PR Pioneers: Chris Norton, Blue Rubicon

First published in May 2012

Chris Norton

When Chris Norton first joined his former Powergen colleague Fraser Hardie at the then fledgling Blue Rubicon “run from an attic in Victoria” in 1999, he did so because of a shared vision of what PR should be about.

“I think both Fraser and I, as in-house communicators, had become generally unsatisfied with the service many communications agencies were offering”, Chris says. “We felt something was missing. A lot of what was done back then was based on gut feeling, rather than researching your audience and market. We felt that PR should follow the lead of the advertising industry in investing more effort into research and analysis, and that was part of the thinking at Blue Rubicon. And that appealed to me from the start”.

Though, despite having joined the agency pretty much as its doors opened, and despite sharing Hardie’s vision for what a PR company should be, eighteen months later Norton left both Blue Rubicon and the comms industry, albeit to accept a role that came with its own communication challenges.

“About eighteen months in at Blue Rubicon I got a call from the government asking me if I would become a special advisor. It was pretty much the only thing that could have persuaded me to step back from what we were building at Blue Rubicon. I have always been passionate about politics, I believed in what the government of the time was building, and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be involved in making that happen”.

During his time in government Chris advised Alan Johnson, and followed him as he moved from ministry to ministry over the next seven years. “It was an immense privilege to work in that role, and by following my Secretary of State as he moved around departments, I gained an amazing overview of a number of different key areas of government”.

Communications was still a big part of Chris’ job while advising Johnson. “My role was a combination of helping craft policy and strategy, as well as advising how that strategy should be communicated. Which is, I think, the best approach. I didn’t want to be just the ‘spindoctor’. If you are involved in the making of policy, and understand and believe in that policy, you will always be better at communicating it”.

By the time Chris joined the then Labour government the honeymoon period that followed Tony Blair’s election win in 1997 had definitely ended, and, as with any government, the more years that go by the more critics will emerge, especially in the media. Did Chris wish he’d been in government during the exciting and unusual months that followed the 1997 election?

“There are pros and cons to both time periods. When a new government comes to power it has to navigate the system for the first time, and learn how to change the direction of large institutions and the civil service. While I missed the honeymoon period, by the time I joined government, ministers and their political advisors had built a good working machine, which makes it easier to get things done, and to make tangible changes for the better”.

But, as a government beds in, the newspapers adopt a more critical position. From a communications point of view, doesn’t that make things more difficult? “It depends what you are doing. But I am a believer that if you have a clear strategy and a solid rationale, and you communicate it in a way that people understand, then you can succeed. People, and journalists, might not always agree with what you are doing, and they might not like the ‘spin’, but providing there is clear and logical thinking, and that is explained in a compelling way, then you can get a better reception”.

“The same is true for companies” he adds. “There will always be critics. But if you are clear, open and honest about why you are doing something, and why you believe it will benefit people, then you can win people over”.

Obviously the job of political advisor, dependent as it is on your party of choice being in government, always has a finite lifespan. Was a return to Blue Rubicon after his time in government always the plan? “No, not at all” Chris says. “Though we kept in touch, and after I left government I met with the Blue Rubicon team and discussed where the agency was going. I wanted the opportunity to work at a business with people at its heart, and be involved in growing that business. And it became clear Blue Rubicon offered that opportunity”

He continues: “After working in some of the biggest government departments, it was really exciting to be part of a smaller organisation where everyone could work together with a single aim. We had a team of about 60 then, and since we have grown to 135 people, despite the tough economic climate”.

The mission that Blue Rubicon set itself back in the late 1990s was still very much the mission when Chris returned to the agency, ie to foster a better, more effective kind of PR – “intelligent and integrated” Chris calls it. “The PR industry at large has changed a lot in the last ten years but there is still a tendency, sometimes, for the different strands of the industry to become isolated. People work in silos. Digital people come up with digital solutions, consumer people with consumer executions”.

“At Blue Rubicon we are genuinely integrated. Across our team we have skills in all aspects of communications and when a client presents a challenge we research the audience, the client, the market, and devise a strategy that we believe will work, pulling in those parts of the communications mix that are really needed. We’d never propose a solution just because it plays to the specific strengths of who is in the room, it should be about working out what the best solution is, and then working out who across the agency should be involved”.

Of course the challenge with offering a genuinely integrated solution on the agency side, is that a lot of clients working in house will still sit in silos, structurally speaking at least. “I think in 1999 it was a harder sell, for that reason” Chris admits, “but we have incredibly enlightened clients who are working differently to change the way they communicate. One of the lessons I learnt in politics was the art of campaigning against a difficult media and an active opposition. Brands and companies have the same challenges which mean they need to organise and communicate differently. This campaigning model joins up all communications disciplines around an agreed strategy and narrative and gets everyone heading in the same direction. For the clients who are adopting it we are finding it an incredibly powerful approach that works both internally and externally to build reputation, trust and affinity”.

“It can help, of course, if you go into a company at a higher level – the CEO by definition oversees the whole company, and all the ways it communicates. You can’t always start there, but we’ve found that if you offer a certain quality of output and thinking, you can access the boardroom and advise at the highest level”.

Of course most clients will have other agencies, both from the PR space, but also the advertising, marketing and digital industries, who – as you get higher up the hierarchy – will also be trying to influence the same people in client companies. Are they now competitors? “Yes and no. We work with a lot of other agencies from various parts of the wider communications industry, and we find that these days agencies generally work better together than before. They recognise the different skills and talents that exist in other communication companies, and understand why they are involved”.

After seven years away from the PR world, what were the biggest changes Chris noticed when he returned to Blue Rubicon. “Well, the obvious thing is digital. When Blue Rubicon first began Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist, but when I returned they had truly arrived, and social media was developing at a rapid rate. It still is – the way we now regularly watch TV and use a smartphone, tablet or computer at the same time is fascinating, and a definite opportunity for communications that hasn’t even begun to be used effectively”.

What else does the digital revolution mean for PR people?

“Ultimately we are in the business of trust, of helping companies build and maintain the trust of their consumers and stakeholders, so they can go about their business with permission and affinity. Trust is definitely more fragile now, because anyone can share their bad experiences of companies to large audiences with a few clicks on their computer or phone. Brands need to do more to understand the way they are perceived, what things people are saying, and to undertake activity to build trust. And that is something I believe the PR profession can do better than most”.

And building trust in the social media age means ever more two-way communication. “Too many brands aren’t listening”, Chris reckons. “Social networks enable you to hear what people think about your brand or company, they provide a deeper and deeper insight into opinion, and can be an early warning system for problems. And that research not only helps PR people do their job better, but proves to companies the value PR delivers”.

Which brings us back to where we started, and the importance of researching and understanding your audiences, which is more important but more achievable than ever. And the PR industry at large is seemingly embracing the vision Blue Rubicon had back in the early days of the agency. “I like that conclusion” Chris laughs, “I do feel the industry is now in tune with our early thinking. But we’ve not stopped there. New technology, channels and approaches have helped us build on our original vision so that we keep delivering for our clients”. So, ever more intelligent and integrated communications.

More info at Follow Chris on Twitter at @chrisnorto

Words: Chris Cooke