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Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

Fortune-telling and Fact

Posted by alicocksworth on February 27, 2009

fortune-cookie2

Last week I went to a debate at LSE entitled: ‘Why Did Nobody Tell Us? Reporting the Global Crash of 08’. The event set out to explore why the media had failed to forecast the banking crisis and the gravity of its impact around the world. In spite of an all-star line up (Vince Cable MP, Evan Davis of Radio 4, Gillian Tett from the FT among others) I left disappointed. The problem wasn’t the speakers – the majority confirmed themselves first-class thinkers – but the limitations of the topic.

At this stage of proceedings it seems not only counter-productive but pretty uninteresting to delve back into the whys and wherefores of who should have clocked the magnitude of the problem and whose fault it was that they didn’t.

Two much more engaging questions emerged out of the evening: firstly, is it the media’s job to forecast world events?

Willem Buiter (FT contributor and academic) held not:

‘I don’t blame the media – they’re not supposed to see it coming. Prophets, scientists – they’re supposed to see things coming’.

I quite agree with him.

All this criticism of the media for failing to see through the fragmented intricacies of the banking system or at least failing to report it feels a lot like a blame game that is not only ridiculous but indicative of a misplaced frustration. Journalists are meant to report and report rigorously. They cannot prophesy and nor should they be expected to. Yes, opinion and prediction are important elements of the media landscape but they cannot be allowed to infiltrate the reporting of fact – isn’t that the kind of irresponsibility we so often castigate the tabloids for? Surely Mr Peston’s ‘warning’ about NorthernRock and the consequences should stand as a lesson that the media must report, not only with clarity but with impartiality.

The second more interesting and I think more pressing issue was raised by Gillian Tett – one of the few journalists who actually understood and attempted to report the fragility of the system – and disputed by Evan Davis when he said this:

‘It’s not the media’s job to bang a drum when no-one else is’

Forgive me Evan but I think that is exactly what the media’s job is.

Some of the most brutal problems the world faces are spoken of only in blushing whispers: suffering up-close tends to inspire awkward embarrassment or a channel change to perpetuate a sense of plausible deniability.

The media wields the awesome power of being able to drag these things out of the shadows and it is the only means by which social silence can be broken and allow education – education that is desperately needed around issues like sexual violence and STIs – to begin.

I do not expect the media to champion causes or issue warnings and I certainly don’t blame them for not producing an accurate horoscope for the financial world. But keeping quiet because it’s what everyone else is doing? That is criminal.

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Hothouse Foresight 2009 launched

Posted by amandapurdie on November 24, 2008

On Wednesday, we launched Hothouse Foresight, a research initiative to explore the economic, political, business, societal and media trends that will shape the operating environment in 2009. To mark the launch, we assembled a stellar cast of speakers including Paul Mason, Economics Editor, BBC Newsnight; Holger Schmieding, Chief European Economist, Bank of America; Professor James Woudhuysen, De Montfort University; and, Edward Mason, Independent Diplomat.

In line with our approach to the research, the speeches and discussion was broad ranging. It covered everything from the impact of energy saving light bulbs to economic restructuring; European expansion to the evolution of the Anglo-Saxon capitalist model.

The event – hosted at London’s Soho Hotel screening room – attracted over 70 senior communicators representing companies from many sectors.

If you would like to listen to an edited podcast of the session click here.

Paul Mason, Newsnight

Paul Mason opened his presentation with insights from his travels in the US, to cities such as Detroit which have been at the sharp end of the credit crunch. He also focused not just on the short-term economic impact of the current downturn but also explored what it means for the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, consumer expectations and policy-making.

holder_bigHolger Schmieding – a self-confessed optimist – talked about prospects for the UK and European economy over the coming year. He said it is likely that this recession will last longer than six months or so and we could be well in to 2009 before we start to see economic growth. He also suggested that – if you remove the impact of government expansion in the last decade – the UK has been growing at a similar rate to most countries in the Eurozone. Looking to the future, he suggested that this may indicate that UK growth in the next decade will be more line with the rest of Europe.

james_bigProfessor James Woudhuysen is currently finalising a book called Energise! which looks at how we can begin to address the world’s energy needs. He challenged the presumption that energy is a scarce resource and that we need to move beyond this ‘austerity mentality’ which punishes individuals for using energy and instead focus on creating scientific solutions to the energy crisis.

edward_bigEdward Mason presented his views on what an Obama presidency would mean, prospects for the EU Reform Treaty and what would potentially be the global trouble spots in 2009. He suggested that it is likely that continuity, as much as change, will define the Obama presidency as he continues to further and safeguard US interests across the globe.

The launch of Hothouse Foresight was the culmination of months of work and planning. Hothouse Foresight is part of our commitment to underpin PR and communications with insights into what is shaping business decision-making, consumer purchasing and policy-making. We will be using the research with our clients to develop high impact comms programmes over the coming year.

If you’d like to know about Hothouse Foresight, or what the trends mean for your business or sector, then do get in touch. We’d love to meet up for a chat over coffee.

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Can actions really speak louder than words…?

Posted by Edward Mather on July 10, 2008

Watching BBC Four’s programme ‘Black Power Salute’ late last night (repeated tonight at 0045), I was struck by the overriding sense that this one isolated, and essentially unplanned, gesture made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent shockwaves throughout the world that achieved more than a million propagandist pamphlets ever could.

 

A brief potted history: At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals respectively, raised their black-gloved hands, and stood shoeless, with heads bowed atop the podium while the Star Spangled Banner played. The act was done to show support for the Black Panther movement, and to decry the appalling treatment of America’s black population.

 

This act was unplanned, and only decided at the last minute, yet the subsequent effect it had across the globe was monumental, becoming front page news around the world, and is now acknowledged as an essential part of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

During the programme last night it was also revealed that the Australian runner Peter Norman who finished in second, athough appearing disinterested and almost awkward in the iconic photo of the act, was in fact also an integral part of the scene. Despite being a white athlete, he asked for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, that he wore on the podium, as recognition of how he was sympathetic to the other athletes’ cause. The impact of his act is proven by his subsequent treatment – he was ostracised by the Australian media and banned from the ’72 Olympics despite his unquestionable talent.

 

The point I would like to make is about the vital importance, and dramatic impact that actions can have, but only when done correctly. If we look at the recent pro-Tibet protests that have been dominating this year’s Olympics, the images we have seen are of violent protesters attempting to hijack the torch-bearers. When confronted by such images, it seems hard to feel sympathy for their cause, and you have to question what it will actually achieve. This is in stark contrast to the genuine impact of the peaceful and silent protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos – a gesture that was deafeningly loud throughout the world and truly monumental for the Civil Rights Movement in America.

 

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Tables turned…

Posted by amandapurdie on June 30, 2008

So much of the life of the PR professional is lived as the power behind the throne that it can be a shock to the system when the full glare of publicity actually swings round onto you instead. My extremely talented colleague Helen has just been splashed across the eminent built environment title – Building. She had been hosting a meeting of the London Sustainable Development Commission’s London Leaders for the “Building Buys a Pint section“. Clearly delighted to have two extremely personable young women on his hands instead of the usual grizzled building types the journalist couldn’t resist including Helen in his report and photo montage. She is horrified of course, while the rest of us are very much enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. My only claims to fame in this department are some desultory appearances in PR Week and the FT letters to the editor column.

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The things journalists hate about PRs (part 3)

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 21, 2007

This post is the third in a series. If you missed the previous two exciting installments, scroll down. (It’ll be like the EastEnders omnibus, only better).

Wanting to know what sort of questions you are going to ask the clients prior to the interview
This caused a lot of debate at our away day. In my previous career I often had no idea what I was going to ask until I picked the phone up to do an interview, so cobbling an email like this together in advance was often a little tricky, not to say a real distraction from the day job. But a colleague of mine pointed out that knowing the journalist’s angle can help the PR find the right person within the client company. ‘

That makes sense.

What if the journalist has a lot of technical questions, for example? Not everyone at the client will be able to answer them, so some email guidance about the angle of the interview will be helpful to all concerned – including the journalist.

Over promising things to keep you happy…
Don’t make rash promises. If you’re not sure you can get the CEO on the phone that day, don’t say you can.

Reading from a script/bullshitting
You can tell if someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve known of journalists who quite enjoy baiting PRs who clearly don’t understand the story they’re pitching. It’s kind of fun to ask them really awkward questions to see if how long it takes before they’ll crack and admit they don’t know the answer.

This should never happen. Why? a) As a representative of the company, you should know your onions. And b) If you get to a point when you don’t know the answer, say so immediately and get someone from the client on the phone who does.

Complaining about a headline
Reporters and feature writers don’t write headlines. Editors and sub-editors do. Many’s the time I’ve been made to squirm by an overly aggressive headline shoved inappropriately on top of something I’ve written, like a rancid Brussel sprout plonked on top of a beautifully constructed wedding cake. All PRs should know that over-egging the pudding in this way (to extend, or possibly mix, metaphors) is not usually the journo’s fault.

Asking for a “favour”
Depends on the favour. If it’s a gentle arm twist to attend a briefing, it’s probably acceptable. If it’s to cover a totally rubbish story, it isn’t.

That was my list. I could have come up with more items to put on it (e.g. pretending to be your best mate, making you pay for your own drinks), but I only had a half-hour slot at the away-half-day. 

For the sake of balance, you might like to read this – a straw poll on Mark Borkowski’s blog about the things PR people hate about journalists.

The Friendly Ghost has also had a go at defending the (ig)noble art of PR.

Brave soul.

Posted in journalism, PR | 1 Comment »

The things journalists hate about PRs (part 2)

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 21, 2007

This post is the second in a series. If you missed yesterday’s exciting installment and have no idea what this post is about, click here.

Conference calls/speakerphone
I used to hate interviewing people by conference call. I remember one time when there were three people on the line to me, one (largely silent) PR exec and two company executives who sounded identical and were both called David. Nightmare.

Having said that, it’s a brave PR indeed who lets a gung-ho CEO off the leash and then has no warning of the headlines that will appear once s/he has announced something they really shouldn’t have done.  

Asking if other journalists (rival or not) can be “in on” the same interview
I’ve never experienced this but a journalist friend of mine has. Bizarre. And very, very wrong.

PRs who butt in and start asking their clients questions in interviews thinking they’re trying to be helpful…
Another one that’s understandable if, as a PR exec, you’re sitting with a client who’s forgotten why they’re talking to the media in the first place. But butting in should be a last resort. 

Not ringing back when the PR says they will (e.g. within deadline)
An obvious one. Very bad practice.

Not understanding the concept of deadline
In other words, ringing at the wrong time, or sounding shocked when a hack on a daily newspaper or news-driven website needs to speak to a company spokesman immediately. That is not an unreasonable request.

The third and final post on this topic will appear shortly. Unless I get a sudden urge to ring up a load of journalists to see if they’ve received our latest press release.

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The things journalists hate about PRs (part 1)

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 20, 2007

Another unoriginal post topic I’m afraid. There have been many articles in the press about this. See the Independent for an example.

It’s not been ignored in the blogosphere either. Legal journalist Tommy Fernandez gave a speech (pdf) at some industry shindig in the US last year that launched a thousand blog posts on the theme (well, several, at least – and here’s the one that alerted me to the speech in the first place).

My favourite from Tommy’s list is number five: ‘Your clients are dumbasses and you don’t tell us.’

I must stress at this point that all of our clients are clever and supremely lovely human beings. But I digress.

I’m returning to the theme because I gave a presentation entitled ‘The 15 things journalists hate about PRs’ to my colleagues at our away-half-day earlier this week, and thought I may as well post some of its contents on the blog.

(As the list is quite long, I’ll split it into three parts over the next couple of days.)

The presentation was cobbled together from my own experiences as a journalist, and those of the couple of journalist friends who are still talking to me following my move into PR.

I should say at this juncture that most of these issues are relevant to agencies, not in-house PR departments, although some of them span both camps. Hope they’re of some interest.

“Calling up to see if I got a press release…”
That old chestnut… Some people (not mentioning any names, Charles Arthur) simply cannot stand it. Others (and I was one of them in my former life) didn’t mind too much, as long as the PR exec rang at a good time and was (ideally) adding some value to the contents of the press release. And I do recall at least one occasion where I was grateful for such a call – I’d missed an email which contained a story that I ended up covering.

The follow-up is just part of the PR/journalist dance, and isn’t worth getting too stressed about in my opinion. Junior account execs are often given this thankless task, and I don’t think the young ‘uns deserve to get shouted at for doing something they’ve been told to do.

True, you could say that, in these days of email/IM/RSS etc, the people who are doing the telling should know better than to make their junior colleagues pick the phone up. They could put an end to this frequently pointless practice. And I do have some sympathy with journalists such as Mr Arthur who are inundated with a host of badly targeted emails every day, none of which they’ll ever be interested in.

But I do think that maybe we need a bit more mutual understanding here, and less acrimony (as well as better targeted pitches, but that’s another story).

Asking why a story didn’t get covered
Sometimes it’s an understandable question: a good PR will try to learn what sorts of story rock a journalist’s boat. Many PRs do it so they can justify the lack of coverage to a client.

Either way, journos tend not to like being asked this. They don’t have to justify their decisions to anyone in PR – they are answerable only to their editors (or, at risk of sounding like a git, their readers). I hated being at the receiving end of these calls, especially when they descend into a verbal arm-twist (if such a thing can be said to exist). Some PR people seem to think they can make you change your mind and cover the story after all. They are wrong.

Not reading the mag or having any understanding of the readership/angle
When I was at silicon.com – an online news service for senior IT professionals – I received three calls in the same week from a US PR who wanted me to cover his company’s new product. The company concerned made the software that underpins mobile phones’ predictive texting capabilities. So it’s of no interest whatsoever to a senior IT professional. Not only had our ignorant PR man clearly never read anything on sillicon.com, he didn’t listen to a word of my explanations of what was/wasn’t a story for its readership. I very nearly slammed the phone down on him the third time he called to persuade me that this ‘really was a strategic issue for senior decision makers’.

Putting a contact on the bottom of the press release but when you ring it, they put you on to someone else
If the CEO’s name is there, make sure s/he’s available. The marketing manager is not a good substitute. This one’s nearly always the client’s fault, but it is a source of major irritation for journalists – and they don’t really care whose fault it is.

Ringing for a “chat” or a “catch up” when you’re on deadline
That one speaks for itself.

Part two of the list will follow tomorrow…

Posted in journalism, PR | 4 Comments »

Mulling over the social media news release

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 17, 2007

We’ve got a company away-day tomorrow (or in this case away-half-day – we’ve got so much on at the moment that we can’t afford a whole day out of the office).

I’m due to present on the things journalists dislike about PRs. I’m quite looking forward to that. Having spent 13-odd years as a hack (and many of them were very odd), I’ve long wanted the chance to air some of my personal pet hates. I doubt any of my colleagues are guilty of such crimes as calling just before a deadline, of course, but still – I hope I can impart a few words of wisdom. (If you’ve got any good ones of your own, please do let me know. I’ll post my list once tomorrow’s done and dusted).

After that I’m thinking of talking about the social media news release (SMNR), or social media release (SMR), or whatever you want to call it. The problem is that I’m not entirely sure I’m sold on the concept. True – the much linked-to Shift Communications templates for the social media release and social media newsroom look fantastic.

I’ve got printouts of them in front of me on my desk as I type, and my instinct tells me this is indeed the future. In fact it’s probably the present – see GM and Cisco et al for evidence.

This story in PR Week (registration required) even suggests there is journalistic demand for more multimedia content in PR communications.

And it goes without saying (although I am nevertheless going to say it) that embedding ‘bloggy’ concepts such as tagging and social bookmarking in press releases is bound to help spread the word online.

However there’s still a part of me that wonders if there’s some ’emperor’s new clothes’ type behaviour going on here. PR Week quotes Will Ham-Bevan, the deputy editor of Telegraph Create (The Telegraph’s advertorial unit) as saying:

“For a press release to stand out, it really has to make a song and dance. If I can click to a pack-shot at 300dpi, I am far more likely to use it.”

But what happens if there comes a time when all releases look like this? What happens when we realise we’re all naked (as it were) and journalists and bloggers can only make their decisions based on what lies under all the multimedia, blogger-friendly bells and whistles?

Yes, there may be an opportunity for the more progressive PR agencies and clients to steal a march on the competition and gain some early adopter advantage by doing this sort of thing right now and grabbing the attention of time-poor journalists. But in the long run I suppose it’ll be the quality of the story itself that will really count, not the way in which the story is presented.

Plus ca change, as they probably rarely say in France.

Posted in comms, journalism, socialmedia | 1 Comment »

Social media vs MSM (it’s 1-0 at half time)

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 12, 2007

FT.com has just covered a report that compares the news agendas of the so-called mainstream media (MSM) with the sorts of story that rise to the top of the rankings on social media sites such as Digg, Del.icio.us and Reddit.

The report (which was carried out in the US by the Project for Excellence in Journalism) makes for an interesting read, as it finds that there is little overlap between the content of the two.

To quote the FT’s piece:

“For example, in the week in question the biggest story for traditional news providers was a debate in Congress about reforms to immigration policies, accounting for 10 per cent of all news stories. It appeared just once as a top-10 story on Reddit, and not at all on Digg and Del.icio.us, the study found.

Mainstream media sites also tended to focus on a handful of big issues, while user sites rarely returned to stories.

In addition, the analysis showed that coverage on the user-generated news sites focused more on domestic US events and less on news from abroad.”

The next sentence is crucial. It reads: “Technology and science stories were the most common on the user sites.”

That’s no surprise – the early and most enthusiastic adopters of services such as Digg tend to be geeks (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Some of my best friends are geeks). The communities that these sites attract are therefore disproportionately interested in science and technology.

The most interesting thing to consider is what happens when or if these sites go mainstream (and it almost certainly is when). The penultimate paragraph of the FT.com story reads:

“The findings will fuel concerns about the situation of the mainstream media, especially as more people switch attention to the web and as advertising spending follows.”

I hope the writer of the article doesn’t mean that MSM should start covering more science and technology stories. It’s the geeks who really dig Digg at the moment, so as far as subject matter goes there’s no desperate need for MSM to change what they’re doing. They’re serving a different audience. The analysis also assumes that the users of Digg have reduced their consumption of other media. They probably have, but I’d like to see the numbers.

Regardless of that particular debate, the crucial point is whether MSM truly understand why these user-driven sites are so appealing. Power has been put in the hands of the people. We like being in control. The wisdom of the crowds should not be underestimated. And a lot of people don’t trust MSM.

Science and technology stories are attracting most of the attention on social media sites today, but next year it could be science and technology and the environment, then it’ll be science and technology and the environment and politics, then it’ll be science and technology and the environment and politics and sport, and so on, until MSM have no audiences left.

If they are to survive (and I think some of them will), the ‘old school’ crowd will have to let readers/viewers shape the news agenda. Channel 4 News has started along this route by becoming more transparent and blogging its news meetings, so at least we can find out why certain stories were covered and why certain angles were taken. That’s a bold and laudable move.

But the Project for Excellence in Journalism study suggests that even that may not be enough in the future. We need to be allowed to get even closer to, and shape, the decision-making process itself.

What does this mean for the PR community then? I’ve rambled on long enough for one post so won’t pontificate about that in depth right now, but it may be that we end up spending more time communicating directly with the ultimate consumer, and less time schmoozing journalists.

* UPDATE (13 Sept, 12:05pm): Roy Greenslade has just posted his thoughts on this report. Not entirely sure I agree with his analysis.  

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Why print-based media will survive beyond 2020

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 7, 2007

Jeff Jarvis has written an essay on the future of newspapers. Dave Morgan is writing one (thanks to the admirable Mr Jarvis for pointing me to the blog post which outlines his thoughts).

Morgan predicts that, come 2020, “we will have virtually no paper-based media products… We won’t have paper because it is a very expensive and wasteful way to deliver news and information”.

While I agree about the wastefulness point, I’m not convinced that paper-based media products will die such a swift death.

A brief anecdote: I was part of the launch team for the IT news and information service silicon.com (I’m afraid I am one of the hack-turned-flack brigade) way back in 1997. At a party to herald the site’s inception, our CEO Rob Lewis got up on stage and proclaimed that paper was dead, and that online was the future of publishing. He threw copies of Computer Weekly, Computing et al on the floor, which went down really well with the print journos there.

The truth is none of us (including Rob, I’d imagine) believed that paper was dead. His speech was a bit of a stunt (the party was in the Natural History Museum, so we were surrounded by dinosaurs at the time. Geddit? Dinosaurs? Soon-to-be-extinct magazines? Hmmm…) And while some print titles in the tech field have indeed become extinct in the past decade and traffic to online news and information sources continues to soar, the circulations of titles such as Computing and Computer Weekly have held up surprisingly well. Even some national newspapers are doing OK – the FT for example has seen its circulation rise in recent months. I think I’m right in saying that there are more consumer magazines around now than ever before.

Why? These old media dinosaurs deliver something that the web can’t. It is still easier to read long articles on paper than it is on screen. The experience of consuming news on your PDA isn’t as good as it is on paper, so travellers will, on the whole, prefer a paper-based product to an electronic version while they’re on the train, bus, tube or plane. Using a laptop in the bath (which is where I do most of my non-work related magazine reading) isn’t to be advised.

It is true that the quality of mobile technology is likely to improve dramatically in the next 13 years, as Morgan says. That means that some of the usability/readability issues that restrict PDA/mobile/laptop usage at the moment will disappear, as affordable ‘paper-like’ electronic products hit the market.

But Morgan’s quote looks at this from the industry’s perspective, not the consumer’s. I’m sure all the newspaper and magazine publishers would indeed love to go to an all-digital world (assuming they could migrate all their ad revenues online, which is a major moot point and may remain so for years to come). It would indeed save them money.

But does the punter care about all this waste and expense? Even in these increasingly eco-aware times, I’d say not. It doesn’t affect him or her. The Sun costs 20p in the South East at the moment. That’s hardly a major outlay. True, paid-for newspaper circulations are on the wane and are likely to dwindle further; some titles may well disappear before 2020. But nearly 1.5 million copies of the various freesheets are picked up every day in London. This is wasteful, certainly, but they satisfy a demand – and it’s a demand that’s unlikely to go away any day soon.

Will digital media really kill paper? One day, maybe. But not by 2020.

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