Mediations comments on public relations theory and practice, with an emphasis on social media and communication ethics. Philip Young is project leader for NEMO: New Media, Modern Democracy at Campus Helsingborg, Lund University, Sweden. All views expressed here are personal and should not be seen as representing Lund University or any other organisation.
The first results from the EuroBlog2006 survey into the way weblogs are influencing PR practice will be published on Tuesday - and it promises to make fascinating reading. The report reveals a 'two-speed' Europe, with a sharp divide between those who are embracing the new social software technologies and a significant number of practitioners who remain unconvinced.
Here's a preview of the launch news release - more details along with downloadable pdfs of the key findings will be posted to the EuroBlog2006 website on Tuesday.
First European weblog survey reveals divide between converts and sceptics
Two in five PR professionals plan to launch weblogs
The first pan-European survey to investigate the use of weblogs in public relations and communication management shows a sharp split between converts and sceptics, with one in three practitioners regularly writing or contributing to weblogs but a quarter ignoring the new medium.
The picture of a “two-speed Europe” emerges from the ground-breaking EuroBlog 2006 survey conducted by the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (Euprera). Lead researchers Philip Young from the University of Sunderland (UK), Dr Ansgar Zerfass, MFG Baden-Wuerttemberg / University of Erlangen-Nuernberg (Germany) and Swaran Sandhu, University of Hohenheim (Germany) were supported by academic colleagues from 12 countries.
Still thinking about 'search releases,' still thinking about Amy Gahran's ideas, still hoping I am not turning into a dinosaur...
Amy writes: "With any communication, it’s important to clarify your goals and know your audience. Given that, here’s why I still think search releases offer generally more merit than traditional press releases…"
Knowing your audience is vital and I am not easily going to move from a view that anyone targeting, say, regional media in the UK in an area that is not covered by specialist reporters would be ill-advised to abandon the 'traditional' news releases that provide the inspiration for a considerable proportion of the stories that make the papers (and as news teams continue to contract, there is little sign of this changing).
Where I think Amy's arguments is at its strongest is in the use of search releases as a second string to the bow. Whereas, if I were a practitioner, I would not want to depend on a journalist to stumble on my story as part of a supposedly structured trawl for newslines I can see a great deal of value in making sure that once a journalist is on the track of a story idea, 'Googling' the topic throws up a well-written, informative background. Amy puts it like this:
First of all, serendipity is a key benefit of search releases. The point is that people will be searching for what interests them, so if you optimize your message as a search release (or even better, just an announcement article that’s not formatted like a traditional release), your announcement will appear high in their search results. In other words, they’ll find you even if they’re not looking for you, as long as you’re relevant to what they want.
(I am not sure exactly what Amy means by something being 'formatted as a traditional release' - I hope this doesn't rule out structuring the fact sheet in a way that the first par draws in the reader by being newsy and compelling, and that information is ordered in a way that mirrors the traditional news pyramid).
To my mind, the creative practitioner needs continually to look to new ways of reaching audiences (as Tom Murphy argues here) but must not make the mistake of looking to far over the horizon and discarding traditinal tactics while they still have a lot to offer.
Reinvigorating the 'press releases are dead' debate, Amy Gahran (Contentious) argues that the press release format has outlived its limited usefulness, so organizations would do well to stop clinging to it:
"..if your goal is to reach and serve journalists, then a fact sheet is probably is a more effective and attractive vehicle than a traditional press release."
She notes hearing James Clark of Room 214, use a new term, the search release.
In a nutshell, he clarified that in most cases the core audience for a “press release” (at least, the ones his firm creates) are not journalists and editors. Rather, they’re meant for current or potential customers, investors, partners, affiliates, opinion leaders or anyone else who represents some significant connection to (or can have a significant effect on) the company.
Amy then makes a shrewd comment:
However, I do still think that the traditional press release format is generally stodgy and lacks credibility even when well written. Therefore, I think it’s even less appropriate for a general audience (or a business audience) than for an audience of journalists and editors.
But where does this all take us? Here, apparently...
...if you’re trying to connect with a different or wider audience directly via online media, then just try publishing an article rather than a release. Make sure it includes whatever info people would need to follow up (contact, links, etc.). Be transparent about who it’s coming from. And please, please make it engaging and relevant to the audience’s perspective – NOT stodgy.
So, unless I am badly misunderstanding something, the argument has gone all the way back to the 'cut out the middle men, PR is dead' territory!!!
For me there is a great danger that some PR blog evangelists are forgetting that although interactivity is exciting and stimulating, for a lot of people gathering information is a relatively passive experience. Search releases might be useful - as long as someone is sufficiently motivated to search for them. Likewise, an interesting article on a blog or other platform over which the PR has control, might be desirable - as long as somebody chances upon it and is tempted to read.
But, from my perspective, it would be a reckless PR who chose to confine their messages only to those who are actively looking for that information.
One of the great joys of a British Sunday is that we can spend hours reading quality newspapers packed with informative articles - about things we never knew we were interested in!
We depend on teams of journalists to do the hunting for us.
Better news releases, yes. An end to sloppy targeting and fluff, yes.
But dispense with well-targeted news releases that anticipate the news values of relevant publications?
One of the reason's Shel Israel put forward to carry his assertion that 'blogging is better than PR for Web 2.0 start-ups' went like this:
Blogging strategy argues that it is more credible and more human to speak with many voices. These voices may be in harmony, but a little discordance just makes your story all the more interesting.
As an ethicist trying to work out what PR does, this intrigued me. There is no doubt that Shel is right that conflict makes stories more readable; often a journalist's first instinct is to find an opposing point of view. But Shel chose to use the word 'discordance', which means lack of agreement, whilst at the same time suggesting the voices 'may be in harmony'; this I take to mean the messages were slightly out of tune with each other.
Why are they out of tune? Because they are express different opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of a product or service? Or, because the campaign, lack centralised - harmonised - direction, they contain factual inaccuracies, false assumptions, or flawed interpretations?
In a reply to my inquiry asking him to expand on this, Shel wrote:
No story holds reader interest without some conflict. No movie, book, news article, nothing not even a blog. If a business blog just toes the company line, always nice, always certain, always cheerleading the company it is guilty of the worst sin in story-telling. It is boring. Does that help?
Is Shel saying that blogging works better because it sets in train a message that will pass through a sequence of slightly distorting mirrors ensuring that multiple versions of the 'truth' will be heard, and the ensuing factual fuzziness will enhance the 'readability' of the story?
This is what happens when any 'story' is released. Different media outlets interpret it in different ways and the picture that emerges is coloured both by opinion and gradations of understanding. Here the role of conventional PR is often to try and control the mesage and keep it as close as possible to the originators conception as possible (whether or not this is the most objective version must remain open to debate).
Which is better then, a controlled message that tells partial truths or a strategy that seems to encourgage discordant messages - or rumours, as discordant messages might be better known?
Here's a review of Max Clifford: Read All About It that will appear in Issue 12 of Behind the Spin, due out shortly.
What can PR learn from a book by a peerless practitioner who cheerfully admits to having a casual relationship with the truth?
Maybe we shouldn’t believe him, but Max Clifford has declared, “Lies are a big part of PR” (PR Week, Dec 2, 2005); certainly, plenty of the tales in Max Clifford: Read All About It won’t become CIPR best practice case studies.
Tellingly, Clifford’s big break was a story that never happened. Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster is one of the great tabloid headlines and also “the one through which Max redefined his role in the world of PR, which later changed the industry itself.
“Instead of him trying to persuade editors to write about his clients they started to come to him for gift-wrapped stories.”
Quoting from the book is tricky in that the style is an unusual third person autobiography where ‘facts’ are often delivered in extended quotes from Max while the narrative is carried forward by co-author Angela Levin’s breathless hype. In this way we learn that the hamster episode set Max apart from other PRs: “He instinctively has the ability to boldly spin stories that no man has spun before.”
And the cast list is extraordinary, with Max firmly in control of many of the major celebrity stories of the last two decades; from Pamela Bordes and Rebecca Loos to Mandy Allwood, James Hewitt, and Simon Cowell, the cast list is a tour de force of front page performers.
Apparently, Max’s career in spin began in the early 60s, when he ran discos at the Crown in Morden and wrote a record column in the Merton and Morden News. The first evening attracted 200 people: “It was helped by me promoting the event in the paper. Sometimes I’d write that a popular pop star would be coming. It was totally untrue but I kept the room dark so you wouldn’t have known who was standing next to you.”
So, from the outset, news was merely a means to an end. Of course, ‘professional’ PRs don’t see their job like this. Indeed, ‘proper’ PRs don’t even regard the most famous exponent of their calling as being one of their own. The very first page of one of the better PR textbooks used in UK universities says: “Of course, everyone has heard of Max Clifford. But how to explain that he doesn’t call himself a PR practitioner but a publicist?”
If Max may once have made this subtle distinction, he clearly didn’t tell Levin so the book repeatedly refers to his work as pubic relations, and public relations, in this definition, is anything but transparent. It means boasting that he would have got David Beckham off the Rebecca Loos hook by blatant deception: “Max could have arranged for David to either lose his mobile, or lend it to a mate. The friend, who would have been single, would have owned up to having used the phone to send sexy messages for a laugh. And been paid handsomely to keep his mouth shut.”
It means having Muhammad Ali (who Max ‘particularly admires’), open a Manchester bar. “We were all very worried that if he discovered he was promoting alcohol he’d walk out. So there was a mad rush to hide everything remotely alcoholic and redo the display to imply the bar was only selling healthy fruit juice…
“Everything passed off well and I don’t think he has ever discovered the truth.”
Although there is nothing in the book to suggest Ali opening the bar was his idea, in Max-world the important thing was to adjust the truth and make everyone happy.
It is consequentialist ethics taken to its extreme. No-one wants to know if Supersonic the Hamster really was eaten – Max gets paid, the Sun sells more copies, and people have a laugh on their way into work.
So providing newspapers with what they need gives Max a fearsome power, not that this worries the likes of former Mirror and News of the World editor Piers Morgan. “I don’t think it was morally wrong that (Clifford) often controlled my agenda… we wouldn’t write just anything.
“If for example, he rang me to tell me he needed to promote a device to help people with bad backs, he’d have to prove that it was genuine and been properly tested by a recognised organisation. It was something he was always happy to do.”
So for Morgan there is one set of ethics for important stuff that might affects health and another, very different, set for something as trivial as celebrity. In this looking glass world, where truth doesn’t really matter, we can all sign up to a consensual illusion.
The problem for PR is that it is very difficult to say where ethical practice ends and Clifford’s sleight of hand begins. And the problem for the wider world is that Max is as happy to work for, say, UKIP as he is for Rebecca Loos.
• Max Clifford: Read All About It, by Max Clifford and Angela Levin is published by Virgin Books at £18.99.
Over the last couple of days I have read a couple of posts that seem to pinpoint important changes that should influence PR practice.
Journalist Charles Arthur posted to say he would no longer be reading news releases because it was more productive to rely on word of mouth and blogs.
John Cass commented on Mediations that he thought in certain sectors at least CEO should write their own blogs because they are the experts
And now Shel Israel is suggesting that start ups would be better to direct resources towards blogs rather than traditional PR: "I have begun to question whether traditional Command and Control PR is a benefit... I have become convinced that having a PR agency at launch is not only unnecessary, it can be a mistake."
Is there something significant happening here? Before answering, it is worth mentioning what I have so far missed out - all three were talking about publicising hi-tech/ Web 2.0 start-ups. The common factor is that they are discussing strategies to reach a relatively limited number of well-informed journalists/ commentators.
The question is, are the needs, working practice and conversational environment surrounding hi-tech launches sufficiently different from those of other organisations for us to regard them as a discreet sub-sector of PR or are we seeing the beginnings of a change?
Here are a few points from Shel
Traditional PR will tell you to keep in stealth mode, then get the word out at an imaginary moment which is the technical launch. The blogging strategist will tell you to get pieces of your story out early and often and to ask people who care about what you're doing to to help you make it better.
Traditional PR tries to control message, to get a company to speak with one voice. Blogging strategy argues that it is more credible and more human to speak with many voices. These voices may be in harmony, but a little discordance just makes your story all the more interesting.
Traditional PR pushes messages through media to reach customers, considering both to be "targets." Bloggers have ongoing two-way conversations. The company talks, but customers talk back. It's out in the open.
PR spends a great deal of effort pro-actively pursuing press. They get others to say you are great by writing up case studies about a few customers, then pitching them to the media or splicing them onto websites. Bloggers assume the best editors will find what customers say about you in the blogosphere by using search engines. No advertisement, PR campaign or PR pitch can possibly come close to the impact blogging as on search engines. I would argue that a new company with disruptive technology will get more ink, faster, with less effort and money through blogging, than through a PR campaign.
Traditional PR's philosophy is top-down. They determine the biggest and most influential in your category, then they target them. Blogging assumes that good news distributed at the grassroots level will emerge very quickly. The examples of stories starting with some unknown blogger and getting to the front page of major national publications are manifold.... In fact, the evidence is pretty compelling that the shortest route from obscurity to prominent coverage in traditional media is through blogging.
I think (in early 2006 but for how much longer?) that most of these points are well made... when applied to a fairly tight group of publics, and broadly tied to a focused and committed consumer/ ineterst base. Shel's dialectic would apply convicingly for, say, a music band.
But about a health awareness campaign? Here, having a special 'XXXX Day' is a very useful weapon. Conversely, a little discordance around the message that the disease is caused by such and such a factor is not in the least bit helpful.
From Edward Bernays onwards effective PRs have realised that reputation mangement and message building are battle best fought on many fronts and with an array of tactics; it is not a one-size fits all discipline.
The last week or so has seen a spirited debate about blog etiquette, neatly brought together by Andrea Weckerle. Some of the points tend to the arcane, delineating rituals that will soon be discarded and forgotten but the argument touches on elements that are clearly important to those trying to define the essential characteristics of a weblog.
A significant thread on the debate centres around whether or not the blogger allows comments. Although some of the arguments carry a whiff of self-interest (why can't I get my name on this blog!) there is an important structural issue here; links and connectivity are at the heart of the web-based communication, without them they are monologues not conversations.
But, from another perspective, does this really matter? Like most bloggers I welcome comments and would very much wish for more (not least on my student-orientated internal blogs!) but I work in a fairly limited field and one where the standard of debate can be quite high. What if I moved into an area of more widespread appeal, would I welcome th increase in comments? A few weeks ago I posted on the death of George Best, and commented on the Guardian blog, which brought quite a few first time visitors to Mediations (who have no doubt not returned) and did spend quite a while reading other comments.
Was this a conversation? Did it build relationships? I think not... In a funny way I was happier - and my blog was more constructive - when its conversation was conducted as a manageable dinner party than a public hall meeting.
In practical PR terms, a microblog (like Mediations) can be useful in that, through dialogue and direct relationships, it can influence a handful of people who an organisation might put great store on influencing - but that is not what mainstream corporate blogs are trying to do. A conversation inspired by a major global concern seeks very different outcomes - and a very different type of conversation.
Here, does the platform remain a blog? Am I saying that blogs really are a mode of discourse that has a natural ceiling - like friendship? That although the technology and characteristics might be the same we in fact need to refine our terminology to reflect this...?
... something like the difference between friends, acquaintances and people who have somehow got on the mailing list?
In some ways it clearly doesn't. If the blog sets out to represent the corporate position it is not unreasonable to call on the services of a professional to polish the prose rather than publish the boss's thoughts in the raw. Shareholders want a CEO who can drive the business forward and don't much care whether or not they can write.
So why do 43pc of CEOs surveyed for www.writer4business.com apparently feel that a ghost-written blog was 'marginally misleading... ? Their unease highlights one of the crucial fault lines in the ethical practice of public relations.
This is Bright Idea Week. All over the country, PR account directors are meeting clients and talking about the year to come - and they know what to expect...
Even those MDs and CEOs who managed a fairly relaxing Christmas Day found their minds wandering during the Boxing Day re-run of the Great Escape or whatever it was this year. They drifted into 'blue sky' or 'rather good port' thinking. They remembered the trends for 2006 article that mentioned blogging. They had a Bright Idea and they resolved to talk to their PR people about it...
Maybe it is because of Bright Ideas Week that we have had many bookings for the Delivering the New PR: How Blogs, Podcasts and RSS can work for you conference to be held inManchester on Wednesday February 15.
Even those who have already had this Bright Idea and realise their agency or comms dept needs to understand blogging and 'the new PR' might be surprised to realise quite how much has changed since the successful Sunderland Making the News event in November.