I’m probably one of the few people in the country with some sympathy for Sam Allardyce. Once the Daily Telegraph ran a story on how he’d advised undercover reporters pretending to be businessmen on how to get around player transfer rules, his days looked numbered in the job. Add in the allegation that he accepted a £400,000 deal to represent the businessmen to Far Eastern investors and his fate was sealed. Rule bending and big payments never look good in headlines.
Allardyce has definitely committed a serious error of judgement, in talking about getting round third party player ownership rules, criticising his predecessor Roy Hodgson and his assistant Gary Neville, and complaining that FA president the Duke of Cambridge didn’t attend meetings.
However, I put a lot of blame for the situation on his employers, the Football Association. Given the high profile nature of the role, he was bound to be targeted by reporters in one way or another – did he not have training or warnings about how he should behave in such situations? Imagine he was a senior manager at a company – standards of ethics, what he could and couldn’t discuss and his general behaviour would have been drummed into him. Remember that despite his status, the England manager isn’t a CEO and he has a boss in the FA chief executive Martin Glenn. There should be organisation wide policies that were drummed into him, yet none of the press coverage mentions them. As World War Two posters proclaimed, “Loose lips sink ships”, and Allardyce’s job has been sunk after just 67 days in charge.
There is also much that any business (or anyone in the public eye) can learn from Allardyce’s misadventures:
1.Nothing is off the record
Any conversation, even private ones, can be made public. In the days of smartphones and tiny microphones anything can be recorded and used against you – as the Queen found out when she was overhead complaining about Chinese officials at a garden party.
2. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is
Always look a gift horse in the mouth. While Allardyce said he would have to run the £400,000 payment past the FA before accepting the deal, business people appearing out of nowhere with large sums of money should have rung alarm bells, even in the world of football. The fact that he took his agent and accountant to the meeting shows how seriously he was taking things – it would have been better to have cleared it with his bosses first.
3. Beware the friendly journalist
Most of us are hardwired to want to be accepted and get on with people, and a big part of any interview or meeting is building rapport between everyone involved. So when a journalist or anyone else asks a question or raises a subject people are normally happy to jump in with an answer that either makes them look good or agrees with the general conversation. Hence why pretty much all sting operations get their victims to ditch the dirt on their colleagues or ex-colleagues. It is simply human nature to be helpful, but you need to be on your guard at all times.
4. Make sure everyone knows the rules
As I say, the FA must have strict rules on what members of staff can and can’t do, particularly when it comes to deals that personally benefit themselves. Make sure everyone knows them inside out, with proper training sessions rather than simply burying them in a contract or a staff handbook. Keep them front of mind and ensure that people realise how important they are.
Sam Allardyce won’t be the last celebrity to be caught in a sting operation, but his fate should be a warning for anyone in the public eye about how they should and shouldn’t behave. And, most of all, it should be a wake-up call for employers to set policies and train people so that they don’t end up in the same boat.
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.
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.
The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.
Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.
AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.
So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.
1 Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.
2 Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.
3 Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.
So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.
While all professions are guilty of jargon, there’s a definite tendency in PR to reuse and recycle the same tired old phrases when it comes to press releases. Leading, innovative, solutions, unique – as in “company X, the leading provider of innovative and unique solutions, today announced……”
At best they don’t mean anything and at worst hide a potentially good story as any self-respecting journalist has nodded off at the end of the first paragraph.
Often we’re told we can’t change them by clients as they are part of house style and that they set the company apart in its messaging. A useful piece of research by Adam Sherk, quoted in the Johnson blog in The Economist, explodes this myth. By analysing words and phrases in press releases on PR Web, he found that leader and leading, for example, were used over 200,000 times. That’s a lot of leaders – are there no also-rans?
This isn’t the first research that there’s been in this area, and all PR people have had sarky comments back from journalists on this subject, but it should act as a wake up call for press release writing. Start with messaging that is clear and differentiated. Then explain things simply, without hyperbole but with a range of language – as Adam’s research shows it might actually make you stand out from the crowd.