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PR paranoia closes bookshop to queries

September 8, 2010
Waterstones Logo

Waterstones - attempting to control its message - whatever its message is?


PR these days often goes too far in censoring the competence and opinions of companies. Witness the PR paranoia surrounding UK bookshop chain Waterstones when UK newspaper The Guardian, telephoned for an interview. 

The author, reporter Robert McCrum, wanted to talk to the store’s Islington branch about sales of Tony Blair’s recent autobiography. Islington, of course, was once home to the “Islington Set” of chattering upper middle class socialists; local restaurant Granita was apparently the site of the “deal” between Mr Blair and his challenger Mr Brown over who would be leader of the UK’s Labour party after the death of previous leader, John Smith. Cue a piece by McCrum on Blair’s autobiography. 

Here’s where the trouble starts. In today’s image-conscious times, spin has come to dominate how message is delivered. Staff aren’t allowed an opinion in case they say “the wrong thing”. Reporters are forwarded to the press office to get the “company line”. Message and outcome are tightly controlled. 

To some degree, one can see why this might be necessary. But in another way, this approach by Waterstones in response to Mr McCrum shows a lack of trust in staff by senior management. Apparently the person he wanted to interview was apparently “too inexperienced“. Rather than deal with the manager’s alleged inexperience, the company seeks to do little but control whatever message it wanted to control. Indeed, it is hard to think what message it wanted to control. 

For companies to work best, open management and effective communication from the top down is crucial. Look after your staff and your staff will look after you – rewarding you with hard work, loyalty and praise. Treat them as underlings or undermine them by bullying and mind games (as some companies do), or announce to the world that they are “inexperienced” (as Waterstones appear to have done),  and carefully nurtured brands become but desiccated husks. Because staff, and staff behaviour, are the ultimate brand touch point. 

Indeed, Waterstones used to exhibit an esprit de corps when you went into the shop. Now alas, it has become a shadow of its former self. My own visit to their branch in London’s High Holborn recently told a tale of a a shop which had not changed in look or appearance in over ten years. Indeed, I can recall that branch when it used to belong to a different chain called Books Etc. It has not changed since then. The badge changed, the shop stayed the same. 

Being on message is one thing. But expecting staff to know – and believe – your message is another. That takes more than a set of management hand-outs and an unwritten agenda of dark threats. Yet somehow it is fitting that any attempt to write an article about Tony Blair’s book is hamstrung by one of his most monstrous legacies – the inability to be able to write a story without someone controlling the message. 

The trouble is, companies are not government. They rely on staff loyalty, self-belief and pride to enable them to maintain their performance with their customers. Attempts at Stalinist control will only in the end create decline as creative staff leave and those that stay behind are the odious “yes men”, clinging to their jobs at the expense of the company’s progress.

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