A month in to Dominic Cummings reign as chief aid to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chaos is beginning to boil over.
In his blog, Cummings regularly records his desire to break systems, quoting military philosophy as justification for his arguments. His aim, it seems, is to break a system he dislikes and despises and, it would seem, he happily uses any means to achieve his aims.
This is not a political blog. It is one concerned with public relations and communication - the building of relationships that give organisations their licence to operate supported by effective communication, knowledge, understanding and ethical behaviour. In the video below, Cummings explains at the 2017 Ogilvy Nudgestock conference the methods employed to achieve a win in the UK referendum concerning participation in the EU - known now as the Brexit Referendum. If, as I am, you are involved in public relations and communication, then I'd urge you to watch the whole thing so you can understand the deliberate, planned and blatant behavioural manipulation that is in progress right now, working towards a complete system breakdown of benefit only to its perpetrators.
In the video, Cummings takes you through the tricks and tactics he deployed in order to - in his own words at various points in the presentation - 'provoke rage...neutralise...put the boot in'. The seven million people exposed to the 1.5bn targeted ads over the short period of time pre-referendum is peanuts compared to what's ahead in the UK - and other countries around the world - as elections, media, citizens, public psychology and governing systems are blatantly manipulated for private gain. Cummings' work appears to be a (pseudo) intellectual exercise centred on ways to break the system he reviles.
What's going on today behind the doors of 10 Downing Street has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of being in or out of Europe. It has nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of the UK population. It has everything to do with the selfish and power-hungry wanting their own way, shamelessly stoking division and hatred and using unethical and underhand practices to do so
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
Musing on measurement and evaluation led me to some recent conversations around public relations and its purpose. Silly of me not to have revisited the topic in a while but I truly forget that people still paddle around in the tactical shallows and miss the ocean of opportunity right in front of them.
There is still a propensity in western public relations practice to equate PR with mainstream media relations. It's a historical hangover from the time when media coverage was the only visible output and also because of the many journalists who wandered over from newspapers to work in the field - years ago, I made just that journey. Trouble is, those who move into public relations often never move on from journalism and fail to recognise that public relations is a different job entirely. The other problem is that many organisations don't understand (or, quite frankly, have no idea) as to the purpose and value of public relations. It has been variously defined - there's a bit of last century research that is generally trotted out which found hundreds of definitions - but life's moved on and there is plenty of current research that identifies quite correctly that public relations is concerned with relationships. Hardly a surprise when you consider the name of our profession.
The definition I've developed and advised after many years working in the field is this: public relations builds and sustains the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate. Simple, straightforward and does what it says on the tin. But then you get arguments around communication v. public relations and all points in between. 'No, I do reputation', says one. 'No, I do corporate comms' says another. 'Wait', yells someone from the back, 'it's internal relations we should be highlighting'. The secret is there is no secret - everyone is right. What isn't right is their context - they are only seeing one part of the whole - which is why I developed the PR Atom pictured above to help visualise how it all fits together.
Relationships are at the heart of what we do. Without good relationships, with their components of trust, mutuality, commitment, loyalty, satisfaction and - my addition - reputation, organisations of all types will lose their licence to operate. Additionally, we function (for the moment at least) in a relationship economy. However, good relationships don't just happen, which is where our work is supported by the essential elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. All relationships need good communication, a clear understanding of each party involved plus good and appropriate behaviour from everyone. As relationships have their components, so too do the other elements. Practitioners - and their organisations - have to be adept at written, oral, visual and experiential communication, across channels and cultures. Our organisation or client behaviour must be ethical, fair, contribute value to society and be considerate of our stakeholders - which includes employees, internal relations and the employee experience. All these elements work together, constantly in motion to help fulfil our purpose. Practitioners may specialise in one or more areas of activity, indeed they may focus entirely on a single aspect or channel but if they lose sight of the whole, ignore the bigger picture and don't understand the purpose then they end up bogged down in the tactical, becoming order takers stuck on the hamster wheel of sending stuff out. Critically, working in the shallows leaves practitioners at seriously disadvantaged when crisis strikes or issues evolve as they'll be isolated from the rest of the organisation.
If you've recently joined our profession, a very warm welcome to you. I hope you enjoy this world of work where issues collide and there is something new to learn every day. My advice would be don't get stuck in the past, when practice was (in western countries at least) confined to publicity, media relations or lesser activities. Be curious. Be an evolved practitioner. See the whole. There are all sorts of places to find out more - there's a 'What is PR' page on this site for your reference and, last year, the Global Alliance published the Global Capabilities Framework which identifies the competencies we should seek to develop. Check it out and see the real scope of your work, escape the shallows and make a real difference to the communities and societies we serve.
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