On the power of story, empathy, and insight #PRCA2017

The glitterati of a corner of the communications industry mired in scandal gathered at BAFTA last Friday. Not coke-addled movie stars or angry young TV folk. Not even the shady moguls who earns millions from wonky programmatic algorithms misplacing ads on extremist, hate, and porn sites.

No. The corner of the media industry that came out to play on Friday were the earned media chapter of the Hidden Persuaders: PR folks. Rocked by the revelations of unethical practices from one of the sector’s biggest players – Bell Pottinger – they flocked together en masse for the first time since the Summer.

Appropriately enough, these meeja types congregated under the paternalistic eye of their trade body, the Public Relations and Communications Association, for the PRCA’s annual conference. The very same PRCA who took a stand on Bell Pottinger’s nefarious activities in South Africa and expelled the firm from its ranks for five years. Less than five days later, the business was in administration and being wound up. The stain of unethical behaviour proved toxic for too many marquee clients, who deserted the agency faster than its executives could update their LinkedIn profiles.

The opening address came from PRCA boss, Francis Ingham, who fronted up to the expulsion with little prompting. To visible irritation, he branded those who claimed he’d enjoyed the process “fools”. We also got some personal insight into what he described as the most stressful and difficult period of his professional life, revealing the 4am visits to his front doorstep and the socially-mediated death threats he received as the drama unfolded. Very nasty.

That introduction gave a little more context, colour, and personality to what appeared – through the media lens – to be a thoroughly confident performance. Yet despite that context, I still can’t disagree entirely with the accusation levelled by Diana Soltmann in PR Week that Ingham leveraged the affair as an exercise in ‘ambulance chasing’ for new members. And I write as an MPRCA.

BAFTA is a fine stage, and the PRCA conference often has a TEDx-like feel. Themed “Communicating in turbulent times”, I thumbed my way through the programme for the day on the way up. Lots of agency and industry big hitters with doom-laden titles for their talks. The rhetoric seemed to presage a rather depressing day: “crisis”, “darkest days”, “turbulent times” (twice), more “crisis”, and the “post-truth era”. Plus, we were expected to welcome the former CEO of Vote Leave to the stage. It truly was a farrago of a menu, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Had this conference ticket been a wise investment, I wondered, struggling another #SouthernFail snafu. Though truth be told, the feeling of doom could have been exaggerated by the lees of a 50-year-old bottle of port I’d shared with three other half-centenarians the night before. Plus, it was still dark as I read the agenda as I sped through the Sussex countryside.

What I found at BAFTA – as some who works only on the fringes of the PR world these days – was something rather different. Yes, a lot of the tone and content of a lot of speakers’ talks was shaped by the theme they’d been given by the PRCA. But it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom.

The stand-out talk came from Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Comms at Greater Manchester Police. The raw emotion, the highs and the lows, the agony and the hope of communicating in the immediate and medium-term aftermath of the Manchester bombing this spring … well it was quite simply one of the most impactful, moving, honest, candid, clear talk I’ve heard in years.

And in terms of the themes underpinning the central theme, it transpires that communicating in turbulent times isn’t so very different from communicating in not-so-turbulent times. The three stand-out issues that came up time and again over the course of the day were the power of story, the role of empathy, and the value of insight in modern communications.

The power of story – Context and the mindset of those you’re looking to influence might be different in turbulent times, but compelling stories still matter. Actually, powerful narrative is more important than ever, as communicators have to work harder to capture the attention, because we’re all so preoccupied by other things. From Maybot’s bungled Brexit to Trump’s nuclear sabre-rattling with North Korea.

Omnicom’s David Gallagher told us a very personal and engaging story of the day his BA flight to Oslo lost engine cowlings from both engines, one burst into flames, and an emergency landing was required back at Heathrow. “We use stories to define how we interact with the world,” he said, reviewing the medium-term, emotional impact of the near miss on him. “We do this to imagine different possibilities and move beyond the past.” Quite so. The spirit of Robert McKee pervaded BAFTA’s grand theatre.

The role of empathy – Empathy is still the key skill of the communicator – that sometimes elusive, uniquely human quality of putting yourself in the shoes, the lives, the mindsets of those you want to engage with your story. Amanda Coleman talked about how her Manchester Police team had succeeded in the wake of the bomb by listening to and understanding the mood of the city (as well as by working so hard that it nearly broke them). That appreciation (if not understanding) of what it must have been like to be a family member or friend of one of the victims is what meant that every police briefing always began with reference to “22 people never went home from that concert”, whatever the subject matter.

Omnicom’s Gallagher used his narrow squeak on the plane to Oslo to draw up five golden rules for leaders and communications. To my storyteller’s ears, these are all about empathy and empathetic storytelling; the ability to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re communicating with. He urged leaders to: 1) listen fearlessly, 2) engage with empathy, 3) anticipate multiple scenarios, 4) co-write the story with the audience, and 5) communicate with conviction – be brave, be generous, and do good. He even got 200 comms folks to stand up and strike Amy Cuddy’s Wonderwoman power pose.

The value of insight – The PR industry has consistently failed to understand, invest in, and sell the role and value of strategic planning – of a proper insight function – in helping to shape and build stories that resonate with audiences. Several speakers referenced the importance of the industry investing in analytics to extract meaningful, data-driven insights as the foundation of great stories. These included Pete Prodromou, founder of Racepoint Global, keynote closing speaker Alan VanderMoilen from WE Communications, in his barnstorming appeal “Where the hell are the communicators?”

What’s more, my long-time collaborator and #SmallDataForum podcast co-host Thomas Stoeckle gave an expert view of the role of data in building evidence-based narrative by an intelligent use of the relevant corner of Big Data. This theme was picked up and endorsed on a panel session – on which Thomas sat – discussing measurement and evaluation, chaired by conference veteran and Ketchum stalwart, Steve Waddington.

It’s fair to say that the less said about the smug and arrogant talk from Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliot, the better. Particularly his flimsy, continued endorsement of £350m to the NHS from Boris’ shiny red battle bus, that bogus, zombie stat that staggers around Brexiteers, refusing to die.

As ever, TEDxPRCA was a curate’s egg. But I came away feeling more reassured than concerned by our turbulent times, confident that the principles of great storytelling have an enduring role to play today and tomorrow as they have since Story began.