Revolutionary Measures

Where are your customers?

Looking through Ofcom’s latest report on media use demonstrates the transformation that has occurred in the past ten years when it comes to how and where we find information, communicate with friends, families and companies, and which sources we trust.

Ofcom

For every company, no matter what size, it should act as a wakeup call and be used to drive their marketing so that they are reaching the right people, in the right way, at the right time. You can download the 200+ page report here, but I want to pick out five key points for businesses and marketers alike:

1. Everyone is online
90% of adults use the internet, showing that whatever demographic you are targeting, they are now online. Adults currently spend an average of 21.6 hours per week on the internet. Interestingly time spent has not changed since the last report in 2014, showing that it has become a set part of our routines. So, whatever you are selling, your customers are online and your marketing needs to reflect that.

2. Search is the gateway
92% of adults say they use search engines when looking for information online, but more importantly many believe simply being high ranking in search results is a guarantee of quality. 18% say that if a website is listed in search results it must be providing accurate and unbiased information. 55% couldn’t identify or tell the difference between organic search results and paid for adverts, with 23% thinking they were the best/most relevant results. Clearly this will be music to Google’s ears as it shows that paid search has a major impact on buying decisions. It also demonstrates the importance of good content on your website – the more focused and useful your website is for your key terms, the higher it will rank on Google.

3. Moving to walled gardens
Aside from search, adults are now more likely to use apps or sites that they are familiar with. Just one in five (21%) – down from 25% in 2014 – say they use apps/sites that they’ve not used before each week. Clearly, audiences are becoming set in their routines and the sites that they trust. This means that brands need to be visible on these gatekeepers if they are to reach their target markets. Essentially, building a website and hoping that audiences will come is not a smart strategy – if it ever was.

4. Don’t forget email
It may have been around for 30 years, but email is still the most popular online communication medium. 93% of people send and receive email on a weekly basis, ahead of 78% who use instant messaging and 76% who look at social media. So marketers mustn’t drop email from their strategy – it still reaches the right audiences despite the rise of other channels.

5. Content isn’t just words
It is no surprise that smartphones are increasingly the device of choice to access the internet – previous Ofcom research found that we spend more time online on our phones than PCs. However what we consume has got much more varied since 2014. 48% watch video clips at least weekly (up 9% since 2014), and 47% listen to radio stations online. So, if you want to attract people to your site, don’t just rely on words, but engage them through all of their senses.

Given the findings of the report, every organisation should take a look at its marketing, advertising and communication strategy. How does it affect your particular demographics? Are you embracing the right channels to engage with them, and is your budget being spent in the most productive way? Use the Ofcom findings as a wake-up call and time to spring clean your strategy and approach.

April 27, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will the Eastern Powerhouse be a damp squib?

Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.

Flag of East Anglia. Made with parts from: 30p...

The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.

In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.

In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.

As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:

1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.

The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.

So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.

2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.

3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.

4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.

If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.

April 20, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A spoonful of sugar

Obesity is an enormous problem in the UK, especially amongst the young. One in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. It has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of the obese themselves, and treating it costs services such as the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion every year.

Softdrinks in supermarket

So the Chancellor’s unexpected announcement of a sugar tax on soft drinks from 2018 in the recent budget makes financial and social success. If you can reduce the consumption of sugar in soft drinks, it will help reduce the impact (and cost) of obesity by lowering sales. A 10% tax levied in Mexico worked, bringing down the amount of soft drinks drunk by 6%. In the UK proceeds from the tax are ringfenced, and will be spent on primary school sports, meaning the government can’t be accused of simply making this a revenue generating exercise. Campaigners, such as Jamie Oliver, are delighted – while soft drink makers such as Coke are threatening to sue the government.

No-one would deny that we are facing an obesity epidemic – simply look around at the number of people (adults and children) you see that are overweight. And few would argue that it is a good thing for either their own health or the country as a whole. Where the arguments start is the relative roles of government and individual in dealing with the problem. How do you balance free choice for people to do something that is perfectly legal (buy fizzy, sugary drinks), against the harm it is doing to themselves and the cost to the NHS? Most people accept that in some cases, such as tobacco, high taxes are justified by the damage that cigarette smoking does, and the addictive qualities of nicotine. Other examples, such as tax on alcohol and petrol are less clear cut. Living in the countryside, with a skeleton bus service, I need to drive to most places, so does that make fuel taxes unfair in my case?

Where you draw the line is the issue. The government would argue that in the case of obesity, particularly among children, the damage is too great and that previous attempts to educate the public about the dangers of sugar have not worked. Critics see the tax as interference in their lives, even if what they are doing is harming them in the long term.

As a parent, I think there is another dimension to this – it may sound old-fashioned, but we’ve got a duty to educate our children about the dangers of over-consumption of anything (whether sugar, chocolate, alcohol or food generally), the need for exercise and to set a good example. By that I don’t mean turning into marathon running vegans who exist on a lettuce leaf a day, but showing that you need to balance what you eat and drink, while getting out and taking exercise when you can.

I expect the PR battle around the sugar tax to rage for a long time, with both sides advancing their arguments to the electorate. It promises to be a fascinating contest – on one side you have Jamie Oliver and those that believe people, especially children, need to be saved from themselves, while on the other the massed ranks of the soft drinks lobby will try and paint the tax as something that won’t have an impact and will limit people’s freedom to consume what they want. The fight has already started – whether Coke or the Naked Chef wins is going to be central to where the line between free choice and government intervention is redrawn.

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharapova, drugs and public relations

Maria Sharapova hitting backhand, Fed Cup matc...

Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.

So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.

However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:

1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.

2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.

As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:

  • Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
  • Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
  • At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.

What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.

The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The PR lessons from Donald Trump

In the past being nominated as the Republican or Democrat presidential candidate had a lot to do with money, specifically advertising spend. This was the weapon of choice for winning over primary voters in each state, hence the push by candidates to appeal to big donors who would then bankroll their campaigns. The sheer sums involved are astronomical – experts believe that $100 million was spent solely on TV advertising around the New Hampshire primary. No wonder that the total 2016 election is expected to cost $5 billion – more than the GDP of many small countries.

English: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in...

Normally this counts against the maverick candidate – after all, if you don’t appeal to the big donors with the money you won’t get the advertising, and consequently the primary votes won’t follow. This year, as in many ways, the Republican race is turning out very differently. While the runaway leader Donald Trump has spent money on advertising, it is nowhere near as much as his rivals – for example each of his 239,000 votes in South Carolina cost the equivalent ad spend of $7.42, with a total cost $1.78m. By contrast each of Jeb Bush’s 57,000 votes involved spending of $238.15, with a total budget of $13.78m.

Whatever your opinion of him, Trump has done something that most marketers in general, and PR people in particular, should recognise. Rather than spending money solely on advertising, he’s adopted a balanced marketing strategy that is led by PR and social media, and merely supported by TV and other ads. He’s built a brand and sustained it by continually being controversial – with Twitter the primary channel for his rants. If commentators lauded Barack Obama’s use of social media to win his two terms as president, Trump is the flipside, using the networks to connect with those that feel disenfranchised and left behind by traditional politicians.

Of course, it is all (to put it politely) a load of baloney – and Trump knows it. Policies such as building a wall between the US and Mexico (and getting the Mexicans to pay for it) and banning Muslims from entering the country are both objectionable and unworkable. His ideas for increasing the tax paid by hedge fund managers have been proved by economists to actually reduce the tax take from that group. Yet every time opponents seem to be closing the gap, he opens his mouth, says something offensive/controversial and sees opinion polls soar. It is a classic PR-led marketing campaign.

I’m certainly not advocating any of my clients follow suit with similar sentiments, but there are lessons to be learnt from Trump’s success to date:

1. Play the long game
Trump has spent the past few years building his profile as a celebrity. His bombastic stint on The Apprentice provided the bedrock for his celebrity, and he has nurtured this on Twitter and through inflammatory comments long before the campaign began. In contrast, many of his opponents had little national profile before the Republican primaries began, so have been building a base from scratch.

2. Build a connection
Despite being a billionaire who inherited much of his wealth Trump is seen as being on the side of those that have been squeezed by trends such as globalisation. In the same way that Nigel Farage has cultivated his bloke in the pub persona (despite going to top public school Dulwich College and a career in the City), he has built a connection with his supporters. They feel he understands them and is rooting for them, with social media helping to give a personal, human relationship between him and his followers.

3. Everyone loves the underdog
Trump has positioned himself as the radically different challenger brand, rather than being more of the same. This means he is seen as an outsider – David versus Goliath, despite his wealth, connections and fame. He’s not viewed as a politician, with all the baggage that brings, or even as a serious candidate by many. Again, similar tactics helped Boris Johnson win the London mayoral election – a few stints on Have I Got News for You and he’d positioned himself as a bumbling, unthreatening clown, completely different to the political elite.

4. Be controversial
Again, I’d not advocate clients becoming bigoted, bullying misogynistic racists, but Trump uses language that the general public understands and relates to. He doesn’t just read off an autocue or give speeches that have been refined until there is no meaning left in them. People remember his soundbites and they stand out from the crowd – not just because they are offensive, but because of the type of language he uses. This is all part of his act, but demonstrates an understanding of what makes people respond at a very basic level.

I sincerely hope that Trump fails to get the Republican nomination, and, failing that, that the general public see sense and doesn’t vote him into the White House in the coming election. However everyone in marketing and communications should heed the lessons of his campaign, and look at how they can use PR and social media to get their message across to key audiences.

March 9, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The typewriter trap and innovation

English: QWERTY typewriter key layout depicted...

Despite all the talk of innovation, there are plenty of things that people continue to do, even though they are no longer the optimal way to achieve something.

Take typing for example. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to the first, manual typewriters, where the typist hit a key manually pushing the inked letter onto a sheet of paper. The problem with the first typewriter designs was that people could hit the keys faster than the machine would cope with, leading to jams as multiple keys became intertwined. Hence adopting what was essentially a sub-optimal system in terms of speed, in order to make typewriters more efficient overall. Now, in the digital age jamming is no longer a problem, yet everyone still uses a QWERTY keyboard, as that is the de facto standard, irrespective of the fact that it can give you carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries.

Driving is another area where tradition dictates what we do. The reason that in England we drive on the left dates back to the days when people rode horses – as the majority of the population was right handed you could hold your reins with your left hand, leaving the other free for your sword. As part of the French Revolution this was reversed in France, and then imposed by Napoleon on the countries he conquered. This means that the majority of countries in the world now drive on the right, despite the fact that accident rates are lower amongst left hand drivers, perhaps due to right eye dominance.

These two examples demonstrate two things:

  • The most logical, sensible solution can’t necessarily overcome the status quo, particularly if it means people have to completely relearn how they operate.
  • People continue to choose a particular course of action, even if the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Tradition rules.

Why is this important? I meet a lot of technology startups, and many of them enthusiastically talk about how their invention will completely change a market or sector. Build it and they will come seems to be the mantra. All it takes is for people to see how outmoded and inefficient the current technology is, and switch to their new, unproven, but potentially much better solution. And normally relearn how they operate. And pay a bit more. Often, they then wonder why they fail to get market traction or growth.

Essentially people weren’t sufficiently convinced of the advantages to change what they did. They preferred to be inefficient rather than invest the time to solve a problem. We’ve all done this, spending an extra minute or so doing something on our PC because that’s how we were taught 20 years ago, rather than spending 15 minutes reading the manual and upgrading our knowledge.

This isn’t to say that innovation can’t happen. Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the advantages of changing (no bag, better performance), outweighed the higher cost and learning how it worked. But in that case the benefits were extremely clear, and, most importantly, marketed very well.

So, the lessons for every business, whether a startup or not, are clear. The vast majority of the population generally doesn’t like change, and therefore the benefits of something new have to dramatically outweigh the disadvantages of how things have always been done. Innovation has to be clearly marketed if it is going to take root with the majority, as opposed to early adopters – it won’t just sell itself. It has to fit inside the ecosystem of what people are comfortable with, and provide them with the best overall experience. That’s why VHS beat the technologically superior Betamax technology – it had the content from Hollywood studios and was easier to operate. Often it can be easier to sell a better mousetrap than a completely new method of rodent killing device. Therefore talk to your audience, understand their pain points and make sure you provide a simple, powerful solution – otherwise you are likely to join the ranks of technically superior, but unused products, and all your innovation will be wasted.

 

March 2, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

February 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What the end of The Independent print edition means for PR

For many media watchers the last week has felt like a watershed moment. The Independent announced that it will end its print edition in March, making it the first national newspaper to go online only. At the same time, youth channel BBC3 has come off the airwaves and moved solely to be web-based.the-independent-logo (1)

So, is the end of old media as we know it and will other channels and papers follow? And, by extension, does it mean that PR people will have to change how they work as media relations becomes less important with consumers getting their news in other ways, for example through citizen journalism and sites such as Buzzfeed?

Answering those questions in turn, old media isn’t dead, but isn’t healthy either. The Independent was always the smallest of the national newspapers when it came to circulation and therefore the weakest when subjected to the twin pressures of online and free papers such as Metro. Indeed it was comprehensively outsold by its cut-price sibling, the i, which will remain in print and is being sold to publisher Johnston Press.

Running a print operation has a large, fixed cost that every national newspaper is struggling with – witness The Guardian’s announcement that it will cut staff. Despite what might be said about BBC3 going where the audience is (online), this is only partially true – the real reason is about reducing costs for the BBC, although whether it will achieve its planned savings is a moot point.

Plenty of titles have gone online only, while yet more are now monthly or quarterly rather than weekly. Others have successfully embraced paywalls (The Economist, The Financial Times to name but two) to stabilise and protect their revenues. The online world does call for new business models as offline advertising pounds are swapped for digital pence, and there will be further casualties in the future.

However, this is not the end of media relations that my erstwhile colleague Stephen Waddington predicts in his blog. He believes that if your role in public relations is pitching stories to journalists, the clock is ticking and you have 15-20 years maximum before you are no longer necessary. I’d agree that anyone who solely spends their time ringing up/emailing national newspaper journalists, trying to interest them all in the same story without using any differentiation or intelligence is not going to survive long.

But I don’t think most (successful) PR people are stuck in that pigeonhole. Over the course of my 20+ year career I’ve seen the move online and the corresponding drop in the number of journalists as costs were cut. At the same time the amount of straight media relations I’m doing has dropped dramatically. More often, it is about coming up with a specific story to meet the title’s needs or pitching an idea for an article and then creating it with the client. Much more revolves around content and sharing it on social media in order to build both thought leadership and SEO for clients in their specific B2B markets.

This can be much harder than simply ringing every journalist on a list and pitching the same story, but the rewards for PR are far, far greater. It embeds the profession deeper into the marketing department and links to outcomes that are based on business value, rather than a bulging book of coverage that looks impressive, but is not measurable.

Is what I do media relations? I’d say that if it involves speaking to a publication in order to gain coverage, without money changing hands, then it is media relations – and I can’t see that going away anytime soon. After all the online-only Independent will still have journalists, just fewer of them, and they will still be writing stories that companies want to be part of. Commoditised media relations may be dying, but true media relations that aims to build links between journalists and clients is as vital as ever.

February 17, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pope, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the lessons for PR

The last week has seen two big stories in the world of PR, both of which I think are linked to issues the profession has in getting it across what it does – and what it cannot or should not try to achieve.

English: This sign welcomes visitors to the he...

Firstly, the Vatican is rethinking its communications strategy, both to deal with the 24 hour global media cycle, and to better support the straightforward and down to earth style of Pope Francis. Given that the Holy See’s press office is understaffed and shuts every day at 3pm GMT you can see why changes are needed. Otherwise the risk is that the messages that Pope Francis wishes to get out will be undermined by lack of the right structure and mechanism to interact with the press.

The second, and much more high profile (on Twitter at least), is the case of HP Enterprise and the Financial Times. After FT columnist Lucy Kellaway included remarks made by HPE’s boss, Meg Whitman, in a piece that poked fun at foolish things said by leaders the World Economic Forum, Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at the company, sent an aggressive response. This ended with a direct threat “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”

Rather than put up with this attack on her (and the FT’s) journalistic independence from advertisers, Kellaway went public with the exchange, to widespread support from both journalists and PR people. HPE made the situation worse by denying Gomez’s letter was aggressive and then releasing it. A quick read shows that it was exactly as described by Kellaway – aggressive and threatening. Hardly bridge building with the journalistic community.

What links these stories? In both cases the PR function is not doing its job. The Vatican is not providing the basic support that its boss/chief spokesperson (The Pope) requires, and HP Enterprises has gone to the other extreme by seeming to pander to the ego of its boss, who seems to have been upset by a tongue in cheek comment.

What seems to be missing is an understanding of what PR can, and can’t do. So, with particular emphasis on Mr Gomez, here’s a list of 5 points to bear in mind:

1          PR is not advertising
In PR you don’t pay money and therefore nothing is guaranteed. However the flip side is that your message is amplified by a trusted, independent third party (the media), making it much more powerful.

2          Not everything written about you will be positive
Particularly if you are a large global corporation not all stories will turn out the way you’d like them. Even if you prepare in detail there’s still the chance that your messages will be mangled or ignored in favour of a better story. Take the rough with the smooth, don’t be thin-skinned, and move on. If you want to hold a grudge, don’t do it publicly.

3          Complaining won’t help, it will make things worse
In the days of print, once something was published it was there in black and white and couldn’t be changed. On the positive side newspapers and magazines have a finite shelf life, meaning today’s front page story is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Online, things are different. They are there forever (unless you can get Google to remove them from search results), but can be amended, updated and changed. I’ve asked journalists to correct stories online that were factually inaccurate – a particular favourite is when a reporter got the sex of a spokesperson wrong (after meeting her!). But there’s no way that you can expect any publication to remove or amend a piece that meets its own journalistic guidelines. As HPE is finding, complaining and threatening is just digging a deeper hole for yourself.

4          PR should be a critical friend
Communication departments need to reflect and support the business/religious organisation that employs them. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense and what will actually work with the media, and other audiences. Be realistic in your aims, and if a PR person thinks a strategy won’t work they need to have the guts to tell their CEO why it won’t fly. PR people should think like a journalist – what is the story, why is it interesting and how can I get it across. Lots of agencies now employ ex-journalists, and as my colleague Chris Lee points out, there are a multiple benefits in doing so.

5          Journalism is independent
Despite living in an era of native advertising, advertorials and blurred lines between paid and earned content, companies need to remember that quality journalism is independent. So threatening to remove advertising pounds should have no impact – and doing so would be counterproductive on a number of levels. After all, as Lucy Kellaway pointed out, if the FT is the best way for HPE to reach its target audiences, then pulling ads from the publication will undermine its overall marketing programme.

What the HPE debacle shows is that it is time for PR to better communicate to stakeholders what it is we do, be robust, and think independently, rather than just believing that the CEO is untouchable. If he wants a role with an all-powerful leader, then perhaps Mr Gomez should apply to the Vatican – I believe they are recruiting…………..

February 10, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Google, tax and PR – do no evil?

On the PR side it has been a busy couple of weeks for Google. Firstly, it casually announced at Davos that it had agreed to pay £130m for ten years of UK corporate taxes, although obviously without any admission of guilt. Cue a storm of protest that this was nowhere near enough for a business that reputedly made £7.2 billion of profits over that period, essentially meaning it paid 3% corporation tax. Much of the vitriol came from other media companies, particularly newspapers, that have seen their own advertising revenues decimated by the search advertising giant.

Google Quick Search Box

Then earlier this week Alphabet, Google’s holding company, became the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, helped by strong financial results and worries about previous number one Apple’s future growth prospects.

Given the closeness of these two events, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that ethically debatable behaviour leads directly to outstanding corporate success. But has it actually made any difference to Google’s reputation in the UK? I’d argue that overall it hasn’t affected its business in any way, for three main reasons:

1.The public doesn’t buy from Google
For the majority of people Google is a utility – providing them with the ability to browse or search the internet, watch videos, manage emails and documents or run their mobile phones, without charging them a penny directly. What people don’t understand is that the price of this free stuff is that they become the product – Google has built its very lucrative business on selling this data on our activities and preferences to advertisers. In contrast Starbucks, another perceived tax avoider, sells physical products direct to the public, giving consumers a vested interest in seeing the right levels of tax paid out.

2.Google does no evil
It will probably surprise a lot of people that Google is as enormous as it actually is. From its beginnings it has cultivated a laid-back, anti-establishment brand, epitomised by its corporate slogan “Do no evil” and heavy investment in moonshot projects such as self-driving cars and research into cures for cancer. Despite its growth, it is still seen as a Silicon Valley upstart successfully battling the likes of Microsoft (search, browsers, productivity applications, operating systems) and Apple (with Android).

3.Is there an alternative?
Obviously you can use different search/email/operating system providers, including those that make it clear that they won’t either track your online behaviour or use it to target adverts based on your browsing. But how many people actually make the effort to go out and switch, particularly when Google makes it so easy to just carry on using its services. The figures speak for themselves – it has nearly 86% of the UK search market, which hasn’t changed much since the first mention of its tax affairs.

So, while as a PR person I agree that it has handled the whole tax situation badly by trying to claim that it is doing the right thing when its activities are ethically dubious at best, I don’t think it will have a major impact on the corporate brand. This is echoed by an (admittedly small) poll in PR Week, where 51% of PR professionals said it would leave its reputation unchanged – and 11% thought the tax settlement would improve the brand.

However, where it may cause issues, is by attracting further attention from regulators at the European Union, which have previously shown that they have more teeth when dealing with tech giants than national governments. Time will tell, but with the media already setting its sights on Facebook for potential even larger tax avoidance, I think Google will feel that the £130 million it spent is worth every penny.

February 3, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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