Revolutionary Measures

5 things that Public Relations can – and can’t – do

In the 25+ years I’ve been working in public relations I’ve seen the entire industry shift, as digitisation has transformed media relations, content and the channels that businesses use to communicate with their audiences. We’ve moved from a situation where media relations was king to a more nuanced, wider ranging and more interesting world, where PR is more strategic and (hopefully) more valued.

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However, one thing that never changes is that a lot of people I talk to are still not 100% sure what PR can, and cannot do. And while, like many things, what it is achievable can change, here are 5 areas that commonly cause confusion:

1.Immediate PR results take time
To communicate your messages to your chosen audiences, you obviously need to know what you want to say and who you want to reach. And this has to be realistic – you can’t expect a start-up with nothing more than an idea to immediately appeal to a mass consumer audience. It takes time to build a brand, and that requires patience and an ongoing supply of stories that show momentum and are of interest to the people you want to communicate with, whether they are potential or actual customers, partners, investors and/or relevant media. So my recommendation for any company is be patient – we may live in an accelerated news cycle, but it still takes time and sustained effort to get your messages across.

2.Honesty is central to successful PR
Despite the talk about spin and companies using PR to pull the wool over people’s eyes, the profession can only do so much. The public is rightly cynical about companies that have a bad reputation and fail to own up to past mistakes. The first step to turning round perceptions is to be honest and make a real attempt at changing. It has to be genuine, rather than a smokescreen, and that often means cultural change is required. Look at the likes of Uber, which transformed its approach with a new CEO – it may not have rebuilt trust completely, but it is clearly committed to working on it.

3.PR is not just media relations
For many, media relations – talking to journalists and writing/sending press releases is what PR is all about. However, while media relations can be a key part of a campaign, it is not the only tool in the PR box. Reaching the right people, with the right messages, covers a wide range of tactics outside just talking to the press. I’ve seen PR campaigns that involve no media content, or that are focused on getting to customers, employees or influencers directly through other channels outside the press. This does make the boundaries of PR fluid, and the profession should embrace this rather than funnelling resources just down the media relations route.

4.PR can’t guarantee coverage
Time and time again, I’ve had potential clients come to me asking to get into the Financial Times or an equivalent title. That’s despite having no news or messaging that will appeal to that particular audience – or even any reason for actually reaching a certain group. I once had a PR manager ask me to get their company into the print edition of the Daily Mail, as “that’s what the CEO’s wife’s friends read,” and they wanted to something to boast about at the bridge club. Equally, there’s no such thing as guaranteed coverage – a journalist can write a story and then it doesn’t make it into the paper/onto the website due to any number of external factors. So look very closely at any promises from PR agencies that they will get you into certain titles – are they actually able to deliver?

5.PR can’t hide bad news forever
We live in a world where everyone has a smartphone, an opinion and the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences. That means it is extremely difficult to keep bad news out of the public eye over the long-term. As the likes of Sir Philip Green have discovered, even expensive lawyers can’t achieve that. What PR can do is help you communicate your story, but your story has to be believable to start with. Creating a strong, genuine brand reputation, built up over years, is the best defence against any negative news that does arrive. It won’t prevent damage completely, but it will provide a context and the chance to explain and apologise.

The power of public relations is growing as more and more brands make it a core part of their marketing, rather than a tactical add-on. However, it is vital to be clear where its limitations lie – don’t fall for the spin.

March 20, 2019 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | 1 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

The Pope, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the lessons for PR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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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

How much is your personal data worth?

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At a time when governments snooping on communications data is top of the news agenda it is time for people to realise exactly how much of their private information is out there on the internet. From the websites you’ve visited to the people you are friendly with on Facebook all of this data is used to try and sell you goods and services in increasingly clever ways. Essentially it is the price of free – sites like Facebook don’t charge you to join, and providing an infrastructure for billions of users doesn’t come cheap.

And generally consumers value convenience over security. Hence the increase in sites that let you sign in with your Facebook, Twitter or Google IDs, adding to the data being held about you, tracking your online movements. Of course people have the option to register separately for these sites, but the upfront cost in time of filling in more forms puts most of us off.

Adding in mobile, location-based data adds an extra dimension as companies can see broadly where you were when you looked at a particular page. So marketers know that you were standing outside Starbucks when you checked where the nearest Costa was.

So how much is this data worth to businesses? Hundreds of pounds? Err, no. According to the Financial Times, the average person’s data retails for less than a dollar. Having filled in its nifty online calculator I didn’t even make 50 cents – but then I’m not about to give birth, get married or have a long term (lucrative) health condition. Try the test for yourself on the FT website.

As the PRISM scandal has shown, it isn’t just businesses that want to track your online behaviour. Nine internet companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google were pinpointed as revealing user data to the National Security Agency.

In the wake of the scandal and renewed interest by consumers in protecting their privacy, the internet industry needs to look at how it gains permission, collects information and shares personal data. Social networks and the internet itself are now mass market – they have crossed the chasm and are no longer populated solely by early adopters and teenagers with a relaxed attitude to sharing their personal information (even if it lands them in hot water down the line). Default settings need to be for stronger privacy settings (rather than the minimum), nudging people into being more secure with their data if companies are to regain trust. Of course, we’re not going to stop using Facebook and Google – but it would be a smart move (and a potential differentiator) for these companies to take a stand and make it simpler for us to protect our privacy online. Even if our data is only worth 38 cents.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment