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 industrial revolution mechanised previously craft-based activities, and since then machines have become more and more involved in creating the world around us. But until a few years ago, this mechanisation didn’t affect those of us in the creative industries – after all, our imagination and skills couldn’t be replicated by a machine.
The internet has changed all of that. In some cases it has allowed computers to take on tasks that were previously only done by humans, by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and breaking them into discrete tasks. You can now get computer-written journalism, which use algorithms to bring together data and organise it into a rudimentary article. In the US, stories about minor earthquake reports are now routinely created and published, based on information supplied by the US Geological Survey. It isn’t much of a stretch to see short sports reports written based on player data and profiles, avoiding the need to send a reporter out to lower league matches.
However the biggest threat or opportunity to the creative industries is that the internet and digital technology has broken down the barriers around previously specialist occupations. Take photography. In the past only professional photographers could afford the equipment needed to create (and manually develop) arresting images. Now, similar levels of performance are available in a smartphone, and PhotoShop can do the rest. News stories frequently use amateur shots from bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time, adding extra depth to articles. Design and PR are both equally affected. Anyone can set up as a web designer or copywriter, without necessarily needing to undergo lengthy training.
In many ways this is a good thing – the internet has democratised creative industries that were previously off limits to most of us and enables more people to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It uncovers real talents who never previously would have been spotted, whether that is musicians on YouTube or specialist bloggers with a passion for their subject. But what it also does is amateurise previously professional occupations. How can a portrait photographer compete on cost with a bloke and an iPhone? Again, a copywriter on eLance charges much less than a professional. And the overall effect is that there is more stuff out there (words, pictures, videos of cute cats), but quality is far more hit or miss.
Before people start complaining, as someone that makes a living through PR and copywriting I obviously do have a vested interest here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome more competition and the chance for more people to be creative. Far from it. However businesses need to understand that you get what you pay for – in the same way that fixing your car yourself is inherently riskier than going to a garage (unless you are a mechanic), working with amateurs opens you up to potential issues. Do they have insurance if something goes wrong, do they understand copyright, are they using legal images on your new website? There are 101 questions that you need to be sure of, before handing over your money. And it can be pretty obvious when a website has been put together by the managing director’s teenage son or daughter. Businesses therefore need to strike a balance between democratisation and working with amateurs if they are to stand out in an increasingly crowded global market.
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.
Like a lot of people I start my morning with the Today programme on Radio 4, where a continual succession of politicians, captains of industry and celebrities queue up to be interviewed. If they are lucky they get the mild-mannered Justin Webb or if unlucky James Naughtie or John Humphrys in a particularly cantankerous mood.
As a PR person one thing I notice very quickly is if the interviewee has been over media trained. You can hear the key messages and soundbites being introduced into the conversation (often with a complete lack of subtlety), the practised swerve away from difficult questions and an overall replacement of any personality with a mechanised response.
Obviously anyone speaking to the press (and particularly to Humphrys, Naughtie or Paxman) needs to be trained – the car crash interviews when spokespeople are completely unprepared are toe-curlingly bad. But in too many cases the message overwhelms any personality that the spokesperson has – the lines could be delivered by a robot rather than a human being. This may be fine if the speaker is a third undersecretary at a government agency, but not good if he’s your CEO and essentially the ambassador for your brand.
And this malaise isn’t confined to senior managers and politicians. I see a lot of entrepreneurs and heads of growing companies who shut down when they have a camera pointed at them or a microphone shoved in their face. All the energy and enthusiasm they have for their wonderful product drains away to be replaced by a tongue-tied mouthing of platitudes.
So what can spokespeople do to get their personality and message across? I’m not going to provide a full media training session in this blog but it revolves around five key areas:
As Ben Franklin said, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.” Take the time to research who you are speaking to, the audience of their programme/readership of the magazine. What has the journalist written recently? What is the angle of the interview? If you have a marketing or PR person they should provide you with this information ahead of time – read it well before the interview (not 5 minutes before).
2 Know what you are going to say
Have 2-3 key points that you want to get across, particularly for broadcast interviews. But say it in multiple ways – repeating the same soundbite again and again is going to put listeners/viewers off and makes you sound like a stuck record. Back up what you are saying with examples or figures that prove your case, particularly if they come from a reputable third party.
3 Be human
People relate to people, not to dry words. Use stories and anecdotes that build pictures in the audience’s mind – and make them personal. Things like ‘I saw on my way here that…..’ or ‘I was talking to one of our customers and they said……..’ show empathy and involvement. Just make sure they are true and not PR spin.
4 Be enthusiastic
Particularly for a start-up, if you can’t be enthusiastic about your product, how do you expect others to buy it? You may be repeating details for the thousandth time and feel you are having to dumb down the language around your wonderful new innovation but explain clearly, simply and with energy what it will do to change people’s lives for the better. You’ve got passion for your start-up – get it across when you speak.
5 Get training
If you’re not sure about how good you are at speaking publicly then make an investment in training. Not necessarily media training, but coaching in public speaking is an invaluable way of building up your confidence and providing methods for getting your message across without losing your humanity.
There’s a reason that the same spokespeople keep popping up on radio and TV – from the likes of Richard Branson to Justin Urquhart Stewart of Seven Investment Management (a mainstay of Radio 5 Live). They provide consistently interesting and punchy answers, without letting the message overwhelm their own personality. It is time for entrepreneurs and spokespeople everywhere to follow their example.
In a week that saw the publication of the long-awaited Cambridge Phenomenon book, celebrating 50 years of innovation in the area, some more sobering figures concerning continued investment have been published.
Research from tech-focused investment group Ascendant found that while generally VC investment is up in Q1 2012, money doesn’t seem to be coming to Cambridge. £307m was invested in tech companies in the UK and Ireland – with £188m going to London-based outfits, and £27m to Irish ones. Cambridge (and Oxford) saw very little new money.
While it can be misleading to generalise based on three months of data this could be a worrying trend as centralised government action to boost London’s Tech City draws potential funding (and talent) away from the Cambridge ecosystem. After all, as Rory Cellan-Jones points out in his BBC Blog, Cambridge has potentially a better chance of creating world-class tech companies than London as it has already developed an ecosystem with research at its heart to feed innovative ideas to the market. But investment funding for Cambridge is key – not just in ‘scientific’ spinouts such as Owlstone and ARM but the more internet-style businesses and the thriving cleantech sector that Cambridge also supports.
So how does Cambridge compete against the media-savvy Tech City community when it comes to gaining funding? I may be biased as a marketer, but really feel that public relations has a strong role to play. There is still a tendency amongst Cambridge startups to treat PR as an afterthought rather than an intrinsic part of how you create a company and drive its success. You need to know your audience and deliver the right message to it at the right time using language they understand to succeed. Otherwise the risk is that Cambridge will become seen solely as the domain of technical wizardry rather than as a driver of customer-focused innovation that leads the UK tech scene.