Political comms people, my thoughts are with you!
We're only a week into the General Election campaign, but I’m already feeling for fellow comms people who are involved in these campaigns.
#GE19 is like no other campaign in terms of candidate gaffes, dirty tricks and straightforward cock ups. It would also appear that all the rules of communications have gone out of the window. Sh*tposting was a new word to me last week. It’s a kind of a reverse communications where you put out something bad in the hope that people will share it and your message will get out there anyway! The Tories’ Comic Sans sign reading ‘unleash Britain’s potential’ was apparently deliberately made to look like a very amateur version of something you might put up saying ‘Closing down, everything must go’ in a shop window.
The thought process seems to echo Oscar Wilde’s famous line "There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, not being talked about.” The Tories must’ve known that their doctored video of Sir Keir Starmer’s appearance on Good Morning Britain was going to cause outrage online, but were happy knowing it would reach many more people. But while that one might have been deliberate, very many messages aren’t in the parties’ own hands. It was comedian Russell Howard who came up with the most amusing rebuff to the Sir Keir Starmer video with a compilation of James Cleverley quotes coming together to attack his own leader!
Even when things seem to be in the control of the comms people they can go horribly wrong. It would appear that Jacob Rees-Mogg has been banished to Somerset since his astonishingly inappropriate comments on the Grenfell Tower tragedy (presumably with Andrew Bridgen following closely behind). As a comms person you might think who let these people on the radio or TV? Or, as in the case of James Cleverley, to not turn up at all to be empty chaired by Kay Burley on Sky News? If the aim is to be a butt of a joke on the likes of Have I Got News for You and The Last Leg they are doing very well. But I’m not sure it is.
There was a fascinating interview with Former Downing Street Press secretary Paul Harrison on BBC Podcast Electioncast this weekend. In the 2017 campaign he said he spent much of it “quietly tearing my hair out” and that those few weeks were “not the most pleasurable of my professional life”. The speed at which things move meant, he said, that you couldn’t be on top of every bid the media put in for interviews. He offered some handy tips for those doing the same thing this time round. The most important was to know when lunch was being served so you could get the pick of the sandwiches!
With candidates having to be selected quickly and the main parties being more divided than ever, this election seems of have given the comms people some impossible tasks. People’s social media histories now cover a few years of activity so there are likely to be many more gaffes to uncover. On the same edition of Electioncast BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg advised people not go near social media if they had any ambition to be an MP. And what can you possibly do when a former MP from your party is telling voters not just to not vote for that party but to vote for the opposition? Please do answer this if you like, it's not necessarily a rhetorical question!
As I read this through before publishing, Tweets about Labour cyber attacks and furious dumped Brexit Party candidates pop up. It certainly is relentless for those charged with managing the messages.
So good luck to all of you out there involved in comms for the General Election, my admiration is with you! At least you’ve got Christmas to look forward to when it’s all over!
What 18 years as a freelancer has taught me
This month marks 18 years since I became an independent consultant; a sort of coming of age you could say. So to celebrate freelance maturity I thought I’d share 18 observations I’ve made during this time.
1. The majority of business will to come from people you already know, or people who know them (but occasionally they will find you on Google).
2. The most enthusiastic and urgent potential new client is likely to be the one that comes to nothing.
3. Remember, your contacts are the tools of your trade so guard them carefully. I’ve been offered an hour’s fee for spending an hour giving away all my contacts (my refusal there turned into a long term client!) and asked for my full contacts list when a contract came to an end (I politely declined).
4. It’s a tricky balancing act giving enough information to win the business and not so much they could do it without you!
5. A client can decide to appoint you more than two years after the first meeting.
6. The less work you have the fitter you are (time for daytime exercise classes!)
7. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t (arranging to meet the guy whose ‘wife’ was starting a website selling ‘adult products’ in Starbucks?) .
8. While you can’t afford day-long training courses in London you can get so much from the cpd available from CIPR.
9. You can get so much support fromother pr people. The people I’ve met through the CIPR Connects in Cambridge have proved to be great sounding boards, inspirational and great fun to be around!
10. You’ll no longer specialise. People often ask me what my specialist area is but after 18 years I’ve pretty much done it all!
11. You’ll have your one ‘meeting outfit’ and spend the rest of the time in jeans or gym clothes.
12. When you do spend time in an office you’ll realise how things have changed. When did everyone start sitting at their computers with headphones permanently on (causing some very one sided conversations on my part) or tapping away at laptops in meetings?
13. You’ll find skills you didn’t know you had. When asked if I could find 60 social media influencers to come to an event I made sure I could (helped by a great session at the CIPR East Anglia Conference).
14. On occasion you’ll bore those you live with stupid about the minutiae of your day because you’ve not spoken to anyone else!
15. You’ll undersell yourself on occasion, but you’ll learn from that experience.
16. You’ll wonder who the people are who get work from agencies who promise to link clients with freelancers (and you’ll have the ignominy of being rejected by an algorithm for one!)
17. While you won’t get the stress that comes from working for others you will feel stressed when you’ve too much work (and don’t know whether to turn it away) or too little you worry about paying the bills.
18. You’ll know it was the right move because you got to work with some great people on some great projects and were still there for all the milestones of your daughter growing up!
Where do all the older pr people go?
I was shocked to discover the other day that the average age of those working in pr and comms is 29! Yes, 29! That means I’ve been in this industry almost exactly the same number of years as the average age of the people in it.
Despite the fact that the average age of the British workforce is 41 and rising, I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’ve always had a nagging voice in my head as each birthday comes and goes saying “who’s going to take on an ageing pr consultant”. It’s always been a young industry (and female dominated – I’m sure there’s a link there), but if those people don’t go on to middle age and then retirement age where do they go? Plenty of journalists move into pr (I was one) but where do all the pr people go? Interestingly, according to the latest Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) State of the Profession Survey the ones who do stick around do very well. The average income of the over 64s is a whopping £81,000!
While I can’t answer the question about where people go (please let me know if you can), the good news seems to be that someone is doing something to stop them going via a Twitter campaign. I was greatly impressed by the fact that it’s a 40 year old man who’s leading the charge. Darryl Sparey of Hotwire has launched #PR60Over60 to “Help us address an under-appreciated vector of diversity”. What spurred him on was looking round his office and seeing he was one of the oldest.
I’ve written before about how I went for years thinking that the social/digital side of pr should be left to younger people (See blog below ‘you can teach an old dog new tricks’) before realising it’s not that complicated and I have subsequently got myself up to speed on it by reading lots and doing CIPR webinars and workshops. Interestingly, at an event on AI I went to recently it was a retired attendee who seemed to be better informed than most of the room.
Ageism in the workplace does still seem to be an accepted prejudice though. A friend of mine in a different industry took exception recently to a colleague referring d to her as “a women of a certain age”. This was made in reference to tech. My friend though pointed out that women her age have had to get to grips with so many different types of technology. We were there when word processors were introduce into the workplace and have had to get used to every change since. There were none of the luxuries of being a “digital native”, we didn’t learn any of this at school. We were also brought up on using the phone, which I still think is the best comms tool.
Just as I found working as an independent pr consultant a great career to have while brining up by daughter, so it should be as one gets older. Experience counts for a great deal and, unlike many other jobs, you don’t need physical skills that you might start to lose. In fact I read a news item recently that said our best creative years are in our 20s and our 50s!
So hats off to #PROver60! But please don’t nominate me, I’ve a few years to go yet!
Judith Gaskell is director of Cambridge PR, bringing a www.cambridgepr.biz. Creating affordable and effective communications solutions for Cambridge UK businesses & organisations.
A view from the pr lady's office
A view from our 'pr lady'
Apart from a spell on a magazine for the footwear trade where when covering an industry event I got asked “are you here with your father?” I’ve spent my career in female dominated environments.
It was very eye opening therefore for me to sit down with a group of young women who work in the built environment to mark International Women’s Day. All of them had stories of misogyny in their industry. Professionals in their own right, they spoke of friends they’d been at university with who had left the industry because they found they weren’t respected and not able to do the things they’d been led to believe they could when they were under graduates. One woman still in the industry had considered dyeing her hair from blonde so she might command more respect in meetings and others felt patronised by frequently being called “sweetheart”. Despite this all the women said they would recommend others to join them and felt the issue would improve as more women did join the industry. It occurred to me how important this is not just for them but for the people they are creating for after reading an interview with Caroline Criado Perez about her new book Invisible Women. She has discovered that it’s much more of a man’s world than many of us had ever considered, such as how women are more likely to be badly injured in car crashes because car seat belts are designed for men.
I think with the number of women moving into careers that are more traditionally male things can only improve. My daughter – an art student – is virtually the only one among her friends who isn’t pursuing a science career. One thing I find odd about art education though is that through GCSE, A Levels, and art foundation it always seems to be overwhelmingly girls. So when do men – who without a doubt dominate the creative industries – take over? One career that really does seem to have tackled the gender balance (from my outsider's view anyway) is the law. I’ve just started working with Top 50 practice Penningtons Manches' Cambridge office where all the staff bar one are women. They are celebrating International Women's Day by dressing in green, purple or white. It's a double celebration for them, as this year also marks a century since women were first allowed to practice law.
Mine has always appeared to be a female dominated industry, which is probably why I’m very often referred to as “our pr lady”! However, some research shows it’s not as female dominated as I’d always thought. The latest figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) show that there are 71,000 people working in in the industry, 40,375 of whom are women. The gender pay gap is at a staggering £11,156 (£6,725 when issues regarding job levels and part time work is taken into consideration). Under representation in the board room is seen to be the industry’s biggest issue, which could have a lot to do with it being a female dominated profession. Obviously the fact that women are the ones who have children is an ongoing issue in all workplaces (and one brought up by the women I spoke to) and it was after I had my daughter that I went freelance because I felt it offered the best opportunity for a work/life balance. I guess I was lucky that I'm in a career where this was an easy thing to do. However, it does seem that whether you are in a traditionally male environment or one where women have always dominated there’s still a long way to go.
So, happy International Women’s Day and that’s all for now from the pr lady.
Great headline, eh? The idea came to me when I saw an email drop into my inbox this week with the subject heading ‘ Fall in love with digital security’. If it’s possible to fall in love with that then surely I can get people to love my blog I thought.
Seriously, it actually got me thinking about how all of us in the world of getting messages across as well as those who report them love to find a hook to hang things on. Sometimes that hook is really relevant and can play a big part in getting those messages across. When it comes to Valentine’s Day if you’re in the business of cards, chocolates, flowers, candles, pink fizz, romantic meals etc it’s one of your biggest hooks of the year. But what about everyone else? Moving away from Valentine’s for a moment (after all it was just a hook to get you in!), I love a pr stunt. When I see a good one I file it away for future reference, But whereas back in the day the stunt was often done for its own sake, now it’s all about fitting in with brand strategy. There really is no point in achieving great impact if your activity has no relevance to what you do or no one can remember who did it in the first place. Many years ago when I was working for a client launching a range of tuna burgers and we brought in an England goalkeeper just for his name (remember who?•) and the fact he caught things for a living (we did get a lot of initial coverage that we wouldn’t have done without him!). Of course if your stunt goes wrong then it will never be forgotten. People still talk about the Hoover offer for free flights to New York , which must’ve been 25 or more years ago. I was also thinking recently about brands associating themselves with issues and how it can lead to a backlash if seen as too commercial when watching Comedian Joe Lycett’s concert dvd. He took issue with Barclays and diver Tom Daley about sponsorship of Pride and how it was very easy for a company to get on board with LGBT when it’s a very personable young man with a six pack! I’ve heard the same from others about the selective use of the rainbow flag.
Moving back to Valentine’s I’m not entirely sure where I stand on those who are attaching very serious issues to what is essentially a bit of fluff and the opportunity for those who sell cards, flowers and chocolates to have a chance to sell more things between Christmas and Mother’s Day. These serious hooks include National Impotence Day, the British Heart Foundation encouraging us to write love notes or wear hear pin badges to ‘show some love and beat heartbreak forever’ and National Marriage Week (although with further research that seems to be a US only one). I’ll think I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because they do have memorable links and are not just about shoe horning themselves into the topic.
Anyway, the shoe’s horned on now, – so Happy Valentine’s Day!
• David Seaman
January: it needs some better pr
So, the month when we’re encouraged to have extreme jollity has been replaced by the one when we’re encouraged to be extremely miserable.
Articles on party outfits and cocktails have been replaced by how to get fit on a minute’s exercise and the diet that “really does work”. While they might vary in content, everything about January is based on feeling bad about ourselves, even from those of us here to promote things, as we know they will gain traction this month. There’s Dry January, Veganuary, ‘D Day’ – the first Monday back at work when people are most likely to contact lawyers to start divorce proceedings - and the Monday later in the month when people are said to be most depressed because they’ve failed on their new year resolutions and the credit card bills have started rolling in. There are also the annual stories about the damage we’ve done to ourselves over the festive season. Since 1 January there have been stories from ‘Children exceed sugar limit by age 10’. This year also has its own special negative January vibe: fears of Brexit, bad Brexit and no Brexit. People have tried to be more cheery about January. Back in the 70s there was even a song about it by the long forgotten band Pilot. But, despite it having a jolly tune it had lyrics including ”sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me”. And it’s true, the month does seem to last twice as long as, say, July.
So what can be done to give January some better pr? The travel industry (an industry I once worked in) cottoned on to this years ago, with travel ads starting on Boxing Day and the pr manicure working overtime. But with Christmas bills looming these can potentially make us feel even worse. This idea is not likely to take on, but I’ve always thought moving Christmas would be a great idea. Surely it would be better if it fell at the end of January. It’s easy to get through the early weeks of winter and the festive season usually arrives before we’re ready. Moving it to the end of January would mean more time to prepare and fewer gloomy short days before spring arrives. Separated from new year it would also mean all the celebrating doesn't at once (especially if, like me, your birthday falls between Christmas and new year!).
But if that can’t happen it must be about finding some positives. I like to leave one set of twinkly lights up until the battery runs out, rather than go from a light filled house to dark and gloomy. And how about resolutions that give us small things to look forward to? I've embraced that this year. with a spa visit with frieands. a theatre trip and a pile of Christmas books to get through. And if Christmas can't fall on January 25, how about a “You made it day ” on February 1. It’s a Friday so you can celebrate all weekend! And while we all moan that January goes on and on it will be no time before we all start saying "Where did 2019 go?"
Happy new year!
Do PRs and journalists need a Christmas truce?
Last week I was asked by two journalists if they could use a photo of a lorry caught on some scaffolding that I’d taken and put on Twitter. If only journalists got so excited about all the client related things I put on Twitter or send them I thought at the time.
PR people are often (and often rightly) criticised for a lack of a new sense, for not understanding a journalist’s particular publication or how the media operates. #PRfail has become a popular hashtag among journalists and an amusing one recently put on Twitter by a journalist was an email beginning "I am quickly reaching my e-palms out to you". The journalist’s reaction was to “almost became violently sick”. I’m pretty sure he never got round to finding out the reason for the ‘e-palming’.
I often feel envious of journalists and their luxury of being able to find news and use it (although having switched from journalism to PR many years ago I can’t really complain) rather than find it in what your company or client has to say. My advice to clients is always to meet journalists half way; turn what you want to say into something they will want to print, broadcast or post. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked if I can get coverage for “our new website”. I’ve just today read a piece by Colin Kelly in the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) Influence magazine, called “Six Ways to Make Journalists Love You’. It’s full of lots of good advice, but I’d say the most important is his section ‘Have Better Stories’. As Colin says: “A great story will cut through anything, even in this very cluttered world we live in now... I like to train PR professionals to think more like journalists and consider news value in stories. If a story doesn’t impress you, it shouldn’t go out.” You might think this is obvious, but it’s sometimes lost under the pressure to get something out there.
But of course there are the very many times when you believe you really do have a good story but just can’t convince anyone of this fact. I often describe my job to people as being 80% banging my head against a brick wall. Social media has eased this because it can take you directly to the target audience (although you do still need to be newsworthy), but there’s no beating the third party endorsement of the media.
An,d in the season of goodwill, those on both sides should think about how they can help each other (like letting them use the news as in the lorry on the scaffolding). As Colin Kelly says: “Aim to have close and mutually beneficial professional relationships with them”. Fortunately for me, as someone who trained as a journalist, I’ve got some friendships with them that go beyond 30 years. And if they want a photo of a lorry stuck on scaffolding they only need to ask!
Is simple communication always the best option?
I love simple and concise communications. In fact when Twitter doubled the length of Tweets I missed the challenge of putting a message into 140 characters.
On a visit last week to the current exhibition at Kettle’s’ Yard in Cambridge I saw the ultimate in concise communication. A postcard that abstract impressionist Richard Pousette-Dart.(pictured here) sent to his friends and Kettle’s’ Yard owners Jim and Helen Ede includes just the address and a simple circle..For them, it was enough to get the message across. In fact circles and and spirals became an obsession for both Jim Ede and Pousette-Dart.
I love the way art is able to communicate complicated issues. I’m currently working with a fabulous artist Harold Offeh who has, along with three other artists he has commissioned, given an artist’s interpretation of the world-leading medical research set to be carried out by those working at the new Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre at the Biomedical Campus in Cambridge. Their creativity includes a talking mug to represent the part tea rooms have played in scientific discoveries, recreating the immune system through dance and stem cells via painting with UV paint.
Much of what I do is putting complicated issues into words and as a generalist am able to explain things in words lay people will understand (because I am one). When it comes to the current greatest challenge for explaining the complicated I feel sorry for those having to communicate the ins and outs of Brexit to us. They, unlike the rest of us (well me), can’t turn over the page or glaze over when faced with the issue in a newspaper, tv or radio. I guess the problem with Brexit is it really can’t be simplified, which is why we probably shouldn’t have been asked to answer a very simple question on a very complicated issue two and a half years ago (but that’s another issue entirely), suggesting simplicity isn’t always the answer,
If you’d like to see the films they will be premiered on Friday (you can get tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-cambridge-betterment-society-by-harold-offeh-film-screening-tickets-51683711372) and then available on a special website and the Pousette-Dart exhibition runs until 6 January. As far as Brexit is concerned though I can’t help you.
Well I think that brings me full circle!
Your chickpeas should be baked beans
The other day when opening a tin of chickpeas to add to my healthy working from home lunch I was pouring them out to face what you see below!!
After the shock it got me thinking about this job and the importance of an element of surprise. One of the first lessons I learnt as a trainee journalist (after the fact that every story must have a who, what, where, why, when and how) was that ‘Dog bites man’ is not a story, but ‘Man bites dog’ is. Things have changed slightly since then – I don’t think there were quite so many vicious dogs about at the time, but generally the same thing holds true. One of the first things I say to clients is that if they want to get noticed they have to have an element of surprise in what they do. Journalists will give them a paragaph before they say ‘so what’ and the story ends up on the metaphorical spike. On the odd occasion I've not taken my own advice (by probably not standing up for myself ) I’ve felt the wrath of journalists. “Shall I give you the number of the ad department” is one particularly cutting one! Slightly belatedly I’ve signed up to emails from PR Examples and here I really am in awe of some great ideas. Recent ones have been Greggs going undercover as Gregory & Gregory at a fancy London food festival , serving their usual produce to unsuspecting foodies who would probably never go near the place. I also loved the promotion done in the Metro newspaper for the Handmaid’s Tale, taking over the cover with the stark message ‘’Women are not allowed to read this newspaper’. Simple but effective.
It really doesn’t have to be costly. Just a simple idea of getting some hard hat wearing builders to bake cakes for charity got a client a front page story (complete with branded hard hats).
So next time you send something to the media ask yourself: “Am I sending them beans when they are wanting chickpeas?” If the answers' "yes" you're on the right lines.
You can teach an old dog new tricks
When I began my pr career we had a woman prime minister just about holding onto her job, and in many way that’s where the similarity to today’s world ends. We had one word processor and one mobile phone in the office, with most of our work done on typewriters. Our version of Google was the Daily Telegraph Information Service. We’d phone them up and they’d pretty much find out anything for you. I remember when I was working for a travel exhibition just after Thatcher had left office rang them to find out if there were any places in the world called Thatcher, Major, Heseltine or Hurd that I could shoehorn into a story!
Moving on 25 plus years it’s a different world. We’ve gone from a job where you worked to get clients into print or broadcast (four tv channels, national BBC Radio and local radio) media to a bewildering number of channels.
When social media first arrived on the scene and for quite a while after I deferred to those (usually much younger) people who had an expertise in the area and pr and social were very much separate. But I’ve come to realise that you can no longer offer your services simply as a media relations expert, especially with so much traditional media disappearing. And while we have many more channels in which to say it, what makes news (or storytelling as it’s often now called) hasn’t changed. So the old dog with a good news sense is still worth having . Just as 25 years ago your contacts book was everything, now much of it is about being aware of the many channels available, how to make use of them and how to monitor what you’re doing. I cut my teeth in a very different environment when you’d measure the column inches you got, worked out how much that would cost in advertising and multiplied it by 2.5. I now make it my business to ensure I stay up to speed with changes. Recently I delved into cpd training with the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) and have come out with a renewed confidence when it comes to social media, SEO and social media monitoirng.
If we’ve come this far in 25 years, where will we be in the next 25? Of course we’re constantly being told many jobs will be done by robots and that children born today will be doing jobs that don’t yet exist. The good news is that according to researchers at Oxford University there’s only a 1.5% chance that public relations jobs will be done by robots. Quite good when actors are at 37% and athletes at 13%! There’s life in the old dog yet!
Slowly does it!
As I closed the door last week on the latest ‘chugger’ to call at the usual inconvenient time I wondered why so many charities using this as a sales technique. Can it
really work? I suppose it must or they wouldn’t do it. But opening the door to an enthusiastic 17 year old asking me if I’ve ever heard of WWF while I’ve left three pans on the stove, a client on the
phone and a daughter wanting help with homework was both insulting and inconvenient.
This also took me back to something I’d read recently about the growing trend for ‘slow pr’ in the US. This is a name for what is obvious and makes total sense when it comes to pr (particularly in a climate where budgets are carefully watched ). What it’s about is choosing which media you think it will be most beneficial to appear in/on and working hard to create messages that will both appeal to these media and get a client’s message across. Journalists have long complained of the pr consultants (often a junior) who contact them with no knowledge of them or their media (the more haste less speed form of pr). I think back to my first job in pr when down in the basement was a team who spent all day photocopying, stapling and stuffing press releases into envelopes to ensure they went as far afield as possible (very often to a journalist’s spike). Those were pre email days and today’s equivalent is the clogging up of inboxes rather than letter boxes. In fact a letter in the post (particularly with a hand written envelope) would probably not be overlooked because of its novelty value. But what I learnt in my early days still holds true today; the best way to put across a client’s message is either on the phone or, even better and if you can manage it, face to face. But only when you're clear what you want to say and how it might appeal to the recipient. Which brings me back to the chugger. While face to face might be best I hope it might have occured to them when they saw me that I might well have heard of WWF.