Revolutionary Measures

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.


Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at, Public Domain,


January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook, News and the impact on communications

The last year or so has seen a rude awakening for tech giants, particularly social media platforms. As they’ve risen in importance, politicians, regulators and the public have moved from seeing their benefits to seeing their downsides – from the spreading of fake news to harbouring racist/terrorist content. Ironically, for the predominantly open and left-leaning leaders of Silicon Valley firms, social media has been at the heart of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, the two biggest political upsets of recent times.

And, all the while the profits of Facebook and Google have grown sharply – it is estimated that in 2017 these two tech giants alone claimed around 80% of every new online-ad dollar in America. Calls are being made for such companies to be more tightly regulated, and to take legal responsibility for the content that they host.


Faced with this mounting opposition and a potential drop in usage, Facebook has been making changes to its algorithms, with the aim of focusing time spent on the platform on ‘meaningful social interactions’, according to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That means reducing the amount of content that people see in their News Feed from media and businesses, with the balance shifting more towards content from family and friends.

Publishers have grown to increasingly rely on Facebook for traffic to their sites, and many have already seen a drop in referrals from the social network. This has led to job cuts at many newer media outlets that have relied on social traffic (such as Buzzfeed and Mashable), as well as consternation from others worried about the impact of the changes on their revenues. Rupert Murdoch has called for Facebook to pay ‘carriage fees’ for using news from media outlets on the site, while others have demanded subscription models to support their journalism.

The key problem for publishers is that Facebook has increasingly become the place many people get their news, meaning you need to continually interest them with individual stories, rather than expecting them to buy a newspaper or browse from a news website’s home page. Many Facebook users probably couldn’t tell you who published the story they clicked on – and the same is true for other newsfeed services such as that offered on iPhones.

So publishers risk having the rug pulled out from under a major source of traffic – at the same time that Google and Facebook have hoovered up the ad revenues that previously supported their activities. While most people won’t shed that many tears at Rupert Murdoch’s power and profits reducing, there are bigger issues here around media plurality and holding people to account at all levels.

The dramatic drop in local newspapers has meant that councils are under less scrutiny from journalists than ever before, and while concerned citizens have taken over in some cases, they are less likely to be impartial or have the training to analyse and comment on complicated stories. I believe that the rise of the internet in general, and of social media in particular, has also contributed to a polarisation of views – people simply don’t see content that constructively challenges their point of view and makes them think about their beliefs. Being in a bubble makes it easy to reinforce existing beliefs and demonise the opposition, ultimately hurting democratic dialogue.

It is too easy to blame Facebook for all of these issues, but it does need to step up and take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions. That means looking at how it works with publishers, and the type of content it does carry, if it is to avoid heavier regulation and potential fines down the line. The ball is definitely in Zuckerberg’s court.

Image (CC) Brian Solis, /, via Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bad tech – the PR battle tech companies face

One of the major legacies of the financial crisis was that trust in banks, and indeed the overall financial services industry, took a pounding. The combination of bad behaviour, misselling of products such as PPI, poor customer service and a culture that was perceived as elitist and uncaring all made them public enemy number one. The old stereotype of the bank manager as a respected, upstanding member of the community was consigned to history.

Artificial Intelligence Programming Robot Ai Ki

Artificial Intelligence Programming Robot Ai Ki

In many ways industry reputations are cyclical – before banks, it was probably media organisations (think phone hacking) that were most despised, followed by Big Oil. What is interesting is that I’m seeing a new contender for ‘most hated’ coming up on the rails – tech.

Much of this is down to the huge power technology companies now have over our daily lives. We spend huge amounts of time on our smartphones, on social media, and interacting with technology to get things done. And human nature means that people are quick to forget how things used to be pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, taking the advantages for granted and complaining about what they don’t like.

However, for every story celebrating the progress technology is enabling, I’m seeing at least two arguing that tech companies have too much power, and are not receiving sufficient oversight. In many cases this is true – there is no way of justifying the fact sites such as YouTube, Google and Facebook are earning money on the back of terrorist content or fake news, and at the very least maximising their tax efficiency. But the current mood seems very focused on the negative side of progress and on the harm that it is (potentially) doing, from AI taking our jobs, to websites tracking our every move, and automated checkouts that intimidate the elderly.

At the other end of the spectrum, today’s Budget will see the Chancellor promise that the UK will lead the world in introducing self-driving cars, following a week of announcements around extra funding for technology R&D across the UK. Reading different stories you’d rightly be confused whether the robots are coming to get us Terminator-style or are going to usher in an idyllic life of leisure?

What I think this does is show a need for PR people working in technology (including myself) to take a look at how they communicate and market their companies and clients. It is time to focus on what the benefits are for both consumers and businesses and to honestly address any downsides. That means looking beyond the headline in order to put things into context, and to work with government and charities to solve any unforeseen consequences, be they cyberbullying or unemployment.

Essentially it goes back to being model citizens, and, like previous generations of capitalists (think Victorian families such as the Cadburys and Rowntrees or American philanthropists such as Carnegie), realising that they are responsible for the actions of their products and services. As well as being a genuinely positive thing to do, it ultimately supports society as a whole, including the people that buy from them, making it something that should appeal to their hearts and their heads.

Technology needs to communicate a more open and responsible stance in how it operates if it wants to take the wider population with it towards ever greater innovation.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Social media, news and (mis)information

How people get their news – and how reliable it is – has been a hot topic since before the US election. And this week the debate intensified, particularly around the role of social media in acting as a gatekeeper between their users and news sources.

Firstly, Facebook began an experiment in six countries where it has removed unpaid news posts from the main feed and put them in another tab. This has decimated traffic to news websites, with one journalist claiming that it reduced click throughs by 75%. Facebook says that there are currently no plans to extend the trial, but given the amount of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) that the social media giant provides to newspapers, they are increasingly concerned about the impact on their business models.


Secondly, investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the US election continue, with Google, Twitter and Facebook all being questioned at hearings later this week. Ahead of this Facebook announced that 126 million people in the US may have seen posts, stories or other content created by Russian trolls, while Google has found 18 YouTube channels used to spread disinformation and Twitter has highlighted 2,700 accounts with dubious Russian links.

Both of these stories demonstrate the growing power of social media and the issues that this brings to the press, democracy and individuals. Essentially it boils down to three areas:

1.The dangers of other people’s platforms
Unlike the telephone or post, social media platforms are not intrinsically open and don’t have a public service element. Therefore, Facebook is perfectly within its legal rights to change how it displays third party information, such as news, or even if it displays it at all. Therefore while media companies have become increasingly reliant on Facebook, it isn’t a balanced (or even contractual) relationship. This shows the danger of building a business on someone else’s platform – it is essentially the online equivalent of running a company from premises where you haven’t signed a lease. You can be thrown out at any time, without redress.

2.Black box algorithms
Serving up relevant content that will appeal to users is what Facebook and Google is all about. But how they do this is increasingly complex, involving the analysis of huge amounts of data with proprietary algorithms that are central to their business. As the events of the US election show, it is possible to manipulate or trick these to deliver particular content to targeted users, not just through ads, but in other ways. This obviously goes beyond the normal social media echo chambers that we all tend to sit in, by providing fake content that is likely to appeal to our own positions and biases. Expect the US congressional hearings to call for greater clarity and oversight of the algorithms behind social media platforms, rather than the current black box system. That brings its own issues – it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were complaining about alleged pro-Democrat bias on Facebook.

3. Follow the money
In many ways the news industry has never been healthier – given the current state of turmoil in the world, more people want to know what’s going on. However, while that is good news for individual journalists, it isn’t necessarily good for media businesses as they increasingly give away their content for free and rely on online advertising that brings in much less per impression than traditional print ads. Therefore, cutting traffic to their sites as Facebook’s experiment seems to do removes one of their sources of income, just when they need it most. While the likes of Google have invested in projects to help the media, particularly local newspapers, it doesn’t fill the funding gap that they currently face.

It is difficult to see how both newspapers and social media can move forward and tackle these challenges. Government regulation would be seen as heavy-handed and potentially lead to accusations of bias on the choice and positioning of news, while the social media giants are unlikely to make public the algorithms that their businesses are built on. However, for the wider good in terms of informing the public, something needs to be done.

November 1, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Making marketing mobile

Everyone knows that consumer media habits are changing, but sometimes it feels that marketers aren’t making the connection between how people now access news and information, and how they are trying to reach them. For example, smartphone browsing has now overtaken internet access on laptops/desktops for the first time, with the average Briton spending two hours per day surfing on their mobile, according to eMarketer. At the same time Ofcom reports 51.4% of web traffic now comes from mobiles. That means it is more than likely that you are reading this on a smartphone, whether on the move, at home or in the office.Nokia_X2_Android_(14309420090)

So what does this actually mean for marketers? There are five areas to consider:

1. Make it mobile-first
It still amazes me that there are sites out there that are not mobile-optimised, meaning users need to move around the screen to get to the information they need. It doesn’t matter what sort of organisation you are, people will be accessing your site via a smartphone, so make it easy for them. Also, use the facilities that a smartphone provides, such as location, to deliver relevant content, such as your nearest branch or shop.

2. Personalisation
Smartphones and Big Data provide marketers with unprecedented information about consumers. And at the same time consumers say they want personal service from brands, based on their needs. So why don’t we get this? One worry for marketers is the fear of a consumer backlash if customers complain that their privacy is being impinged upon, and there is a threat that using data badly will annoy and upset people. We’ve all looked at buying a present online, and then been followed around the web by adverts for it for the next week. So the rule should be to embrace personalisation but not be creepy – if in doubt, ask consumers where they think the boundaries should be.

3. Video, video, video
As someone who experienced the slow speed of dial-up access to the internet, it has taken me a while to fully embrace video. But for the majority of people today video is the primary type of mobile internet content they choose, whether on YouTube, news sites or streaming media. Therefore, ensure you offer this on your site, and use the medium to get your message out. Video doesn’t have to be expensive – you can even shoot it on your smartphone.

4. Speed is king
People won’t wait. And, with the competition just a click away, why should they? Ensure that everything you do online is geared to speed, particularly on mobile devices, so that consumers get a seamless experience. It may not be traditional marketing, but check how fast your site loads on specific devices and work with technical teams to continually improve it.

5. Social dominates
As the fake news scandals around the US election demonstrate, social media is now the primary source of news and information for many consumers. And mobile is overwhelmingly how the likes of Facebook and Twitter are accessed. Obviously, brands understand this and have invested in their social media presences, but it is vital to use these networks to their full potential. For example, Facebook’s deep demographic information enables you to learn more about your customers, target similar ones, and directly change perceptions and drive sales.

Finally, a word of warning. We are in a mobile-first world, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. People still watch TV and listen to radio – whether online or on old-fashioned TV sets and radios, so don’t neglect them. You need a co-ordinated approach to marketing your brand across channels if you are to rise above the noise and actually engage and build a long-term relationship with consumers.

Image By Chris F./ (Nokia X2 Android) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

September 27, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 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.


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 (, via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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.


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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 licensed under Creative Commons

June 21, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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 | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Can you make your PR campaign strong and stable? 4 communication lessons from the General Election


With well under a month to the General Election the parties various communication strategies are becoming clearer. As I said in a previous blog, this won’t be a social media election, but that isn’t stopping politicians from adopting new techniques to reach voters. The aim is to control the message, and drum it into the electorate, even if that means repeating ‘strong and stable leadership’ ad nauseum.

There are four key tactics that are emerging – and could serve as PR lessons for other communicators:

1.Go for the low hanging fruit
Essentially politicians are trying to duck the tough questions – although in the case of Diane Abbott she seems to be succeeding in making easy questions difficult. That means Theresa May popping up on The One Show, along with her husband, to discuss such key facts as who takes the bins out, while at the same time saying she won’t take part in a TV leadership debate. Instead, she’ll appear alongside Jeremy Corbyn, but not in a head to head.

While it is difficult for businesspeople to follow this strategy to the letter and duck tough media appearances, it should serve as a blueprint for showing your human side if you want to demonstrate that you are just a normal person, with interests and passions beyond your job.

2. Go where the audience is
It isn’t an election that will be won or lost on social media, but that doesn’t mean the channels can’t be used to get the message out there. The Prime Minister took part in a Facebook Live event with ITV News, essentially reaching an audience in the easiest manner for them. In reality there’s no difference between Facebook Live and a televised phone-in – as proved by Jeremy Corbyn trying to hijack the event by sending in a question himself. It is simply a question of going where the audience is – something that chief executives should also bear in mind.

3. Exploit the system
Once an election is declared, impartiality rules kick in for broadcasters. Covering TV and radio (down to community stations), they mean that no one party should be favoured, personal political preferences shouldn’t be aired by presenters and due weight is given to the larger parties. What this means in practice is that over the course of a bulletin, all major parties must receive airtime – and it must be presented in an unbiased manner. Hence the huge amount of effort put into campaigning in front of the camera, with politicians criss-crossing the country to launch manifestos and policies. In contrast, newspapers are free to add as much comment as they like, making politicians much warier of them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that PR people try and break the rules when it comes to getting their clients in front of the media, but understanding how different types of media work is vital to providing them with a story that works for them, and their audience.

4. Prepare and leave nothing to chance
The biggest lesson for all PR people from this election is the importance of preparation and planning. In terms of the Conservatives every appearance is carefully stage-managed, even down to allegedly shutting reporters in a room when Mrs May did a factory visit so they couldn’t film her and bussing in activists to serve as the audience in community centre visits. This level of planning doesn’t quite extend to Labour. As well as Diane Abbott’s series of car-crash interviews, the party manifesto was leaked with Jeremy Corbyn subsequently pulling out of launching its poster campaign to deal with the issue. And his driver then accidentally ran over a BBC cameraman’s foot.

You shouldn’t follow the Conservative strategy to the letter, and indeed being too polished can be detrimental to your message. However ensuring you have set detailed objectives, have the right messages, plan how you are going to deliver them and are fully prepared is more likely to project the image you want to be known for, rather than seeming to be continually running to catch up. As the election unfolds, expect to hear the words “strong and stable” a lot more………………

Photo by secretlondon123 (originally posted to Flickr as Polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

May 17, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , | 2 Comments