Who knew my weekly column was such a mouthful?

Shavers Weekly penis jibe

Shavers Weekly penis jibe

Just as well I’m thick-skinned, eh?

Those over-exuberant young scallywags at Shavers Weekly have speared me with satire in their latest, laugh-a-minute edition.

It would seem they find the weekly column I write for the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement as something of an unwelcome mouthful.

Everyone likes to be recognised for their work, so clearly this mud slinging comes as a bit of a job blow.

Despite the naughty allegations, I suppose it could have been worse.

After all, the schoolboy humour fuelled magazine labelled my fellow Edinburgh Now columnists as “boring” or “drunk”.

However, it does leave me wondering: just how could they have known about my, ah, special skill?

And with that spoiler out there, how am I possibly going to find an alternative party trick in time for the Christmas season?

Tchoh.

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.

 

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.

Don’t Be Invisible – The Most Important Business Lesson From the ScotRail and ‘Big Man’ Case

Big Man tackles ScotRail fare dodgerRemember when social media was shiny, new and exciting – or to some people ominous, threatening and scary?

Now it is totally embedded in our daily lives to the point where we no longer think of it as anything other than normal.

In fact, this morning on BBC Breakfast two prominent stories summed up this fundamental shift.

Firstly the Beeb featured a Scottish story about a fare-dodging, foul-mouthed passenger, who was thrown off a busy train by a burly traveller.

The entire incident was videoed on another passenger’s mobile phone and has now gone viral on YouTube. That’s the only reason it even made local news services – let alone the might of the BBC’s flagship morning news show.

Secondly, the Beeb also reported how increasing numbers of winter callouts place pressure on the volunteer mountain rescue teams in the Lake District.

Those getting into trouble often use sat navs, apps on smartphones or even print outs from Google Maps to plan routes – while the old-timers in the rescue squad were urging walkers to stay low-tech, by carrying a basic OS Map, a compass and a torch.

This wasn’t a case of some grizzled outdoors type missing the tech bus – the rescue service spokesman cheerfully urged walkers to get themselves on YouTube and check out the treasure trove of videos with advice on how to stay safe in the hills and mountains over winter. Video again.

Why is this important? One reason worth considering is that put forward by Clay Shirky, the author and New York University professor, who says:

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.  It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous and finally so pervasive as to be invisible that the really profound changes happen.  For young people today, our new social tools have passed normal, are heading to ubiquitous and invisible is coming.”

With these thoughts firmly on my mind I was on my way into work today, while listening to a another social media expert, Shel Holtz, one half of the superb For Immediate Release podcast.

Shel’s latest offering was a talk on a subject he is passionate about – why businesses should stop blocking employee access to social media (have a listen to the podcast here – the case is compelling).

He mentioned how one giant car maker took steps to block access to social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, amid fears it would cause worker productivity to dip. However, the company kept open access to YouTube – because of the huge wealth of training videos and material available there. YouTube again.

We may not yet have reached the invisibility of social media mentioned by Clay Shirky, but there’s little doubt we’re getting close when viral mobile phone videos are a mainstay of the BBC news, ageing mountain rescuers advise walkers to get safety tips from YouTube and car manufacturers name the video platform as a vital training resource.

Here’s the thing, though: while consumption of YouTube video is now entirely mundane, the production of video, particularly useful and informative video by business, is still in its infancy. Companies of all sizes are still nonplussed by how to use this powerful medium – or need convinced that they should use it all.

The grainy, wobbly fare dodging video has now achieved more than 775,000 views, been featured by the national broadcaster and provoked debate across the country on whether the burly do-gooder was right or wrong to take the law in to his own hands.

However, where is the response video from ScotRail (there isn’t even a written respone on their website media page)? The company has issued a carefully worded corporate statement  which could have been far more impactful if delivered by a genuinely concerned company executive. Of course, that may be just too sensitive at the moment, with the police investigating the incident and imminent legal action likely.

Even if that is the case, where is the video explaining the company’s advice for future passengers who may be confronted by an abusive or troublesome travellers? Should they sit tight and say nothing? Or should they step in to offer verbal support to harassed train staff?

Let’s not forget the foul-mouthed teen who was ejected from the train, who has variously claimed he had misplaced his ticket, was sold the wrong ticket or was half asleep (and as a result confused and disorientated) when confronted by the inspector.

This reinforces how ScotRail would benefit from easy-to-find videos aimed at passengers –  advice on purchasing the correct  ticket; how to use the ticket vending machines;  or how to resolve a situation if you find yourself on a train having lost a valid ticket and without the funds to pay for a replacement.

The reality is that ScotRail has no presence on YouTube (in fact, this claims to be the Scotrail (sic) channel, but I assume is a fake). No videos at all that I could find.

ScotRail video advert

Video - but only for adverts.

That’s also true for the company’s corporate website, where the only video I could find was a link to a TV advert – and disappointingly that ad was on the FAQ page, the exact place that might most benefit from easy to follow ‘How To’ videos.

This all seems even more of an irony, when you consider the company has a page on its website dedicated to giving advice to rail enthusiasts who want to shoot pictures or videos on ScotRail stations and property.

No slight intended on ScotRail. The  majority of businesses of all sizes still seem painfully slow to recognise and benefit from the power of video as part of the communication mix.

So what lessons can your business learn from the ScotRail fare dodge video? How about this: The technology which delivers video is now so pervasive as to be invisible – which means that your business can no longer afford to be.

Your customers now expect to find at least some kind of visible, useful and relevant presence on YouTube or other video platforms. Many customers will go to YouTube as the first place they search for information,  making it a massive search engine in its own right, just like parent company, Google.

If you want to find out what affordable, online video could do to benefit your business, give me a call.

The Ancient and Noble Art of PR – It’s In My Genes!

 

The Heart crest of the Douglas clan

Heart crest of the Douglas clan

I’ve just discovered that public relations is in my genes.

 

Who told me so? None other than the BBC, in the shape of Paul Murton who presents the excellent series, Scotland’s Clans.

Turns out the Douglas name was a byword for PR excellence as far back as 1329 when legendary Scottish warlord King Robert the Bruce died and asked for his heart to be taken into battle as part of the Crusades.

The Bruce’s right hand man was Sir James Douglas, who was known as either the Good Sir James or the Black Douglas after making a name for himself during the wars of independence with England.

A great national Scottish hero, Sir James was knighted on the field of Scotland’s greatest every victory over the English at Bannockburn.

The PR credentials of the Douglas clan were assured when Sir James agreed to take The Bruce’s heart – sealed in a silver and enamelled casket and worn round his neck – into battle against the Muslims occupying the Holy Land.

THE REST OF THIS POST CAN BE READ AT THE HOLYROOD PR BLOG, HP SAUCE