By Arun Sudhaman
MANCHESTER: Tom Kelly, the former spokesman for Tony Blair who now heads communications at the UK’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), has called for communicators to display courage and humility if they are to adapt to new reputation challenges.
Kelly accused the financial services industry of a degree of “arrogance” when it came to their comms efforts, and also said some companies would rather hide than confront a crisis.
Kelly drew on his own experience at both BAA, where he led comms in the run-up to the opening of Terminal 5, and in Government, where he had a ringside seat during the Northern Ireland peace process. He made the comments at the PRCA’s national conference in Manchester yesterday.
The changes wrought by social media and increasing regulatory scrutiny, said Kelly, mean that companies must change their mindset in terms of how they are perceived. “Firstly, admitting the legitimacy of doubt and, secondly, admitting we live in an unjust world,” he pointed out. “Frankly, that’s too much for some people.”
Kelly pointed to two types of behaviour that, ultimately, fail to meet today’s PR challenges. In the financial services industry, there is a “nostalgia for the good old days” and a “distaste for an unfamiliar world.” Adding that this can seem arrogant, Kelly pointed out that most financial services people “were not used to having a profile outside the financial press.”
Secondly, Kelly pointed to “operator’s syndrome”, where companies believed that the results alone can speak for themselves. Using BP’s crisis response as an example, Kelly pointed out that “being a decent operator isn’t enough.”
“BP appeared to not have the political and media understanding to get its point of view across,” he argued. “Would it have stopped the criticism? Of course not. But it would have provided some context – what it was doing and why it was doing it.”
Instead, Kelly called for communicators to show “a little bit of humility and a little bit of courage.” While admitting that “if it doesn’t work, no amount of PR is going to fix it,”, Kelly said that these two qualities can make a difference.
When Heathrow T5 made an error-riddled launch, Kelly said that being humble helped the company persuade the public of its commitment to make the necessary improvements. He also explained that having the courage to admit the possibility of failure eventually led to the success of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations.