A black book strategy: How to curate friends and influence people

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Friends image - Pixaby

‘Tis the season to look back. For many of us, that includes reviewing this year’s additions to our precious black book, a veritable well of black gold to oil our brand’s success - if we know how to use it.

It’s not enough to collect contacts these days. They say you are what you eat, but you’re also who you know, and who you’re seen to know. In influencing terms, you’re as powerful as the people you hang out with.

On your own, you might as well be a cork bobbing on the ocean, a naked persona with no traction. Associations and friendships clothe you in social status. Whether you want to convey Primark or Savile Row is up to you.

Influencer relations are a particularly high priority for marketers these days. More than that, they’re vital in the luxury sector.

According to the latest survey by the Luxury Communications Council (LCC), communications departments now control influencer relations and social media as a core ingredient in their overall strategy. They recognise that face-to-face networking is still key to success.

The difference today is that face-to-face contact, traditional media and social media are now inextricably intertwined. So rather than cull your contacts, it’s time to get ruthless and reclassify them within those three spheres.

It’s a brutal exercise, but a comprehensive, cold-light-of-day curation of your associates is vital to achieve and maintain proper cut-through with your personal image in an increasingly noisy mediascape.

It’s the only way to avoid disappearing out of view as the riptide of ever-changing communications messages carries you out to sea.

Here’s how to do it. Start by creating a spreadsheet of all your contacts. Google Sheets gives you more flexibility. Don’t worry at this stage about missing email addresses or phone numbers at this stage. Import everything you have, even if it ends up looking like space junk.

Then add your friends and connections on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You’ll need to add a separate field for their handle on the spreadsheet.

Once you’ve got everything in one place, you will probably discover that you’re connected with some people on more than one platform and didn’t even realise it. You might even have their mobile number already in your Google contacts.

Now that you’re able to see what else is missing, you can add details for Flipboard, Wakelet and Google+.

The next step is to go through your list and rate everyone from A to Z in terms of their perceived importance, not just to you but also to other people.

Ask yourself whether they have charisma. Are they leaders in their field? Can they refer their status onto you? If so, they’re an A-Lister.

You’ll want to focus your communication efforts around people in the A-D or A-E categories and largely ignore the rest. It’s important not to wipe out the others, though. Sometimes people come from nowhere and surprise you, so always leave room for the wildcard or dark horse.

Then add a separate field for what your contacts do and another to describe their attitude. This will reveal clusters of like-minded people who work across a variety of different professions. They might be mavericks but they might also be anything from doctors and lawyers to entrepreneurs and artists.

At this stage, you will be able to analyse your data and see what trends emerge, which is useful in seeing where you might need to strategise.

For instance, if you were to see a trend towards mavericks who are also film directors, that might be because you work in that field, but it might also indicate that you need to broaden your spectrum of associates.

Sometimes personalities invert expectations by finding friends in the most unusual places. The friendship of Dame Vivienne Westwood and Pamela Anderson raised a few eyebrows, but despite vastly different backgrounds and backstories, they both see the world in very much the same open and inclusive way.

They're both a bit punk in their philosophy, so they’re both aligned attitudinally and strengthen each other’s brand.

Sub-categorising what people do is particularly important today as people like to define themselves as being undefinable. Portfolio careers are all the rage, but it’s important to get specific here.

Give each contact one dominant ‘doing’ category and set it above several secondary categories. For example, ‪Bob Geldoff‬ majors as Charity Man, but he’s also an entrepreneur, musician and father. 50 Cent majors as a rapper, with entrepreneur and philanthropist as his sub-categories.

So much for your existing contacts. The next step is to make a list of people you should know but don’t already. Think of that game where you name the guests you’d invite to your last supper. Your wishlist really can become a reality.

To do this properly, you need to add even more fields to your spreadsheet. Your wishlist contact now becomes a personality, and your task is to list details of their associates - lawyers, agents, publishers, managers - next to them.

Services like The Handbook have this nailed. They list the personality and then list every service provider that helps that person radiate brightly in the media.

It’s important to understand that how well you know someone isn’t as important as getting mentioned in the same breath as them. So, if someone is in a ranking that you aspire to, start to raise your level of influence by dropping their name into stories where you’re also mentioned. And regularly.

For example, if you repeatedly talk about the Prime Minister as if you know her, the association and referred status will eventually stick over time.

Legends, dead or alive, can add huge weight to your persona. These are people whose public image was manufactured in a bygone era through solid linear media distribution with large audiences consuming a single message.

For instance, new kid on the block ‪Harry Styles‬ looks a lot like legendary and long-lasting star ‪Mick Jagger‬. Having them join forces or rub shoulders gives Harry’s persona a huge boost.

Richard Branson has the world on selfie alert as everyone from former President Barack Obama to your local SME chief vies to get in the frame with the legendary alpha entrepreneur.

They want to bask in the glow of his success because they know it lights them up, too. Like Jimmy Cagney’s character in White Heat, they’re seen to have made it, they appear on top of the world.

You don’t have to be friends. In fact, it’s just as important to identify your enemies. Narratives have conflict and drama at their core. If you release a story that criticises an A-list enemy, you still benefit from their A-List status even if they are on the other side of the fence.

Once you’ve created your lists, it’s time to work out spheres of friendship and association.

Put yourself in the first circle, on your own. You’re a singular brand, just like David Beckham. Following the Beckham example, the next circle has just him and his wife in it, the couple known as Posh and Becks.

After that, you add his children for the wider Brand Beckham. Other circles of influence include David Beckham and English Football, David Beckham and Britain, ‪Victoria Beckham‬ and the United Nations. The list goes on, but all variations should be ordered according to the different angles to best plan and navigate the brand’s narratives.

Now take Brand You and work out your clusters. They don’t have to be other people or groups. They can equally be movements, ideas, political ideologies, products, eras and storylines.

‪David Bowie understood this power of association. He broke America by posing as a ready-formed rock star and being seen in brand-appropriate hot spots with the likes of Andy Warhol in New York’s ‘happening’ scene at the time. ‬

His move to edgy West Berlin during the late ‘70s became a major part of his brand narrative. The period saw him record his iconic albums Low, Heroes and Lodger, a trilogy that Bowie later referred to as his DNA. Even to this day, people can barely mention those albums without a nod to the artist’s ‘Berlin period’.

The list of possible cross-associations for any individual is as long as your arm. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1/. Me

2/. Me and my romantic partner

3/. Me and my business partner

4/. Me and my old school friends

5/. Me and my parents

6/. Me and my siblings

7/. Me and my political ideology

8/. Me and my football team

9/. Me and my town

10/. Me and my country

11/. Me and the world around me

12/. Me and the time I broke a world record

13/. Me and my personal passion

14/. Me and my company

15/. Me and my work colleagues

16/. Me and my squash/golf/tennis/club

17/. Me and my religion

18/. Me and my professional association

19/. Me and my hobbies

20/. Me and my fashion

21/. Me and my health

22/. Me and my university

23/. Me and my social/drinking club

24/. Me and my lifestyle

25/. Me and my exercise group

There’s no disputing this is hard, but once you’re set up, it’s easy to maintain and the rewards are incalculable.

Alchemy may be elusive, but curating your black book in this way can turn lead into gold – and give you a profitable edge in the new year.

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Richard J. Hillgrove VI

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