S1E7: Why corporate reputation needs to learn from politics
Updated: Sep 9
James Frayne, co-founder of Public First, campaign strategist and author of corporate communications primer Meet the People, tells me why no organisation can truly avoid politics these days - no matter how much they may wish to.
We talk about what that means for your communications strategy, how you should structure a communications team, and what to make of the whole 'purpose thing'.
The main lessons?:
Integrate all of your comms teams under one leader and one strategy
Prepare for battle - no one likes being shouted at, so you need to plan rigorously
Actively listen to conversations about you - online and offline
Learn to distinguish between the parts of that conversation that actually matter and the elements that are ephemeral, by understanding what actually matters to the people who matter most to you.
Subscribe on all good platforms (find links HERE)
Or read the transcript in full here:
S1E7 - Why corporate reputation needs to learn from politics
[00:00:00] James Frayne: The reputation of businesses now is formed in direct conversation with the public; it's toing and froing. You don't own that reputation in the way that you once did.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think, and feel about your organization, then you are in the right place. My name is Daisy Powell-Chandler. And today I'm speaking to James Frayne, campaign strategist, and author of Meet the People about why businesses can run and they can hide, but politics is coming to get them.
Hi, James, thank you so much for joining me today. Why does everybody hate you?
James Frayne: It's an interesting question. I think I've been involved in a number of quite high profile political battles over the course of the last [00:01:00] several years. You know, I'm thinking back to, you know, the time when I was Director of Comms at the Department for education.
And I was trying to push through, academies and free schools reforms at that point, which obviously was not to everybody's taste. And I've done various campaigns down the years, which have been, I think very well supported by the mass of the public, if you like, but which have invited the ire of political opponents, I suppose.
So I seem to have been drawn into those battles quite a lot down the years.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: That divisiveness sounds interesting, but stressful.
James Frayne: I never found it so honestly, I mean, in that, you know, I always worked on campaigns, which I believed in. I was never really a sort of gun for hire from that perspective.
And even now, You know, in my professional life, in the corporate life, I wouldn't work on campaigns or I wouldn't work [00:02:00] with clients, which I didn't have sympathy and respectful. So I've never found it stressful given that I've always thought I was on the right side. And you know, there is obviously the fact that you just simply get used to being in battle a lot when you've been, when you've been working in such campaigns over, over a long period of time, and it sort of becomes what you do.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: And what's your favourite campaign during that time being what's been the, the glorious battle that you harked back to?
James Frayne: I think the political campaign I enjoyed most of all in recent times, it's actually was working with, the New Schools Network ahead of their launch in, 2009. This was ahead of the introduction of free schools and the sort of ramping up of the Academy process. you know, when the Conservatives took over in 2010, I mean, that was so fascinating because you had a really important political issue and one that the public cared about a great deal, [00:03:00] but also one which attracted enormous, political controversy, you know, the unions were very opposed to it. The Labour Party became very opposed to it and it became one of the sort of central battles, I suppose, of politics of, of that period.
So I was involved in that and then obviously carried on the selling of free schools and academies when I went into government in 2011 as a civil servant, working for the Department for Education and whilst actually I've always been pretty apolitical from a sort of party perspective. I've never been neutral on issues and I suppose on ideology, I suppose, and therefore, you know, I really wanted to be involved in the selling of free schools and academies. I believed in it and I was really pleased to be working on it in government as well.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: And isn't that also how you met your wife?
[00:04:00] James Frayne: It is, it is. So I guess it's the, the ultimate metric of, of a, of a successful campaign.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Yes. Number of relationships formed on the campaign trail, as it were. So that was your favourite political campaign, but you sounded like it may not be your favourite campaign of all time.
James Frayne: Well, I think it probably was, but I've never been one of those people that found it hard to leave the sort of political environment.
Again, partly because I've never been terribly political. You know, I've always been sort of quite ideological, but not terribly political. And therefore I always found campaigns in a corporate setting, just as interesting. So, at a previous agency, for example, working to get a, the supermarket built in a very working class area where the sort of, I suppose, To start use a, a bit of a sort of stereotype, there was a lot of [00:05:00] wealthy second home owners from London who had gone to retire to this particular area. And there's a lot of, sort of very affluent people that spend a lot of time there that didn't want the idea of this, downmarket supermarket polluting their town, if you like. And mobilizing working class people who were desperate for cheaper food and cheaper groceries generally into a political campaign was, was really, really interesting and very satisfying. And again, you know, this takes me back to my point at the start about, I suppose, engaging in controversial issues. That to me was an entirely mainstream issue where you had majority support and overwhelming support from working class and lower middle class people locally, but you had you know, a minority of people, but they were very powerful locally that [00:06:00] didn't want this to happen. I suppose I've always been attracted by those causes.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: But there is a lot of organisations for which that controversy, that divisiveness is exactly why they try to steer clear of political issues, isn't it? Is that actually possible in this day and age?
James Frayne: It was, it was, I think an even going back. I mean five years is a push, but certainly 10 years, I think it was definitely possible. Now you could be, let's say an energy company that did oil exploration in some far-flung country. And you're a big company.
Yeah. You had a very low profile. You weren't Shell or BP. You didn't attract the attention of the mega-NGOs you just got on with doing your exploration, selling your product. Give them a nice dividend to your shareholders. And that's probably true, you know, people like mining companies, [00:07:00] some of the big property companies and these sorts of things, they were massive, but they have no public profile and therefore there was very little scrutiny.
In that situation, you can define your reputation in the classic way, you can do some top-down marketing. You can do some elite corp comms via that FT or the wall street journal. You can do it with back. You can do a little bit of background public affairs, but fundamentally you can keep your head down and get the job done. That is just not viable anymore.
You know, even those companies that wants to just keep their head down and relatively low profile, being dragged into these political battles. So to sort of slightly, sort of misquote Trotsky, you know, you might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.
There is no hiding place anymore for any business because. There is just so much more scrutiny now from the local campaigns, [00:08:00] smaller NGOs, activist groups of all sorts that can drag you in for a million different reasons. So every business now has its reputation defined in parts, and that part is growing fast by politics
Daisy Powell-Chandler: And that growth of those small activist campaigns. What has fueled that.
James Frayne: The internet, unquestionably. IN that you can now form these, mini campaigns that you can, you know, you can link up with people right across the world, basically, no notice to put together these campaigns clearly, that has changed the game substantially.
I'm hardly the first person to say that. But there has also been, I think a shift generally in the views, particularly amongst, amongst younger voters about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable anymore. And, you know, businesses are increasingly being dragged in to [00:09:00] these political campaigns that previously didn't really affect them.
So, you know, they're been dragged into, into fights over things like climate change or treatment of suppliers. Diversity, thingss like women on boards, a number of minorities that are part of that graduate program, the sorts of things. So right across the board, there are these social campaigns, which are just exploding and dragging businesses in.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Do you think that the skew towards younger people that we see on, on social media and, and those kinds of, global social media campaigns means that companies that do engage in these debates will necessarily be skewed much more towards what I think we might somewhat glibly call the woke agenda. Is it always going to be a slightly left-leaning social agenda that they get pulled into, or is it a broader spectrum [00:10:00] than that?
James Frayne: That's one of the most interesting questions of all, really, which you know, which is, which are the issues that businesses ought to take most seriously. And there's no question that the issues that come onto the agenda, most of all at the moment are ones which are pushed, I suppose from a more left leaning perspective, I think for a few reasons, poly, as you say, the internet generally sort of foregrounds younger people and therefore the political interests that people have it, a push perhaps more than we might have seen previously. But secondly, it's certainly in my experience, left-leaning people and middle class people more generally actually, are much, much, much more political than right-leaning people and, working class and lower middle class consumers.
I mean, it's just, they are much more politically aware. They self-defined by politics in a way that [00:11:00] other groups don't and therefore the campaigns that come to the fore are often those that lean left. Not entirely. I mean, you could say, I mean, honestly I think, yeah, the concern about climate change is shared across the political spectrum but the campaigns tend to come from the left, but the interest is across the political spectrum. I think the same is true about a lot of the diversity campaigns, where they would have very serious, widespread public support, but nonetheless, the frontline activists would lean left. And it's down to businesses I think to ultimately work out whether or not their customers and their prospective, customers are aligned ultimately with the activists that are pushing particular campaigns. And that's, that really is the key question that they need to ask themselves.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: So companies are faced with not just having to respond to the political issues of the day, understand what the internal impact [00:12:00] of those issues is, communicate that concern outwardly and explain how they're acting upon it, but also engage much more with the audiences in order to understand their real concerns.
James Frayne: Yes. I think, you know, businesses have to ask themselves the big question, which is. Does any of this matter? You know, if they are being attacked, does this matter from a, from a commercial perspective?
So, you know, there'll be some, there'll be some yeah. Campaigns, which are a bit niche, or they're not pushed by terribly many people. They are not really seen as being that important anyway. And you need to work out whether or not, therefore, it's damaging you or not. Secondly, conversely, are there political campaigns, which are only touching you as an organisation, tangentially, which might not be terribly high profile [00:13:00] online, but actually, which the vast bulk of your customers and prospective customers do care about.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: It's not just the subject matter though, is it? One of the things I particularly liked about your book is that it talks about the operational side of communications and how much businesses can learn from political campaigns about dealing with this new state of affairs, where everything is political.
Can you tell me a bit more about that?
James Frayne: Well, I think one of the, one of the problems of this sort of traditional structure of the communications teams in many particularly large businesses is they tend to be very highly siloed. So you would have typically a very large marketing team with a very large budget. Which tends ultimately to push, advertising around products, some CSR, but it tends to be mostly not terribly political. it tends to be sort of very top down. You're trying to shape [00:14:00] your reputation. You launched an advertising marketing to do that. That's it's not to disparage it by putting it that way. That's just, that's how it is.
I think secondly, you'd have a core comms team that would handle the pointed, but polite, comments and questions from the FT and the wall street journal say. And then thirdly, you would have a public affairs team that's sought to monitor ongoing political and regulatory change.
And which may seeks to pushback somehow, either directly through it or through a trade association. You know, that was, I think fine when organisations weren't being dragged into these very political fights. But when your reputation is increasingly being formed by what people are saying about your stance on political issues or on your, on your sort of behavior and values. I don't think that model holds anymore. Because you ultimately need [00:15:00] to focus much more on engaging in this two-way conversation with the public and when your communications team is very siloed, as many are, it makes it very difficult to organize full-scale broad pushback of the type that is now required. And again, I think you also have a problem, which is certainly in the marketing teams and you'll see this happening all the time online is they are not generally staffed by people that understand political combat. So for example, what we saw last week, the co-op getting dragged into our a row around press freedom. Because you've got people effectively making corporate statements about the organisation's stance on really important things with what looked like not a great deal of sort of high level authority to actually say those things. So, you know, I think it's, it's really important that businesses actually take politics much more seriously.
[00:16:00] That they engage in this sort of to-ing and fro-ing with the public in a way that they haven't in the past on political issues. And therefore, ultimately that you have a team which is entirely integrated, but ultimately led by somebody that understands how to communicate with the public on these sensitive issues.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: It is hard though, isn't it? When you've got social media managers who are having to deal with the day to day realities of a simple customer interactions online and at the same time, be ready for that level of emotional intensity, which now seems to be acceptable on Twitter every day, where people are suddenly incredibly outraged about something. And it strikes me that is something. That is very different about stepping into this more political world.
James Frayne: It's brutal. It's absolutely brutal. And as you say, you can have, people that previously were expected to just answer some basic [00:17:00] questions about. Why products have been sent to a customer, it was damaged. Why a train had been delayed, these sorts of things. All of a sudden that same team is dealing with the most controversial and high profile and sensitive subjects that you can possibly imagine. And not unreasonably. Again, I'm not implying any sort of particular criticism for people finding this difficult, but that is just a completely different ball game. And therefore, you know, inevitably the structure and the skill sets of communications teams is going to have to change very rapidly to deal with that.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Do you think in a funny way, this really means the death of crisis comms. You know, if we're always in crisis comms mode, if we always have to be ready for that 0 to 100 outrage, if we always have to be ready to do battle, does that mean that crisis comes as [00:18:00] a discipline is dead because we're going to be doing it all the time?
James Frayne: It's an interesting question, which I confess, I hadn't thought about in the way that you had to put it in until we did puts it like that. But I think, yes, inevitably. Yeah, it must be. Now the idea of that, you see these Hollywood films and dramas where, and now here come, the serious people that are going to come in and solve this problem. And they're going to sort of talk away out of it. That's clearly not credible anymore in that you can't draw a line under things in quite the way they, you would have been able to do in the past, because as you say, it's ongoing, you know, there's just sort of, I suppose, a long tail of outrage, if you like to, to everything these days, And whilst I think the skills of crisis communications are important to get you over a particular hump. If you like, it is, as you say, sort of just a general ongoing battle where, you know, instead of having classic crisis comms specialists, you need people probably that are a bit more focused on. [00:19:00] As I said, as I've said before, sort of engaging in political combat.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: I'm also really interested in how purpose fits in with all of this. Purpose seems to have been the watch word of corporate communications over the past couple of years.
And we're seeing it be talked about more and more. What role does purpose play in that new integrated battle ready communications machine?
James Frayne: Well, I think it's so integral to everything really. And I have sort of slightly heretical opinions on purpose, to the extent I come across very, very few people that share the same view.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: Now, now I really want to hear it!
James Frayne: It's the fact that I think. There's often so little purpose behind purpose in that you can never pin down a lot of people in this space, on what actually they think the point of the whole thing is, so you had people say it's really important for brands to demonstrate purpose because consumers want to [00:20:00] understand the values of the company and they want to feel aligned to those values, which I happen to agree with fundamentally.
I completely agree with that. But whenever you talk about therefore, what should company X or company Y I do, it always tends to be something which honestly is quite used the phrase before that was quite sort of woke or quite PC. Now that absolutely that would be the right thing to do if you are a company which has a younger, urban, highly, socially liberal customer base. It makes complete sense to do that. It therefore made sense for Nike, to do what it did recently. It makes sense for, will be another good example. Ben and Jerry's yeah, it wouldn't be, it might make sense for Ben and Jerry's to do, to do that as well. That's a good example, but if you are anybody with a small C conservative base, which is more [00:21:00] suburban, leans older, Quite risk averse, then it just simply doesn't make sense to engaging in debates, around purpose along the same lines.
It must have been a couple of years ago. Now I had a bit of a disagreement with the CEO of Iceland in that I'd written a piece. I think it was for the Sunday Telegraph or for the Telegraph. Now making some of these points. And I said that I thought their campaign on protecting orangutans was laudable, which I think is genuinely, I mean, I genuinely think it's, it's a good thing to do, but I thought he didn't really light up their customer base, which was urban, less affluent. And I think probably generally worried about different sorts of issues. And the CEO wrote a blog on the Iceland website. he'd said that this was snobby of me to have, [00:22:00] sort of, sort of mischaracterized his customers in this way and that it was the right thing to do and, you know, et cetera, et cetera.
And again, I have some sympathy with the view that it's the right thing to do. I have less sympathy with the idea that, that. I some customers would be, would be primarily interested in an issue like that perhaps. No, I think they might be more interested in issues around, you know, security or cost of living or something.
Not personally. Well, I just think everybody's just got to be ruthlessly, honest about why they're engaging. In this debate. And I think too many businesses try to have it every which way they'll say to investors, then they'll say to the media that this is the right thing to do, because it's the right thing to do commercially, because this is where people want to go.
But then when you say, well, hang on a minute, surely your people don't really believe in that then it's Oh, no, but this is just the right thing to do full stop. And again, which I, I [00:23:00] truly think is, is a reasonable thing to do, but you've just got to be completely honest about what it is that you're actually trying to achieve with this stuff.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: I love projects like that, finding the sweet spot between where the consumer interest lies, where your commercial interest lies, where you can make the most impact and where your investors will see the benefit. That is definitely my dream project. I love working on those. Now, I think we're, we're drawing to a close now, but I do like to ask for some concrete lessons that listeners can take away and apply whether it's today or in the next few months to their own reputation practice.
What do you think listeners should be taking away from our talk today?
James Frayne: I suppose there are two cultural lessons that are important. The first is that I think businesses have to accept now that they are in the business of political discussion, if you like at best and at worst in political combat. If you're [00:24:00] a firm in the sort of energy sector or something, you know, you really are going to be taking a lot of heat over the course of the next few years as more and more organisations beam in on you.
So I think people have to accept the need to engage in politics. Secondly, I think organisations have got to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about the purpose of purpose, you know, you have to be really, really clear about what values you want to project and why you want to project them. And if you want to project them simply because it's a moral good, that's fine. Go ahead. But you have to be, you have to be clear then that you are relegating, essentially commercial goals from that. And that's fine, but you've got to be eyes open on it.
The other lessons are I think that from a practical perspective, communications teams have got to be entirely integrated now and they have to be led by somebody that is able to take [00:25:00] a view on a business's reputation and how it's being formed as a whole. So it doesn't make sense I think for businesses in the public eye, ultimately to be lad from a reputation perspective by people that really only understand top-down communications, either top-down marketing or top-down corporate comms. It makes no sense because that's, that's ultimately not where the challenge lies.
Organisations now have to start recruiting and promoting and putting into essentially putting these people in positions of control that really understand political and social issues and how to engage with them.
Daisy Powell-Chandler: That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, James Frayne of Public First.
If you've [00:26:00] enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll join me in two weeks time for the next one to make that easier, please do find us at Whyeverybodyhatesyou.co.uk and click subscribe on your favorite podcasting app. I would also be really grateful if you would leave us a review, if you get the chance, as reviews help new listeners to find the show.
Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You. And remember: you are not alone.