Common sense is NOT always so common.

So was it a case of hope over reality after all? Secret Cinema will go ahead finally with founder Fabian Riggall admitting that it was his determination to go ahead that was responsible for the catastrophic last minute cancellation. It’s a story that says a lot about leadership, decision making and business growth. Then also common sense and communications in a crisis. Let’s face it, things do go wrong. But Secret Cinema got it wrong, underestimating the passions of their audience and what they needed to hear. The question here is how do you deal with the responsibility that growth and ambition demands?

First off, this world demands a concession to conversational instinct. The English language with all its fantastic elasticity can transform the humble apology into escapology. Beware of media confessions and how they are received and decoded by the public. Mistakes are attributed to ‘uncharacteristic hiccups’, or ‘rogue employees’, or even blamed on ‘the regulations’, for which the public (sorry that’s you and me again) are ultimately responsible.

Secret Cinema, who had used social channels so brilliantly at the beginning to support and promote their vanguard movement, failed horribly faced with their crisis when they hid behind newspaper links to explain their issue instead of coming out and dealing with the crisis honestly, carefully and with empathy for the hundreds who had traveled, prepared and invested in the event. Disgruntled followers on Facebook, which Secret Cinema used to deliver messages described this as a test case PR disaster. I am beginning to wonder whether there is a growing trend for brands to try and bury a crisis on social media, using it, but not in any way effectively in their hope to paper the cracks.

So in the case of Secret Cinema they got the headlines, but not the ones they would have hoped for.

Anyway, it is certainly true that brave brands grow in a crisis – the brands that show strength will ultimately reap the rewards down the line. Leadership is a vital ingredient here.

Strong leaders not only have to make decisions, but, even more importantly, they also have to make sense of a complex, confusing, fast-changing, multi channel world and a crowd with all the power to disrupt. Out of the jumble of incomplete facts and shreds of information, leaders MUST assemble a clear and compelling message, defining a new order and a strong direction. They should generate confidence and build momentum, leveraging the issue to greater effect. It’s no use developing a psychopathic defense system that obscures the consequences. Yet there is proof that the folk managing the content across multiple channels are finding it increasingly complex and are often not equipped with the knowledge to find the influencers that will change their course. The danger then is the potential to turn a crisis into a catastrophe with very little effort.

Here’s the avoid list.

1. Don’t be overly optimistic.
You can’t just identify a solution! You need a balanced view of the reality along with some optimism to keep everyone truthfully informed.

2. Don’t deny the problem exists!
Denial simply serves to escalate the issue.

3. Don’t abandon common sense!
It would appear that common sense is actually not so common. Trusting instincts alone to survive a potential business crisis may result in the wrong problem being solved really well! Applying some common sense will confirm if your actions are helping or hurting. Get good and trustworthy outside advice.

4. Learn to be emotional.
During a crisis, it’s important for the audience to see that leadership is connected and in touch with the situation. This is the time when followers need to connect emotionally. Without that connection your audience quickly disconnects and the disruption begins.

5. Never blame others. Ever.
Blaming others always makes a business look weak, and it sends a clear message that the business is not in control of the situation.

6. Be prepared for any eventuality.
This demands rigorous planning and expert language communications.

7. Prepare your internal network.
Obvious. But many don’t.

8. Do not underestimate the passion and power of the crowd.
Stories quickly get out of control if not prepared for and controlled from the outset.

Secret Cinema had a passionate following that had grown out of a cult status. To grow now they will need to be brave and put this behind them, dealing with their public with respect and more than an apology. Hopefully their maverick leader will realise that sometimes you must go backwards to emerge further forwards…

Fame and the media game: What is fame now? And can you enjoy it without press intrusion

As you may have seen on The Drum here are my thoughts on Cheryl. Cheers have greeted the news that our 21st century Vera Lynn has wed! So?

Well, what’s unusual about Cheryl Cole’s holy union announcement is the manner of its outing. The impressive tactics deployed to stay below the radar before breaking official news proves a high-net-worth celebrity brand can have their cake and eat it.

Is it a post-Leveson new celebrity indicator or a steadfast willingness to prove a point?

This style of announcement benchmarks the Cole brand against other organisations inside and outside of her sector.

Thankfully, we were spared a tsunami of speculation on the possible marriage. There were no titbits on potential venue, flower arranger, dress designer, wedding singer and magazine buyout deal. Sadly this will follow.

The absence of the usual slew of headlines, innuendo and rumour pertaining to the complex his and hers tattoo – inevitably inked onto the last bit unmarked flesh available – might have been an added distraction. Instead, in its place a short celebrity haiku declaring the marriage had taken place. Alongside a picture of her wedding ring, a statement on Cole’s website said:

“I usually do not discuss my personal life but to stop the speculation I want to share my happy news.

“Jean-Bernard and I married on 7/7/14. We are very happy and excited to move forward with our lives together.”

After Leveson there is certainly a new celebrity statute of engagement. A prestige gleaming hindrance between the figures of interest and the public. The feral press beast has been neutered, and the skills to keep a client in view of the public eye have been subtly adjusted. The debate on privacy and press regulation pre-hacking was defeating. But whisper it. If a public figure truly chooses to conduct their life in secret, even in this hyper-connected social whirl, it’s possible.

For years the tabloid press has made its reputation on “exclusives” involving celebrities’ private lives. A sea of publicists have turned the volume knob up and down on the amplification of celebrity. This industrial process has been generally charmless. Driven by market forces, stars frequently exploit private happiness for financial return discarding all common sense.

Some stars have been vocal on the issue of privacy, hungry as they are to exploit the fame cycle as they rise to the top.

Then moaning about invasion of privacy when they feel they are at the summit wax.

The unspoken truth is the relationship between celebrities and the media is such that, arguably, one cannot exist without the other. It’s always been a delicate balance. However the means to stay below the media line is achievable for the sensible and strategic.

Whatever games are played with the media, the clever celebrity wrangler has always dealt with privacy issues with a clear grip of honesty and truth. I forget who said: “Unfortunately once you push the toothpaste out of the tube it’s hard to get it back in.” But you know what I mean…

An appetite for fame is insatiable. But success always occurs in private, and failure in full view. Nowadays the press rep can more easily keep a client properly in the public eye. But it’s taken time to prove a point.

There had always been a delicate balance between celebrities from the Z list up to the C list, who are quite happy to reveal their inner secrets, and the A and B list, who go about their business and guard their private lives.

The smart celebrities realised that to a certain extent they are public property, but chose carefully their friends and confidants not mixing business and pleasure. Many proved it was possible for them to have a private life.

Privacy is a delicate balance between the needs of promoting what you have to professionally – and your ‘real’ life beyond it.

It requires a long-term commitment to the amount of fame you have generated and a strategy of dealing with it.

Anyway, I prefer to contemplate Leszezynski Stanislaus wisdom:

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”

What Lessons Can Brands Learn From The Brazilian World Cup fail?

Truman Capote once said “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.” Spare a thought for the poor Brazilian footballers. A mediocre team capsized on an ocean of hype. Into the darkness they go, licking their wounds after one of the greatest sporting humiliations. Like Icarus who dared to fly too near the sun, on wings of feathers and wax.

How can they recover from this? The mighty Brazil, beaten so devastatingly and completely in front of the world. It was painful to watch from a distance but for a nation so invested in the World Cup and their glittering football heritage it was unbearable. This was the most tweeted about sporting event in history – with 35.6 million tweets posted during the agonising 90 minutes. There was quite literally nowhere to hide.

The only thing the Brazilians can do now is be stoic. It was one night after all. The old philosophers taught us that stocism had one practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain. It’s a philosophy we could all do with remembering.

The Brazilians will need to swallow the headlines and resist any urge to deliver or accept any messages of hope.The stoics believed that to regain calm and equ librium it was necessary to systematically crush every last vestige of hope, and become courageously at home with the very worst of situations. It’s not the end of the world.Just the end of a nation’s hopes. In the end they will cope.

As for the riots, the Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, for in their analysis, anger is caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence – a violent collision of hope and reality.

Anyway, there is a point.

The country of the beautiful game is faced now with an overwhelming humiliation, though if perspective speaks for a moment, perhaps winning was always too much to ask amid the pressure, the skepticism and scrutiny and a population of 200 million all watching and coaching from the sideline.

What is required now is the courage to change and re-think.Brazil were perhaps guilty of being bewitched by hubris, and, in a digitalculture forcing constant disruption where the crowd is still connected to a fading Brazilian brilliance. The things we fall in love with are constantly challenged but it is hard for an audience with an emotional connection to have to face the inevitable.

Brands can learn from this.

Success is sometimes a curse. To keep on top, businesses must face a consistently shifting landscape and be prepared to respond with equal deft. A strong founding story is a must, but so is the ability to survive the peaks and troughs with perspective and humility.

When Germany suffered a crushing defeat at the hand of England in 2001, they went back to the drawing board, re-grouped and re-strategised with their eye towards a fixed target. Furthermore, they never, ever lost belief and that is the secret to their success.

Stoicism is nothing less than an elegant and intelligent dress rehearsal for catastrophe. And if we can be prepared for that, we can survive

Take note of the wise aphorism from Jim Butcher:
“Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar”


Isis and the propaganda war: How the social-savvy extremists are dominating the headlines

As you may have seen on The Drum  I shared my thoughts on Isis. They exist on the edge of our world in a very different one. They know how to inhabit our imaginations and are the antithesis of our 21st century west and instant celebrity, excess, mass information, Justin Bieber and a rapidly moving culture.

Out of the desert and the mountains rode the whirlwind of Isis, the fury of leaders and a scandalous belief and brass nerve. They’ve made a culture of hard-faced absolutism and brought to us an evil, dark movement.

But I also reluctantly concede, business in the west has a lot to learn in the propaganda war and unlikely as it may seem, Isis, the new kids on the jihadist block, understand how to use social media in a (excuse the pun) fundamental way to cause attraction, disrupting the well oiled US propaganda machine and placing them firmly on their back foot along the way. The growing power and influence of the group out shines the more sophisticated western PR savvy every time.

It’s clear that the answers to how they manage it center around discipline, focus, long-term thinking, and a willingness to flout the rules that seem to govern everybody else. We should not underestimate either, the value of blinkered passion for their cause.

From the very beginning Isis understood the culture they wanted to undermine and the vital need to create emotion – and they are brilliant at it. What enables this, is a single chain of command, whilst corporate driven events and communications are often subject to committees and legal spin. But most of all they tune out the haters, noise, complexity and weight of media opinion and set their agenda from the very top.

Isis is a brilliant example of a deviant brand, keeping the headlines big and their aura powerful and persuasive.

In pure creative marketing terms though, perhaps most important, is their devotion to symbology and visualisation and for all those brands that are highly committed to the value of data, market research, and focus groups, take a hard look at Isis. They use their hater’s thoughts as inspiration, not direction wrangling emotion to the ground and their best effect..

Put simply, Isis wins in several ways:

They have a clearly understood single vision and common purpose.
They use emotion to drive engagement.
They understand disruption.
They deal with the haters using social media to their advantage far beyond any brand.
They use social channels for recruitment and to drive their cause.
They understand ‘experience’.
They use visual medium to grab attention.
They craft their self expression carefully.
We might not like it at all. But we have to admit they sure are good at it.

Let’s not try to piss off the will of the people

As you may have seen on The Drum I shared my thoughts on Betfair’s stunt, or misfortune, or whatever it was, it was misguided. It may have attracted a few columns and conversations on Twitter but it was of the wrong kind. The old cliched ‘any publicity is better than none’ meme. Well not any more.

We now know the breakdown was a stunt. We have seen the subsequent launch of its new ad which makes Betfair’s “we are sorry for any inconvenience caused” at the time of the breakdown even more hollow. It was a mere adpology. The same words that we hear everyday on British Rail, TFL, from airlines, banks and just about every other public service and government – the standard format for corporate apologies. Sorry is a subjective word, used with different nuance every day and so far from expressing genuine contrition, governments, businesses, public figures and probably you and I use apologies to divert attention, manage expectations, resuscitate reputations, and when possible, even implicate the victim.

Such is the allure of fame and fortune, brands and celebrities develop defence systems that obscure the consequences of their actions. No matter how bad the headlines get, the one thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. Atonement is simply a springboard for shameless self-promotion these days. Reputations used to be hard earned.

Anyway, we have veered from the point. These days brands should aim for maximum traction for the right reasons, and in this instance the devil is in the detail, the planning, the rigorous preparation for every possible angle and circumstance, and then the ability to articulate and deal with the real emotion people are feeling rather than that same old dry political approach. When we do this we engage at a human level, touch and move people and inspire them to take action. Brands are faced with the haters these days and navigating them is the key. They are a challenge but also an advantage when dealt with in a controlled and thoughtful manner.

Still why bother to generate a level of self-inflicted opprobrium through irresponsible planning and hubris, when with careful thinking it is just as easy to avoid?

Betfair’s octopus has lost any charm it may have gained. He was the vehicle for a round table of admen to masturbate over idea porn and whilst they are and continue to do so, PR has a chance to talk common sense again – to shine a beacon on the truth and the stories, that planned with reality, creativity and perspective engage and drive momentum. Betfair has simply added to the atmosphere of anti-trust and worse, in an industry that should be taking even more care around human emotion and nuance.

The relationship between gamblers and betting sites can touch people profoundly. They involve one of the most intimate, emotional and important things in people’s lives – money. The octopus will simply be remembered for looking slightly nuts on top of a track.

Betfair and others beware. The PR cliche is over and more care and respect is required. BetFair. The clue is surely in the name?

So you hate us? Who cares?

The age of the toxic brand has dawned. This has ushered in an array of “Marmite” brands and love them or hate them it doesn’t matter – they’re winning either way!

The toxic companies are flourishing and no matter how many people despise them they keep on growing, fuelled by the horror stories we hear in the news.

Take RYANAIR: People really do hate Ryanair: this February, for example, a mutiny was reported on one of their flights.

Despite being grounded for several hours, passengers were refused food and drinks by staff.

In the end, the customer service was so bad the passengers took matters in hand and called the police:

Ryanair’s image problem is neatly summarised by Google auto-complete:


Although its not just mutinies and Google Michael O’Leary has to worry about. Last year the airline was voted the number one worst brand by Which? magazine.
According to their survey, which was taken by 3,300 people, this was down to the “aggressive and hostile” way customers were treated, and the “rude and unpleasant” staff.

I doubt the hidden charges and extra costs wouldn’t have helped either.

According to the Mirror:  “One traveller claimed to be happy to pay £50 extra on a rival airline “to be treated like a human being!”

In response to the survey, Ryanair fought back in its typically brash way:



In a statement attached to the tweet they wrote, “Which? hasn’t got a clue about air travel but consumers actually do, because they’re too busy booking Ryanair’s low fare, on-time flights to waste time filling in Which magazine’s tiny surveys.”

A terrible response of course, but they were right! You can be the most hated brand in Britain, but if you can give people offers they can’t refuse, and be on-time, it doesn’t matter.

Ryanair has been growing at an astounding rate in the last several years. Just look at their profits since 2009.


Despite reports this week that they’ve just experienced their first dip in five years, the company has predicted a 40 per cent increase in passengers by 2019:

They are also outrunning their rivals EasyJet when it comes to the public’s interest. Using Google Trends, you can see how much people have searched for each airline since 2004:

From 2009 Ryanair have dominated the search engine battle and if you look further their lowest dips of interest are roughly the same as Easyjet’s highest peaks. Which all goes to show: being love is great, but being hated isn’t as bad as you might think.

What you need to avoid is people not caring at all. “The opposite of life is not death,” said Elie Wiesel, “it’s indifference.”

As long as RyanAir stays cheap and on time, their toxicity is irrelevant.

Public hatred for a brand isn’t bad – it’s publicity. Which means that no matter how entrenched in their image it becomes, Ryanair will continue to fly.

Just don’t expect them to hand out any free snacks as they do so.

Mark’s lively and informative talks, speeches and panel appearances offer provocative perspectives on the past, present and future of communications. Why not extend an invitation?

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In his talks he draws on the analytical, advisory and creative work of the company, which places it at the heart of debate and developments concerning consumers, communication and technology. But he also draws on his 30 years’ practical experience as a publicist. 30 years during which he has earned a reputation as one of the most free-thinking, innovative and challenging practitioners of the art of consumer communications.

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