Monday 22 January 2018

'Keep business speak simple' says communications chief Saunders

Fleishman Hillard chief executive John Saunders
Fleishman Hillard chief executive John Saunders
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

John Saunders began his working life in the sports department at RTE. Like any journalist, the Artane native spent a lot of his time getting bombarded with pitches from PR firms. He tells me he was "cocky enough" to think he could do it better.

"Frankly I felt a lot of them didn't really understand the news cycle or they didn't understand about good content...a lot of them did but a lot of them didn't.

"I was interested in that world. I think what it was, was that if you did it well, it could have a really important business impact.

"I liked that aspect of being able to influence things, that it made a big difference to people's reputations or it made a big difference for publicising an event if you did it right.''

These days Saunders is the president and chief executive of Fleishman Hillard, one of the world's biggest PR firms, active in areas including lobbying, crisis communications and media relations. The firm is part of the New York-listed Omnicom Group which also owns the Porter Novelli and Ketchum firms.

Earlier this week, Omnicom posted third- quarter organic PR revenue growth of 4.4pc year-on-year - taking in almost $350m.

Saunders sees the most attractive way for his arm of the company to grow as selling new services to existing clients.

The PR industry is often treated with scorn - summed up by the now widespread pejorative use of the term 'spin'. It's seen by some as having a complicated relationship with the truth, i.e. telling the bare minimum and in some cases not even that.

"Up until the Nixon years in America public relations was considered to be a noble art," Saunders says.

"Then it became 'spin', it became 'PR' and people started talking more about communications. But to me communications is more about messaging, whereas public relations at its best is actually about genuine relations.

"The fact that it's gotten mixed up is unfortunate and I'm not going to be able to do that much about it, but that version of PR is propaganda, is spin, and at the end of the day it gets what it deserves."

Saunders explains how he thinks sensitive corporate transactions should be handled.

"If I'm working for a client, particularly on sensitive issues, I am not obliged to reveal to a journalist or to anybody, confidential information.

"But I am obliged to make sure that I don't tell lies," he says. "Companies should not tell lies. If there's a particular secret or a deal is about to be done that could be jeopardised as result, of course it's the journalist's job to find out - but it's not my job necessarily to confirm it. It's certainly not my job to deny it if it's patently true that the deal is about to happen.

"I've been confronted with this many times in my life, where a journalist comes to you and say one company is going to do a deal with another company. Now the reality of it is that they may have got their information at the early stage of that and the person giving them the information may have gotten completely ahead of it, when actually unless a whole load of things happen there will be no deal. So they have a grain of a story, but there's only a grain in there at the moment because it's only in the very early days.

"And unless the price is right, unless a lot of other factors are right, the deal isn't going to happen. So I think at that stage it is well within the rights of a company or a spokesperson to say that they can't make any comment...where it's not right is for them to flatly deny that something is going to happen, that's where we get ourselves into trouble."

With the rise of social media it's much easier for a single individual to be a thorn in the side of a major multinational.

Saunders says one of the most common mistakes companies make is to talk about their business in a way that's "clearly not authentic" - leaving them open to online ridicule from customers, or perhaps more damagingly, staff.

The other common mistake he flags up is that there are "still too many people indulging in business speak that we're all tired of".

"It's about keeping it simple... just because you've said it doesn't mean it's understood."

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