IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. A recent podcast reminded me. Speaking on the podcast (regretfully not bookmarked and now lost), PR man Mark Borkowski pointed out that the Daily Mail gets 20,000 press releases every week. The average cost of creating and distributing a press release is in the region of £600. The mind boggles even before you do the sums.

For Immediate ReleaseSome people have started to call time on the press release. What started with a few dissenting voices is becoming a choir. The detractors claim the press release’s best days are behind it, suggesting it’s time it made the ultimate sacrifice. With younger and more nimble social media posts as alternatives, the press release should accept the march of progress and stand aside. To be fair, at 106 years old, there would be no shame if it decided to wave a white flag. However, those calling for its demise are misguided at best.

The PR industry is mis-managing and reducing the press release to junk mail, complete with irksome junior telesales support.  Low on news and too often misdirected, the industry is refashioning the press release as an unloaded blunderbuss in a world that requires marksmen. None of this is the fault of the press release, of course. In the right hands, the press release remains an effective weapon. Rather than pension it off, it might be more beneficial to retire some of the legions of PR folk who think the best way to be heard over the noise is to shout louder and more often.

The press release is more than a written attempt to convince a journalist to cover a story. It is a matter of public record, an official acknowledgement of an event from the source. Taking that a step further, the press release is a compliance tool for publicly-traded companies with a responsibility for transparency and a need to comply with selective disclosure rules.

Just as important, the press release is the device through which most companies decide what they need and want to say.  There’s something about the act of writing ‘XXX today announced …’ that concentrates minds and brings discipline to bear.  Most press officers carry scars that remind them that drafting a press release is often the final meeting when disagreeing executives decide what was actually decided and agree what was agreed. Social media posts just don’t measure up as corporate decision-clarifying tools.

There is not a day that passes that I don’t get at least one email from a journalist, analyst or blogger somewhere in the world asking to be added to the press release distribution list.  I don’t recall a similar request for a tweet or Facebook post.

If and when the press release really has served it’s time, its passing will require the news to be announced via press release rather than a disposable reference wrapped up in 140 characters or fewer.

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CAN STEVE JOBS SAVE NEWSPAPERS?

While journalism is busy reinventing itself for the digital future, the newspaper publishing business has taken up residence in the town of Jeopardy. It’s moved in close to the high street where you’ll find the travel agent, the video rental store and the record store.  There’s a public pay phone at the other end of the street.

Newspaper advertising revenue has halved in 10 years

Newspaper advertising revenue has halved in 10 years

Newspaper advertising revenues have halved over the last 10 years. In the US in 2013, newspapers banked $23 billion less in advertising sales than in 2003. Adjusted for inflation, newspaper advertising sales in the US have fallen to the level they were in 1950.  Newspaper circulation rates are also on the slide. While digital readership is rising rapidly, digital revenue offsets only a fraction of the traditional decline. It seems like every month another established title gives up on print, opting to go digital-only in an attempt to survive.

Some 80 percent of online news today is free and it’s available globally in multiple languages in close to real time. Those remaining newspaper publishers hope that digital subscriptions and pay walls will stem the flow. The problem with pay walls is that they are a 20th century answer to a 21st century problem, an attempt to navigate the uncharted road ahead using just the rear view mirror.  Pay wall subscriptions ignore the fact that people have more choice over where they get their news today than at any time in human history and brand loyalty with newspapers is evaporating.  People no longer read newspapers; they read stories and commentators from across multiple titles.

The Sun, the UK’s largest tabloid, saw 1.2 million shaved off its circulation between 2003 and 2013; it has added an estimated 100,000 online subscriptions. The Times, the quality daily in the News UK stable, lost 260,000 daily sales over the same period and replaced them with just 153,000 digital subscribers.  The Financial Times’ digital edition is faring better but this is largely due to the niche nature of its content and the fact that the majority of subscribers can charge the subscription costs back on expenses.

Another challenge with pay walls is the subscriber’s cash flow. Buying a newspaper was a less demanding transaction when handing over pocket change each day to the seller; an annual subscription feels more like a commitment. There’s also the issue of generation Y who have little or no history of paying for news.

Steve Jobs made it possible for people to buy one song at a time in return for a painless and secure online payment.  By February 2013, less than 10 years after it first launched, 25 billion songs have been sold on iTunes. Apple has also had 40 billion app downloads. It took £10 billion in sales from its App Store in 2013 alone (other online app stores are available).

Newspapers need to look at their content in the same way Apple has led us to look at music, apps and in-app payments. Micropayments work if they’re easy. Yes, there would be winners and losers, chart-toppers and long tails.  Editors will know the desks that are profitable and those that are not. Stories that sell will survive while stories that don’t – well they won’t. But I can’t see any other way for newspapers as we have known and loved them to survive another decade of decline.

Of course owning a newspaper was never a surefire way to making a fortune. It is often said that a good way to make a small fortune is to start with a large fortune and become a newspaper baron, but now billionaires seem more interested in buying loss-making sports clubs to gain power, influence and social acceptability.  Judging by multiple discussions with various newspaper journalist friends of mine over the last 12 months, careers in the industry have become so uncertain that many are now prepared to consider roles in PR.

Few beyond shady politicians and dubious bankers would welcome a corporate-sponsored ‘newspaper’ industry focused on attracting digital clicks and where ‘public interest’ and holding authority to account plays second fiddle to the latest pop star’s indiscretions or simply what’s interesting to the public.

The only alternative is a news industry that’s staffed by independent minds capable of asking the difficult questions equipped with the necessary resources but in the long run, it has to be able to pay its way.

I reckon that, were he still alive, Steve Jobs might have made a go of it.

 

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WHOSE POLLUTION IS IT ANYWAY?

Air pollution in China is a man made environmental and human catastrophe. It poisons the air people breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.  It fouls rivers and contaminates soil and hides blue skies behind deep layers of grey, sinister smog.

Air pollution in China can reduce life expectancy by as much as 5.5 years  CC: Leo Fung, 2010

Air pollution in China can reduce life expectancy by as much as 5.5 years

Air quality is measured, monitored and reported at hundreds of locations across China today. A pollution index has been established to provide guidance and runs on a scale from zero to 500. Anything lower than 50 is considered ‘safe’ while anything above 300 is deemed ‘hazardous’.  (Thankfully, I live in Shenzhen in south China where the index seldom rises above 50).

When the index rises above 300, as it often does in mega cities like Shanghai (population: c. 24m), Beijing (population: c. 21m) and Tianjin (population: c. 15 million), people are advised to avoid physical activity, while those with health conditions are encouraged to stay indoors. In some parts of China, the index has recorded levels in excess of 500. People in the worst affected areas regularly wear breathing masks that keep pollutants from entering their lungs. This extreme pollution, which research suggests reduces life expectancy by an average of 5.5 years, is the ugly consequence of China’s rapidly growing, production-based economy.

Western government’s regularly (and rightly) call on the Chinese government to address this pollution problem, to sign up to challenging carbon reduction targets and to reduce the global environmental damage caused by the factories, the oil refineries and the coal-fired power generating plants upon which China’s economic growth is built and depends.

There is evidence that the Chinese government is trying to address the issue. It has committed $283 billion to tackle pollution over the next five years. However, the level of industrial growth that China needs to generate to ensure it continues to develop means that the solution is continually trying to keep up with the problem and it’s a double-edged sword: China’s economic growth over the last 30 years has lifted 600 million Chinese people out of poverty. Sometimes, balance is the most difficult goal to achieve.

But here’s the rub. The balance of trade deficit between China and Europe and China and the United States combined was just over $500 billion in 2012. In other words, China exported $500 billion of goods and services more to Europe and the US than it imported from the same regions.

This means that the goods produced in China’s production plants are being produced, in large part, for overseas (mostly western) markets. Western consumers have become addicted to the over-consumption of often unnecessary products at prices that only a low-cost manufacturing base, such as exists in China, can provide.

Everything from smart phones, games consoles (which, ironically are effectively banned in China), consumer goods, clothes, spectacles and industrial production equipment are manufactured in China for global markets.  Once made, they have to be shipped to the four corners of the world, creating further environmental carnage. In other words, ‘developed’ western countries have effectively outsourced and off-shored a large element of their environmental liability to ‘emerging’ markets.

That means solving China’s (and other emerging economies) environmental problems needs to be a team effort. So the next time we feel compelled to treat ourselves, and before we point fingers, maybe we should first ask:

“Whose pollution is it anyway?”

 

Image credit: Leo Fung, 2010

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