Wednesday, 7 September 2011

F is for Facts

Quite simply they maketh the story. Sometimes an idea will arise that feels great and makes sense and is all lyrical and topical. You go with it, write it up, work in the key messages, create great quotes, get it signed off, pitch it and the outcome is a great big zero. An essential question before you go anywhere near the phone, an email or a meeting: what are the facts? If there aren't any it's not going to work. News is about facts, occurrences, events - not about abstract ideas.

If the story feels right, there will be a fact to be found. Maybe it will take a day or two and an omnibus poll to validate the idea, but it's worth the wait.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks' resignation: timing is everything

Why are so many people are puzzled at the length of time it has taken Rebekah Brooks to resign? The delay between major organizational crisis and senior executive resignation is most frequently part of the crisis management process. The more that public and media fury can be concentrated on an individual, the more it moves away from the organization itself. Once the individual has soaked up the wrath, he or she is shunted off, leaving a rather less personal and therefore less engaging focus for public outrage in its wake. Tony Hayward soaked up a large part of the criticism for the gulf oil spill and by the time he was dispatched BP had already taken decisive concrete steps to get the recovery programme underway. Similarly, NI is now couching its communications in the past tense. “We have already done x, y and z” is now part of the narrative. I’m not saying that the worst is over – who knows? – but the timing, in my view, is all part of the reputational fightback.

Thursday, 23 June 2011


It’s always so easy to critique the handling of announcements when you’re not in the midst of the maelstrom of preparation, but (without naming names) there have been a couple of real clangers this week. These bring to mind a couple of rules:

If your brand is under pressure and your performance is poor, it is loose talk to say that you are “flattered” at the idea that a competitor might be considering acquiring you. It is, in the same breath, both an acceptance that you are the weaker party and a betrayal of your lack of faith in your own brand.

If you are a worldwide superstar announcing an initiative that has been teased in the most spectacular fashion you need to be damn sure that the thing that you are announcing is genuinely newsworthy and groundbreaking. It doesn’t matter how big you are – if the initiative doesn’t warrant much attention you’ll get a critical pummeling.

If you’re a CEO or President of an organization and you have a Twitter account, be very careful what you tweet, especially in response to a tweeted complaint. Even if you feel you’re mildly in the right, take pains to diffuse the situation and be personal and reflective in your responses. Reflect back (assuming questions of legal liability don’t apply) the way that the complainant feels so that he/she gets a sense that you are really listening. If you find yourself in trouble, with the complainant’s fellow twitterers on the case and spreading the word, take the time to deal with the issue, quickly, professionally and politely. The consequences, otherwise, could be huge.

If your CFO is leaving the business, announce it immediately. If you are a PLC, you have a disclosure obligation. If you think that by hanging on for a bit and slipping it out as part of your results announcement you’re going to get a better press, you’re mistaken, especially if the CFO is setting sail for a relatively unknown business and your numbers are under pressure. You might think that he’ll in part take the heat for poor performance, if that’s a current issue, but it doesn’t work that way.

Right, that’s that off my chest.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

E is for entertain

It's easy to forget that one of the fastest routes to media coverage - and as importantly, creating a conversation about your story - is injecting a bit of humour into whatever it is you're writing about. Now clearly if you're in crisis management mode you don't want to be joking, but if you're in the throes of promoting something and it seems a bit dry, a bit of humour can really help.

One of my daily disciplines is to look at what the subs at the Sun make of the news of the day. Their ability to find a pun or a neologism that gets to the heart of the subject, often with a bit of humour, is unrivalled.

Write your release, or your email, or your blog post or your tweet and before you send it pause and ask yourself, what would the Sun do?

D is for delete

When I did B, I should have said that it stood for brevity, but I didn't, so rather than go on and on and on and on [That's enough ons - Ed] about it, I'll talk about delete.

I have seen stacks of press releases, briefing notes, case studies, blah, blah, that are much too long. If you're writing a press release and it goes on for more than a page and a half in 1.5 spacing, then you're saying too much.


Once you've finished a draft, do something else to take your mind off it so that you partially forget - and then flip back to your draft quickly. If, as you read it, it feels baggy, or if, more importantly, you don't get the gist of the story in the first two or three sentences, hover your hand over the delete key and don't hesitate to press.

If there's a superfluous quote, kill it. If there's a piece of jargon that you know that the recipient(s) will hate, get rid of it. Moreover, if it's all rubbish, delete the lot and start again.

There are a couple of books that I recommend: Strunk and White: "The Elements of Style" and William Zinsser: "On Writing Well". They're short, profound and proof that "less is more." Buy them.

C is for "CC"

Oh, it's so tempting. You're in a rush and you need to get your story out to as many correspondents, newsdesks, bloggers, wires as possible. So why not just CC them all? Or better still BCC them all? Try tapping CC on your keyboard now. Then try tapping your backspace button or delete button twice. Notice the similarity in the noise? I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that Einstein or some other brainiac came up with a theory that said that every action had an equal and opposite or some such thing. The point I'm making, if it isn't achingly clear, is that correspondents like to be treated as individuals and if they aren't.....well.

When I started out in PR it was the days before email. PRs these days will not recognise the sensation of thin paper cuts and envelope glue on tongues. Nor will they recognise the hand ache that went with individualised, legible, handwritten notes. It was an occupational hazard. Or more accurately, an occupational opportunity. Back then, everything was personalised - and if you want something to work today it should still be personalised. You want a correspondent to respect you? Treat them with respect. Get to know what they want, get to know what they're like, amuse them, entertain them and never treat them like a commodity. "CC" is a no-no.

B is for brand mentions

A little obvious, this one, but over-use of brand mentions in press releases, tweets, interviews, etc, is never a good thing. Far better to make your brand the essence of the story. A few thoughts on this:

The survey industry that has grown up over the last decade (spurious stories based on research) is a direct result of a frantic chase to get a brand mention in papers on on the TV. The trouble is (a) that this is really an irrelevance for big brands (which don't need the mentions as much) and (b) the tortuous lengths that some agencies go to to get a brand mention take the storytelling miles away for anything approaching strategic relevance for the client.

For example, I saw a story a few years ago along the lines of "76% of us see Terry Wogan as the nation's favourite uncle says XYZ building society". How this advances the cause of XYZ building society defies belief, unless it catalyses an agency review.

Another big mistake with brand mentions comes when an inexperienced interviewee goes on the radio or TV to plug something. One contextual mention is OK, or maybe two, but I have heard people use their brand as a verb, rattling it off three times in a sentence. This is a bad thing. The viewer / listener hates it, the interviewer gets frustrated and the interviewee enters the "never again" database of the broadcaster.

No, the best approach with brand mentions is to construct a strong story which has your brand at the heart of it. By doing so, you make it impossible for journalists to avoid referencing your brand and you create a real sense of depth and relevance to the storytelling. It isn't that hard to do - it just takes a bit of imagination.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


I've been watching the coverage of World Book Night. As I was watching it, I was thinking about (and using) Twitter - mostly to pick on Sue Perkins' rather annoying take on contemporary literature.

Twitter condenses thought. What we tend to do with Twitter is look at it with a sense of its immediacy - not thinking about how the accumulation of words might feel over time.

No pretence here (honest), but I cut and pasted a bunch of my tweets over the last six or so months and made this. If nothing else, it's a nice diary, but it did make me think that Twitter in the hands of good writers might actually create a very rich and worthwhile pool of literature over time. A new literary medium that we'll read and absorb in a very different way........

It rained little green apples last night

They sound like paint names. Telegraph birth column: Ezra, a brother for Dolly, Albertine, and Lilac

The pigeons are doing their fat hang glider thing

Glorious morning. The sky looks enameled

Tennyson's last words were: "I have opened it."

The cat is watching telly, aka, staring in through the kitchen door

Now the cat is demanding pellets cooked four ways

The night has a melancholy the cat is anxious to embrace

Fionn Regan and Beirut on Friday night in a drizzly Welsh field

Memo to cat: You will get a jelly toupee each time until you learn to let me put it in the bowl first

Never trust a landlady with coffee icing eye shadow

What this cottage lacks is a few decent naff ornaments

14:11:02 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with guest books that are palimpsests

14:11:54 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with sofas that put you permanently in brace position

14:12:42 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with owner s who repeatedly say "I can only apologise"

Who let Autumn in?

A golden blue sky, which makes no sense, but it is

Cat has arrived. With attachments.

Grumpy old men. Followed by, er, Newsnight.

Am I alone in zoning out after the first sentence of Thought for the Day?

Across the land kids are getting an early night ahead of the morning march of misery.

Guy in full spiderman regalia in the dentist. I hope he isn't staff.

Right, $6 million tooth ordered.

Ice cream van in the driving rain. The pathos.

Potatoes. Recommended by 89% of Glamour readers.

And now I have bathroom puddle sock

The breeze feels like warm milk

Top top: interior designers - create the post-apocalypse look by letting your 18 yo daughter have"a gathering for a few friends"

Aftermath: "Which one was Demi?" "Oh, she's the one whose hair's in the garden."

Byzantine sky is back

Second spring? Fifth season? Some plants in the garden seem to be finding their second wind.

Today has been sponsored by Velcro and treacle

These SEO types - they buy followers from somewhere, right?

Hi @TopSeoPosition , what are your hobbies and interests?

Spiders have their nets out, fishing for stupid late season flies

Several fences away, Bobby, the world's most told off dog

There's a new Poundworld on the High Street. Loads of people in Sherpa mode.

Passing the new Hairdresser, Hair on the Heath. Sounds a bit forensic.

I've been out. How did Nick Clegg do?

Grilagem is Portuguese for "Putting a live cricket into a box of faked documents until the excrement makes them look convincingly old."

Inbound cat bird back door conundrum

Existential celebration. Facebook places can't locate me.

Dentist seems to have picked me out something from the sabre tooth range

In the shop of a zillion words.

I love the random names of wifi networks on the train as it slips by houses. Sumatran ladies bingo. Fussy shoes. Ping and Pong.

Vince, who has a face better suited to avuncular critique, finds himself in Reality Ave

On the tele: the slightly black and white sometimeago effect

There is now a book called 4 ingredients recipes. Some of the recipes have two ingredients.

I'm going to do a 1 ingredient recipe cookbook

Autumn Sunday plus point: "aagh, it's already 4.15" is replaced by "ah, it's only 4.15"

Achieve a trendy sedum effect by neglecting your roof for years

It's the season for those mini sci-fi bugs - all wings and legs and no coordination

Out in the Atlantic, the giant is playing with his spirograph set

Unsettling image earlier today. Fleeting glimpse of a guide dog in full regalia wandering without


Dew shoe

Must be time for Avoid the Question Time

21:35:44 In Chile, synchronised praying/preying

08:59:01 What do you call it when you give birth to 33 people?

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Big Gamble

Here’s why the Big Society won’t work:

(1) It’s too conceptual. Nobody understands what it means, not least its champion-in-chief who is having a very difficult time taking it from concept to specifics. At face value, he appears to be willfully confusing the public sector and the public – or maybe he’s not. That he seems to be is bad enough.

(2) In the public’s mind it is already sitting on the same shelf as “back to basics” and the “cones hotline” to name a few. Once you’re on that shelf, you’re not coming off.

(3) It’s a terrible name. It sounds a bit like a political funfair ride, which patronises many and perplexes just as many. You can’t trivialize community spirit in a time of austerity, nor can you dress it up. It comes from the same stable as Royal It’s A Knockout - and reeks in this case of an attempt to couch a piece of pernicious policy-dressing in a language that an elite believe will be appreciated by the hoi polloi. It doesn’t help matters that an upper middle class pronunciation of the word “society” rather sets the dividing lines between the haves and the have nots.

(4) It comes from the wrong quarter. Wealthy people who have never known debt have no credible locus in these matters. Asking people to invest their time to look after their communities is no bad thing. With everything else that voters have on their minds these days, though, it risks sounding a lot like “Operation Sort It Out You Lot” rather than “Operation We’re All In This Together”.

The PM is a former director of communications. He is supposed to have a decent appreciation of the way that announcements and initiatives will be received. On this occasion he appears to have a cloth ear, or to have been poorly advised, or both.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Journalists who "get" Twitter

Here's a list of several journalists who do an outstanding job at conversing on Twitter. There are plenty who see it as a broadcast channel, but these are the people who really understand how it works and how it creates a useful connection with the audience.

Harry Wallop - Telegraph - @hwallop

Caitlin Moran - Times - @caitlinmoran
Dr Ben Goldacre - Guardian/Blogger - @bengoldacre
Emma Barnett - Telegraph - @EmmaBarnett
Sophy Ridge - Sky News - @sophyridge
Hilary Osborne - Guardian - @hilaryosborne
Jack Schofield - Freelance - @jackschofield
Johann Hari - Indy - @johannhari101
Rory Cellan Jones - BBC - @ruskin147
Sally Whittle - Freelance - @swhittle
India Knight - Sunday Times - @indiaknight
Tim Weber - BBC - @tim_weber

Robert Peston on blogging