Last week I spent two days at the ICCO Global Summit 2021 in London. It was the first in-person PR and communications industry conference I’ve attended since the start of the pandemic. It was a fascinating experience to attend a well-run hybrid event. There were lots of great keynote speakers and panels including:
Balancing free speech, dangerous speech, free media and misinformation – This panel took a global perspective and challenged Western concepts of regulating social media.
Challenges and opportunities of the communications sector in Africa – This panel mainly focused on Nigeria and the importance of recognising that Africa is lots of countries which are very different, but is too often lumped together as a single market.
The Great Band Battle – A fascinating panel chaired by Giles Peddy. It looked at the challenges of attribution and if marketing really can do measurement better than public relations and the difference between sales led acitivy and brand led activity. I agreed with some points made, but I was also desperate to join in the debate as there were many points that I felt needed to be made. If I get time I’ll also write this one up as it will be more my own thoughts and opinions rather than a simple report of what was said.
In an era of championing diversity and inclusion, should PR firms engage nations that hold differing values? – This was a great discussion between Curzon PR founder Farzana Baduel and Anthony Fisher, director of Global Strategy. I’ve already got a partially written article on the same topic so will incorporate some discussion points from this session.
One of the most interesting sessions for me was the keynote by Alex Aiken, executive director, UK Government and until recently, head of the Government Communication Service.
Alex Aiken, executive director, UK Government
Alex Aiken is always good value as a speaker as not only does he usually talk sense, but he always brings so much energy, humour and enthusiasm. I’m not just saying this because he gave me and Steve Miller (commercial director of ICCO and the PRCA) a shout out at the start of his speech. His theme was ‘ Next generation communication: impact, strategy and ethics’. Much of his speech was sharing his experience of leading government communications during Covid with reflections and observations on what we can all learn from it.
I loved that Alex paid tribute to his grandmother (a suffragette) and his mother (one of the first women to work on the London Stock Exchange) at the start of his speech. He was drawing on the panel we’d just heard on how we can accelerate the pace of change to encourage more women to take up leadership roles in the PR industry. He shared how the situation had changed in UK government communications from 10 years ago when just 10% of the communications directors were women. Today the number fluctuates, but is as close to 50//50 as possible as it has been as high as 60%, but has dipped to 45%. The reality is that when it’s a limited number of roles it’s rarely going to be 50/50 as just one or two people changing can skew the numbers.
Alex says one reason they achieved this is a focus on “investing in training at an industrial level”. This was music to my ears. Not just because I provide PR and communications professional development and training to my clients, but because I believe everyone should be passionate about lifelong learning and continuous professional development.
He then returned to the main theme of his talk which is how the Covid tragedy has enhanced the role of communication. Alex believes we’re at a moment globally when there is more opportunity for communication to prove its value.
It started for Alex on 28 February 2020 when he was at GCHQ in Cheltenham (the UK government signals and intelligence agency) where security is so tight you can’t take in any electronic devices such as mobiles. He was therefore surprised to receive a call telling him to return to London immediately. He had been recalled to sit in a series of meetings about the looming crisis.
What’s important to recognise is this shows that communications was in the room at the top table at the very start. That’s how it should always be, but too seldom is the case. The UK government decided at a very early stage that it would create a communications hub in the Cabinet Office to bring together all the talents, all the capabilities on one floor. It was to identify and ensure there was one version of the truth and say this is what all the communications intelligence is telling us.
Alex explained what a challenge this was.
All the talents included senior PR professionals like Alex and Tom Knox (MullenLowe) from advertising. It even included the army with the 77th Brigade, the army’s information warfare brigade. It contributed invaluable expertise on on target audience analysis and on interventions against state sponsored disinformation. The government had its own Rapid Response Unit to deal with domestic disinformation. Alex emphasised the importance of breaking down silos and working together with media relations, public health communications, marketing, internal communications and more.
As a PR professional who is obsessed with measurement and evaluation I’m always telling people to focus on the impact, but it’s rarely as important as in this case.
Alex then went on to talk about the global challenges facing the world that we as professional communicators must be ready for. He referenced an earlier remark about how a recent front page of the Washington Post was about hate speech, divided societies, climate change, economic worries about the cost of living, the rise of robots and AI, online abuse and the last was Covid.
Alex drew the link between the UK’s strong Civil Service code around integrity, truth and openess and the need to use evidence based communications.
Alex concluded by looking at what lessons we can learn for the future of public relations and communications.
Alex Aiken believes the future of communications is 5D.
5D – Direct. Digital. Data-driven. Diversity. Disinformation.
Direct means using direct channels to reach audiences rather than the previously mediated world through the media. The fifth D is countering disinformation, which isn’t something that just government communicators need to do, but is increasingly a priority for all communications professionals.