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.