How to turn your unknown expert into a media success story

News-jacking. Issues-tracking. Call it what you like, but a rapid response to breaking news has long been a route to PR success – particularly for challenger brand spokespeople who otherwise tend to get overlooked by journalists who have their tried and tested contacts to fall back on.

Image copyright: NY - (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Image copyright: NY –
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Having recently been asked to give my opinion on how to turn an unknown expert into a media success story, I decided to write a quick overview of how to run a PR rapid response programme; done well these have a very high success rate over time – they’re not always the overnight success some people would have you think they are.

Give journalists something that helps to move the story along

Your targeting will have to be impeccable (resist the urge to spam your entire media database). Instead, focus only on those you know have written about the subject in question.

You’ll be battling journalists’ inertia (nobody ever got fired for quoting IBM et al) so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get a bite – just have faith and stick at it.

You’ll need to have something genuinely useful to say (don’t point out the obvious, help move the story on – this is crucial). If you send something like this to a journalist you’ll be ignored, and rightly so: “Hi, I saw your story about X. My client is an expert in X. Would you like to talk to them about X?”

Make it inescapably clear why they will end up with a really interesting story as a direct result of hearing from your client … “Hi, I saw your story about X. My client is an expert in X. Did you know that one of the unintended consequences of X is Y? Would you like to talk to my client about Y?”

The following advice is primarily aimed at those new to news-based PR, or maybe at smaller PR agencies lacking resources. Although some established agencies/practitioners may find the following of interest, I would expect it to be a little basic for anyone with a reasonable amount of experience in such matters. I’ll apologise up-front if any of it appears too basic; if it feels like I’m stating the obvious, feel free to move right along.

  • Agree, with your client, the top three issues / talking points they could potentially offer valuable comment on. These should be issues that have a tendency to arise in the media. It might be a shortage of acute-care beds in UK hospitals in winter, or the tension between GPs and A&E departments who both suffer from a lack of resources and too many patients. It might be something to do with protecting your smart-home devices from cyber attacks. Maybe it’s something to do with aquifers and fracking. Whatever it is, it’s going to be dictated by the sector your client operates in and their particular expertise.
  • Draft some short, to-the-point email copy for each of the topics you’ve agreed on – something you could cut and paste into an email giving a clear overview of who your client is, why they are someone to be listened to, and a breakdown of their expertise as it relates to the talking point / issue in question. Have it pre-written and pre-approved by the client.
  • Create a list of all the press contacts that write about your agreed issues … and issues related to them.
  • Track the media for stories relating to your agreed issues.
  • When such a story breaks cut and paste your drafted comment and send it to anyone in the press likely to follow-up on that story. The trick here is to give journalists something that moves the story on… something that gives them a good reason to pick up the story (which may have initially been written by a rival) and put their own stamp on it. So, take your pre-written copy and add to it a short explanation of how your client’s insight relates to the issue in question.
  • Make sure your client is available – either to talk to any interested press, or provide you with additional written answers if you get asked for them. That might mean a phone interview, or even broadcast appearances.

It can take a while to get traction, but if you are relentless in your determination to be the first to offer an additional view on a story – an extra nugget of information, an opinion that hasn’t been considered, etc – and the comments you send are genuinely interesting/valuable, eventually you’ll get results.

Good luck!

Here, there and everywhere: rant

I’ve just read a story on the BBC concerning Nokia and a London-based tech startup called Lowdownapp, over the right to the word ‘here’. It’s a great example of people using words in a cavalier manner.

In summary, Lowdownapp have a check-in app that makes it “quick and easy to inform people you’ve arrived at your planned destination” according to a write-up they got in TechCrunch. You do it by hitting the HERE button, seemingly.

Ok, cool. Whatever. I’m not a fan of checking-in via apps; if I want people to know I’ve arrived I’ll probably just tell them using my voice, or maybe by waving at them. I know … old skool.

hereOne-time behemoth of the mobile phone world, Nokia object to this use of the word ‘here’ because it has a division that does something map-related which also uses the word ‘here’.

Nokia is apparently threatening Lowdowndirtydogs over the use of the word here because it, Nokia I mean, has ‘invested’ $12 million promoting the Here brand. The piece on the BBC doesn’t say how effective that $12 million investment has been. But I doubt it had garnered coverage quite like that they’ve achieved as a result of this little spat.

The BBC quotes David Senior from Lowdownapp complaining about Nokia being a massive bully: “As a small start-up trying to deliver value to users we don’t think a multi-billion dollar company will be affected by this. Life is hard enough without Goliaths squashing Davids – maybe they should focus on creating a better mapping service than Google or Apple than squishing a minuscule business.”

I find this a little disingenuous, I’m afraid; I’m just not convinced by Mr Senior’s remarks that big-assed companies like Nokia shouldn’t be worried about agile, disruptive, single-feature app startups. Of course they should be concerned.

Tech startups are frequently described as disruptive, a word I have a bit of a semantic problem with. But that’s another story. The incumbent players in any market have been warned repeatedly over the last 5+ years that, unless they watch out, some upstart startup will come along and disrupt all over them from a great height.

Have Nokia over-reacted? Yes, of course. And Mr Senior’s advice that they develop better mapping services rather than throwing their weight around is good advice, too.

But big business shouldn’t be concerned about the threat posed by startups..? Give me a break.




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


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. 

Let love be genuine. abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good

The build-up to the royal wedding, all the hype and expectation, left me fairly cold.

I don’t have a problem with the institution of marriage, nor with the monarchy per se. But the fuss that takes place on the periphery is, for me, a massive disincentive to pay much attention.

So it was that, after weeks or even months of taking little or no notice, I found myself instinctively sitting in front of the TV on the morning of Friday 29 April to watch the proceedings.

I know I am not the only person who reminisced about the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, as she was known back then in 1981. Similarly, I’m not the only person who reflected upon their own wedding day while watching the spectacle of two young people full of love and hope becoming husband and wife.

The 1981 royal wedding was the point at which my mother decided we were through with watching the world in black and white, and we got our first colour TV. For us, it was a pretty big deal. Although I don’t recall watching very much – if anything – of that royal wedding.

I guess it’s fairer to say it was a big deal for my mum.

Roughly mid-way between that royal wedding and the one that just took place, I got married.

My mother didn’t get to see it. She had died just less than a year prior to the occasion.

So it was that, as I sat listening to the readings and homilies at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I thought about love, and hope and expectation. I thought about life and it’s uncanny knack of paying no attention to the plans we make. The people we become as we grow older are not the people we once were. We are changed by the lives we lead, the highs and the lows, the cards we are dealt by fate.

The joys and the disappointments.

If you have never found yourself wondering, in the face of a mountainous set-back, what the point of it all is, whether you have the strength to carry on, or why you foolishly made the decisions that led to the point you’re at, well you simply haven’t lived.

When children are very young they fall over – a lot. Parents watch anxiously to see if they are hurt, or if they will start crying, and there is always lots of encouragement not to cry, not to dwell on what just happened.

As we get older we forget how easy it is to fall over.

Failure, I read very recently, is a better teacher than success.

But it’s up to us to pay attention and learn from the lessons it delivers.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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.