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Military 'psy-ops' expert on a mission to improve Jersey's image

Military 'psy-ops' expert on a mission to improve Jersey's image

Tuesday 02 April 2019

Military 'psy-ops' expert on a mission to improve Jersey's image


Words are critical in shaping our world views, even shaping the reality around us. So what if those words are 'tax haven'?

Express met military 'psy-ops' expert Sven Hughes, who has been recruited by Jersey Finance to help clarify, polish and sharpen its lexicon...

As efforts to oust the Taliban intensified during the Afghanistan conflict, the British Army looked to ‘psy-ops’ to penetrate the minds of their opponents ahead of taking their turf. But something wasn’t working. The threat wasn’t being keenly felt. These were extremists ready to die for their cause – being told “leave or be killed” wasn’t enough.

Deeply embedded in that operation was Sven Hughes, who needed to find a way to get the messages through. “We talked to the tribal elders, members of the community, women that were misrepresented… reaching out into different parts of the community that wouldn't normally have a voice to find out what they actually thought, believed and wanted.”

That ‘target audience analysis,’ as Sven terms it, yielded an important result: the Taliban didn’t fear being killed; but they certainly didn’t want to be captured. So, when Sven’s team dropped leaflets with this message, it did the trick. All down to the power of ‘word of mouth’ – one of the most powerful influencers, he says.

It’s an experience that took Sven into another counter-extremism mission years later: creating an award-winning and haunting short film to deter young Muslims from joining ISIS, ‘Not Another Brother.’

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Pictured: Why would Jersey need an image rework?

Impressive though his credentials may be, it’s not immediately clear why he’s been recruited as the guru to lead Jersey’s key industry - and the body tasked with promoting it locally, and internationally, Jersey Finance (JFL) - through a substantial image rework.

On paper, it’s also unclear why the industry would need reworking. In recent years, the island’s commitment to regulation has been acknowledged by organisations like the World Bank and IMF, while the OECD scored it “top marks” for tax transparency.

International accolades have poured in, including the ‘International Finance Centre of the Year Award’ for seven years running, and Jersey’s position on the international stage continues to strengthen, reflected through JFL’s opening of offices in China, the Middle East, and soon in New York.

Closer to home, the industry is the island’s greatest employer with over 12,000 people, and is worth around £1.7billion to the local economy - the highest of any sector.

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Pictured: Sven's team is specialised in using language to shape thought, and influence behaviour.

However, there’s one phrase that seems to brush all of that under the table every time it is uttered, and has even seen Jersey ‘grey-listed’ by the EU, who threatened sanctions if it doesn’t do more to ensure companies ‘based’ here are more than hollow shells: that phrase is ‘tax haven.’

Enter Sven, who these days runs Whitehall-based marketing consultancy Verbalisation, with a 30-strong staff including “creatives, psychologists, and former peacekeepers,” specialised in using language to shape thought, and influence behaviour.

Given his military background – and the fact that Verbalisation approaches its work through the acronym ‘RAID’ (Rapid Audience Insight Diagnostics) – one would assume we’re talking about aggressive psychological warfare.

But “it’s not a dark art”, Sven protests. What his military work, and JFL’s “refresh” strategy have in common, is that they’re about spreading the right message in the most efficient way.

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Pictured: Sven's mission is to end the chat around fraudsters in Jersey.

He aims to filter their communications stream, ‘unmuddying’ it, cleaning out what Jersey was seen to be, and leaving behind a clear view of what it now is. Out with the chat around fraudsters, evasion and money laundering; in with regulation, innovation and globalisation.

Quite a task. The perception of Jersey as a paradise isle for the wealthy, famous, corrupt and/or criminal to stash their money is deeply embedded in the minds of some. It’s taken root over years, and recent oligarch associations haven’t helped.

Jersey holds the curious position of being British, yet free of its taxes. Stories of this peculiarity being abused stretch back centuries, with blind eyes apparently turned as enterprising 17th century English merchants imported tobacco into the island, got a duty rebate, and then sneakily smuggled it back to the Devonshire coast by night.

Jersey’s ‘bad reputation’ started growing in earnest from the 1950s, however. As English inheritance tax rocketed to a top marginal rate of 98%, Jersey’s lack thereof piqued attention - along with the absence of VAT, and taxes on capital gains or corporate profits for businesses outside the island.

“If the attractions of Jersey as a low-tax area stem from the high levels of UK taxation, the island should not be criticised for offering an escape,” Colin Powell, the economist widely acknowledged to be the architect of modern financial services in Jersey, once said.

Jersey Aerial View

Pictured: JFL now have a rhetorical master at their disposal to rid Jersey of its “legacy baggage.”

But criticised it was - firstly, by tax chasers, then campaigners, politicians, and eventually even by some of the mouths it was feeding locally. Indeed, one of its fiercest opponents - founder of the Tax Justice Network, John Christensen - was a former States employee.

And so started the headlines. 1996 saw the Wall Street Journal break the international scandal of a Jersey subsidiary being involved in a $26million fraud, with further bruisings to follow in the era of ‘leaks’. So toxic did the narrative become that even recent ‘revelations’ involving stars using legitimate company or investment vehicles were shrouded in an air of wrongdoing - even if there was actually none whatsoever.

The language used spoke of Jersey’s past - not of its present, as a jurisdiction that has won praise for its transparency. But, the issue is that the ‘new’ language is difficult to master.

For those in the know, MONEYVAL, for example, is a marker of the island’s mature approach to tackling money laundering and financing terrorism. To the layperson, it’s an impenetrable jumble of letters.

Fortunate, then, that JFL now have a rhetorical master at their disposal to rid Jersey of its “legacy baggage.” Working with those with “a good product”, which has been “misunderstood in the past,” is Sven’s specialty.

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Pictured: Sven's clients have included NATO, political parties and royal families.

Citing his successes, Sven explains that he managed to increase subscriptions to the Times and Financial Times by 236% and 106% by teaching them to “be more empathetic with their audience, [and] speak more simply.”

Clients have also included NATO, political parties and royal families, apparently… But has he tackled a whole sector before? Yes, there have been successful “evolution campaigns” he coyly says, but declines to reveal more.

So, where to begin with JFL? Back to ‘RAID’ - “fancy marketing” speak, Sven admits, for getting to know your audience. That involves everything from reading their Facebook rants, to chatting with policymaking, managerial and media bods, and hosting focus groups with a twist.

We’re listening for completely different things…  We'll be listening for the use of emotional versus rational language, the use of metaphors, the use of things that tell you about their transfer structures and their peer-to-peer network…  What they're understanding, what they're not understanding.”

Those focus groups looked at three areas: UK/EU perceptions, those from the Middle East and further afield (a key new market), and, interestingly, question marks over the industry in locals’ minds.

“'Why is it they're putting up glass-fronted buildings and taking away some of the soul of the island?’ That was an issue that we had to find asolution to,” Sven recalls.

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Pictured: There was also a need to ensure locals actually understood the mechanics of finance.

Beyond buildings, there was also a need to ensure locals actually understood the mechanics of finance. After all, “when you have misunderstanding, you have preconceived ideas of negativity that come off the back of that.”

“Even when the industry has something good to say, people aren't listening, because it's too complicated… What we've helped to do… is not throw out the baby with the bottle, to just refresh the messaging, to say, ‘Actually… it is a much healthier picture than you may understand’.”

His weapons of choice are “verbal anchors”, metaphors and “sound bites” manufactured as part of a bespoke and goals-focused communications strategy.

But why care about locals when the focus is, surely, creating and maintaining new business elsewhere? More than 50% of new business now comes from outside Europe, after all. There it is again: ‘word of mouth.’

People trust people, and people talk. And when people talk positively, they’re the best advertising tool anyone could hope for - at home or abroad.

“If you create relevant content that's sensitive to the local audience, your message will travel further and have far more reach than any traditional marketing method… It's also enabling the people who work within the industry to more simply and more effectively communicate their industry in the pubs and restaurants and amongst family networks on the island.”

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Pictured: Sven has been working to make Jersey Finance’s language more accessible.

Thus, began the process of making Jersey Finance’s language more accessible so that others too may speak it, and translate industry positivity in their own words - something with the added benefit of engaging a younger generation.

With Jersey’s population pressures making it increasingly difficult to secure employment licences, stemming the student ‘brain drain’ is vital. The latest employment statistics showed the number of school and university leavers entering finance was at its lowest in four years in 2017, having dropped 36% to 250.

But a recently-produced video cheerily titled ‘Your Future in Finance’ suggests that, with the right messaging, this trend could reverse. It showed a sample of 15 secondary school students asked their views on finance, leading to images of suits, briefcases, dimly-lit workstations, maths qualifications and a mountainous work piles.

Those views soon changed, however, after they were shown clips of smiling young workers enthusing over their roles, overlaid with images of shiny offices, CSR community initiatives, sporting activities and reminders that maths or university are not compulsory. Crucially, the video was jargon-free - something equally important in promoting Jersey to new clients.

They don’t want or need to hear what’s on Jersey’s trophy shelf, but simply: “‘Are they really as regulated or more regulated than some of the competition where I might want to put my money?’”

"We needed to communicate more effectively, the degree of regulation, the degree of good practice that actually already exists in Jersey to say, 'Look, this isn't an island that's hiding from anything, quite the opposite, it's an island that is extremely proud of the work it's done in this area’.”

That’s a message that has been hammered home from all angles, from speeches to social media and conference merchandise.

Video: Jersey Finance asked 15 secondary school students their views on finance.

JFL’s instagram page cheekily features a photo of a sheep with the caption, “We’re rated top for tax transparency. It’s what sets us apart from the black sheep out there.” Meanwhile, a conference in Germany saw Jersey Finance sponsor the water bottles - another metaphor for transparency?

Niche tactics aside, Sven says the message is getting through. He has been with the body for 15 months now, but says they started seeing the strategy “having an effect within month one” as industry heavyweights started echoing the campaign’s key messages. Much of this, he says, was down to outgoing JFL CEO Geoff Cook and his aptitude for inspiring others.

“You can't tell people you're funny, you've got to make them laugh. Geoff literally took it, lived it, and infected people with that pride and that positivity and substantiated with clear messaging… and was able to, hopefully, communicate it in an even simpler and more compelling way to the widest possible group.”

He added: “When [people] were reassured that there wasn't this toxicity [in the industry], they were so proud… it gives them that island pride back… You could see it light up their eyes, they realised what they’ve actually got.”

Investigative organisations have promised further ‘revelations,’ but Sven is convinced the industry will weather any storms provided it continues speaking with “one voice.”

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Pictured: "Big data" is not to be messed with at Sven's firm.

He is one of those voices. Despite knowing little about Jersey prior to his JFL work, Sven exuberantly describes the island as “best-in-class” and full of “vanguard spirit.” “We are not here as some sort of whitewashing service for dodgy clients,” he says flatly.

Having left a career at the now-tarnished Cambridge Analytica, Sven maintains that “big data” is not to be messed with at his firm and that, quite frankly, there is “no room” for “smoke and mirrors” in today’s marketing world.

In many ways, Sven’s ambitions for the future of his domain align with those he has for Jersey Finance. “It's extremely important that the modern influence industry should be as transparent as it can possibly be, so that there is no sense of any untoward techniques or activity.”

His vision of Jersey’s finance industry in ten years’ time? A shockproof safe harbour for the world’s wealth that continues “setting the benchmark for IFCs around the world”. “It's clear. Clarity embeds everything it does. There's no misunderstanding.” 

This article first appeared in Connect magazine, which you can read by clicking here. 

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