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PR lessons: Ebola and Robbie Williams

PR lessons: Ebola and Robbie Williams

In the wake of Robbie Williams making a fool of himself in the name of publicity, I can understand why PR doesn’t always have the most reputable name. For those of you who haven’t seen his videos, the footage captures an animated Williams cavorting round his wife Ayda Field, during the labour of their second child.

I am often confronted with PR cynics, whom typically my breed as ‘spin doctors’ with nothing valuable to actually say. But in a world currently fighting Ebola, we can see how communicating in the face of crisis leaves no choice but to cut through the ‘fluff’ and focus on quality. Although by no means am I disputing the harrowing nature of the disease (and how easy it is to become consumed with dread when discussing the impacts of Ebola) the way in which aid workers have communicated throughout the outbreak provides a prime example of how vital PR can be when it’s done right. Leading the world to quickly realise that although a vaccine will cure the disease, communications will prevent it.

From posters and pamphlets to radio announcements, the communications response to Ebola is unearthing some valuable lesson that PR professionals can learn from across the globe, serving as a valuable reminded that truly effective communications stem from the need, not desire, for the limelight (sorry Robbie, yes that is another dig at you!).

Ebola suits

PR can be a useful tool when raising awareness of crisis issues.

So here are my top tips that I feel Robbie should learn from…

  1. Say something interesting to the right people

While a regular PR campaign may not have the ‘life or death’ hook that Ebola does, having something actually interesting to say will hugely affect if people listen.  A bit like when your mum used to say- ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all’ – sometimes it’s better to sit quietly and resist  ‘PR fluff’ until you have something valuable and legitimate to share.

Targeting the correct audience is also critical to any PR activity; UNICEF reports that around 10,000 people are infected with Ebola in West Africa with the majority of victims coming from some of the world’s poorest communities. This has led aid workers to target communications in these areas, resulting in successful rectification of misinformed beliefs concerning how the virus is spread and treated in these places.

Robbie’s video, however, appears to be directed at anymore and everyone- making us perhaps question whether the star is out of touch with his fan base (or possibly society entirely)!

  1. Be engaging, not narcissistic

Possibly Robbie’s biggest problem with his video stems from the entirely narcissistic – as without a real point behind the footage, the viewer may be drawn to the conclusion that it’s just Robbie’s attempt to cash in on the birth of his second child.

A global epidemic brings with it the need to communicate across nations; a difficult task especially when a clear cultural divide exists between rural villages accepting the presence of western medicine. Therefore engagement is a clear aim of organisations working with communities to tackling  Ebola- a variety of tools have been used to achieve this. However, the use of a video produced by the infamous Chocolate Moose is a great example of how the interjection of emotion to a cause key messages to resonate within target audiences, as a result encouraging people to accept the presence of hazmat wearing doctors and actively seek their help when needed.

  1. Keep it quick

As with any pandemic, time is of the essence when spreading your message. Quick, clear and concise messaging is a necessary and effective tool. The Ebola pandemic demonstrated this perfectly through concentrating their efforts on promoting simple and effective points, such as urging healthcare professionals to wear protective clothing when working with patients.

However, Robbie’s string of videos mean the novelty of his shenanigans are well and truly lost, leaving his audience wanting anything but more…

Foreign investment requires foreign languages

As David Cameron currently attempts to entice the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, to invest huge amounts of money (anything up to £18bn!) into some of the largest projects in the UK’s pipeline, the importance of international trade, and consequently multilingualism, in the global market continues to be apparent.

While goods and services are becoming increasingly transnational, fewer than ten percent of British students choose to do any sort of language learning post-GCSE, failing to see the benefits of continuing their studies. In contrast, the rest of the world are fast leaving us behind with a recent European languages league table finding that Britons are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the worst in Europe at speaking more than one language.

The common misconception, which the majority of us are guilty of believing, is that the rest of the world speaks English so there is no need for our future generations to learn other languages. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that English is currently the world’s number one business language. However, with 94 percent of the world not speaking English as their first language and over 873 million native Mandarin speakers, the importance of other languages within the business domain shouldn’t be disregarded as foreign populations, economies, and investments continue to grow.

Photo: Crown Copyright
Photographer: Paul Shaw

Although Mr Cameron and Mr Keqiang will undoubtedly have a huge group of translators and interpreters surrounding them to ensure that their every need and desire is understood by the other, this kind of entourage is not sustainable for smaller, lesser-known businesses trading in a globalised world.

Being unable to communicate with a foreign company in their mother tongue puts a company on the back foot when it comes to clinching a deal. They are at the mercy of the multilingual company and their interpreter or translator. Instead of relying on their use of English, which gives leeway for miscommunication, we should be thinking about taking the initiative and encouraging the study of foreign languages.

I realise that I’m writing this from a completely biased perspective having recently completed a degree in French and Spanish, but after studying languages for over ten years I would find it difficult to list many negatives of being able to communicate in more than one language. Foreign language learning is not just about grammar or vocabulary, there’s a cultural understanding as well, making those who know foreign languages an asset to any business wishing to expand in the competitive global market.