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…………..
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!
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.
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.”
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…………
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:
- Bashar Al Asad has appeared on CBS and PBS in the US, defending his actions and denying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
- Barack Obama appealed to the American people through a series of TV interviews as well as a direct address calling on Congress to support his stance
- Francois Holland sought to elbow Britain from its position as the US’s most trusted ally, hawkishly supporting military action in Syria
- Vladimir Putin put his point of view to the US and world media through a comment piece published in the New York Times, setting out his plan for independent decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons.
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.