MonthJune 2007

Why officials being interviewed speak so strangely: the Sun intro effect

On the way to work, I was reflecting on writing intros for The Sun (and related tabloids). People think it’s (a) easy and (b) done by stupid people. Both wrong: it’s extremely difficult to choose what aspect of Gordon Brown’s ascent to PM to highlight in the 15 or so words you’ll get in a typical Sun intro; and the journalists doing it (and subeditors re-doing it until it’s right) are not at all stupid.

Venal, perhaps, willing to ignore salient details that might affect the story, who can say? But that can apply to us all.

There’s a perception though that said journalists must be stupid (and that writing Sun intros is simple) because they use simple language. People make the association directly. You’re talking to less intelligent people (which is sort of what red-top readers are assumed to be); so you use simple language.

But what happens in the reverse, I wondered? What if you have someone who’s really not that intelligent – say, a Sun reader – who’s trying to speak to someone who they know or suspect is rather sharper than them, but don’t want to cede any ground to them, possibly because they’re standing up for what they do?

That’s the situation, I thought, when people suddenly start saying things which really don’t mean anything; but which they desperately hope will. It’s the language used by people who are slightly aware that what they say may be used against them in a court of law even though they were just doing their job. That’s when fire crew chiefs start talking about “we secured the area and then attempted to make safe the structure with the minimum risk to life.” I mean, what? You mean you got everyone out and tried to save lives? That sounds much more interesting and laudable than the chunk of bureaucratese you just upchucked, which makes it sound like the biggest danger is a paper cut.

Look around and you’ll hear or watch (less often read, except when being lampooned) examples of official-ese like this all over the place; and now we can recognise it for what it is – people desperately clinging to the raft of official, big words in the hope that it’ll get them through the seas of inquiry, because they suspect that using short, lively words will show them up as stupid, which is the never how they want to be thought of.

Of course in places like New Labour, long words and strangled sentences are used purposely to obscure and evade; it’s done in the full knowledge that it’s clear to all but the originator, if it ever meant anything to them. But then people down the ranks parrot them, until at the lowest level parish councils too have to cling to “empowering stakeholders”, even though there’s nobody holding a stake, just people who want stuff done.

Cures? I dunno, better English teaching? A Hemingway filter for official memos?

You work too hard, it breaks – Chantelle and Preston, the unsurnamed couple. Are they on Facebook then?

In between wrestling with Facebook (feel the time vanish as you fill in Captchas!) my wife, who got there first and even had all sorts of people waiting to wrap their arms around her in welcome (and has a Wikipedia page – maybe I should write novels and she ought to do this technology stuff), points to the joint statement put out by Chantelle and Preston (no surnames necessary; what did they put on the marriage certificate then?):

“We both think that we have put so much pressure on each other to make the marriage work that it has ended up destroying our relationship.”

This lies somewhere along the lines of destroying the village to save it, surely.

So anyway yeah, I’m on Facebook now.

Modern ethical dilemmas: should you edit your spouse’s Wikipedia page?

Obviously, this won’t be a problem for everyone, but we discovered last night that my wife is in Wikipedia. (As she points out, fame has its limits; in the ‘disambiguation‘ page she comes just below “Jojo the Dog Faced Boy”.)

Now the question: it says that the entry is a stub, and invites you to fill in more detail. But should I? OK, so I corrected some of the more horrible grammar, and corrected the titles of books. And added the prize she won. But where does one stop? Does one point to the articles in the Bookseller? Mention the foreign translations? Begin a long explanation about themes in the books, and this, and that, and so on?

Of course one can imagine a geek novel in which both of the couple have Wikipedia pages. Then they get divorced, and the editing – of each others’ pages – begins. But they’re bound by their geek code of conduct not to edit their own page. So they can only hit back by adding or subtracting from the other’s. Sort of The War of the Roses updated for the wiki age..

Oh, and since you ask: no, I don’t.

And just while we’re on the topic of pitching things..

See, compared to the Bad Pitch Blog, I’m just a one-man band standing outside Marks & Spencer in the rain while a dog wees into my collection hat. They get all the good – er, bad – stuff. Like this one.

The Home Sick Pitch: “This editorial plea is near to my heart as it comes from a retail trade publication. An editor at Home Channel News (think distribution channel, not TV channel) has asked the Bad Pitch Blog to voice her plea.

Dear God, can you please help PR professionals stop with the ‘story ideas’?

I work at a business trade magazine – we cater to home improvement professionals in the U.S. I get four ‘story ideas’ per day, on average, suggesting everything from writing about a lumberyard owner who just turned 62, to a CEO’s lousy $500 donation to help pets abandoned because of Hurricane Katrina, to this:

Story Idea: AT-HOME HYDROTHERAPY – Your House or Mine?
As the latest must-have home accessory, new Pipeless Spa Baths are bringing the benefits of at-home hydrotherapy direct to consumers’ doors with luxurious style, substance and safety.”

So they only bring it to the door? Lazy sods. You’d expect they’d lug it inside for that price.

Story ideas. Yes, hmm. It’s hard to know what to advise. If I were working in PR – OK, that’s your laugh for the day – I don’t know where I’d stand on this. The good ideas that people pitch to me (such as one from a face to face meeting with some really good friends last week) weren’t pitched; we just talked about what they’re doing, who their clients are, and I followed the threads that I thought interesting to go down the paths towards what seem to me interesting stories. Did they work? Hell yes – to get clients who they find interesting, who they can talk about. (There’s lots of slog too, of course, getting the little stuff about their clients to become visible; I’m conveniently ignoring that.)

Cooking up story ideas and throwing them at the wall of journalism to see if they’ll stick, in the manner of students checking whether spaghetti is al dente, seems to me fruitless. All that happens is the stuff tends to slide down the wall and leave an ugly mess at the bottom. Journalists know stories, and tend to know what they want. But they’re lousy at PR. And vice-versa.

Thinking of which, one of the friends I met last week was rolling her eyes in relief at having dealt with a journalist from the Guardian (not me) on a story. “It’s so different,” she said. And then suggested a brilliant idea – that there should be a sort of league table for PRs: if you’re not in the top league, you can’t pitch to national papers. You have to work your way up through the trades and so on. Like football – third division clubs don’t get to take on Chelsea or Man U or whatever. Fascinating idea. How do we implement it? Equally, of course, journos on trade papers and so on couldn’t ring up Max Clifford – but then, do they anyway? When I was on Computer Weekly, I always used to wonder what I was doing when I called the PR companies which did high-flying PR for big City banks and blue-chip companies.

Apple vs Windows: ‘Palestine for geeks’

Scott Colvey Gary Marshall (sorry, Gary!) writes:

WWDC ’07 was always going to be about minor operating system improvements. But the fans wanted full-screen iPods, new Macs, new Cinema Displays, a MacBook smaller than an atom and 342-inch MacBook Pros that hover in the air and fire laser beams at Windows users.


We’ve blogged the Apple WWDC thing and Safari’s arrival on Windows a bit and you should see the flak flying on our blog’s comments. It makes the Sony vs Xbox vs Wii stuff look like a bun fight. Which of course it is. It all is.

As one of the people here puts it, the Apple vs Windows stuff is “Palestine for geeks” – as in it’s neverending, virtually unchanging, draws a huge crowd, is full of people who want to right perceived wrongs, has camp followers who will never change sides, and those who think anyone who disagrees with them is deluded and mad, and those who especially take aim at any journalists who seem to them to be expressing the slightest smidgeon of opinion that they disagree with.

It’s also the link whore of Babylon, and that’s discomforting, because it makes it impossible to have a sensible discussion about the whole thing.

(I expect Scott will write something about it in time.)

The 9 rules of journalism.. just marvellous

This being teh intarweb, Roy Greenslade has linked to 9 rules of journalism (of which of course he only prints 8, because the ninth is too complicated).

Too long to copy here.. and I shouldn’t.. but all true. Enjoy.

Actually, I think the 9th rule is “don’t worry about totals and percentages. That stuff is for dweebs.” I may go and add that..

Die, PR, die, or raise your game and learn about asynchronicity

Welcome people coming here via The Crapps! Perhaps you might like to read my brand-new post on this topic, “Live, PR, live in the 21st century“. Or not. OK, on you go.
Scene: the Guardian office. A typical day.

Phone rings (luckily for me, a colleague takes the call).

PR: “Hello, you blog, don’t you? Do you want to write about our new brand?”
Gdn: (confused) “Your new brand?”
PR: “Yes, it’s London 2012, the Olympics, the new brand has been unveiled today.”
Gdn: “Do you mean logo?” (This would be the logo (described by John Gruber – and everyone else including me – as “one of the worst marks Iíve ever seen. Itís just plain ugly”).

When the people touting your stuff don’t know the difference between a logo and a brand (hint: one can be included in your accounts under “intangibles” and have a value reaching into the millions; the other just costs that way), you’ve got a problem.

Later: phone rings. My phone. It’s been passed on by a colleague who works on blogs.
PR: “Hello, do you blog?”
Me: “Er, yes.” (Thinks: among other things.. what an odd way to open the conversation.)
PR: “I’m calling from Panasonic because they’ve got a new camera that’s come out and we thought you’d like to write about it.”
Me: “So what’s different about it? Cameras come out all the time.”
PR: “I don’t know exactly, but you’re a blogger aren’t you? Would you like to write about it?”
Me: (feeling slight stroke coming on): “Why? What’s this blog stuff? What is it about the camera? What’s special, different, newsworthy, if anything, about it?”
PR: “Umm, well, that’s not what I’m doing but I thought that because you blog…”
Me: “I edit the Technology section of the Guardian. Google me. Goodbye.”

End of conversation. Yes, it was Panasonic, and I am naming and shaming here because this was simply shameful. If you’re going to ring up a national newspaper – bearing in mind that there aren’t that many of them – then you’d better have your act together. I don’t ring people up at random when I’m researching stories. And if I wasn’t sure what I was trying to find out, then I’d lay my cards on the table in the hope the person might be able to help. But I’d have searched for the right person first. This person just seemed to think that use the words “blog”, “new” and “camera” in the same sentence would induce some sort of Pavlovian response in me. Uh-uh. Ain’t going to happen.

And the next day.
PR: “We sent you an email last Wednesday…”
Me: “I got it. I’m not doing anything with it. Someone called me about it yesterday. If I spent my time responding to every email from PR people I’d get less than nothing done.”

End of conversation.

And later:
PR: “Hello, I’m calling from Vodafone, it’s about the mobile internet demonstration we’ll be having..”
Me: “Someone called me about this earlier and I told them that I’m not going to be around.”

End of conversation.

And later still:

PR: “Hi, I was calling to say that there’s now a Mac client available for LogMeIn and wondered if you’d like to talk to…”
Me: “I know. I’ve been swapping emails with the PR person there for weeks. Go and have a word with him.”

End of conversation.

Seriously: the beginning of this week was absolutely the worst couple of days I can recall for quite a while in terms of PR folk ringing me up and (a) not having a clue or (b) not being coordinated or (c) thinking that because they sent an email, no matter how crapulous or mis-aimed, that it’s my responsibility to have answered in good time as though they were a debt collector or something.

Here’s the reality, which hasn’t changed in a long time and isn’t going to change in the future unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in what I do: PR, and particularly business-to-business PR, provides only the very tiniest input into my work. Like, a fraction of a percent.

But when it comes to calls like these… PR has to raise its game. It’s just dire. I’m on IM. I’m on email. I’m on all sorts of asynchronous communication systems, whose advantage is that I can dip in and out of using them. (An IM conversation doesn’t have to be linear like a phone conversation.) Want to get in touch? Choose a method. (Though I’ll admit that seasons go by and I don’t log into Skype. Too processor-intensive.)

But if you want to talk to me on the phone then generally you do need a good reason that goes beyond something you can explain in an email, and you need good preparation, because phones demand that you concentrate on them pretty much exclusively, at that moment (they’re synchronous, see, rather than asynchronous like email or IM). There are all sorts of other things that I could be doing while in the office: editing stories, researching stories, fact-checking, looking at potential pictures, discussing layouts, discussing headlines, discussing adverts, discussing budgets, commissioning more work from writers, and that’s before I move from my seat.

And I do get impatient with people who don’t have a clue about the story they’re pitching. Sorry, but I do. PR is about conversation, but if you start the conversation by saying something that indicates you have no idea about the subject in hand then it’s like saying “Ooh, what a nice dog” and pointing to someone’s cat. They will treat you accordingly.

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the swarm of ever-more-desperate people trying to pitch stories about which they either have no clue, or know are dead in the water but are putting themselves through the pain of pitching in order to bill the client. But in a world where we’re turning out ever more meeja studies students, it would help to have some clue about how the minds in the media work. We feed on information, If you haven’t got it, we’ll bite your heads off just to check there isn’t any lurking down there.

Update: hmm, this has stirred people up over at The World’s Leading, where it seems some (at least) are “sick of my attitude” and wonder “what kind of stories he’d have or access to high-level execs he’d enjoy WITHOUT PR.” Interesting question. Though just to reiterate, I’m pointing here to really bad practice. Trouble is, it’s too common (or not uncommon enough). Good PR is excellent stuff, even excellent, at seeing an opportunity to get the right people together. Bad PR is just – well, it’s bad.

More musical chairs at the Indie. Or Sindie. Now lawyers get to edit! [CORRECTED]

Update: corrected this due to info from our commenter, k. Who I think knows, despite logging in from the Telegraph…

(I really should try to break myself off the habit of blogging about stuff happening at the Indie, but I feel like House surrounded by Vicodin: it’s just irresistible. Maybe if they start blogging regularly, I’ll stop on them.)

Anyway. Seen at Fullrunner’s What The Trades Say:

*The Independent* has appointed Imogen Haddon as deputy editor, replacing Charlie Burgess. As the dust from the Indy’s redundancy program settles, Ruth Metzstein has replaced Kerry Smith as features editor. The Indy still appears to be looking for a City editor in the wake of Gary Parkinson’s departure.

[Update: wrong. Ms Haddon is still the *managing* editor (which despite the name doesn’t mean you do any editing; well, you might, perhaps, but usually it means you’re a manager of the editorial side, slashing budgets and writing redundo cheques and the like).]

I think that must be the Independent on Sunday – Ian Birrell is still, AFAIK, the deputy at the daily. (Michael Williams, previously executive editor on the daily, was for some time the deputy on the Sindie. Then he left rather abruptly, with what I’ve heard was a very comforting payoff; Mike knew where ever so many bodies from the Indies’ years were buried. Here’s the Guardian story on his going. Ooh, it says he’s the Indie *and* Sindie’s readers’ editor. Maybe I should email him about stories about Wi-Fi..)

Imogen Haddon, hmm. Previously the managing editor who oversaw all those redundancies. Who I have to say I don’t recall doing that much in the way of journalistic stuff; she started as the maternity leave cover for one of the lawyers. In fact, she is a lawyer. Lawyers editing papers? Well, can we at least hope that the Sindie will be philosophically and factually rigorous in future?

I know nothing about Gary Parkinson (who I don’t think I knew; he must have been the replacement for Jason Nisse, last seen heading to a bank saying he was going somewhere that actually made a profit). So he can’t have been there that long. And Ruth Metzstein was previously the features editor on the daily, surely. Why is it better for her to be on the Sunday?

Still, Imogen’s promotion (it is a promotion, right? Even if sideways) [No, it wasn’t; no change] must give hope to Louise Hayman, the longtime legal supremo on the Indie and now the legal supremo for the whole of the Independent Newspapers group. Stick at it, Louise, you could make editor someday.

Actually, they let Bono have a go – I think Louise would make a better fist of it. After all, she’s already a published writer – with “What’s so evil about a shortish skirt?” (Nothing at all in her case, I can assure you.) And let Simon Kelner do the legal flummery. Wow, the more I think about it, the more interesting it gets….

The person to watch in all this seems to me to be Ian Birrell. He hasn’t moved in any direction since arriving there in, what, 1999? He’s pretty much the only person (Kelner apart) for whom that’s true. I’m still surprised that no rival media group has recognised his ability and made him an unrefusable offer.

A good deaf resource: the Deafblog

Assiduous (well, not really; I don’t check my referrer stats, nor which are the most popular posts, or what Google terms bring people to this site) checking of my incoming links shows that the Deafblog has a link to me. Well, glad to return the favour.

It has fascinating articles – such as this one:

Hi, I’m James King, I’m 14 years old and I’m Cochlear implanted – having been so from the age of two; and I’ve just enjoyed an awesome week in the French Alps skiing with CICS, the Cochlear Implant Children’s Support Group


Fabulous stuff. We’re already past the one-year stage of the implantation operation, and coming up to the one-year mark for child3’s switch-on – which always sounds like it’s going to be the dramatic, curtain-raising “Momma, I can hear!” moment, but is instead just a few lights on a display and a confused, slightly wary look in your child’s eyes.

But it just gets better.