What matters in PR? With Nik Pearson, Honda

“What Matters in PR” shines the spotlight on PR leaders in the industry. We speak with Nik Pearson, Head of Corporate Communications (Automobile & Sustainability) at Honda Motor Europe. In our conversation, Nik shares how working in Japanese companies has influenced his working style, the skills that he deems valuable to all communications practitioners, and the most important lessons he learnt from his mentor.

What is something special about working at Honda?

Like so many in the communications industry, demonstrating contribution to business objectives is core to my role. However, I also constantly ponder how we can add that intangible “magic” to the brand – something you can’t necessarily define, but its impact becomes evident when you step back and view the whole picture.

It’s something you can’t quite predict, devoid of templates, and relies on the right creative inspiration and support. As communications practitioners, we should be skilled storytellers, not solely reliant on numbers. In businesses like Honda, senior leaders value this approach.

Managing upwards in Honda relies upon this mix of the analytical and intangible. It’s a Japanese company, so being analytical is expected, but perhaps more than with other Japanese brands, we know the value of delivering something extra that speaks to consumers and the wider public on a more emotional level.

Why else would we have been involved in Formula One for 30 years? It’s not just a business decision; it’s fueled by the love and passion for showcasing the brand that way, our challenging spirit.

If you could double the budget you work with, what would change?

I would invest it all in telling possibly one of the greatest untold stories (at least here in Europe), which is the Honda brand story.

Our origin is in engineering and manufacturing; we make things. So, highlighting the features advantages and benefits, that’s our comfort zone. What we don’t tell you are some of the truly fascinating backstories about how the brand was built, the people who have made it what it is today. I truly believe that consistent communication and storytelling of these stories would improve perception of our brand in Europe and contribute to further success.

How do you prove the value of your work?

I focus on showcasing the correlation between our activities and consumer behaviour. It’s crucial to determine whether our brand is perceived in the way we want and whether we’re on the right track.

The automotive industry is notorious for its long purchase cycles and challenges in tracking the buyer journey that leads to a sale.

What we as communications practitioners can prove is how our coverage, or output, led to a spike in search traffic, which led to delivery of website traffic. And ultimately, we can track on our website the consumer behaviour that was taken, which is as valuable as any other part of the marketing mix. In fact, from a purely financial ROI point of view, the value we can deliver is unbeatable!

I firmly believe that our role as communications professionals is to make the best possible argument for our business or products in the public forum. I place considerable focus on identifying whether top-tier media outlets are transmitting the messages we’ve communicated.

If our message doesn’t come across as intended, then it’s a sign that our argument isn’t strong enough.

“The lines between comms, PR, and marketing continue to blur. What truly matters is defining the audience, the core message and the most effective channels to deliver that message.

We’re all communications professionals; we just happen to come from slightly different finishing schools.”

Nik on the difference between PR and Marketing

Do you have a mentor who has deeply influenced how you think?

I highly value the influence that my boss at Toyota, Scott Brownlee, had on my professional growth. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Scott was to always consider myself an outsider when looking at a brand.

Making business decisions solely based on analytical data might not capture the full impact on a brand’s reputation or values.

For example, even if a product feature is not highly valued or purchased frequently, but it serves as an essential safety component, removing it could send the wrong message about the car brand’s commitment to safety. In such cases, incurring the cost of keeping the feature might be preferable to maintaining the brand’s integrity.

How do you communicate Honda’s messaging on sustainability?

When crafting our messaging for Honda, it should align as much as possible on all touchpoints to maintain credibility. If we’re making a claim through one piece of communication, does that message work through all the other touch points they encounter? And most importantly, is the claim credible and accurate? If it’s not, we should not be saying it.

In the automotive industry, many brands are putting their focus on delivering lower environmental impact. However, not all players can definitively state whether their supply chain is entirely clean, especially considering the complexity involved. It doesn’t mean that the industry is not working towards becoming as sustainable as possible – but it can get confusing for the consumer.

The key is to ensure that all channels convey a consistent message, speaking with one voice. Achieving this alignment is a challenging and ongoing task, but to me it’s an exciting part of my job.

How do you handle challenging media scenarios?

By envisioning the worst-case scenario and working backwards, I can modify the message to prevent potential issues. This process involves asking myself what the ultimate bad question could be and then adjusting the message accordingly. Sometimes it requires reviewing the message and adopting a more human tone.

One notable example was during the closure of the UK manufacturing facility in Swindon. Despite media attempts to link the closure to Brexit which would sensationalise the story, we had to robustly communicate the true reasons for the decision, which were much more complex and concerned with the realignment of Honda’s business globally.

“To assess how a crisis might unfold, I approach it like playing chess in my mind. I try to look ahead four or five moves and consider the next obvious questions or scenarios that could arise.”

Nik on how he approaches Crisis Management

What is your go-to productivity hack?

I’m a two-exercise-book person. I like my Japanese exercise books so much that I get them imported! I maintain one exercise book for actions and to-dos, and another one exclusively for jotting down ideas. As a result of working in Japanese companies like Honda and before that Toyota, I’ve cultivated a method to notetaking that is encouraged by Japanese companies, which separates facts and ideas while promoting active listening. In some of our leadership training at Honda, I’ve started incorporating mini sessions on notetaking.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their career?

Firstly, don’t be afraid to put across your ideas. Have opinions and be passionate about them. If those ideas fall on deaf ears, you’re most likely in the wrong place. Secondly, don’t rush. If I look back at my initial days in my early career, I was in such a rush to try and progress that I perhaps didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have done. And I think (and hope) those now at the start of their career are different in that regard. Don’t get too serious too fast; enjoy it because responsibilities will come!

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