The end of social

I dislike predictions. But I’m going to make one… there will be no more big social networks. We’ve reached, and passed, a tipping point.

Why?

Because they’re all being strangled at birth by over-eager PR and marketing people, who – for all their impressive-sounding job titles and amazeballs CVs – seem to have completely forgotten all the basics of social.

Twitter and Facebook dominate the social landscape for most of us*. Similarly, they dominate the marketing spend of those brands that advertise on social media.

There’s a clear cause-and-effect thing going on here … first came the platform, then came millions of regular users, then (and only then) came the marketing and PR people.

That’s the way it works. The logic is pretty robust and if you felt like it, you could template it and see that it applies in many other walks of life.

Something has been lost, or forgotten, though.

Because now, when a new social platform launches, before most people have even created an account or downloaded an app there’s a slew of ill-conceived blog pieces and articles from marcomms people all treading the same tired old ground … ‘what brands should do on X…’

Almost none of them say “what brands should do is back off for a while, see if this thing gathers momentum, whether or not people will naturally gravitate to it, and if so what their behaviour can tell us about how we should use this platform – if at all.”

David Meyer wrote a piece on Gigaom which hits the nail on the head as far as the recent launch of Jelly was concerned… “Goodbye for now, Jelly – it’s not you it’s the marketers.”

And he’s right!

I’ve been an active and enthusiastic user of social media since before that term became common parlance – dig around in the archives of the Scotsman and the FT and you might even find me quoted in articles as far back as 2006 on how businesses could use social media for research and recruitment.

But it pains me when I see people in my sphere of work forever caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes outlook.

It really wouldn’t kill any of you to slow down a little, ask a few questions, be intellectually curious and maybe even a little sceptical.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, if we choose to ignore the old recipe for success, which turned the likes of Facebook and Twitter into the enormous beasts they are, we’re doing ourselves and our clients a disservice and we’ll eventually be over-taken by events – or smarter thinkers.

Your clients are – or should be – paying you for your consultancy. So be a consultant. If they just wanted to spend time in the company of someone to jump up and down on the spot shrieking excitedly, they’d get a job at a soft-play centre.

 

* – Europe, North America, the Antipodes, etc… ‘the West’ as it’s sometimes called.

Go ugly early

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is uncomfortable.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden prompted this revelation from the man-of-the-cloth’s man-of-the-cloth.  But more particularly, he was referring to certain inconsistencies in the story regarding that killing; at first the White House told the world Bin Laden was armed, then that he was unarmed.
Dr Williams’ reaction to this, as quoted by the BBC, was: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.  In those circumstances I think it’s also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.”
Getting to the heart of the matter quickly and being able to determine, often amid a great deal of confusion, the right course of action, is not easy and it’s not something everyone can do.  It’s a rare chance for someone in PR to tell the top brass to sit quietly and pay attention.
I can’t be the only person who has always thought the White House and the Pentagon would be stuffed to the rafters with the keenest minds in the comms world.
It’s easy to understand the difficulties in getting reliable information out of a combat zone.  Life-or-death split-second decisions don’t leave much scope for a thorough assessment of a situation before events start to take over, and in the aftermath it can take time to gather information, hear the accounts of the military personnel that were involved and so on.
Which is why the later version of the story released by the White House is the one we should, probably, put more faith in.
But it begs a question – why release the story at all before verifiable information had been received?
There was a lot said in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s demise about Twitter having broken the news.  A friend of mine said something to this effect… I may have read about Bin Laden’s death first on Twitter but I went to the TV news for verification.
After all, how many fake deaths have been ‘announced’ in 140 characters or less?
The title of this piece, go ugly early, is a phrase relayed to me by someone I know who was in the US Army in Afghanistan, as part of the comms team.  He was alluding to a principle that applies in crisis comms generally… get the story out first – before anyone else does – and stay in control of the message.
However unreliable the millions of sources on Twitter may be, its capacity for dissemination remains.  One of the consequences is that for someone in my line of work, whether in Windsor or the White House, you have to assume that someone somewhere knows something and if you don’t go ugly early they might. 

Top tips for journalists wanting to make it in PR

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has talked to me about the move I made from journalism into PR. My move to the dark side, which took place in late 2000.

I entered the heady world of journalism in the early 1990s, worked for contract publishers, several newspapers (regional and national) and magazines, tried my hand as a freelancer, went into the trade press and ended up as the managing editor on a news website which, during the two years I was there, grew its readership from 500,000 to more than six million.

The move to PR is a well-trodden path for journalists who have, for one reason or another, hit a wall and felt the need to do something different. In my case I wanted a new set of challenges, but didn’t want to have to start from scratch. Oh, and the money was a little better too – not hugely so.

There is no single reason why the move sometimes goes wrong (I don’t know what the failure rate is, but it must be pretty high). Typically fault lies both with the individual and the PR agency that has employed them.

A lot of emphasis is put on transferable skills, such as being able to write. If fact, far too often it goes no deeper than that combined with a hint of this’ll impress the client thinking.

The journo entering the PR workplace lacks a great deal of context of the mechanics of the job, the way an agency operates, the way a team works. That latter point is a good one, after all journalists are not, by nature, team players.

Customer service, appeasement and a can-do attitude also don’t necessarily come naturally to most hacks who have spent their careers marching to the beat of a very different drum.

My first ever client meeting after entering PR is something I will probably never forget. I’d been in my new role for a matter of days when I was sent to deal with a problem client.

The meeting lasted less than five minutes and concluded with a very red-faced and shouty client telling me that he was firing the agency I had just joined.

Culture shock…? You could call it that, yes.

So, here are my three top tips for anyone considering ditching their career in journalism to don a suit and join the PR party.

1. Get real
Be sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

You mustn’t assume that all your days will be filled with high-level strategic planning meetings, and long periods of crafting your finest prose.

How will you really feel pitching in a story to journalists? How will you cope when the features and press releases you have written are picked apart by people who will never be able to write as well as you but have the veto on what you produce?

2. Do your homework
Get the job spec, and find out what the responsibilities are. Meet the people you’ll be working with and managing – especially the ones you’ll be managing. Their careers are about to be put in the hands of someone with no PR experience. They may well be concerned about this. You need them onside.

Unlike a newsdesk, a PR account team has to work well and work together to get the best results. Be prepared to be supportive, nurturing and even nice to people.

3. Put on a happy face
Journalists earn their stripes by critiquing, by being sceptics – asking the difficult questions and highlighting problems and shortcomings.

Where they often fall down is coming up with positive solutions to the situations they have kicked holes in.
It’s easy to point out shortcomings, harder to put forward your own ideas for public scrutiny. But that’s what’s required.

It won’t be an easy ride. But nothing worth having was come by easily, was it?

If I had to include a fourth point it would be something like network – get out and talk to people.

But three’s a magic number so I shan’t bother with No 4.

Egypt, Twitter and social media tools

I have been an active user of twitter for about two years. I’m no veteran or social media maven, but I’m no newbie either.

Twitter’s helped me find work and business opportunities. I’ve used it to find people to hire, I’ve even forged friendships with people I would never have met had it not been for twitter.

Depending on how you use it, it’s an interesting and useful tool, or a way of revealing your ignorance. But a hammer can be used to help you hang a picture of your grandmother on the wall, or as an offensive weapon. It’s a tool.

Not for the first time in the last two years, I’ve recently found myself watching with a sense of mild bemusement as news of events thousands of miles away is broadcast via twitter along with a heady mix of opinion and speculation.

I am, of course, referring to Egypt. Political and societal turmoil – protests, demonstrations, and a death toll which rises daily.

As a former journalist, when something big like this happens I want to know about it: I want context and background, I want to question the sources of the information, I want to know how reliable they are.

The polarisation of the twitterati in such events as those unfolding in Egypt, is also interesting.

It doesn’t take long for people to decide there are Good Guys and Bad Guys and that somehow everyone involved, no matter how loosely, is affiliated with one side or another.

The other thing that really strikes me is the desire of many on twitter to broadcast every new, or not so new, detail in a manner that attributes equal weighting to everything, while simultaneously rushing to be the first to move the story on, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of it has been well worth reading – such as the piece I read regarding the manner in which the lights went off across Egypt’s ISPs. But the majority of what’s appeared in my stream has tended toward being tub-thumping sloganeering.

I can only offer conjecture of my own when I wonder how many (by which I really mean “how few”) of the people I follow on twitter who are avidly tweeting and RT-ing Egypt-related information really have an understanding of what is going on there.

Yes, we all know the Mubarak government has been criticised for being oppressive and not committed to a meaningful democracy.

But what do we know of the forces within Egypt that have realised current events offer them a golden opportunity to exert influence, possibly even seize power and have the country march to the beat of their drum?

The answer is as obvious as it is depressing – very little.

The history books are full of accounts of popular uprisings and revolutions that before long were exploited by those with their own, sometimes deeply oppressive, agenda.

But reading history text books affords few opportunities to show off about how ‘aware’ one is.