Inbox ballast: where content marketing is going wrong

I recently read the following in an update from a recruiter on LinkedIn:

“If you’re an experienced Content Editor with a passion for technology then get in touch! I’m looking for someone who wants to work for a leading content agency with some of the biggest tech brands!”

There it is, I thought to myself, that’s what’s wrong with content marketing and why it is doomed to fail.

Here’s the thing … the best editors and writers are those with a background in journalism. I’m not talking in absolutes; I’m not saying “if you were never a journalist you are a terrible writer.” Nor do I think all journalists are great writers. But the training and experience you get in journalism equips you with a set of skills others in the PR-marketing-comms sector don’t have.

You can argue differently if you like, but you’ll be wrong. After all, there are people out there who’ll put together a plausible sounding argument that the world is flat. The world isn’t flat, and the best writers tend to be, or have been, journalists. Go ahead and argue… I’ll be silently judging you while nodding and smiling.

The best journalists (and by default that now includes writers and editors) are a little bit cynical, hard to convince, determined not to be fobbed off with the superficial. Quite often they are not easy to get along with, are somewhat at odds with the world around them, and are perpetual outsiders. They like writing, they like ideas, they like information. Often they like the thrill of chasing down a good story and uncovering something that would otherwise have been left hidden.

They’re not, typically, credulous cheerleaders for brands and their wares. Nor do they generally identify themselves as passionate in the way that poor old word gets abused in the recruitment sector.

The emphasis on the prowess of the brand is behind so much of what’s wrong in the content marketing world.

It’s almost never going to be the brand that’s the draw from the reader’s point of view … it’s the story, the contents of the thing that gets described as content, if you follow my drift. The exceptions – where the brand is what people come for – are the big, well established, or the ultra cool. They’re not churning out sub-standard drossy content that bores people to tears though, in the main. There’s a link there between the things they say and the way they are perceived. But it’s a link that seems to be invisible to many well-meaning CMOs and their content houses.

If you can’t think objectively about what you’re doing with your so-called content marketing you’ll just be churning out low grade inbox ballast. There’s no shortage of that. People who are passionate about working with the biggest brands are unlikely to ever be able to think dispassionately about the audience, or about the story, or about the brand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stoptober – just make it stop

Encouraging people to look after their health is a good thing. Eat less fat and sugar, take more exercise, don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t smoke – all good, solid advice dished out in large helpings by doctors the length and breadth of the country.

In the UK, the NHS is running a month-long ‘stop smoking’ campaign in October. It’s called Stoptober.

While making my way through the centre of Reading on Sunday 21 September, I witnessed the local launch of Stoptober.

It was dismal. And that’s the kindest word I can find for it.

The town’s two MPs were there, as were five or six journalists and photographers, and at maybe 10 organisers/helpers. At 11am there were kick-off speeches from one of the organisers and the two MPs. What else happens at 11am on Sunday in Reading? The shops open. If you want to experience the centre of one of the UK’s largest towns at its absolute quietest, get there around 11am on a Sunday. Parking’s a breeze and shopping’s an absolute joy because there’s hardly anyone there.

What’s that, there’s hardly anyone there? Yes, hardly anyone there.

Just to recap then – two MPs, a marquee, a PA system, loads of balloons, a dozen or so people handing out balloons and leaflets, all being paid for via the public purse, but hardly anyone there.

I saw (nay, I *counted*) three members of the public standing and listening to the launch of Stoptober in Reading.

Dismal.

Why on earth coincide a launch of a month-long, publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign with one of the quietest times in the shopping week?

I can only presume the answer to that is something like “because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

If that sounds harsh, it’s meant to be harsh.

Smoking and related illnesses are a blight on the UK. In addition to the misery they cause, there’s also the cost to the health service to consider. To squander the opportunity to make a big and positive launch for such a campaign, and thereby waste the money being spent on that launch, demonstrates a lack of professionalism and accountability.

After the lacklustre speeches had finished I went on my way, only to be stopped by one of the leaflet ‘n’ balloon folk. “Do you know anyone who smokes?” she asked me, almost apologetically. I just shook my head and kept walking.

Targetting is also beyond the grasp of the gang of spend thrifts who decided on this launch, it would appear.

I don’t doubt the supine local press will find positive things to say about the launch, grateful as they are for real events to cover. But they shouldn’t. They should ignore the MPs’ speeches and the colourful balloons and they question the manner in which the money was spent on this event and how its effectiveness will be measured.

You could argue, and many people do, that if people want to smoke let them smoke, plus taxes on tobacco raise huge sums of money for the government.

I might or indeed I might not agree with that viewpoint. That’s not my point here. Once the decision has been taken to embark on a publicly-funded anti-smoking campaign paid for by smokers and non-smokers alike there is a responsibility to ensure that money is spent properly.

Not wasted, which it clearly was this morning.

Stoptober
Stoptober: make it stop

 

If you want information on stopping smoking, click here for the Stoptober website.

 

The war for digital hearts and minds

There’s been a bit of a turf war going on in the advertising/marketing/PR world for several years now, and it’s not really showing any signs of resolving itself.

It’s the war for digital hearts and minds and it’s being fought across all the major social media networks. From the familiar landscapes of Twitter and Facebook, through to the newer territories of Microsoft’s Socl, the revitalised MySpace and on into Pintererst, Instagram and beyond.

In business communications circles, everyone acts like they have the right to own social media: advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and PR firms. And it doesn’t stop there – there are digital creative agencies, interactive marketing houses and tech-based SEO companies. All claiming they have the secret sauce that will help a brand cover itself in digital glory.

But it’s the PR world that has the strongest claim, in my opinion.

Before you pull a muscle shouting “he would say that, wouldn’t he” let me explain why I think that.

One of the key functions of the PR industry is to intercede with the media on behalf of its clients. The media is changing, indeed has already changed, due to the impact of the internet and social media. The PR industry is changing with it.

Circulation figures for all newspapers are lower, as are advertising revenues from their print-based activities. The BBC, the Financial Times and the Guardian are just three of the UK’s major broadcast and print names that are investing heavily in their digital output. Some titles, including Newsweek, have turned their backs on print altogether.

This move to more digital-friendly output from mainstream news providers is more than a passing phase. The traditional reliance on the written word has decreased as video and graphics are increasingly sought out by readers and viewers, and this is a tide that is unlikely to turn any time soon. As a result, the PR industry has had to learn how to craft its clients’ messages and brand stories into formats that meet the needs of these changed media requirements.

But my reasons go deeper than simply the ability to update story formats.

Despite the many different views on what constitutes successful social media engagement, there is perhaps one aspect that everyone agrees on, and that is that social media requires a more discursive approach to corporate communications. The audience you reach via Facebook, for example, is not receptive to one-way communications, they will expect brands to listen as much (more, even) than they talk.

Get that bit wrong, and the rest of whatever it is you’re up to won’t matter a jot.

This is why, in my opinion, if any of the marketing disciplines can claim any form of ownership of social media outreach, it has to be PR.

PR is the only branch, if I can call it that, of the marketing tree, and I realise I probably can’t call it that, where conversation is one of the fundamental building blocks of the whole discipline.

In the event of a crisis that has dragged you into the media spotlight, who is it that businesses turn to for help? It’s not the ad agency. It’s not the web designer. It’s not the marketing consultant. It’s the PR people.

Why..? PR people have no magic powers, after all. Well, it’s because the PR world knows how to listen, how and when to talk, how to avoid making things worse by lying, and how to think on its feet.

Nowhere are those traits more welcome than in the world of social media.

This piece was first published on the Nexus Communications website. You can find it here.

 

 

Breaking news: sorry Twitter, journalism still wins out

Two things happened in London in the space of 24 hours that, once again, had me – and plenty of others – musing on the role of Twitter as a channel for breaking news.

On Thursday 26 April, there was an incident on the Bakerloo line of the London Underground (that’s the brown one).

I learned about it first thanks to twitter. But here’s what I learned. I learned that something had happened – it might have been a tube train crash, or a collapsed tunnel, or a train might have hit a bulge in the wall of a tunnel, or the tunnel might be flooded, or some plasterwork might have fallen off the tunnel walls onto the track, or there might have been a terrorist attack.

My, what a lot of things I learned from Twitter that morning.

I looked online at some reputable news providers’ websites to see what I might learn from them.  It took a while for the news to appear on the likes of the BBC or the Evening Standard websites. As is right and proper.

On Friday 27 April, news broke on Twitter that there had been a bomb scare on Tottenham Court Road (a very busy shopping street, complete with a major theatre, lots of offices, pubs, restaurants etc, and a tube station that was featured in An American Werewolf in London). There were pics too.

Someone observed that the bomb scare (which during the time I was writing this piece morphed into a hostage situation) had been trending on Twitter for half an hour, but still no mention on the mainstream news sites…. prompting one person to ask  “do we need 24hr news channels anymore?” (@mattaudley)

But I like this tweet best: “What the hell is going on at #tcr?!? The bazillion varied reports are bloody confusing!” (@/betti_ttt)

The story was still developing while I was writing, but this is the BBC’s take on it. And as of the time I published this piece, there were no reports of injuries – I can only hope that stays the case.

Responsible journalism demands that stories are confirmed (“stood up” in the vernacular). That you have more than one source to corroborate the lead or rumour, and that you explore the facts. At its heart the job of the journalist is to find out what is actually going on and present people with reliable facts*. Otherwise news is nothing more than a lot of rumour and speculation.

There is (and will always be) a role for traditional journalism and regular news outlets – it’s in cutting through the confusion and presenting people with the facts.

That’s something Twitter will never be able to do, because even if one tweet gets immediately to the heart of the matter, the next 50 might offer nothing but fear, uncertainty and doubt. And how on earth is one to tell the difference.

footnote: anyone who tells you journalism is all about getting to “the truth” is either a self-aggrandising liar, or a fool.

 

In praise of the front page corpse shot

The Roman poet Horace said: “pale death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.”

And so it goes today, as it did more than 2,000 years ago when those words were written.

I was reminded of those words yesterday, upon hearing of the death of Muammar “Colonel” Gaddafi. A man who’s lowly start in life belied what was to come in later years – as he installed himself as the self-styled brother leader of Libya; autocratic king in all but name.

Like most tyrants, he got the end he probably deserved. Found cowering in a drainage tunnel, he was dragged out, beaten and shot. His corpse was dragged through the street for all to see. But not, from what I’ve read, hung upside down outside a petrol station, as the Italians did when they fell out of love with Mussolini in 1945.

It is said that it’s not enough for justice to be done. It must be seen to be done. That’s a viewpoint I have a great deal of sympathy with. But while I’m not a proponent of censorship per se, I do think that there needs to be some judgement exercised when it comes to broadcasting the image of a blood-stained corpse across the world via the mass media.

My colleague Julian Moore summed up one of the things that bothers me about the image of the dead Gaddafi, which currently adorns many of the UK national papers’ front pages: “Kids need to be brought up not thinking that violence is an acceptable part of everyday life. This doesn’t help do that.”

Telling stories, human nature and social media

Since the very dawn of time itself mankind has told stories.

Ok, maybe not since the dawn of time perhaps “since the evolution of language” would have been more accurate. But that didn’t sound very story-like.

Someone once told me that all the stories we are familiar with are in fact based on just a handful of original story ideas that came into being eons ago.

That could be true.

Certainly many cultures have a rich story-telling tradition. Viking sagas, the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, Greek myths, the Tales of 1,001 Nights – frankly there’s loads.

Stories don’t just come in that more obvious narrative format either. Cave paintings, totem poles, the adornments on boomerangs – graphical story-telling is a strong part of human history.

We’ve come a long way from sitting round the fire recounting our ancestors’ tales of derring-do or painting on cave walls. But stories are still a fundamental part of who we are as individuals, as nations and also in relation to how brands identify themselves.

The approach taken by advertisers and marketers just a generation or two ago looks naive by our sophisticated 21st century standards. It was, with some exceptions, “here’s our product – buy it.”

And while that approach still exists – and of course the motivation of generating sales is still hugely valid – consumers tend now to switch off to a lot of that stuff. We’re all so accustomed to being marketed to that maybe we’ve started to become immune.

Whether you call it PR, communications, marcomms, or whatever, those who ply their trade in the same sector as I are in the business of telling stories. Stories that will resonate with our clients’ target audiences and give them a sense of affinity with a particular brand.

This can be seen being played out in the digital space even more clearly, where the time between brand execution and customer feedback grows ever shorter.

But much like the crazy preacher-man berating the passing crowds at Oxford Circus I passed this morning, there’s a danger we end up trying to tell our stories to people who simply aren’t interested.

Again, the online world has made this trap ever more easy to fall into.

The fundamentals of story-telling – much like the fundamentals of human nature, in my opinion – remain:

  • Get the story right
  • Know who it is that you want to tell your story to
  • Be sure you’re talking when (and where) they will listen.
  • And who knows, maybe even ask them to share their stories with you too

We haven’t really come such a long way at all, in this story-teller’s opinion.

Although at least we’re not still writing on walls.

Ahem..!

Yes Facebook, I’m looking at you.

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.

A letter to the truth fairy


A lot of rubbish has been spouted in recent weeks about so-called PR spam, ie the business of PR agencies and their ilk emailing press releases to journalists, en masse.

Most recently, a site calling itself An Inconvenient PR Truth has hopped on this rickety old bandwagon.

I can be quite an opinionated and confrontational chap at times so I thought I’d wade in with a few convenient ripostes.

Context – I’ve been in the PR industry for about 12 years. Before that I was a journalist blah, blah, blah.

I’ve done the my-inbox-is-under-siege-from-hundreds-of-press-releases-per-day thing. I’m also old enough to have had hundreds of press releases delivered every day in the mail (you know, snail mail) every day – in sacks. Actual sacks. On one occasion a room full of sacks of letters from readers. OK, they’re not press releases but they were equally unsolicited.

I didn’t view it as spam or anything approximating it. Was I missing something? It all came with the territory. If you’ve worked in a busy newsroom you ought to know that.

I have a real problem with the “Bill of Rights” on An Inconvenient PR Truth. I’ll pick out a few things I particularly dislike about it.

Right 1 – Permission required
Press releases should only be sent to Recipients who have given express or implied permission. Implied permission meaning the recipient has stated publicly that they are happy to receive press releases.
The very act of becoming a journalist carries an implication that you are aware of the existence of things like PR companies and press releases. So there’s your basic principle of implied permission. Everything after that is merely degrees of irritation.

Right 4 – Read publication first
Before any correspondence is entered into, the PR person will have first researched the Recipient’s subject focus and read the publication or articles they write or publish to ensure that the content is relevant.
Hard to argue against. But good luck with enforcing that one.

Right 6 – Types of release

A Recipient has the right to receive press releases about ‘types’ of stories that they are likely to be interested in and not announcements of any kind just because of an industry categorisation.
I foresee an increase in the sale of crystal balls.

Right 7 – Telephone calling

After receiving a press release the Recipient should not expect a follow up call from the sender. Acts of such kind only waste time and have no bearing on whether a press release is used for a news story.
The first sentence implies that journalists read every email they receive. Which is not only a whopping great lie but it seems to undermine the whole “PR spam” point of view. As in… if it’s spam why are you reading it?

That second sentence is also just plain wrong. I can think of too many examples to list here of journalists who, after being called, were able to put previously emailed press releases to good use. As news stories. And then called / emailed asking for follow up info for subsequent stories.

Right 8 – Succinct headlines
A Recipient has the right to receive press releases with succinctly written headlines so a decision of interest can be made quickly.
Define succinct. Something tells me this here Bill of Rights wasn’t put together by someone with a keen legal mind.

This whole PR vs journo thing is a jaded, even out-dated, take on things. It would carry more weight, however, if there wasn’t such an appetite among journalists for press releases and other PR-generated content with which to fill space. As a colleague pointed out earlier today, there are plenty of publications that don’t feed themselves.

Standards could certainly be higher on both sides of the fence. But surely that’s true of most trades and professions.

Maybe the PR industry should up the quality threshold when dealing with journos.

Don’t know how to ask a probing question? Can’t structure an interview? Get facts wrong even after you’ve been spoon-fed them? No idea how to use commas? Do you think second-sourcing might mean putting more ketchup on your chips? Have you ever agreed to come to a briefing and then didn’t show up without letting someone know you’ve changed your mind? Then you’re off the list – no interviews, briefings, press releases, photography, lunches, trips, etc etc.

How does that sound?

I agree there’s plenty of room for improving some of the practices that go on around press releases and how they are issued and followed up. But it would require a lot of cooperation from the PR industry, media list/distribution companies and journalists.

I shan’t be holding my breath.