Cool heads in a crisis – A day at the PRCA Conference

I recently attended the Annual PRCA Conference. The PRCA (for those who don’t know) is one of the bodies for the public relations and comms industry (the other being the CIPR).

The purpose of the PRCA Conference is three-fold: 

  1. Report back on the activities and successes of the Association over the last 12 months
  2. Provide a platform to discuss burning issues and shared challenges across agency and in-house professionals  alike 
  3. To learn best practice from colleagues and stimulate ideas.

Whilst the PRCA is well-known within the industry, its profile in the wider world is surprisingly muted. The very nature of PR is that we help to inform the news and shape the reputation of our clients/employers in the media, we aren’t the story itself.

Recent months though have of course been the exception to this rule. 

In September the PRCA very publicly denounced Bell Pottinger in the wake of the Gupta/South Africa scandal and expelled them as a member of the PRCA. It’s not often that either the PR industry, or our industry body, makes national headlines. Depending on your point of view the actions of the PRCA were either, a). essential to preserving the moral integrity of the PR industry and setting a marker for intolerance of poor ethics, or b). it was it was a chance to score cheap PR points and sucker-punch the agency at a point when it was already reeling on the ropes and heading head-first for the canvass and a ten-count. 

What was certainly clear was that chair Francis Ingham, director general PRCA, wasn’t going to shy away from the issue, addressing the Bell Pottinger-shaped elephant in the room within the first minute of his opening remarks. Ingham confided that the decision to expel Bell Pottinger was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make and the most stressful period – by some distance – in his career. He also candidly revealed that he and his family received death threats, not just on social media (inevitably the go-to place for threatening, anonymous trolls) but also in person, the most shocking being at 4am outside his home. Whilst critical of Bell Pottinger’s unethical activities, Ingham also derided those who suggested the PRCA took any delight or pleasure in seeing the UK’s biggest agency collapse, or the Association’s participation. 

Whilst ethics and morality was unavoidably the first big issue to be addressed, the over-arching theme for the day was actually ‘communicating in turbulent times’. 

The stand-out speaker for the conference was without doubt Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Communications, Greater Manchester Police who spoke at length about how her comms team responded to the MEN Arena bombing. From the first post on social media just 20 minutes after the incident happened, through to the ongoing daily support provided to the community and the victim’s families in the month’s following the attack, Coleman gave an honest and heartfelt account of the vital role comms plays when a major incident occurs.

She stressed the need for speed and accuracy in all comms to keep people informed and reduce the spread of false information. Also adding that planning for crisis incidents is vital, but sometimes you need to react based on gut feel and instinct when there is no play book for what’s happening in front of you (not least when the leader of the free world wades in on Twitter). But more than anything – and my major takeaway from the day – compassion is paramount.

Every activity conducted by Coleman’s team was done with the needs of the community and the victims and their families put first. Everything else came a distant second. If there is a wider lesson to learn here for the PR and comms industry, I think it’s that whilst our clients pay our bills, it’s the end user – the citizen, the consumer, the buyer – who is our real audience. Everything we do needs to serve them first and foremost. Get that right and positive brand reputation will follow.