PR in 2015: The Trouble with Authenticity

In 2015 we all loved authenticity, right? The ‘New Politics’ engaged and enraged in equal measure. Cannes Lions was all about purposeful brands. FleishmanHillard launched a new product to help companies drive an authenticity agenda. Whether you’re a boutique dentist or selling bleach being human was at the centre of everyone’s comms strategy.For PR this has been a troubling pill to swallow.

Authenticity is not doing PR

Beyoncé, rated as 2015’s most powerful female musician, hasn’t given an interview since 2013. Harper Lee, who wrote this year’s fast selling book Go Set A Watchman, hasn’t gone public for nearly 50 years. Closer to home, the face (and facial hair) of Authenticity Politics Jeremy Corbyn is rewriting the rulebook by shunning headline interviews on Today and Marr in favour of ragtag rallies and vegetable shows. For him being unPRable was the crucial aspect to his rise.

These examples show how the great and good can bypass pesky journos and take image management into their own hands. The very purpose of PR comes into question when you can speak directly to your fans – via the still essential entourage of PAs and agents or your own Twitter and Instagram feeds. Certain titles still matter: Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction to the world through that iconic Vanity Fair cover is a case in point. Yet in a time of news alerts and rolling commentary it was the simple rarity value that guaranteed the exclusive maximum impact. This exception proves the rule that it is the media that are dependent on the stars, not vice versa.

PR can’t polish a turd

For some of the great blunderers of the year -corporates and celeb-prats- PR’s magical powers were unsurprisingly limited. An authentic cock-up is still a cock up. As the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed said when commenting on the Volkswagen emission scandal, “I think sometimes people forget to be human beings.”

The scale and sophistication of the car manufacturer’s manipulation will linger in the consumer atmosphere for years to come. However, as the comeback of wolfish investment bankers at Barclays and elsewhere goes to show even a calamity on the scale of the 2008 crash eventually passes into the dusty vaults of memory. It isn’t because we’re more forgiving, we’ve just entered period of fast forgetting. Take Walter Palmer, the American dentist who shot the wrong Cecil while on safari and was dropped in the lions’ den of social media. For all the hashtag roaring, Palmer was back polishing molars six week later.

2016 will be about responsibility

Forget authenticity. What we crave is for brands to take responsibility. There was nothing remotely authentic in Thomas Cook’s eventual pay out to the parents of two children poisoned by a faulty boiler at one of its Greek resorts in 2006. The operator spent years refusing to apologise. Cook had been stuck on seeing responsibility through the narrow lens of culpability. While this may be sound legal reasoning it was utterly toxic for public relations. Following a bitter few weeks of boycott campaigns and twitter hate Cook relented. By the end of the year the PR shambles was forgotten and the company is celebrating a 5-year profit high.

Merlin’s Nick Varney got the responsibility message straight away. When tragedy struck at Alton Towers –a freak rollercoaster accident injured 16, two severely- Varney immediately went on the record that he wouldn’t “shirk responsibility”. Hand-delivered letters were sent to all of those affected. He pledged to fully support all the injured and reassured those affected that there is no question of their needing to go through the anguish of suing for compensation.

Where VW is concerned there’s a lot to indicate that they’re taking notes from the responsibility playbook. The new management has spoken of a culture of deception that has to be routed out. The scapegoating of individuals –while necessary where there is direct blame- will not fix the issue. Contrast to FIFA’s attempt to spin away their troubles by pinning them all onto the rotting corpse of Sepp Blatter.

Irresponsibility will be punished

2015 was a vintage year for pointless stunts. As the 1,969 PR entries on display at this year’s Cannes Lions showed too many ‘creative interventions’ exist only to mark-up fees. A Tinder for pets by an animal rescue charity? Don’t ask, just swipe. Want publicity? Float a house down the Thames. Wifi blocking pepper grinder from Dolmio- just in time to save the modern family.

One explanation for the rise in stunts of this kind is the growing lack of confidence in how to deploy effective PR. Objects are floating down the Thames because everyone else is doing it. They are not ideas that begin with the brand story and how it connects with to an audience.

2015 might also have been the year of Peak Paddy. Paddy Power’s infamous mischief unit outdid themselves with a lorry that called on Dover-bound refugees to hop on-board –but only if you’re good at sport. It aroused the ire and delight of social media, ripped through the papers and received the inevitable warning from the Advertising Standards Authority, guaranteeing extra story mileage. A PR success? Perhaps. But by now Paddy’s mischief has the weary predictability of the last drunk to be turfed out of Wetherspoons. In order to recapture the zeitgeist Paddy needs to move on. In an industry plagued by accusations of reckless gambling an ounce of responsibility would be welcome. Wouldn’t bet on it though.

ISIS is still a repugnant and nihilistic sect. In 2015, however, the propaganda machine of the sinister cult has developed in interesting ways. Traditionally ISIS’s communication has gloried in mutilation and the world has recoiled in horror at their famed execution tapes. In the latter half of this year ISIS’s campaign messages have tended to move away from execution and torture and tried to find more positive narratives. Even before Jihadi John was killed by a drone in November his brand of sadism had been side-lined in the movement’s recruitment drive (his last video was released in January and relatively few films of its type have been promoted by ISIS since). It seems even terrorist sympathisers were being put off. Having upped their sophistication the ISIS propaganda threat is more urgent than ever.

Ignore the experts

Reflecting on her profession’s failure to predict the Conservative majority in May and the ascent of Corbyn over the summer Laura Kuenssberg has said that she doesn’t know what use political commentators are in such unpredictable times. Our obsession with data has blinded us to intuition and imaginative thinking. We stared into the bubbling cauldron of the pollsters with the unquestioning wonder of a prophecy foretold. All votes counted, it was Lynton Crosby who walked away the true hero of GE2015. Yet even he came unstuck when his campaign for Stephen Harper’s re-election in Canada crashed and burned. Who knows?

Appropriately enough, the most egregious example of failing to question the experts came during the UK election in the form of Labour’s 8ft pledge slab, the now infamous Ed Stone. This monument to PR hubris remarkably got through 10 campaign planning sessions despite being the heaviest early Christmas present Cameron has ever got. Too conspicuous to destroy, Ed Stone is now lies hidden in garage in South London in an Area 51 for political embarrassments (alongside the HAGUE baseball cap, Lembit Öpik and David Miliband’s banana).

Oh to have been a fly on the wall at the annual Christmas mingle between the Labour leadership and the press. Corbyn was spot on when he pointed out that his 2015 surge has kept their profession in comfortable employment. Would many not have been better deployed in the dwindling ranks of investigative journalism? The role of the fourth estate to uncover and expose has been wanting this year. Yes, FIFA corruption was a big story given momentum by the work of Private Eye and The Sunday Times. Yet much of the recent coverage has been reactive rather than press led. The Kids Company investigation is interesting in so far as it demonstrates the changing mechanics of investigative journalism. Rather than collaborating with traditional media Newsnight teamed up with Buzzfeed. I’m sure there are 11 amazing things that you can list about this investigation, but number one would have to be the ambition of reaching the wider consumer base that print can no longer command.

Each year journalism becomes ever more dependent on the press release. Our own study of 5 UK nationals over the summer has shown that the ratio of PR influenced news to original reporting is as much as 9 to 1.  Interestingly, only one fifth of these PR stories got picked up by more than one paper. This suggests that for all the talk of the homogenising churn of news many papers are really struggling to source the stories that will spread.

In 2016 we will likely see traditional journalism recede even further from original investigation. This vacated space will be filled by the kind of open forum citizen journalism that we saw with the internet-led investigation of Elisa Lam’s disappearance and alternative vehicles such as the podcast phenomenon Serial.

Raising the idols 

2015 was a year for toppling the titans: Clarkson, Tony Blair, Mourinho, Blatter. The fightback of Mo Farah may give an indication of where we’re going in 2016. In June the athlete became ensnared in the doping speculation surrounding his coach Alberto Salazar. Farah was soon to learn the only fact worth knowing for the hounded luminaries of our public life: forget the facts – the story is king. Despite the distances smashed and gongs awarded Farah was tainted; even his Wikipedia had a new section on doping and investigations. With support from Freuds Farah continued to protest his innocence while doing what he does best: competing. He went onto win gold at the World Championships in Beijing and no further allegations were raised. Farah’s turnaround from potential pariah to strong candidate for sport’s personality of the year is a testament to how demonstrating value trumps negative perception. And speaking of Trumps…