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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.

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Why I won’t miss PR Week

6 Jan

PR Week coverPR Week has been the trade paper of the UK public relations industry for as long as I can remember. And that was its problem.

Coming from the stable that also published Campaign, it understood agency dynamics – the process of pitching and sometimes winning new business, of hiring new staff, of creating campaigns and winning awards. That perspective works well for the ad industry, since almost all of those involved work on the agency side.

But it led to some major blind spots when reporting on public relations: it undervalued the role of corporate comms practitioners including internal communicators (mostly working in-house), favouring the picturesque over the complex, the output over the outcome.

By taking a trade paper perspective, it had a blind spot over public relations education (a large sector) and of challenging discussions around the professional project (boring and uncommercial).

New books were rarely reviewed in the weekly format, and academic books were viewed dismissively when there was more space in the monthly edition. I couldn’t find a single academic or educator listed in the recent PR Week Power Book.

Looking back over my 25 years as a reader, all the memorable issues have been in the monthly format. I’ll be keeping the July/August 2014 ‘agency issue’ featuring Richard Edelman plus the top 150 agencies (see picture) and the October 2014 ‘integration issue’ featuring Sir Martin Sorrell.

Danny Rogers, having also edited Campaign, was on the ball in noting the blurring lines between advertisers chasing earned media and PR practitioners buying paid media.

I’ll miss that – but have decided not to pay for more of it as I can and do read Edelman and Sorrell’s thoughts elsewhere. I can read people’s opinions on their blogs, and there are some excellent debates on LinkedIn and on grown-up blogs such as PR Conversations. We don’t need more of this.

I’ve grown out of a trade paper because it no longer reflects what I do or what I’m interested in. I still wince at the use of ‘agency’ to mean ‘consultancy’, but have had to accept that some battles are not worth fighting. But I’m not yet quite ready to ditch ‘industry’ for ‘profession’ because I feel that would involve too much spin.

But I can agree that we’re on a journey of professionalisation. So here’s my challenge to members of the CIPR, who have signed up to the professional project.

We can get our news and our gossip online. We can have some enlightening (and some irritating) debates on social media.

But what we can’t always get from this is perspective.

Beyond 140 characters

We need something less hectic (in annual or quarterly format) to provide a deeper analysis of trends, to look at the currents beneath the frothing water.

We need practitioners to teach educators about what’s new in their work, and for educators to teach practitioners about new thinking and new research.

We need a record of achievements: new members, new fellows, New Years honours, senior appointments. We need a place for obituaries.

We need a debate about the future of the ‘profession’ and its representative bodies. Do we really need a CIPR, a PRCA, an IoIC, an APPC, a PR Guild and all the others? Are we still a trade, or worse, multiple trades?

We need reminding who we are, what we do – and why it matters, and where we’re going (as well as where we’ve come from).

It may sound dull to some. But are we ready for a professional journal?

Prediction: 2010 will be the year of the blog

22 Dec

IainDale'sDiary You might think I'm five years behind the times, but the impact of technology is not linear, nor is it always predictable.

The Economist tells how commentators predicted in the 1840s that the telegraph would challenge newspapers. Instead, faster transmittal of news led to the era of the great newspapers.

Today, newspapers face bankruptcy. As The Economist article concludes:

The internet may kill newspapers; but it is not clear if that matters. For society, what matters is that people should have access to news, not that it should be delivered through any particular medium.

So we don't have a crisis of news; we have a crisis of news distribution and the need for a viable business model.

Here's my thinking about blogs. The first phase, championed by Blogger, Typepad and others enabled easy personal publishing. Yet growth in and buzz around personal blogs slowed as first social networks (like Facebook) and then microblogging (Twitter) satisfied most people's needs for expression and interaction.

Blogging hasn't gone away, but it has become less visible as the early adopters have been exploring new new tools. Yet quietly, this personal publishing platform has been developing into professional publishing. Open-source WordPress has been leading the way in this, as personal blogs give way to group blogs and sophisticated content management systems.

This development should not be surprising as it has a precedent. Newspapers emerged from the explosion of pamphlets enabled by the printing press (a disruptive technology in its day). At first, these pamphlets were personal and amateurish; in time, they became more professional and evolved into the newspapers whose names we're still familiar with.

So, in predicting that 2010 will be the year of the blog, it's not personal, amateur blogs that I have in mind. It's well-researched, professional blogs in specialist niches such as politics and business. The UK general election campaign will provide a local boost to the political blogs, and the challenge of the recession will boost the adoption of low-cost approaches to marketing and communications.

There's another factor in this trend. For many individuals, social networks and Twitter are alternatives to blogging. For the more professional bloggers, these networks provide valuable 'push' channels for attracting readers and encouraging the creation of communities of interest.

We've long been familiar with the role of the public relations practitioner as content creator. There's work here for those who are far-sighted enough to establish strategies and rationales for blogging engagement along with robust systems for writing, editing and moderation, while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of ghost-writing and the constant conflict between transparency and disclosure.

Then there's the emergence of a new role: the public relations practitioner as community engagement manager (with a blog one possible hub for the community).

Is WordPress the future of the printing press?

30 Nov

Eastlondonlines Today's Media Guardian tells of a magazine run by enterprising journalism students at Goldsmiths, University of London.

It's WordPress-based publication EastLondonLines

The students are 'to build an audience from scratch, market it, make it attractive to advertisers and make contact with … potential sources of revenue.'

It's clearly an active site with an emphasis on breaking news, as you'd expect from journalism students.

Our effort at student magazine journalism is much less news-driven, but this article vindicates my decision to create a WordPress-based niche magazine, Behind the Spin, two years ago.

I've had some interest in the vacancies on this magazine and will be announcing who has been appointed very soon.

Build a network, not a company

4 Sep

In discussing the future of newspapers, Jeff Jarvis makes an articulate case for a new business model for the post-industrial economy:

"When you think of news instead as the province of an ecosystem that is distributed and owned at the edges by many players operating under many means, motives, and models, then the notion of contribution, ownership, and control changes. People own their own stakes but they benefit by joining together cooperatively. They create a tide upon which all their ships rise. That’s a network, not a company."

Among the comments, someone points out that this is idealistic. Yet Jarvis cites some thriving examples of the community model (Wikipedia, Craigslist) and idealism begins to look realistic once all other avenues have been explored.

Apart from the importance of news channels to public relations, there are wider implications here too. It's possible to see public relations in a community engagement role; its purpose being legitimacy and licence to operate over the longer term rather than short-term profits.

You only spin when you’re winning

12 Jun

It's a potent criticism of public relations. That we shout loud when there's good news to tell, but go very quiet when there's nothing new to say. Kevin Moloney calls it 'hemispheric communications' because the PR sun only shines on one side of the globe.

There are new updates to Behind the Spin, focused around the themes of consultancy and technology (as well as the usual advice for students and graduates).

Consultancyissue Our cover picture illustrates a PR consultancy in Second Life.

That was something worth shouting about in 2006; but what's happening now?

I can't blame the consultants for treating Second Life (and other social spaces) as a playground – nor even for shouting about this – since how else can they attract and advise clients?

But I'm left wondering what happened next.

It’s about knowledge, not format

5 Apr

John Naughton retells the story of some great encyclopedias in The Observer. The rise of and fall of Britannica, then Encarta and the present debates over Wikipedia.

The debate is only partly about accuracy of content; it's also about suitability of format. For centuries, books were the only suitable format for a comprehensive encyclopedia. For a few short years (the Encarta age), CD-ROM publishing seemed to be the future. Now we know that it was replaced by the web.

"Of course Wikipedia has flaws, of course it has errors: show me something that doesn't. Of course it suffers from vandalism and nutters who contribute stuff to it. But instead of complaining about errors, academics ought to be in there fixing them."