When is an advertorial not an advertorial? When it’s ‘native advertising’

Native advertising

What is native advertising?

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on April 7, 2013.

Gotta love this change stuff, eh?

We’re no longer writers or story-tellers, we’re now content producers. We don’t crib, borrow or adapt ideas, we repurpose them. And my personal favourite? We no longer deal with advertorials – it’s now sponsored content on ‘native advertising’.

Say what? How this latest buzz phrase came about is beyond me, but native advertising is a term which is rattling around the  digital-savvy side of the media and gathering quite a lot of breathless hype on the way.

Coming from a print media background I found this hard to understand at first. I was weaned on newspapers when the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial was impenetrable. Back then advertorials were usually a low rent, low quality attempt to make unlikely products look like the subject of even more unlikely news stories.

They invariably stood out for the wrong reasons. The writing was ropey, the accompanying pics were usually mince. Oh aye – and there would be a great big strapline across the top or the bottom saying: “This is an advert”.

Funnily enough a recurring advertorial from the 1980s and 90s that sticks in my memory was for a book to help buyers improve … memory skills. Oh, the sweet irony.

The ad was usually accompanied by a 1950s-style line drawing of a Brylcreemed man wearing a blackout eye mask along with a number of patently made up, glowing testimonials from people with only one name (“I now remember everyone I meet!” – John, Cambridge) or referred to only by their initials (“I can memorise 100s of phone numbers!” – SJ, Doncaster).

It wasn’t just the tone and quality that was suspect. As well as feeling a bit sneaky, these ads disguised (badly) as news stories were tainted by the distinct whiff of ‘sad and desperate’. You get the picture. Credibility and advertorials weren’t close. Not even on nodding terms.

Now though the advertorial – or more accurately its 21st Century incarnation as native advertising – is being talked up as a possible financial saviour of news sites which have  struggled after giving content away free online, while seeing print advertising pounds melt away to digital advertising pennies.

Managing to put aside my lingering prejudices over bad advertorials from pushy carpet discount stores and smarmy car sales outlets, I can actually see why this might work and may even be a good thing.

Brands and businesses want to feature on credible news sites in a way that will encourage visitors to actually read about them, rather than simply paying for banner ads to be ignored.

So, the theory goes, those brands and businesses will have to start being interesting, useful or entertaining by paying to deliver content which sits alongside relevant news or editorial while adding actual value.

From a PR point of view this is potential winner for those agencies which are equipped to produce well-researched, news-focused, informative and non-salesy articles on behalf of clients. There could also be opportunities for entrepreneurial hacks prepared to try their hand at so-called ‘brand journalism’.

Meanwhile, I’m all for advances that will help support paid journalism, while readers could also benefit from easy access to genuinely useful content.

Needless to say there are also some extremely grave concerns about the continual blurring of those once clear lines between editorial and advertising.

Purists out there will be relieved to hear that Google has now stepped in and promised heavy web ranking penalties for those news sites which fail to make a clear distinction between editorial and paid for content.

Google has been the catalyst and carrier of so much change in the media landscape, so it’s good to see the search giant doing its bit to help preserve the sanctity of editorial integrity.

And for the record, no payment was exchanged to place this article here.

Sometimes a missed PR opportunity can be the best result of all

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on March 24, 2013.

First Group - ScotRail franchise operator

First Group – ScotRail franchise operator

Train operator ScotRail has just been involved in a wee case study of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-dont media relations.

A finger-wagging report from The Scotsman’s Alastair Dalton tells us Scotland’s rail franchise operator ‘sparked anger’ after ‘snubbing’ a BBC documentary team. Tough-talking tabloid type words.

What we’ve got here is a classic media village story that’s nothing to do with service levels, delays, overpriced sandwiches, patchy onboard Wi-Fi or the nuts and bolts of what commuters really care about.

In fact it was almost entirely about the nature of public relations and playing the age-old poacher versus gamekeeper media game. From that point of view I couldn’t help but be interested.

As the article helpfully points out, ScotRail runs 95% of Scotland’s train services, so why did the company refuse to take part in the BBC’s programme, The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track? According to the piece, other train operators revelled in a ‘sympathetic portrait’ showing how much staff loved their jobs.

If the suggestion of a PR blunder at passing up such a golden opportunity wasn’t clear enough, there were a number of usual suspects lined up to helpfully point out the shortcomings of ScotRail’s comms and media team.

First up was Green MSP Patrick Harvie with this wee gem: “ScotRail’s public relations people are always happy to talk about their successes, and it’s disappointing that they don’t want the public to see a truly detailed picture of how they run a vital public service.”

Likewise an official from train drivers union Aslef rued the “missed opportunity to showcase the exceptional talents of their staff”, while Dave Watson, an official with Unison in Scotland, Tweeted: “ScotRail sensitive to publicity they don’t direct. Usually with good cause, but this an own goal”

Other Twitter reaction took a similar vein. Freelance journalist Andrew McFadyen ‏Tweeted: “It doesn’t surprise me that Scotrail snubbed the BBC. They have one of the least helpful press offices in Scotland.” Ooyah.

Another journalist and writer, Paul Bigland, had this to Tweet: “@ScotRail manage to turn an excellent PR opportunity #therailway into a very public own goal.”

That’s the ‘damned if you don’t’ bit. The negative tone of The Scotsman piece and some media-savvy Tweeters may smart a bit. But nobody in PR would stay in the game long if their hides weren’t thick enough to deflect the slings and arrows of disgruntled meeja types when they feel PR is getting in the way of a good story.

Should that be the sum total of the adverse coverage, then I reckon the ScotRail media and management teams will be high-fiving all round, because they just dodged a bullet. Had they participated in the documentary it could have been … well, a train wreck.

Perhaps surprisingly in a story all about the apparent shortcomings of PR people it was a journalist who pointed this out and rallied to defend ScotRail.

Nigel Harris, managing editor of RAIL magazine believes the team from the Beeb would have focused on characters who made the best TV, not necessarily the best ambassadors for the rail company. His assessment was blunt: “I commend ScotRail for holding out.”

I couldn’t agree more. Reality TV or fly on the wall documentary makers aren’t interested in ordinary workers – they are looking for outliers who will light up the screen with controversy, comedy, haplessness, heartbreak or hopelessness.

Sure, there’s a chance that ScotRail might’ve come out of something like that well, particularly if they were an underdog operator or a fresh new kid on the block. They’re not. They’re the big guy in a maligned sector whose experience is that messages about their successes (delays reduced by 50%, with passenger numbers up 20%) fall on deaf ears.

FirstGroup, which runs the £2.5 billion, ten-year ScotRail franchise, will be keen to hold on to the juicy contract (the biggest handed out by the Scottish Government) when it goes to tender in 2015. PR and public perceptions will play a role that.

ScotRail’s decision to walk away from this apparent TV “PR opportunity” meant lean pickings for the documentary makers and for journalists who can fill column inches with the cringe-inducing characters thrown up by fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

But with make or break commercial issues looming large, the job of the ScotRail PR team isn’t to give open access to reality TV crews, then cross their fingers and hope for a good result.

Whichever way ScotRail played this they were likely to get negative headlines of some sort. The storm in a teacup about some sort of missed PR opportunity is actually the exact opposite – almost certainly the best PR result ScotRail could have hoped for.

Rave baby Django and the tough question the media should really have asked.

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on February 6, 2013

Django: Good baby name?

Django: Good baby name?

Sometimes the media machine does a particularly brutal job of grinding up and spitting out the people, facts and issues at the centre of a news story.

It isn’t something the Fourth Estate should be particularly proud of.

My own first taste of this was 10 years ago, as I made the transition from tabloid hack to public relations flack.

At that time newly-formed public body Scottish Water was taking a pasting after an organism called Cryptosporidium was discovered in Glasgow’s water supply.  Independent public health experts took the decision to issue a precautionary ‘boil notice’ for all tap water – and media hell was unleashed.

Almost two weeks into the crisis I was drafted in to help support Scottish Water’s under-siege media team. Acclimatisation involved reviewing the extensive media coverage to date, as well as the statements and information issued on behalf of Scottish Water.

The shock to the system was pretty profound. As a hack I’d been involved in media feeding frenzies without any qualms. This was the first time I’d seen the results from the other side and it wasn’t edifying.

Reasoned responses and explanations where routinely ignored or jettisoned in favour of doomsday scenarios, panic-laden ‘what-ifs’ and flat out scaremongering, including calls for heads to roll.

Journalists are always going to be focused on the biggest story of the day. As a PR or communications professional a period of intensive and negative media scrutiny is a hazard you prepare for with crisis planning.

However, that water bug experience made me look at the media – the press in particular – in a different light thereafter. What perturbed and unsettled me most deeply was the abject lack of balance in the coverage.

Since then I’ve tried to take a contrary view on whatever big story is being rolled out by the media as, too often for my taste, I find the balance is skewed or missing.

For instance, consider the tale of the mum who took her baby to a rave in Wales. There’s no doubt The Sun landed themselves a corker of an exclusive.  The sheer incongruity and shock value makes for a cracking news story.

Add in the fact the concert was stopped by police after other revellers raised concerns and you have public interest and questions of moral and social responsibility to further lubricate the story. Track how it was re-reported across the web and a standout quote repeated over and over comes from Netmums, branding the mother ‘raving mad’.

For balance, the mother in question, Sarah-Jane Hulme was quoted, explaining her baby slept through the event; that she was there to see her older daughter’s band performing a first hometown gig; that she couldn’t leave the baby with a sitter because she was breastfeeding.

Yet that’s not really balance, is it? A lone mum’s protestations sound pretty lame in the face of Netmums condemnation, frowning cops and even a DJ who was ‘heard to say’ the mum was irresponsible.

I took a quick gander at Netmums myself. Sure, there was reaction from parents horrified at the thought of a baby being taken to a rave. But there were also a huge number of thoughtful comments and views supporting Ms Hulme. Those went unreported by the media.

Here’s a thought. A great news story is a great news story. A genuine attempt at balance simply makes such a story even better.

I’d have been offering The Sun far heartier congratulations on their scoop if they’d quoted Ms Hulme’s neighbours, relatives or colleagues at the National Trust for a more textured appraisal of her parenting skills. Or if they’d done the hard work of digging up an expert prepared to be quoted about the importance of shared mother-and-baby experiences that might challenge more traditional views.

Most of all though, I’d love to have seen the media outlet with the balls to ask the real burning question in all of this: What is likely to damage a child more? A night snoozing through a drum and bass gig while wearing industrial ear defenders– or a lifetime of finger pointing and snide comments for being named after a Quentin Tarantino cowboy?

 

You can’t get slicker than a PR fixer – we’re the boys to trust.

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on January 13, 2013

Illuminating: Lightbulb moment.

Illuminating: Lightbulb moment.

Talk about a lightbulb moment.

A dicky brake light in my trusty old Saab led me to a couple of moments of PR illumination over the past couple of days. It resulted in a trip to Kwik-Fit at McDonald Road, Edinburgh, an outlet I’ve visited a dozen times over the past decade.

I’ve never had any complaint about the service I’ve received. Yet on every visit, I’ve walked in with the sneaking suspicion that I’m about to be mugged: to enter with a minor problem and leave with a whopping bill for four new tyres, a replacement exhaust and a tracking realignment.

There’s light bulb moment number one: bad PR does nothing but long-term damage to a brand’s reputation. Of course we all know this, but sometimes it takes a specific event or person to bring it in to sharp focus.

In reality, my doubts about the integrity of Kwik-Fit workers date back to my newspaper days in the 1990s when the chain was dogged by reports of motorists being shamelessly ripped off.

While I fondly remember ads featuring cheery chappies leaping to the strains of “You can’t get better than a Kwik-Fit fitter”, it wasn’t the warm, fuzzy advertising jingle which coloured my subconscious view of the firm for the next 15 years.

All of which reinforces the old public relations adage that a reputation can take years to build, yet just moments to ruin.

Let me take this opportunity to balance those cosmic scales just a little bit – and this should be music to the ears of Kwik-Fit management, as well as whoever is doing the company’s PR.

My latest experience with the repair chain was entirely positive. The guy who dealt with my initial call was polite, friendly and helpful. When I walked into the branch he was handling a difficult customer phone call with the same aplomb and the type of patience saints are renowned for.

Meanwhile his colleague cheerfully found a spot for me to park up, before an oil-smeared garage cliché in trademark Kwik Fit overalls start disassembling my motor. Later I was given a clear explanation that the problem was electrical (not a faulty bulb) and was beyond the scope of his team to repair.

I was shown some frayed wiring suspected of being the problem, then given the names of reputable auto electricians in the area. These were noted on the back of a business card, which is why I know the guy helping me was Gavin Shaw, the centre manager. Kudos to him and his team.

In the world of PR, which more often than not involves chasing coverage in the mainstream media, it’s still easy to forget the power of humble word of mouth, despite the fact it has been turbo charged by social media. Five years ago I would have told a handful of people at most about my positive Kwik-Fit experience. How many will this post reach – 10? 100? 1000?

Do a quick Google search for ‘Kwik Fit’ then refine the search by ‘blogs’ and by ‘news’. The tapestry of stories being published about the company is nuanced. A local councillor blogs about the firm’s sponsorship of a local event. A Bristol-based social media expert accuses the firm of life-threateningly shoddy work. A driving instructor writes about a new insurance product for learner drivers.

Gratifyingly for all of us in PR the search findings are liberally peppered by traditional media headlines, from reports on the company’s £17.2 million operating loss, to its collection of a Healthy Working Lives award.

But there’s no eureka moment in recognising the rise of social media or the importance of search engines. Even the dawning realisation that traditional media is more relevant than ever (just not in printed format) is now pretty widely recognised.

Nope. The light bulb that lit up for me was this: businesses have never needed professional PR advisers more than they do now. Even if not all of them realise it yet.

Yes, the media is fractured. Yes, having your reputation picked over on a daily basis by armchair critics with a web-powered megaphone is uncomfortable. In a world of online transparency, choosing to sit it out by flying beneath the radar is a fast-vanishing option.

Businesses need to tell their stories well from the top down, while understanding (and responding to) what the world outside is saying about them. Nobody does that better than the PR sector.

If my view doesn’t light your bulb, then read this Management Today article. It seems we PR people are taking over the world.

You’ll get no complaints about that from me.

 

Liar, Liar, PR consultant for hire…

A version of this post was first published by All Media Scotland on January 7, 2013

Fibbing: Carries consequences, y'know.

Fibbing: Carries consequences, y’know.

There’s always something a bit difficult to digest over the festive holiday period, or some sort of nagging unpleasant hangover which trails you into the New Year.

Yet it was neither the overdose of Brussels sprouts nor the copious amounts of Hogmanay alcohol which gave me a sour taste and a queasy stomach this time around.

What actually left me with a bilious aftertaste came during the whirl of festive socialising and the inevitable round of, “So, what do you do?” questions when meeting new people.

More accurately, it was three occasions when I told such new acquaintances that I worked in public relations, only to met with responses which more or less amounted to: “So you lie for a living, then?”

This is particularly irksome, as I thought I’d left behind those sorts of knowing jibes when I quit journalism. Over the past decade, telling people I’m in PR has generally felt pretty respectable, after all those previous years of watching people flinch when I told them I was a tabloid hack.

So why the sudden rash of “liar” digs when trotting out my flack credentials in the past few weeks?

While I’m not daft enough to think my own “sample of one” experiences represent some sort of trend, I’m happy to admit that three separate incidents in such a short time frame took me aback a bit. I’d be keen to hear if other PRs have experienced anything similar?

I’m no wide-eyed innocent who believes the entire PR sector to be involved in a lofty and noble pursuit. But the possibility that those outside the sector could think PR in the 21st century is driven by lies and deceit is frankly gobsmacking.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen everything from non-existent WMDs, media phone hacking, MPs expenses and the Tommy Sheridan perjury case turn public opinion away from any notion of “acceptable” lying.

Journalists, politicians, and party spinners have all been ensnared by lies, but all in all I’m hard pushed to think of any major or enduring scandals involving concerted and deliberate lying by PR people.

Indeed, last year when American deception artist Ryan Holiday brought out his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying – Confessions of a Media Manipulator, the resultant furore among reputable PR professionals proved just what an outlier Mr Holiday is. While his tales of epic lying might have raised the odd snigger, his practices are an insult to PR pros, journalists and bloggers alike.

Here in Scotland, I think we can be proud of the ethical, hard-working and – dammit – plain honest PR community we have. Every profession has its Ryan Holiday-type characters and I’m sure Scottish PR is no exception.

But let’s be clear: writing a breathlessly glowing media release or presenting positive information while crossing fingers and hoping a journalist or blogger doesn’t ask awkward questions does not a liar make.

I remain convinced the vast majority of practitioners in Scotland would simply refuse to lie on behalf of a client or an employer, particularly those signed up to the codes of conduct of either the Chartered Institute of Public Relations of the Public Relations Consultants Association.

If we’re talking over egging the pudding, gilding the lily, or spinning a line, most PR people will cheerfully admit they’ve been guilty as charged on occasion.

But outright lying? Nae chance – not least because it’s bad for the digestion.

 

How Do You Tell Greedy, Grasping MPs from Hard-working Politicians? There’s an App for That!

Technology's stormtroppers

Technology's Stormtroopers

So, our MPs in the House of Commons are likely to each to be given their own iPads, eh?

Unsurprisingly, the story has split opinion.

The Sun branded the plan “barmy”, while quoting members of the Tax Payers’ Alliance who were gnashing teeth over the prospect of giving our elected politicians shiny “new toys”.
Coverage from the Press Association was more measured, reporting how a test rollout has already taken place; how buying in bulk for 650 MPs will yield savings; and how long-term costs will be cut through reduced paper and printing costs.

Take both sides with a pinch of salt.

Progress is almost always accompanied by protest. With the expenses scandal still fresh in memories, the knee jerk reaction was always going to involve claims of pampering the politicos by giving them gadgets.
Meanwhile the justification from the cross-party committee backing the plan is weak at best. At worst it is downright misleading.
Virtually anyone working in 2012 who has been in the workforce for a decade or more knows that the much-vaunted paperless office is near mythical.
So, the chances of our MPs (who can’t agree on climate change, renewables or recycling) suddenly becoming paragons of paperless virtue is laughable.

Many of those who already own iPads or other tablets know what fantastic consumption devices they are.
Fantastic for reading news and magazines; watching streaming video or catch-up TV; using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; playing games and keeping entertained.
For productivity and more directly work-related activity? Meh – not so much. That’s why so many early iPad advocates still can’t see beyond their Macbook Air machines, or similar ultrabooks, when it comes to the must-have gadgets for work purposes.

Already our MPs are already entitled to three PCs and two laptops per office. It may well be most of those are used by aides and staff.  Others, I suspect, are expensive dust collectors, bookends or doorstops. Yet PCs, laptops and notebooks have never been seen as anything more than vital work tools, so no-one baulks at this.
With careful training our parliamentary representatives really could see the use of iPads or similar tablets cut costs, reduce the need for other PCs and laptops  and – yes – even reduce the amount of paper they use.
Hopefully though, you didn’t miss the most important word in there: training.

Some very smart and clever things are possible with an iPad. However, even after 18 months of owning one, I still rarely use it as a direct productivity tool
If we give our MPs tablets (and I’m not talking crushing them up and serving them in cocktails in the Commons bars to make them more pliant), no doubt many of them will quickly find ways to use them in useful, helpful and possibly even productive ways.  But others will be little more than expensive internet browsers.

The key to this issue isn’t to hand out iPads en masse. Nor is it to grumble, luddite-fashion, as those who run the country experiment with genuinely useful new technology.
The rollout of iPads to interested MPs should continue, with the caveat that those receiving them commit to at least a like-for-like reduction in the amount of money they can spend on other computing hardware and to paper reduction targets.
Consider that just about every business in the country has an IT usage policy and provides basic training for staff on applications from Word and Excel to sales software and email through to bespoke software.
More and more those training and policies now cover applications on the cloud.
The same should apply to MPs using iPads. They should be trained in usage of key productivity apps and encouraged to use them to streamline the business of being an MP.

Winning buy-in from a sceptical public the solution is easy: demonstrate tangible and measurable value – whether that means reduced hardware bills, lower paper usage, a reduced carbon footprint or greater engagement with constituents.
If our MPs really want shiny new iPads it should be clear they have to earn them.

Better and more accountable democracy? I’m afraid there still isn’t an App for that.

(For some recent musing on the  kind of work related productivity possible with a tablet computer, see my weekend Google + post, written from the comfort of my warm bed!)

Leak, Leaking, Leakey – Toilet Talk Can Leave Businesses Scared of Twitter

Twitter Logo

Twitter Leaks

I’m amused by a couple of Twitter stories today. But aside from raising a couple of wry smiles, these stories also raise a couple of business points.
First up this yarn from The Scotsman about tennis star Andy Murray’s mum leaving Black Rod infuriated:
Black Rod is a parliamentary official whose position has existed since 1350. And the current holder of that title was none too pleased when Judy Murray Tweeted out a picture from inside Parliament.
It seems the officious Black Rod considered this an inappropriate leak from inside the Mother of Parliaments.
Even funnier when you consider the offending photo was of a toilet door sign which read: “Women Peers”. In other words, the place where the mightiest women in the land go to, er, take a leak (women pee-ers?)
What trumped it for me though was the real name of Black Rod, a former military man known to his nearest and dearest as, Lieutenant-General David Leakey.

Next up is the story about a Twitter fuss which blew up when it appeared that Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Cormac McCarthy had set aside his legendary distaste for modern technology and deigned to grace Twitter with his presence.
However, it turned out all to have been a hoax, perpetrated by none other than an aspiring (but as yet unpublished) author from Renfrewshire:
It’s a shame really. The lean, spare, yet beautiful prose which typifies McCarthy’s work means he’d be a must follow in 140 characters. And I bet there wouldn’t be a “just ate a tuna sandwich for lunch” Tweet anywhere to be found in his stream.

On a serious note, these are the kind of stories which show that the mainstream world is fully waking up to Twitter.
Yet they are also the kind of stories which may still prevent some businesses from using the new social media tools to extract the undoubted value they offer.

Do you remember a time there were similar stories about Facebook, YouTube – and before that email (yep, believe it or not, there was a time when email was viewed with suspicion as a threat to business).
Not to mention the days when the very internet and world wide web themselves were a cause for concern and frowny faces (real frowning expressions, as opposed to digital emoticons) among serious business people.
Later there were media stories galore about the risks of shopping online (my mum still won’t use a credit or debit card over the internet).
Hell, perm it back further and it’s easy to find historical reference to the time when the credible voices of the day were fearful and suspicious of telephones.

Now, try to imagine business world without websites or e-commerce. And no matter how full your inbox is, consider trying to do business without email.
Then consider the two stories above. It may take longer than a year, but at some point in the not-too-distant future Twitter usage will be so commonplace it’ll no longer merit stories like these.

If you work in a business which is still suspicious about Twitter – or other social media – then give us a call at Holyrood PR. We’ll be happy to show how it can work in your favour and help prepare you for that point when it is every bit as important to your product or service as a website, an online shopping cart or an email address.

Ours is info@holyroodpr.co.uk.
Or if you’re a bit more old school, you can get us on 0131 561 2244.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can get me on @scottgdouglas or the Holyrood PR team @holyroodpr.
However you choose to contact us, we’d love to hear from you.