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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).

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."