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.”
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…………
The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.
But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.
This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:
- Bashar Al Asad has appeared on CBS and PBS in the US, defending his actions and denying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
- Barack Obama appealed to the American people through a series of TV interviews as well as a direct address calling on Congress to support his stance
- Francois Holland sought to elbow Britain from its position as the US’s most trusted ally, hawkishly supporting military action in Syria
- Vladimir Putin put his point of view to the US and world media through a comment piece published in the New York Times, setting out his plan for independent decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons.
Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.
If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.
Turning your brilliant idea into a world-beating product requires a lot of things – drive, commitment, flexibility and often a large slice of luck. But one element it can’t really do without is money – whether to develop prototypes, employ staff or simply pay your own bills.
Finding funding has never been easy, but the range of potential sources does seem to be growing. As well as traditional sources such as VCs, banks, angels and friends and family, there are a range of government grants and multiple competitions that can potentially help startups take a step forward. I’m not saying this necessarily makes gaining investment easy, but it does give more options.
And another option that is expanding rapidly is crowdfunding – sharing your idea with the world and getting them to back it before you start the expensive business of actually producing anything. If you don’t attract the pre-orders then it should probably act as a wake-up call – are you producing the right product that people actually want?
There’s been a run of successful, over-subscribed launches on sites like KickStarter. The company behind the Pebble smart watch raised over $10m and will start shipping real products this month. On a smaller scale, projects like photography book I Drink Lead Paint hit its target of £10,000, unleashing the thoughts and images of Mr Flibble onto the world. And B2B versions like Funding Circle have attracted government backing, making £20m available to British businesses over the next 12-24 months.
With growth like this, it is no wonder that Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding will double in 2013, raising £1.9 billion globally this year. Not huge in the scheme of overall investment, but potentially opening up funding options to smaller scale projects in a simple way.
But, with more and more projects out there looking for crowdfunding, how do entrepreneurs get people to view what they are doing – and potentially part with their cash? Kickstarter’s own stats show that just over 40% of projects hit their funding targets, showing it isn’t as simple as launching and waiting for the money to roll in.
This is where an enormous opportunity arises for the marketing and PR industries to get involved. Crowdfunding projects need marketing in the same way as any other product, identifying target audiences and demonstrating the benefits your new wonder widget brings to them. And then you’ve got to reach them, using both social and traditional media to identify the influencers that are likely to help you spread the word and convincing them and the world at large. Obviously the downside is that projects don’t tend to have any ready cash, but for anyone brave enough to go for payment by results the business is out there. At a time when the PR industry is suffering financially, creating smart, all-in-one services that help you get crowdfunding or launch your new iPhone app are just what it needs to be developing to recapture growth and build relationships with the next generation of smart businesses.
Last week’s US raid and subsequent death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates both the power and the pitfalls of creating and reporting news in the internet world. If the advent of 24 hour rolling news channels sped up reporting, social media makes it even faster, simpler and consequently more difficult to control. We’ve all seen rumours that have gone from raw unsubstantiated tweets to reporting as actual news due to the lack of editorial filters in an open network world.
Given one of the first reports of Bin Laden’s death was via Twitter you’d think the US Government had seen and understood the double edged sword that is social media. But not really – in their anxiety to get the news out they claimed various details (Bin Laden’s wife was killed, he was armed) that later proved to be untrue. And that’s not getting into the whole issue of whether they should release the photo of his body or not.
It seems to me that there is a key lesson to be learnt – have a communications plan. Obviously a military operation like this has been meticulously planned, but the same doesn’t seem to be true of how the information was released. In a world where words are deeds, PR is a key part of the mix and one of the ways that success is judged. Release what you can, don’t make assumptions until you know the facts and consequently control the story rather than be forced into restating it multiple times. Only then will the US and its allies start to win the PR battle in the War on Terror.
- Even With bin Laden Dead, War on Terrorism Isn’t Over (usnews.com)
- Did Osama Bin Laden Win the “War on Terror”? (alternet.org)
There was a fascinating item on the Today programme this morning about how London-based PR and Public Affairs agencies are helping ‘spin’ the reputations of morally dubious states, particularly in the Middle East. While the news hook for the piece was ostensibly a new code of conduct being put in place by the industry this didn’t really get much airplay against the juicier story of London PRs allegedly supporting corrupt regimes.
And this type of story is typical of how the mainstream media covers PR – and it comes down to a lack of positive stories put out by the industry itself. We don’t have a lot of strong, admired role models – in fact here’s a top 5 that pop into most people’s heads when you mention PR:
1 Edina from Absolutely Fabulous
Still the most famous fictional PR person and a monument to slapdash excess. However, her response when asked what she does – “I PR people, things, Lulu,” is probably more coherent than some industry luminaries. Amazingly, and without an ounce of irony, someone actually opened an agency called Absolutely Fabulous.
2 Max Clifford
Don’t get me wrong – Clifford is a smart operator and does what he does extremely well. But he operates in a tiny niche of the PR market, yet is rolled out as the archetypal PR consultant whatever the topic.
3 Alastair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker
Foul-mouthed, combative, bullying and using spin to pull the wool over the electorate’s eyes. That’s obviously the fictional Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, rather than Mr Campbell. Although Alastair has been known to get into a fight or too, as evidenced by this spat with Adam Boulton of Sky News.
4 Lord Tim Bell
If the Saatchis got Thatcher elected, Lord Bell is the man that kept her there. Since then the Bell Pottinger empire has grown and grown and was pinpointed today as first choice PR to the rulers of a number of Middle Eastern countries.
5 Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors
OK, so I don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. But still, her character in the film Sliding Doors is flaky, unbusinesslike and shallow – being sacked for ‘borrowing’ the office bottle of vodka. Hardly advising captains of industry on building brand leadership is it?
I think it is time for industry bodies like the CIPR to fight back and get some positive role models out there, highlighting the work they do to help communities, brands and causes. After all, PR is what we’re meant to do, isn’t it?
While all professions are guilty of jargon, there’s a definite tendency in PR to reuse and recycle the same tired old phrases when it comes to press releases. Leading, innovative, solutions, unique – as in “company X, the leading provider of innovative and unique solutions, today announced……”
At best they don’t mean anything and at worst hide a potentially good story as any self-respecting journalist has nodded off at the end of the first paragraph.
Often we’re told we can’t change them by clients as they are part of house style and that they set the company apart in its messaging. A useful piece of research by Adam Sherk, quoted in the Johnson blog in The Economist, explodes this myth. By analysing words and phrases in press releases on PR Web, he found that leader and leading, for example, were used over 200,000 times. That’s a lot of leaders – are there no also-rans?
This isn’t the first research that there’s been in this area, and all PR people have had sarky comments back from journalists on this subject, but it should act as a wake up call for press release writing. Start with messaging that is clear and differentiated. Then explain things simply, without hyperbole but with a range of language – as Adam’s research shows it might actually make you stand out from the crowd.