IMAGINE THERE’S NO MEEJA …

Not a day passes but someone predicts a future that holds better prospects for the endangered giant panda than traditional newspapers.  Maybe it’s just my imagination but even some comms and PR folk seem to have started viewing the press as they would a partner whose looks have faded and whose habits are beginning to grate.

Journalists used to dominate the world for PR types.  It might be an uneasy relationship at times, but that’s primarily what we were employed for.  But then social media grew into a swan and some found that more glamorous and easier to manage than a cynical old hack.  As newspaper circulations continue to dwindle and social media and digital platforms gain, it sometimes feels as if PRs are falling out of love with the press and those who produce the news.

What would a world without newspapers be like for PRs?

All of this got me thinking. What would the world be like for the comms department if we woke up tomorrow and the traditional news media had simply disappeared?

For a start, there would be no press cuttings to review.  We’ve all had breakfasts spoiled by the press clips now and again, but after many years of cuttings with our cornflakes, would we miss them, and how would PRs see the news headlines before anyone else?

We’d also have to work an awful lot harder to create buzz.  Journalist-produced stories are still critical to getting social media humming about our clients, our businesses and our brands. Our messages would, I’m sure, meet a more cynical audience without the presence of those trained in shorthand and with a nose for news to separate the wheat from the propaganda.  Tom Foremski said almost three years ago, all companies are now media companies.  That is certainly true, but the impartiality that the press bestows on our ‘earned’ stores bestows credibility on ‘bought’ content too.

The day job would certainly be less sociable.  Interacting with journalists who know what they’re talking about is usually more engaging that reacting to random posts or tweets on a computer or smartphone screen.  Our smartphones would also ring less frequently with reporters on deadline asking interesting (read awkward) questions.

Today, PRs earn our rent when the grizzlies are on the scent of an exclusive.  I doubt our paymasters would sanction the same price premium for what we do if there were no awkward journalists to manage. The commute to and from work would feel longer too.

Call me an old analogue, but I love newspapers, warts and all.  They help keep our government, our institutions and our brands relatively honest.  When those institutions step out of line, which they’ve done quite a lot of late, the press help put them back in their box.  I’m not convinced that social media alone could do that.

The majority of new millennials don’t buy newspapers. They get their news, mostly for free, on social platforms.  But if they lived in a world where news is produced only by untrained ‘citizen reporters’ or, heaven forbid, by PRs driving corporate agendas, the world would be one big advertorial where opinion would significantly outweigh fact.

It’s true that paid for journalism as an industry is under significant financial pressure, and that pressure impairs the journalist’s ability to operate in the way they’d like.

So if you haven’t done so in a while, buy a newspaper tomorrow.  Or take out an online news subscription.  It’s easy if you try.

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THE LEGACY OF SELF CONFIDENCE

The global economic slowdown and the institutional indiscretions it exposed took a large bite out of British self-confidence.  You could see it in peoples’ eyes and hear it in their voices.  Who do you turn to in difficult times when Government Ministers aren’t above cheating their expenses, when bankers lie and cheat, when some among the press hack mobile voicemails and company directors preach restraint while filling their boots?

With confidence strictly rationed, people looked forward to the arrival of the Olympic festival in London with a mixture of dread and contempt. It was costing how much, again?  In the months and weeks running up to the Games, sceptics needn’t look far for the omens that would support their doubts.  Security couldn’t be secured.  Ticketing sites collapsed.  Transportation would surely fail to transport.  Residents and visitors alike would be embarrassed, inconvenienced and annoyed.

The cynics watched the opening ceremony so they could tell us so again.  But the opening ceremony denied them that opportunity, and them some.  The sun began to shine. Gold, silver and bronze began to shine for TeamGB too, after a slight delay.  National pride grew with every hard-won medal.  Even the sceptics and cynics quickly changed sides.

All of a sudden, Twitter was all-a-twitter with optimism and national pride.  Mo Farah and Jennifer Ennis, even the usually glum Andy Murray, raised the roof and the mood.  When we thought it couldn’t get any better, Chris Hoy, Ben Ainslie, Bradley Wiggins and many others obliged.

Closing time. Time to call in the debts.

Now, the talk is of legacy.  For some, it’s about getting sport properly back onto the school curriculum.  That would be both fitting and lovely.  But that alone would be to under-sell the achievement.

London 2012 has shown that Great Britain and Northern Ireland can compete on the world stage and win.  Away from the arenas, the rest of the world looks at the United Kingdom differently today than it did a few short weeks ago. They too have seen something they hadn’t seen in a while: swagger has replaced introspection, while self-confidence, mislaid for a while, has been rediscovered.

Britain is no longer the island that stands somewhat aloof from the rest of Europe.  It no longer stands on the ceremony of its historical past – that went the moment Queen Elizabeth II leapt from a helicopter, presumably to escape James Bond’s advances.  The country has been recast as a confident, inclusive and capable modern nation.

Business, big and small, needs to capitalise on the worldwide opportunity that’s been created primarily by an army of unpaid volunteers and unknown athletes.

It’s time to exchange the rediscovered British confidence and international goodwill for exports.  We need to sell the talent, the creativity and the organisational skills that wowed the world over the last two weeks.  To help make this happen, maybe we need to call in a few debts.

Rather than rush off on holiday, maybe the Government could put petty politics aside and start to lead international trade missions, selling UK plc across the world.

Maybe the banks could start lending at reasonable interest rates to enable businesses to compete and do trade overseas.

And perhaps CEOs who’ve been busy negotiating inflation-busting pay packages can tap into the mounting cash reserves they oversee and start investing again to grow.

The press could help rehabilitate their own reputations by holding the others properly to account.

There’s not a moment to waste. The window has already begun to close, in preparation for shipment to Rio de Janerio.

 

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PAY AS YOU ‘EARN’ MEDIA

A judge in the US is presiding over a patent hearing, where database giant Oracle is claiming $1 billion from search giant Google for alleged infringement of its intellectual property in software programming language, Java. The judge has demanded that both defendant and plaintiff reveal the names of any reporters, bloggers or industry commentators they have a commercial relationship with.  Both companies have agreed to comply.

Should the line between ‘writer and ‘written about’ ever be blurred?

The judge fears that any biased analysis or commentary published by any of those third parties in the run up to the hearing may have been trying to influence the legal outcome.  The event has re-ignited the debate in communications circles over ‘earned’ versus ‘paid for’ media and whether the lines between ‘the writer’ and ‘the written about’ should ever be blurred.  This is not a new debate.

During the economic slowdown of the early to mid 1990s, trade press advertising went on a go slow.  With revenue in reverse, a number of trade publications introduced something called ‘colour separation charges’.  It wasn’t ‘paid for’ editorial, the publishers assured us, but we had to appreciate that the printer wanted payment.  If the advertising department wasn’t able to oblige, the comms department had a budget, didn’t it?

With some publications the press release would not have been used if the agency or client refused to pay up.  Furthermore, if the press release (printed on A4 and sent in an envelop) wasn’t accompanied by a glossy 7” by 5” colour photograph, the news might be deemed unworthy of editorial attention.

Colour separation charging eventually gave way to advertorials and sponsored supplements.  At the end of the day, newspapers and magazines are businesses chasing profits as well as exclusives.

There is also a number of freelance journalists who will happily accept paid for writing assignments from companies and PR agencies.  A small minority of freelancers have, have the years, agreed to interview executives for stories they’ve been commissioned to write, but only if the interview takes place in an expensive restaurant.  The bill, the understanding went, would be settled by someone other than the freelance.

I don’t support this minority behaviour but it happens.  Social media isn’t immune either.  Today, a number of global brands – including Audi, American Express, and Samsung ‘reward’ influential bloggers with various items from high end sports cars to ‘test drive for a week’ to VIP tickets to glamorous awards ceremonies and free flights. These businesses use companies like Klout to identify the most influential bloggers and to manage the logistics of discharging the ‘rewards’.  Mark Schaefer covers this is detail in his recent book, Return on Influence.

But while social media may not be exempt, it may also, ultimately, eliminate the practice of paid for coverage.

Increasingly, brands are becoming less dependant on newspapers, magazines and bloggers to reach their customers, investors and other stakeholders.  Social platforms enable direct communication and engagement with the people that are important to a brand.

In many ways, social media delivers the perfect, unedited message a business wants to get across.  Of course any business that thinks that implementing a social media is free is destined to fail.

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