Connecting on LinkedIn – Personalise or standard message?

People You May Know

People You May Know

LinkedIn is the rather unfashionable social media platform among the connected classes and the always-on aficionados.

For one thing it’s all about business, which means LinkedIn wears a virtual suit and tie. That tightly buttoned image makes it  difficult for the platform to cultivate the rebellious swagger of Twitter or the recreational feel of Facebook.

I’ve also heard it dismissed as a site only of interest to recruiters or as a online CV posting point, which lets the opposition eye up a business’s talent. Worse, I’ve also listened to people dismiss it as a place where nothing interesting is shared or that has no practical day-to-day application for those involved in business.

All utter gubbins, of course. LinkedIn quietly gets on with the business of making money, because the number of paying users (as well as those who use it for free) keeps growing. Which means all sorts of people are getting value from it. On a daily basis I use it as an excellent news resource, an effective research tool and a useful networking aid. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The real secret of *free* PR to grow your business

No shortcuts despite promise in dodgy sales pitch

Get Rich Quick schemes

Get Rich Quick schemes

Get rich quick. Look 10 years younger with one simple trick. Develop rock hard abs in just six weeks.

Yawn. Now I can add another example to the list of unlikely sales pitches  – “use the power of *free* PR to grow your business”.

My quizzical eyebrow started twitching this week, when an email crossed my desk from a client. They’d been messaged by an online business development ‘guru’, promising untold PR success – for free.

The email recounted a tale involving wildly successful TV and press coverage, all achieved for no cost and without any help or involvement from a PR advisor or professional.

In fact, the message went further,claiming this PR success wasn’t just free, it was easy. Ridiculously easy. We media folks tend to be a cynical, jaded and hard-bitten bunch. But just in case there are any wide-eyes innocents out there, I’m going to let you into a wee secret:

There are no shortcuts. No foolproof way to make a fortune in the blink of an eye. No 10 minute secrets to looking a decade younger. No pain-free way to get a stomach like a washboard in a few short weeks. And there is absolutely no free or ridiculously easy way to use public relations to grow a business. Continue reading

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?

 

Vauxhall helicopter crash and the power of real time news

Radio-5-Live

By the time of reading this the Vauxhall ‘copter crash story will have been extensively told, picked over and commented on.

However, just over an hour and half after it happened, it’s already given a sharp reminder of just how much the media landscape has changed forever.

Yes, plenty of breaking events have showcased the power of Twitter and shown how flat footed traditional media can seem in trying to keep up.

But today I really – no, I mean *really* – witnessed how the media is evolving, so that curation of real-time events via social media actually eclipses what a news outlet’s own journalists can achieve.

Without access to TV pictures, Twitter or online news channels I was still utterly swept up in events and given a compelling real time picture, thanks to the the humble radio.

HYSTERIA

Driving to work, I switched on Radio 5 Live to hear a breathless member of the public telling the breakfast show how he heard an explosion, witnessed huge plumes of smoke and fire in central London.

As a listener, I had no idea what had actually happened, only that the report was a big, breaking story of some sort. As presenter Nicky Campbell questioned his eyewitness, it became clear the Radio 5 news team had seen a Tweet from the man about an incident. He’d also Tweeted a picture.

Presumably, the Radio 5 team managed to contact him via social and arrange the phone link and interview. While he was coherent and clear in his description, the report had a disturbing rawness, because his voice carried that slight tinge of hysteria which suggested shock was still setting in.

In the next few minutes a selection of social media posts and updates were reported by Campbell and co-host Rachel Burden. The aggregate picture was rich, detailed, colourful and informative.

The emerging scene was one of a low flying helicopter which surprised many ordinary people on the ground with its altitude and trajectory. At some point it appeared to have collided with a crane atop a building under construction. The noise it created was mentioned a lot.

HOLLYWOODESQUE

Then the doomed chopper spiralled to the ground, where the many descriptions painted a picture of a Hollywood-esque explosion, sending black smoke and intense flames billowing skyward.

Early reports also suggested at least two cars on the ground had been hit by the helicopter, or caught in the fireball.

The reportage made repeated references to the images being shared by ordinary people from the scene. As of writing, I haven’t seen any of the images – yet the mental picture I have is powerful.

Photographs taken at street level showed burning tendrils of helicopter fuel licking along the tarmac. Others from buildings overlooking the scene showed the burnt out fuselage and the attendant frenzy of emergency service vehicles. Others captured the scale of the oily smoke cloud.

Witnesses told of the eerie moments of silence immediately after the collision.

Of course, the BBC had to caveat its reportage by stressing that many of these points could not yet be reported as fact, as they had not been confirmed by official sources.

STERILE

Contrast this intense few minutes of reporting with what the Radio 5 Live journalist was able to offer when Campbell and Burden cut to him.

I missed the reporter’s name, but the poor guy was left struggling to add anything meaningful. Unlike the many social media commenters, he simply wasn’t at the scene.

All we really learned was that he was having trouble getting through to London Fire Brigade Press office because it was, understandably, dealing with a huge number of calls.

Otherwise, all he was able to tell us was that he had managed to speak with the Met Police press office – and they had confirmed they were attending the scene; that they had many officers involved, but couldn’t confirm exactly how many.

It was a sterile and near pointless contribution. The reporter actually punctuated his dry commentary with repeated references to “as you can see from the pictures on Twitter”.

The net effect was to highlight the impotency of remote commentators. Particularly when set against multiple short updates – even just 140 character long – being knitted together into a vivid, living and dramatic account of breaking events.

FUTURE OF NEWS

The good news is that this isn’t – or shouldn’t be – bad news for traditional media outlets. The Radio 5 live reaction was brilliant.

Presenters Campbell and Burden skilfully let the updates,  punctuated by live links to eyewitnesses, tell the unfolding story in a very powerful and coherent way.

Until now I have heard much talk about ‘curation’ and its emerging place in the news cycle. Today I listened to it first hand – and feel confident the future of journalism and news reporting – deeply enriched by the power of ordinary people’s social media updates – is secure for a very long time to come.

Now, I guess, I should go and read the latest online reports, check the TV coverage and wait and see what tomorrow’s printed newspapers will dig out.

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.