’s an ‘exchange of favours’ which takes place during the process. However, because this register excludes lobbyists working ‘in house’ for companies, many think the impact on transparency doesn’t go far enough: as things stand, if an energy firm employs its own lobbyists, they don’t need to declare their actions.

Lord Brooke’s Bill is designed to change this. It seeks to establish a comprehensive register of lobbyists that has to be signed regardless of employer, effectively opening it up to public scrutiny in a way which is currently only done voluntarily. As a Private Member’s Bill, it’s unlikely to become law unless it receives Government backing, but its timing is pertinent in the current climate of change and uncertainty, when the industry is already increased scrutiny.

It’s worth noting that the PRCA, the industry representative of lobbying and communications professionals, has expressed support for a full register. In response to the Bill’s second reading last Friday, they put out the following press release:

“Lord Brooke should be applauded for calling for the inclusion of in-house lobbyists and including a more robust definition of lobbying. The current register’s narrow focus on consultant lobbyists excludes the majority of the lobbying industry. Time and time again, we have argued that the register cannot be truly representative and transparent unless it includes in-house lobbyists.’’

 

5 Steps to Successful Blogger Outreach

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The latest research says bloggers are way more influential than celebrities when it comes to promoting products and services. 

 

So how exactly do you get through to them? Our essential tip sheet lays down the law on successful blogger outreach. From negotiating payment to researching the right contacts and giving bloggers the credit they deserve, 5 Steps to Successful Blogger Outreach explains how to get it right.

 

Download our tip sheet now to find out:

 

  • What the UK’s leading bloggers think PRs are doing wrong in their outreach
  • How to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships that deliver return on investment
  • The best practices in collaborating with bloggers

Public affairs across the world: how does it work in different countries?

In the UK, public affairs is an established practice. The aim is to influence decision makers, play a role in the decision making process and know the risk and regulation affecting your industry. How does this compare to public affairs practices across the world?

Public affairs: a global perspective’ explores this question: edited by Stuart Thomson, it is collectively authored by public affairs experts from twelve countries and regions. It provides insight into the mechanics of public affairs abroad, whilst also showing you how best to actually engage with the Governments in question: as such, it’s an essential read both for the uninitiated and for public affairs professionals alike. Below we have some key points from China, America, and the Middle East

China

In China, public affairs is synonymous with government relations. It’s a pervasive part of commercial life, often being both the market leader and main supplier in the commercial chain. As such, Robert Magyar argues that good relations with the government mean good prospects for business. Equally, failing to engage means you risk isolating yourself from the most important stakeholder in the commercial world.

The lack of non-governmental stakeholders means the link between lobbying and democracy has some way to go: perhaps predictably, the most important thing that Magyar recommends remembering is to align yourself with the government’s priorities for any kind of engagement.

America

To many people, the American political system is seen as the home of ‘hard’ lobbying, and in comparison to other societies, this is arguably still the case. Despite this, Toby Moffet argues that changes in the nature of US politics have meant that the lobbying industry has had to change too.

Gridlock in congress and tighter lobbying regulations have meant that lobbyists have had to become more creative, and have ‘internationalised’ their trade, looking for business beyond American companies for to their foreign counterparts. According to Moffet, companies from abroad are less put off by the political stalemate and see opportunities to build relationships with the American government as reason enough to engage, even if they do not directly influence legislation.

The Middle East

A period of high growth and investment in the Middle East has, theoretically, led to the emergence of public affairs there. However Michael Sugich argues that in reality, while the commercial incentives for engaging in public affairs may exist, the transparency and government access needed to lobby are much harder to find.

The importance of cultural norms and practices in the Middle East can’t be overstated, and Sugich claims that the lack of local knowledge held by international companies is a major barrier to engagement. Geography plays a role here: as most companies base themselves in Dubai, their employees’ knowledge of the broader region is often limited.

This lack of understanding can lead to a lack of focus when engaging with stakeholders. For instance, an attempt to influence health care policy might be worthless, if the policy is decided by the leader’s wife and the influencers come from her inner circle. Without an understanding of the cultural differences between countries, public affairs in the Middle East has some way to go.

It’s Mayday for public affairs

Back in the 1960s former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, “a week is a long time in politics”, and almost a century before that, the Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain said, “in politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight”. This age-old political wisdom has never felt truer.  

In less than a month, the UK has voted to leave the EU, gained a new (and unelected) Prime Minister, and seen the most dramatic cabinet reshuffle by any Prime Minister ever. Oh, and let’s not forget that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, is facing more opposition from his own party than the Tories.

Policy and public affairs professionals across the country are being put to the test, pondering how to navigate their way through this new, redefined political landscape. After all, public affairs, an important sub-discipline of public relations, is based on the creation of relationships with politicians, the government and key political decision-makers. Relationships forged over the last months and years have become obsolete, with new officials in post but little clarity on who is actually going to be responsible for what.

Of course, we always have civil servants; those who work tirelessly behind the scenes shaping and developing the government policies that really affect both company objectives and individual lives. But with the merging of DECC and BIS (the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), and the newly created Minister for International Trade and Minister for Leaving the EU, even the departmental landscape is shifting.

Never before has it been more important to identify key political players and their responsibilities, to engage with them, and to build relationships.

As we find ourselves settling in to the long summer recess, it is time to take stock; under normal circumstances a time of release, instead we must now decipher our new government, understand our new ministers, and get our heads around our world in which Brexit is no longer a possibility but an inevitability.

Speaking to my own contacts and clients within the industry, this sense of uncertainty is everywhere. Who should we be contacting? Who’s in charge of what? How can we better understand these new departments? How can we get in contact with them? And what about Brexit?

In the current climate of disposable politics – with old alliances disappearing and new ones being constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed at an incredibly rapid pace – public affairs professionals must seek creative ways to build and manage new relationships right across the political spectrum.

Confused about the public affairs landscape?
Find out who’s who in our updated Political Contacts Database!

The Press Release Formula

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The press release is far from dead. Despite the real-time nature of modern media, well-written, well-designed, well-targeted releases can have a greater impact than ever.

Our latest tip sheet breaks down the anatomy of a press release, giving you a step-by-step understanding of the key points every press release must address.

This is followed by advice from the PR Coach, Debbie Leven to make sure every section of your copy is pitch-perfect.

With this white paper you will get:

  • A visual breakdown of the key elements of a press release
  • A detailed look at what every paragraph of a press release must entail
  • Expert tips on the dos and don’ts of press release writing

Download our tip sheet and make sure your press releases work as hard as they can to tell your story.

Brexit: how Leave triumphed on the day

In a move that could be seen as controversial, PR Week has named Leave as its campaign of the month. But whether you agree with the politics or not, Leave did exactly what a political campaign should do: it evoked a response, inspired support and had a crucial element of passion that Remain was lacking.

The bickering between Leave groups threatened to overshadow the debate at times (although not to the same level as the Cameron – Johnson feud) but the divergence between Vote Leave and Leave.EU also meant that the public had a clear choice about which ‘type’ of independence supporter they wanted to be.

The fact that there wasn’t a cohesive side to support in the Brexit camp also meant that it had a broader appeal, in spite of some of the divisive elements of the campaigns. And as the outcome of the referendum illustrates, Leave didn’t just appeal to the typical UKIP voter: there was broad appeal from a cross section of society, which the various elements of the campaign reflected.

One criticism that was directed at Leave throughout the duration of the campaign was its tendency to push boundaries when it came to tone and fact. Nigel Farage’s now infamous ‘take control’ poster was roundly criticised, as was Leave.EU’s warning about ‘another Orlando style massacre’ if we stay in the EU. However, while they may have overstepped the mark at times, Leave campaigners also had a level of passion which Remain seemed to lack.

Crucially, campaigners could paint a rosy picture of the world outside of the EU, while the best Remain could go for was the underwhelming ‘life inside a reformed EU’. A vote for Brexit may have been a step into the unknown, but Leave managed to persuade the public that this was a risk it was worth taking.

Third Sector Best Practice Communications

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Get our new guide and discover the best practice communications third sector organisations are using to increase their reach, enhance their reputation and improve their ROI

We’ve collected all the best practices used by charities and non-for-profits to build brand, drive campaign awareness and harness the power of communities to extend their reach.
Get our new guide now and find out how your organisation can improve its comms.

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Twitter reacts to Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle

It was assumed that Theresa May would lead with a similar cabinet to her predecessor, so she shocked everyone this week when she dismantled, rather than reshuffled, the Conservative team. Here are the three changes which made the biggest impact on Twitter. 

Boris Johnson

May’s wild card was her appointment of Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary,  a move that sent tremors throughout the diplomatic world: see State Department spokesman Mark Toner’s reaction to get an idea of how this appointment is viewed internationally.

Twitter fell into a flurry of (panicked) activity when the news was announced. Since his appointment, much has been made of Johnson’s previous gaffes involving world leaders, including the likes of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan.

boris johnson

Michael Gove

Michael Gove’s sacking from Justice Secretary saw the dramatic demise of the man that one newspaper coined ‘’Britain’s worst political serial killer”. With one swoop, May reset the balance of power between Gove and Johnson, sending a clear signal about who had come out on top in their political struggle. While Johnson’s appointment generated far more activity, Gove’s social media mentions also increased significantly.

Michael Gove

 

The Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh also raised a legitimate concern for Gove now that Johnson is at the helm of our security services.

Paul Waugh

Jeremy Hunt

When Jeremy Hunt was called to Number 10, it was widely assumed he would not walk out as a cabinet member. Having been engaged in a dispute with the British Medical Association for much of his time as Health Secretary, journalists and the public alike were surprised when he emerged as one of only four cabinet members to retain their previous position. Hunt addressed the rumours with the tweet below.

 

Jeremy hunt

 

 

European and British media respond to Theresa May as new Prime Minister

A lot has changed in Britain in the last two weeks. Since the referendum we’ve had resignations from the leaders of two political parties, a leadership challenge launched against Jeremy Corbyn, and now a new Prime Minister in the form of Theresa May. Media outlets across both the UK and Europe have responded to this most recent piece of news. 

 

Typically, the Sun chose to concentrate on May’s well known choice of footwear,  also predicting that she will have a soothing impact on an otherwise conflict ridden Conservative party.

The Daily Mirror challenged Theresa May to an early general election, based on the ultimatum she set Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister in similar circumstances in 2007. Many commentators on Twitter were baffled by the suggestion of an early election however, questioning the motives of a left leaning paper given the current state of the Labour party.

Within the UK press, the fault lines were drawn based on how much emphasis to put on May’s ‘short cut’ to power: the fact that after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the leadership race, May was uncontested and so became Prime Minister without a vote from Conservative party members. The Telegraph made no mention of this, and for the Independent it was the focal point of the front page.

Across Europe

Leaving the EU has caused financial instability, weakened the Union and given rise to the far right across Europe: given this, European newspapers have, by and large, responded to Theresa May’s new position with relief. May is seen as a figure of stability and, having moulded herself as a one nation, ‘small c’ conservative, seems to have assuaged concerns that a power vacuum in Britain could see the rise of more extreme candidates. The BBC has translated responses from some key publications:

A major theme across the media coverage in Europe is that of May as the new Margaret Thatcher, with many also drawing comparisons between herself and Angela Merkel. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera describes her as “a bit of Merkel, a bit of Thatcher” while Il Timpo, another Italian paper, notes that she has laid out her priorities for post-Brexit Britain “with the enthusiasm and determination of a woman who has already been dubbed the new Thatcher”.

Like much of the British press, publications across Europe have paid homage to May’s colourful choice of footwear, such as German newspaper Die Welt. Spanish newspaper El Mundo attributes her to having “high heels, firm step, absolute control, total loyalty”.

Thanks to the BBC’s Nick Sutton for the front page images.