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Vintage Cluetrain

29 Apr

So The Cluetrain Manifesto is ten years old.

Much has changed since 1999 (blogs and other forms of social media have made the web a much more conversational space). But it remains an important polemic against most marketing and PR practices. These haven't changed fast enough.

Take the standard computer-industry press release (the authors write). With few exceptions, it describes an "announcement" that was not made, for a product that was not available, quoting people who never said anything, for distribution to a list of people who mostly consider it trash.

Is there any hope for PR?

But, of course, the best of the people in PR … understand that they aren’t censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists. Their job — their craft — is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it. Indeed, already some companies are building sites that give journalists comprehensive, unfiltered information about the industry, including unedited material from their competitors. In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever.

It still needs saying, so The Cluetrain Manifesto still needs reading.

Media relations: still a big slice of the pie

12 Jun

In follow up to the previous post (about students in the workplace) and spurred by a rather heated internal discussion about the extent to which PR students should be steered towards or away from media relations in their first year at university, I’ve done some counting.

I took ten students I’ve assessed in the workplace (eight in-house, two in consultancies) and I’ve allocated ten marks for each depending on the extent of their work in some common areas of activity. So these rough-and-ready figures are percentages of placement student time devoted to the following activities, in descending order:

  1. Media relations (48%)
  2. Community relations (15%)
  3. Event management (12%)
  4. Marketing communications (10%)
  5. Social media engagement (10%)
  6. Internal communications (5%)

The surprise isn’t that media relations is way ahead as the primary activity (it will always have been there for junior employees in public relations), but that community relations and social media activities are becoming more prominent. But my sample is small: the social media engagement figure represents one student whose whose sole focus this was for a not-for-profit organisation; the community relations activity reflects two students whose primary focus this was.

Had I included more students working in consultancies, the media relations figure would almost certainly have topped 50%. So should we teach it?

Truth may be beauty – but is it accuracy?

20 Mar

FlatearthnewsNick Davies’s much-discussed Flat Earth News is easily summarised: ‘Journalism today is little more than churnalism. 60% of newspaper stories are uncritically recycled from public relations and news agency sources.’

It’s easy to view this as an old-fashioned journalist’s lament for a mythical golden age when reporters had time to investigate stories, and when proprietors were benign media owners. (He dismisses today’s owners as ‘grocers’ because of their focus on margins.)

Because this 400 page book is so easily summarised and dismissed, I was at first reluctant to buy it. But it’s a much better and more worthwhile read than you might imagine. Take one small example.

Davies describes the primary purpose of journalism as ‘telling the truth’. But he distinguishes truth from accuracy. A news release from a PR source should be accurate, for example (names spelt correctly, facts checked) but cannot be truthful, since truthfulness would require a balanced account including mention of competitors or critics.

This truthfulness v accuracy issue is at the heart of the Wikipedia debate below. Again, contributions to Wikipedia should be accurate; but the entry can only become truthful once a balanced judgement has been reached.

In this analysis – and in my words – the journalist is like a High Court judge. Knowledgeable, attentive, patient and fair. The public relations practitioner is like a barrister: professional, persuasive and necessarily biased.

I’ve not finished reading Flat Earth News so I’ll hold off making further comments, but this image of magisterial and impartial journalism doesn’t sound truthful, does it?

And the rise of PR (cont)

6 Mar

Fall_of_advertising_2Though I cited such marketing luminaries as Seth Godin, Philip Kitchen, Philip Kotler and Al Ries, my talk on this well-worn theme still seemed to surprise some MSc Marketing students.

So let’s hear from Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of marketing services group WPP, quoted in Media Guardian:

"I can’t recall a time when PR has been as strong," says Sorrell. "Something has changed and the reason for the change is online activity, where personal recommendation and personal communication have become more important. And it’s clearly editorial and it’s clearly not advertising based."

Power of PR debate

26 Feb

BBC Radio 4 is discussing the Nick Davies book Flat Earth News. I heard Mark Borkowski explaining the growing influence of PR – but will have to listen to the whole show later on (or download a podcast).

How PR works (cont)

24 Feb

Newsworthy stories are by definition worthy of being reported in the media. The skill of the public relations practitioner is often in turning the humdrum and mundane into talking points.

Take the Travelodge hotel chain. Its ‘research’ suggesting the survival of north-south prejudices is reported in The Observer, The Times, Southern Daily Echo.

Two obvious questions arise from this. Academics (and journalists) tend to question the ethics of such manufactured news (pseudo events); marketers may question the ‘advertising value’ of a story that stands up perfectly well without any reference to Travelodge.

I’ll sidestep the first objection for now by saying that this is harmless enough as long as the research has some credibility (it’s not clear to me from the Travelodge website that this is the case in this instance); as to the other objection, I think this steers a course mid way between advertising promotion and independent news. We know about advertorials; this is a form of ‘journadvertisement’.

Half-truth business

4 Feb

Peter Wilby writes this in his Media Guardian commentary on Alastair Campbell’s Cudlipp memorial lecture:

Most journalists at least aspire to some version of the truth. Public relations, at best, aspires to a partial truth and, at worst, to outright fabrication.

Let’s acknowledge the large grain of truth here: Kevin Moloney describes the in-built bias in public relations as ‘hemispheric communications’ because of the tendency always to focus on the sunny side, not the dark side.

But Wilby’s language is nuanced. Which would you prefer: ‘some version of the truth’ or ‘a partial truth’? There’s little to choose, but at least, with public relations the perspective is (or should be) obvious and declared.

Don’t sell, tell

8 Jan

The key phrase for me from The Art and Science of Blogger Relations, an ebook from Brian Solis, is this:

It’s the difference between commission and fixed salary – it’s all related to the ability to sell a story vs. tell a story. (p. 49)

Think of the role of the PR practitioner as storyteller, not as sales representative.

In this (and in so much of the territory covered in the book) there’s little to distinguish blogger relations from media relations. Especially when many of his blogger examples, like Chris Anderson, are well known reporters.

Hacks v flacks special

31 Oct

Good, bad or ugly: which is most memorable? Sometimes we need examples of the bad and the ugly in learning (and teaching). Sometimes we need to repeat the basics, loud and clear.

UPDATE: This interview with Ian Green in HackFlack fits well with this theme.

He came, he saw, he Googled

16 Oct

I was sitting next to Philip Young at last night’s guest lecture – and admiring his shorthand. I somehow felt absolved from making notes and following up with cogent observations, confident that this would be done by someone sensible. He hasn’t disappointed.

Philip from Sunderland and John Hitchins from Marjon in Plymouth had travelled to Leeds to discuss plans for Behind the Spin. More news on this to follow soon.