Creation Versus Distribution

I could have headlined this post “What PRs can learn from the word’s most successful chefs” but then I’m a little bit old-skool and object to clickbait-type headlines.  However, that the world’s best chefs and restaurateurs focus not only on the quality of the food they serve, but on the total presentation – from how the food is presented on the carefully-chosen plates, to the cutlery and glassware provided and the overall design of the restaurant itself – is a lesson many PRs can learn from.

Too much of one means too little of the other.

Too much of one means too little of the other.

I once asked my team to keep a record of the amount of time they invested researching, writing, editing and getting approval for the written materials they produce for journalists to use – from news releases to byline articles – as opposed to the time they spent building targeted distribution lists/placing/selling-in that content to the media. The answer – 97% creation versus 3% distribution – both surprised and worried me.  Discussions with colleagues across the industry and with a number of agencies since suggest this split is not so unusual.

That the media still complain bitterly (as they’ve been doing for 20+ years) about poorly targeted PR materials clogging up their inboxes can be explained in this data. It’s the equivalent of a Michelin-starred chef cooking up some fantastic food and then throwing it onto a plate and dropping the plate from a height onto a diner’s lap.

Technology is partly to blame.  It’s too easy to just click ‘attach’ and ‘send’ a press release to a pre-built media email list or to a database provided by Cision or Gorkana. As there is no perceived additional cost in sending the press release to the widest number of journalists possible, some PRs must be asking themselves “why the hell not?”

Distribution is also left to junior staff because it’s often seen as an administrative task. What does this tell us about priorities? Would a company leave engagement with its most important customers to its junior sales people? Anyone care to hazard a guess why the press release is becoming seen increasingly as junk mail by so many journalists?

The best press content in the world has no value until it helps a journalist publish a story. If you consider tweeting a link to an online press release ‘value’, you’re not dealing in press releases. Issuing a press release over a paid for wire distribution service that gets picked up by several news aggregation sites also provides a poor return, unless the person that sent it out is trying to boost meaningless ‘press cutting’ statistics.

In the days before IT-based automation, press release distribution was a heavily manual and time intensive process – whether it meant shoving press releases into envelopes or standing for an hour over an overworked fax machine. Because of this, every target was carefully selected. There was inherent cost embedded in the processes and because of this, care was taken to maximise value. If you couldn’t clearly answer the question “Why are you sending this release to X”, it didn’t get the opportunity to trouble X.

Until the PR industry finds a better balance between content creation and content distribution, between defining the story and identifying the right journalists to take that story to, and then taking time to carefully engage with those journalists, the industry will continue to kid itself it’s doing a good job.




Help to Buy?

It’s unfathomable that any UK politician could be so oblivious to the public’s resentment of the expenses scandal that brought British politics into disrepute in 2009 and saw a number of MPs relocate from HM Government to spending time at HM’s pleasure. I’d have thought MPs today would be ultra conservative when making expense claims. Not Maria Miller, it seems. The conservative MP for Basingstoke and cabinet secretary for culture, media and sport looks like she may have misunderstood the intent of the government’s ‘help to buy’ scheme.


A culture of disdain for voters, bullying the media and creating sport for HM opposition

The events were exposed by an investigation by the Daily Telegraph in late 2012. The paper reported that Mrs Miller had claimed £90,718 in mortgage-related expenses for a property she shared with her parents, something not permitted under the rules. These expenses were used by Mrs Miller to help to buy a ‘second home’ in London’s leafy suburb of Wimbledon. The subsidised second home netted Mrs Miller a profit in excess of £1 million when it was sold in February 2014.

An investigation was carried out and a parliamentary commissioner found that Ms Miller had over-claimed by £45,800 for mortgage expenses and suggested a full refund was in order. This week, after the involvement of the cross-party House of Commons’ Committee on Standards, the Minister agreed to refund £5,800 from the £45,800 the commissioner suggested was due and was required issue an apology in the House of Commons. Maria Miller’s apology lasted 34 seconds. The repercussions could last a little longer.

Mrs Miller’s defence is that she misunderstood the impact that interest rate changes would have on the amounts she was entitled to claim back. That any MP can be unaware of changes to interest rates, something that is of such significance to their constituents, beggars belief but we’ll leave that one there, alongside the fact that it takes only 15 minutes longer to travel from Basingstoke to Westminster than from Wimbledon to Westminster. What happened next is more worrying.

First of all, Ms Miller was obstructive and failed to co-operate fully with the commissioner’s investigation. This lack of co-operation was accepted by the Standards Committee and formed the core of Mrs Miller’s apology. Now we have learned that when Holly Watt, the Daily telegraph reporter working on the earlier story called Joanna Hindley, Mrs Miller’s special advisor, for comment, she was told. “Ms Miller is having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about,” she said. Such a response sounds a lot like abuse of office to me.

The Prime Minister has rallied around Ms Miller, suggesting the issue is ‘complicated’ and that a line should now be drawn under it. I disagree. Either Mrs Miller’s expense claim was entirely valid or it was not; either it complied with the rules or it didn’t. He also said this weekend that governments that waste taxpayers’ money are ‘white collar thieves’. Mr Cameron may choose to spend some private time reconciling both public statements.

The whole sorry saga outlines the level of disdain that many senior elected officials still have for the office they hold and for the people who elected them and by whom they are employed to serve. During a reception at the House of Commons during the height of the expenses scandal, a backbench MP complained to me that the salaries they earn as public servants are too low. Why, I asked him, did he apply for the job? Surely he knew the compensation the office offered before he applied? My question went unanswered.

Whether Mrs Miller broke the rules of not, or gained financially with inappropriate taxpayer subsidy is a matter for others to decide. But David Cameron is a PR man and the UK government has its fair share of PR advisors among its ranks. Where were they during the months during which this storm was brewing? Surely the conservative party’s comms dept is sensitive to the things that upset voters and advise ministers accordingly, as they would be expected to do in the private sector?

I think a political lobbyist with conservative party sympathies summed up the problem on Twitter yesterday when he asked: “How many more bad media days will it take to persuade Maria Miller that she must think about the best interests of the Party at large?”

Until such time as the best interests of the voters are seen as the only priority, I suspect we’ll continue to see such cack-handed crisis communications responses by Government and the dwindling trust (subscription reqd) in the institution among the governed will continue to erode.


The Grim PReaper?

A profound lesson in business

Watching a ‘Twitter spat’ unfold recently, I was reminded of the story of the CFO who complained to the CEO when asked to approve the company’s training budget: “What happens if we train our people and they leave?” The CEO responded by asking: “What will happen if we don’t train them and they stay?”

I’ve never met nor spoken to Robert Phillips. A former European CEO of Edelman, Robert left the agency in 2012 somewhat disenchanted with his trade. He is currently detailing that disillusionment in a new book titled: Trust Me, PR is Dead. The book is a crowd-funded publication.

Robert’s core argument is that the established methods of PR and spin used to cover up or justify questionable business decision-making has become a tired discipline. Thanks to the growth of social media educating and giving people a strong voice, the public is now better informed. It also has raised expectations of what it considers acceptable standards for business and institutional behaviour. Corporate and institutional trust has been significantly damaged and needs rebuilding but people can see through the PR confidence-trickery (my words) of the past. He argues that a new approach is required if the discipline and industry of PR is to enjoy a sustainable future. Rather than risk misrepresenting or over-simplifying his arguments, I encourage you to hear them directly from him here.

Some have suggested to me that the current breakdown of trust is simply a symptom of recessionary angst and that normal service will be restored when economic growth and recruitment return to normal. Personally I don’t buy that. I believe we’re experiencing a watershed moment in the relationship between the government and the governed, the sellers and those sold to.

Technology and the Internet are changing the rules of engagement for PR as they did for many industries. For the first time in over a century, the public relations industry now faces the challenge of developing relations directly with the public, not just through opinion formers.

That institutional trust has been fundamentally damaged and needs to be rebuilt is no longer a debate. But many of the opinion formers that traditional PR has influence over and who would be the first ports of call in that rebuilding have themselves become discredited in the recent reputation purge.

Whether Government (lack of fiscal control and expenses abuse, invasion of citizens’ privacy), business leaders (reckless lending and rate fixing in banking, tax avoidance in many global business), the traditional media (Saville at the BBC, phone hacking in the tabloids) among others, the traditional opinion formers now inhabit weakened offices.

The Twitter spat, meanwhile, involved a number of senior PR agency heads (some good friends and former colleagues) who rushed to dismiss Phillips’ arguments with the emotional objectivity of a parent whose child has just been called ugly.

Colin Byrne, European CEO of Weber Shandwick UK and Europe, explained that the industry ‘has never been healthier’ (Weber’s revenue is growing quite nicely, but that wasn’t Phillips’ argument); Mike Love, chairman of Burson Marstellar, made the point that PR has always been a continuously changing industry and that it will adapt, as before, to changing market needs. I think both have missed the point a little, though credit to Mike Love for taking the time to outline his arguments for and against in a blog post.

Of course, it is perfectly natural for agency leaders to defend their agencies in public, but to dismiss such a debate out of hand sounds to me a little like the CFO reviewing the training budget. The need for PR to change is a discussion I’ve had with a number of industry friends (agency and in-house) over the last few years and privately, at least, many have admitted concern for the future but lack a clear vision for the future. In the meantime, the agencies have decided to focus on winning more business in the hope that it earns them the time to figure it out.

Some appear to find the tile of Phillips’ book the most ‘objectionable’ aspect. Rather than dismiss the debate on a book title, I’d have thought the PR world would welcome the opportunity to discuss its collective future. I find it a slightly odd response from an industry tasked, in part, with understanding the way the wind of public perception is blowing. One proposed change from me would be that agency leaders break with habits past and actively engage their clients in what I believe is an important discussion for all of us. Ultimately, it is in corporate boardrooms that the debate on the future of PR will be settled.

Whether Phillips is the Grim PReaper, as some have implied, simply over-selling the challenge to make the point (or sell his book), none of us can truly know for sure. Personally, I’m with Phillips and I think he is right in trying to generate the right debate at the right time. Of course, we can all choose to carry on as if nothing has or will change. As W Edwards Deming said, it is not necessary to change because survival is not mandatory.