by Helen Beckett

Embrace your inner PR officer

Jul 31, 20118 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipTelecommunications Industry

IT departments are revving up to become engines of recovery for the UK economy, and this is bringing the role of the CIO into sharper focus.

It’s not necessarily a comfortable spot for many CIOs who got where they are today by being technically adept rather than master communicators.

But it’s certainly a good time for them to brush up their public relations (PR) skills and nurture the PR person within.

CIOs have a harder task than other business leaders because they are often working with products that are flawed or unfinished.

Nor is there a silver bullet for troubleshooting, according to public relations legend, Max Clifford.

“The important thing is to be yourself and to trust your ­instinct. Common sense is the basis of ­business — fortunately for my career, it seems to be pretty rare,” he says.

Honesty is the basis for Clifford’s dealings with his superstar clients.

“I never suck up to them. I tell them honestly what I think. Lots of stars are out of touch with ­reality because they are surrounded by sycophants,” he explains.

Clifford reckons honesty is a good foundation for CIOs’ dealings with internal clients and he is supported in that belief by chartered psychologist Dr Colin Gill.

“Be honest with people and don’t make promises you can’t deliver,” he counsels (see Advice from the chartered psychologist,­ on page 3).

If there is bad news do four things, recommends Gill:

– Listen to their pain, – Tell them you will solve their problem, – Set a time limit – Keep them updated

“Whatever you do, do not bore them with technical detail,” he says.

While managing bad news is often the unhappy lot of the CIO, there are undoubtedly better ways of going about it.

One government IT department that has had its fair share of bad publicity surrounding IT — HMRC — has taken the unusual step of appointing its own communications team under external comms lead Sarah Locock.

“My remit is to improve the reputation of the department,” she confirms.

Locock, appointed 10 months ago, ­reports to CIOPhil Pavitt who arrived from Transport for London last September with a strong interest in and track record of internal and external communications.

“HMRC has had such a bashing from the press that we’ve become very reactive: we’re not so good at selling the positive stories,” says Locock.

A couple of positives she is keen to share are that a total of 78 per cent of the nation’s tax returns were filed online this year without a hitch, and that HMRC has won the National Outsourcing Association’s user of the year award.

Signing up CIO Pavitt and his deputy, Mark Hall, for public speaking duty is another way of raising the IT ­department’s profile.

It also boosts the ­morale of the team, who get to feel proud of their work in the ensuing press coverage.

The kudos of media coverage can be useful, especially if an article is picked up by a clippings agency and reprinted in the company magazine.

“This can confirm you as a very credible source with your peers,” confims Ben Booth, CIO of market research giant Ipsos Mori. But there’s a danger in taking the spin too far, warns Booth. “If CIOs who have a PA who is doing PR on their behalf all the time, people may get suspicious that they’re just looking for a new job.”

However Booth believes that PR is a necessary duty of the CIO because IT is still seen as a technical commodity to be hammered down to the lowest possible price.

“Reputation and PR is a bit of a vicious circle that can spiral up or down. If you can show that you deliver value and that the organisation is benefiting, then people will see the point of the CIO and your reputation will grow,” says Booth.

Speak for yourselves Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County­ Council, concurs but with one qualification.

“I consciously build a PR ­element into our work but the communication has to be done by the IT team, not the CIO,” he says.

Communication is therefore part of every IT team member’s role at the council, and additionally Creese has a dedi­cated marketing manager in the IT ­department to look after publicity.

The objective Creese sets his IT team is to demonstrate what is does well and also explain honestly what is doesn’t do so well — and how it will improve on that.

Matt McKay, chartered PR practitioner for an online publishing company and head of the marcomms committee at the Chartered ­Institute for PR, applauds Creese’s strategy.

“There’s often basic confusion in organisations about what IT people do. The IT team needs to explain its work clearly in language that lay people can understand,” says McKay.

He also recommends that IT projects be concluded with some kind of company-wide communication. “Too often communication may be a very technical email that goes over the head of staff.”

Certainly running a mini-campaign around a successful project that delivers value is a good way of increasing engagement, confirms Richard Harris, CIO of semiconductor manufacturer ARM.

“When we roll out a project, we don’t do a one-off public announcement, we communicate to different staff in different ways.”

(see How to PR a tech project, on page 3). However CIOs agree that no one will be fooled by this PR if the quality of product and service and customer care is not there.

Every project Creese runs at Hampshire County Council has a communications aspect, which formally explains the IT changes ­introduced and the impacts on authority and citizens.

Without this kind of context, PR could become a bit of a sales or back-slapping exercise of the ‘job done’ variety, which has less value, reckons Creese.

Ipsos Mori’s Booth verifies that doing a good job is the best kind of PR.

“I have just finished a performance review for one of my IT managers and the feedback from people within the organisation was ­superb. This is all about positive PR at a tactical level­ — basically doing a job properly.”

Another vital aspect of PR that works for Booth is developing relationships.

“Senior colleagues in the business need to see you as an advocate,” he says, urging CIOs to ensure they are advocates for IT across the business and that they are included on any cross departmental project and ready to communicate the IT viewpoint.

For these reasons, word of mouth is ­often the best kind of PR for technology projects — and teams.

If you’re not convinced about the power of reputation and relationships, just look at the professional services companies as an example, points out PR guru Clifford:

“Although they adver­tise, most of their business is won through recommendations.”

Advice from the chartered psychologist “Most people don’t speak the same language as IT people” The words we use form our thoughts and so this is potentially an obstacle. Consider the difference between ‘I think’, ‘I believe’ and ‘I feel’, for example. Use words that form pictures in their heads and that they will understand.

“Don’t think for one minute that anyone is interested in your technical problem or how you are going to solve it” Think back to the 2005 election and how two different voters accosted the two prime ministerial candidates on the subject of healthcare. Michael Howard told a voter exactly what he would do, once in power. Tony Blair touched the voter’s arm and said he sympathised. Blair won the election. Remember, people want you to understand their pain and to empathise.

“The only people who give themselves prizes for doing their job are actors” Bigging up how well your team has done a project is not going to win you new friends. PR has to be an ongoing, more subtle activity. The best thing you can do is be honest with people and don’t make promises you can’t deliver. The CIO’s job is exceptionally hard because he is tasked with delivering products that are often flawed. Managing expectation is the key.

“Be confident in your technical knowledge” Before you go into a meeting, have a conversation or make an important phone call, jot down three points you need to make, and stick to them. Do not get bogged down in detail.

Dr Colin Gill is a chartered psychologist and founder of

How to PR a tech project When ARM rolled out a videoconferencing project to over 30 sites across every time zone in the world, it was something they wanted to share with staff and customers.

“We could have treated this as a straightforward technology deployment, dropped in, and walked away,” reflects Richard Harris, CIO of the semiconductor manufacturer.

Instead Harris and his team approached it as a business transition and identified different types of employees and the ways it would affect them. The early adopters of the technology were the engineering teams and the IT department put in physical support for them.

For other employees the IT team produced a help leaflet, set up a wiki and built a blog for sharing videoconferencing experiences.

“Communication takes resources – but when it works, it is good PR for IT,” says Harris.

“Ultimately my objective is to build a credible relationship with all business partners. If I provide a good service, I am more likely to be listened to.”