This year’s focus was Lead or Follow and each of the speakers had their own interpretation on what it means to do those things effectively. One thing became clear throughout the day. In the disruptive world we live in, at a senior level, not everything goes exactly to plan and one of the strengths of the leader is how you get out in front of your issue or crisis.
That’s a theme that has been taking up lots of column inches as Theresa May acknowledges this week that she has got her government and party into a mess and that, for the time being at least, it is her responsibility to fix.
During the campaign she was mocked for repeating the mantra ‘Strong and Stable’, but these are obviously qualities she felt aligned to from the outset. They might seem inappropriate in the post-election context, but only time will tell whether her new consensus-based approach to working with colleagues will deliver strong and stable government. On a human level though, and amid enormous personal pressure from all sides, I find it hard to knock her for staying where she is and taking the flack.
That’s because for most people in the PM’s circumstances, it would come down to ‘fight or flight’, with critics assuming that the latter instinct would in the end prevail – not least because your ability to make a sound decision relies on a huge number of factors that allow or prevent you from seeing the issue you’re facing in a clear and coherent manner.
Yet I’d hazard a guess that Theresa May wouldn’t be in her present situation if she and her advisers had really worked through all of the issues – both positive and negative – that she was likely to face during a long campaign. The Prime Minister seemed continually to be on the back foot, surprised at the lukewarm or negative reaction that her policies and her personal style at times seemed to prompt. She struggled to set the agenda effectively, but worse still, she failed to respond effectively to disruption of her campaign from external influences like a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn.
In supporting our clients’ communications needs, we need to get to the nub of an issue, often getting them to focus on aspects they’d rather not explore. But to offer good counsel to help them out, we need to know the weaknesses as well as their strengths to suggest a campaign strategy that will deliver the results they will be looking for, be it profile raising, education, changes in the law or firefighting negative interest.
Years ago when I was responsible for the PR of a major health board, I often explained my role (to non PR folk) as being the buffer. Essentially, bridging the gap between the media and the organisation. Sometimes it was as tough a job to convince my senior team colleagues of the need to work with the media, as it was to convince the media to work with the Health Board.
Sometimes being a little disruptive was the best way to get results.
After six years in the role, we undertook a significant overhaul of acute services in the city. Such was the relationship with the media, we called in favours to get the local evening paper (as it was in those days) to run the story clean, from the Board papers, alongside an interview with the Chief Executive.
For me, that agreement was unprecedented and resulted in me clearing the front page copy and four pages inside at 11pm for first edition and again at 7am the following day for the last edition.
The day after the story broke all hell broke loose and the evening paper was predictably awash with multiple critics of the acute services review. However, just by being a bit disruptive and asking for what’s not normally given, we were able to get in front of the issue, steal the march and get a clean run at explaining what the changes would be and how they would benefit the healthcare for local residents.
Disruptive businesses are exciting and new and continue to push the boundaries. As these disruptive business models become norm, so too will our choice to be the disruptor or be the disrupted going forward.
Elaine McKean , Managing Director