Syria: many shades of black

What follows is merely one man’s opinion – mine.

I find it desperately sad that the situation in Syria has been reduced to a series polarised caricatures. Good vs bad is such an appealing way to look at the world, and consequently we are presented with Assad vs democracy as one example, and (here in the UK) military intervention vs inaction as another.

I’m opposed to military action, as things stand. I’ve heard too many arguments from Syrians calling for the west to stay out of this, and I’m not at all convinced military intervention won’t actually make things worse. Much of that is, I freely admit, based on seeing the devastation left in the wake of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve also heard just enough voices of doubt on the origins of the recent chemical attack to make me think we need to work the evidence, and the associated intelligence, far harder before committing to acts of war.

I freely acknowledge it is entirely possible that my position on not intervening militarily may change. But any attack by the West is almost guaranteed to claim the lives of yet more innocent Syrians, and risks handing the Assad regime a substantial propaganda advantage.

But choosing not to intervene militarily should not become synonymous with doing nothing at all. I fear that’s precisely the line our current government will take, though.

Instead, I would like to see the UK now at the forefront of a vigorous non-violent interventionist strategy – freezing the financial assets of Assad and his associates, applying real pressure to stem the flow of arms into Syria from neighbouring countries, doing deals to circumvent the existing circles of international influence, whatever it takes.

Having decided we aren’t sending in bullets and bombs, now is precisely the time for the UK to redouble its efforts to end the war in Syria.

It isn’t good enough to claim a diplomatic solution is unrealistic. Ultimately there will be a diplomatic solution – history teaches us that every conflict resolves itself eventually and all wars end with ceasefires, treaties and negotiations.

There will be a ceasefire. There will be a diplomatic solution. This is inevitable.

So why not, Mr Cameron, be the person who pushes the hardest to see that happen sooner rather than later, rather than someone who opted to launch cruise missiles, or do nothing?

Don’t get engaged … be engaging

The word engage has been taken hostage by the social media marketing community, and I am probably as guilty as the digital comms person of bandying that word around just a little too much.

I’ve written countless blog pieces, opinion articles and PR plans in which I extol the virtues of a three-step plan to social media nirvana .. listen, analyse and engage.

When you were a child did you ever say a word over and over and over again until it sounded like meaningless nonsense? I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only one to do that. But if you’ve never done it, give it a try.

So it is with words that get hijacked – they can begin to lose their meaning.

I was reflecting on this in the wake of Facebook’s most recent set of changes, which are designed to give users of the service more control over what shows up in their News Feed. At the moment the News Feed is an all-in-one repository, but users will soon be able to filter different types of content into separate feeds. A little like the way you might sort your emails into folders.

There are two points of interest for businesses using Facebook as part of their marketing mix. The first is that from now on they will be able to use bigger images and video in the advertisements they place in the Facebook News Feed.

The second is that their potential audience has now been given the tools to automatically siphon advertising into a separate feed which they can ignore completely for as long as they like.

Which brings us back to the E-word.

Brands have been trying hard to engage with people via social media for years. Facebook just shifted the goalposts.

Want to be seen, listened to, remembered for your Facebook marketing? Well, you’ll have to be that much more interesting, memorable and shareable.

It’s not a revolutionary concept. But if it stems the flow of lazy thinking that lurks behind too many companies’ attitudes toward social media marketing, that’s not a bad thing.

Stop trying to have a conversation with me about the things that matter most to you but least to me. Instead, show me something that holds my attention, that reflects well on you without your products being the hero of the hour, and which makes me want to spend my money with you rather than your competitors.

Be engaging.

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.



The King is Hacked, Long Live the King

So, the Burger King Twitter account was somehow hacked into on Monday (18 February). Did you see it? Were you aware? Do you even care?

There was certainly a great deal of brouhaha in the immediate aftermath, almost exclusively from people who work in the marketing, PR and social media sectors.

In short, someone took over the official Burger King Twitter account, changed the BK logo to a McDonalds’ logo and started tweeting nonsense. Some of it said that Burger King had been sold to McDonalds, most of it wasn’t funny and was filled with grammatical errors.

You can read more about it here.

The decision was eventually taken by Burger King – once they had regained control of it – to suspend the account. Presumably to clear out all the nefarious tweets, check they weren’t following any undesirables, and to send someone from their digital marketing team to sit on the naughty step and think about what had happened. At the time of publishing this piece, the Burger King account had reappeared.

But amid the sound and fury that gripped my Twitter stream on Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder does any of this actually matter?

“Will sales of Burger King food fall because of the hack?” asked one person I follow on Twitter.

I think it was a genuine question. The answer, quite obviously, is no. The quality of the food sold by Burger King is not affected in any way, directly or indirectly, by what happens on Twitter.

I retorted by saying in the event that sales of Burger King food don’t fall thanks to this very public social media problem, should we all conclude that social media is utterly pointless?

Well, of course the answer to that one is also no.

What this alludes to though is the question of how one assesses the value of – and ROI from – social media. And the chances are that sales of your core products is not the right metric.

Research commissioned by Nexus Communications last year into the grocery shopping habits of UK households’ primary shoppers, found that a staggeringly low two per cent cited social media as having influence over the choices they make.

Social media is not the place to promote your products and push your messages onto people. It’s where people will expect to find you listening, talking, answering their questions, and generally being a bit more human than you are elsewhere – like on your website.

People will come to your Facebook page to participate in competitions and take advantage of offers and vouchers – no one with the Facebook account needs to pay full price with the likes of Domino’s Pizza, for example.

But if you’re not measuring the pull-through from offers and competitions, if you’re not tracking the offline redemption of online vouchers, how can you know what’s working and what isn’t?

In short, if you’re measuring the wrong thing – no matter what it is – you’re measuring the wrong thing.

I’m not privy to the ins and outs of what Burger King’s social media KPIs might be, but I’d be surprised if burger sales is one of the main ones.

Right, I’m off in search of a Whopper. Who’s with me?

(This piece was first published on the Nexus Communications website. You used to be able to find it here. You can’t any more as someone has moved it.)


You can’t teach creativity in PR

You can’t teach creativity. That’s what I hear. I’ve heard it a lot, too. Well, relatively speaking. It tends to be the reaction some people have to the idea of creativity training or workshops.

To an extent, it’s hard to argue with the outlook that says you’re either born creative or you’re not. Picasso was born with an innate desire to create – to challenge the accepted ways of doing things and to push the creative boundaries.

He didn’t learn that in a workshop held in a medium-sized conference room in a hotel adjacent to an urban ring-road.

So, there you have it. Creativity… it’s either in your genes or it’s not. And if not, tough… you can’t learn it.

That outlook’s nonsense though, isn’t it?

I came to that stunning realisation after a conversation I had recently with a friend about the importance of collaborating with like-minded people. Some of her comments brought to mind a remark made in an interview I read with the guitarist Johnny Marr, who said something like “if you really want to open up your creative side you need to surround yourself with creative people.”

It may be true that we are all born with different talents and abilities, and that there is no substitute for natural ability. But it’s also true that it’s important to create an environment in which creativity flourishes.

It’s also remarkably easy to create an environment – particularly a working environment – in which creativity has no chance of flourishing.

So, while it might be true that you can’t teach the people in your agency to become creative geniuses from scratch, you can certainly achieve a great deal in terms of challenging existing working practices and fostering a culture where it’s ok to be creative, and to have ideas… even really bad ones.

I’d take a really bad idea over no idea at all any day. You can improve on a bad idea and make it a great one.

But those people who put hierarchy before ability, who put their own cosy self-interests before that of the client, the agency or the team… there’s not a lot you can do with them unless you challenge them.

Just how challenging you need to be in such cases depends on how entrenched their attitudes are and how willing – or otherwise – they are to accept that change can be a good thing.

The data-day challenges facing many PR firms


Data, data, data.

In PR circles data has become the new black.

Or the new designer drug, depending on which kind of overt cynicism you want to go with.

There has never been a better time to use data as part of a comms strategy, this much is self-evident. After all, who in PR doesn’t get approached from the purveyors of fine analytics tools on a regular basis?

From Radian6 to Brandwatch, from SDL SM2 to Meltwater, and well beyond… there are literally hundreds – possibly thousands – of monitoring tools out there that will track and report back on mentions of you, your clients, their competitors, market trends, hot topics, etc.

I read a post by Danny Whatmough at EML Wildfire in which he talks about this very topic. It’s a good piece that stresses the importance of evidence-based strategies for PR and marketing.

It made me think about some of the challenges I’ve witnessed and experienced in my PR career when it came to PR people using data.

The single biggest problem, or so it has always seemed to me, is the preponderance of data-intolerant people working in PR. I’m not talking about the stereotypical fluffy bunny syndrome. But simply that a lot of smart people in PR are not comfortable around raw numerical data.

There is little to be gained from having an agency-wide desire to do more data-based stuff if the people entrusted with bringing that to life couldn’t be trusted to count time in a marching band (yes, I know that’s a rubbish analogy but I couldn’t think of another one).

For decades now, the education system in the UK (well, England & Wales) has encouraged pupils to choose between arts and sciences at the age of 14/15. We can hope this divisiveness will be less prominent in the future, but that’s not going to affect the make up of our account teams any time soon.

So, here is my advice – given as someone who has run their own PR agency and as someone who has lectured in PR at a university in London.

Start firing those people in your agency who are rubbish at maths.

No, wait… I don’t mean that.

But audit their data-related skills and abilities. Do it methodically and without emotion – this isn’t pass or fail, this is about working out how you can help your people perform better.

Nurture those who have an aptitude for data, help them become better at it.

As for those who find numbers utterly baffling, provide them with coping mechanisms… ways to break it all down and make sense of it. Perhaps you’d never let them loose on a major piece of research. But you’d certainly want them to feel able to understand it, critique it and explain it. Wouldn’t you?

So… go forth and multiply your data-aware account teams.


Things I wish people would say more often

The English language… innit marvellous? Full to bursting with fabulous linguistic delights. Expressions and sayings that mean the opposite of what they appear, superficially, to be saying.

Sadly many once common sayings, phrases and idioms are dying out. Here – in no particular order – is my Top 10 of things I wish people would say more often.

  • I should coco
  • Not on your nellie
  • Stand on me
  • As right as rain
  • Daft as a brush
  • Bob’s your uncle
  • Hunky dory
  • Let’s sack all the idiots and hire good people to replace them
  • Big girl’s blouse
  • Neither fish nor fowl

Wondering what some of the above mean? Drop me a line. Send me a Tweet. DM me. Or turn to Google.

The Smiths for Christmas

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Smiths releasing their first single and first album.  In a career that only lasted a handful of years, the band left a legacy that would make them one of the most influential and talked-about British act for decades.

One of the most iconic images of the Smiths is this one below of them standing outside Salford Lads Club.

The Smiths - copyright Stephen Wright
The Smiths – copyright Stephen Wright


Now you can buy a limited edition print of that photograph, and others, from the man who shot the Smiths many times - Stephen Wright.

Stephen will hand-print each one. They will all be signed and editioned too.

Until 18 December 2012, Stephen is giving a 10 percent discount on the usual selling price of his prints.

You can find out more here


Facebook, gay marriage and management incompetence

On Friday 16 November the High Court, in London, found in favour of 55 year old Adrian Smith who had been demoted at work and had his salary reduced by 40% because he had posted a Facebook status update in which he said opening up marriage to gay couples was an equality too far.

The Court ruled Smith’s employer – Trafford Housing Trust – was in breach of contract and shouldn’t have behaved the way it had. I think any right-minded person would agree that whether you share Smith’s opinion or not, he has the right to express his opinions – he wasn’t inciting violence, he wasn’t being abusive, he hadn’t posted while at work and his status update was visible only to his Facebook friends.

The chief executive of Trafford Housing Trust, Matthew Gardiner, made a number of statements, one of which is utterly ludicrous.

“This case has highlighted the challenges that businesses face with the increased use of social media and we have reviewed our documentation and procedures to avoid a similar situation arising in the future.”

No, Mr Gardiner, it has not highlighted the challenges of coping with social media. It has highlighted that somewhere within Trafford Housing Trust an idiot made a bad management decision and broke the law.

This case has nothing to do with Facebook and everything to do with poor management within an organisation. Finding something else to blame, something external, just demonstrates the extent to which poor management decisions are still being made.

What sort of person thinks it can ever be ok to demote someone and cut their pay by almost half? A stupid one..? An arrogant one..? Who knows. But to suggest that when faced with the complexities of how you cope with staff using social media one of the options open to you is to flout their employment rights beggars belief.

It’s a great idea to have a social media in place so that employees know what’s expected of them when posting comments online, you can even use such a document to offer advice and guidance.

It’s an even better idea to remember that when mistakes are made, and everyone makes them occasionally, pointing the finger of blame at some bogeyman or other is a sign of weakness and incompetence.

The Daily Mail wrote the story up big. You can read it here.