The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: Public relations

What, with wikileaks, phone hackin’ journalists, social media on the interweb, a new UK Prime ministerial spin meister and things called quora, it’s all enough to give you a migraine.  Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and occasionally it is good for the soul to hark back to more tranquil times, just as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian did recently:

“Isn’t it a reflection of modern times that the prime minister’s appointment of a spin doctor has attracted as much attention as any new cabinet minister might? Rightly so – Craig Oliver will probably be more influential than almost all of them.

Only one kind of spinning here ...

More than 60 years ago Clement Attlee had to be persuaded to install a Press Association ticker in Downing Street and only agreed when he was told it would allow him to follow the cricket scores.

One day Francis Williams, his press secretary, gave his usual briefing to the lobby. Later Attlee exclaimed in astonishment: “There’s an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine!” He didn’t even know what his spin doctor did.

I think that, on the whole, that was a good thing, and we were better off.”

Hear, hear!

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“So what?”

It’s a question that is under-used in any media campaign.  People utterly involved in their work, be it selling microchips or helping others, are often pushing out press releases, statements, calling press conferences to tell the world their ‘news’, only to be often dumbfounded when the media fail to report it.  That’s because they often don’t ask the “so what?” question in terms of news factors.  There are factors which make news, which raise an eyebrow, which journalistic radars lock on to and which the general public wake up to. It’s pretty obvious stuff but when down in the weeds working on a product or a campaign a myopia can strike preventing people from understanding, in media terms, what will ‘fly’ and what won’t.  Before sending that press release or calling that press conference, just check for news worthiness.  If the story doesn’t flick any of the switches below (edited from a version at cybercollege.com), it’s failed the “so what?” test.

1.  Timeliness:  News is what’s new. An afternoon raid on a drugs den may warrant a live ENG report during the 6 p.m. news. However, tomorrow, unless there are major new developments, the same story will probably not be important enough to mention.

2.  Proximity: If 15 people are killed in your hometown, your local TV station will undoubtedly consider it news. But if 15 people are killed in Tokyo, Tipperary, Timisoara, or some other distant place you’ve never heard of, it will probably pass without notice. But there are exceptions.

3.  Exceptional quality: One exception centres on how the people died. If the people in Timisoara were killed because of a bus or car accident, this would not be nearly as newsworthy as if they died from an earthquake or stings from “killer bees,” feared insects that have now invaded France.

Exceptional quality refers to how uncommon an event is. A man getting a job as a music conductor is not news—unless that man is blind.

4.  Possible future impact: The killer bee example illustrates another news element: possible future impact. The fact that the killer bees are now in France and may eventually be a threat to people watching the news makes the story much more newsworthy.

5.  Prominence: The 15 deaths in Timisoara might also go by unnoticed by the local media unless someone prominent was on the bus—possibly a movie star or a well-known politician. If a soap star gets married, it’s news; if John Smith, your next-door neighbour, gets married, it probably isn’t.

You may find it exciting but will others?

6.  Conflict: Conflict in its many forms has long held the interest of observers. The conflict may be physical or emotional. It can be open, overt conflict, such as a civil uprising against police authority, or it may be ideological conflict between political candidates.

The conflict could be as simple as a person standing on his principles and spending a year fighting city hall over a parking citation. In addition to “people against people” conflict, there can be conflict with wild animals, nature, the environment, or even the frontier of space.

7.  Numbers: The more people involved in a news event, be it a demonstration or a tragic accident, the more newsworthy the story is. Likewise, the number of people affected by the event, whether it’s a new health threat or a new tax ruling, the more newsworthy the story is.

8.  Consequence: The fact that a car hit a power pylon isn’t news, unless, as a consequence, power is lost throughout a city for several hours. The fact that a computer virus found its way into a computer system might not be news until it bankrupts a business, shuts down a telephone system, or endangers lives by destroying crucial medical data at a hospital.

9.  Human interest: Human-interest stories are generally soft news. Examples would be a baby beauty contest, a person whose pet happens to be a nine-foot boa constrictor, or a man who makes a cart so that his two-legged dog can move around again.

On a slow news day even a story of fire fighters getting a cat out of a tree might make a suitable story. Human-interest angles can be found in most hard news stories. A flood will undoubtedly have many human-interest angles: a lost child reunited with its parents after two days, a boy who lost his dog, or families returning to their mud-filled homes.

10.  Pathos: The fact that people like to hear about the misfortunes of others can’t be denied. Seeing or hearing about such things commonly elicits feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy, and compassion. Some call these stories “tear jerkers.”

Examples are the child who is now all alone after his parents were killed in a car accident, the elderly woman who just lost her life savings to a con artist, or the blind man whose seeing-eye dog was poisoned.

This category isn’t just limited to people. How about horses that were found neglected and starving, or the dog that sits at the curb expectantly waiting for its master to return from work each day, even though the man was killed in an accident weeks ago.

11.  Shock Value: An explosion in a factory has less shock value if it was caused by gas leak than if it was caused by a terrorist. The story of a six year-old boy who shot his mother with a revolver found in a bedside drawer has more shock (and therefore news) value than if same woman died of a heart attack.

Both shock value and the titillation factor (below) are well known to the tabloid press. The lure of these two factors is also related to some stories getting inordinate attention, such as the sordid details of a politician’s or evangelist’s affair—which brings us to the final point.

12.  Titillation: This factor primarily involves sex and is commonly featured—some would say exploited—during rating periods.

It’s a simple question – “so what?”


Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


The Week put forth a pithy summation of Robert Cyran’s (Reuters BreakingViews) perspective on privacy, in which he holds that privacy has been the main casualty of 2010.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been crowned Person of the Year by Time Magazine, and Wkileaks boss Julian Assange, has topped the associated reader poll, notes Robert Cyran. Both have “uncommon levels of self-belief and superior coding abilities” – and both are leading “the technological assault on privacy”. There are obvious differences in scale and intent between a social networking business with more than 500 million users and a small, non-profit which uncovers “censored injustices”. But the two outfits share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public. This may, however, be their “golden hour”. The costs of bringing formerly private things to light are becoming increasingly evident: even the relatively benign-seeming Zuckerberg is likely to face calls for far greater accountability from Facebook’s mass of users, if not regulators, one day. Whatever constraints are eventually imposed on either model, however, the genie is out of the bottle. The chief “casualty” of 2010 was privacy.

Enough said.

Note that the readers went for Assange not Zuckerberg ... hmm, interesting.


Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

No Deepwater Horizons here?

But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.

Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.

Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless.  The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products.  This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century.  Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.

The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly.  Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again.  Management, at the very least, need to be fully engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

But why bother?  Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

These little things make traditional media skills even more vital.

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television.  Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations.  This involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.  It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.

Of course, not all organizations will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, the bottom line?   While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble.  Just ask Tony Hayward.


A few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the UK coalition government’s Culture Secretary, unveiled new plans for media provision in the UK.  “We need to do something to stimulate investment in new media services that give a proper voice to local people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.   He is seeking to encourage commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) including BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to back a new generation of local TV and online services by making the provision of local sevices a condition of their licences.

There have been many moans and groans from several quarters, not least the PSBs themselves over the viability of these grand plans.  Indeed it is proably internet TV, not digital terrestrial television, that is most promising in the local TV revolution. Internet TV also presents an opportunity for other organisations such as local newspapers and smaller niche outfits to get into the game.    In a major sense this is already happing through digital convergence, as video becomes a major factor in online publication.  There are already many local internet based news outlets using existing broadband technology.   There has been an interesting comparison between two cities, one here and one in the US:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx         xxxxxxxx Birmingham, UK  Birmingham, Alabama

Population 1,028,700 229,424
Local newspapers 8 4
Local television 0 8

This may be the trajectory we’re already on.

So the notion of Digital Britain charges on.  But what does it mean for businesses and their handling of this media in the UK?

Let’s recap. Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

As successful UK companies ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.  And with the approach of more localised digital media capability, that impact and likelihood increases even more.  Well, that’s our contention anyway.

Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

Local media .. Coming your way?

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a tidal wave of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  And with increasing decentralisation and access to media bandwidth for local PSBs, the camera will be ever closer to one’s business. The chances of that interview being required, especially during a crisis, are increased. Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Counter-intuitively, digital Britain and the local TV revolution merely increase the need for good old-fashioned media skills.

You have been warned.


Isn’t technology wonderful?  In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content.  In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre.  Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).

As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted.  Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast.  If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them.  Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times.  In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.

But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR)  Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production.  Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc  are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data.  One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!).  Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.

Wow .. you can do all sorts with these things!

The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere.  The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control).  That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart.  But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting.  They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness).  The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention.  (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience.  Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.

It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it.  They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.

Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release.  But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).