It was almost a textbook case of how not to communicate, Styles thought, trying to maintain his detachment. In his long career as a Hong Kong communications consultant he had not seen anything like it.
Mega’s Chief Executive had begun the press briefing on the company’s results reasonably enough. Then, interrupted in full flow, he had rounded on the questioner, and somehow gone berserk, denying Mega’s dependence on the China market (“I hate China!”), claiming that revenues came from the US, and denying involvement in banking (“We are not a fucking bank!”). Then, as the journalist reeled back, the CE turned pugnaciously to the rest of the audience. Were there were any more questions?
“Oh God!’ murmured Mandy. Pale beneath her make-up, Mega’s head of communications unconsciously gripped Styles’s arm. “Oh God! Can’t we stop him?”
“The damage is already done,” Styles breathed. “Keep looking forward, they’re watching.” And indeed many of the cameras in the room, both human- and machine-directed, were swivelling, looking for interesting angles.
There was a pause as the CE’s extraordinary words were digested. And then came the tumult. The automated feeds were first, their algorithms having sketched out the implications and formed instant questions. But then the human uproar drowned everything. Journalists, editors, pundits all clamoured to speak. Surging forward, they knocked down chairs, pushed aside security guards.
The CE seemed belatedly to realise he had said something improper. Yet he was man enough to stick by his words. He held his ground as if squaring up for a fight.
Mandy, precarious on her high heels, stepped forward to help. But the CE waved her aside, taking questions directly. He was live on just about all channels, Styles noted grimly: his remarks would be everywhere.
In the hubbub, no one was watching them. “I’d best be off,” Styles shouted to Mandy.
“You have to help us,” she called, her face stricken: “I’ll ring you.”
Styles grunted, and made his way out of the auditorium. The CE’s words would be building momentum as they were digested by a thousand commentators. The momentum would quickly become unstoppable; all the tricks and techniques Styles had developed over a professional lifetime would be swept away before that tsunami.
The sense of hopelessness was strong enough on Mega’s premises. But when Styles stepped out onto the walkway with its jostling crowds, heard the angry siren from the street below, he could feel the pressure almost physically. The rounded tower opposite seemed swollen with anger; other towers, embodiments of corporate Hong Kong, leant in threateningly. As Styles ducked into the MTR station, he felt too weak to handle it. He was getting old, professionally old.
Styles’s wife Vicky had seen it all on the media. “I suppose he’s one of yours?” she greeted Styles as he entered their flat. “Well, no need to tell me, but how can you do anything with that?”
“Thanks,” Styles said.
“Seriously, though,” his wife continued from the kitchen, “I don’t like you working on such a bunch of lies. Let him hang!”
Styles murmured that it paid the rent.
“We don’t pay rent!” Vicky exclaimed from the kitchen. “Why do you keep saying that? And why are you always helping the bad guys? Have I got a Mafioso for a husband?” Her voice was drowned by the noise of the blender. That would be her celery drink. With his blood pressure, he could use it.
Styles went into his study, switched on his devices, and reviewed the case. He replayed the key passage from the briefing, winced, and played it again, and again. You had to get beyond the words, beyond the meaning – you had to keep listening until you found faith. “Love your work,” he said aloud.
Love was slow coming. Styles looked around his study, with its old-fashioned mahogany décor, its leather armchair, its books, its faded photographs of children now grown up and gone. Part of him wanted just to pick up a book and sink into the armchair. It was time to retire. He didn’t need to deal with this crap. Vicky had practically given him an ultimatum.
Or was he just afraid? Afraid of failure – that the CE’s lies would be too much for him to make right?
Styles wrestled with this, and was on the verge of deciding: to hell with it all. Then Mandy’s pleading face came to his mind, and his resolution weakened. Wearily, he returned Mandy’s call.
When Styles arrived at Mega’s reception that evening, Mandy was there waiting. The communications head was trying to be cool, but relief on seeing Styles broke the floodgates, and she gripped his hand in both of her own, eyes wet with tears.
The girl really needed a hug, but Styles restricted himself to a few calming words although he was far from confident himself. Nonetheless, in the security of Mega’s lobby he felt for the moment safe. A ray of sunshine played on the floor, tinting the marble rose. A ray of hope?
He took Mandy’s arm – she was still shaking. “Have you considered just taking it on the chin? What the CE said may be impossible to manage. Can we just tough it out?”
“We can’t.” Mandy took a couple of deep breaths. “We had a call from the Hong Kong government. And China’s furious. Not to mention our customers. If we do nothing, Mega will lose its franchise.” She lowered her voice. “Even before we talk about lawsuits….”
The sun had gone in; the marble had turned dull brown. Styles nodded grimly. “Then the next thing I would recommend–”
Mandy disengaged her arm. “Save it for the VP.”
They got into the lift, got out on a certain floor.The meeting room was one Styles hadn’t seen before – with its computers, screens and phones it was like a command centre. Then he realised. It was a war room.
Mandy’s assistants were there, together with a bald and bumptious-looking man. “Our VP, Russell,” Mandy smiled.
Russell shook Styles’s hand with unnecessary force. “Good to have you on board, heard a lot about you.”
They all sat. Russell looked at Styles expectantly.
Styles cleared his throat, and explained how serious the situation was, and how difficult any communications response would be. Russell nodded impatiently but Styles refused to be rushed.
“I’d like to ask, have you considered non-communication solutions? I always recommend other solutions first, even though I don’t make any money that way.” He laughed. “Remember Clausewitz: ‘Communication is the continuation of war by other means.’”
“Got it,” Russell said. “And the non-communication solution would be…?”
Mandy turned to him. “Styles just means, would we fire the CE? How do you think the Chairman would look at that?”
“It would be a lot cheaper,” Styles said. He really hoped it would happen. Then he’d be out of there. He had a momentary vision of a beaming Vicky welcoming him into the flat.
But Russell had gone pale. “We would be dead.” He glanced at Styles. “You too.”
Styles took a breath. There was nothing for it. The old warhorse in him stirred, hearing the sounds of battle.
Styles asked Mandy what she had already done.
Mandy stood up and rehearsed the standard communications protocol. Step One was to fudge, to reinterpret. “So, where our CE said, ‘Most of our revenue is from the US’, we explained that he meant, ‘Much of our revenue…’”
“Do we have any US revenue?” Russell asked.
“Yes, a little, if you count inter-company transactions,” Mandy assured him. “Later, we will massage ‘Much’ down to ‘Some.’ And later still, to, ‘Some internal. ’”
Mandy continued. “The next thing we did – Step Two – was to provide context. For example, when he said – Excuse me! – ‘We are not a fucking bank!’ we pointed out that this was in response to a rather aggressive question. It is not Mega’s final position, as it were.”
“Weren’t we looking at a bank?” Russell broke in.
“We acquired a bank last month,” Mandy said. “That takes me back to Step One, fudging, as in – Excuse me again! – ‘We weren’t a fucking bank.’”
Mandy had been well-trained, Styles thought with pride. But what had been the result of these efforts? Mandy shook her head. Russell turned back to Styles.
Styles swallowed. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “This has been out…” he looked at his watch “…for four hours. By now, the CE’s words will not only be extant on innumerable articles, posts, websites and so on but also woven into commentary in a much wider range of channels. Our web-crawlers can change some of that–”
“You mean, you can actually change an article that has already been published?” Russell demanded.
“He’s very good,” Mandy put in.
“Media web security isn’t so tight,” Styles said modestly. “But in this case there’s just too much, and it’s too embedded. With something of this magnitude, we’re really talking about toning down future posts before they are posted. Do you still want that?”
“For God’s sake, yes!” Russell almost shouted. Styles called up the screen, went through the protocol, and clicked the routine on.
“So,” he resumed, “we somewhat dampen the impact going forward. That’s Step Three.”
“But we need Step Four,” he went on, “because we haven’t dealt with the main issue yet. As Mandy and I have explained, we can’t tackle this head-on. The CE’s words are just too far out. So we have to take it from the side. Step Four is the confusing intervention – something entirely different that makes people see the original debacle from a new perspective.”
Russell asked for an example.
“The CE said, ‘I hate China’ – right?” They nodded. “So it’s got to be something positive about China.”
“A Chinese mistress?” Russell ventured. Mandy snorted.
“Hmm,” Styles said. “I was thinking more along the lines of philanthropy, or recreation. Does he sing?”
“He plays football,” Mandy chipped in.
“Great! Then we would be looking at, say, a friendship match between Mega and a Chinese amateur team, with the CE scoring a goal …”
“… and the mistress awarding the cup,” Russell finished. “Bravo!”
On the way out, Styles’s relief at getting the thing done gradually gave way to doubt. It had been too easy.
The same thought had occurred to Mandy; she called Styles before he reached home. “What about the politics?” she said. “We cover the general media with your football match, and your mistress.” Styles winced. “But the CE ruffled feathers in high places. Have you got a Step Five?”
Styles pondered. He was standing outside his flat, in the narrow lift lobby. “If Mega were a state,” he said at last, “I’d recommend distraction – going to war, or at least a major diplomatic incident. That would be Step Five.”
“But we’re not a state,” came Mandy’s despairing voice over the phone. “We’re a company!”
Styles tried to think. What was the corporate equivalent of going to war?
Then something came. “How about an acquisition?”
“We’ve just acquired a bank,” cried Mandy. “We’re acquired out!”
“OK, then another company has to acquire you. Think about it. We’ll meet first thing tomorrow.”
And with that Styles clicked off the phone and entered his flat.
Vicky was waiting for him excitedly on the doorstep. “You’re never going to believe this,” she began. “That dreadful man is playing a football match. And there’s another woman involved …”
Styles, when he was at last alone, took professional comfort from his wife’s words. If Step Four had worked on his sceptical wife, it would work on the media. With a confidence he had not known for a long time, he called Mandy to thrash out the details of the plan. And by the time the morning sun lit the room, Styles was already napping in his armchair, the plan complete.
At eight a.m., Styles attended a council of war at Mega. Mandy and her team looked surprisingly good after their all-nighter, Styles thought, and he himself felt energetic. But they were outshone by the CE who chaired the meeting fresh-faced, immaculately suited, and completely unembarrassed by the trouble he had caused.
“Thought I’d better face the music!” he laughed. Turning to Styles, he thanked him. “Nice touch with the football – excuse the pun! And I’ve squared the mistress thing with my wife. But come up with something else next time!” This last was for Russell, who merely nodded, absorbed in his phone.
“Now,” the CE went on briskly, “I understand you are thinking of some sort of acquisition?”
The CFO, who was also present, coughed. “I would remind everyone that our gearing, our cash resources … ” The CE raised his hand. “Don’t take things so literally, Andrew.” To Styles: “I suppose this doesn’t have to be a real acquisition?”
“The more real the better,” Styles said. “But Mega doesn’t have to be the acquirer; it can be the acquiree.”
The CE frowned. “You want to me to be a subsidiary CEO?”
Andrew cleared his throat again. “It could be a kind of repo – subsidiary for a day, or maybe a month, and then back to being an independent company …”
“Good job, Andrew!” said the CE. “But who will play ball with us?”
Styles looked at Mandy – that was her cue. Proudly, she came out with her pièce de résistance. There was a big Chinese Internet company interested in a relationship with Mega. And they owned a Chinese professional football team.
“Good job all round!” exclaimed the CE.
After the meeting, Mandy walked Styles to the lift. Her eyes were glowing; despite the stress she was really looking well. It made him feel good about himself and his work.
“This time yesterday,” Mandy was saying, “I couldn’t imagine we would even survive. And now just a day later we have hope again.” She glanced at her mobile. “See – I’m already getting compliments on the CE’s sportsmanship. Your Five Steps, it’s five steps to heaven!”
They had reached the lift lobby. In a moment, Styles would leave the relative safety of corporate marble and return to the real world, which they kept at bay with their web of half-truths and deceptions. He felt a stab of doubt. Would the web hold? Should it hold?
Mandy was still high on their success. “Tell me,” she said playfully, as the lift still did not come, “what comes after Step Five. Is there a Step Six? Step Seven?”
“You don’t want to know,” Styles said.
The lift pinged its arrival. The door opened.
“And what about you?” Mandy pressed him. “You’ve been in the communications game so long now, massaging our lies, how do you maintain your perspective?” She giggled, almost drunk on her own good feelings. “How do you know what’s true and what’s not?”
Styles held the lift doors back with his foot. “Every lie has its grain of truth,” he began. “You just have to find it, curate it, believe it.”
Mandy’s eyes opened wide. “So you’re the curator of truth? Get away!” she said delightedly as the lift doors closed.
Styles’s wife, when he got home and explained himself to her the same way, was even more dismissive. Yet as he sat back in his armchair, Styles felt finally at peace with himself. He saw his duty. Every utterance had its worth. It was like children – some were so ugly, so misshapen, so false that no one but their mother would love them. But they all needed love. And for those orphan utterances that no one owned? Only a professional could love them, only someone dedicated to the perfection of truth.
Styles stretched luxuriously in his armchair, and picked up a book.