MI5 and PR

It was an ambiguous lesson, without fixed context, given credence only by the fact that we both worked for the Security Service. The context I only discovered later, and by then he’d already made his decision.

Now, a lifetime later, the business of intelligence has, for me, become the business of communications – from gathering information and keeping it secret to distilling information and making it public.

On the surface, there are few obvious similarities between those two very different worlds.

After all, the task of the Security Service involves shining discreet torches into dark places at the edge of reason and learning enough about the dragons that lurk there to keep them safely locked away

The business of marketing and public relations, by contrast, involves shining media spotlights to get companies and their products and systems noticed. It certainly doesn’t involve lights being hidden under bushels.

There is, however, one enormous similarity between the two. Let me explain.

Once upon a time it used to be that people needed products to survive. Now, it’s the other way around. Products need people to survive. In a business context, and in a market economy, companies need customers to survive.

In a cluttered market, whether the product is baked beans, carpeting or a window system, every product needs a buyer – and most products and companies have competitors. You have competitors, I have competitors – and we’re always working to invent a better widget.

What makes us successful, or not, is the glue that binds product to customer. That glue is marketing – the diffuse process by which we attract enquiries and convert those enquiries into sales.

Within that conversion process, the central element in any successful marketing strategy is information. We need to provide potential customers with the essential information to buy our product rather than someone else’s.

So far, so self-evident. Yet that’s precisely the central element that a great many firms fail to recognise in devising marketing or promotional campaigns. The information that customers need to make that buying decision is confused by poor messaging or corporate techno-babble.

Indeed, some firms’ corporate communications are so full of technical information to be impenetrable. Time after time, I see corporate literature or websites that convey huge amounts of information that the firm thinks it wants to communicate – but not the essential information that the potential customer will want to hear.

Marketing is about much more than a glossy brochure or fancy web presence. It’s more than pricing policy, distribution channels or glitzy advertising. It’s certainly much more than spending oodles of dosh on fancy corporate identities.

It’s about recognising information as a valuable commodity and using that information to manage the human imagination, whether in traditional media or on new channels such as LinkedIn or Twitter.

Sounds fanciful? Well, maybe. Essentially, however, we buy a product because we’re pretty sure it’ll work. We may know that the product has been around for a while, therefore it’s reliable. We may believe that the firm producing it also reliable and therefore to be trusted.

It’s why large firms spend equally large sums of money on promotion and PR. What they’re essentially buying, by communicating information about themselves, is customer trust. By making their brand visible they’re buying market credibility.

It’s a marketing dilemma that many smaller firms simply don’t address. To achieve visibility, so the argument goes, will cost us an arm and a leg and therefore we can’t afford the pounds of flesh, particularly when times are tough. Except, of course, good promotion doesn’t need to cost the earth.

There is no reason why smaller firms can’t also play the promotional game – especially those firms in niche sectors who can legitimately claim particular expertise in specialist markets. It merely involves distilling key facts and figures and promoting corporate and product information online and offline in ways that potential customers will find digestible.

Back in the Security Service bar, I wondered why Mike Bettany was speculating aloud about the nature of treason. Soon afterwards, he was arrested for attempted espionage, trying to peddle the State’s secrets to the Soviet’s men in leather coats. He was sent down for a very long time.

Mike, it seemed, also knew the value of information and how to sell it, for whatever expedient reason or moral justification. For the Russians, that information may have been extremely valuable. For Mike, poor sod, the price had a more personal cost.

As I said, it’s about information and its value. The marketing and intelligence worlds aren’t that far apart.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott. He is also a former intelligence officer with the Security Service (MI5).