Revolutionary Measures

Why leaving social media is bad for JD Wetherspoon

Received marketing, and indeed business, wisdom is that the future is digital. And that has lead to brands stampeding onto social media and devoting increasing amounts of time and money to engaging with their audiences there.

So the news that pub chain JD Wetherspoon is quitting Twitter, Facebook and Instagram seems to fly in the face of good marketing practice. Chairman Tim Martin has been vague on the reasons why it is leaving, citing the amount of time it is taking (as well as head office, its 900 pubs all have their own accounts), the addictive nature of social media, misuse of personal data and the trolling of MPs and public figures on social media.

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But reading between the lines it is more about a lack of engagement and impact from its strategy. It has 44,000 followers on Twitter, over 100,000 on Facebook and more than 6,000 on Instagram – a relatively low number for such an enormous, UK-wide organisation. It hadn’t been that active – the announcement that it was leaving Twitter was its first message in April for example, and most Facebook content was just reposted from Twitter.

However, not doing something well and not doing it at all are two separate things and I believe that the main reason that Wetherspoon’s is stopping social media is that isn’t really embracing the power of the platforms. It is true that most consumers are unlikely to be avid followers of their local branch of a chain pub – after all you’d not interact that much with your local supermarket, but they’ve not used it to create a buzz about local events or what they are doing. Therefore, it is logical to stop, rather than just going through the motions – and reap the news headlines and profile that the decision creates.

However, done well social media can deliver big results – even for 100% offline businesses like Wetherspoons. Here are three of the biggest:

1. Create a community
Why do people go to pubs? It is all about socialising, meeting people and enjoying yourself. After all, if you just want to drink it is cheaper to do it at home. Successful local pubs are all about creating a community – it doesn’t have to be on the level of Cheers, where ‘everybody knows your name’, but it is about interacting. Social media does the same thing in the online world – so not being present means you are not nurturing your punters when they aren’t in the pub.

2. Keep the influencers informed
Wetherspoon says that news will still be available via its website, but in today’s environment most journalists and influencers get their news through social media. They raise questions and start debates, and Wetherspoon won’t be there to take part in them. No doubt its PR people will be there lurking, but that is not the same – and failing to have an active account doesn’t look good to those journos who live their lives on social media.

3. People don’t want to change channel for customer service
Consumers want to interact with a brand on the channel that is most convenient to them at that time. And that is quite often social media – they don’t want to switch to calling or emailing customer services, as Wetherspoon now recommends they do. So therefore complaints will go unanswered, visible only to other consumers, without Wetherspoon getting involved. This impacts brand reputation, particularly of individual pubs, and further damages engagement.

I don’t know how much time and money Wetherspoon was spending on social media, and it could well be that it isn’t getting the return it is looking for. But shooting the messenger, rather than changing the message isn’t a long term strategy to compete – as Wetherspoon may well find to its cost.

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April 18, 2018 Posted by | Social Media, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going direct – and the impact on marketing

The rise of the internet was meant to usher in a new, more direct way of communicating, including the removal of middlemen. We’d buy goods and services directly from their producers, rather than having to go through shops or brokers, cutting costs for consumers and opening up new opportunities for companies. It would be the end of the package holiday, the supermarket and the insurance broker, amongst other business types.

It is fair to say that things haven’t worked like that. While small companies can sell direct on the internet, the majority of goods and services are still bought from middlemen who bring products together, allowing consumers to compare them in a single place and then make their choice. Think of Amazon, ebay or insurance comparison sites, which are essentially old-style brokers with an updated business model.

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Why has this happened? Partly because people find it difficult to cope with too much choice – there is always the worry that you’ve made the wrong decision and also because these companies have ensured it is as easy as possible to buy from them. Amazon has one-click ordering, buttons to press that automatically send new stocks of household essentials, and voice ordering via Alexa.

However, this model is changing, at least in part, due to the rise of Direct to Consumer (D2C) brands. Companies like Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and a plethora of mattress start-ups are all selling via the internet without any middlemen involved. They often use a subscription model – i.e. you get a delivery of shaving products, beer or food kits on a regular basis, backed up by generous introductory discounts and strong guarantees of quality (if you don’t like the mattress we’ll come and collect it and give you a full refund). They may be relatively small in the UK at present, but they tend to target younger, more affluent consumers and are therefore likely to continue to grow and spread.

These brands are also having an impact on marketing, particularly as many are start-ups that need to establish themselves before similar rivals appear.

1.Name recognition is all
It could just be that I’m their target demographic, but I see adverts for D2C shaving brands such as Harry’s everywhere I go online, in the podcasts I listen to and offline in the press. You need to create and sustain strong name recognition if you are to succeed – given the number of challengers in particular markets it is a question of first mover advantage. This impacts traditional brands, whether that is the likes of Gillette, Tesco or Amazon – they need to respond if they are to keep customers loyal.

2. Marketing is constant
Subscriptions do give some security when it consumer retention, particularly as there is an inertia effect when people don’t get round to cancelling them – look at the number of people who failed to cancel their free Amazon Prime trial before it started charging them. However, consumers, particularly of D2C brands, are savvy and are likely to be constantly checking that they are getting a good deal. So customer marketing has to be tailored, personalised and constant if you are to stay front of mind and engage with your existing consumers.

3. You need a story
You can’t create a D2C brand by just moving your product online or to a subscription model. Not only would that be likely to cannibalise existing revenues, but it wouldn’t generate the appeal of an exciting, new, internet-first brand. People want to get more than a product – they want the story behind it. That means highlighting your credentials, why you are different and what sets you apart. This could be that you buy the finest Japanese steel for your razor blades or donate mattresses to charity – whatever it is, it needs to be clear, differentiated and appealing to your target audience.

4. You need to build a tribe
Business guru Seth Godin pointed out the opportunities that the internet provides to build your own tribe – a group of people that follow your brand, understand what makes you different, act as ambassadors and ultimately buy from you. The most successful Kickstarter campaigns are those where someone with an existing following launches a product. Podcasts that spawn books or tours are another example. Essentially your tribe feels a personal connection to you, believes in your ethos and will both sign up for your new offering and spread the word to others. Building a tribe takes time, but creates a lasting customer base for your brand and all of its products.

None of these marketing tactics are new – and importantly none of them are out of the reach of traditional brands. If you want to protect your products against the rise of the D2C brand you need to look at how they are operating, what you can learn from them and how you can improve your marketing and engagement with customers and prospects.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three ways PR can take a big step forward in 2018

For those of us working in marketing, and in particular PR, the advent of digital and social media should be creating a golden age for us. Why? Because of the ability (finally) to measure our work in a more forensic way and to link it more directly to business outcomes, thus showing the value we deliver. Whereas in the print-based past you had no direct way of measuring whether your piece of coverage led to sales, now you should be able to measure click throughs to your website or other actions taken after someone read an article generated by your efforts.Measurement_unit

What is more, the very skills that PRs possess, such as the ability to write persuasive copy targeted at specific audiences, are exactly what businesses are looking for in an era of content marketing.

However, I think three factors are holding back PR as a profession from taking a bigger slice of the marketing pie:

1.Faking it is easy
As the saying goes, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” And digital gives you the ability to measure data like never before. You can see views of an article, visits to a website, clicks on an advert, RTs or a rise in social media followers. However, as high profile cases in the advertising world have shown, it is relatively easy to game the system. In a recent blog, Stephen Waddington showed how simple it was to set up a Twitter account and buy 10,000 followers, for just $25. At a first look, his account (and its success) was plausible – and would have been even more so if he’d aimed to make his fake more believable. As CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra, points out, “It is precisely the things which are most fakeable that are most measurable. The cult of measurement is powering the tidal wave of fake.”

Clearly, this is not a problem that solely affects PRs, and I’m not suggesting that practitioners are deliberately engaging in full scale fraud. But simply measuring metrics such as the number of followers opens us up to accusations that we’re simply transferring the same mindset that measured the size of a cuttings book, to the online world.

2. Measurement needs to be more detailed
This brings me onto the second challenge. PR people need to go beyond measuring outputs to measuring real outcomes. And that means getting really involved in a business and investing time in measuring what matters. What is the overall objective and how can you create a PR metric to support it? It does mean more work, and potentially learning new skills, but at its heart it is about asking questions of your client/organisation – something that PR people should be good at.

3. PR isn’t a silo
In the past ongoing PR was often run separately from the rest of marketing. Obviously, there would be involvement in big events, such as a product launch, but the focus was on communicating with the press. But public relations can (and should) be a lot more – meaning that PR teams need to think in a more integrated way. How are you going to your message out in multiple ways to reach the right audiences? That means going beyond the press release to embrace social media, emails and slides for sales and other marketing tactics. It is up to PR people to proactively drive this and provide a complete portfolio of content if they are to be seen as central to the business, rather than peripheral figures. And if PR doesn’t act, other marketing disciplines such as advertising and SEO will move in and take responsibility and budget.

We’re already half way through January, so it’s a bit late for New Year’s resolutions. However, PR practitioners should take stock and rethink how they operate, making 2018 the year they step up and earn the respect and budgets that their role and successes deserve.

January 17, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad tech – the PR battle tech companies face

One of the major legacies of the financial crisis was that trust in banks, and indeed the overall financial services industry, took a pounding. The combination of bad behaviour, misselling of products such as PPI, poor customer service and a culture that was perceived as elitist and uncaring all made them public enemy number one. The old stereotype of the bank manager as a respected, upstanding member of the community was consigned to history.

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Artificial Intelligence Programming Robot Ai Ki

In many ways industry reputations are cyclical – before banks, it was probably media organisations (think phone hacking) that were most despised, followed by Big Oil. What is interesting is that I’m seeing a new contender for ‘most hated’ coming up on the rails – tech.

Much of this is down to the huge power technology companies now have over our daily lives. We spend huge amounts of time on our smartphones, on social media, and interacting with technology to get things done. And human nature means that people are quick to forget how things used to be pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, taking the advantages for granted and complaining about what they don’t like.

However, for every story celebrating the progress technology is enabling, I’m seeing at least two arguing that tech companies have too much power, and are not receiving sufficient oversight. In many cases this is true – there is no way of justifying the fact sites such as YouTube, Google and Facebook are earning money on the back of terrorist content or fake news, and at the very least maximising their tax efficiency. But the current mood seems very focused on the negative side of progress and on the harm that it is (potentially) doing, from AI taking our jobs, to websites tracking our every move, and automated checkouts that intimidate the elderly.

At the other end of the spectrum, today’s Budget will see the Chancellor promise that the UK will lead the world in introducing self-driving cars, following a week of announcements around extra funding for technology R&D across the UK. Reading different stories you’d rightly be confused whether the robots are coming to get us Terminator-style or are going to usher in an idyllic life of leisure?

What I think this does is show a need for PR people working in technology (including myself) to take a look at how they communicate and market their companies and clients. It is time to focus on what the benefits are for both consumers and businesses and to honestly address any downsides. That means looking beyond the headline in order to put things into context, and to work with government and charities to solve any unforeseen consequences, be they cyberbullying or unemployment.

Essentially it goes back to being model citizens, and, like previous generations of capitalists (think Victorian families such as the Cadburys and Rowntrees or American philanthropists such as Carnegie), realising that they are responsible for the actions of their products and services. As well as being a genuinely positive thing to do, it ultimately supports society as a whole, including the people that buy from them, making it something that should appeal to their hearts and their heads.

Technology needs to communicate a more open and responsible stance in how it operates if it wants to take the wider population with it towards ever greater innovation.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Moz the Monster tells about the changing media landscape

By now pretty much everyone will have seen the latest John Lewis Christmas ad, starring a loveable monster that lives under a young boy’s bed. Without giving away any plot details to the few that haven’t watched it, it all ends happily thanks to a thoughtfully chosen gift.

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Over the past few years Christmas adverts have become a fixture of the festive season, with the media (and public) eagerly awaiting the offerings from the likes of John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer. All sides seem to be involved in a creative arms race, with ever-more sophisticated production values and talent involved – Moz cost an alleged £7m and is directed by Oscar-winning director Michel Gondry, while M&S has recruited Paddington (and Angela Rippon) to head its Christmas push.

 

What’s most interesting to me is not which is the ‘best’ advert or how much of an impact it has on sales, but what Christmas adverts tell us about the changing media landscape. Not long ago the only way to ensure that these productions were watched would have been to spend millions booking high profile TV slots and hoping that viewers would be there and watching. This has changed – obviously ads are still shown on TV, but a lot of the viewers are online, with people watching them via company websites and YouTube.

That means that PR and social media are now the key channels for driving ad awareness and views. For example, the John Lewis ad was all over the media, from the marketing press to the tabloids. The BBC ran a piece analysing social media responses to Moz and his antics, while other brands aimed to get on the act, running surveys on which was the most popular Christmas advert. M&S even had to deny that the Paddington advert featured swearing (obviously not by its Peruvian star).

I think this is part of a wider, growing trend. Many people either don’t watch TV adverts or they simply don’t register on their consciousness. You might click on an informational ad after an online search or watch a hyped campaign during a major programme or event, such as the World Cup, but we’re now too sophisticated and short of time to discover them for ourselves.

Therefore, you need PR and social media buzz to get people to notice them, which is a complete turn round from the old model of advertising leading the marketing mix. Christmas adverts aren’t the only example of this – TV programmes, films and books are all trailed in the media, rather than relying on ads. PR people should therefore step up and use this trend to justify having a greater say in marketing decision making – and a larger slice of budgets. Communication is vital to business success – even when it comes to monsters under the bed.

November 15, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why good leadership now starts with communication

Throughout history leadership has involved a mixture of power, cunning, communications skills and often a dash of luck. And politically, as humanity has progressed, communication has generally come to outweigh brute force as way of gaining and retaining power – in democracies at least. The aim of politicians has become to influence people, through whatever means and media.icon-1623888_1920 (1)

Every political leader, from Churchill to Trump has their own communication style, but it would be wrong to think that it is just politicians who need to be able to communicate. Everyone in business, particularly CEOs, has to be able to get their message across – and those that succeed in doing so tend to be the ones that move up the ranks and get their pick of top positions.

So how can leaders turn themselves into communicators? While it isn’t an exact science these six areas are a good place to start:

1.Be open and honest
Nothing puts an audience off more than someone who is obviously trying to hide something. So be honest if you or your company has screwed something up – don’t hide behind a ‘no comment’ or a statement, or wait too long to go public. Get the facts out, explain what happened, show genuine contrition and demonstrate why it won’t happen again. At the same time analyse the situation and if there are mitigating circumstances or you believe that you aren’t at fault, explain your position. Don’t feel that you have to apologise for things outside your control – otherwise you’ll potentially be seen as weak and not in control of the situation.

2. Adjust your message
Different audiences have different needs. Talking to national press clearly requires you to use different language than if you are speaking to a trade journal or local paper. Understand your audience (and in the case of the media, the audience they enable you to reach), and tailor what you say. Avoid jargon and stock phrases and build empathy and understanding.

3. Listen first, then respond
I find it incredibly frustrating when listening to the radio to hear the same clichés coming from the mouths of business leaders. Often it feels that they’ve simply memorised a script and are then bulldozing through it, irrespective of the interviewer’s questions. While you should have key messages you want to get across, listen to what you are being asked and respond genuinely, especially if it means putting your script to one side. Remember – people respond to people, not someone reading off an autocue.

4. Create your own style, but learn from others
When it comes to communication people regularly focus on the likes of Churchill, Martin Luther King and JFK as examples to follow. However, slavishly copying how other leaders communicate will lead to you sounding fake, and could hold back getting your message across successfully. So, while you should make a point of studying the style of communicators that you admire, work out what it is that you can apply to your own personality, rather than turning into a clone. And don’t just focus on the famous – look further afield to colleagues or people you’ve met when it comes to communication style and tips.

5. Don’t be afraid to seek help
Not everyone is a natural communicator – and while many people may be good in certain situations (such as addressing a board meeting), they struggle in other scenarios. Like most skills, communications can be learnt, so invest the time in getting training and advice so that you can fill any gaps in your armoury. The first step is recognising the need, and then you can take action.

6. Embrace new channels
Communication is changing – and with more and more people being influenced by social media, ensure that you are equally at home on Twitter and Facebook as in formal speeches or journalist interviews. You only have to look at the success of Donald Trump to see the power that social media wields – make sure you take the time to embrace new channels that help you reach your audiences.

As a marketer I may be biased, but I believe clear communications is ever more important to being a successful leader. So invest the time and effort to continually improve your skills if you want a successful, long term career, whatever sort of organisation that you lead.

November 8, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Machine, Platform, Crowds – what it means for marketing

What does the future of business, and by extension the world around us, look like? A recent book by two experts from MIT points to a radically different model that companies need to embrace if they are to survive.machine

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson focuses on the three emerging trends that are changing how every business operates:

  • Machine – artificial intelligence is replacing the use of the human mind in many areas. While concerns about robots stealing jobs have been raised, this move also brings benefits. Applied correctly, in the right areas, the power of AI far outweighs what the human mind can do, leading to better products and services, better personalised to our needs.
  • Platform – aggregators that own no assets of their own (think Airbnb and Uber), are taking over from those that create products. Essentially they act as gatekeepers, taking a cut of every transaction without physically creating anything themselves.
  • Crowd – ideas and movements now come from the wider crowd, loosely organised, rather than tightly knit internal teams within companies. Wikipedia vs the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the perfect example here.

What does this mean for businesses? Essentially anyone trying to continue as before, or who simply tries to cram these new trends into their existing ways of working is going to fail. The authors give the example of the move from steam to electric power. Those businesses that simply replaced a steam engine with an electric motor quickly found themselves outpaced by those that realised electricity could completely change how a factory operated, enabling innovations such as conveyor belts and assembly lines.

It is also going to mean big changes in marketing, and therefore how marketing agencies (and marketing departments) are structured.

Traditionally agencies have focused on a single marketing discipline – whether it is PR, inbound marketing or SEO. They were built on a pyramid model to maximise efficiency, with lots of junior people doing relatively low value work at the bottom, with strategy coming from higher up. In-house marketing departments were again organised into different disciplines, with many having little cross-over between them.

The trends outlined in the book completely transform this model. Take Machines. You don’t need lots of junior people doing repetitive tasks that can be replaced by automation, and increasingly decisions taken at a middle ranking and senior level will be based on data analysis, rather than gut feel. Whether it is deciding which products to push through online advertising, or which influencers to approach on social media, AI will remove much of the legwork from the process.

Looking at Platforms, that’s where the traditional agency model comes unstuck. Why does a client want to go to multiple different agencies, all with their own specialisms? While the very largest might want the overhead of employing and managing disparate agencies, many more will want to embrace a platform or network model that brings together the skills that are needed, when they are needed, all under the control of one gatekeeper. It won’t matter if people with these skills are contractually employed by that agency or not, it will be more about solving a business problem. The gatekeeper handles the management, quality control and administration, without having the cost of full-time staff.

Finally, the Crowd. Marketing in the past has been top down – company X came up with an idea, developed a product, tried it out on some potential consumers, and if feedback was good, launched it. The whole process took a long time, and there was no real guarantee of success. Marketing now has to be much more of a two way conversation – listening to the crowd and using their insight to inform decisions on everything from product to pricing. The perfect example of this is the recent fidget spinner craze – it came from social media and completely bypassed the marketing machines of the big toy companies, catching them on the hop.

For anyone that thinks I’m being overly pessimistic or that the changes won’t impact them, take a look at other industries. Even 10 years ago electric cars were confined to a tiny niche in the market – and now major economies such as the UK are queuing up to ban petrol and diesel vehicles by the middle of the century. Once industries hit a tipping point, change is extremely rapid. The other point for marketers to note is that brands still need their skills, but at a more strategic level. You need to be agile, knowledgeable and willing to change, but the benefit will be a more interesting and varied role that is at the heart of business success.

October 18, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Copy approval and the threat to the truth

The media today faces constant economic pressure – competition is up, digital has decimated advertising, and people are increasingly reading news via other sources such as Facebook and Twitter. This has had a major impact on revenues and how they operate, including increasing the importance of advertorial, paid-for content within publications or on websites.Clarebalding

It has also strengthened the hand of brands, and celebrities who have money or clout, and are increasingly precious about their image. Witness the HP spokesperson complaining to the Financial Times after a throwaway negative reference to HP CEO Meg Whitman, threatening to pull advertising from the newspaper.

This shift has also led to a rise in attempts to control the message in mainstream media, at a time when social media has taken away control in other areas. Two areas come to mind – interviews and copy approval. When I started in PR, most interviews with trade press were organised, a briefing provided to the spokesperson and they were given the journalist’s number to call. Follow-up ensured that the journalist had everything they wanted, but that was the extent of the control. Since then, even the most straightforward interview with the most trusted interviewer, has to have a PR person present. This is fine if all they are doing is keeping track of what was said, housekeeping and politely reminding the spokesperson if they’ve missed something vital.

The second area, copy approval, is much more insidious, and is in the news this week with a media debate about an interview carried out for Saga Magazine by journalist Ginny Dougary with presenter Clare Balding. Dougary claims that Balding and her agent were given copy approval of the resulting piece, and inserted additional material and quotes within it, prompting her to ask for her name to be removed from the article. Balding insists that the Saga editor herself made the changes and that she did not have copy approval.

Whatever the real story behind what has predictably been dubbed the #SagaSaga, it does bring into the light the whole area of copy approval i.e. the subject of an interview being shown the draft article and being able to make changes to it. I’ve never worked in celebrity PR but I know that many interviews don’t take place without copy approval in place, even if it is just to ensure that the interviewee’s new book/play/cuddly toy/wedding get a mention, while certain areas are declared off-limits to questions.

What is insidious is that granting copy approval by its nature makes the resulting article less independent. Some of the most interesting interviews I’ve read have a tension or awkwardness between the subject and the journalist, which actually adds to the story and your understanding of the person involved. Copy approval means that interviews are more likely to be bland and on-message, controlled by the brand. There is a big difference between sharing an article for fact checking (which journalists I’ve worked with have done before when covering very technical subjects), and copy approval of the whole piece.

As Dougary points out, copy approval undermines independence. If people stop believing that what they read in properly researched, fact checked, mainstream media, then we are accelerating down the road to fake news at alarming speed. This case may be about a celebrity in a consumer magazine, but the principle is the same – the public need to be certain that the stories they see in the press are not controlled by the subject, and are unbiased. Otherwise, it does whittle away at the truth, harming the whole media industry and removing debate at a time when we need it most.

Photo By Keith Page (Claire Balding) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

October 4, 2017 Posted by | PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 lessons for PR from the Bell Pottinger case

PR is again in the news for the wrong reasons, with agency Bell Pottinger in the public eye after running campaigns in South Africa that have stoked racial tension. There’s been plenty of analysis of the case itself, but in this blog I wanted to cover three wider issues it highlights:Bell Pottinger

1. A precarious business model
Essentially a PR agency has three assets – its people, its clients and its reputation. And all of these are very fragile. Except in the case of the most senior staff, employees will be on a maximum of three months notice, while clients are likely to be on a similar notice period. So you can lose your clients and staff extremely quickly, as Bell Pottinger has found with the likes of HSBC, Investec and Richemont leaving since the scandal has emerged. All that PR agencies have is their reputation – with the industry, with staff and with the media. Compromise that and you remove the foundation from the entire business, which is why Bell Pottinger has now had to put itself up for sale. I’d imagine that any buyer will either subsume the bits they want into a larger agency or rebrand quickly to salvage what they can from the wreckage.

2. Never become the story
As the likes of Sean Spicer have found out to their cost, it never pays to become the story yourself. PR people are there to communicate other people’s messages in a way that meets the needs of the audience and the client. It isn’t always easy to do, but you should never be higher profile than the organisation you are working for. In the whole Bell Pottinger case the work of the agency has actually deflected attention from the client itself – a company controlled by the South African Gupta family, and the fact that it signed off on the programme.

3. Be a consultant, not a yes man/woman
Someone within Bell Pottinger signed off on the campaign, despite the fact that using racially charged slogans and hashtags was obviously highly likely to cause offence. The concern is that to keep a lucrative, politically well-connected client, Bell Pottinger in South Africa turned a blind eye to the messages and tactics that were being used. That’s not being a responsible consultant – the whole point of using a PR agency is that they follow particular standards and should have the ability to say no if they disagree with a course of action. Bell Pottinger is not the first (or indeed the last) agency to involve themselves in dubious activities in support of potentially dubious aims, but the high profile nature of their work means they should have better understood the consequences of their actions.

Bell Pottinger employs 250 people, spread around the world and the vast majority have had nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in South Africa. I feel very sorry for them as their personal reputation has been damaged, and many may well lose their jobs if the company is taken over by a rival. But the whole case illustrates the fact that PR agencies need to think carefully about the wider consequences of their work if they want to preserve their reputations, and therefore their survival.

 

September 6, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments