Revolutionary Measures

What Moz the Monster tells about the changing media landscape

By now pretty much everyone will have seen the latest John Lewis Christmas ad, starring a loveable monster that lives under a young boy’s bed. Without giving away any plot details to the few that haven’t watched it, it all ends happily thanks to a thoughtfully chosen gift.

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Over the past few years Christmas adverts have become a fixture of the festive season, with the media (and public) eagerly awaiting the offerings from the likes of John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer. All sides seem to be involved in a creative arms race, with ever-more sophisticated production values and talent involved – Moz cost an alleged £7m and is directed by Oscar-winning director Michel Gondry, while M&S has recruited Paddington (and Angela Rippon) to head its Christmas push.

 

What’s most interesting to me is not which is the ‘best’ advert or how much of an impact it has on sales, but what Christmas adverts tell us about the changing media landscape. Not long ago the only way to ensure that these productions were watched would have been to spend millions booking high profile TV slots and hoping that viewers would be there and watching. This has changed – obviously ads are still shown on TV, but a lot of the viewers are online, with people watching them via company websites and YouTube.

That means that PR and social media are now the key channels for driving ad awareness and views. For example, the John Lewis ad was all over the media, from the marketing press to the tabloids. The BBC ran a piece analysing social media responses to Moz and his antics, while other brands aimed to get on the act, running surveys on which was the most popular Christmas advert. M&S even had to deny that the Paddington advert featured swearing (obviously not by its Peruvian star).

I think this is part of a wider, growing trend. Many people either don’t watch TV adverts or they simply don’t register on their consciousness. You might click on an informational ad after an online search or watch a hyped campaign during a major programme or event, such as the World Cup, but we’re now too sophisticated and short of time to discover them for ourselves.

Therefore, you need PR and social media buzz to get people to notice them, which is a complete turn round from the old model of advertising leading the marketing mix. Christmas adverts aren’t the only example of this – TV programmes, films and books are all trailed in the media, rather than relying on ads. PR people should therefore step up and use this trend to justify having a greater say in marketing decision making – and a larger slice of budgets. Communication is vital to business success – even when it comes to monsters under the bed.

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November 15, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why good leadership now starts with communication

Throughout history leadership has involved a mixture of power, cunning, communications skills and often a dash of luck. And politically, as humanity has progressed, communication has generally come to outweigh brute force as way of gaining and retaining power – in democracies at least. The aim of politicians has become to influence people, through whatever means and media.icon-1623888_1920 (1)

Every political leader, from Churchill to Trump has their own communication style, but it would be wrong to think that it is just politicians who need to be able to communicate. Everyone in business, particularly CEOs, has to be able to get their message across – and those that succeed in doing so tend to be the ones that move up the ranks and get their pick of top positions.

So how can leaders turn themselves into communicators? While it isn’t an exact science these six areas are a good place to start:

1.Be open and honest
Nothing puts an audience off more than someone who is obviously trying to hide something. So be honest if you or your company has screwed something up – don’t hide behind a ‘no comment’ or a statement, or wait too long to go public. Get the facts out, explain what happened, show genuine contrition and demonstrate why it won’t happen again. At the same time analyse the situation and if there are mitigating circumstances or you believe that you aren’t at fault, explain your position. Don’t feel that you have to apologise for things outside your control – otherwise you’ll potentially be seen as weak and not in control of the situation.

2. Adjust your message
Different audiences have different needs. Talking to national press clearly requires you to use different language than if you are speaking to a trade journal or local paper. Understand your audience (and in the case of the media, the audience they enable you to reach), and tailor what you say. Avoid jargon and stock phrases and build empathy and understanding.

3. Listen first, then respond
I find it incredibly frustrating when listening to the radio to hear the same clichés coming from the mouths of business leaders. Often it feels that they’ve simply memorised a script and are then bulldozing through it, irrespective of the interviewer’s questions. While you should have key messages you want to get across, listen to what you are being asked and respond genuinely, especially if it means putting your script to one side. Remember – people respond to people, not someone reading off an autocue.

4. Create your own style, but learn from others
When it comes to communication people regularly focus on the likes of Churchill, Martin Luther King and JFK as examples to follow. However, slavishly copying how other leaders communicate will lead to you sounding fake, and could hold back getting your message across successfully. So, while you should make a point of studying the style of communicators that you admire, work out what it is that you can apply to your own personality, rather than turning into a clone. And don’t just focus on the famous – look further afield to colleagues or people you’ve met when it comes to communication style and tips.

5. Don’t be afraid to seek help
Not everyone is a natural communicator – and while many people may be good in certain situations (such as addressing a board meeting), they struggle in other scenarios. Like most skills, communications can be learnt, so invest the time in getting training and advice so that you can fill any gaps in your armoury. The first step is recognising the need, and then you can take action.

6. Embrace new channels
Communication is changing – and with more and more people being influenced by social media, ensure that you are equally at home on Twitter and Facebook as in formal speeches or journalist interviews. You only have to look at the success of Donald Trump to see the power that social media wields – make sure you take the time to embrace new channels that help you reach your audiences.

As a marketer I may be biased, but I believe clear communications is ever more important to being a successful leader. So invest the time and effort to continually improve your skills if you want a successful, long term career, whatever sort of organisation that you lead.

November 8, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Machine, Platform, Crowds – what it means for marketing

What does the future of business, and by extension the world around us, look like? A recent book by two experts from MIT points to a radically different model that companies need to embrace if they are to survive.machine

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson focuses on the three emerging trends that are changing how every business operates:

  • Machine – artificial intelligence is replacing the use of the human mind in many areas. While concerns about robots stealing jobs have been raised, this move also brings benefits. Applied correctly, in the right areas, the power of AI far outweighs what the human mind can do, leading to better products and services, better personalised to our needs.
  • Platform – aggregators that own no assets of their own (think Airbnb and Uber), are taking over from those that create products. Essentially they act as gatekeepers, taking a cut of every transaction without physically creating anything themselves.
  • Crowd – ideas and movements now come from the wider crowd, loosely organised, rather than tightly knit internal teams within companies. Wikipedia vs the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the perfect example here.

What does this mean for businesses? Essentially anyone trying to continue as before, or who simply tries to cram these new trends into their existing ways of working is going to fail. The authors give the example of the move from steam to electric power. Those businesses that simply replaced a steam engine with an electric motor quickly found themselves outpaced by those that realised electricity could completely change how a factory operated, enabling innovations such as conveyor belts and assembly lines.

It is also going to mean big changes in marketing, and therefore how marketing agencies (and marketing departments) are structured.

Traditionally agencies have focused on a single marketing discipline – whether it is PR, inbound marketing or SEO. They were built on a pyramid model to maximise efficiency, with lots of junior people doing relatively low value work at the bottom, with strategy coming from higher up. In-house marketing departments were again organised into different disciplines, with many having little cross-over between them.

The trends outlined in the book completely transform this model. Take Machines. You don’t need lots of junior people doing repetitive tasks that can be replaced by automation, and increasingly decisions taken at a middle ranking and senior level will be based on data analysis, rather than gut feel. Whether it is deciding which products to push through online advertising, or which influencers to approach on social media, AI will remove much of the legwork from the process.

Looking at Platforms, that’s where the traditional agency model comes unstuck. Why does a client want to go to multiple different agencies, all with their own specialisms? While the very largest might want the overhead of employing and managing disparate agencies, many more will want to embrace a platform or network model that brings together the skills that are needed, when they are needed, all under the control of one gatekeeper. It won’t matter if people with these skills are contractually employed by that agency or not, it will be more about solving a business problem. The gatekeeper handles the management, quality control and administration, without having the cost of full-time staff.

Finally, the Crowd. Marketing in the past has been top down – company X came up with an idea, developed a product, tried it out on some potential consumers, and if feedback was good, launched it. The whole process took a long time, and there was no real guarantee of success. Marketing now has to be much more of a two way conversation – listening to the crowd and using their insight to inform decisions on everything from product to pricing. The perfect example of this is the recent fidget spinner craze – it came from social media and completely bypassed the marketing machines of the big toy companies, catching them on the hop.

For anyone that thinks I’m being overly pessimistic or that the changes won’t impact them, take a look at other industries. Even 10 years ago electric cars were confined to a tiny niche in the market – and now major economies such as the UK are queuing up to ban petrol and diesel vehicles by the middle of the century. Once industries hit a tipping point, change is extremely rapid. The other point for marketers to note is that brands still need their skills, but at a more strategic level. You need to be agile, knowledgeable and willing to change, but the benefit will be a more interesting and varied role that is at the heart of business success.

October 18, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Copy approval and the threat to the truth

The media today faces constant economic pressure – competition is up, digital has decimated advertising, and people are increasingly reading news via other sources such as Facebook and Twitter. This has had a major impact on revenues and how they operate, including increasing the importance of advertorial, paid-for content within publications or on websites.Clarebalding

It has also strengthened the hand of brands, and celebrities who have money or clout, and are increasingly precious about their image. Witness the HP spokesperson complaining to the Financial Times after a throwaway negative reference to HP CEO Meg Whitman, threatening to pull advertising from the newspaper.

This shift has also led to a rise in attempts to control the message in mainstream media, at a time when social media has taken away control in other areas. Two areas come to mind – interviews and copy approval. When I started in PR, most interviews with trade press were organised, a briefing provided to the spokesperson and they were given the journalist’s number to call. Follow-up ensured that the journalist had everything they wanted, but that was the extent of the control. Since then, even the most straightforward interview with the most trusted interviewer, has to have a PR person present. This is fine if all they are doing is keeping track of what was said, housekeeping and politely reminding the spokesperson if they’ve missed something vital.

The second area, copy approval, is much more insidious, and is in the news this week with a media debate about an interview carried out for Saga Magazine by journalist Ginny Dougary with presenter Clare Balding. Dougary claims that Balding and her agent were given copy approval of the resulting piece, and inserted additional material and quotes within it, prompting her to ask for her name to be removed from the article. Balding insists that the Saga editor herself made the changes and that she did not have copy approval.

Whatever the real story behind what has predictably been dubbed the #SagaSaga, it does bring into the light the whole area of copy approval i.e. the subject of an interview being shown the draft article and being able to make changes to it. I’ve never worked in celebrity PR but I know that many interviews don’t take place without copy approval in place, even if it is just to ensure that the interviewee’s new book/play/cuddly toy/wedding get a mention, while certain areas are declared off-limits to questions.

What is insidious is that granting copy approval by its nature makes the resulting article less independent. Some of the most interesting interviews I’ve read have a tension or awkwardness between the subject and the journalist, which actually adds to the story and your understanding of the person involved. Copy approval means that interviews are more likely to be bland and on-message, controlled by the brand. There is a big difference between sharing an article for fact checking (which journalists I’ve worked with have done before when covering very technical subjects), and copy approval of the whole piece.

As Dougary points out, copy approval undermines independence. If people stop believing that what they read in properly researched, fact checked, mainstream media, then we are accelerating down the road to fake news at alarming speed. This case may be about a celebrity in a consumer magazine, but the principle is the same – the public need to be certain that the stories they see in the press are not controlled by the subject, and are unbiased. Otherwise, it does whittle away at the truth, harming the whole media industry and removing debate at a time when we need it most.

Photo By Keith Page (Claire Balding) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

October 4, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 lessons for PR from the Bell Pottinger case

PR is again in the news for the wrong reasons, with agency Bell Pottinger in the public eye after running campaigns in South Africa that have stoked racial tension. There’s been plenty of analysis of the case itself, but in this blog I wanted to cover three wider issues it highlights:Bell Pottinger

1. A precarious business model
Essentially a PR agency has three assets – its people, its clients and its reputation. And all of these are very fragile. Except in the case of the most senior staff, employees will be on a maximum of three months notice, while clients are likely to be on a similar notice period. So you can lose your clients and staff extremely quickly, as Bell Pottinger has found with the likes of HSBC, Investec and Richemont leaving since the scandal has emerged. All that PR agencies have is their reputation – with the industry, with staff and with the media. Compromise that and you remove the foundation from the entire business, which is why Bell Pottinger has now had to put itself up for sale. I’d imagine that any buyer will either subsume the bits they want into a larger agency or rebrand quickly to salvage what they can from the wreckage.

2. Never become the story
As the likes of Sean Spicer have found out to their cost, it never pays to become the story yourself. PR people are there to communicate other people’s messages in a way that meets the needs of the audience and the client. It isn’t always easy to do, but you should never be higher profile than the organisation you are working for. In the whole Bell Pottinger case the work of the agency has actually deflected attention from the client itself – a company controlled by the South African Gupta family, and the fact that it signed off on the programme.

3. Be a consultant, not a yes man/woman
Someone within Bell Pottinger signed off on the campaign, despite the fact that using racially charged slogans and hashtags was obviously highly likely to cause offence. The concern is that to keep a lucrative, politically well-connected client, Bell Pottinger in South Africa turned a blind eye to the messages and tactics that were being used. That’s not being a responsible consultant – the whole point of using a PR agency is that they follow particular standards and should have the ability to say no if they disagree with a course of action. Bell Pottinger is not the first (or indeed the last) agency to involve themselves in dubious activities in support of potentially dubious aims, but the high profile nature of their work means they should have better understood the consequences of their actions.

Bell Pottinger employs 250 people, spread around the world and the vast majority have had nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in South Africa. I feel very sorry for them as their personal reputation has been damaged, and many may well lose their jobs if the company is taken over by a rival. But the whole case illustrates the fact that PR agencies need to think carefully about the wider consequences of their work if they want to preserve their reputations, and therefore their survival.

 

September 6, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If a tree falls on Twitter……

The launch of CNN, back in 1980, ushered in the era of the 24 hour rolling news cycle. No longer did people have to wait for their morning papers or the 10pm TV news to find out what was happening in the world. And this had an impact on the news itself – rather than having to schedule events and press conferences to fit around journalists’ schedules, organisations could be confident that reporters would be available (and coverage would result) pretty much throughout the day. On the flipside unscrupulous PRs couldn’t try and sneak out bad news, knowing that it was just too late for print deadlines and would be out of date 24 hours later.

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The internet obviously accelerated the news cycle, making it even faster and more constant. You didn’t need to be watching CNN or other 24 hours news channels to see the latest stories, opening up access to everyone with a smartphone. It also allowed a wider range of media to reach people – you didn’t need to be a TV station or a major newspaper to break a story, you could be a citizen journalist or simply someone who was in the same place as a breaking news story. Essentially this democratised the reporting process. It became difficult for governments and corporations to spike negative stories as, hydra-headed, they simply popped up elsewhere.

We’re now in the midst of the next news cycle, focused on social media. As soon as something happens it is pored over on Twitter and Facebook, with both the public and experts giving their views. If previous news cycles were one reporter/media outlet to many readers or viewers this is essentially any to any – going beyond democracy to the text book definition of anarchy (‘without a ruler’).

In many ways this is a good thing, as it opens up the debate to multiple voices, many of whom have traditionally not been heard. But it drives three big issues that I believe threaten the integrity of how we get the information that shapes our world view and actions:

1. Who do you trust?
Major news organisations have a brand that their readers/viewers trust. They know what to expect when reading a story on The Sun compared to the Daily Mirror or the New York Times compared to Fox News. However, in the anarchic world of social media anyone can post ‘news’ or comments that are inaccurate or knowingly untrue. This fake news can be mischievous, misleading or designed to push a specific agenda, and is very hard to stamp out in the instant world of the internet. And the rise of fake news risks people tarring every news organisation with the same brush – we’ve all seen politicians describing as ‘fake’ stories that they simply disagree with.

2. Who shouts loudest, gets heard
Whether it is the distance that social media provides, polarisation of views or simply that the world is getting nastier, the amount of abuse and trolling on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook seems to be ever-increasing. Just this week Viscount St. Davids was found guilty of making menacing communications against Gina Miller, who led a legal challenge that forced the government to consult Parliament on Brexit. Amongst other abuse he offered £5,000 in a Facebook post to anyone that would run over Ms Miller. Parliament itself is holding a debate on the abuse suffered by MPs and candidates of both parties in the recent election campaign.

What seems to typify all of these communications is that people appear happy to say things online that they wouldn’t to someone’s face, and that very often it involves men abusing women, often in sexual terms, for daring to disagree with their views. The sheer weight of such trolling stifles honest debate and ultimately puts people off sharing their thoughts and opinions, or even self-censoring what they write.

3. Knee jerk reactions lead to instant actions
When stories break the true facts are often unclear. Whereas traditional news organisations would then take the time to research events and wouldn’t jump to conclusions the opposite is true on social media. People make immediate judgements and share them with the world, and the sheer force of tweets and messages can then shape the news agenda. A case in point is the recent disqualification of cyclist Peter Sagan from the Tour de France, for his involvement in a crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the race. The race jury first gave him a lesser punishment, but then seemed to be swayed by the force of anti-Sagan anger on social media, changing their minds and throwing him out of the race. Taking time to study events in more detail would have led to a less knee jerk reaction, but it often feels that people believe they have to react instantly, without the full facts, leading to decisions that don’t necessarily stand up to future scrutiny.

The social media news cycle has undoubtedly delivered major benefits – it helped drive the Arab Spring for example. But its sheer anarchy means that everyone, from politicians and PRs to the general public, needs to think before they tweet if we are to have a fair, honest and unbiased discussion of news on social media.

Photo: By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Royal PR should be a model for us all

A few weeks ago I talked about the breakdown of trust between the public and traditional institutions, be they the media, government or business. Yet arguably the most traditional institution of all – the British monarchy – is actually bucking the trend and engaging and resonating with the public more than ever. From the Queen visiting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire to Princes William and Harry talking openly about mental illness, the Royals are increasingly seen as understanding, and empathising with, the mood of the country. This is in stark contrast to current political turmoil where the Prime Minister seems too scared to engage, while her cabinet squabbles around her. The Queen even seemingly managed to get a cheeky shot in about Brexit, wearing an EU blue hat with flowers resembling stars to open parliament.Queen Elizabeth

It is worth noting that it hasn’t always been like this. At the time of Princess Diana’s death the Royal family, particularly the Queen and Prince Philip, was seen as outdated and out of touch, hidebound by protocol and simply unable to understand the mood of the country and the wider world. That led to a major change around in how the Windsors approached PR, which has evolved into the machine that we see today, which is driven by four key factors:

1. Trust
We are in an age where there is a breakdown in trust, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to believe in someone or something. In fact, many are desperate to find somewhere to put their trust that isn’t going to let them down. The monarchy fills this space admirably, seen as working hard while taking the time to listen and engage with people’s concerns.

2. Range
The sheer size of the Royal family, and the number of generations it contains, mean that there are a range of characters and ages for different people to identify with. From the Queen and Prince Philip through Charles and Camilla down to Harry, William, Kate and their children there is someone for everyone to support, trust and relate to, dependent on their views and age.

3. Impartiality
I’m not comparing the Queen to Donald Trump, but in the same way that he has a multimillion dollar fortune to fall back on, so has she. That means she is seen as generally impartial, without an agenda or wider policies to push. I think many in the US see Trump in the same way, even if he definitely does have an agenda/ego driving his actions. This ability to be independent means the Queen is above politics and doesn’t get drawn into a blame game around events such as Grenfell.

4. Vulnerability
In the past the monarchy was seen as aloof and simply not affected by outside events. Since Diana’s death that has changed and it has opened up, demonstrating that the Royals are human too. The younger princes have discussed their mother’s death and the impact on their own mental health, while the continued illnesses of the Duke of Edinburgh has led to widespread sympathy for the Queen, who, after all, is 91 herself. We empathise with humans, and the Royal family continues to show that despite their wealth and power they are human too.

What lessons can communicators draw from this? I think the biggest is to take a long-term view. The reputation of the British monarchy was at an all-time low after the death of Diana, with many questioning their continued role. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction, the institution has changed how it operates, and in particular how it communicates, giving individuals more freedom to talk about the topics that they feel passionate about, all within an overarching framework that demonstrates empathy, authenticity and value for their audience. It may not be perfect, but other communicators looking to build genuine trust should see what they can learn from the Royal family’s success.

 

Photo Nasa/Bill Ingalls via Wikipedia http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2007/queen_egress_8.html

July 5, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why technology companies have to play by different rules now

In the 1970s and 1980s the business world was dominated by big oil companies, with energy giants becoming the largest corporations in terms of market capitalisation. These were followed by banks and financial services in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of this has changed – the world’s five largest public companies are now Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, with upstarts such as Uber leading the way when it comes to unlisted businesses.

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As they’ve grown these tech giants have expanded dramatically in what they do and the range of services they offer, demonstrated recently by Amazon buying offline upmarket grocery retailer Whole Foods. Essentially they’ve gone from being niche players, albeit in particular sectors such as search or retailing, to offering a panoply of interconnected services that constantly affect our daily lives – and in many markets they are essentially a monopoly, due to the power of network effects.

Much of what they do is invisible to the consumers that use their services – for example the majority of people don’t question why they are served particular search results, ads or news on Google or Facebook. Hence this week’s record $2.7bn fine imposed by the EU on Google for promoting its shopping comparison service to the top of search results.

Is fast too fast?
They’ve also often operated independently of existing rules, working to the Silicon Valley mantra “move fast and break things”. This has driven a huge amount of innovation, but has also led to behaviour that many find either reprehensible or even illegal. In 2014 Facebook’s UK operation paid considerably less corporation tax than my two person PR consultancy, for example.

Uber is a perfect case in point, with many countries banning its operations as its drivers don’t meet local taxi licensing regulations, set up to protect the public. Add in ongoing scandals around sexual harassment that have led to the departure of CEO Travis Kalanick and the overriding impression is of a company culture that focused on aggressive expansion at the expense of its people or the wider world. And Uber isn’t alone – the low number of Silicon Valley founders and VCs that are female or from ethnic minorities has raised eyebrows about the ethos behind the world’s largest tech firms.

Why does this matter now? Simply that the power of tech firms has increased dramatically at the same time as the complexity of their operations has deepened. At the same time, many people around the world feel left behind by the pace of technology and digital disruption, whether it is in the work or home lives, leading to a potential polarisation between the tech savvy and the tech illiterate. These worries haven’t driven people to populist politicians like Donald Trump on their own, but have added to a mood of not being in control amongst many citizens around the world.

Reading the papers, the number of bad things happening on the internet, from simple fraud to terrorist plotting, seems to be increasing exponentially, although whether this is true or is just the result of better reporting is a matter for debate. Whatever the cause it has led to calls for greater regulation and control by national governments over cyberspace.

Altogether this means that tech companies are facing an existential threat. While they are delivering record profits and driving ever-greater innovation they are now central to everyone’s lives and are therefore under ever increasing scrutiny, from governments and the public. Hence the call from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn for the tech community to sign a Decency Pledge, looking to stamp out sexist behaviour and sexual harassment, particularly amongst venture capitalists in relation to the founders of businesses that they fund. It is a start, but I think any Decency Pledge needs to go a lot further and cover all behaviour, and how it is communicated. Tech giants can’t hide behind complexity any more – they need to communicate openly and operate transparently if they want to win back public trust. Time for the old Google motto “Do no evil” to be resurrected…………

 

June 28, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why PR needs to turn around its reputation

13911715043_e32a972f78_zPublic relations has never had a higher profile, but not necessarily for positive reasons. Whether seen as aiming to control the image of celebrities, trying to keep corporate misdeeds out of the press or using political spin to get a particular message across, I’d say that public perception of the industry is actually worsening.

Given that PR people have always been focused on controlling the message why is the profession’s reputation deteriorating? I think there are three key reasons:

1. Chaos is growing
As I say PR is about portraying your company/client/celebrity in a positive light. The problem is that this revolves around people – and people are inherently random and chaotic. So PRs have to constantly balance on a tightrope, trying to plan and control the message in a world where things fall apart. The advent of social media has simply increased this chaos – it is easy for anyone to start a rumour or undermine your story through Twitter and Facebook. Witness the fact that just this week a fake Daily Mail front cover calling for Theresa May to resign went viral on social media, despite the fact that it was an obvious forgery shared by a Twitter user called Lying Tory Media.

PR people feel that they have to be constantly on their guard. And this naturally means that they focus on control and defence rather than positive engagement. After all, it is technically safer to turn down an interview opportunity, even with a high profile media outlet, if there is any risk of it going wrong. This isn’t a long-term strategy, but the speed of the communications landscape can mean people don’t have the time to think long-term.

2. Trust is diminishing
We’ve all seen the figures that show that people trust the organisations around them – be they politicians, the media, companies or other authority figures less and less. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which came out in January 2017, found that government was the least trusted institution in 14 countries, and CEO credibility had dropped to an all-time low of 37 percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if trust has fallen even further since then.

There is a widespread belief amongst many groups that the system has failed people and that the sheer pace of technological and social change is not benefiting everyone equally. This lack of trust means that PR people have to go the extra mile in order to build credibility with ever-more sceptical audiences. And again, it is easier to plan to be defensive – why risk Theresa May meeting real people on her election campaign when you can organise a backdrop of supporters to get your message across?

3. We’re becoming more tribal
I’ve mentioned this before, but populations are polarising into self-contained segments. If you live in a community that is made up of people like you, interact online with the same group and don’t talk to those with different views it is easy to build up a biased world view. Throughout history leaders have focused their tribes or countries by uniting them against an Other, whether that is a rival monarch, country or religion. A similar thing is happening now online, but generally without clear leaders, Donald Trump being an obvious exception.

PR people, particularly on the political side, are becoming focused on appealing to their segment – essentially they feel they don’t need to worry about the Other. Whatever they do opponents will criticise them, so why bother with trying to reach out to them? This does put some PRs on a slippery slope towards propaganda and fake news. No wonder that 73% of public relations professionals polled in a recent survey said that the current White House communications team is negatively impacting the industry’s public perception. But even here tribal loyalties seem to be in play – 15.1% of the sample identified themselves as conservatives, and a similar percentage (15.7%) said the White House comms team “is treated unfairly by the media”.

Public relations finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand the communications, writing and content distribution skills it is centred on have never been more important to business. Yet, the risk is that the sheer pace of change means they retreat into a defensive, safe mode that undermines their credibility. For everyone’s sake, now is the time for PR people to become more strategic, counselling clients to see the bigger picture in order to rebuild trust and unite their audiences for the greater good.

Image Jeff Eaton via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/nckbcV licensed under Creative Commons

June 21, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fake news – are we on the road to 1984?

For a term that most people hadn’t heard of 18 months ago, fake news is now mainstream. A simple Google search on the term turns up 145,000,000 results, 28,900,000 in the news section. Originally coined to cover clickbait stories written with the intent to mislead for political or financial gain, it has now been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump, one of its key beneficiaries, to describe any story that he disagrees with.

Donald Trump

Misleading the public has always been a tactic used by leaders, with propaganda used to push a particular point of view, especially in times of war. Additionally, many newspapers have run sensational stories to attract readers – witness the New York Sun publishing stories about life on the moon in 1835.

George Orwell’s 1984 shows how the combination of propaganda and mass-media communications can be used to control the population and condition what they actually think and believe. And for those that dismiss that as a fantasy, I’d say that fake news in the digital age actually goes even further, for three reasons:

1. We live in an ungated world
In the past people got their news from a limited range of sources such as newspapers, TV and radio. All of these employed professional journalists to sift and check facts before they reached their audiences. This meant that while they may have been biased to left or right, or even stretch the truth, they had to meet journalistic standards. Now, in the digital world anyone can be a publisher, without needing any training – opinions and stories go direct to the public, particularly through social media, without any guarantee of quality. At the same time trust in traditional institutions (politicians, journalists and companies) has broken down, meaning people are actively looking at other sources for their information.

2. We live in a polarised world
Social media encourages people to cluster with those of similar beliefs, limiting our world view and therefore reinforcing it. During the European Referendum, for example, liberal Remainers just saw tweets supporting their stance on Twitter, leading to a sense of real shock when the result went the other way. When we’re in our bubbles on social media we’re more likely to click on, forward or believe in fake news if it plays to our particular beliefs – especially if it appears to be endorsed by someone we trust.

3. We live in a world with short attention spans
How many times have you seen a headline, read it but not bothered to click through for the full story? In my case pretty often. There simply doesn’t seem time to read news stories in-depth or in-detail. At the same time attention spans are shortening and people quickly move onto the next thing, meaning it is easy to confuse fake and real news.

So what can be done to fight fake news? It is easy to blame Facebook and its algorithms, shadowy websites that make money through adverts that run alongside fake stories or even politicians such as Donald Trump who know exactly the lies that they are peddling. However, I think responsibility goes further than this:

  • PR people and the companies they represent have to think through the stories that they issue – putting a positive spin on something is one thing, but be sure that you’re not crossing the line into untruths.
  • Politicians need to be more careful in what they say – perhaps backed up by an independent regulator that immediately investigates and pronounces on dubious statistics, such as the alleged £350m per week paid to the EU that was splashed on Vote Leave buses during the referendum.
  • As consumers we need to learn that not everything you read online is true, and that we are not in a cosy world where every story is meticulously fact-checked. We need to look for sources, think before we share and broaden our world views to try and understand the wider context of the new reality.

Otherwise the fake news we’ve seen already will just be the start, and we’ll be moving swiftly down the road to a version of 1984 that sees propaganda winning and trust between groups and communities completely disappearing. And that is in no-one’s long term interest – not even Donald Trump’s.

June 7, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments