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  • Writer's pictureJason Nisse

Losing the Invisiblity Cloak

Earlier this week George Eykyn, corporate affairs director of Southern Water, wrote a heartfelt post on LinkedIn about why he, “as a fly fisherman who's enjoyed beautiful rivers like the Chess, the Coln and the Itchen [see above]” has taken up the role of defending one of the most controversial companies in one of the most controversial sectors in the UK today.

He argued that “it seems that until we're the other side of the general election, the shallow ‘bad guy’ narrative is going to continue.” Adding, rightly: “What I do see, as a new joiner to the water sector, is that the ‘bad guy’ narrative isn't something without consequence. There's an increasing willingness among the public to abuse water company staff, in person or on the phone. If you've got strong views on the ownership of the water industry, someone in high-vis trying to mend a burst main in darkness in your village on a cold December night is probably the wrong person to be venting at.”

Before the ability to comment was turned off (by George, I presume), the post received a great deal of positive commentary, largely from others in the communications sector. He’s absolutely right the people should not abuse the folk mending the pipes, though as the former head of media for a major bank, I know that the front line customer facing employees tend to get it in the neck because angry customers cannot reach the senior folk on the seven figure financial packages.

However, outside the friendly echo chamber of LinkedIn (surely the most polite social media platform on the planet), Mr Eykyn’s views received a less positive response. The Times’ excellent environment correspondent Adam Vaughn, wrote about it [£]. He quoted Feargal Sharkey, the water campaigner and former singer with The Undertones singer, saying: “Apparently reinvigorated by its own arrogance, Southern Water now pleads for sympathy and understanding — oh, and more of our cash. It deserves little of the former and certainly none of the latter.”

A friend and comms professional, who lives on the Kent coast (a southern Water area), messaged me saying how angry the article made her, adding: “Our local beach constantly has unsafe water and we had reliability issues for 6 months.”

So should Mr Eykyn have written the post? I’d say no – for the following reasons:

1.      Calling for heat to be taken out of a public debate, when you are the target, is like  a footballer demanding a spot kick when he or she falls over in the penalty area. You might be right, but it’s not your decision. When people cannot use their local beach, or swim or fish in their local river, because of the actions of water companies, they will not like being told to “calm down” ;

2.      Communications advisors should not be the subject of the story. Don’t be seduced by having the title “director” next to your name, or sitting on the ExCo. You are there to advise and execute on the decisions of the CEO (and other operations faced directors) discreetly. You should not remove your invisibility cloak in a public forum, and however friendly LinkedIn it is still a public forum.

This argument might not make me popular with Mr Eykyn, or indeed Southern Water. But unlike some other consultants saying “bravo”, possibly in the hope that there might be some work coming their way, I’m giving this advice in the hope it helps. The best way for Southern Water and co to end the “bad guy narrative” is to start acting like the good guys.

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