Revolutionary Measures

The news – written by robots

The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.

Partial front page of the Los Angeles Times fo...

Partial front page of the Los Angeles Times for Monday, April 24, 1922, displaying coverage of a Ku Klux Klan raid in an L.A. suburb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.

AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.

So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.

1          Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.

2          Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.

3          Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.

So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.

September 17, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wandering lonely as a smartphone

Can you remember life before the internet? While your response obviously depends on your age (I can recall fax machines, video recorders and black and white TVs), the number of people in the world with analogue memories is dropping. For example, just comparing my time at university twenty years ago (no mobile phones, no email, handwritten essays) with students today demonstrates a real gap in experiences.

English: Daffodil Daffodil.

English: Daffodil Daffodil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sobering question is the basis of a new book by Canadian journalist Michael Harris. In “The End of Absence: Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection,” he starts from the premise that soon, nobody will remember life before the internet. It is easy to point to what we have gained in terms of access to unrivalled amounts of information, available instantly at the push of a button or a swipe of our smartphone screen.

However, as Harris points out, we’ve also lost out in multiple areas. We experience our world through technology, with a screen or camera between us and the real world. This combines with the ability to meet all our wants much more easily and faster than ever before. We can buy things quickly, communicate instantly and indulge our wants without having to wait or often make much effort. And this has a knock on effect – we should be satisfied, but we don’t have time as we’re onto the next thing. The risk, as Harris says, is that we believe that things matter less, simply because they are easy to achieve.

The other impact of the internet, and in particular mobile devices, is that we don’t have the opportunity to be bored or to appreciate the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder, as rather than studying a bird building a nest while we wait for the bus, we’re checking our email. Rather than writing about wandering lonely as a cloud, would Wordsworth today be taking selfies of himself with daffodils and posting it on Instagram? We’re always connected and continually worried that we’re going to miss out on the Next Big Thing.

On the positive side, I think Harris isn’t alone in understanding the need to disconnect. I see an increasing number of people running, cycling or walking, and while they use technology to show where they are, listen to music and see the speed they are going, they are at least unhooked from the broader internet for a few minutes at least. But what we need are more opportunities for solitude and day dreaming. When was the last time you did nothing without worrying about what you are missing out on?

It is easy to come across as a Luddite when it comes to being concerned about the impact of technology – after all I’m typing this blog on a PC, posting it online and then shouting about it on social media. However, as Harris’s book argues, it is probably time to take a hard look at what we risk losing with the onward march of technology and to take action (or should that be inaction) to reclaim solitude, human to human interaction and a bit of plain idleness.

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sting, Simon and Sex – 20 years of the Smartphone

It seems like 1994 was a busy year – not only did it see the first ecommerce transaction (a foolish purchase of an overpriced and overrated Sting album), but also the launch of the very first smartphone. And interestingly it wasn’t produced by a traditional handset vendor, but created by IBM, thus adding to the long list of inventions, such as the PC, that it pioneered but then failed to commercialise.

English: The first smartphone "The Simon&...

English: The first smartphone “The Simon” by IBM and Bellsouth (AT&T) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The oddly named Simon went on sale to the US public on 16 August 1994, and had a calendar, could take notes and send emails and messages as well as make and receive calls. Aimed at the busy executive it could be linked to a fax machine in order to handle all your communication needs. However it failed to take off, only selling 50,000 units. As curator of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, Charlotte Connelly, drily puts its “It only had an hour’s battery, it was $899 and there was no mobile internet at the time. So it wasn’t very successful.” Personally I’m not convinced the name helped either – “Sent from my Simon” doesn’t have the same kudos as “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of an email.

We’re now seeing mobile and ecommerce (as opposed to Sting and Simon) converging, and driving innovation in technology. As this nifty but messy Google Public Data graphic shows, the majority of us now use smartphones as our primary method of internet access, and, aside from reading this blog, watching cute kittens and moaning on Facebook, one of our primary occupations is buying stuff. According to Goldman Sachs, global mobile commerce will hit $638 billion by 2018 – the same amount spent via PCs in 2013. While the majority will be on tablets, smartphones are an integral part of the customer journey and will make up a direct $20-30 billion of the total.

The smartphone has changed how we interact, shop and spend our free time. We are no longer ever idle – why gaze into space at the bus stop and notice the world around you when you can play Candy Crush instead? In many ways mobile technology has outstripped our capacity to adapt, leaving humans scrambling to change their behaviour to fit in with their apps, rather than the other way around. 20 per cent of young American adults (and 10 per cent of the total population) use smartphones during sex, though mercifully the research doesn’t go into any more detail than that.

So, what does this mean for startups and marketers? The smartphone is essentially our most relied upon device, and the one we keep closest to us at all times. You can link it to sensors, watches and the world around us, through Bluetooth and technology such as beacons. It really does provide a window into our lives, which has both a positive and negative impact. Speaking personally spam text messages or calls annoy me more on my mobile than their equivalents on landline or email. It is a delicate balancing act, with the consequences for misjudging privacy or security potentially extremely damaging. But get it right with your app and you can generate big profits or deliver your message right to the heart of your target markets.

The last twenty years has seen the smartphone change the world – as well as the wider device market. It has shrunk from the 500g brick sized Simon to thinner, more pocket sized smartphones (though ironically the trend is now for larger and larger devices), with increased usability and a wider range of apps aimed at consumers as well as businesses. One thing hasn’t changed though – the Simon’s battery lasted an hour, and while I get a bit longer from my iPhone, it still can’t survive a busy day without needing a recharge……..

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of old media?

Ofcom’s annual study into the UK’s viewing, listening, internet and communications habits is always worth a read. This year’s tome is no different, with a headline finding that we now spend an average of 20 minutes more every day using technology devices than sleeping. Apparently the average night’s sleep is 8 hours and 21 minutes – which seems an incredibly long time to me, but then I’ve got three kids and a noisy cat.

A landline telephone

A landline telephone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is positive news on broadband – there are now 6.1 million superfast connections across the country, making up over a quarter of broadband subscriptions. Given the huge amount of money invested by the taxpayer to push superfast broadband to rural areas, this is promising, but the UK still lags behind other countries on targets and speeds. For example, Finland defines superfast as 100 Mbps, while the UK target is just 24 Mbps. And my new shiny rural fibre broadband doesn’t even achieve that, measuring just 21.6 Mbps according to my ISP (when working).

TV viewing is less than 4 hours a day for the first time since 2010, at 3hr 52 minutes. But before broadcasters start panicking, bear in mind that this is more than the combined time spent on mobiles, landlines and the internet. The vast majority of programmes are still watched live, despite the rise of catch-up services.

As always the Ofcom findings are being used to predict the death of various communication channels by analysing the behaviour of 12-15 year olds and making assumptions for the future. For example, only 8% of this group said they used email and 3% communicated through landline phones, leading to experts to point out the imminent demise of these channels. I can think of three reasons why this is tosh:

1. Demographics
People are living longer, so we actually have a growing proportion of silver surfers (complete with landlines), balancing out the younger generation. If they were cutting the cord and just communicating using WhatsApp things would be different, but no sign of that yet.

2. Why would a 12 year old use email?
In many ways email is a horrible communication channel – complex, clunky and not real-time. The reason most people use it is essentially for work or to do with boring stuff like complaining at utilities/banks. So, unsurprisingly, most 12 year olds aren’t spending their time slaving at the corporate coalface or moaning at companies.

3. Privacy
One thing teenagers have always valued is privacy. I remember having to shoo away parents and siblings when making landline telephone calls at that age – now lucky kids don’t need to as they can just use their mobiles. So, again, why would they use landlines when they can call from their bedrooms?

So, taken altogether the Ofcom findings show that there isn’t radical change happening in how we communicate – a third of people had sent a personal letter in the last month for example. The only sector to worry should be physical newspapers and magazines, with just 2% saying they’d feel their absence. And even then, this seems a little difficult to believe seeing the number of free papers handed out in London for example.

For entrepreneurs looking to set up a business or marketers aiming to launch a new product, the lesson is don’t neglect the old channels in favour of the shiny new ones. Think laterally and improve the experience and you might well be onto a winner.

August 13, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Brother is manipulating you?

As anyone that has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, the ability to rewrite history and manipulate information is at the heart of controlling behaviour. As communist Russia showed, people could simply be airbrushed from the official account and would vanish from the public consciousness. 1984

Of course, in the age of social media, the web, and 24 hour global media, this ability to control news should have disappeared. If a government blocks a site or a mobile phone network, there are ways around it that spread information quickly, bypassing attempted censorship.

However, I’d argue that the reverse has happened and that Big Brother can operate stealthily in two ways. Firstly, rumours can start and spread unchecked, with the majority of us not taking the time to get to the original source, instead believing something that has been retweeted or shared on Facebook. I’ve had people swear blind to me that a major incident took place ‘because I saw it on Facebook’ – though I can’t believe they’d be as credulous if a random stranger told them the same story down the pub. By the time the truth is out, immeasurable damage can be done – to a company’s brand or share price or a person’s reputation.

Secondly, we believe what our computers tell us, and act accordingly, particularly when it chimes with our own preconceptions. Essentially we think that the complex algorithms that control what appears on our screens are unbiased, rather than reflecting what the site owner has determined in some way.

This leaves us open to manipulation, whether by marketers trying to sell us things or more sinister experiments. Facebook received justified criticism for running an experiment where it tampered with the stories in people’s timelines, seeing what the impact would be on what users themselves wrote. Unsurprisingly the percentage of negative or positive posts had a direct link to the tone and language people used in their own posts.

Now dating site OKCupid has admitted that it experimented on its users. This included deliberately pairing up unsuitable couples and telling them that they were a perfect match to see what would happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little serendipity, but deliberate meddling risks breaking the trust between a site and its users. Throwing in a wildcard of “here’s someone completely unlike you, but why not see what happens if you meet?” is one thing if it is advertised, but quite another if it is hidden behind the veil of computer processing.

Some might argue that this is just a next step in techniques such as Nudge, where choices are ordered in a way to drive particular outcomes. These are supposedly for the greater good. For example, if diners come to the salad bar first in a cafeteria they eat more healthy stuff and if you automatically enrol people in pensions, they tend not to take the opportunity to opt out. But I’d say it goes much further than this, and is about trust.

In many ways breaches of trust are similar to security breaches – something that the user relied upon unthinkingly has been removed, calling into question the entire relationship they have with a company. And like trust in any relationship, it is a time-consuming and difficult process to rebuild it.

So, anyone involved in marketing, media or technology does have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as they can be. At the very least there are legal safeguards (such as the Data Protection Act) that need to be obeyed, but I think companies need to go further than that. We live in a world where people want to have a genuine relationship with brands that they respect and trust, rather than the transactional, one-sided versions of the past. Therefore organisations need to think first about the consequences of experimenting on their users before playing Big Brother with their lives.

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marketing by robots?

Technology has disrupted many industries, radically changing the roles of those that work in them. Thirty years ago, every medium or large organisation had a typing pool, with secretaries that took dictation and then typed letters, tippexing over any mistakes. Insurance was primarily sold face to face through brokers, while buying a CD involved a trip to the nearest HMV or Virgin Megastore.

Electronic typewriter - the final stage in typ...

Electronic typewriter – the final stage in typewriter development. A 1989 Canon Typestar 110 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is now marketing’s turn to feel the impact of technology change. When I started in PR 20 years ago, technology essentially involved a desktop PC, a landline and a fax machine. I remember setting my heart on being promoted in order to ‘earn’ a work mobile phone and the excitement when internet access and email arrived. Things have changed a great deal, but essentially by simply automating existing processes. Rather than physically posting press releases to journalists, PRs now send an email, and marketing campaigns are now integrated and include digital channels. And you could argue that these changes have benefited PR and marketing – the sector is larger than it was, with more senior level practitioners.

However, digital business as usual is no longer enough. Marketing is now being transformed by technology, with those working in it enabled by a whole range of new tools and abilities that completely change how the entire industry operates. This is being driven by three key trends – the rise of Big Data, social media, and improved, end-to-end measurement tools.

1. Big Data – beyond the hype
We live in a world where data is being created an astonishing rate. And much of this data is personal information created on social media and consequently of interest to marketers. You can select target audiences to advertise to using the most narrow of parameters – if you want to reach one armed female ferret fanciers in Altrincham it is easy to do. But to make Big Data work for marketing, you need to learn technical and real-time analytic skills that can be at odds with the traditional annual or six monthly campaign-based approach that many people were brought up on. You also need flexibility, a desire to experiment to see what works, a willingness to learn from mistakes and a focus on constantly adapting and improving what you do.

2. Social Media – the balance has shifted
The relationship between marketers and consumers used to be balanced firmly in favour of corporate suits. Campaigns were launched at their target markets, and while there was some market testing, it was normally late in the process. Social media changes all that – consumers have the chance to have their opinions heard by a global audience instantly, uncontrolled by marketing organisations. The latest example of this is the Comcast case, where a call to cancel an internet connection degenerated into the customer service agent berating the consumer for having the temerity to try and leave. Over 3.5 million people listened to the customer’s recording of the call in just a few days. Marketers have lost control of the conversation.

3. You can measure everything
One of the traditional issues with PR used to be that it was difficult to measure. At a simplistic level you could count clippings, or even assign them a monetary value based on advertising rates, but these were crude and didn’t link to other marketing disciplines. Now you can measure everything, seeing exactly what a prospect has viewed on the way to a purchase and use Big Data algorithms to weight the relative impact of every contact on the eventual sale. Software enables you to link different channels seamlessly, so in terms of PR and social media you could see how individual articles or tweets have moved the customer journey forward.

So, some of the skills that marketing people took for granted as useful – empathy, the ability to schmooze and being good on the phone/in meetings – are no longer enough. You need to be able to use technology as a lever to better understand customers in a scalable, real-time way, and have the strategic skills to create content that will best reach them. For a traditional industry such as marketing this does mean changing how people operate – which can be uncomfortable and even threatening to experienced marketers. However the prize is worth fighting for. Marketers have the chance to not only prove the value of what they do, but increase their own standing within their organisations by taking a more strategic role. All they need is an open mind and a desire to embrace their more analytic and technical sides.

July 23, 2014 Posted by | Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JerkTech – the unacceptable face of technology?

It seems to be turning into a bad week for those that believe technology is solely a force for good. Firstly, the UK government has rushed through new legislation that means that ISPs and telecoms companies have to store metadata on email and phone communications (though not their actual content). The aim of the new law is to fight crime and protect the country against terrorism, according to the Prime Minister.

"Technology has exceeded our humanity"

“Technology has exceeded our humanity” (Photo credit: Toban B.)

And over in the US, there’s a growing backlash against so-called JerkTech applications. For those that have missed the debate, these are applications that let people sell on resources at above the market rate that they’ve paid. For example, Monkey Parking enables drivers who are parked in public streets to auction off their space, while ReservationHop makes reservations at hard to book restaurants under false names and then sells them on.

The key point about these apps, and those like them, is that they corner the market in publically available resources (whether parking spaces or restaurant tables) and then charge people for the privilege of using them. While this is neat in economic terms – you are taking something that is underpriced and selling it at the market rate, they remove the ability for anyone to chance upon a parking space or get that hot table. And the actual provider of the resource (City council or restaurateur) doesn’t get any benefit at all. Indeed, if ReservationHop fails to sell a booking the restaurant will have an empty table that it could have filled in other ways. Hence, the JerkTech name, as coined by Josh Constine of Tech Crunch.

The best technology is disruptive – but that does come with risks and potentially even responsibilities. In the same way that scientists and medical researchers are governed by ethical standards, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This particularly applies to ways of using technology to manipulate people (without their consent). There’s been a huge furore about a Facebook experiment where users were served a preponderance of either happy or sad content in their newsfeed – the result of this manipulation was that they posted either more positively or negatively themselves.

We live at an exciting time for technology. We’re moving beyond the original web, to a more mobile, wearable and all-encompassing version, with the Internet of Things allowing previously dumb machines to communicate in real-time in order to improve our lives. The danger is that the sheer pace of change will overwhelm everyone except for early adopters, and consequently new innovation will either be banned or will simply not be used by those that it could benefit. Genuine advances (and I don’t mean parking apps or social networks) will be lost, and there is a potential that geeks will join bankers in the category of ‘most hated profession’.

I think everyone in the tech community needs to think about four questions before they launch (or market) new innovations if they want them to flourish.

  1. Is there a genuine need behind your software, hardware or app? No, we don’t need yet another social network.
  2. What are the positive and negative consequences of your disruption? I don’t mean that a big business will be inconvenienced or will lose market share, but will it hit those that genuinely have no other source of income or add to the load on the public purse? If so, how can you spread the benefits to them, such as by creating a social enterprise or partnership.
  3. Is it ethical and responsible? In the absence of any existing code, maybe the best way to check this is to explain it to a senior citizen – do they find it fair?
  4. And finally, is it secure? Is there any danger that personal data could be hacked or lost, or confidentiality breached?

It may seem odd for tech start-ups and developers to look beyond the coolness of their technology (or the possibility of selling it for millions later in its development). However, in a world dominated by social media, the consequences of being a jerk can be fatal to your company’s success, no matter how innovative your product. So think first – and run it past a senior citizen just to be sure.

July 16, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Marketing Tour de Force

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ll have seen that the Tour de France, the world’s biggest annual sporting event, visited the UK. From the Grand Départ (race start) in Leeds on Saturday to the final British stage from Cambridge to London on Monday, the race has been typified by enormous support, with an estimated six million people turning out to watch at the roadside.

Image from Scudamore’s Punting Cambridge www.scudamores.com via Flickr

Image from Scudamore’s Punting Cambridge http://www.scudamores.com

Putting that in context the normal total number of spectators for the entire, three week event is 12 million people. Riders described the noise levels at the roadside as ‘like being in a disco’, with climbs in the Yorkshire Dales resembling Alpe D’Huez when it came to the number of spectators. Even the normally insouciant French admitted it was the biggest start to the event ever.

I was one of the six million spectators, on both the Yorkshire stages and as a Tour Maker volunteer marshal in Cambridge and am still reeling from the exhilaration of the experience, with a sore throat from the shouting.

What makes the success even more amazing is the ratio of waiting to watching. The speed of the race means that the bunch tends to be past in less than a minute – even spread out on a climb it is less than 15-20 minutes for the final stragglers to come through. Yet people were in place the day before on climbs and 5 hours ahead of the race coming through on the flat. As someone pointed out to me, at 2 hours, the gap between the publicity caravan and the cyclists themselves was longer than a football match.

What makes people, many of whom had no interest in cycling, turn out in their millions and give up their time? And, what can marketers learn from the event’s success? I’d distil it into six characteristics:

1          Ownership and Pride
From the very start, the Grand Départ was billed as Yorkshire’s chance to shine, with the chance for God’s own country to show the world what it was capable of. This spurred a frenzy of creative ideas, from knitting miles of coloured jersey bunting to painting houses, people and sheep in tour colours. Every community wanted to outdo its neighbour in a friendly, but very serious rivalry. And this spread to the South as well – events and decorations in Cambridge and Essex stepped up a gear as they were determined to rival Yorkshire.

2          Inclusivity
I saw thousands of people on bikes around the stages – and importantly you could cycle on the roads for hours before the race came through, and immediately afterwards. And the bikes (and cyclists) came in all shapes and sizes – from ultra light carbon machines piloted by whippet-thin athletes to shoppers and standard bikes with enormous child carrying trailers. There may have been too much Lycra on display, but it really felt that everyone could take part without being judged on their knowledge of rear sprockets or cycle computers.

3          Planning and providing something for everyone
Recognising that cycling itself wasn’t of interest to everyone, there was a huge range of activities around the tour. From French-themed markets to public art projects, the organisers used the Tour to stimulate a whole programme of activities that brought people together. It wasn’t just the preserve of big business either – from the smallest shop to the largest company, there were opportunities to get involved without spending megabucks to become an official partner. Even if the Tour was just a chance to have a party or visit one of the fan parks with big screens, you could enjoy yourself without travelling far. Planning was meticulous, even if the sheer number of people caused unexpected delays on trains, and all the relevant authorities worked well together to deliver the event.

4          Make it real
For generations reared on seeing sports stars at a distance, the Tour is a complete change. It comes to your town and the riders pass within centimetres of the crowd (admittedly leading to some incidents as spectators misjudged the amount of space needed by a charging peloton). You have the chance to get close to the stars, rather than simply seeing them on screen. From riders signing on before the stage to warming down by their team buses afterwards, the whole spectacle is public and accessible.

5          Not stopping after the event
Too many brands are focused on initial engagement, then treat customers as expendable. Like the Olympics, the idea of legacy was central to the Tour’s success in the UK. Before Saturday, Yorkshire was probably not known by many outside Great Britain. Now, thanks to the power of the TV coverage, it has been seen by billions of people around the world. Already Yorkshire has plans for a follow-up race, and has set out its ambition to be one of Europe’s cycling hotspots, boosting tourism and the economy. We’re in the midst of a massive growth in cycling in the UK, with its associated health benefits, and the Grand Depart will spur many more people to switch to two wheels.

6          Deliver a damn good show
There’s a reason the Tour de France is the biggest annual sporting event in the world – it is absolutely enormous. 198 riders, 440 vehicles in the race convoy, at least four helicopters, and a requirement for over 14,500 beds every night give you an idea of the scale of the thing. The publicity caravan alone takes around 45 minutes to pass any particular spot. People I talked to at the roadside were blown away by the spectacle, the noise, the sirens and the free stuff thrown from the caravan. Spectators really felt that they’d been part of something to remember – no mean feat given the time they’d spent by the roadside.

Marketers should take note from the success of Le Tour en Yorkshire (et Cambridge) and learn lessons on how they can create an equivalent buzz with customers going forward. And Lycra doesn’t need to be part of it………..

July 9, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PRs vs journalists – battle lines drawn?

A few weeks ago BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston sparked a fierce (and ongoing) debate by warning of the power of the PR industry in setting and controlling the news agenda. His views, given in the annual Charles Wheeler lecture, were that the combination of a lack of resources at newspapers and the central position of PRs as gatekeepers was leading to a world where companies and their representatives dictated the agenda. An environment full of spurious stories that at the very least obfuscated the truth, and that the worst were downright lies or spin. He concluded “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid...

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid-interview in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other journalists have taken up the battle cry, with Nick Cohen describing press officers as “the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life.” In response, Public Relations Consultants Association boss, Francis Ingham, called the comments ‘sanctimonious’ and a ‘venomous, ill-judged diatribe.”

As in any relationship, PRs and journalists have always taken pot shots at each other. The balance has shifted over the last twenty years – there are now more PRs than journalists, generally they earn more, and traditional media has been hit hard by the rise of the internet.

I think the argument risks getting out of hand, with both sides missing the point. Firstly, the range of the PR industry is broad, as is journalism. What Robert Peston has seen in his career working for national and broadcast media is not the same as the majority of trade or local journalists who have a much less antagonistic relationship with the PRs that pitch them stories. The same goes for political spin – I work in PR, but I’m not Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker. Clearly there is abuse of position and power by spin doctors as they deliberately work to spike stories or brief against opponents. Does that mean that every PR does the same (or would like to?). Speaking personally the answer is no, as I’m not sure my blood pressure could stand it – or that the vocabulary improvement would go down well at the school gates.

Secondly, there is a big difference between in-house PRs and agencies. Press officers have a single client, their employer, who pays their salary. In this environment it is potentially easy to lose your sense of perspective, and to believe that what your organisation is doing is right, and that everyone else is out to get you. And this isn’t just competitive businesses or warring politicians, press officers at charities and NGOs often believe passionately in the cause they are espousing and want everyone else to feel the same. In contrast, PR agencies are middlemen, and rely on their ideas and relationships with the press to gain new clients. So burning bridges by bullying journalists into taking down a story or requesting copy approval may work once, but it will destroy a relationship for the future. As a PR person I must admit I have asked for stories to be changed online – but only for the simple reason they were factually inaccurate. My personal favourite is politely requesting a journalist get the sex right of the client he’d interviewed.

Thirdly, commentators need to look at the wider context. The rise of ‘content’ as an all encompassing area lumps together what was previously seen as advertorial, proper journalism, wire reports and pictures of cute cats lifted off social media close to deadline. Traditional print media have faced falling circulations and increased competition as they’ve moved online, ironically at the same time as having more space to fill. This means publications now need more content than ever before, with fewer, less experienced staff on hand to deliver it. PR and marketing-led content has filled this vacuum, whether from survey-based press releases, soft features or owned content submitted by organisations. This doesn’t have to be bad – take the Red Bull Stratos skydive or footage from any NASA mission, but it has to be in addition to real, investigative reporting rather than instead of it.

The balance between journalists and PRs has changed. However that doesn’t mean that journalists don’t have power – or that the relationship should get too friendly. Whatever happens day to day, journalists and PR people do have differing jobs to do – and neither should forget that. Not all PR people are power-crazed Alastair Campbells – nor are all journalists Andy Coulsons…………

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end to rural notspots?

Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.

Cwm Rheidol Telephone Kiosk - geograph.org.uk ...

In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.

Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.

Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.

The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.

June 25, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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