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Looking back on a golden age in PR

11 Sep

I have been a member of the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR) since early 1998. That’s almost 20 years – and long before it achieved the Royal Charter in 2005. A Fellow since 2013, I am attending the Fellows’ lunch in the House of Lords this week. So now is a good time for a moment’s reflection.

The rules have since changed but when I became a member I did so the basis of having worked in the business for ten years. So my twenty year anniversary also marks a thirty year association with public relations (longer than the lifespan of many of the people I teach).

I’m not claiming wisdom simply based on longevity, but I do hope to have achieved some perspective. I am not alone: I see that Cambridge-based consultant Roger Darashah has noted the twentieth anniversary of his business by charting what has and hasn’t changed in that time.

Twenty years ago I was chief press officer within the corporate affairs team of a stock market listed British technology firm. Originally the scientific research arm of the UK government’s Atomic Energy Authority, it had been the last privatisation of that long period of Conservative government that started with Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was surprisingly extended by John Major in 1992, and ended with Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.

Two thoughts on this. One is that chief press officer was an important job commanding a good salary back then. It now sounds marginal and old-fashioned. We had email and the internet in 1997 – but we didn’t have Google, Facebook or Twitter. Media relations meant print and broadcast, not digital or social media.

British innovations in technology were sufficiently rare to merit reports in national newspapers and on BBC national radio and television channels and a firm with projects and personnel from Dorset to Dounreay was guaranteed lots of local media attention.

While my work as an educator defines my career, I can see in retrospect that I had reached a career high in my early to mid 30s – and suspect that’s true of many people in public relations.

The other reflection is that though my expertise was very much the media relations subset of public relations – and I was having to learn quickly the other aspects of corporate communication – context and timing are key to public relations jobs. This was a newly-privatised business complete with a stock market listing and a need for investor relations advice and competitor and market analysis, but most of my colleagues had been there when it was a public sector organisation and worked to different principles and timescales. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act on joining (and subsequently delved into the archives to learn some chilling and heroic Cold War stories).

I learnt that it’s easier to discuss innovation than to effect change. That people, culture and organisations are more complex than machines. That’s why internal communication is so important and so challenging.

I learnt that the future is unpredictable. The share price was soaring in 1997 and there were parliamentary questions claiming that state assets had been sold off too cheaply. Yet that market sentiment later evaporated, the share price stagnated and the firm no longer exists as an independent business. I had chosen to leave by the end of that year, another case of good timing.

In retrospect, I had been living through a golden age for public relations work. The wave of innovation introduced by the personal computer in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s led to a booming technology PR sector. Privatisations and market liberalisation meant this was a good time for entrepreneurs. Startups tended to follow the Microsoft model of a PR-led strategy (Apple, a marketing success story, did not reach its dominant position until much more recently).

In this sector and at that time, public relations was distinctive and it was valued. Media relations was a well regarded specialism (and British technology journalists were notoriously challenging so there was no room for complacency).

PR looks less special and less distinctive today. Fewer people will build a career based on their media contacts and I’d advise graduates to look more broadly for roles from ‘content marketing’ to ‘corporate communication’. Today when people talk about working with influencers they rarely mean journalists.

That said, media relations is still an asset in the world of inbound or digital marketing since Google has been quick to penalise other SEO tactics. In these circles, media relations is shaking off its reputation for spam and returning to the idea that it’s about relationships.

One more change. When I joined the Institute of Public Relations, it was the only professional body representing individual practitioners. I felt this was an important professional step – and am still proud to profess my membership. The PRCA was then a trade association representing large consultancies and had been my natural network in earlier consultancy roles.

Today, I’m also an individual member of the PRCA – now renamed as the Public Relations and Communications Association. It used to be easy to explain the difference between the two organisations, but it’s much less clearcut today.

I have dedicated thirty years to public relations and tend to hold to the ‘stronger together’ argument. But others prefer to define their role as internal communication or public affairs or analyst relations – anything but public relations, it seems. Can the union hold?

Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

From cannon fodder to Google fodder

19 Jan
I sucked at spin too

I sucked at spin too

I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifice of those who have experienced real combat, but I do recall feeling like cannon fodder when I started out in public relations 25 years ago.

An educator colleague used to describe the work as ‘media hustling’ – and I was as bad at it as everyone else.

I still shudder to remember some of my failed pitches. Like the time I phoned a senior technology journalist in an attempt to engineer a meeting at a trade show.

Me: Are you hoping to attend Client-Server World next week?

Him: [Long pause.] Have you any idea how that sounds?

More useful was the rebuff from a national newspaper correspondent in response to my lame attempt to offer him an environmental story.

Is it new or is it surprising?

This at least became a memorable test to apply before picking up the phone in future.

This talk of phone calls and conversations places me in the analogue world of public relations and I suspect we’re past the tipping point now.

About five years ago I noticed that more PR graduates were being offered work in digital agencies than as ‘media hustlers’ in ‘traditional’ PR roles.

Where we chased ‘coverage’, the mantra now is ‘content.’ Where I prized my clients’ appearances in the Financial Times or on the BBC, it seems that all that matters is feeding the Google machine.

Graduates have no problem making this transition as they never knew the old world, but it’s a challenge for many experienced practitioners.

The principles of public relations remain the same: reputations are hard-won and easily lost; relationships matter. But the practice needs to adapt.

Take the tried and tested news release. It’s still not died and still has a place, but you need to be careful how you distribute it since Google assumes that duplicate content must be spam.

So where we were once delighted to have our ‘news’ picked up word for word in multiple publications, it could now damage our Google search results.

It sounds like it’s time to relearn about customisation. It’s time to pick up the phone and develop some meaningful relationships.

For those who’ve blinked and missed the shift from media distribution to customised content sharing, I recommend Spin Sucks, a practical guide to the new world of Paid-Earned-Owned and -Shared media by US consultant Gini Dietrich.

It’s never too late to learn and it feels good to confess to the sin of spinning.

With the benefit of hindsight

27 Mar

The question came via Twitter from a thoughtful student: 'Why do PR professionals still prioritise print coverage over online?'

Sean's question

It's a good question. Assuming they do – and with the exception of a few social media specialists it probably is true – then there are several likely explanations:

  • Print is tangible, and thus has a higher perceived value than online (or broadcast even)
  • Practitioners do what they know best (and avoid the risky and the uncertain)
  • Clients and bosses demand and expect it

I then asked myself a different question. Knowing what I now know, would I have practised differently back then in the bad old days before the web and social media rose to prominence?

I should have focused more on outcomes, not outputs (attendance at events, press coverage). But this would have meant turning away business. I recall the look I had from my consultancy managing director when, in a meeting with a potential new client, I asked 'what do you want press coverage for?'

I wish I'd focused more on finding the issue than promoting the product or service. Again, this would have meant turning down some easy hits in the media for a more sustainable strategy. We did try (and we knew we should), but sometimes the low hanging fruit was just too easy to pick…

What's interesting is to note how little has changed. These two should still be high on the wish list of current practitioners wanting to avoid obsolescence. Focus on the outcomes; and develop an issues-led approach. Otherwise what value are you adding, and what's to differentiate your advice from anyone else's?

It’s about ideas, not events

17 Feb

News used to be the currency of public relations. Event-led stories were our speciality (pseudo-events if you like). But it's a dying craft and most practitioners need to move on (and advise their clients accordingly). Here's why news is limited:

  • It has a short shelf-life that's becoming ever shorter in the social media age
  • Neither PR people nor journalists have a monopoly on news any more
  • There are fewer publications taking PR news
  • The conventional press release is treated like spam

If news is no longer our currency, what should be? How about ideas, or content? Note how Edelman has appointed a senior BBC executive as 'chief content officer'.

Content, conversations, communities are what it should be about (Jim Macnamara goes further and lists 8 Cs that count in the current media landscape).

Or to put it a different way, don't be so fixated on getting your news event mentioned that you pass up the opportunity to contribute an ideas-based feature to the same publication.

It's about ideas, not events. Adapt or die!

The currency of the web is attention and reputation

28 Aug

In her review of The Long Tail author Chris Anderson's new book Free, Debbie Weil discusses what matters online:

"I've been saying for years that the currency of the Web is links. Anderson says it better: the currency of the Internet is 1. Attention (translated as number of visits or traffic to your site) and 2. Reputation (roughly translated as number of links pointing to your site or blog)."

That reads like a good summary of online public relations and reputation management, with suitable measures of success.

The premise behind Free is also readily comprehensible in a PR context. The publicity and media relations role has always been based on the giving away of free (ie no cost and copyright free) content in the hope of receiving free media coverage. There are critics of this hidden exchange, but fewer of the underlying principles of a free society underpinned by free speech, press freedom and 'free and fair' elections.

How PR works (continued)

18 Aug

So you want some publicity for your product or company (or to boost the vanity of your boss)? Then think up a controversial news angle and support it with the semblance of research. (Think of the headline and work backwards from there. Be sure to build in some searchable keywords). Here's a masterclass:

    76% Of Businesses Do Not Understand What PR Is

The owner of pr2go, the online PR business has criticised practitioners for failing to communicate what the discipline entailed after discovering that 76 per cent of businesses didn’t understand what public relations was.

James Hobday, CEO of pr2go, said that the statistics had come to light as part of ongoing marketing activity for the business. The online service stripped back the PR discipline to its most basic form, offering businesses and agencies the opportunity to access affordable PR.

The service, which sees a team of journalists with experience across a broad range of sectors prepare press information and distribute it on behalf of our clients for a flat fee, has proved a big success, both with businesses wanting localised PR but also with marketing agencies wanting to add value and offer the service to their clients.

“We’ve implemented a fairly aggressive marketing campaign to raise awareness and generate business, and the thing that has appalled me is the lack of understanding of what PR really is,” said James.

“To date, 76 per cent of people we’ve spoken to have not understood what PR is. We’re not talking your average man in the street here, we’re talking marketing managers and directors of large businesses with multiple regional sites needing localised PR.

“We spoke to more than 500 business people seeking to raise the profile of their company across the UK, and their definition of PR varied from telesales to mail-shots. Very few of them understood that it involved the use of online, broadcast and print media to get their key messages and stories across,” he said.

“It concerns me as it is such a massive industry and for those incorporating PR into their communications strategies to have such a weak understanding of what it means suggests that PR practitioners are missing the mark significantly when it comes to actually demonstrating and justifying their product,” he added.

Via Fresh Business Thinking

That's how to do it. But wait a minute: the people who don't know what PR is thought that it involved telesales and mailshots. The expert assures them it involves the use of 'online, broadcast and print media to get their key messages and stories across'.

Well, up to a point. The use of ex-journalists to create media publicity is, I would have thought, the readily understood part of PR, the tip of the iceberg.

Below the water, you need to know what you're hoping to achieve with the publicity (a strategy); you need to know when to use – and when not to use the media; when to prioritise internal over external communications; how one message aimed at a customer can mean something very different to an employee or a shareholder. You need to know when to listen rather than shout.

In principle, if the legal process involved in buying a house (conveyancing) can be turned into a routine online business, then so can publicity and PR. But just as you most need lawyers in the bad times, so you might need public relations advisers to help you when you really don't want the news out there. That seems to me to be the limiting factor on PR2GO's proposition, not the lack of understanding of PR in business.

Journalisted: out of darkness, enlightenment

13 Aug

JournalistedHere's a tale from the dark ages (less than 20 years ago).

I've arranged some press briefings for a visiting executive and I'm asked to supply the following: who each journalist writes for, copies of their last three published articles, a list of their hot topics, bugbears and some personal notes (favourite food, sports etc).

The exercise requires you to imagine finding this out without the internet (it barely functioned back then). It wasn't easy.

Today, PR people can read journalists online (publications and blogs), follow them on twitter and friend them on Facebook. This makes the task so much easier – except that the media landscape is much larger and more fluid than in the past. Who's a journalist? What's a publication?

So you can do it yourself, or you can be grateful that someone else has pulled together much of the data. Take a look at the Media Standards Trust's Journalisted site. Once you struggle past the poor search facility, it's a mine of information including social media features such as a tag cloud of frequently mentioned terms.

Just one concern. Did the difficulty of media relations in the dark ages make us more respectful of and knowledgeable about the media? Because now that it's so easy, why is there so much bad media relations?

PR and the media (latest from the US)

13 Jul

Here are three observations on contemporary public relations from a media perspective (most positive first):

  1. The Power and the Story: Michael Wolff's analysis in Vanity Fair of President Obama's powerful media operation. (Note the difference in style between a magazine and a blog: there's a 76-word sentence containing no fewer than nine commas here. But don't let that put you off reading this elegant article.)
  2. Spinning the Web: PR in Silicon Valley: New York Times business section (and note Richard Edelman's scathing reaction to this exercise in self-promotion).
  3. PR Girls Who Don't Know Where Darfur Is Bask in Bruno Press Blitz: New York Times fashion section (via PROpenMic). Nuff said, probably, though there's already a tribute blog – Hot Twin PR

What are we to make of this? In brief, it shows the problem of simplifying an activity that spans political and technology communications and also includes celebrity publicity. But I suspect it also shows something of an east coast, west coast divide in the US. Here in the UK, Max Clifford, Matthew Freud, Alan Parker and Roland Rudd all work in London (see post below) – a political, financial and media hub.

News release revisited

11 Jun

I've been asked for some advice from a student on how she can improve her news release writing skills. (Obviously my twelve-week module on PR Writing at the start of the previous academic year had faded from memory).

I know that the traditional press release is discredited and that we should be willing to experiment with new forms. I prefer the term news release because this describes its essential ingredient. I also feel that the discipline of writing a 'story in a sentence' is useful even if the document gets discarded, and that a grounding in news values is important for PR students.

Here are my tips on news release writing:

  • Ask yourself 'what's the story?'. Make sure that the story is focused on a matter of public interest or customer benefit – not just on the client's desire for publicity. No story, no news release. Does it meet the following test: 'is it new, or is it surprising?'

  • To help you think about news, it describes an event so you should be able to answer the question 'what happened?' News is conventionally written in the past tense (eg 'launched', 'announced').

  • Now write the story in a sentence using short words and dropping the adjectives (the descriptive words that can easily lead to hype such as 'revolutionary'). For style tips read the first sentence of any story in a newspaper – especially the tabloids.

  • The rest of the document should elaborate on this sentence using the inverted pyramid principle (most important facts first, followed by next most important and so on).

  • Always include a quotation: this is the next most important component as it should express a real opinion from a real person. Check and discuss this quotation with them and never resort to a statement starting with 'we're delighted…' That's not new, not surprising and won't be used, though it's opposite might gain you some attention. 'We're ashamed of our new product and apologise for introducing it…'

  • Put the company puff in the notes or use a hyperlink. Don't clutter the news paragraph with a lengthy description of the client.

  • The client will want to change much of the above, assuming the news release to be a form of placed adverisement. You have to earn your salary by advising them that without news there's no chance of publicity and that the news release is the start, not the end, of a process.

  • Images are usually helpful, but don't automatically send large file attachments. Plain text is best (and a phone call first is usually better).