CIPR Northern Conference - handling a crisis, effective consultation, embracing AI and meeting the Godfather of PR

Last week saw Newcastle play host to the CIPR Northern Conference, with PR professionals arriving from throughout the UK and as far afield as Calcutta. Held at The Crowne Plaza, the Conference explored the art and science of engagement.

The first keynote was delivered by Laurie Bell, Director Community and Communications at Wiltshire Council, who captivated the room with her tale of the unfolding of events following the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, the clean-up operation that ensued, relief and elation as the town began to move on, hosting a popular, large-scale cycling event as well as a Royal visit, and then deflation as news of the second incident broke. 

Laurie set out her advice when handling a major incident:

1. Never assume you know it all - make sure that, as comms lead, you are part of all high-level discussions taking place and remain completely up-to-date as the incident progresses. Make sure you have the full facts at any given time, and be prepared to advise and act accordingly. You have to be at the top table if you are to know what to communicate. The worst thing in a crisis is a conflict of information - something that Laurie’s team had to tackle in respect of the effects of Novichok. The primary concern for Laurie’s team was to make sure that the community felt reassured and safe. Laurie also cautioned the room in terms of reputation management - that of the community and town, the council and even your own. 

2. Partnership working is key - there will be many different organisations involved in handling a crisis. To avoid misinformation and to communicate most effectively, a joined-up approach is essential. 

3. Always have a plan and never leave a void of information - Step into the shoes of the media, stakeholders and the community - what does each audience need?

4. Focus on pace and outcomes - when a major incident continues for a length of time, it gets tiring. Look after the needs of the team and make sure everyone’s individual skill-set and strengths is considered when attributing roles.

5. Remain focused - stick to the plan and put a process in place, with daily roll calls, logging of information, a depository for information, templates and hand-overs.

6. You’ll need resilience - a skilled and high-energy team is essential when dealing with an incident of this magnitude. It’s an all-consuming job, but it’s so important.

Laurie describes the role of her team as “Doing what needs to be done at the right time, and making life better, even in the worst of situations.”

She finished her brilliant half hour on stage by urging us all to recognise the significance of our role, saying “…any good board member should have their communications person at their right hand. If they don’t do that, then they deserve to have the reputation that they have.”

Following Laurie’s keynote. we broke off into three groups for workshops. I chose to first attend the Public Consultation workshop with Jen Robson of the North East LEP and Mandy Pearse of Plymouth City Council. The workshop provided an insight into how each organisation has engaged effectively with sometimes tough to reach groups, such as young people, and sought to remind us that consultation should never be a ‘tick-box’ exercise because, quite simply, it won’t be effective and the last thing a council wants is a judicial review. Time and resource is also essential and we as professionals must push back on those who don’t value the importance of good consultation.

Mandy directed us toward Arnstein’s ladder of participation as a good model of engagement as a reference point.

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The second keynote of the day was delivered by North East native, Paul Irwin of Trylife. Paul has a background in working with disadvantaged young people from around the world and has created an interactive film called “Trylife” aimed at educating young people about the consequences of their actions, and helping them to handle themselves in tricky situations. He has a huge social following and, in one month, Trylife reached 65% of all Facebook users in the US with no marketing budget and just one smartphone.

Paul showed the room Jacob’s story - you could hear a pin drop; everyone was completely transfixed. Watch the trailer for yourself....

Breaking for our second workshop, my group heard from James Ealey and Nathan Shrubb of NGI Solutions, who led a discussion on using research for PR. The group talked about the way to spot unreliable data, using it to inform a campaign or strategy or to solve a problem, the way data can be used for news angles and measurement alike, as well as the ethical considerations in terms of being asked by a client to use data to ‘fit’ a preconceived scenario.

My third workshop of the day - and perhaps the most disconcerting - was Stephen Waddington’s talk on AI in PR.

Many PR professionals are resolute in their determination to resist the march of technology and ignore its potential to, one day, make our profession extinct. However, Stephen urged those in the room to remain positive about its impact and use newly available tools for our gain. After highlighting the way AI has begun infiltrating individual aspects of our role, he noted those areas that are less vulnerable. 

An extensive list of the tools recommended by Stephen are listed here on his blog -

After a short break, we settled in for the last keynote of the day, an interview with Bob Leaf, who was described as “the original PR version of Mad Men.” When asked by CIPR Chair, Sarah Hall, what is different about PR today, he said that gaining publicity used to be the sole objective of a PR, although time is now spent on limiting negative publicity and keeping news out of the media. He also highlighted the public’s negative perception of the PR profession, although he said that the quality of individuals entering the profession has improved markedly, with PR now being considered a viable, and indeed desirable, career path by Russell Group Universities. Bob also highlighted the issues presented by fake news, saying nowadays it’s a much tougher - albeit more highly paid - role.

Not short of anecdotes and offering a fascinating overview of different cultural norms in the many countries he launched Burson Marsteller offices, it was an entertaining conversation. If you’d like to hear some of his anecdoes for yourself, pick up a copy of his memoir, The Art of Perception: Memoirs of a life in PR.

After a final panel discussion, the CIPR Northern Conference came to a close; a jam-packed day filled with plenty of learnings. It was fantastic to see such a great event held in the North and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping it won’t be the last.