In today’s climate, it isn’t easy being a mainstream politician. At a time when populists are gaining ground across the world, from Spain and France to the White House, the danger is that traditional parties are seen as out of touch and unreflective of popular opinion. In the UK, the memory of the parliamentary expenses scandal, where one MP claimed for a duck house for his country estate and for having his moat cleaned, are still fresh in many people’s minds.No wonder that politicians think they should get themselves involved in low level debates that burnish their populist credentials. Witness David Cameron claiming to love Cornish pasties – but then being caught out when quizzed on when and where he last bought one.
Now Theresa May has got herself involved in the furore over Cadbury and the National Trust dropping the word ‘Easter’ from the title of their chocolate egg hunts. What were previously called ‘Easter Egg Trails’ at 300 National Trust properties are now being referred to as ‘Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt’. Interviewed by ITV News while on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, she described the omission as “absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know what they are thinking about frankly.”
Personally what I think is ‘absolutely ridiculous’ is the current Prime Minister, who is dealing with Brexit, the biggest change in the country’s position in the world since World War II, spending her time criticising how organisations market themselves and their products. Clearly, someone in Cadbury’s marketing department has had the bright idea of trying to link to either the mood of nationalism or more likely, the Great British Bake-off, and removed the word ‘Easter’ to make space in the title. Easter is mentioned plenty of times elsewhere in promotional material for the events, so they felt that they had all their bases covered.
However, this does demonstrate the potential dangers to brands and their marketing campaigns. Thanks to social media we seem to live in a particularly touchy time, with people quick to jump to conclusions and complain, with issues snowballing as more and more people Like or Retweet them. It then becomes a story that politicians feel they have to become involved in. So what can brands do?
1 Check everything
Marketers need to balance new ideas and being creative with an eye on potential repercussions. The danger is that you worry so much about the tiniest chance of offending someone that you become too scared to actually do anything. So strike a balance – run new ideas past your wider team and test them with your target audiences before going ahead. At least that way you’ll pick up major issues before launching a campaign.
2 Be prepared
As I’ve said in previous blogs, the risk of a reputational crisis is there for every brand. Things go wrong in even the best run company due to the speed and complexity of business today. So make sure you have a crisis plan that is ready to swing into action when necessary. But don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut – adopt a proportional response to an issue, rather than rushing your CEO onto the Today Programme at the merest hint of trouble.
3 Be engaged and keep listening
The best way to avoid lasting damage to your brand is for it to be strong in the first place. If you don’t have a good reputation people are likely to be harsher critics when there are issues. Witness TalkTalk’s drubbing when it suffered a cyber attack – it was already seen as a company that was not particularly customer-centric, so had no real brand capital to fall back on. Cadbury is in a similar, but slightly stronger position – since it was bought by US multinational Kraft Foods and then spun off into the Mondelez confectionery conglomerate, it has been seen as ‘not really British’. Therefore it is not given the benefit of the doubt when a story like this comes up.
Personally, I think the whole Cadbury story is a storm in an Easter egg cup that will blow over and won’t either damage the brand or the number of people who turn out for the egg hunts over the holiday period. However, its prominence, and the involvement of politicians, shows that marketers need to be prepared for even the most innocuous activity to turn into a crisis overnight.
We’re now living in a world where fewer and fewer of us watch TV live, preferring to use catch up services or clips on YouTube to get our fix after the event. Hence TV companies increasing focus on event-based shows that you have to experience live if you want to be part of the conversation. Whether it is the half time show at the Superbowl, or the climax of the Great British Bake Off, broadcasters are looking for ways to make us tune in.
Which brings us neatly to this year’s Oscars ceremony. Let’s face it awards shows are never riveting viewing, with the only interest normally being whether (a) someone gives a really terrible speech or (b) to judge the sartorial elegance (or otherwise) of the dresses on show. No wonder that the 2017 Oscars had the lowest ratings for a long time.
Therefore the fiasco which saw the Oscar for Best Picture initially given to the wrong film is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise for the event. The organisers get to blame PwC for giving out the wrong envelope to presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, while knowing that the issue will keep the show in the public consciousness for much longer than previous editions. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate PR ploy, but it bet it means that next year more people will tune in, secretly hoping that something goes wrong again. But, in an age of shortening attention spans, I think there’s a lot more that the Oscars (and any other awards ceremony) could be doing to keep viewers glued to their screens:
Rather than just getting two candidates for best picture mixed up, organisers need to get a lot more random. Add in a few leftfield choices or even get the auditors from PwC to offer presenters a choice of envelopes with different winning names in them. It’ll certainly make the whole process more entertaining when the Best Actor award goes to Danny Dyer for his performances in EastEnders, even if he wasn’t on the shortlist.
2. Best dressed
As I said a lot of the time people watch award shows for what the stars are wearing, and this (primarily) means women in dresses, given that men tend to stick with a suit/dinner jacket and bow tie. So reward the best (and worst) dressed by running a quick poll on Twitter or Facebook and then announcing the results during the ceremony. It is sure to be hotly contested – and might even see male stars become more adventurous in what they wear.
The best ever award ceremony moment was undoubtedly the year at the Brits when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage when Michael Jackson was singing, was then arrested and was sprung from the cells by ex-solicitor Bob Mortimer. At least that’s how I remember it. So use some common sense when deciding the seating plan – two actors that hate each other’s guts and get chippy when they’ve had a skinful? Pop them on adjoining tables and start a rumour that one called the other a lightweight. Perfect entertainment for the watching masses.
4. Gunge tanks for speeches
The sheer excitement of winning an award often goes to a star’s head and they then drone on for hours thanking everyone they ever met, and going through their entire life story. At one ceremony Tom Hiddleston even brought in doctors working in South Sudan. Politely telling people to finish is obviously not enough, so organisers should take a leaf from children’s TV. Install a gunge tank above the stage, and put a hyperactive 10 year old on the controls. It’ll certainly shorten the speeches and keep people focused.
I’m sure there are many more ways of spicing up award ceremonies and increasing the interest of the general public – let me know your suggestions below.
photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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 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.
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…………..