Revolutionary Measures

Where does free speech end?

The cover story in this week’s Economist warns against the growing dangers posed to free speech, by a combination of repressive governments, physical attacks on individuals, and the spread of the idea that people have a right not to be offended. The crux of the article is that the most worrying danger is actually the third one – by not listening to, and debating against, ideas that we find wrong we are actually limiting free speech. It is much better to dismantle an argument and point out its flaws by arguing against its proponents rather than banning the discussion of a subject or point of view, not matter how distasteful we find it. Of course, there are exceptions, as The Economist points out – incitement to violence, for example.

English: Free Speech. Luis Ricardo cartoon Esp...

Shortly after reading this I saw that BuzzFeed has pulled out of an advertising deal with the US Republican Party, now that Donald Trump has essentially won the party’s nomination. It has turned down an alleged $1.3m of income as it fundamentally disagrees with his position and policies. While this isn’t a curb on free speech as such – there are plenty of other places Trump can advertise, and I’m not sure how many of BuzzFeed’s demographic would vote for him anyway, it does illustrate another trend that I’ve noticed over the past few years.

In the UK we’ve gone from a media landscape dominated by four TV channels (and I remember Channel 4 launching), and a set number of newspapers to a multiverse of places to get hold of our news and information. In many ways this personalisation is great – we’re served up stories, or visit sites/TV channels based on our preferences, meaning we get immediate access to what we are interested in.

But on the other hand the shared experience has disappeared – the chances of watching the same TV programme or reading the same article are much fewer. Many people have given up linear TV altogether in favour of box sets or internet-based services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, some of which auto suggest what you’d like to watch next, based on your previous viewing. At the same time local newspapers have been decimated by the internet, meaning that even many free sheets are no longer delivered, with the exception of titles such as Metro.

So, it is quite possible that people can inadvertently edit out news that is outside their range of sources. To me, this is as much a threat to civil society as curbs on free speech. After all, you can’t complain against something you don’t even know is happening.

So, what can be done about it? We obviously can’t/shouldn’t go back to the limited choice that we had before, particularly as much 1980s television was dire. What we should be looking at is ensuring that the places we are going for our news and information are open, level playing fields that reflect and provide us with a range of views.

This is relatively simple for publically accountable sites such as the BBC, but much more complex for those like Facebook and Twitter which rely on user generated content. Facebook recently had to explain itself to US senators after allegations of anti-right wing basis in its Trending Topics section. The worrying thing is that while many people assume articles are picked by algorithms (which is potentially scary enough), there is major input from human reviewers, leading to the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias creeping in.

What can social media do? An elegant solution would be to randomise the whole process, serving up stories that have absolutely nothing to do with your background or interests. However, given Facebook’s desire to keep you on its site for as long as possible, it is unlikely this would please its users, or shareholders. Instead, how about a certain percentage of random content provided every day, even if it is flagged as different in some way. All it takes is people to become intrigued and click on it, and new connections and interests could be kindled – opening up debate and helping to safeguard free speech. Any other ideas gladly received in the comments section below………

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June 8, 2016 Posted by | Creative, 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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Uber and PR – how not to handle the media

There are a lot of jobs I wouldn’t want in PR – helping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or promoting cigarette companies. But head of PR at lift-sharing company Uber has catapulted itself to the top (or should that be bottom) of my list.

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

Any disruptive tech company is going to hit the headlines, but here are some of the stories that the aforementioned head of PR has had to deal with:

  • Upset cab drivers across the globe, angry with its business model, sparking protests, riots, and bans in countries such as Germany (though some restrictions have now been lifted).
  • Consumer complaints about its practice of charging more at peak times.
  • Taking out full page ads plugging the service on the same day that a mass demonstration of London cabbies brought the City to a halt.
  • Claims by rivals such as Hailo that it tried to squeeze out potential investors in its service.
  • Accusations of dirty tricks, such as getting its employees to book, then cancel rides with competitor Lyft in order to waste driver time and company resources.
  • Safety concerns, focused on the lack of driver vetting at the company, with reports of female abductions and a lack of concern for passenger safety.

And now it faces charges that, at a private dinner attended by journalists, its senior vice president of business, Emil Michael mooted the idea of spending a million dollars to hire a team to dig up dirt on reporters that had written negatively about the company. He has since tried to retract the comments, and a spokesperson has helpfully pointed out that “these remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.” CEO Travis Kalanick has also issued a rambling, multi-Tweet apology.

But aside from the cosmic stupidness of airing such views at a dinner attended by journalists (and showing that, yet again, there’s no such thing as off the record comments), Uber needs to understand that few things bring journalists together more than an attack on one or more of their number. Not only has the row sparked fresh bad press, but it will have also impacted how journalists see them. And that’s not as the plucky David against the Goliath of the global taxi industry (as Kalanick claims they are), but as a playground bully trying to buy its way to success. More Jerktech than technology leader.

So what would my advice be to the PR team at Uber? To start with, realise you aren’t in a war and everyone isn’t automatically out to get you. Be more open and take on board criticisms and start a dialogue rather than using heavy artillery. If your service and approach are innovative enough you don’t need to bully the opposition so blatantly, risking bad feeling from your customers and the wider world. Essentially, stop acting like a stroppy teenager and grow up. And, above all, never try and threaten a journalist, whatever the circumstances.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Stop the presses?

Since the rise of the internet, there have been plenty of people predicting the steady decline of mainstream journalism. As people consume more content online they are unwilling to pay either to buy newspapers or to access firewalled content, except for specialist titles such as the Financial Times or The Economist. The result? A huge drop in the number of journalists employed in the newspaper industry – in the US numbers have dropped from over 55,000 in 1990 to under 40,000 today.

2007 United Kingdom floods

However, we are actually consuming as much, if not more, news than ever before. Much of this is in different forms, such as via social media or through news videos. The latest Pew Research Centre State of the News Media report found that a third of Americans now watch news videos online, rising to half in the 18-29 demographic. There’s also been an explosion in the number of digital news firms, creating 5,000 US jobs.

What’s interesting is that these companies are evolving fast. Rather than simply competing with traditional news sources by rehashing stories (or putting out controversial click bait headlines in the case of sites like BuzzFeed), they are investing in original content. Star journalists are being poached from top newspapers, lured by the opportunity to write longer articles without daily deadlines and with greater editorial freedom. Part of this growth is financial – launching a credible digital news site is relatively cheap, around $5m in the US for example.

And the Pew report finds that consumers are getting more involved in the news. 7% of Americans have posted their own news video to a social network or established media outlet and half of social media users share or comment on articles.

The difficulty for traditional publications is two fold – they are still running a print newspaper which has huge fixed costs, while consumers are much less loyal. They’ll click on a link on social media, irrespective of (or not even knowing) its source and then, once they’ve read it, leave the site without necessarily checking out other stories. In the UK the picture is skewed by the credibility and power of the BBC, which has successfully embraced the digital world, helped by its guaranteed funding through the licence fee.

So, what can newspapers do to evolve and change? From what I can see they have five options:

1              Put up a paywall
Given that people spend money on newspapers, why shouldn’t they pay for online content? Hence the rise in paywalls. However with a fickle readership, getting people to commit requires content that they truly can’t get anywhere else, which in turn necessitates investment in journalism, or extras such as Premiership goals in the case of The Sun. It works when the content is original enough or the subscription deal is compelling. On the downside paywalled content is a lot more difficult to share socially, so the overall reach of the title drops as well.

2              Make a go of advertising
Sounds easy – write good stories and advertising will flood in, both in print and online. In theory yes, but we’re back to the fickle readership and the increased competition for advertising pounds. Only those publications that really differentiate themselves (such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian) have grown their online audience enough to deliver a strong advertising revenue. In the print world, the Evening Standard has been able to transition from a paid for to free model, but it has been helped by having an owner with deep pockets.

3              Find a sugar daddy
With newspapers suddenly cheap, there’s been a rush of billionaires investing in them, either as a vanity project, something more sinister or simply because they can turn them around. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, the Boston Globe is now owned by Liverpool FC owner John Henry and Warren Buffett has purchased a whole stable of titles. Even the aforementioned Evening Standard is owned by billionaire Evgeny Lebedev.

4              Become a brand
If you can build a strong reputation for content, you may be able to transform yourself into a global brand. That’s the aim of The Guardian, which has made its name around the world by breaking stories such as Edward Snowden’s revelations. At a more local level it explains the rush of local newspaper groups into local TV, enabling them to share resources and cross-promote.

5              Get someone to write it for you – for nothing
Blog-based sites such as Mashable and the Huffington Post started out without much in the way of original content, but built themselves on contributed blogs. They’ve now expanded to create many more of their own stories, but the model – attracting interesting, informed bloggers looking for the oxygen of publicity – still works equally well on other sites. Both sides benefit, so provided the content is good it adds to a site’s appeal.

Most newspapers have looked at all five of these ideas (some all at the same time), but with varying degrees of success. However, as the Pew report shows, journalism can flourish in the digital age – it just may not be appearing in traditional media outlets.

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April 2, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment