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.

Google+ … like the internet, only with a gun to your head

I have a great many things to be thankful for. One of them is my job. Too many people have no job, or a job they find hateful and demeaning.

In October of this year (which was still 2012 when I wrote this) I became the head of digital at a PR consultancy that until my arrival had taken a fairly measured approach to digital communications.

One of the consequences of this has been that I’ve been a bit more measured too. I’ve had to think carefully not just about what the right approach to a given set of requirements might be, but also about how I present my recommendations.

As challenging as this may have been, I keep reminding myself that it’s good to stop relying on familiar and comfortable ways of doing things.

As part of this, in recent weeks I’ve found myself looking at Google+ and shaking my head a little bit. “Why are you here Google+, where do you fit, what are you for, why should I care..?”

Well, it’s obvious really. If I care at all about search findings (and I do) then I have to care about Google+.

While Google has a history of not getting social (remember Wave and Buzz..?), from Panda and Penguin, through to the knowledge graph and AuthorRank, Google is working the data it holds. It has lots of data, after all, and consequently it’s working it hard.

Maybe it’s too easy to point and laugh at Google’s attempts at social – I should know, I do a lot of that pointing and laughing. Lots of people in my industry have told me in no uncertain terms how wrong I have been when I have publicly said that Google+ is another anti-social media platform from Google.

I’m not entirely wrong though. But nor should I be feeling too self righteous.

As a genuinely social platform Google+ is bit rubbish. Unless you only want to read things from fellow PR, digital and marcomms people that is. It’s like Quora on steroids… lots of brainy people showing off about the things they know about social media, all connected to other brainy people who know lots about social media.

There are no real people here. So where’s the benefit for a business of being somewhere where there are no real people? Unless you’re trying to sell to a load of self-elevated home-baked social media gurus, of course.

I’ll tell what the point is… search.

Search is the heartbeat of ecommerce. No, I can’t quite believe I just said something so nauseatingly cliched either. Let’s move on.

Want to do business online? Better hope you appear on the first page of Google search results (don’t talk to me about other search engines… they are a minority issue, at best).

Want to appear on the first page of Google results? Better get on Google+, create some content, link your profiles, etc etc.

Google+ is now an intrinsic part of the way Google handles search results, and is becoming a fundamental component in the selection of the information you are served when you go searching for ‘stuff’ online.

Suddenly Google+ looks a lot more relevant.

But then Google has just put a gun to your head.

There are lots of reasons why this is not a good thing. One of them is the incredible shrinking online world being created. That’s a subject for another post though.

Further reading

PC Pro: Google’s failed ideas: timeline of axed projects


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


Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down

It’s that time of year when people get struck down with colds and flu viruses. Well, here in the northern hemisphere anyway – to be honest I don’t know if the  same thing happens in the south or not.

In much the same way that we can predict wave after wave of low level illness in November, the same words and phrases come round too. One of my pet hates… man flu.

Used to refer to a man over-egging his illness, blowing a minor cold out of all proportion, man flu has become a two word put down, a latter-day four white feathers and a derisory way of comparing men’s frailty with women’s fortitude.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s funny. Instead I think it stands in the way of sustainable, systemic gender equality. And while I can’t comment for you, I would rather live in a more equal society than continuing to enjoy a lot of unfunny banter.

Consider, if you will, a single male parent. A man bringing up his child or children alone, maybe because of the death, desertion or divorce of his female partner. Let’s assume that, like most single parents, he takes his responsibilities seriously.

If he gets a cold, do we think he succumbs to the stereotype of the man flu afflicted male, retiring to his sick bed and letting the world go on without his direct intervention..?

If there’s no one else around to help out with his familial duties the chances are he won’t. Unless he’s desperately ill.

So much for man flu. How could a man resist giving into man flu if he was ill?

I suspect I have just proved it doesn’t exist, thanks to the power of an anecdote.

Who does succumb then?

Single men? Men with no responsibilities? Men with partners who will look after them?

Well, if it’s the first two groups who cares? Whatever peace they make with their employers while off sick is their affair.

If the latter, maybe the fault (or do I mean cause) lies with the intervention of their – usually female – partner.

I find it hard to believe that in any household where the division of chores is more equal it is acceptable for one partner to flake out at the drop of a kleenex. More likely, surely, that there’s a desire not to let the side down, coupled with a recognition that everyone shoulders the burden that little bit more in the event of the other needing a bit of a breather for whatever reason.

We’ll never raise a more egalitarian male generation if we keep giving into lazy stereotypes and generalisations.

Equality, a bit like charity, begins at home.

Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.