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Honesty is the best policy: Graham Goodkind, Frank PR

Now more than ever, the public are wise to corporate chicanery and political deceit, so brands would do well to keep their PR advisers close and be nothing but absolutely open with consumers.

I must make a confession at the outset. The good people of Marketing didn't invite me to write a piece in this supplement, although I think of myself as a half-decent writer who, on a good day and after a couple of pints, is potentially fit to grace the pages of this esteemed magazine.

It is an advertiser-funded bit of publishing, so Frank PR has handed over a few quid to Haymarket and in return we get a page of editorial and an ad on the page opposite.

The idea is that potential clients will read the article, think it is relatively intelligent, informative, insightful, etc, and then want to work with Frank PR one day.

So there's some complete transparency for you. You are reading this article because we paid for it.

The point I'm trying to make here is that I firmly believe that as this decade is progressing, the need for honesty and openness from a brand, about how it is set up and in respect of the way it communicates, is more important than ever.

Brands have to change their mindsets, some of them quite drastically, to be relevant to consumers, listened to, trusted, respected and, of course, bought.

Truth needs to be projected from the centre of the brand outward. If there is a skeleton lurking somewhere in the closet, then best to deal with it, rather than hoping it will never see the light of day. Today, nothing truly stays a secret forever.

The way a brand interacts with its stakeholders, especially its consumers, needs to be free from deceit, cover-ups and falsities. They are not going to wash any more. Sure, there can be style, but you always need substance.

At Frank, we have always banged on about how we create 'talkability' for our clients - the word-of-mouth buzz that takes over and does the best marketing for them. However, talkability has become a double-edged sword, as there is also the potential for the wrong kind of chatter to be kick-started if a brand is not careful.

Obviously, it is not going to be the brand owner that starts it, at least not intentionally.

Its roots will most likely lie somewhere in the social media space - from a consumer or group of consumers, disgruntled employees or ex-employees, angry suppliers, concerned anonymous retailers, etc. It will surface in next to no time, be accelerated by the likes of Twitter and BBM, and then hit the mainstream to bite the brand badly in the backside. The more negative the message, the more quickly it will come to life.

Similar to the 'take down' of countries in the so-called Arab Spring, I expect a similar dynamic to replicate itself in the consumer marketing world. Brands are as much at risk as countries of rebellion, more so if you think about it logically. Look out for a few high-profile brands falling victim to their own consumer uprisings this year.

Good, strategic PR advice can help prevent these disasters.

As born-and-bred communicators, we are well versed at getting to grips with a brand and telling it like it is.

Humility and frankness are valuable attributes when trouble arises. And the best PR folk are also good at having the occasional 'difficult' conversation with a client about its blind spots.

We are also pretty adept at coming up with clever and effective ways of making the not-so-exciting news relatively attention-grabbing. The most far-sighted brands these days will seek out PR counsel early, and involve their advisers in all aspects of shaping and framing the brand, so minimising the risk of crisis at the outset.

At its best, PR is a strategic discipline, not just a fulfilment mechanism for decisions taken without its input.

However, if a brand is truly rotten to its core, then there is not a lot that can be done: its next stop is probably the Max Clifford school of PR to try to wheel and deal its way out of the maelstrom.

Brands need to communicate (and set themselves up if possible) in the way they would expect to be communicated to themselves. They need to be truthful, honest, frank and open. No lies, no bullshit.

This could do brands more favours than they might think. As George Orwell so perceptively said: 'In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.' An act that I would suggest media and consumers alike are more ready to respond to and reward than many assume.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011


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