The time is running out for vanity metrics

Social media has come a long way. You can tell this by its ubiquity.

Back in the late 1990s when I was a tech journalist, I interviewed the MD of Acer UK, an Australian chap called Dion Weisler. He was a great interview subject, quickly setting the tone for a relaxed and informative conversation, peppered with tales of swimming training (he swam in the Australian Olympic team). These days he’s running HP in Asia Pacific & Japan.

One of the last questions I asked him that day was about the internet. Back then there was a lot of talk about the internet and what it might or might not do. When, I asked, would the internet become something businesses could rely upon and use productively.

“When people stop thinking about it,” came the answer. My blank look must have prompted further explanation – “when it’s a utility, like the phone, you just take it for granted and use it,” he said.

That conversation took place almost 15 years ago; it’s funny how some things stick in your head. Well, in my head.

We’re not quite there with social media, but stone me if it isn’t just about everywhere these days. And almost simultaneously the world has gone stats and data mad.

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that we have the ability to measure so much, yet so many businesses and social media acolytes are failing, day in day out, to actually measure anything of value.

How many likes you have, how many people follow you on Twitter, how many retweets you get… these remain the Dollars and Cents, the Pounds and the Pence of how the bulk of the digital comms world accounts for itself.

And yet these numbers are at best valueless, and at worst completely pointless. The only purpose they serve is to allow you to show off about how seemingly popular you are.

Sooner or later, this has to stop.

So why not make it sooner?

These vanity metrics might make the less enlightened look, and feel, productive, relative and validated. They might even cut it with mid-level marketing managers who are being judged against a fairly unimaginative set of criteria. But they are no indication of anything transactional ever having taken place. Nor whether anything ever will.

Sadly, once those mid-level marketing managers’ quarterly reports go further up the chain of command, any detail there was starts to become diluted. Similarly, the likelihood of finding many people sitting on the board with an instinctive feeling for digital communications becomes a remote one.

Which is great if way back down at the agency coalface you haven’t actually got a clue about how you’re going to help your client sell any more of those things they sell in order to make the money that eventually trickles down and pays your miserable wages.

If no one’s ever really pushed back and challenged you on why they ought to be forking over great wads of cash in order for you to increase the number of likes their Facebook page gets, I’ve got news for you – they will eventually.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… as the line in the movie Casablanca goes.

A lot of money has been spent on social media marketing. The number of social media marketing case studies with actual demonstrable ROI doesn’t reflect that.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to be one of those who can’t answer the ‘show me the money’ question once the board-level execs finally start to question whether digital communications activities are worth the paper they’re written on.

If the things you measure are lacking in business value, you need to start measuring something else. It could be web traffic or sales leads, who knows… just make it something that your client’s business can relate to.

See also:

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets

 

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.”

The time has come to spam journos with video

Am I missing something?

A fully-functioning synapse or two? Or the point, perhaps.

I just read a piece on TheRealPRMoment about research from press release distribution company RealWire, which states “news releases including video content achieve three times more coverage than releases without multimedia content.”

It goes on…. “For those releases with editorial or blog coverage, the average number of pieces was 17.1 for the releases with video content. This was almost three times the figure for the sample without video content of 6.2 and four-and-a-half times more than the distribution industry average of 3.8 pieces.”

Drawing a comparison with the last such survey, the story tells us “Adam Parker, RealWire’s chief executive, attributed the lack of adoption of video to (among other things) the barriers that existed such as the prohibitive cost of some distribution services.”

Bit of a so-far-so-obvious, you may be thinking.

Here’s the thing I’m struggling with.

This is the same Adam Parker and the same RealWire behind the (always struck me implausibly-named) An Inconvenient PR Truth campaign, which put forward a bill of rights (frankly, I’ve never known whether to laugh or weep at that, and I still can’t make my mind up) regarding the manner in which PR people send information to journalists.

Let me break it down for you.

It’s a campaign that proposes 10 so-called rights intended to make PR people treat bloggers and journalists with more respect and, at its heart, stop spamming them with unwanted press releases and other forms of contact.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I dislike the campaign. I wrote about it here.

I’ve never claimed to be possessed of super-human intelligence, and what I’m now struggling with is that on one hand RealWire/Adam Parker (wearing the Inconvenient Truth hat) have advised me (and the rest of the PR industry) to tread carefully. On the other hand, the one that’s promoting distribution services via a news item about a piece of research, I’m now being advised to use video in press releases.

Too many people in PR can recount stories of journalists becoming quite irrationally upset just because there was a jpg or a pdf attached to an email.

Step forward if you’re brave enough to start punting video at people.

I’ll be the one eating popcorn and watching what happens.

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.