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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