Natalie Murphy – PR Manager

I was among hundreds of communications professionals who gathered in London recently for #CommsCon18.

Here are my takeaways from the inaugural event, which featured speakers from major brands and the media.

It’s the story, stupid

With a business leader as charismatic and bold as Richard Branson, it’s no surprise that Virgin Group’s campaigns regularly catch the eye.

And although when it comes to gaining traction it certainly helps that Branson alone has 40m followers on social, it’s actually the group’s ability to speak with a distinctive voice that truly attracts attention.

Tamara Bennett, the company’s head of media relations, said the company’s purpose was ‘changing business for good’ – a surprisingly prosaic statement yet one that is usually brought to life through Virgin’s trademark tongue-in-cheek attitude.

This combination of a serious message told in a fun way is what’s led to campaigns like this one on gay rights after research found one in three couples said they had been discriminated against while on holiday.

The video was Virgin Holidays’ most viewed film last year and is part of a wider three-year initiative which will include other activity such as employee support and a special Pride flight to New York next year.

Tamara’s stressed the importance of thinking of the story first, not the channel and then working out how that story best lives across a range of channels.

This is vital and more likely to result in something creative and engaging than a process which looks at social, digital, media etc in silos.

But it also actually begins with a defined purpose and a clear style of communication. With this in place, a business can find the right stories and own how it tells them.

Do you feel me?

So far, so simple, but what if your business operates in a wholly different arena?

Natasha Plowman is global head of campaigns for HSBC and works in an environment that she said couldn’t be further away from the consumer-led approach of Virgin Holidays.

It’s a role that’s impacted by trade, regulation and geopolitics and which crosses cultural and language barriers.

Yet Natasha spoke of the importance of feelings for a recently launched commercial banking campaign.

She said that as communications professionals, we often start with what we want to say when in fact, we should concentrate on what we want our audience to feel, act and do.

To understand this, HSBC undertook research across 8,500 businesses worldwide in 34 different markets.

The result was #HSBCNavigator, an insight-led campaign which aims to position the bank as a supportive partner which knows its customers.

Using the research, HSBC is able to demonstrate that it gets where businesses are right now.

It has also been able to look at forecasting what challenges and opportunities are on the horizon.

Finally, it can show how it can help businesses navigate all this with its relevant products and services.

This is all summed up neatly in the campaign’s tagline, ‘now, next, how’ and HSBC hopes to mobilise its 250k employees working across four different business units around the world to push this message.

Storytellers not spokespeople

The success of this internal engagement is a key metric for the campaign and both Natasha and Tamara also stressed the importance of finding the natural storytellers in companies, instead of status dictating who spokespeople are.

This will amplify your message in an authentic way and it’s not necessarily about putting people in front of the media either.

Sir Craig Oliver, former director of communications to David Cameron, spoke of the decline of print and terrestrial TV and how using digital as a channel was, therefore, a necessity not a luxury in the modern comms world.

He urged businesses not to let the practicalities of business get in the way of this opportunity and get past the fear of social media as a potentially loaded gun.

While there have been and will continue to be plenty examples of where a misplaced post has been the undoing of everyone from a person to a plc, Sir Craig is in no doubt of the value of businesses telling their own story.

“This is no time for faint hearts,” he said if a business is to successfully land a counter narrative to the view that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Sir Craig acknowledged that social can appear a scary place but warned: “If you can’t define yourself, others will define you.”

He recommended meeting people where their concerns are but also knowing when not to respond – silence also being an important tool in the communications armour.

He urged business to ask itself:

  • What is our story?
  • What are our values?
  • And do we share them frequently with our customers or clients?
  • Or are we just trying to defend ourselves to glory?

And that matters whether you are Dickie Branson or any other Tom or Harry with a company to lead.