Richard Branson once said, "A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad." Few people know this better than Chartered PR and Communications Professional Lisa Fleming.
Having trained as a journalist, Lisa's career began in the deep-end, running the news desk of Bridlington Free Press at Yorkshire Regional Newspapers before taking on the tough role of Senior Media Officer at Humberside Police, a position she held for 11 years.
From building bridges between officers and journalists to managing the public perception of the police, Lisa's work at Humberside centred on the importance of relationships and storytelling.
Lisa became an official Chartered PR Practitioner earlier this year, and has spent the last 11 years using her wealth of journalistic and PR experience - as well as her expertise in storytelling and building relationships - to develop and manage the brand of Ongo, "the largest housing provider in North Lincolnshire and neighbouring areas".
Her impressive CV includes working on a huge rebrand and being awarded a Chief Constable's Commendation for her work with the police. We were fortunate enough to sit down and chat with Lisa about her views on PR, the police, journalism and marketing, as well as her exciting plans for the future. Enjoy!
KW: How did your time at Yorkshire Regional Newspapers and your education in journalism help you in your role as Senior Media Officer at Humberside Police? Did it help to have that experience from the journalist’s perspective?
Lisa: I joined the police at a time when media liaison was still seen as a necessary evil rather than a positive opportunity and relationships between journalists and officers were often mistrusting and hostile.
Being a journalist helped in two ways. I think fellow journos felt they would gain some empathy, as I completely understood their frustrations in trying to access timely information or seek an urgent police interview.
I was also able to help officers understand the role of the journalist, why what seemed like silly or annoying questions were valid and how, together, both could actually help each other get the job done.
It took time to build trust and respect from both sides but it was worth it.
I’m still referred to as ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ 20 years on.
KW: What, in your opinion, are the key ingredients to building relationships in the world of PR, the press and the police?
And to gain that you need honesty, empathy and a willingness to learn.
Each sector is professional and has an important role in a democratic and free society. Each also has its problems from time to time (and individuals who threaten the reputation of all three sectors) but by understanding and respecting each other’s position I have always found a way to work well together.
KW: How does PR differ between what you did for Humberside Police and what you do at Ongo?
Lisa: Whilst police PR is more pressured, and stressful, just by the very nature of the incidents you have to deal with, in some ways, PR in housing is harder.
This is because, until very recently, housing hasn’t really made the news agenda. This means PR teams have to work harder to get their stories seen and heard.
Social housing, in particular, has suffered from misunderstanding and stigma, not least caused by car-crash tv channels depicting social housing tenants and the quality of their homes in an unfairly negative way.
Thank goodness that is changing.
I believe it is changing because the sector has also come to recognise the value that professional in-house PR teams bring in changing the narrative.
KW: How have the lines between PR and marketing blurred in recent years? And why has this been the case?
Lisa: For as long as I remember there’s been this division between what is PR and what is marketing but the lines are blurred more than ever, not because of those in the industry, but rather by how customers engage with brands.
You could once sum up marketing as ‘selling’ and PR as ‘storytelling’.
However, people have wised up to the hard sell and traditional marketing and the growth of social media has allowed much greater influence for customers.
We are also seeing massive growth in consumers looking for social and environmental value in their purchases.
Brands are responding by changing the way they engage with consumers and have recognised the value of story-telling in developing, and sustaining, long term relationships.
Bloggers and vloggers are telling stories about products on Instagram, and brands are developing social and environmental campaigns to emotionally connect with like-minded people. Is this PR, or is it marketing? Or does it really matter?
KW: How has social media and the 24/7 news cycle affected the relationship between the police and the press?
Lisa: It has enabled the police (or any organisation, for that matter) to take control of the management and release of information which, they would argue, is a good thing for flexibility, credibility and accuracy.
No-one would argue that the change in the way we find and absorb our information has changed through the growth of digital platforms.
But sadly this has led to the demise of many local newspapers – both in resource and quality – and, for that, I truly think that society is poorer.
Local journalists should be there to hold public organisations to account, to ask the difficult questions that the public seek answers to and to challenge views.
If ‘news’ is controlled, and without challenge, we end up with an unbalanced view.
KW: Is the relationship between the police and the press still symbiotic in your eyes? Has it ever been truly symbiotic?
Lisa: That’s a tough one. Yes, on the surface, but there have always been, and will continue to be, conflicts of interest.
The opportunity that social media has given the police to manage the broadcast of its own information risks the relationship, particularly as it would be easy to form the view ‘why do we need the press when we have Twitter’.
KW: How have brands altered where PR sits in their marketing comms?
Lisa: There isn’t one clear model. So many organisations I’ve come across are structured differently. I think what is key is ensuring your PR, marketing, digital comms and staff engagement/internal comms staff are in one team, working together on campaigns.
Only by doing that will you ensure your marcomms are consistent, complementary and ‘on brand’.
KW: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as Senior Media Officer for Humberside Police?
Lisa: The most challenging, but most rewarding, part of the job was supporting victims of crime and accidents in managing the media interest in their stories.
I often felt terrible having to ask the family of someone who has tragically died whether they might consider providing me with a media statement and photo or taking part in a press conference.
I felt a dreadful sense of intrusion – and still do.
But I knew that, without the support of a police media officer, the intrusion would be significantly worse.
Although it didn’t always feel like it, my ability to manage the story on behalf of a grief-stricken family did help, and I am rewarded by knowing I was able to make a dreadful time just slightly easier.
KW: What’s the proudest moment in your career so far?
Lisa: Can I have three?
- Being awarded a Chief Constable’s Commendation for my contribution to the detection of a high profile murder case.
- Seeing the look on the faces of my team when they beat off some amazing competition to win a regional CIPR award.
- Achieving Chartered PR practitioner accreditation.
KW: Congratulations on becoming a Chartered PR Practitioner earlier this year. How much does this mean to you? And what does such a title mean?
Lisa: For me, maintaining an ethical, honest and open approach to communications and PR is who I am and how I work.
Gaining Chartered status is recognition of this. The assessment is tough and you have to demonstrate not only an ethical approach to PR, but also your leadership skills and understanding of strategy.
PR, as a sector, is still widely misunderstood and undervalued, in my view.
Other professional services, such as finance and law, are recognised with chartered status. It is only right that public relations is seen in the same way and as a place at the top table in business.
The CIPR has done a lot of work in elevating the status of the profession and I wholeheartedly support this.
KW: You were a big part of the rebrand from North Lincolnshire Homes to Ongo. What was that like? What are some of the most crucial aspects of a rebrand? And why was it necessary?
Lisa: The rebrand was hard work but great fun. The most crucial aspect was involving EVERYONE, from day one. It is so motivating to see how innovative people are when you ask the right questions and give them the space to come up with ideas.
It is essential not to get bogged down in the detail of names or colours, or even logos – what one person likes another will hate.
There is something to be said for a brand which splits opinion. Who wants a brand that everyone thinks is okay and then immediately forgets? I’m all for the Marmite effect.
What is most important is creating the story behind the brand – what does it stand for, what is its vision and purpose and what values are at its foundation. Your story is what defines your brand and sets you apart.
What you look like is important, but it is what you do and say that will make or break your brand.
KW: How important is it to nail down your brand values as a business? And what are the best ways in which to demonstrate these values?
Lisa: Values are essential. Every business, however large or small, is defined by its values, in the same way we all are as individuals.
What you stand for, and the principles that define the way you work, ensure you are consistent in everything you do.
But make sure your values are more than a few words on an internal poster.
Values have to be lived to be believed. Failure to live to your values will quickly damage staff engagement and reputation.
KW: How much of a role does staff engagement play in PR and building a brand?
Lisa: Your staff are your brand, first and foremost. They represent your values and deliver your vision. They are the ones that create your customer experience – good or bad.
We know that if we are happy in our work, have a clear purpose and are trusted to deliver we will always give our best.
This is particularly true in the public sector where people continue to deliver services with compassion and commitment despite years of austerity.
KW: What’s the next step of the journey for Lisa Fleming?
Lisa: In the short term, I am following an ambition to travel solo to Nepal and work, as a volunteer, on a womens’ empowerment project.
It is something I have always wanted to do and never seemed to have the time, or courage. But I read somewhere recently ‘if not now, then when?’. So, I’ve booked the flights, found an ethical charity working with partners and NGOs in Nepal (this is really important as you hear of some poor practices in so-called voluntourism) and I’m off.
When I get back I will be exploring opportunities to provide communications support to businesses, sharing my experience, skills and knowledge with organisations who need help with their PR and communications and yet don’t have the budget to employ an in-house team. Look out for Lisa Fleming Communications at www.lfcomms.co.uk.
"Values have to be lived to be believed."
As Richard Branson says, a good PR story is extremely powerful, but values are what truly define a business's success (or failure). Values are everything; they're the seeds from which your business grow, the happiness of your employees, the purpose, the vision, the culture, the framework from which every product, interaction and story stem.
A brand cannot grow without establishing values, very much in the same way that a relationship cannot flourish without trust and respect. As an expert in PR, Lisa Fleming knows this all too well.
As a journalism graduate myself, I could've asked Lisa about a hundred more questions; her experience and ability to tell a story is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, there is not enough time in the day, particularly for someone with a schedule as packed as hers.
Besides, Lisa's true power lies in leaving you with the valuable questions that only you can answer...
What principles define your work? Are you asking the right questions? Is your purpose clear? Are you living your values?
Are you ready to create your story? After all, as Lisa says, that's what sets you apart.
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