Courting Publicity – The Public’s Right to Hear 

Last week saw the release of a Justice Committee report on a subject close to our hearts – Court Reporting in the Digital Age.  The report examines the barriers to open and transparent justice and the public’s right to learn of, or personally experience, cases heard across the justice system.

Its findings will come as no surprise to those of us, whether members of the media or general public, who seek access to civil and criminal court proceedings. The process of availing oneself of the written documents in a case to allow for a comprehensive understanding of the facts is truly antediluvian and seemingly deliberately opaque – made worse by the introduction of online only hearings. Finding out if reporting restrictions apply in a case can equally prove problematic.

Parliament deserves credit for at least recognising there is still, in 2023, an access and transparency problem in our judicial system and so commissioning the study. The principle that justice should be administered in public was rightly recognised throughout the report as paramount, to be restricted only in limited circumstances: “Fair, accurate and contemporaneous media reporting of proceedings should not be prevented by any action of the court unless strictly necessary” [para 5] and recognising “the media are the ‘eyes and ears of the public’ in court proceedings” [para 21]

Witnesses

Thoughtful and constructive submissions were received from representatives of all interested parties – the judiciary (from magistrates through to the Lord Chief Justice); representatives from HMCTS; journalists; academics; trade bodies; justice charities; media standards and investigative organisations; commercial legal information providers; solicitors and barristers.  

Together, they helped the Committee form a detailed set of conclusions and recommendations – that are likely to be totally overlooked by the MoJ for lack of funding.  Was it ever thus.

However, were they enacted in a parallel universe, the proposals may not solve all ills but would certainly improve the public’s exposure to justice meted out in its name. In the process, they might improve the public standing of both the judiciary and the media itself, tasked with reporting complex or disturbing cases but these days hampered by a combination of ignorance or antipathy to the rights of the public.  

The Information Gap

Witnesses gave troubling evidence that publishers have significantly cut back on funding for reporting court cases, both locally and nationally, despite the obvious interest in their outcomes.  Few can afford to send reporters to attend court daily throughout a trial, without a guarantee that copy will be filed.   

This, of course, means the information gap can usefully be filled by litigation PR experts – our job is sometimes to alert media to, other times to educate journalists on our clients’ cases, highlighting the positive, mitigating the negative, not just through trial or post judgment, but most usefully throughout the litigation timetable. 

Sometimes, and rather less welcomingly, this information gap risks being filled in criminal cases by the police and CPS, whose press releases, we are told, are not always wholly accurate, despite an increased reliance by journalists on their content [para 28].

Solutions

So what should be done to improve transparency? The most obviously pressing recommendation is the improved use of IT in both recording and disseminating information on hearings, case files, judgments and appeals.  

  • A single digital portal is recommended which the media and public could use to access information. The US PACER (public access to court electronic records) system should be its model. It should include a centralised database of reporting restrictions on cases.
  • AI-powered transcription could be piloted to see whether this could reduce the cost of producing court transcripts. Sentencing remarks in Magistrates Courts might be routinely transcripted but all Crown Court sentencing remarks should be.
  • The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice should publish a paper setting out the public’s right to witness court hearings and have access to relevant documentation in the digital age.
  • MPs and education establishments should be encouraged to visit their local courts to develop a truer understanding of how they operate.
  • With respect to the family courts, there should be a review of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960. Section 12 should be replaced with a much more targeted measure that respects the principle of open justice.
  • Care must be taken in the digital age (particularly given the rise in citizen journalism where individuals are not trained in the specialism of court reporting), to uphold the principles of fairness and quality of justice.
  • The new Reporters’ Charter is welcomed, but there should be a similar one for the public setting out social rights and responsibilities when it comes to accessing information from the court.
  • His Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service should ensure that the requisite resources are provided to enable the establishment of an anonymisation unit that facilitates the publication of at least 10% of Family Court judgments without the risk of identification of the parties involved.

So there’s much that could, and should, be done to maintain the public’s right to witness personally, or by proxy, the vital work of the courts in England and Wales. Until then, if you want your case heard and for it to have half a chance of being accurately reflected, give us a call!

By Melanie Riley

Tuesday 24th January 2023

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BrewDog PR Hypocrisy Puts Brand in the Doghouse

When the multinational brewery and pub chain BrewDog launched an attack on the Qatar World Cup, referencing the Emirate’s alleged human rights abuses in a rather humorous advert, “First Russia, then Qatar, we can’t wait for North Korea”, it articulated the mood of the public perfectly. The mention of being a sponsor of the “World F*Cup” was also a nice, everyman touch. 

However, the murky reality is that despite their protests BrewDog are still showing the football competition in their many pubs, are providing beers to Qatar for the event, and aren’t exactly in the best position to be shaming anyone on their employees’ rights records given the countless accusations of a toxic workplace culture that have hung over the company and its reputation for years.

This raises the debate of whether it is hypocritical to seek to criticise others and by implication position yourself as a ‘purposeful’ organisation when your business behaviours don’t live up to that depiction. Doing so risks alienating your stakeholders and violating the trust and the authenticity of your firm’s mission statements. In these days of citizen journalism, with social media amplification at the touch of a button, if you don’t walk the walk, you’ll soon be exposed and judged for talking the talk.

Brand association is a real banana skin. British Cycling seeking the oil giant Shell as a sponsor and accepting its largesse in an eight-year deal has caused understandable outrage and disparagement for ‘greenwashing’ amongst their eco-aware audience. This indignation was further highlighted by Greenpeace’s heavy condemnation of the partnership

“The idea of Shell helping British Cycling reach net zero is as absurd as beef farmers advising lettuce farmers on how to go vegan.”

Law firms, just as any large brand, must ensure their actions, partnerships, and values align in any well-structured sponsorship strategy – as authenticity is key. Failure to practice what you preach risks betraying your brand message and causing unwelcome unrest amongst your stakeholders.   

It’s still unwise to throw stones in glass houses.

By Declan Flahive

Friday 11th November 2022

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5 Tips to Grow Your Business on Social Media

In the fast-moving digital age, organisations need to engage with social media on a professional level or risk falling behind the pack. Whilst social media marketing might be an intimidating venture to some, effectively using it alongside more traditional PR techniques will bring you a range of advantages that will help your business flourish.

Here are a few tips on how to grow your business on social media:

1. Build a long-term relationship with your audience

Audiences of most traditional PR techniques tend to interact passively with content. In contrast, social media offers a two-sided relationship to its followers allowing ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and replies to a company’s online posts. This “relationship marketing” aspect is a powerful tool in making the brand more accessible. You can help to grow a committed following by nurturing this relationship with high-quality and relevant online content.

2. Be consistent with your online voice

Deviations and inconsistencies in your tone can lead to distrust brewing within your audience base. Avoid this pitfall by ensuring that your voice is clear, becoming recognisably ‘you’ which will help maintain and build a healthy online following – provided this voice is one that connects with your desired audience. It is also important to understand and adapt to the varied attributes that each social media platform offers. Twitter has a much more constrained character limit with shorter visibility, whereas LinkedIn caters to long-form written content and maintains its visibility for longer.

3. Utilise social media algorithms

Use the reward systems of social media algorithms to gain free promotion for your organisation’s online profile. Offer consistent content to your audience by following a content calendar that marks out how often and when you are going to post. As a result, the social media platform’s algorithm will recognise you as a reliable source of regular content and will promote your online presence for free. Ensuring that your content is truly valuable to your audience will likely boost its social media metrics of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and ‘comments’. Once again, the algorithm will reward such engaging content with further organic promotion.

4. Sense an incoming crisis

Social media monitoring can be a vital tool in sensing a brewing storm before impact. As any PR professional will know, it is much easier to prevent a crisis from taking place than it is to get the toothpaste back into its tube, so to speak. Through early online detection more traditional crisis communication strategies can be deployed to reduce reputational damage. Be clear and concise if you are going to engage with a crisis online or else you risk worsening the situation, as was the case with Center Parcs and the hullabaloo surrounding their clunky reaction to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

5. Use analytics to monitor growth and shape strategy

Analysing the level and extent of online engagement in your content can help target all future content and key messaging. The vast analytics offered on social media platforms, such as impression rates, enables you to closely monitor the growth of your account and ensure that it remains on an upwards trajectory (within your preferred target audience) by recognising and doubling down on the types of content that have the best engagement rate.

Content is King

Traditional PR and social media marketing are powerful tools that can become even more profound when used in sync. Failing to utilise social media is to miss out on vast engagement with, and knowledge of, your audience. However, your social media presence should be taken as seriously as other elements of your business. Failure to ‘read the room’ or sense an impending crisis, for instance, can end in a social media pile-on, creating a disaster for even the largest and most robust of organisations.

In short, content is king – create it, target it, evaluate it and don’t be afraid to adapt it if circumstances demand it.

By Declan Flahive

29/09/2022

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What Lawyers Can Learn From the Royals on PR

The Royal PR machine is an impressive operation. They don’t always get it right, of course, and have had their own share of slings and arrows to cope with, especially in the last few years, but overall, without doubt, the family’s contract with the nation has been nurtured by and has grown to rely on PR techniques that most business leaders – including at law firms – can’t ignore. Here are our top ten tips for successful PR Royal style:-

  1. Planning – whether it’s diary scheduling or preparing for a crisis event, the Royal PR machine tries to spot clashes, scenario plan and anticipate – at a macro and micro level; 
  2. Embracing technology – from radio to TV, from zoom and insta, the family have moved with the times to get their message out to audiences via an ever-evolving list of channels;
  3. Face-to-face engagement – as we’ve seen in the last week in particular, direct and personal connection with stakeholders is key to keep it real and literally stay in touch;
  4. Remember all your stakeholders – no one has a divine right to rule (any longer). Position and power derives from various sources and relies on keeping all stakeholder on side, if not ideally their positive support;
  5. It’s about both words and actions – walking the talk, practising what you preach and living your values are all important for reputation;
  6. Be authentic – there is no need to change yourself to up your appeal – staying true to your background, style and purpose wins out in the end;
  7. Consistent yet flexible – a lot has been said about our former Queen’s consistency. People knew what to expect and that they could rely on her considerable commitment to duty, yet to be fair she and those around her were willing to be flexible and pragmatic sometimes too.  
  8. Context and public opinion counts – seeking to operate in a vacuum is folly. Being sensitive to events, your audience and reading the room are essential for organisations, leaders and managers.  
  9. Know your mission – don’t get deflected from your mission strategy and keep reminding yourself (and others) what you exist for and set out to do.
  10. Play the long game – whatever road bumps arise to throw you off course, however tempting short-term gains might seem, always strive for the longer-term prize, even if it means difficult choices.

By Louise Beeson

Tuesday 20th September 2022

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Center Parcs: Royal Muck Up

Communications during a crisis need to be clear, empathetic and sense-checked for rebound risk as any specialist PR expert will tell you. Sadly Center Parcs was one of a number of organisations who didn’t quite get these ingredients right in their clunky handling of a self-inflicted furore this week. 

The Center Parcs team caused anger and confusion when attempting to correct an earlier contentious position regarding the proposed closure of their facilities on Monday 19th September, out of respect for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. 

After an eruption of online outrage following the announcement that holidaymakers would have to vacate their lodges for the day, an inevitably swift U-turn followed. However, this wasn’t the end of the PR headache for the company which prides itself on providing relaxation and escapism for all. 

The team at the short-break holiday company took to Twitter to calm the brewing storm – only to provoke fresh backlash. Replying to one tweet of outrage, the company said: 

“We recognise leaving the village for one night is an inconvenience, we have listened and made the decision to allow guests to remain on village on Monday, however, the village will still be closed, so guests will need to remain in their lodges.” 

The prospect of guests being locked in their cabins led to further incredulity and required a follow-up tweet apologising for the miscommunication. 

Center Parc’s clumsy engagement was sadly not unique, as a similar blunder from the Met Office shows. Its Twitter account recently posted

“As a mark of respect during this time of national mourning we will only be posting daily forecasts and warnings.” 

What the national weather service meant to say was that it would not be providing additional lighthearted content during the national period of mourning, aside from its regular weather service. However, due to its lack of clarity, followers quite reasonably took the tweet to mean that the public would only be informed of the weather one day at a time. 

Whilst brands such as Center Parks were undoubtedly looking to support staff loyal to the Queen when formulating their original closure policies, it’s little wonder they faced ridicule having completely failed to balance this intention with consideration for the practical needs of their all-important customer base. The impact of corporates’ decisions on their consumers should be paramount, with plans stress-tested by the communications teams before any announcements are made. It’s simply PR 101. 

Failure to do so in these cases has turned an act of respect and reverence for the passing of the reigning monarch and head of state, into an exercise of alienation, from which it is hard to recover. We’re keeping our eyes out for smart Center Parcs advertising in due course – perhaps poking fun at itself in recognition of its right royal muck up.

By Declan Flahive

16th September 2022

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‘Sportswashing’: You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Choice

The greatest and most popular football league in the world (arguably) turns 30 this week. In the space of a few decades, the English Premier League has blossomed into a global marketing powerhouse with all the theatrics and drama any sports spectator could dream of – from transfer deadline day to emotional local derby duels. But along with its success story, there exists a growing threat to its reputation. The Premiership is susceptible to accusations of a practice known as ‘sportswashing’ whereby club ownership is said to be used to clean up a tainted public image. 

The Premier League kick-started the celebrity era of football with the likes of David Beckham. When the dainty-voiced, floppy-fringed fella scored from the halfway line against Wimbledon for Manchester United in 1996, he lit the fuse for an explosion of his fame and the 21-year-old soon became a global superstar. His relationship with “Posh Spice” only served to augment his popularity credentials. 

This interweaving of football with mainstream culture has grown with icons such as Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, whose personal lives have increasingly taken centre stage.  Around-the-clock TV coverage and the emergence of the internet and social media has increased demand for every little morsel of the private lives of these very rich and famous athletes. Noticeably, this interest is no longer confined to the players. 

Since Abramovich took over Chelsea FC in the early noughties and in a similar vein the owners of Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour, and Newcastle United, Saudi Arabian-led Public Investor Fund (PIF), each have been accused of using the English game to not only advance their own net worth through marketing opportunities but also to enhance their public images. 

Football’s ability to cement a relationship between owners and fans is surprisingly powerful. When Roman Abramovich’s assets were seized and he was reported to have been chased out of the country for his alleged connections to Vladimir Putin following the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine, not all of the supporters of his club Chelsea F.C. were so keen to push him out of the door – due to the success his resources had enabled. Fans continued to chant the now former owner’s name in the stands well after the war had unfolded. It’s fascinating how a game of sport can warm the hearts of those unlikely to hold similar sentiments for others on the Russian sanctions list.

Buying a football club can be seen as a chance to revolutionise not just your own public image, but even that of your country. After purchasing the blue side of Manchester, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi has enabled City to accumulate title after title. The investment from the oil-rich Sheikh is undoubtedly part of a wider plan to present the Abu Dhabi state in a positive light in the West.  In fact, since 2014, the ruling family has invested outside the club’s doors and tapped into the wider Mancunian area through the Manchester Life project. A joint partnership between the Abu Dhabi United Group and Manchester City Council, it has a £1 billion goal to transform 200 acres surrounding the Etihad Stadium from a derelict wasteland into a hub of modern real estate. 

Other resultant developments include the regeneration of an 80-acre brownfield site into the City’s state-of-the-art training facility. The club has also donated 5.5 acres of land and at least £12 million towards Beswick Leisure Centre, the sixth form Connell college and the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance. Furthermore, the club’s ‘City in the Community’ programme has invested thousands of hours of work into noble causes such as disability football teams and mental health support for the younger generation. 

Whilst cynics might question the motives of these actions, the benefits to the recipients are undeniable. The Emirati State’s human rights record is well-documented but its largesse in Manchester seemingly allows many to turn a blind eye. 

Wider public disapproval (ie from those not directly benefitting) of alleged ‘sportswashing’ seems to provide little of an actual roadblock to investment. Newcastle United is the latest high-profile English Premier League club to be bought out by an overseas investor with a controversial history. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund invested in the takeover at St. James’ Park on October 7th 2021 costing a reported £415 million. 

At the time, Amnesty International was very critical of the move with its UK’s chief executive officer Sacha Deshmukh saying: “The Saudi buy-out of Newcastle exposed the glaring inadequacies of English football’s ownership rules – with no bar for those complicit in acts of torture, slavery, human trafficking or even war crimes – yet it hasn’t led to the change we urgently need to see.” 

Deshmukh continued: “When Saudi Arabia swooped in and bought Newcastle, it was one of the most glaring examples of modern sportswashing the world has ever seen. “With Mohammed bin Salman now effectively Newcastle’s owner, the Saudi state will see the club as another means to try to shape Saudi Arabia’s international image and distract from the country’s appalling human rights record.

“The Saudi authorities clearly see Newcastle as a long-term sportswashing project, but for now we’re seeing Eddie Howe and sections of the fanbase dodging questions about Saudi human rights abuses – neither of which is healthy for football.” 

One wonders whether those responsible for English club ownership rules will decide to introduce more strident checks and balances to prevent such future allegations of ‘sportswashing’ being levelled.  Or perhaps, to better protect ‘the beautiful game’, the introduction of majority fan-ownership such as that deployed in Germany will instead take root as the preferred future investment model. 

Conclusion:

The expansion of the Premier League in the most popular sport on the planet suggests it will only continue to attract those looking for a public relations revamp. The question is whether the sport chooses domestic social benefits over its international ESG responsibilities. 

While more stringent regulation could be implemented to prevent allegations of ‘sportswashing’, revelations of FIFA corruption show that a root-and-branch clean-up of football management is unlikely. Women’s tennis is one major international sport that has begun to put the defence of human rights before play. Unfortunately in football, just as we’re now seeing in golf, money still rules.

18th August 2022

Declan Flahive

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

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Bell Yard recognised by Chambers and Partners in Litigation Support Guide 2022!

Bell Yard Communications is once again delighted to have been recognised by Chambers and Partners in this year’s Litigation Support Guide

Our founder and director, Mel Riley, is again listed in Band 1 of the individual rankings, as she has been every year since the guide’s inception.

As Chambers records: “They are a proactive, personable, but also professional outfit that always puts us at ease with the media. They have a flawless record of shaping the media message in very difficult circumstances. They don’t shy away from tackling aggressive media attacks with pre-emptive and reactive poise and tact.”

Bell Yard has (almost) chalked up 20 years of interesting instructions and wishes to thank all our colleagues, clients, and contacts alike for this latest and very welcome recognition of our efforts – but in truth, we do it all for the love of the challenge! 

(6 June 2022)

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

Bell Yard Melanie Riley Bell Yard Melanie Riley

ONTIER: Dr Wright Succeeds In Libel Action Against Podcaster McCormack

ONTIER LLP client, Dr Craig Wright, the inventor of Bitcoin – the world’s first functioning and successful electronic cash system – welcomes today’s judgment in so far as it finds that McCormack has defamed Dr Wright and caused serious harm to his reputation in all of his tweets and YouTube interview in issue. 

Dr Wright sued in libel over 14 Tweets published by Mr McCormack and words spoken by him in a YouTube video between March and October 2019.  Dr Wright claimed that the publications alleged that he fraudulently claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin.

In finding that each of the publications complained of were likely to have caused serious harm to Dr Wright’s reputation, the Judge found that “the fact that [Mr McCormack] was willing to state his views so brazenly in response to threats of libel proceedings is likely to have made those who read [the publications] more, not less, likely to believe them..”

Mr McCormack had initially sought to defend the action on the grounds of truth, public interest and abuse of process; however, he abandoned those positive defences shortly after the parties exchanged disclosure in September 2020.

Dr Wright says:

“I have endured, and for the large part ignored, extreme and offensive online trolling for many years. But there comes a point at which the orchestrated trolling has to be confronted. It has a severe impact on me and my life’s work. Where requests to cease and desist are ignored or rebuffed, I have little choice but to seek legal redress.  

“The defendant abandoned the defence of positive truth months ago – in other words he accepted his words were untrue – and chose to defend only on whether his Tweets caused me serious harm or not.   McCormack was wrong when he said I am not Satoshi Nakamoto.  His Tweets caused me harm both personally and professionally. 

“As anticipated, bit by bit the independent courts across various jurisdictions, including those with juries with the benefit of an examination of all the evidence, are concluding I am who I have admitted I am, since I was outed as Satoshi by media in 2015. However too little regard is paid to the impact my Aspergers has in my communications. I intend to appeal the adverse findings of the judgment in which my evidence was clearly misunderstood.

“I will continue legal challenges until these baseless and harmful attacks designed to belittle my reputation stop. This is not for financial reward, but for the principle and to get others to think twice before seeking to impugn my reputation.”   

Simon Cohen of ONTIER LLP says: 

“The defamation laws in England are increasingly challenging for claimants but Dr Wright has successfully exposed the damage Mr McCormack’s deliberate campaign has caused to Dr Wright’s reputation. Social media provides no hiding place for libellous comment and nor should it. In fact, we have demonstrated in this trial that its use often exacerbates the harm, given its capacity for the swift and exponential spreading of a false narrative which can fly around the world in seconds leaving the truth far behind. We are pleased that this has been recognised by the court today, but are reviewing the judgment carefully with a view to appealing the interpretation of Dr Wright’s evidence.”

ENDS

Trial judge: Mr Justice Chamberlain

Legal Advisors: Dr Wright was represented by Derek StinsonSimon CohenSara Saleh and Joe Woodward of ONTIER LLP, Adam Wolanski QCGreg Callus and Lily Walker-Parr of 5RB Chambers.  

Issued on behalf of ONTIER LLP by:

Bell Yard Communications                        +44 (0)20 7936 2021   BellYard@bell-yard.com

Melanie Riley                                               +44 (0)7775 591244   melanie@bell-yard.com

Notes to Editors

The trial to determine serious harm was heard over 3 days (23-25 May 2022) at the High Court in London.   

The judgment is the latest outcome in a series of legal claims issued by ONTIER LLP, on behalf of Dr Wright and his associated entities, to uphold his right to protect his lawfully-held digital assets, his reputation as the creator of Bitcoin and his associated intellectual property:  

·       In 2021 ONTIER successfully brought a copyright claim against the anonymous digital currency enthusiast operating under the pseudonym “Cøbra”. 

·       ONTIER has recently defeated a strike-out attempt by digital currency enthusiast, Magnus Granath, following Dr Wright’s defamation action, the trial of which will heard by the High Court in late 2023.  

·       Last year ONTIER also launched a landmark claim against the developers of BTC, BCH, BCH ABC and BSV to restore control to addresses containing Bitcoin and other digital assets. The defendants’ jurisdictional challenge to this claim is currently being appealed by the claimant, Tulip Trading Ltd.

·       ONTIER is advising companies connected with Dr Wright in their passing off claims against exchanges Kraken and Coinbase, filed in the High Court earlier this year.

·       Dr Wright is also advised by ONTIER on his defence to the Crypto Open Patent Alliance’s (COPA) challenge to Dr Wright’s authorship of the Bitcoin White Paper, which will be heard in 2024. 

(1 August 2022)

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Irresponsible investment? HSBC’s ESG communications crisis

For HSBC, a bank committed to “playing a leading role in mobilising the transition to a global net zero economy … by helping to shape and influence the global policy agenda”, sponsoring and addressing the FT Moral Money Summit, with its theme of “Turning Talk into Action to Hit ESG Targets”, must have seemed like the perfect profile-raising opportunity.

But far from burnishing its ESG credentials, HSBC is now reeling from a PR disaster involving the suspension of Stuart Kirk, the global head of responsible investment at its asset management division, following his controversial comments on climate change at last week’s event.

The fallout from Kirk’s speech and HSBC’s response have made headlines around the world – from the Financial Times to The Mirror, The Straits Times to The Wall Street Journal – and polarised opinion, prompting both outrage at his ‘offensive’ remarks and support for daring to tell the ‘truth’.

Kirk – a former FT journalist and editor of Lex – gave a presentation entitled “Why investors need not worry about climate risk”, which accused policymakers and central bankers of overstating the financial risks of climate change and included a slide saying “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong”.

Attacking climate “nut jobs”, he complained about having to spend time “looking at something that’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years”, and joked about the risk of flooding, saying, “Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six metres underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place.”

Following an outcry over his remarks from climate change activists, HSBC’s chief executive and its head of wealth and personal banking both denounced Kirk’s remarks via social media posts.

Yet according to the FT, which first reported Kirk’s suspension, the theme and content of his speech had been agreed internally within HSBC a couple of months earlier.  

The bank’s PR team has, unsurprisingly, been firefighting ever since the event but declined to comment on Kirk’s suspension when contacted by media.

Kirk’s remarks were always likely to be controversial and provocative, given his views on climate change risk and his outspoken nature, of which HSBC’s management and PR team were presumably aware. So why did HSBC sanction his speech, yet fail to predict and prepare for the inevitable backlash, only to perform a spectacular U-turn after the event and ‘cancel’ him pending an internal investigation? Moreover, in light of his uncompromising and combative stance on climate change, what does Kirk’s position as global head of responsible investment say about HSBC’s commitment to a net zero future? Is the bank simply playing lip service in its climate strategy pledge?

Businesses should either accept that they are broad churches with individuals holding different views with full entitlement to express them (as long as this is done respectfully), and be prepared to deal with the potential fallout – or they should make clear that there is only ever one corporate line that can be expressed publicly, and ensure consistency in actions as well as words. This principle extends way beyond the ESG sphere – and it is the basis from which all communications advice should flow.

The PR debacle comes just weeks after HSBC faced accusations of greenwashing by the UK’s advertising regulator. A leaked draft report by the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that two HSBC adverts misled customers by selectively promoting green initiatives while failing to disclose information about the bank’s financing of companies with substantial greenhouse gas emissions.  

And last year, HSBC came under fire from shareholders for failing to take climate change seriously, with some of Europe’s leading investors filing a climate resolution that called on the bank to publish a strategy and targets to reduce its exposure to fossil fuel assets.

One thing is certain: if HSBC wants to fulfil its “ambition … to be the leading bank supporting the global economy in the transition to net zero,” as CEO Noel Quinn posted on LinkedIn over the weekend, it has a long way to go.    

Written by Sarah Peters

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PR Gone Wrong: International Women’s Day

Of all the PR and marketing initiatives launched on International Women’s Day on Tuesday this week, one in particular stood out – for all the wrong reasons. 

The London Dungeon decided to change the gender of Jack The Ripper to mark the day, unveiling a “Jack becomes Jackie” exhibit played by a female actor and questioning whether the “notorious killer [was] actually a woman”. The serial killer, who was never identified, murdered at least five women in Whitechapel in the late 1880s.  

The special International Women’s Day exhibit told the story of convicted murderer Mary Pearcy, who was named as a possible Jack the Ripper suspect by author William Stewart in 1939.

In a now deleted press release, The London Dungeon said: “With men often stealing the spotlight when it comes to the ghastly and gory crimes, we wanted to give ladies their dues for International Women’s Day … Rather than the usual honouring, we’ve given the day a London Dungeon twist while telling a story that many may never have heard before.”

Not surprisingly, The London Dungeon’s actions were greeted with incredulity and outrage on Twitter.

In a strongly-worded rebuke, Refuge, the domestic violence charity, branded the initiative “a cheap marketing stunt” that “trivialises the systematic murder of women by a serial killer”.

Following the social media backlash and subsequent mainstream media interest, The London Dungeon deleted its communications on Jackie The Ripper and was forced to issue a statement apologising for any offence caused. 

Controversially exploiting and sensationalising violence against women by recasting a serial killer of women as a woman in a cynical and blatant bid to boost ticket sales – on a day meant to celebrate women’s achievements, a year after the murder of Sarah Everard, and amid a high-profile campaign to make misogyny a hate crime – was never a good idea.

Tasteless, offensive, ill-judged (if, in fact, any judgement was shown at all), the sorry episode highlights just how out of touch The London Dungeon was with the public mood, putting commercial considerations above all else and underestimating the risk of reputational damage.

Burger King similarly made a whopper of a PR blunder on International Women’s Day last year, tweeting “Women belong in the kitchen”.  A supposedly humorous teaser for a campaign promoting a cooking scholarship for female employees, most people did not read beyond this initial Tweet, with many taking to social media to express their disgust at the use of such a sexist trope, on International Women’s Day of all days.

A subsequent Tweet provided much-needed context: “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio.” But by then, the damage had been done and Burger King’s PR team spent the day firefighting – responding to media queries, explaining the campaign, apologising for getting the initial message wrong and promising to do better next time, and eventually deleting the offending Tweet. 

PR Lessons To Be Learned

So, what lessons can be learned? Do your research. Know your audience. Understand the wider context. Be aware of potential pitfalls and sensitivities. Test your ideas – and not just within your immediate team, to avoid groupthink. Be careful when using humour to promote an issue with the potential to cause offense or upset. And if you get it wrong and a PR debacle ensues, ‘fess up – take swift action to apologise, engage with the media and your followers, and learn from your mistakes.

 By Sarah Peters, 11/03/2021

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

Bell Yard Melanie Riley Bell Yard Melanie Riley

BBC: Chasing Polar Bears

The news that Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel are leaving the BBC is the latest in a line of senior journalist departures for the Beeb. It comes hot on the heels of business reporter losses precipitated by moving the R4 Today business team from London to Manchester and rumours that Amol Rajan was given the much-maligned interview with Novak Djokovic as a sop to avoid his defection to ITV. All this, of course, at a time when Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is questioning the BBC funding model and when the Government, not to mention swathes of viewers, are concerned our once-loved national broadcaster has become too woke for its own good.  

So what does all this ‘trouble at mill’ mean for us PRs? 

Well, it merely confirms a trend that has been emerging in recent years. The BBC is no longer necessarily the golden ticket to getting your PR campaign away. It may no longer be the most coveted medium your clients want to cover your story. It may not, in fact, deliver the audience you need to address.  

That is not to say the BBC is no longer important. Don’t go writing the corporation off just yet. On the world stage, the BBC brand still shines brightly.  But with other media outlets and a proliferation of mediums growing loyal listeners and followers, from Global to You Tube to Podcasts, and with many of those outlets devoted to a preferred agenda, the media landscape is now so diverse that targeting content is a far more precise art these days.  Associating your brand and its experts with the agenda of your preferred media outlet by offering appearances/pitching articles increasingly requires consideration of the risk:reward ratio.  If the BBC can no longer hold itself up as the bastion of impartiality, then it becomes just another player in the influence game. 

Ms Dorries described the BBC this week as “a polar bear on a shrinking ice cap”.  That makes life more complicated for us PRs but also arguably more interesting too.  

Louise Beeson, 24/02/2022

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

Bell Yard Melanie Riley Bell Yard Melanie Riley

Send in the Clowns

Another day, another PR gaffe from Number 10 and its communications machine.

It might only be his first day in the job but the Prime Minister’s new director of communications, Guto Harri, has already made the UK national headlines for saying that Boris Johnson is “not a complete clown”.

Describing a meeting he had with Johnson last week, Harri told Welsh-language news website, Golwg.360, that the Prime Minster initiated a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, that there was “a lot of laughing” and “a serious conversation about how we get the government back on track and how we move forward”.

If Harri was trying to change perceptions of his boss from a party-loving clown – whether in the sense of a jester or a fool, or both – to a competent leader capable of serious thought and committed to delivering his agenda for the country, then it was an interesting approach, to say the least.

PR Perspective

One of the most basic rules of PR is, don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print – and that includes repeating inflammatory or damaging words, even if used in a negative context. As in Harri’s case, those words often become the headline and have the opposite effect to that intended.

Furthermore, if you’re going to cite examples, make sure they’re consistent with your overall message. The image of the Prime Minister singing a seventies disco classic with his new communications chief simply reinforces those perceptions of buffoonery. (Similarly, was eulogising Peppa Pig World in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry – as Johnson did last year – really going to burnish his credentials as someone serious about business?)

In another departure from PR best practice, Harri was repeating a private conversation he had with the Prime Minister, which he must have realised would be picked up by the mainstream UK media. Johnson’s official spokesperson declined to comment, saying he “would not get into private conversations”.    

And in telling the story, Harri has become the story – something which PR professionals usually go to great lengths to avoid. Their job should be to develop communications strategy, shape the messages and advise on their delivery from behind the scenes, rather than taking centre stage.  

Reactions from the Prime Minister’s opponents

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s opponents have leapt on the comments, with Labour calling out the “clown show nonsense” and Nicola Sturgeon branding them “offensive” in the current circumstances.

Time will tell whether Harri and the rest of the new Number 10 team of “grown-ups” can help to reset the balance, restore trust in the government and ensure that the Prime Minister does indeed survive. There is no doubt that the task is immense – but it is certainly providing plenty of fodder for PR case studies.

Sarah Peters, 08/02/2022

We are recognised leaders in our field. We are proud to uphold the ethical and educational standards for the PR industry as members of the CIPR and PRCA.

Bell Yard Melanie Riley Bell Yard Melanie Riley