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Newsnight appearance proves the value of thought leadership by Jonathan Hemus, founder, Insignia Communications

Little did I imagine when I set up Insignia Communications, a reputation management consultancy, that two years later I would be sitting in the BBC Newsnight studio, face to face with Jeremy Paxman commenting on Rolls Royce’s communication response following the failure of one of its engines on a Qantas Airbus A380.

But of course, there were many things I didn’t know when I left the slightly cosier corporate world and set up my own business, literally days before the world’s economy crashed. That was one of the main reasons why I enrolled on the Stimulating Demand High Growth programme provided by Birmingham City Council with grant support from the Working Neighbourhoods Fund and delivered by Deloitte and the Academy for Chief Executives. I saw the Programme as a means of plugging gaps in my knowledge base, building relationships with people facing the same challenges as myself, and helping to avoid some of the more obvious mistakes! I’m pleased to say that the Programme has more than met my expectations and has been enormously valuable in the growth and development of Insignia.

One of my challenges when I set up my own business was to build the same level of credibility for myself as an independent reputation management consultant that I had when I was head of the global crisis and issues management practice at one of the world’s top ten PR consultancies. I no longer had the corporate brand of my employer to provide an endorsement of my expertise: I needed to build my personal brand.

It might seem obvious that PR would be the natural way for a public relations man to build his profile, but ironically PR agencies are often the worst at doing their own publicity (a perfect example of “cobbler’s children”). I vowed not to fall into this trap and engaged in pro-active on and offline profile building to complement face to face networking and relationship-building. My aim was to be seen as a thought leader in my area of expertise, crisis communication.
To achieve this, I have commented regularly on emerging crises endured by organisations such as Toyota, BP and Eurostar, how they communicated and the impact on their reputation. I’ve done this via my own blog Insigniatalks (which I’ve promoted via my website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other online links) and also conventional media including Sky News, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the Associated Press. I supplemented topical comment with other thought leadership activity including a study into risk communication in partnership with the University of Wolverhampton.

As the ball has started rolling, so it has gained momentum. The media feeds off itself, so when I penned an article about Toyota for the Guardian, within hours, Sky and the BBC wanted to talk to me too. This kind of coverage also does wonders for my online reputation: all of these articles remain online and mean that I am easily found by Google when people are searching within my area of expertise. Another spin off has been speaking opportunities, both for marketing and as commercial opportunities in their own right.

One of my strongest media relationships is with a marketing magazine and website called “The Drum”, so it was not a surprise when they asked me for 300 words about the Rolls Royce incident. I duly obliged and soon started to receive hits to my website as a result. More surprising was the call from Newsnight to say that they too had seen the piece and wanted me to appear on the programme the same night.

Now, I have trained hundreds of people to meet the media and have conducted many interviews myself. But I have never been on Newsnight… and I have certainly never faced Paxman. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to position myself as an expert in my area and get my name well and truly into the BBC’s black book. So, of course, I agreed.

Later that evening a car picked me up in London and whisked me to the BBC studios. I was soon in the “green room”, shoulder to shoulder with irate bishops and Chinese freedom campaigners (there to comment on other news stories). All the time, I was trying to remember the principles that I coach into the people that I train: be clear on what you want to achieve from the interview, know what your key messages are, and make sure you set the agenda by finding ways to link on to those messages.

Soon I was on set with my co-panelist, a branding expert, and the interview began. I managed to stay calm and introduced the points that I wanted to get across. The next morning, my Google Analytics showed that I had received more visitors to my website in the one hour after the broadcast than in the entire previous week.

Longer term it provides me with additional credibility and profile to get through prospects’ doors, and the likelihood of further media opportunities based on a higher profile.

I’d encourage anyone, and especially those that are offering expertise in a particular niche, to contribute articles and opinions about their line of expertise to relevant websites and publications. There’s a lot of media around and they are always on the look out for expert commentators.

Thought leadership has already opened a number of doors for Insignia which would otherwise have remained resolutely closed. In particular, I have continued to work with national and international businesses at a senior level.

But, raising the profile of my business is really part of my own core expertise. Just as important has been the advice, support and inspiration provided by the Stimulating Demand High Growth programme. One of the big differences when you go it alone is that you lack the support network, brainstorms and second opinions provided by a corporate environment. The SDHG Programme more than plugs that gap and has provided me with some of the tools and confidence to make a success of my business, and I know it’s performing the same valuable role for many others on the Programme too.

Jonathan Hemus is the founder of Insignia Communications, a reputation management consultancy specialising in corporate reputation management, crisis and issues communication, reputational risk management, and communication training. He has over 20 years’ experience providing communication advice to world leading companies and brands including Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Braun, Duracell, and Kelloggs. During his ten years at top ten international PR consultancy Porter Novelli, he was both UK leader of the consultancy’s corporate practice and global leader for its crisis and issues management specialty.

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