Sunday, 6 December 2009

Is your mum one in a million?

I had the great fortune to be the guest of Sarah Brown at Downing Street on Friday night for a Christmas party in aid of the Million Mums campaign by the White Ribbon Alliance of which she is the Global Patron.

Among the attendees were patrons of various other charities, campaigners, political bloggers, people connected with Million Mums, celebrities and a clutch of obsessive twitterers (my category).

Every minute of every day, a woman dies of pregnancy related complications, which makes more than half a million women each year.

The White Ribbon Alliance is an international coalition bound together by a common goal: to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are safe for all women and newborns in every country around the world.

How many times have we written cards to our mothers with the inscription “you’re one in a million, mum.” Consider that, and then reflect for a moment on the loss, every minute of every day, of a mother somewhere in the world.

The idea that so many women die in pregnancy or childbirth TODAY defies comprehension. It is the sort of statistic that you would expect to find in a history book about mediaeval times. Million Mums and White Ribbon Alliance are working hard to assign these levels of unthinkable mortality to history.

The situation is at its worst in the developing world, which accounts for nearly all pregnancy-related deaths, and there the White Ribbon Alliance works to hold governments and institutions to account for the tragedy of maternal mortality.

The Downing Street reception was an affirmation of the vitally important work that the White Ribbon Alliance does every day to improve conditions and reduce risk.

Against such overwhelming statistics it’s easy to think that little can be done by individuals, but the reality is these days that it is the knitting together of small individual actions that makes arguably the biggest difference to movements for change. Think for example of the impact that we will all have to make on climate change by flicking switches, choosing to walk instead of drive, choosing to insulate...

Social networking is now an incredibly potent force in disseminating information about causes, issues, concerns, joys and opportunities. Think back on the year we’ve just had and think about how the sharing and shaping of news and opinion has been influenced by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. News has broken via Twitter, ahead of the largest media organisations in the world. Twitter, especially, with its “without walls” ability to converse with many, has taken issues from obscurity to prominence, sometimes in minutes, and has shone a torch on many of the darker aspects of our world that we might well have been ignorant of.

There isn’t an excuse any more for compassion fatigue or for thinking that there’s nothing we can do. Sharing information can be enough. If you’re unable to help materially but you’re able to pass a message on, then you’re capable of affecting the success of this important global campaign.

Sign up for Million Mums learn more about its work and about the actions that you can help take to make the world a safer place for mothers today and in the future.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Winners, Outstanding Small PR Consultancy of the Year Award for the 2nd year in a row

Great news. At an industry dinner on Friday night we received the Outstanding Small PR Consultancy of the Year Award for the second year in a row. It's a great honour and we've taken the opportunity to update the front page of our website with a slideshow of some of the campaigns that we're proudest of.

It has been a difficult year for British business and we're hopeful that the new year will be better for all of us. As businesses look at their objectives for the year ahead, I'm reminded of an equation that I learned from a wise former colleague: "Perception minus reality equals value." The case for investing in building the perceptions of a brand was never more succinctly expressed.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Good news for broadcasters, business and the PR industry: Government to lift ban on product placement on commercial television

Good news for independent broadcasters, businesses and the advertising and PR industries today: the government is likely to overturn the ban on product placement on television programmes, perhaps as early as this week. The Telegraph reports that the move “could lead to celebrity chefs promoting supermarket products in their cooking programmes and soft drinks manufacturers placing their beverages in television talent shows”.

The news will be welcomed by independent broadcasters who will see a rise in revenues through paid-for product placements in their programmes. It ought also to have a positive impact on the PR industry.

Whilst product placement will almost certainly not be allowed in news or current affairs programming, it is worth noting that under the current regulations editorial staff at commercial news outlets have had a tread a very careful line when covering consumer announcements from retailers, manufacturers and others. In our experience, the existing regulations have created a climate in which news editors and producers have been nervous of being accused of offering back-door product endorsements masquerading as news. This, in our view, has often led to the counter-intuitive spectre of stories of legitimate consumer interest finding a home on the BBC and not on commercial television. The decision ought to lead to a reduced level of editorial nervousness when covering announcements which are of real public interest from commercial organisations.

The expected change in the rules this week will only apply to commercial broadcasters, with the BBC still restricted from promoting products, even in programmes made by independent production companies.

Advertisers, broadcasters and the PR industry have long argued that the rules are unnecessarily draconian and that increasingly sophisticated consumers are unlikely to be swayed by brands that are placed in programmes, however overtly.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Shortlisted for Outstanding Small PR Consultancy 2009 (the second year in a row)

We're delighted to have been shortlisted for the Outstanding Small Consultancy of the Year Award again this year in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations PRIDE Awards. We won the award last year in what was our first year of trading.

The news follows a notable success for us last week with the launch of a new version of "Make Do and Mend" for John Lewis. All 28,000 John Lewis Partners collaborated on the creation of an entirely new version of the famous wartime publication, updated to reflect the needs of 21st century homes. The launch attracted extensive media coverage, including BBC Breakfast, BBC News Channel, the Today Programme, The Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express as well as massive amount of online coverage. We have thoroughly enjoyed working on the project with the John Lewis team.

Here are some other highlights from the year:

1. Creating the Reevoo Customer Choice Awards publishes authentic customer reviews on the web. We proposed a national awards concept based (uniquely) on feedback from genuine owners of products.

We led the announcement on news that a £16.49 Tesco hi-fi had won the customer choice award in the audio category, beating competition from rival products costing several hundred pounds.

This attracted widespread coverage, including page leads in most tabloids and an appearance on BBC Breakfast for Reevoo’s CEO. We followed up with sector-specific announcements and placed an exclusive in News of the World.

The results:
More than 40 million opportunities to see/hear.
Page leads in the Sun, Mirror, Daily Mail and News of the World.
Hundreds of online reports.
Manufacturer announcements generating more coverage.
The Tesco hi-fi sold out immediately, with further stocks on order.

2. Campaigning to reclaim and rename the Hot Cross Bun

For St Albans Cathedral we took on an assignment:

To raise the profile of the Cathedral among tourists
To identify a commercial opportunity for the Cathedral

We discovered that the Cathedral was the source of the modern Hot Cross Bun. The original “Alban Bun” was baked and offered to the poor by Father Thomas Rockliffe, a monk, in 1361. We advised the cathedral to run a campaign to reclaim and rename the Hot Cross Bun. We negotiated a partnership with Sainsbury's to bake the buns for the Cathedral, which would keep the proceeds.

The campaign was covered by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, BBC radio stations, ITV lunchtime news, London Tonight, in regional press and online.

The buns sold out within hours. The Cathedral saw a flood of visitors and both parties are negotiating an agreement on national sales of the bun in 2010.

3. Scoring a PR goal for Screwfix with a tongue-in-cheek lookalike competition

Screwfix sponsor the Masters Football tournament on Sky Sports. Screwfix customers are tradesmen. Our task was to engage them with the sponsorship of the tournament.

We launched a tongue-in-cheek search for tradesmen who look like famous footballers to play in a charity football match at the National Masters Final. We announced the search with photos of early entrants alongside actual footballers for comparison. We filmed the match, along with pre and post-match interviews and uploaded the video to YouTube.

Highlights included full-page coverage in the Metro and the Daily Star and a half-page in the Daily Sport, all strong tradesmen’s papers, and 15 regional radio interviews. Hits to the Screwfix website soared and the story generated a huge volume of entries.

The story generated more than £150,000 of publicity, a return on investment of around 25:1.

Outstanding achievements

There are two areas in particular in which we have exceeded expectations:

1. Attracting a disproportionately large number of national, market leading clients for an agency our size.

2. Generating high impact media coverage. Nine in ten announcements this year achieved national press coverage, up from 8 in ten last year, and 1 in 2 were page leads, up from just over 3 in ten last year. One quarter of announcement received national broadcast coverage.

All in all, it has been a great year, despite the challenging economic environment and we're more confident than ever that our approach is the right one to build on our successes to date.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

When it all goes horribly wrong: six old world rules for handling a dispute with a journalist

These are in fact, the six things that you shouldn’t do online if you find that the business you represent is caught in the midst of a row with a journalist. These apply, in my view, whether or not the journalist is right, wrong or whether there are shades of grey. What I have learned over time is that all disagreements with the media ought to be handled privately until such time as the matter is resolved or until you are clear that there is no resolution. At that point, you can review your options, having gained distance and perspective. There is no place in the rapid-fire worlds of digital media or social networking for anti-social networking.

With very few exceptions, journalists act with integrity and pride. Questioning that pride and integrity publicly is a very bad idea. The media industry and the methods of engagement are changing at an unparalleled rate and a new generation of digital PR professionals is on the rise. There is still much to learn from old-school media relations, though, and I offer this list as a battle-scarred veteran of many skirmishes with the national media on behalf of brands and as someone with a foot in both the old-school and new-school camps.

1. NEVER engage in a public debate with a journalist if you are a brand guardian, especially if you are refuting the legitimacy of their criticisms of your brand. This will not end well.

2. DO NOT see a conversation with a journalist in a public forum as an evenly-matched contest, especially if you are conversing about something you disagree on. At best you will win the battle but lose the war. You’ll be marked down as a trouble-maker – and the only value to a journalist of a trouble maker is the negative news value.

3. Relationships with journalists that have an element of acrimony to them should be developed and improved at all costs, but only IN PRIVATE.

4. Journalists are representatives of media organisations and they are bound by all sorts of processes for fact-checking, due diligence and testing for libel or defamation. THEY DO NOT MAKE NEGATIVE ASSERTIONS LIGHTLY. Think eight times and check with others before you react or respond – and again, when you do so, do it directly and privately.

5. Do not personalise your unhappiness with a journalist or impugn his/her honesty publicly. They will fight back and will MAKE MATTERS CONSIDERABLY WORSE.

6. Bear in mind that if you are mad about what a journalist has said about your brand, your level of crossness is usually directly related to their clout. If you wreck the relationship in public, it is very difficult for either side to find a way back. YOU lose a potentially powerful advocate. THEY simply move on to the next story, having perhaps had another go at your brand to validate their position.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Seducing the twittering classes

Some very interesting analysis from Robin Goad at Hitwise here about the downstream traffic from Twitter versus Google, Facebook and Hotmail. It shows that traffic to retail sites is relatively low from Twitter and that most of it goes to news or entertainment sites.

This fits with Twitter’s pure, raw conversational style. It may be verbally transactional, but it isn’t a shop. Because it is hyper-networking (you can be talking with many at the same time) mood also spreads amazingly quickly. The community is very spam averse, as evidenced by the Habitat story this week (Habitat were said to have attached unrelated hashtags – a way of categorising tweets for easier consumption - to commercially orientated tweets with the sole objective of getting a bigger audience for their message and thereby driving traffic to their site. Instead, Habitat was driven into retreat by a none-too-happy community and the story made the national media.)

There are a few interesting lessons emerging from the Hitwise data and the Habitat experience.

Firstly, overt promotional tactics will never work in the Twitter community. It’s a bit like interrupting pub chats with enforced commercial breaks. It just won’t happen.

What’s as interesting is what this says about how brands and brand advocates work on Twitter. It’s too early to say perhaps, but my feeling is that the only promotional tactic that will work in the Twitter universe is the expression of genuine opinion, and then:

a) only if expressed in a raw and compelling way, and
b) only if Twitter is seen to be a secondary or even tertiary influencing tool rather than something more overt and direct.

If a shop sets up a Twitterfeed, for instance, who is going to want to follow it if the content is just about products on offer, however compelling they are? That’s advertising.

The shop needs to create an unspun voice, offer genuinely interesting content and build a community of advocates over time – and time really is the killer punch. This is no overnight medium. Anyone who believes that Twitter will pay rapid commercial dividends for their business is mistaken. It’s a long haul project, based on nuance, as anyone who is familiar with it will know.

The sensitivity with which Twitter must be handled was brought home to me the other day. I was interested in gauging the reaction to a programme on television that had focused heavily on a brand (a sort of crowd-sourced TV review, if you like). I searched all Twitter for references and looked at them chronologically. During the minutes prior to the programme and immediately after it started there were plenty of tweets pointing to the fact that Twitterer A, B, C, etc was about to sit down and watch, to paraphrase, “an interesting programme about brand x on channel y.” These died off after the first 10 or so minutes of the programme to be replaced by reactions to the programme, which in the main were less than favourable and had some pointedly critical reactions to the brand. The point is that the change in mood was very clear - moving from what looked like the staged tweets of relative automatons to the real views of people watching the programme.

I can’t be certain, but it seemed to me that a highly paid digital media consultancy was probably stacking Twitter with references to the programme in order to promote it. And then the real voices came in. What all this says to me is that the raw and unfiltered world of Twitter will be un-exploitable by brands unless their advocates are truly interested in, and able to express a candid, interesting and engaging view about whatever brand they are advocating. Only the unvarnished truth will stand any chance of applying any gloss to a brand’s bottom line.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Bad taste

Another cautionary tale, this time involving Gordon Ramsay the chef. He was interviewed on one of Australia’s leading current affairs programmes recently and in the days that followed is alleged to have said some unsavoury things about the programme’s presenter.

This video is the prologue to her next programme, during which she took the opportunity to respond to Ramsay’s alleged comments. Her response has attracted the support of the Australian PM.

Whether the furore will turn Ramsay’s trip down under into more of a demotional tour than the promotional one that he had intended remains to be seen. Some argue that notoriety is a pretty efficient way of promoting your product. By any measure, though, his alleged comments appear to have been in particularly poor taste, which, let’s face it, is not a happy brand association for a purveyor of fine food.

So-called celebrity is a dangerous affliction and needs to be managed carefully. When arrogance creeps in, there is a temptation to believe that people will like you “warts and all”. Trouble is, most of us are more discerning than that. We’ll see the warts and skip the main course.

Monday, 8 June 2009

A masterclass in handling a confrontational interview

Here's a textbook example of how to handle a potentially difficult interview. Peter Mandelson performed quite brilliantly on the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday morning. From the outset he was in complete control of the interview, setting the mood and the pace. Andrew Marr is a fine interviewer and the subject matter provided much scope for confrontation, but Mandelson was controlled, precise and unflappable throughout. His use of language is forensic and he does a great job of setting the pace, asserting his right to control the length of his answers and of deflecting those questions that he chooses not to answer. A classic.

The consequences of passivity

Carl Popper's much-paraphrased definition of democracy is "the ability of citizens to get rid of their Government on a whim". I've always struggled with the idea of whim when it comes to important democratic choice, but whim exercised in the ballot box is infinitely preferable to staying away from the electoral process altogether.

I now think the Government ought to add consideration of compulsory voting to the melting pot of electoral reform. The system worked well in Australia where I grew up. The penalty for not voting wasn’t terribly high, but it was sufficient incentive to catalyse strong turnouts.

Voting is a privilege and a responsibility. The outcome this weekend shows the cost of stay-on-the-sofa passivity. If we need any example of the importance to all of us of our right to vote, we need only look at the consequences of this week's inaction. We pay through our taxes for ALL elected politicians.

The exercise of holding a pencil over a ballot sheet is an important and clarifying experience. All of us should at least turn up and weigh the consequences of our decisions, even if some of us choose to spoil our papers.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Rupert Bear – Internet pioneer

I’ve concluded that the inventor of the Internet is not Tim Berners-Lee – it’s Rupert the Bear. Well maybe not, but the format of Rupert books is remarkably modern when held against the structure of the most successful of today’s web pages.

Rupert books can be read on at least three levels – the pictures alone, the pictures captioned with the précis rhymes or the pictures padded out by the “in-depth” narrative in the paragraphs below.

The précis rhymes are a sort of precursor of the hypertext link of today, except that they are arranged as a bridge or heading to the deeper story below. They're also a bit like tweets.

So in the example here, taken from Rupert and the Castaway, firstly we have the picture of Rupert, Captain Barnacle and Jim wandering back across and expanse of beach towards Mrs Bear; secondly we have the hypertext / tweet:

‘“Why look who’s with the Captain there.
It’s my lost son!” cries Mrs Bear.’

- and finally, in the paragraph below the hypertext we have the detail, with Jim having a shave, putting on some of his Uncle’s clothes (innocently) and the three friends actively seeking out Mrs Bear.

It’s a genius construction and it’s difficult to see why there aren’t more books created with this format given that kids are increasingly accustomed to accessing stories and exploring them in this way.

So there you have it: Rupert Bear, Internet pioneer.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Bunfight at the St Albans Tearooms

Every year, Twelve Thirty Eight provides ten days’ senior consultancy support to a worthy cause. This year, we supported St Albans Cathedral, a major cultural landmark, in three inter-related ways:

1. Raising the profile of the Cathedral with potential tourists
2. Identifying a commercial opportunity that could raise significant funds for the Cathedral
3. Supporting the Cathedral’s
key messages

The key task, of course, in any of our work, is to find a story that delivers all the messages. In the course of our research, we discovered that the Cathedral is the source of the modern British Christian tradition of the Hot Cross Bun. The original Alban Bun was baked and offered to the local poor by Father Thomas Rockliffe, a monk, in 1361. It has been baked at the Cathedral at Easter and offered to local visitors ever since.

Story found – what next?

It seemed to us that the bun was a potential money-spinner, with its unique, secret recipe and distinctive mediaeval taste and andadvised the Cathedral to launch a campaign to reclaim and rename the Hot Cross Bun, restoring a connection with Easter with the original Alban Bun। Clergy at the Cathedral were prepared to talk about the disappearance of a connection between the Hot Cross Bun at Easter given that it is now available all year round, including at Christmas.

We approached and negotiated a partnership with Sainsbury’s who agreed to bake the Buns on a more commercial scale for the Cathedral locally. Buns were made available at the Sainsbury’s store in St Albans and via the Cathedral Café on Maundy Thursday, with all proceeds going to the Cathedral.

We announced the campaign and the partnership with Sainsbury’s to national, regional and local press and broadcast media. We made the Cathedral and its surroundings available to broadcast crews and we even baked a batch of buns for use in taste tests and as props for broadcast interviews. We arranged photography of the buns and photocalls.

The announcement was covered by the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio 4’s Sunday programme, 18 regional BBC radio stations, ITV lunchtime news, London Tonight, online and in local and regional press.

The buns were a sell-out within hours, with shoppers travelling from Birmingham, requests by phone from Northern Ireland and expressions of interest from the US. The Cathedral had a flood of visitors expressing interest.

We are hopeful, given the success of this year’s trial, that we may be able to secure a commercial agreement with Sainsbury’s for national sales of the bun in 2010.
Value of the media coverage to date has been, by our calculation, in excess of £50,000. The return on investment has been, well, infinite.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Twitter, Sweet Charity and The Rhythm of Life

“Daddy started out in San Francisco,
Tootin' on his trumpet loud and mean.
Suddenly a voice said, "Go forth, Daddy.
Spread the picture on a wider screen."”

Not since Sid Meier’s magnificent Civilization series of video games have we seen such an interesting manifestation of the evolution of a society as we are witnessing with San Francisco start-up Twitter, the remarkably enduring ‘next big thing’ which is now already three years old.

Twitter has reached and passed Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and today pretty much every journalist and commentator in the land is nattering about Twittering. I suspect that birds are going to have to find a new name for their voices or risk perpetual confusion with the 140 character missives of millions of two legged wingless box dwellers. It’s an appropriation we’ve not seen the likes of since ‘hoovering’.
What started as a jeu d’esprit and was initially dismissed by many commentators as little more than the sharing of information about the utterly mundane (“toast this morning”, “bus is late”) has emerged to become one of the interesting, enlivening and aggravating methods of having a genuinely global conversation about virtually everything. If you want to tap into what people are thinking at any given point, abandon your dependency on Google and do a keyword search in Twitter.

Returning to Sid Meier, what we observe, of course, in the emergence of any new society, are ‘issues’ that either become part of the ecosystem or are quickly worked out of the system. No society will be perfect, and oughtn’t be so. I’ve long subscribed to the thesis in Dr Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, that true society is a confection of good and bad, but I digress. As I look at Twitter, which I do throughout most working days, I see a number of things happening on a social level, which point to it pleasures and its irritations.

“And the voice said “Brother, there’s a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions””

Like all societies, we’re seeing the emergence of some pretty complex social structures and groupings and already we’re seeing the early signs of religions. We have the Evangelicals, the Protestants, the Quakers, the Buddhists and the Atheists, to name but a few. I bet any citizen of the Twittersphere would be able to put a decent number of his or her followers into one of these or other boxes. We have Twitterers who go about their business in a modest and blameless way, participating politely in conversation and leaving their egos behind – and we have an increasing number of Twitterers who spend more time talking about their quantity of ‘followers’ (yes, even the language reeks of religion) than they do adding anything to the conversation. We have Twitterers excitedly proclaiming that they’ll offer prizes for the thousandth or hundred thousandth follower. Perhaps we’ll see the first car offered as a prize for the millionth follower.

Perhaps this evangelical behaviour is all OK, but personally sticks in my craw. I have little interest in whether or not a leading technology blogger has more legitimate followers than the CEO of a start-up, but there it is as a major thread of excited and heated discussion between them and their coterie. I’m equally uneasy to be honest with the weekly round robin tweets from some to welcome the new members of their (self-proclaimed) fan club. It just doesn’t seem right. The emerging Uber-Twitterers often accumulate followers but do not follow in return, with some notable exceptions. They seem content with the adulation.

As Wailin Wong points out in her column in the Chicago Tribune, “Celebrities take to Twitter, but for most, it's a one-way tweet” this week: “The normal rules of engagement do not apply to celebrities. [Ashton] Kutcher follows 55 people and has more than 292,000 followers, for example. This is not two-way communication.”

“Daddy was the new sensation, got himself a congregation,
Built up quite an operation down below.
With the pie-eyed piper blowing, while the muscatel was flowing,
All the cats were go, go, going down below.”

The trouble with the focus on numbers, it seems to me, is that it runs counter to the point of Twitter, which is chat, debate, dialogue. Once an Uber-Twitter gets into the stratosphere, how can he or she hope to engage in any sort of chat with his or her Twitterees. I suppose, in a way, it becomes self-regulating in that a brand built on numbers, unless carefully managed, will lose its lustre. Twittering depends more than pretty much any conversational means on having something interesting to say, and unless you’re designed to say it in 140 characters with some regularity, the interest in you is going to drop like a stone.

So the best of Twitter is a two-way street and the very best of it emerges from true exchange. Most of this for me comes through on a micro level, but this week we’ve also seen plenty of good emerge on a macro level. With Red Nose Day today, we’ve seen a string of clever uses of Twitter to engage the community in raising funds for charity. This includes in all fairness a decent number of celebrities and journalists giving up their time, and as importantly engaging in true two-way dialogue with the community. Twitterati as varied as Peter Serafinowicz, Chris Moyles and Rory Cellan-Jones, have conversed with the Twittersphere and created a real sense of a community that can be marshalled to achieve a great deal and share. [It’s not too late to donate incidentally – here’s a link]. The recent global Twestivals – parties of Twitterers in cities around the world – successfully raised money for a water charity in Africa.

One interesting way to deal with the cult / lemming element of Twitter was suggested by one of my Twitter friends last weekend. He suggested that Twitter might stop telling anyone how many followers they have. That would be a great leveller, in my view, and would be an effective way of puncturing some of the pomposity. But maybe that’s just my gripe and I should get over it. After all, as with all societies, there is a self-correcting element and an escape key. If I don’t like what somebody is saying, I can choose not to listen.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Giving fans and critics a voice online

The Government’s announcement that it is launching an online review mechanic for public services is an interesting move. It’s an eye-catching initiative, although providing customers with a voice in relation to very specific service experiences is a risky enterprise unless handled very carefully.

The key issues are:

Authenticity – Can readers be certain that the reviews come from bona fide customers of the service? Too many online review services are prone to manipulation, bias and blatant falsehood. What is required is a closed loop system that guarantees the authenticity of the customer. Reevoo is a perfect example of this type of service and is building a widely trusted brand.

Independence – Any review process that is not managed independently will be open to accusations that it contains politicised content.

Politicisation – By individualising criticism – bringing it down to a personal level for both the customer and the provider – there is a risk that it takes some of the most acute responsibility away from Government and places it on the desk of the individual provider. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in that it places greater scrutiny on local delivery and enables more rapid organisational response to failure, but it does potentially change the nature of political debate in relation to public service delivery in this country.

Reputation – There are two points here: (1)Research commissioned by Reevoo shows that reviews have several times more influence on purchasing decisions online than advertising. (2) The internet creates a context within which all of our decisions ought to be more informed.

Both make the case for the implementation of minimum standards in any review service. Recently, there have several incidents that have the potential to undermine the effectiveness or erode trust in online reviews. An electronics manufacturer was found to have paid for positive reviews of products and a popular listings site was found to have solicited payment from client companies in order to remove negative reviews.

There is a better way and my hope is that the Government will look carefully at process and make any review service that it implements watertight and unimpeachable. Enabling customers to mark your card is a brave and sensible move in the age of opinion. We just need confidence that we can believe what we read.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Volcanic Verses

I’ve never met Julie Myerson. My partner has once – at a writing retreat – and one of my partner’s friends has a child at the school that the Myerson kids attend in south London. We knew of them enough, even at this rather cursory level, to spot pretty much immediately that the Guardian’s “Living with Teenagers” columns were written by her.

We enjoyed them. They chimed with many of our own experiences as parents of teenagers – but we were also uneasy with the idea that even at this rather distant proximity we were able to identify the author without the need for forensics. It seemed to us after a while that this was a poorly concealed betrayal of the intimacies of family life.

Now Julie Myerson finds herself in the maelstrom surrounding the publication of her book about her oldest boy. Whether she felt a confidence in the righteousness/rectitude of publication as a result of the relatively straightforward reaction to her anonymous column (it was, it transpires, the worst kept secret in literary circles) who can say? What is clear is that she has been slammed from almost every conceivable direction, the charges ranging from inexcusable maternal betrayal to the putting of profit ahead of familial loyalty.

Doubtless there are fresh stories about the risks of Skunk to be told - although there is no shortage of literature on the subject – but does offering your own boy as the poster child at such a sensitive point in his own development justify this action?

It is difficult to see how Julie Myerson, an accomplished wordsmith who once made the long list for the Booker Prize, can emerge from this with her reputation maintained or improved. She has now taken the step from relative literary fame to infamy and the runes do not make for happy reading.

One bold stroke, in my view, can best be countered by another. Given the blaze of pre-publicity, with which she has conspired, sales of her book are likely to be huge. If she wishes to begin to rebuild her credibility, she and her publishers could do an awful lot worse than signing over all income from the book to charities that deal with the scourge of addiction. And if I were her, I’d get back to fiction.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Predictive text

After four months of you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up news I’m left with rather a lot of flexibility when it comes to making predictions about the year ahead. Flexibility, because I can make the most outlandish predictions and they will probably seem plausible, at least from this vantage point.

I’ll limit the scope to my trade – so it will be about things that are to do with reputation, news management, news delivery and PR – but as you’ll see, that takes in subjects as diverse as former prime ministers, national newspapers, snake oil salesmen and rock star journalists. Let’s have a go:

1. Disintermediated media will create significant risks for large and small media organisations. In other words, journalists will get closer to their readers as the tools to follow their output improve. In the last 12 months I have seen several stories break via new media channels – Twitter, websites, blogs – that I suspect would not make it through the conventional editorial channels that apply at broadcasters, wires and national newspapers. The risks are self evident – libel and invasion of privacy prominent amongst them. The combination of a leaner editorial process (no editors, no subs, no back bench), the growth in self-publishing, the shift of eyeballs to the websites of papers, the rapid dissemination of links via services like Twitter and the relentless scramble to be first will create a noxious and expensive mess or two that some of our finest media institutions will find themselves having to clean up.

2. A dozen “sole traders” or small groups of journalists will command more advertising revenue individually than one or more national newspapers. This is an extension of the point above. The growth of blogging and the rise of vlogging is old news. When it is put in the hands of the UK’s finest journalists, you have to ask how long it will be before they take their contact books and their content and start to self-publish. Media is not a capital intensive industry anymore. Printing presses are becoming modern day dinosaurs, the technology that enables programme creation and production is now in the Christmas stockings of 12 year olds, self-design or template websites or blogs are either free or low cost. Building a credible, robust web-based business can now be achieved for thousands, not millions of pounds. At the turn of the millennium, the mantra was that “content is king”. Today, content is the king of kings and we are witnessing the creation of a generation of rock star hacks. These stadium fillers have the opportunity to create some real personal wealth.

3. A national newspaper will go to the wall, possibly after a brief shot at being a free-sheet. I’m not alone in predicting this.

4. The PR industry will face an onslaught on several fronts. Front 1: Traditional marketing consultancies and advertising agencies will be falling over themselves to set up digital PR divisions. These will invariably look very slick and sophisticated – and we will see an explosion in new jargon. Unfortunately, these new services will not have storytelling at their heart. The messages will be didactic and ineffective and much client money will be wasted. Front 2: Client budget reductions, a post- Flat Earth News culture in newsrooms and a continuing focus on macro-news with a leaning to the negative will make it more challenging for agencies to flourish. Front 3: Quality will out, as will those agencies that are able to mobilise and apply talent whilst keeping their overheads low.

5. They say it won’t be as bad as they say it will be. PR is the trade of the pragmatic optimist (that’s not quite an oxymoron – it’s more about our rock-dodging tendencies). The year ahead won’t be as bad as we’re set to believe for many of us. Many businesses thrive in the thick of battle or in the face of adversity. Digital media creates an incredible new toolkit for our profession. I suspect that the all-encompassing Mordor-like cloud cover will puncture by the end of the first quarter and that things will start to look a little better by then. To the economist that says that this is bunkum, I would simply say that bunkum was the foundation of much sentiment throughout the boom years. Bunkum – or faith (in a religious or non-religious sense) – works and it will make a comeback. Talk of, and references to , the crunch will crumble.

6. Out on a limb time: Twitter will raise a pile of money and buy or merge with Facebook. Things will happen quickly in cyberspace this year. Twitter was the media darling of 2008 and shows no sign of losing its lustre. It is compelling, alive and nomadic – a sort of active, out-there 16-30 year old to Facebook’s slightly indoorsy safeness. Twitter is an untamed newswire, full of interest, intrigue, nibbles and bytes – the fisherman’s perfect electronic stream. It is also perfect for a world at the cross roads of mobility and ubiquity – its 140 character limit means that it makes sense on the screen of a mobile phone. Whilst Twitter may not buy Facebook really (after all, I don’t think it makes any money right now), it will become more and more powerful and popular. It is good enough that people would probably pay to use it. What a strange idea.

7. The greening of UK PLC will be more closely scrutinised than it has been to date. Businesses have done well from the reputational dividend of the green agenda. Many have grabbed forest-loads of column inches (well there’s a logical inconsistency for starters), garnered (or garnished) through the announcement of eye-catching initiatives. The trouble is that sometimes the praise outweighs the commitment – and I sense that the media will be casting a somewhat more discerning eye over the detail of some of the pronouncements. Looking back over the last year or so, one of the most eye-catching announcements was Marks and Spencers’ decision to charge for plastic bags, a move that attracted widespread praise across the establishment. Of course, placed in a wider context, this move, whilst welcome, actually delivers a relatively small reduction in plastic waste. By contrast, a change in the way that milk is packaged in the UK – away from the plastic bottle and into plastic bags (a move that Sainsbury’s have been trialling) would dwarf the amount of plastic used in bags. Carrier bags are of course more emblematic and visible manifestations of the waste culture – and the coverage was well-earned. I would though suggest that it is inadvisable for Marks and Spencer to make a virtue out of occasional free bag offers (made to me at at least three M&S stores in the last 8 weeks). The growing risk is that sensible initiatives will be presented as shams if the detail is not worked through robustly. And that sort of outcome would make in house PR teams green around the gills.

8. Person pick: It will be a defining year for Tony Blair. OK, let’s finish with a big ‘un. The former prime minister has been on something of a redemptive crusade as Middle East envoy. Rumours have it, in parallel, that a mooted Tony Blair institute of International Relations at the LSE was rejected as any sort of credible option for the School. Middle East progress has been evidently insubstantial, and the developments in the last few weeks put pay to any claims of progress in the last 12 months. Blair is challenged by the imminent inauguration of a president who will be keen to draw as many lines in as many sandpits as possible for good reason. Whether Blair, who is now part of the pre-crunch era, and is deeply associated with the decision to go to war in Iraq, will have any role in future Middle East peace efforts must be up for debate. He is close to the in-coming Secretary of State, but will that be enough to safeguard his opportunity to influence a lasting settlement in the Middle East? I expect him to be marginalised, but he has gone into PR overdrive in the last 48hrs.

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Bruised Apple

Apple have made a number of cardinal errors that have combined to make a noxious cocktail in the last few weeks.

The first is in allowing too much of the value of the business over time to be vested in the CEO.

There are many other businesses, of course, that take similar risks by putting their CEO front and center at every opportunity and having he/she lead all communications with the outside world. The trouble is that when it comes to valuation, it soon becomes difficult to separate the enterprise and the leader.

It is far better for a business in the medium / long term to let people see and hear from a cross-section of talent from the leadership team.

Ultimately, this is better for the business as it mitigates investor concerns if the CEO is unwell or decides to leave the business. It is also better for customer perceptions.

In Apple's case, the issue is compounded by two factors:

First, they run what looks to many journalists like a dysfunctionally tight ship when it comes to media relations (information is hard to get, access is restricted - all acceptable in the context of a product launch of course, but it is actually a wider problem as any google search or glance at the twittersphere will confirm).

The second factor - and one where I have more sympathy is in relation to Steve Jobs' health. He values his privacy, which I respect.

However, if - as seems to be the case with Mr Jobs - you see yourself as the brand, you run external "communications" with a rod of iron and you add a deep desire for privacy to the mix - well, you're asking for trouble.

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