Interview - Sir Craig Oliver (Former Director of Communications for PM)

We were extremely fortunate to get a few minutes with former Director of Communications from No. 10 - Sir Craig Oliver.

Sir Craig Oliver gave the headline keynote at Cision’s inaugural #CommsCon18 conference and we were given exclusive access as soon as Sir Craig came off stage.

Sir Craig Oliver walked in to number 10 to find a world reminiscent of the 1970 when it came to social media, find out what he thought and how he things brands can learn from his experience.

You’ll have to excuse the audio quality, this was live and we were not joking when we said he had come straight of stage, we literally filmed right next to the stage, we have compiled the interview below as text as well. We have a few great interviews from #CommsCon18, if you saw our facebook live you will know how impressed we were with the quality of the sessions, if you are interested in Earned Media then this is an event we will be recommending for 2019, and you know we don’t do that very often! (details here)

(We apologies for the audio, unfortunately we could not control the interview environment)



Stuart: I'm with Sir Craig Oliver. Welcome.

Sir Craig Oliver: Thank you.

Stuart: A former reporter, editor, director of communications for David Cameron, the PM's office, author, consultant

Sir Craig Oliver: Yes.

Stuart: And a Sir.

Sir Craig Olive: And a Sir.

Stuart: What was your favourite role?

Sir Craig Oliver: I enjoyed it all. I mean I think that being an editor of TV news programs like the Six and Ten O’clock News was extraordinary and having the ability to help sort out the agenda and put it out there and have the resources of an extraordinary organisation like the BBC to make TV news worthy is amazing. Going into Downing Street was amazing too. There was a plus side. You got to do things like go on Air Force One or go to Burma and see this strange regime as it's trying to navigate the world.

The down side of it was the unbelievable, unrelenting pressure and also at a time where communications were changing dramatically. So navigating with just the reality of being in Downing Street but also at a time where they way people were and learning how to communicate in a new way was a real challenge.

Stuart: Yeah, I could imagine. We asked a lot of our audience to give us some questions and I think the first one is very fitting, really. It's when you walked into government, you started to digest the role, what kind of importance was there of social media when you first stepped through the door?

Sir Craig Oliver: Almost none and I often joked about when going into Downing Street, it helped as if I was entering a place that was around 1978 in terms of where innovations was. That the role of newspapers, absolutely massive. Still very important, but very, very naughty newspapers. And also television, broadcast news, just about keeping how you need to operate for a broadcast news environment but not really. And digital, just forget it. Hardly anything at all and I think there was a mockery of it and a failure to understand. So, my old boss famously said, the most famous thing he said about social media was "Too many tweets make a twat" and I had to basically "Hey I don't think you understand that that perhaps wasn't the most appropriate term you should've used" but also that actually he needed to understand that digital was increasingly where it's at.

So, my old boss famously said, the most famous thing he said about social media was "Too many tweets make a twat"

Stuart: So, what do you think the perception of social media was when you left?

Sir Craig Oliver: I think people realised they had to engage and they had to use it. That it was an effective form of communication. For me, what social media allows you to do was is in a world where increasingly reporting is very agenda driven or a world view that an organisation has, it's very hard to get what you want your story to get across, just simply have that reporting in a straight done way. What social media allows you to do is communicate with what a lot people very directly. You absolutely need to be held to account. But also having the ability to say "I going to talk directly to the public" and I'm going to use various mechanisms from Facebook to Twitter increasing to Instagram to do that.

Stuart: One of the things I picked up from your key note was going in as a consultant, to businesses, with them having that same sort of mindset as back when started your role in government, from our experience, it's that fear of,

Sir Craig Oliver: Not screwing it up.

Stuart: Yes and the fake news, brand protection, all of this sort of thing?

Sir Craig Olive: You see just because you have a social media channel doesn't mean, to say, you should have more than one. And have enough space where you're communicating clearly and effectively what the business is doing. Not marketing but saying "What is the business about? What is it doing? How is it operating? Today we're doing this and today we're doing that." Or is [inaudible 00:04:08] engaging? Is it a very important thing? But a lot of people, I think, are actually just quite basic in their thinking as if "Yeah we want social media accounts. It's about marketing. That's what we need to do" And that what they don't do is realise actually we need something that is built up and then communicate and then slowly gets across what the story of the business is. And I think that's particularly important whenever a business enters a crisis [inaudible 00:04:36] and if they don't have a mechanism where they can just get their story across straight and quickly that can be a real problem.

Stuart: Do you think businesses should ignore it?

Sir Craig Oliver: Yeah I think a lot of people misunderstand trolling. I find it's not necessarily the case that everybody sees does, in fact, often these trolls have not that many followers and if you don't engage when they're being abusive. Also what you can do sometimes is rather than [inaudible 00:05:13] or you might take that and push them in another direction and say "Here you go". But basically the reality is you can use that to grow, put it on steroids and make sure all the key stakeholders of your business regularly see it. So being in the feed of the relevant journalists, or the relevant policy makers, or stakeholders and just communicating in the winding world and to find a way to push things is an incredibly effective thing. And I'm always surprised to hear people are worried about it and they get worried about it because it's not such cautionary tales. I told them in the speech about people who basically taken the loaded gun of Twitter and shot themselves in the foot. That was me, basically, being stupid. They could've done it on print. They could've done it on broadcast. They could've done it any number of ways. If you don't handle it with respect you're going to end up in [inaudible 00:06:01] but they key is be able to handle it with respect. Be able to communicate effectively and [inaudible 00:06:15]

Stuart: Do you think with the art of storytelling businesses will need to get better at this kind of storytelling? A lot of the time social media, from a business point of view, is used as a marketing channel. It's just pushing out messages

Sir Craig Oliver: I think, at the moment, I think more than ever fill the vacuum or it will be filled for you. Tell your story or it will be told for you. And what you try to describe, I think, is every person, every business has a kind of reputation or thumbnail sketch, which may not be fair, but it's carries around with them. It's amazing how that sticks and how difficult it is to move that especially, if you're not engaged. Especially if you're not communicating. If you sit in your ivory tower and allow all the people to say your business is bad because of x, y, z and the only thing you do is try and defend yourself to flaw and don't prevent an account of alien force narrative then you can expect trouble and you can your executives and people working the business to spend an dis important amount of time trying to deal with that set of things because you haven't actually followed the basic hygiene stock factors of working out what is your story and finding ways of telling it.

Stuart: Literally right before we came here, KFC put out something, an advertising campaign, this week based on some real negative tweets. So I think it shows that you can, you know,

Sir Craig Oliver: Be like your fear.

Stuart: You know, actually take the mick out of yourself.

Sir Craig Olive: And I think that's the thing is like a lot of business can be incredibly very, very serious and sober and straight boring and make people feel like "you're not really talking to me like a human being" and that's another factor as like once you get up there you've got to actually act like a human and not like a robot. But that's a whole other story.

Stuart: When you're going into businesses now and you're talking to about, starting this journey what is the first thing a business should do?

Sir Craig Oliver: Well I think the thing is it isn't just another form of communication but it is a channel and it's understanding that the channel is useless if you haven't worked out what is our story, what are our values, what are the things that we want to communicate and how are we going to do that and stick to it. So for me, if you do all those things. Work out your story, work out your values, and work out a plan for how to stick to it and not get bored and not think we're going to try [inaudible 00:09:04] but actually find ways to communicate those fundamental values in a new way in the sense of, you know like, presenting it it's like *** but essentially having that core story and core values repeated. That's absolutely crucial.

Stuart: That's so ironic because know on the other channels they do this, it's not good when it comes to social media, particularly. It's like being in silos.

Sir Craig Oliver: Yeah and I think that a lot of it is that increasingly...a lot of people don't understand the value of digital and I think also too often communication departments haven't been treated with a seriousness that they need to. And seeing is a vital of their business and a vital way of making sure you are seeing an effective, Great Brit pile of exciting community we are in. If you ignore it, I think you will pay a price for it eventually.

Stuart Politicians and social media don't always go hand in hand. You must have had some...

Sir Craig Oliver: Well I gave a few examples of it in the speech. Politicians don't necessarily understand the functions of Twitter and one of the ones that people were laughing at in the speech was Chris Hughes thinking he was direct messaging someone and saying for somebody else "I don't want my finger pics all over the story" and thereby making sure his fingerprints were all over the story. Or people thinking, somehow, that they're just talking to their mates and actually anybody can actually tune into this and see that you're actually being offensive or said something silly. I'm sure that Elon Musk's board wish they could take his smart phone away from him sometimes.

Stuart: Did you realise that you had to do that with the PM? Make sure all of his social media apps were out of his reach?

Sir Craig Oliver: Yeah I mean, we used to...we got to a stage where, basically, we knew what the communication strength was and we knew...it just became a very natural thing. We also knew that is a loaded gun and like loaded guns, you need to handle with care and you can make a terrible mistake. So if you're in doubt about whether or not sending a sensible thing to put out there...probably not do it. But that doesn't mean to say to be more of a shy. Sometimes you do need to go out there and be very bold with it and then that's a perfectly judgment thing. The key is having to guard your throne.

Stuart: I think that's very true. Well Sir Craig, thank you so much for your time.

Sir Craig Oliver: You're very welcome.


Stuart Hall