A Business Breakfast With Richard J. Hillgrove
May’s Like Minds Business Breakfast was held, once again, in the luxury surroundings of 12 Hay Hill, Mayfair. A good crowd arrived early to sample the always excellent breakfast and to network with both familiar and new faces.
Then it was time to begin. We drifted into the Library and Drew announced September’s Like Minds Ideas Festival – “From Startup to Scale-up” in Exeter on September 28th and then introduced our speaker.
Richard J. Hillgrove is one of the world’s foremost crisis communications and corporate reputation professionals. His skills make him the go-to PR for celebrities, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
Richard started by stating that he’s long been considered the black sheep of the PR world, which is quite a claim to fame, given the common perception of much of PR. But, as media channels proliferate, the old standby of sending a press release to the papers is no longer going to gain coverage for a client.
This is why there is a growing need for more extreme forms of PR. What Richard terms “DIY PR”. Case in point: although Donald Trump is a polarising character, his PR — and that of his campaign — is and was brilliant.
Trump knows that any coverage is good coverage. Recent events may be undermining this a little but, for the duration of the campaign, Trump remained on brand with a simple message “Make Americas Great Again” and a straightforward ploy of delivering negative stories repeatedly and succinctly.
Anyone can use these extreme tactics. By taking up a position that is either strongly for or strongly against almost anything, it is possible to become someone the news shows will turn to as a talking head. News shows, for the most part, want clashes of opinions, not sober discussion. Attacking everything and exploiting — and causing — fear is a proven route to success. Trump and Nigel Farage are merely the latest in a long line of politicians who have mastered this.
Richard, however, occupies territory on the other side of the fence. He’s not right wing and uses his skills to deliver PR for more progressive causes. A recent example saw Agent Provocateur founder and punk ‘royalty’ Joe Corré burn his punk memorabilia collection to highlight environmental issues and to protest the capitalist appropriation of punk history and its icons.
This PR approach is about starting with an idea and seeing how far you can pull the thread. In many cases, it’s about whether it’s possible to play the media at its own game. And it turns out, it very often is possible. It is this approach that Richard writes about in his column for The Drum, where he exposes the ‘dark arts’ of PR. Given that Richard’s very speciality is in utilising these dark arts, this gives the column a certain authenticity.
There is no doubt that the media is polarising. This is not just a question of political ideology but of old media versus new media. The old tends to concentrate on fear, while the new can be more nuanced. One example; at the time of the recent terror attack at Westminster, Google hosted a symposium for Muslim entrepreneurs in London.
Those pesky algorithms
But back to the darker arts People are familiar with an image of advertising and PR: Saatchi and Max Clifford are representative names, for instance. The dark arts work somewhere in the background. Much of this is controlled by algorithms. Google and Facebook take £10billion out of the UK’s ad and PR economy annually. This is not pay-per-click advertising. This is the manufacturing of popular and viral hits. All these new music stars and songs appearing from nowhere? The music companies pump in millions to feed the algorithms required to make things viral.
A key take-away here is that, although technology may have democratised the tools, it remains the corporations and their deep pockets that exploit the algorithms to control the message, whether for selling or politics.
The latter half of Richard’s talk turned into a discussion. This meant we were denied some of the stories we may have wanted to hear about his more notorious PR engagements but what he had said already sparked a multitude of comments and questions and opinions. This had the conversation moving in multiple directions.
Open and honest
One of the questions that sparked a personal story from Richard was about crisis management. Richard believes the only way to handle a PR crisis is with honesty and transparency. He has personal experience with this. Five years ago he faced a tax evasion charge (for non-payment of VAT) and his reputation and business were threatened. He documented the whole thing — along with the nefarious reasons why he had been made an example of — and emerged relatively unscathed.
Richard ended with an interesting point about the question of being perceived as trustworthy, using Jeremy Corbyn as an example. Corbyn is not untrustworthy but because he is unable to be completely open about his position on Brexit especially, this projects an image that is in opposition to what Richard defines as his archetype. Our archetypes are what our faces and mannerisms and bearing present to the world. When we deliver a message that is in keeping with this archetype, we appear trustworthy. Messages that go against how people perceive us immediately undermine our credibility. It was an interesting angle on which to end the session.
The ideas raised by Richard during his talk sparked animated discussion among the attendees over coffee and the remaining pastries for a long time afterwards.