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Image attributed to addicted to success

Image attributed to addicted to success

As Business Editor of The Daily Telegraph, it was a great privilege to meet the chief executives, chairmen and directors from some of Britain’s biggest companies.

Over lunch or a morning coffee, held on a strictly off-the-record basis, they could talk freely and one of the themes that kept recurring was a lack of confidence. Not a lack of confidence in their own capabilities or their company’s. Often it wasn’t a lack of confidence in the economy either. Rather, they lacked the confidence to get on the front foot and tell their own story.

Many were wary of a perceived business-bashing culture. The fall-out from the 2008 crisis engulfed the wider corporate community, not just the banks that triggered it. The public were cynical and full of disdain for big business. Too many business journalists adopted a Paxman-esque “Why is this bastard lying to me?” approach, always judging and rarely trying to empathise.

In a toxic anti-business environment, it was easier to keep your head below the parapet than risk getting shot. The chief executive of one of the UK’s biggest firms, a global behemoth, told me how difficult it was to persuade talented people in his company to take promotions to the most senior positions. Too many reached a certain level and decided they didn’t want to go further. They were afraid of public scrutiny – easier to have a quiet life than risk being on a journalist’s radar.

Occasionally, that mentality extended to chief executives themselves. One, who was running an interesting company with a distinguished heritage and a good story to tell, seemed to regard the entire hour we spent together as an exercise in avoiding landmines. So afraid was he of saying anything remotely controversial that he barely said anything at all, let alone anything interesting. It was one of the longer hours of my life.

Coming from my previous job as Deputy Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, where I more often met senior politicians than business leaders, this was a surprise to me. When you sat down with a Cabinet minister or a leading Opposition figure they were rarely short of a story or an opinion. Sometimes the difficulty was getting a word in edgeways. Few seemed scared of their own skin.

As a former journalist, turned public relations consultant, my message to any business leader – whether you’re running the biggest public company or the smallest family business – would be to have the confidence to tell your own story.

Yet even those who should be shouting from the rooftops sometimes prefer to avoid the spotlight. When I was at The Daily Telegraph, we partnered with the London Stock Exchange, who published an uplifting book, “1000 Companies to Inspire Britain”. We decided to produce our own supplement, featuring fast-growth SME success stories, but some of the companies we contacted were surprisingly reluctant to get involved.

Why? Were they worried about tempting fate? Or, that in this country, if you build yourself up, people will soon try to knock you down? You can’t imagine too many entrepreneurs thinking that way in the US.

The anti-business narrative hasn’t disappeared – Russell Brand’s one-man anti-capitalism crusade is its latest incarnation – but it should be challenged. One of The PHA Group’s clients did that to great effect recently. Ian Baxter, who runs a logistics firm, Baxter Freight, wrote an open letter to Brand, which was published in The Times.

“My name’s Ian and I’m a capitalist – I invest capital in my business expecting a return, “ he wrote.

Baxter started his company a year ago and already employs more than 70 staff – one of 4.9million small businesses who have created jobs for 24.3 million people.

“Do you really think this is such a bad thing? If you do, I’d love you to visit my business and tell me what you’d do differently”.

It was an elegant, confident riposte. It was also a great way of generating publicity for a young company with an ambitious £100m sales target by 2018, but which also wants to be a model employer, inspiring and empowering its staff.

Ian believes he has a great story to tell and wasn’t afraid to get on the front foot. In our forthcoming series of Business Insight blogs, we’ll tell you how you, too, can tell your own company’s story.

Why senior business leaders must embrace 24/7 communications and technology

PR agency chairman (The PHA Group) Phil Hall discusses why senior members of organisations must adapt to integrated communications in the digital age. 

In this fast-moving world we live in, it is incredible how many businesses lag behind. In my experience, it is often because the leader of the business is heading towards his or her grey years and thus there is a reluctance to go with the future in preference to living in the past.

It particularly affects the professional sector where lawyers, banks, doctors have a tendency to rely on “the way we have always done it”. It has served them well in the past so why change?

The reason is the world has changed. It doesn’t matter who you are – and the new clients at our agency prove this – people don’t do things the way they used to. Google or their preferred search engine is now the first port of call whether you are seeking medical help, to purchase a new service or reassurance that the expert that has been recommended to you really knows his or her stuff.

Some of the wealthiest people in the world and some of the biggest organisations have become customers of The PHA Group through search engines. First, it amazed us that individuals with such influence, contacts and a breadth of knowledge would make contact with us without any previous relationship. But we soon learnt to embrace it!

Why do they do it? First, because it is so easy; secondly it is so convenient (you can search 24/7 when it suits you; thirdly they like to go outside their circle of influence for confidentiality reasons and lastly search engines give infinite opportunities to compare and contract, in other words, does this sounds like a company for me?

One of my favourite lines when pitching for new business is to explain to the would-be customer that they need to understand how to “play” on the media’s turf. The media own the media and thus you must play by their rules. You can’t tell them what to do, you must understand their needs and issues and work with them to your advantage.

And so it is with new business generally. If the would-be clients are finding your business on Google then you must understand how to present yourself properly on that platform with good engaging content, properly formatted for that platform and with the right hooks and angles to appeal to the search engine and your customer.

For example, the chief executive of a bank will feel he or she needs to be in the Financial Times if they have something to say. Of course, that is true. But if the CEO wants to talk to the bank’s customers why not be in GQ talking about new investment opportunities or in the lifestyle pages of the Times sponsoring an initiative in the arts? That will attract Google’s search engines far more effectively than the behind-the-paywall FT and thus communicate more effectively with the high net worth target audience.

When a prospective client finds a bank or a law firm on Google they so often come to a website that is static, grey and traditional and yet the millionaires of today, the new business gurus, are young, with it and understand communications like never before. Even if they have inherited their fortunes, they want their service providers to be 21st century and feel proud to be associated with that brand. Stuffy just won’t do.

That does not mean abandoning all the things that have made these professional services successful in the past. After all, you don’t want to lose the old customers. You need both new and long-termers. It is about evolution, not revolution.

Videos on a website, attractive imagery, expert views are all valid whatever the age of your customer. True it is important to get the tone right but unless companies move with the times, the communication revolution will leave them behind.

So many companies we have met have a split personality. The new, young, staff who will be the future of the company understand 24/7 communications and technology; the senior staff live in a status quo that makes them feel safe. They can point to successes of the past and thus if a new junior executive suggests a “riskier” approach, they can destroy his argument before it gets off the ground.

Many of those firms are now trying to play catch up having found competitors have modernised, their young talented staff have constantly been moving on and they are trapped by their past glories.

The beauty of modern technology is it doesn’t take long to turn this boat around. The communication levers can be pulled very quickly. The greater challenge is getting the staff to adapt so that the contact with the outside world also reflects the dynamics of what goes on inside the company.

Greater transparency, more inclusion, engagement with all the stakeholders, pride in being cutting edge… it sounds like a great comms plan doesn’t it? Well, it should also become the philosophy for the office, shop floor or boardroom.

Only then will new young business flow in through the front door… sorry I meant the user’s search engine.


How an internship kickstarted my PR career

You devote three years of your life studying, partying and allegedly ‘finding yourself’ at university, spending a decent chunk of your parents’ hard-earned cash… but hurrah, you earn yourself a solid degree and the world is now your oyster, right? Wrong.

With greater competition for jobs than ever before, it will lead many of us to undergo internships. The very word has mixed connotations depending on your experiences; for some, it can bring back harrowing memories of receiving no pay and performing horrendous tasks, yet for others, it can be the gateway to a full-time job that they have always craved. I am fortunate enough to say that I am in the latter.

I began my PHA journey back at the end of February, lending an extra pair of hands for the UFC Fight Night in London. A baptism of fire, you may think, but one that I enjoyed immensely. My two weeks came to an end, I thought I had done everything asked of me with perhaps a dash of aplomb and received those dreaded words that have let me down before from companies and women alike; ‘I’ll be in touch’. Safe to say I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Low and behold, I received a phone call on the Monday afternoon asking me to come back, this time for a month’s paid internship. Happy days!

An internship gave me a way in to the world of PR.

This developed into a further three month’s paid internship, all the while being made to feel extremely welcome and a part of the PHA family. The culture and the people of the place meant that I quickly knew that a full-time job here was my aspiration and made sure I did everything in my power to make this happen. Graduates on internships are certainly a two-way street. There will be organisations out there that are merely looking for free labour but on the other side, candidates have to show competency and more importantly enthusiasm to convince that they could be a long-term fixture.

The Times’ this week in their University Guide highlighted the importance of internships and their ability to increase employability and they’d be right. All the way through your studies achieving good grades is constantly drummed into you as an absolute must, yet the minute you graduate, employers are hammering on about having suitable work experience. There doesn’t appear to be enough guidance at universities to help graduates overcome, what can be, a substantial bridge between education and employment. While it is extremely tempting to enjoy the rigours of Jeremy Kyle, Philip Schofield and co during the four months of summer you enjoy while at university, I would advise to make the most out of your time off in the form of internships.

I believe it speaks volumes for PHA when nearly half of the workforce began as interns, many of which are now in senior and management roles. It provides excellent motivation and inspiration that it could perhaps be me in that position someday and also gives those members in authority a sense of empathy, with the likes of myself, who are on the first rung of the ladder.

The journey from internship to a fully-fledged member of the team is not always an easy one but I must admit mine has been quite serene. Engaging with colleagues in more social settings has been crucial and has helped me feel truly part of a developing business. It may have taken me longer than I initially imagined finding suitable employment going via telesales and packaging women’s underwear, but in the danger of sounding hugely clichéd, it has been worth the wait!