Revolutionary Measures

Is PR changing at last?

Last week’s Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) East Anglia conference reminded me of much of the good – and the bad – about the profession. For a start the half day event brought together a really diverse group of PR practitioners, all enthusiastic about their profession and what it could achieve for businesses. And the overall theme of the conference – why PR needs to step up, embrace new skills and demonstrate the value it creates – is immensely important in a world where digital is transforming the marketing, and business, landscape

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But – and it is a big but – I can remember going to events debating these issues five or possibly ten years ago. And even some of the presenters admitted that they still find it hard to persuade clients that measurement needs to go beyond counting the number of clippings or the advertising value equivalent of coverage. Perhaps most damning of all there is still a huge gender pay gap, of an average of over £8,000 between women and men doing comparable jobs, and a relative shortage of females in the higher echelons of the PR profession. In a sector where 70% of the workforce is female, this is nothing short of a disgrace. Essentially much of this comes down to PR not being taken seriously – we’re expected to either be Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. While I’d relish the chance to drink as much as the former while working or swear as much as the latter without attracting disciplinary action, it is far from the truth.

So PR needs to change, and the first step, like Patsy attending Alcoholics Anonymous, is recognising the need to do things differently. While there was a lot of repetition in the different presentations, there was also a lot to pick up and learn from. I’d distil it into four points:

1. This is a great time to work in PR
Corporate reputation matters: to sales, to the share price, to recruitment, and to overall business success. Customer relationships are vital to build loyalty and revenues. Given its background, PR is the profession best placed to manage both of these, but to do so it needs to change, digitise and talk the language of business. As Sarah Pinch, the current CIPR president, pointed out, “Strategic counsel can’t be provided by a robot.” Only by upping its game will PR avoid being automated.

2. PR needs to integrate
While it is best placed to help companies improve their reputation and relationships, PR can’t do it alone. It has to work with every other department of the business, from finance and sales to customer service and IT, to create a cohesive approach that focuses on the overall reputation of the organisation. It needs to adopt a team of teams approach, working with colleagues with different skills to achieve results.

3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
There was a lot of talk about the need for measurement and why it was important, but fewer examples of how PR could be measured in a way that linked directly to business KPIs. As I’ve said the industry has been talking for years about the need to move from outputs (the number of clips or readers) to outcomes (changes to perception or behaviour that can be directly credited to PR). There are plenty of apocryphal stories of how reading that one article led effortlessly to a sale, or a campaign enabled a company to shift its market positioning, but one of the major issues is measuring this on a consistent, reliable basis. One of the key issues, particularly for smaller agencies and businesses, is that measurement costs money – and often clients are unwilling to pay for it or don’t see its value. That means it has to come out of budget that would otherwise be spent on PR programmes, lessening what can be done, and meaning agencies may well lose out in beauty parades to rivals that promise more.

4. Think like the board
As Denise Kaufmann of Ketchum said, quoting W. Edward Deming, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” PR needs to understand what senior management is looking for and ensure it is talking the same language. And that means ensuring PR targets directly map to corporate objectives, and are presented in a clear, business language. Think like an MBA and speak data, rather than discussing size and number of clips. This requires a change of mindset, but the potential rewards are enormous in terms of prestige, preserving/growing budgets and being recognised as crucial to the business. Hugh Davies, until recently the corporate affairs director of 3, gave his advice on advancing your PR career: be a team player, be confident, build business understanding, and create a body of evidence to support your ideas if you want to be taken seriously.

And by building trust with the board, the job of PR could also become slightly easier. We’ve all seen PR wonderful campaigns that are quickly undermined by a corporate scandal or cock-up that no-one thought to tell the communications department about until it became a crisis. I’d hate to be a PR person for VW at the moment for example. By stepping up to senior management, PR will at the very least have earlier warning of such issues, rather than having to deal with the aftermath.

It is easy to see PR as a profession that just provides window dressing to an organisation – and in the past PRs have not helped themselves with their behaviour or attitude. But the CIPR East Anglia Conference showed that attitudes are changing, and finally we may be solving our own reputational problems.

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talk Talk – how to turn a crisis into a PR disaster

Last week’s announcement from Talk Talk that its website had been hacked and customer details (including bank account information) had potentially been stolen has turned into a disaster for the company. The stock price slumped by over 10% and MPs have called for an inquiry into whether the firm’s failure to encrypt data put customer information at risk.TalkTalk

Could things have been handled differently – and would they have changed the reaction of both the public and the media?

Firstly, it is worth re-stating that Talk Talk has been the victim of a crime. Initial fanciful rumours that the perpetrators were Russian Jihadis now look wide of the mark, with the police instead arresting a 15 year old boy from Northern Ireland, but the fact remains that its site was hacked. Additionally some of the press coverage has been incredibly sensationalist, with lurid stories of customers having their bank accounts cleared out by fraudsters, even though they were not necessarily linked to the hack itself.

However there are two questions that any business involved in crisis management needs to answer – did it meet the expected standards before the incident, and did it then deal with the situation in a way that reassured customers and other stakeholders?

I’d say that the response to both of these is a No. For a start, failure to encrypt customer details (at a time when people like Apple encrypt everything) is a glaring security hole that should have been filled. But as a PR person I’d point out five ways they’ve not managed the crisis well:

1          Telling press before customers
The first thing most customers knew about the hack was when they turned on the news or listened to the radio. The reason given by chief executive Dido Harding for making contact through the media, as opposed to directly speaking to customers, was that the sheer number of subscribers made this impossible. Talk Talk should have done both – customers wanted a direct response rather than just hearing about it on Radio 4.

2          Incomplete information
You can’t blame Talk Talk for initially overstating the scale of the attack – it obviously needed to get the announcement of the hack out as quickly as possible, rather than laboriously go through all its account details to see what had been compromised. And the story about the afore-mentioned Russian Jihadis came from other sources. However it didn’t provide a full picture to its customers early enough. I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and left six months ago – yet nowhere on its FAQ did it say anything about whether my details were at risk. Much later on Talk Talk admitted that ex-customer information could also have been hacked, but it demonstrates that the entire response was not well thought through.

3          Failure to stay on top of the story
After its initial apology, the story seemed to be going Talk Talk’s way, with pundits talking about the growing threat of cyber crime, and the company’s clear advice to change passwords being repeated across all media. But then the story changed, with the initial hack being downplayed and the press focusing on the failure to encrypt data. As Jacques de Cock of the London School of Marketing pointed out, it seemed to share its customers’ panic, rather than taking decisive action. The agenda shifted against Talk Talk, positioning it as culpable in its own downfall and not having a handle on what was going on.

4          Poor reputation
As I mentioned, I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and I found it a frustrating and unhelpful organisation to deal with. I kept getting regular sales calls, with agents trying to upsell me from my basic package and when I moved home it made me honour a month’s notice period on my contract – even though it said it couldn’t provide service at my new address. The impression I got was of an organisation that didn’t care about its customers, except for the money it could make from them, and that cut corners where it could to save a pound or two. Indeed I remember hearing Dido Harding on the Media Show on Radio 4, likening the firm to a clapped-out car being driven over the speed limit down the motorway, hanging onto the competition. Very few telecoms firms deliver good customer service, but I’m convinced Talk Talk’s poor reputation meant that commentators and customers automatically assumed the worst had happened.

5          Lack of empathy
Compounding customer annoyance, Talk Talk yesterday said that it would charge a termination fee to any customers looking to leave, unless they could prove that money had been stolen from their accounts due to the hack. Now, Talk Talk is obviously a business, and releasing all its customers from their contractual obligations could cause a huge dent in revenues – particularly given how badly the crisis has been handled. But the way the message has been delivered smacks of weakness and arrogance – it is almost as if it believes that customers would seize any excuse to leave, yet are stupid enough to forget the whole hack happened when it comes to contract renewal time. The company should have worked out some sort of half way house, allowing customers to shorten contracts or pay a reduced termination fee as a goodwill gesture. It may have cost it more in the short term, but would have been a valuable first step in rebuilding the company’s reputation – and any good publicity would be welcome at this stage in the process.

Handling a crisis in today’s real-time world is difficult. The combination of continuous news, social media and a desire for instant scapegoats means it is impossible to control the story in the same way as in the past. However Talk Talk should have done better – and is now facing the prospect of real damage to its reputation and bottom line by failing to take decisive action or appearing to care about its customers. Every company should take note and update crisis management plans so that they don’t fall into the same trap.

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How my consultancy is bigger than Facebook UK – and that’s a bad thing


I’ve been in business for five years now, and things are going well. I’ve seen revenues for my PR agency grow every year, thanks to loyal clients and (if I say so myself) some wonderful work. Yet it was only when I saw how much corporation tax Facebook paid last year in the UK, that I realised exactly how well I was doing. Comparing our two tax bills, I’ve paid considerably more than the £4,327 Facebook shelled out in 2014. Therefore it stands to reason I must have made much more money than the social network, even if globally its profits were $2.9 billion. Its UK business must just be lagging behind the rest of operations – after all very few people use Facebook in this country.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Obviously this isn’t the case, and like companies from Starbucks to Google, Facebook has engineered its operations to minimise its tax bill. As a businessman myself I can understand this – but what I can’t understand is that it doesn’t take into account the reputational damage that results. After all, company filings are public documents that anyone can access, and there are enough people out there who know how to read a balance sheet and can therefore spot holes in a company’s story without needing to spend too much time investigating.

I even felt sorry for the poor PR spokesperson delegated to read out the anodyne statement that Facebook was compliant with UK law, and all staff paid income tax (how gracious!). Then I realised that the spokesperson was one of the 362 people that shared the £35.4m in bonuses that pushed Facebook’s corporation tax bill down so close to zero, and any sympathy evaporated.

On one hand companies talk about how important their brand, and brand values, are to their success, yet cheerfully spend their time undermining these very same values from within. Why? I think much of this comes from a fundamental disconnect between senior management and those responsible for public relations or brand reputation. They aren’t involved in senior-level decision making, meaning that no-one is pointing out the potential pitfalls of being seen as a poor corporate citizen. In an age of consumer power, the lack of a check on potential corporate skulduggery can prove fatal to a brand.

Ever since I’ve been in public relations, which is over 20 years, there have been calls for PR to have a seat on the board and to be more involved in setting strategy, rather than just delivering it. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Partly it comes down to PR’s own reputation, with the discipline seen as more Ab Fab than strategic, and limited in what it can achieve. The rise of digital and the increase in the importance of corporate reputation should have changed that, but my impression is that the overwhelming number of FTSE 100 companies still don’t have or seek senior level PR counsel until too late in the process.

It is therefore time for PR people to take a step up and build the business understanding that they need to communicate with other senior management. Talk their language, link campaigns and messages to business goals and objectives, and if necessary, scare the bejesus out of people by explaining the financial (and even judicial) consequences of not thinking through decisions or ignoring dubious practices. While Facebook’s tax policies haven’t hit its share price, just look at Volkswagen’s financial woes for an illustration of what happens when you cover up bad behaviour. Despite its US head admitting he was briefed on how the car maker could fool emissions tests in spring 2014, nothing was done to remedy the problem or to come clean.

Looking at the PR implications of business decisions shouldn’t just be limited to big companies with expensive communications departments. Every company has the potential to be caught out if it transgresses the brand values that it trumpets to the world. So whether you are an international social network or a local plumber, think through the PR consequences of your strategy, before you implement it, if you want to avoid potential long-lasting reputational damage.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 things I’ve learnt in 5 years of running my own business


Birthday Cake

This month marks several major anniversaries in my life. I’ll have been married for 15 years and July 1st was the beginning of my sixth year of running my own business. Leaving aside everything I’ve learnt from my marriage, here are the top five things I’ve learnt after setting up on my own:

1. Network, network, network
It doesn’t really matter what type of business you are, the easiest way to bring in new revenues is to be recommended by someone else. That only happens if you both do a good job for existing clients, and more importantly network with the community around you. Trekking out after work to meet new people can seem a bit like going to the gym – you know it is good for you, but you can invent 1001 excuses why you should just stay at home. Just like physical exercise, you need to overrule the little voice in your head and spend time networking. At the very least it’ll get you out and talking to people with potentially similar interests, or who offer complementary services – and it will also increase your public presence and ensure companies know who you are. And networking doesn’t stop there – connect with people on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter and make sure you make the effort stay in touch.

2. What goes around comes around
This may sound a little Zen, but I’m a firm believer that being nice to people, and helping them, stores up good luck that could help you in the future. Give people that can’t afford to hire you advice, connect them to people that can help them and be supportive of the community around you. Even if it doesn’t bring you direct business you’ll feel better about the world around you and know that you’ve made a bit of a difference.

3. Learn to let go
If you are in a business that revolves around selling your time and expertise, there’s a natural ceiling on how much work you can do. There are only 24 hours in a day, and working on all of them isn’t a long term business strategy. So be ruthless and look through your workload. Hire people to help – whether experts such as an accountant to look after your book-keeping or someone to assist with admin, they will free you up to focus on what clients are actually paying you for. And you’ll (hopefully) get your evenings back too.

4. Keep doing new stuff
I know a lot of people that have built successful businesses, get to year six and decide on a complete change of tack, such as creating their own start-up. While I couldn’t do this myself, it shows the need to keep challenging yourself and doing new stuff. On a less dramatic note it could mean offering new services, taking on clients in a completely different sector or investing in new skills and qualifications. The world is changing fast and failing to change with it will not only leave you bored, but you’ll gradually lose clients as they move to businesses that offer new services that meet their new needs.

5. Build up an ecosystem
No business is an island, and you can’t survive on your own. As well as networking, make sure you plug into people with complementary skills who can help you, whether with advice, mentoring or just providing you with a sympathetic ear from time to time. I know I’d not have built my business without the support of a whole range of people, which is another reason to spend time networking in both the real and virtual worlds.

Don’t get me wrong, the last five years has been a lot of hard work, a few tantrums and occasional worries about where the next job would come from. However it has also been tremendous fun, bringing me into contact with a wide range of interesting, innovative and sometimes quirky people. I’ve learnt a lot, enjoyed being my own boss and been able to (sort of) balance work and life. Here’s to the next five years!

July 8, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Print engagement vs online eyeballs


Newspaper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog I wondered whether the rise of technology would mean the end of interesting, creative ads, to be replaced by a combination of content-based marketing and basic, fast, algorithmic ads powered by our online behaviour.

I still believe that the ability for us to zone out ads on digital media (whether TV or the internet) means that brands are going to have to try harder to engage our attention on these channels. One area I didn’t talk about was print advertising in newspapers and magazines. After all most commentators have been saying for a while that the internet has pretty much killed off physical publications, with old media facing falling circulations and rising costs. But recently listening to Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of advertising giant WPP, has made me think again. As a man who spends millions of client money on online and offline ads, he obviously knows what he is talking about, and he believes that while digital advertising may be getting the eyeballs, traditional media is getting the engagement.

He points out that having tens of thousands of Facebook Likes, mentions on Twitter or prominent online campaigns is meaningless if it is merely transitory and consumers simply skip onto the next big thing, without lingering over your message. Additionally, it is quite possible for online ad campaigns to be subject to clever frauds where views are artificially inflated to justify increased spend.

In contrast, offline readers spend more time reading a newspaper or magazine, including viewing the adverts, driving a deeper engagement that means both PR and advertising messages are more likely to be remembered. Obviously it still means the story or advert has to be memorable, interesting and targeted, but if it meets those criteria, it could do more for your brand than ten times as many online ads or mentions.

The other advantage of print is that, battered by digital, advertising prices have come down considerably over the past few years. This makes print more cost-effective than it was previously, adding another reason to invest in the channel.

The disadvantage of print is it is that much more difficult to measure who has seen your article or advert and how it has moved engagement forward. Clearly every reader does not read a paper cover to cover, including the ads, but there’s no set way of working out its impact. It is no coincidence that WPP has recently invested heavily in measurement technology as this will be key to really demonstrating engagement – both on and offline. In the past print measurement, particularly for PR, was incredibly vague. For many years the standard way of demonstrating PR ‘value’ for a particular piece of coverage was to take the equivalent cost of the same size advert and multiply it by three as editorial was deemed much more believable by readers. Thankfully those days have gone, but it does leave a gap. By contrast you can measure everything online – but sheer numbers don’t tell you everything, particularly about engagement.

What is needed is a new approach that can link the two – but in a way that isn’t intrusive, respects user privacy, and doesn’t involve in extra work for the publication, brand or reader. Google Glass would have met some of these needs, but certainly didn’t tick the privacy box. So, the search goes on – but until then, marketers should bear in mind that eyeballs don’t equal engagement and choose their media channels accordingly.

June 3, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why we don’t want discussion with our morning coffee

When you think of Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is not discussions about race. So the company’s latest US campaign, called Race Together, which seeks to start discussions between baristas and customers feels misplaced.

The second location of Starbucks in Seattle wa...

Firstly, let me say I don’t doubt that it is motivated by the right reasons, rather than a desire to differentiate or for marketing purposes. It follows extensive staff open meetings where partners (staff) have discussed the whole situation of race in the USA after high-profile cases involving the police and black citizens in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, amongst other places. And in many ways it goes back to the original purpose of coffee houses as venues for, often raucous, debate and discussion.

However as the overwhelmingly negative feedback on social media confirms, a 21st century chain coffee shop is not the place to have a measured discussion on a topic as sensitive and nuanced as race. As one tweet put it, “I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.” I’d agree – as someone that absolutely refuses to give my name when ordering a coffee, being forced into talking about a difficult subject, no matter how important, with someone I don’t know is not my cup of tea. I’d say there are four reasons it feels like the wrong place for this type of communication:

1          Fit with purpose
People go into a coffee shop to get a drink, and while they may have an unprompted chat with a barista, it is more likely to be about sports or the weather than race. They aren’t necessarily in a mood to talk to anyone until they’ve had their first coffee of the day, and if they are would prefer to choose the subject themselves. And how can you have a long discussion about a complex subject in the couple of minutes it takes for your coffee to be ready?

2          Unbalanced relationship
There is also a monetary transaction involved – it doesn’t feel like an equal conversation when one person is a customer and is paying. A discussion that could be had on an equal footing outside Starbucks most definitely can’t be seen the same way within the coffee shop.

3          Training and knowledge
Baristas at Starbucks haven’t received any special training in debating, and are of course still expected to carry on doing their jobs while engaging customers in discussion. Notwithstanding the potential impact on the coffee they are making, the risk is that they are out-argued by customers on specific points, adding to the issue, rather than helping solve it.

4          Risk to reputation
As a communications professional I’d also look at the risk to Starbucks’ reputation. It is easy to be very British about Race Together and just write it off as patronising, ignoring the genuine American issue behind it, and the more open US culture of discussing your life with complete strangers. But you have to look at the slew of negative tweets and articles to see that many Americans were not impressed. Additionally, given the global nature of the brand, a campaign in the US has an impact across the world, affecting the attitudes of coffee drinkers in other countries.

Most of all it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin pays John Cleese to have an argument. It deteriorates rapidly into just contradiction and is ended by a combination of the police and some wooden mallets. I’m not suggesting that the same approach is necessary in Starbucks’ case, but it needs to focus its efforts differently if it wants to get its message across and a proper discussion started.

March 25, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Marketing by robots?

Technology has disrupted many industries, radically changing the roles of those that work in them. Thirty years ago, every medium or large organisation had a typing pool, with secretaries that took dictation and then typed letters, tippexing over any mistakes. Insurance was primarily sold face to face through brokers, while buying a CD involved a trip to the nearest HMV or Virgin Megastore.

Electronic typewriter - the final stage in typ...

Electronic typewriter – the final stage in typewriter development. A 1989 Canon Typestar 110 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is now marketing’s turn to feel the impact of technology change. When I started in PR 20 years ago, technology essentially involved a desktop PC, a landline and a fax machine. I remember setting my heart on being promoted in order to ‘earn’ a work mobile phone and the excitement when internet access and email arrived. Things have changed a great deal, but essentially by simply automating existing processes. Rather than physically posting press releases to journalists, PRs now send an email, and marketing campaigns are now integrated and include digital channels. And you could argue that these changes have benefited PR and marketing – the sector is larger than it was, with more senior level practitioners.

However, digital business as usual is no longer enough. Marketing is now being transformed by technology, with those working in it enabled by a whole range of new tools and abilities that completely change how the entire industry operates. This is being driven by three key trends – the rise of Big Data, social media, and improved, end-to-end measurement tools.

1. Big Data – beyond the hype
We live in a world where data is being created an astonishing rate. And much of this data is personal information created on social media and consequently of interest to marketers. You can select target audiences to advertise to using the most narrow of parameters – if you want to reach one armed female ferret fanciers in Altrincham it is easy to do. But to make Big Data work for marketing, you need to learn technical and real-time analytic skills that can be at odds with the traditional annual or six monthly campaign-based approach that many people were brought up on. You also need flexibility, a desire to experiment to see what works, a willingness to learn from mistakes and a focus on constantly adapting and improving what you do.

2. Social Media – the balance has shifted
The relationship between marketers and consumers used to be balanced firmly in favour of corporate suits. Campaigns were launched at their target markets, and while there was some market testing, it was normally late in the process. Social media changes all that – consumers have the chance to have their opinions heard by a global audience instantly, uncontrolled by marketing organisations. The latest example of this is the Comcast case, where a call to cancel an internet connection degenerated into the customer service agent berating the consumer for having the temerity to try and leave. Over 3.5 million people listened to the customer’s recording of the call in just a few days. Marketers have lost control of the conversation.

3. You can measure everything
One of the traditional issues with PR used to be that it was difficult to measure. At a simplistic level you could count clippings, or even assign them a monetary value based on advertising rates, but these were crude and didn’t link to other marketing disciplines. Now you can measure everything, seeing exactly what a prospect has viewed on the way to a purchase and use Big Data algorithms to weight the relative impact of every contact on the eventual sale. Software enables you to link different channels seamlessly, so in terms of PR and social media you could see how individual articles or tweets have moved the customer journey forward.

So, some of the skills that marketing people took for granted as useful – empathy, the ability to schmooze and being good on the phone/in meetings – are no longer enough. You need to be able to use technology as a lever to better understand customers in a scalable, real-time way, and have the strategic skills to create content that will best reach them. For a traditional industry such as marketing this does mean changing how people operate – which can be uncomfortable and even threatening to experienced marketers. However the prize is worth fighting for. Marketers have the chance to not only prove the value of what they do, but increase their own standing within their organisations by taking a more strategic role. All they need is an open mind and a desire to embrace their more analytic and technical sides.

July 23, 2014 Posted by | Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

PRs vs journalists – battle lines drawn?

A few weeks ago BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston sparked a fierce (and ongoing) debate by warning of the power of the PR industry in setting and controlling the news agenda. His views, given in the annual Charles Wheeler lecture, were that the combination of a lack of resources at newspapers and the central position of PRs as gatekeepers was leading to a world where companies and their representatives dictated the agenda. An environment full of spurious stories that at the very least obfuscated the truth, and that the worst were downright lies or spin. He concluded “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy.”

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid...

English: British journalist Robert Peston, mid-interview in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other journalists have taken up the battle cry, with Nick Cohen describing press officers as “the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life.” In response, Public Relations Consultants Association boss, Francis Ingham, called the comments ‘sanctimonious’ and a ‘venomous, ill-judged diatribe.”

As in any relationship, PRs and journalists have always taken pot shots at each other. The balance has shifted over the last twenty years – there are now more PRs than journalists, generally they earn more, and traditional media has been hit hard by the rise of the internet.

I think the argument risks getting out of hand, with both sides missing the point. Firstly, the range of the PR industry is broad, as is journalism. What Robert Peston has seen in his career working for national and broadcast media is not the same as the majority of trade or local journalists who have a much less antagonistic relationship with the PRs that pitch them stories. The same goes for political spin – I work in PR, but I’m not Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker. Clearly there is abuse of position and power by spin doctors as they deliberately work to spike stories or brief against opponents. Does that mean that every PR does the same (or would like to?). Speaking personally the answer is no, as I’m not sure my blood pressure could stand it – or that the vocabulary improvement would go down well at the school gates.

Secondly, there is a big difference between in-house PRs and agencies. Press officers have a single client, their employer, who pays their salary. In this environment it is potentially easy to lose your sense of perspective, and to believe that what your organisation is doing is right, and that everyone else is out to get you. And this isn’t just competitive businesses or warring politicians, press officers at charities and NGOs often believe passionately in the cause they are espousing and want everyone else to feel the same. In contrast, PR agencies are middlemen, and rely on their ideas and relationships with the press to gain new clients. So burning bridges by bullying journalists into taking down a story or requesting copy approval may work once, but it will destroy a relationship for the future. As a PR person I must admit I have asked for stories to be changed online – but only for the simple reason they were factually inaccurate. My personal favourite is politely requesting a journalist get the sex right of the client he’d interviewed.

Thirdly, commentators need to look at the wider context. The rise of ‘content’ as an all encompassing area lumps together what was previously seen as advertorial, proper journalism, wire reports and pictures of cute cats lifted off social media close to deadline. Traditional print media have faced falling circulations and increased competition as they’ve moved online, ironically at the same time as having more space to fill. This means publications now need more content than ever before, with fewer, less experienced staff on hand to deliver it. PR and marketing-led content has filled this vacuum, whether from survey-based press releases, soft features or owned content submitted by organisations. This doesn’t have to be bad – take the Red Bull Stratos skydive or footage from any NASA mission, but it has to be in addition to real, investigative reporting rather than instead of it.

The balance between journalists and PRs has changed. However that doesn’t mean that journalists don’t have power – or that the relationship should get too friendly. Whatever happens day to day, journalists and PR people do have differing jobs to do – and neither should forget that. Not all PR people are power-crazed Alastair Campbells – nor are all journalists Andy Coulsons…………

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The power of PR

English: A Syrian soldier aims an AK-47 assaul...

The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.

But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.

This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:

Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.

If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.


September 18, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The wages of spin

Houses of Parliament 1 db

When I tell people I work in PR I tend to be put in one of two groups – either seen as a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle or as a slick spinmeister changing government policy. Obviously I do neither of these – for a start I wouldn’t recognise most celebrities and my influence on government is limited to voting at elections. There’s no way I could compete with the likes of Malcolm Tucker when it comes to either Machiavellian behaviour or inventive swearing.

But government spin is currently back in the news, thanks to the involvement of lobbyist Lynton Crosby with Tory election strategy. At the same Crosby’s company works with tobacco firms and fingers have been pointed at the postponement of the switch to plain cigarette packets since he joined David Cameron’s team. Both sides deny any wrongdoing, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt (remember his denials over Murdoch?) saying that he has not been lobbied by Crosby.

At the same time parliament is discussing a new lobbying bill that aims to create a register of third party lobbyists and compel them to publish a full list of their clients. This seems a little delayed given that David Cameron suggested in the run up to the last election that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.

I’ve got nothing against lobbying per se. If government is making critical decisions of national importance it is vital that they have as much information as possible and specialist experience and knowledge is vital to deliver this. Equally, constituents need to be able to raise their concerns with their local MP, whether they are businesses or individuals.

Where it gets complex and unclear is when things are not open and transparent. For example, MPs that are engaged in consultancy work for shadowy organisations and then introduce helpful amendments to bills that benefit these clients or lobbyists that have dual roles as special advisers at the same time as representing specific business interests.

This isn’t just about PR or spin, but I think we need draconian change in three areas:

  • Not just a register of lobbyists but a blanket ban on advisers working for government and companies at the same time.
  • Given their well above inflation pay rise, MPs should be banned from taking on paid consultancy work with any organisations.
  • There should be a register of lobbyists and their clients, and this needs to be comprehensive and detailed. It needs to be clear who the ultimate beneficiary is of any lobbying, so companies can’t hide behind shell organisations and the length of time and budget involved should be published.

As a PR person who focuses on technology and start-ups I’m tired of being tarred with the same brush as parliamentary spin doctors who probably earn ten times my salary. And this isn’t sour grapes, more that if PR is going to be seen as a vital part of (above board) business, it needs to clear up its act in all areas. Time for trade body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to do some lobbying of its own to benefit the entire industry – unless we want to be pigeonholed as Malcolm Tuckers or Matthew Freuds for the foreseeable future.

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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