Public relations expert masterclass: Bob Leaf at #CIPRNorthernconf

Last month we attended the CIPR Northern Conference in Newcastle; a one-day line-up of workshops and debates with headline speakers, all focussing our minds on The Art and Science of Engagement.

CIPR President Sarah Hall opened the event by posing a current challenge to PR practitioners; underrepresentation of our practice at board level. Speakers throughout the day tackled this issue in the context of their various specialisms, from measurement to trends and the power of creativity.

But who better to hear from than the final speaker of the day, the father of international public relations and one of the original Mad Men, Bob Leaf. As an American recognised by Debrett’s as one of Britain’s 500 most influential people, we were keen to learn from the man who has helped shape the role of comms in this country and the world over.

And he didn’t disappoint. Bob’s opening was enough to inspire any fledgling PR exec. After leaving the Army aged 23, he spotted an ad in the paper from a New York PR firm. Burson-Marstellar was looking for a mail opener. Bob, with his degree in journalism and Masters in history, was interviewed but quickly told he was over-qualified. The pay was low, the job basic. But Bob, desperate to get into PR, talked the firm into to giving him his first opportunity.

He started right at the bottom but some 45 years later was responsible for creating an international network of offices which made Burson-Marstellar the world’s largest PR firm, and he eventually rose to International Chairman. Impressive stuff to say the least…

Here are our top three takeouts from Bob’s talk:

“We must be rigorous about delivering on our promises”
Speaking about how PR has changed over the years, Bob recognised that clients have become much more demanding. So too has the industry itself, which was once concerned with the distribution of positive news and now increasingly has to counter negative publicity and fake news. The bottom line? We must constantly work harder to deliver meaningful and measurable communications.

Bob echoed the Smoking Gun ethos when he said: “Strategic insights and creative ideas are only the first part of the job – we must be rigorous about delivering on our promises.”

“Message train your spokespeople”

So how else might we earn our elevated advisory position as public relations professionals? Bob spoke about the importance not of ‘media training’ but instead ‘message training’ management teams.

Part of this, he explained, is about really getting to know each potential spokesperson; their individual perceptions and what they want to achieve in their company. But ultimately, all must come to an agreement on the right and the wrong messages and know how to communicate them in a media interview.

We found Bob’s summary of ‘a good answer’ a useful check-list.

A good answer…
Answers the question (not answering the question means you are either unprepared or fear the truth)
Is stated positively
Is expressed in laymen’s terms
Is concise
Is specific
Makes the main point up front
Does not include more than is necessary
Does not use loaded or slanted words
Finds the opportunity in the question to express your point of view
Does not always have to come from the CEO

Have a crisis management plan

Bob concluded his session by talking about the growing importance of having a crisis management plan. He held up Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982 as a shining example of how to get it right.
One individual succeeded in tampering with the drug on the shelf, lacing it with cyanide. Seven people died as a result, and a panic ensued about how widespread the contamination might be.

Johnson & Johnson recalled more than 30 million bottles at the cost of $100m, taking product off the shelves in every single outlet and warning customers not to use it. The company relaunched Tylenol in new tamper-resistant packaging, bolstered by an extensive media campaign.

From a situation in which people questioned whether Johnson & Johnson would ever recover, the company was lauded by press for its compassion and won back its 90% share of the market within one year.

The company acted quickly, took measures to prevent the problem recurring and showed that its first loyalty was to its customers and not its profits.

We couldn’t talk about crisis management without giving a nod to another speaker on this subject at the conference, the communications lead for Salisbury & Amesbury Recovery, Laurie Bell. Her’s was a fascinating insight into the handling of the Novichok crisis. She too talked about the importance of having a carefully routed plan with a trusted team, and left us with these words:

“As comms professionals, we’re here to challenge and advise. Never underestimate your ability to influence – PR needs to be at the top table.”

More from us

A solid crisis plan should start with a robust reputation management plan that covers both dark clouds and blue skies. Take a look at our 6 steps to a great reputation management plan here.

Read our guide to earned media