Category Archives: Media Relations

What the papers don’t say

Despite plummeting sales figures, newspapers remain an important part of any PR campaign. It is not just because newspaper titles exist online, as well as in conventional hard-copy as bought in newsagents or from news-stands. It is because they are staffed by a range of journalists, specialists and commentators who are opinion formers beyond their immediate readerships.

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Many are often called upon to appear as guests on daily ‘newspaper preview’ slots on channels such Sky News and the BBC News Channel as the papers hit the streets the night before publication date, from around 10.30am. This raises one of the other important reasons why newspapers remain important to PR campaigns, and in society more generally – their power of agenda-setting.

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The content of these paper previews fills a good chunk of the airwaves on the TV and Radio at the end of each day. The content of the papers themselves frame much discussion in news programmes during the day, and provides source copy for plenty of other presenters to refer to, whether on phone-ins, DJ chat, or inspiration for booking guests.

Anne Diamond

Anne Diamond

It’s no wonder that if you catch these preview slots on a regular basis, the lack of diversity of the faces and voices filling the sofas/seats becomes a real concern. Viewers and listeners get used to the same names. Too many of them are names that too many aged under 40 would never have heard of because they are merely names from the 1980s being give profile resuscitation.

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Where are the voices from the regions and nations on an on-going basis, outside of the Independence debate, for example? Where are the young? The old? Ethnic minorities, the disabled and the unemployed?  Fresh thinking, established thinking.  Voices from the regional press, and voices from the bloggersphere?  People from inspired campaigns, like Long Live SouthBank for example, who might have a unique take on the news?

Financial commentator Louise Cooper

Financial commentator Louise Cooper

Unless you have been to one of the more rarefied schools, you are unlikely to have shared a classroom with a pundit on one of these shows. They share a similar lack of diversity as our politics. I’m lucky enough to have been to a comprehensive with one  of the exceptions – financial commentator, and opinion leader, Louise Cooper.  More voices please – more imagination in booking guests.

One other  problem which raises a bigger ethical dilemma is the number of senior PR practitioners appearing on these slots. Journalists are one thing. There is a reason they should be appearing on these slots, providing insights into how stories develop, and profferring the very opinions they are employed to write.

George Pascoe Watson, Portland Communications

George Pascoe Watson, Portland Communications – star PR turn.

Having PRs on such slots could provide a conflict of interest, as the audience cannot be expected to know who their clients are, and whether they might be representing them in what they say in the discussion. They could also be using their access to such a slot to secure new clients in the future.

Phil Hall, founder, Phil Hall Associates

Phil Hall, founder, Phil Hall Associates – star PR turn

I’ve even watched one such PR refer disparagingly to a PR in such a slot as “a mere PR man” as if he was excused, unlike myself, from being a member of such esteemed company.

Much better to have a wider range of voices from across the journalist world and beyond amongst the wider audience, than rely on “the usual suspects”, whether PRs or not – and only call upon PRs when there is a direct relevance to their insight being called upon as part of the news agenda, or in a specialist edition of such a review.

For all their faults, I still switch on as often as I can to get a quick fix of the news agenda – whether it’s the previews on Sky News, or BBC News Channel on the TV, or BBC Five Live, or LBC on the radio.  Since it is more realistic than them listening to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, it’s also one of the first things I recommend my new students do too!

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Bad smell

The recent campaign by Andrex has left me a little bemused.

I don’t think I can be accused of being a prude.  And as the theme of this blog will testify, it has not been unknown for me to have an unnatural interest in toilet health.

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This campaign appears to think it is extremely clever.  It toys with one of those last areas of taboo in modern life that has otherwise been turned over to exhibitionism.  By attempting to generate a debate on how, not to put too fine a point on it, we ‘wipe our backsides’ it goes somewhere that we just do not want to go in public.

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Andrex wants to know how you wipe your bum

Conventional marketing communications theory would say, “brilliant!”  The implication is that the shock value of seeing people talking about how they wipe their bum will grab our attention, watch the advert, and buy the toilet roll.  And by engaging us in social media, by asking us to choose whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘, it deepens our relationship with the brand.

For some time, I’ve reflected on whether advertisers may be forced to abandon the traditional ‘message effect’ of the persuasion tools of humour, guilt and fear, in favour of the more physiologically grounded effect of disgust, whether moral or physical.  In an increasingly noisy environment, such effects are less easy to avoid than the traditional ones more grounded in psychology.  I’ve had Kelly, D (2011) by my bedside, but never seem to get the guts to read it.  Maybe the Andrex campaign is the excuse I need.

Apologies for the imagery (Andrex planted it there), but am I the only one for whom this argument leaves ‘skidmarks’?  If they needed to grab your attention, I could understand, but they don’t.  As a loyal Andrex customer, I’m left bemused, and feeling as if I should switch to another brand.

If the campaign had been run with a PR element to it, I would have been much more sympathetic to it.  Do we really believe Andrex ‘give a shit’ whether we ‘fold‘ or ‘scrunch‘?  If they did, and it was a genuine conversation, perhaps it would work.

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

A genuine cause, rather than just getting the tills ringing

Maybe if the effort had been linked to something more substantial, such as an awareness raising campaign in conjunction with Beating Bowel Cancer, or another charitable campaign on sanitation, I would have been a lot more sympathetic to it.  There could have been much more active media relations and social media activity on the basis of this charitable ‘CSR’, and what is often called the ‘managed controversy’ discussed earlier that would help secure column inches, as well as people talking, for the right reasons.  There are links to charities on the Andrex website, but nothing above and beyond their usual work, and nothing tied in with this campaign.

Instead, I’m left feeling like this is a cheap stunt on Andrex’s part, and as such, it leaves me with a bad smell.  Here endeth the toilet humour.

Kelly, Daniel (2011) “Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust”, Massachusetts: MIT Press

PR does the hustle using new and old media

I most definitely bend both ways when it comes to using ‘old’ and ‘new’ media – ensuring the integration of both in a campaign.

Each have a role to play, but ‘old’ is too easily given the ‘heave-ho’ in the rush to embrace new technology.  The best example I can signpost here are new music releases – giving me an excuse to plug the ‘Music’ tab on the top right hand side of this blog.

Take this track ‘Hustle’, by the band Tunng.  The band have a social media presence – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, You Tube and the like – but I have never had cause to stumble across them, despite them having been around for a bit.

It was due to them coming to the attention (no doubt through some nimble PR) of Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie on BBC Radio 2, who then proceeded to play the track to the millions listening to their radio show, and to champion it from then on.  Magazines could have played a similar role, but radio is in a stronger position when it comes to music.

I fell in love with it immediately – the power of third party endorser no doubt helping, a trusted guide helping the track (and the artist) stand out above the noise.  That, together with the mass audience, which could then be used to take traffic to various online sites to find out more about the track brought others, like me to the track I’m sure.

The story does not end there. ‘New’ media picks up the baton from ‘old’ as someone who has discovered the track, like me, is able to share their new found love, by blogging about the track, ‘tweeting’ links to the video, and – well, you get the picture.  As word spreads, ‘old’ media jumps back on the bandwagon to report the successful phenomenon – interviews with the artist and reviews of the track in more mainstream newspapers, magazines, tv, radio and online – justified by the social media activity the PR can point to when pitching in, sometimes even providing a story to back it up.

All aspects of the campaign need to integrated and planned with precision.  In effect, there is no ‘old’ and their is no ‘new’ – just many more different forms of media than there used to be.

The ‘Music’ tab is where I post, for the most part ‘new’ music that I have usually had the pleasure of being signposted by the likes of Mark Radcliffe, Stuart Maconie, Janice Long, Steve Lamacq, Trevor Nelson, Gilles Peterson, Kissy Sell Out, Huw Stephens – and even the odd older rare find showcased by Jarvis Cocker on his BBC 6 Music show.  I’m sure most of you will not share my taste, but I hope that it at least explains what it is for, and its relevance to PR.  I remain a luddite when it comes to my passion for the medium for radio, as it comes closest to sharing many of the social, interactive, instant and communal aspects of new media. But that’s a post for another time.

The return of Jamelia – but have you ‘Paid & Displayed’?

Two of the most effective PR techniques, yet the most often shoddily implemented are internal communications, and the example highlighted here by the Solicitor General Vera Baird (below), consultation.

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The Home Office today launched a consultation on how best to end violence against women and girls (this is the link to the press release).  Many might argue that it should already know how it wants to tackle the problem, and to announce a consultation, followed by the obligatory few months writing up of the findings will inevitably force the issue into the long grass of a General Election campaign, and lose much needed changes to the law for another few years.

Not my view, but the view of Sandra Horley, Chief Executive of Refuge, the domestic violence organisation.  Those views were bravely and forcibly expressed in the forum of a consultation ’roundtable’ set up by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to launch the Government’s grand consultation.  Sat around the table of the Cinnamon Club (just a few hundred yards from the Home Office) were Solicitor General Vera Baird, various other ministers, assembled representatives of human rights and domestic violence campaigning organisations such as Amnesty and Gingerbread, plus the inevitable celebrity endorsers, ‘model’ Danielle Lloyd and ‘Big Brother’ psychologist Linda Papadopalous.

Of yes, and hordes of invited journalists, photographers and camera-people, for whom the event had arguably been staged, to create a media event to support the launch of the ‘policy’.

Rather than allowing the moment to pass, Sandra Horley has the ‘audacity’ (as the representatives of Government clearly feel it is) to tell the Home Secretary what she thinks of the proposal.  As chief executive of an organisation involved in this area of work for some time, she obviously feels passionate about the topic, and if the consultation were being conducted genuinely to collect views, find solutions and engage with opponents rather than just as a media opportunity, her contribution would be welcomed warmly.

I could not believe my ears while watching on Channel 4 News (watch the clip via the link here) as the Solicitor General, Vera Baird MP can be heard intervening (1min 2seconds into the attached clip) to say, “We’re getting into the sort of green custard situation aren’t we, where you throw a few phrases out and cause trouble.”

Jacqui Smith dismisses the campaigner’s intervention, claiming it is ill-informed.  It is about reports of Government support for a register of domestic abusers, something that Horley clearly thinks is potty, but that Smith is denying is Government policy.  It may not appear in the consultation paper, but in order to trail the launch on Monday 9th, stories were briefed in to appear on Sunday 8th (conveniently, International Women’s Day) which somehow reported that very policy (see Sunday Mirror, The Observer and reports on Sunday on the BBC website).

daniellelloyd1jamelia2The Daily Mail (link here) also capture the full atmosphere of the exchange, made all the more bizarre by the inclusion in proceedings of those celebrity endorsers.  It wasn’t just Danielle Lloyd (side left) but my old favourite celebrity endorser Jamelia (side right – and not to be confused with the former co-host of BBC Coventry & Warwickshire’s Breakfast Show of the same name), Zoe Wannamaker, Beverley Knight (incorrectly spelt in the press release) and Roxanne Pallett (Jo Sugden from Emmerdale to you and me) who are included as celebrity endorsers in the accompanying press release – along with the British Parking Association(?).  It all feels like a case of ‘Pay and Display‘ to me rather than deep and genuine consultation – but then, genuine consultation is a rare and beautiful thing.  The whole initiative has such great potential, and all the right ingredients for a successful campaign are there, but ……..

Perhaps I am wrong, and the whole thing was deliberately staged as a case of ‘managed controversy’, to ensure that the launch made it onto the news bulletins that evening.  If so, it paid off.  And if so, Jamelia’s odds-on to get her job back as co-host on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire’s Breakfast Show.

Morning team!

I’m off and running with my first post in the ‘Ditch’, or on the blog.

In the spirit of two-way symmetrical communication (more light on that concept, so crucial to theoretically ‘excellent’ PR’ in a future post), I will admit that the bulk of the idea for this first post was already used over the festive break, as inspiration for encouraging undergraduate PR students at LCC to use the ‘delicious’ social media tool.

Media interviews can prove a treacherous channel - but not for Chanel

It concerns Radio 4’s Today programme, and the rare interview with the creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, secured by guest editor and world renowned architect Zaha Hadid. It was fascinating on so many levels, but probably because on a literal level, it broke so many rules of media relations. On so many others – whether it be the idea of storytelling, source credibility, candidness, and because of its exclusivity, it doesn’t seem to matter that it breaks those rules.

The interviewer – Evan Davies – arguably became so fawning, he allowed Lagerfeld to get away with almost anything, and I think any of us would probably have been charmed into similar submission, despite many controversial issues – size zero and fur, for example – not necessarily being answered in full.

Fascinating stuff – the interview clip should still be available on the link page.  

Source credibility is an issue I want to return to early on when blogging.  I’m fascinated by how political parties seem to feel they need to seize on an ‘identikit’ of what makes for an effective communicator, without reflecting on the complex issues that go towards creating source credibility.  Anyone who knows me knows I can’t stop celebrating the communication skills of little known Labour MP Malcolm Wicks.  I discovered over Christmas that Wicks had been quietly ‘stood’ down from the Government team towards the end of last year.  He doesn’t fit the identikit (he’s older, and rounder), but some of the techniques he uses (and he probably doesn’t even know it) are fantastic. 

On many occasions (on both pensions policy, and on nuclear energy), I found myself being persuaded to suspend my objection to a policy position, purely because it was Malcolm Wicks being interviewed.  John Hutton, his then boss as Secretary of State could not have had the same effect.  Persuasion/Influence in action.

The fact that Wicks was able to operate like this in an area of government policy as controversial as nuclear power, for example, suggests some pretty subtle, yet effective operating skills.  He gives across the impression with interviewers of being two way and symmetrical in his approach to his encounter with them, whereas you can’t say that with most other politicians, whose sole intention appears to be to repeat the same line as many times as possible.  

‘Hard pressed families’.  ‘We’re doing everything we can’.  ‘They are the do nothing party’.  It’s important to repeat your message, to ensure you get it across, but to repeat a meaningless phrase 18 times in the same interview does nothing other than alienate the audience.

Wicks’ approach, where he appeared to put all his cards on the table at the beginning of an interview, and treat the problem for discussion as a shared problem for the interviewer and himself to solve immediately took the sting out of any encounter.  The interjection of a casual, ‘Yeah?’ as he went along also meant that the interviewer was gently brought along with him, as to reply, ‘well actually, no’ would have appeared altogether too rude at that stage.  By the time the interviewer might have wanted to interject, they were too far down the road of having already agreed with the scenario that Wicks had been setting out.  Sheer genius.  

This is what I want the Ditch to do – but to attach these reflections on professional PR practice to academic theory – and it is to this that I plan to return next.

Thank you for joining me for my first post.