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Working in a hall of mirrors – perception, reality & image building

We advocate globalisation, yet we prefer nationalism. We are vocal supporters of entrepreneurs and private enterprise, yet we vehemently complain when others become too rich. We believe in democracy and the right of free speech, yet we easily get appalled when others tell it like it is.

Public relations, strategic communications and, especially, corporate and international affairs are at a crossroads today – from both a client and in-house perspective: what people say is not what they actually believe; what we hear claimed to be held dear, it actually isn’t; what is considered to be tolerant is, in fact, xenophobic.

We are – or at least some of us are – working in mirror-clad rooms; perception is reality and image building, persuasion, push, assertion and conviction are going to be the new tools of the profession. Apart from the political disgrace demonstrated by both Brexit and the US Presidential elections, there is a deeper lesson that we, as communicators, need to stoop down to and recognise: the return of manipulation, propaganda and disinformation as intrinsically accepted rules of public engagement.

While quantitative evidence is always needed and necessary to ensure the validity of any claims, the qualitative evidence is the one that, more often than not, guides the quantitative aspects. Politics and politicians – both in the UK and the US – have lost the common people’s trust. Experts, as clearly stated by Mr Gove last year, should not be trusted; pollsters’ data, as we all know, is highly unreliable. What do we have left? How do we validate our assumptions?

It’s not that difficult if we think about it – for those of us who focus on B2C activities, little has changed since consumer PR is not changing livelihoods nor does it affect the future generations. For those of us who work in B2B, the relationship can still be carried on, more or less, as before: in the business world, as long as one’s services and products are provided at a competitive price, with attractive payment terms and delivery/maintenance conditions, then what worked in the past should be pretty safe to work in the near future.

The fundamental shift comes for those of us who work in B2G or International Affairs/Relations. Politicians are, first and foremost, concerned with keeping their seats and being re-elected. To ensure that happens now, in 2017, the countries where there is a significant anti-immigration and anti-globalisation movement (a.k.a. nationalist or far-right) are going to see an increase in the anti-democratic rhetoric. To maintain their positions in power, the political parties and their leaders will have to ‘sing the song’ the masses like to hear.

If you have a pitch to make, my advice to you would be to position it in such a way that, from the get-go, you make it clear how your service is going to enhance that Government’s position on X, Y, Z or strengthen its public acceptance – whether that’s an ethical thing to do, that’s for you to decide. After all, the devil’s advocate could say that we all need to survive and do what we have to do to make ends meet!

I was watching Mrs May’s speech given to the world leaders in Davos – what a missed opportunity that was for the UK Government’s international strategy and pitch to make Britain the country all foreign investors will flock to once Britain leaves the EU.

That was a clear example of a wrong message given to the right audience – you don’t tell business leaders that their companies make too much money and imply that because they have so much funds available they should donate the funds to the poor and make the world a better place!!! She had one chance before Article 50 is officially triggered – to show that Britain can do it, Britain can speak business, Britain knows its USPs and that Britain has very strong competitive advantages.

Today, more than ever, what we used to know about conventional diplomacy, government protocol and written/unwritten rules of official conduct is becoming very confusing. Etiquette seems to have completely disappeared and the pomp and honour accompanying various bi-/multi-lateral government deals looks hilarious. Don’t fall into the trap of perception which is far more dangerous now than it’s ever been: we are witnessing a change of tone, not of essence.

Winning is imperative in politics and the main driver for the politicians – it’s not what’s best for you or for me – to win, they need to stand out; how can they stand out? By smiling nicely and being polite? By playing with dogs and kissing babies? Certainly not since everyone does that – if Brexit and the American Presidential elections have demonstrated anything is that the wide society’s acceptance of others is not as straightforward and ‘clean’ as we thought it was.

The pro-Brexit and pro-Trump votes went to those political platforms, slogans and individuals who were thought to make a difference, i.e. someone different, someone who has the ‘courage’ to tell it like it is, spit it out, care less about repercussions or losing his/her job, someone who’s not afraid to be rude, xenophobic, racist or discriminatory.

Think about what I’ve said above – and the evidence of it all is the 45th President of the United States of America.

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Ella Minty

Founding Chartered PR practitioner, Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and author of "The Influence of Culture in Crisis Communication”, "The Dangers of Being Social", "Hydraulic Fracturing in the UK – Relationships with Stakeholders and Local Communities", “Social Media and its Influence on International Affairs and Diplomacy”, “Managing the Integration of Businesses: Merging Companies, Disciplines and Cultures”, “Stakeholder Relations and Fracking”. Ella specialises in risk and reputation management and strategic communications, having a vast international experience of stakeholder engagement strategies across governments, energy operators, international investors and regulators. Additionally, Ella is involved with complex growth, transition and change programmes.

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