Social media FUD and no comment 2.0

It’s one of the most worn-out things for someone like me to say but some clients are so gripped by the fear of what might go wrong with their social media strategy that very little can actually go right.

However, I’m fortunate enough to work with clients who, in the main, are not only excited about the potential of digital comms but they get it. I guess that may have led to a certain amount of complacency on my part – I’d started assuming that everyone was enlightened in the ways of social media.

A conversation in the office this morning with a colleague made me realise how off-the-mark this assumption of mine is. It also brought to mind challenging conversations I’d had with clients about regular-grade PR, never mind the digital flavour.

Have I, I then asked myself, stopped thinking about things from the perspective of those who live and work outside the comms and media bubble?

Is there still a job of education to be done?

Or could it be that some people (by which I mean businesses, organisations and the individuals that work in them) will never get to grips with external comms?

The most common objection I have heard from comms-deniers generally goes a little like this, and if you work in PR I reckon you’ll have heard a rendition of this one at some time:

“We don’t want to talk about X because it isn’t one of the things that we sell/offer/promote.”

PR person’s typical response:

“I understand, but you asked us to raise your profile, and you have said you want to be a thought-leader. So you need to have opinions on a wide range of subjects, not just your own products but your industry.”

Like most PR folk, I’ve been involved in running clients’ twitter streams to varying degrees, and it is here that some of this reluctance keeps cropping up frequently.

“We should really only be tweeting about our company and products,” is one comment I’ve seen recently.

Face, meet palm. Palm, meet face. I’ve a feeling you two will be spending a lot of time together.

I have some sympathy with the paranoia of being quoted out of context, or being asked questions you can’t answer, that leads some clients to stay entrenched in their comfort zone. There is that whole you can’t unring a bell thing about once you’ve said something to a journalist it’s hard to take it back.

But this outlook is very destructive when it comes to social media engagement.

There, look… I said it – engagement. That word gets over-used for a reason.
There is no value to either party in simply pumping out a one-way, mono-dimensional stream of tweets.

Your followers will grow bored of you. They come to resent your lack of willingness to enter into a dialogue, or impart any wisdom. They will switch off, not just from your tweets but from your brand too.

Net result – more harm than good.

That’s not to say every corporate tweet needs to be hugely informal, or irreverent. Far from it. It’s important to reflect your brand values as well as inject some personality into things.

Ultimately people will be drawn to those brands that offer them something of value. On the high street that may take the form of sale-prices, in the case of a call to register a complaint you want someone who listens and then takes ownership of your problem, and online that’s most likely going to be content that you find interesting and of value.

When I was a boy, my mother used to say to me “if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything.” To this day I get called taciturn. But maybe, all kidding aside, this isn’t such a terrible piece of advice for brands taking their first steps online.

Think about what it is you hope to achieve, what it is about the brands you admire in the digital space that you like, and try to bring some of that good stuff together in a way that will work for you and the people you want to engage with.
Find something good to say.  Otherwise, maybe we need to head off down another well-trod PR path, that of the dreaded “no comment.”
Almost never a good idea in the face of a direct question, I have an inkling that no comment 2.0 might start weaving its way into social media advice some brands need for their own good.

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.

In case you were wondering…

Case studies are an important part of many companies’ marketing activities. If you’re not providing your prospects with case studies to show your past successes, chances are your competitors are. So write some!

If you’re not a competent or confident writer find someone who is. There are plenty of freelance copywriters and journalists around that you can commission to write for you.

But whether you outsource or go down the DIY route, there are a few things worth remembering.

The job of the case study is to tell the story of how you have helped your customer overcome whatever business problem they have been battling with. Whether you’ve provided a CRM system that allows them to capture leads which can be followed up, or your emarketing expertise has generated a 70% boost to their pipeline, the important thing is how their business has benefitted.

You care passionately about what you do and how you do it. And so you should. But no one else will care as much – they want to know what’s in it for them.
So show them.

If I’m writing about a client’s customer I always stress to my client that their customer needs to be fully briefed about the process. Nothing is going to scupper your case study quite as effectively as the customer getting cold feet about being involved and that usually only happens if they don’t understand the process and/or what’s expected of them.

OK, that’s not strictly true – there is something that will derail it faster… an unhappy customer. Sadly I can recall several occasions when my scheduled phone interview with the customer turned into me doing a tea and sympathy routine while they ranted along the lines of “trust me, if I told you just how awful it’s been you wouldn’t want my comments to ever appear in writing.”

How long a case study needs to be is a moot point. I used to manage the UK case study programme for Microsoft’s Business Solutions division. The typical case study length was 1,800 words. Sadly for some stories that was a bit of a stretch.

However, in recent months I have been writing shorter case studies for another client – around 500 words.

Keeping your word count down is a great way to make you focus on what matters in your story, whereas prescribing 1,800 words as the minimum can lead you to pad something out when the fact is some customer stories may be great but they don’t always have the legs for a long write-up. If you have strict rules on word length you end up ignoring some potential stories.
By combining longer & shorter case studies with brief testimonials and customer win stories, you can end up with an impressive body of customer evidence.

You could even add video to your portfolio of customer evidence too. It can have a much bigger impact than the written word, but there’s no getting away from the marked difference in cost. One video case study could cost you the same as 100 written ones – maybe more.

I came face-to-face with an actual movie star yesterday

This is me and the little yellow chap with me is the star of Smile – an animated short, created by Chris Mais. It’s won loads of awards and if you haven’t seen it you really ought to.
It was created, in part, using technology from Oxford Metrics Group plc – a PR client of mine that I’ve been working with for the last few years.

Chris is a great guy and was one of the judges on the Vicon Film Festival which me and my colleague Hayley Roberts dreamt up and worked on in 2007.

There’s more info about Smile here.

Posted in PR