CategoryAdvice for PRs

Things that work and don’t work in trying to interest journalists

Two things that persuaded me that journalism absolutely will carry on, and get paid

The first was that I wandered into the kitchen while The Message, compered by Steve Hewlett, was on. They were talking about blogs and new media and stuff. One of the guests made the point that “In all the years I’ve listened to Radio 4, I’ve never heard anything useful on Any Answers. But on Any Questions, where you have professionals answering the questions, I have.”

The point about Any Answers is sooo true. It’s open mike for anyone who can’t be bothered to think beyond the headlines they might have seen. Last Saturday it was full of people who thought that the captured British sailors in Iran should have stuck to name, rank and serial number and refused to comply with demands to do daft TV pieces.

Name, rank and serial number must be one of those stuck memes – those things we think are still the form in which things are done (I mentioned the one of climbers making ascents by banging things into the rock, even though in rock climbing in Britain that’s been pretty much totally abandoned – because it damages the rock – since the 1970s). NR&SN was abandoned by the Allies some time ago – during the first Gulf War? – because they recognised that it simply doesn’t work. They are going to torture you, and it is going to hurt like hell, and precisely what is it you’re keeping from them? Any sensible command structure won’t have told you anything useful beyond your mission, else they wouldn’t have sent you. Military instructions have for some years been: don’t be obstructive. Don’t help, do escape if you get a clear chance, don’t volunteer stuff, but make your time there as pleasant for yourself as you can, and bear in mind that it’s all head games, apart from the bits which are really unpleasant, which aren’t.

So, no intelligence on display in Any Answers.

The second was trudging through the Technorati-discovered responses to Vic Keegan’s piece headlined “To the Average Joe, blogs aren’t cutting it“. There are 70-odd of them, so I’ll save you, but the reason why (on about the 30th, parroting the same response: “I’m an average joe and I like my blog”) this process persuaded me that journalism is here to last is that so many of the people whining hadn’t read the original. They had a link to it, but they’d not managed to go through it. They hadn’t managed to read it, absorb it, think of the questions it did and didn’t raise. They hadn’t been to look at the State of the Blogosphere report. They hadn’t checked primary sources. They hadn’t done the footwork.

Journalists do that: they do check, they do ask, they do look for inconsistencies, things left out, things unsaid. They do ask what procedures are, they do go looking for notes on what those procedures are, they ask people who’ve been captured what it was like, if they can tell them what they’ve been told.

You can’t get the average person to do that. It’s a skill, one which can to some extent be learnt, but the drive to know what’s going on comes from somewhere inside. And it’s absolutely the sort of thing that will be essential in future. It’s weird that it takes the counter-evidence to show it, but the exception proves – where “proves” has its Old English meaning, of “tests” – the rule. It’s exceptional for people who aren’t journalists to have those abilities. But as a rule, journalists do this stuff. And always will.

Conversations with PR people that are short

Bring!! I am at work. It is the phone. I am answering it.

PR person: Hello, I was calling to see if you’d like to meet someone, he’s the chief of a company that’s got an instant messaging product for the financial community, and–
Me: Sorry, why would that be relevant to our consumer-focused technology section?
PR: Well, I thought that because it’s IT, that–
Me: Have you read the section lately?
PR: Well, I know that you cover IT in the Online section, and–
Me: It hasn’t been called ‘Online’ for more than a year.
PR: Oh, um–
Me: Why don’t you give me a call back when you’ve read it?

It’s not even as if there are many “technology” or “IT” sections to have to keep up with in the nationals these days, either.

itsamobile.co.uk: blog spammer; separately – Charles Dunstone: the subtractive blog?

Let’s just get this out of the way first, for the benefit of Google. Could I just ask at this point whether anyone else has noticed that itsamobile.co.uk is a being pushed by a persistent, and rather annoying, blog spammer; the site itself seems to be trying to push stuff for which it’s apparently getting paid – one guesses as an affiliate – by a mobile phone reseller.

The whois on itsamobile is pretty useless – some character called Lee Ritchie. Interestingly, it also says
The registrant is a non-trading individual who has opted to have their address omitted from the WHOIS service.

Intriguing that Mr Ritchie seems to have what looks like a very much trading site – horrible design, but there you go – associated with the name. (He also owns topchoicereviews.co.uk, which has the same not-useful whois details.) I wonder which bit of Nominet one mentions it to when a “non-trading individual” has an extremely busy network of sites all trying to sell you phones etc in what appears on the face to be a commercial business? Anyone got a clue?

A Google search on itsamobile spam doesn’t turn up much, apart from the fact that it started ticking off Spamhound in April. The domain was registered in February. Lee, give it up. This is the way to notoriety. Google will remember you.

Pity that you can’t point out this sort of stuff in comments on the blog of Charles Dunstone, chief exec of Carphone Warehouse, provider too of the TalkTalk “free” (as in paid-for) broadband/phones offering. That’s because you can’t add comments (aka enlightenment, properly done) to his blog. In fact his is one of those corporate blogs that I’d say, overall, subtracts from the sum of human knowledge.

A quick sample:

Over the past few months we have really been working hard at improving the speed of getting people live and it now takes just 5 weeks from signing up for us to have your phone line and broadband up and running. This is something I have avoided offering until we were absolutely sure we could deliver consistently. If you want an impartial view, I have attached a link to Martin Lewis’s website, www.moneysavingexpert.com, his view is that we are by far the best value in the market place, but you might have to wait.

And wait, and wait, and wait, judging by quite a few of the emails that we receive. Also doesn’t it rather depend on the meaning of that word “value”? My point being that the five weeks will be, at best, an “average” time (mean? median? mode?) and perhaps will really be the “wished-for” time. Plus we’d be surprised if you’d not been working at improving the speed. Also, what precisely is it you’ve been avoiding, Mr Dunstone? From the structure of the sentence, one would think it was the getting the broadband up and running, when surely you mean quoting a review is what you’ve been avoiding.

And what does moneysavingexpert.com actually have to say? That the TalkTalk offering is the cheapest broadband. Does it say “best value for money”? No. Cheap != best, nor best “value for money”. As long as broadband is an emerging technology, which it is while BT’s still implementing ADSL Max and the 21CN, you get what you pay for. I think it would be nice if Mr Dunstone would let people comment on his blog, or at least allow trackbacks. As it is, his works will only annoy frustrated would-be customers still on dialup. Which is not what one should aim for as a CEO. What he’s doing is the equivalent of car advertising: showing people shiny ads to confirm them in what they bought. Blogs ought to be about engaging the would-be purchaser, or the already-has purchaser, or the wasn’t-considering-it-actually-until-I-got-here purchaser, that you’re the sort of company they want to do business with. The disconnect between what he says and what people will come across will only confirm them in thinking that he isn’t listening to them, or that his company structure means he can’t hear them. Do you want to be a customer of a company like that?

A statistic. At a Hotwire seminar at which I spoke recently, on trust in blogs, it emerged (from a MORI survey of statistically reliable size) that the least trusted source of information, out of a choice of blogs, review sites, newspapers, emails from a company, informataion from a chief executive, TV ads, and reviews on a company’s own website. CEOs get trusted by 2%, compared to 14% for papers and 25% for a review site.

How editors think the newsroom works, and how it really does

Pure magic, found via Roy Greenslade.

So true, so very true.

Stuart Bruce blogs the IPRA summit (summat to do with PR)

Seems there’s a big do on in which PR people are telling each other that the world is changing. Word up!

Stuart Bruce is doing an interesting job trying to blog it: posts starting here and then follow forward. It’s pretty much rolling up there in real time, if you’re reading this on Wednesday.

The Q+A is interesting. (Mark! Mellor! Where’s the Firefly blog? Should there be one? Shouldn’t your RSS logo be on the front page?)

Andrew Morrison, senior comms manager, Coca-Cola Africa talked about the YouTube mentos mints video and how Coke has now commissioned the creators to create an official Coca-Cola video. He asks does he say a split between those who will embrace the new technology and those who still want to more formally “control the message”.

Trouble is, you can’t control the message any more. You can only take part in the argument. Which is OK if you’ve got a winning argument.

Here’s my Heather Mills anecdote…

This one, however, relates not to the one at this moment married to some Scouser, but to the Heather Mills, the very good journalist who now works at Private Eye (though it’s said that the former has touted the work of the latter as her own, which I find bizarre).

Heather Mills NMTAS (not married to a Scouser) used to work at The Independent, where she was the Home Affairs correspondent. This job doesn’t deal with affairs allegedly had by Scousers, their wives or others, but instead to the grubby reality of life lived through the courts and the Home Office – the child abuse, murders, sink estates, attacks on people, all that sort of grit.

Not that PR people quite got this message. Which is why Heather, who was famously short with those who weren’t up to speed (but lovely with everyone else), was one day heard to have the following conversation on the phone:

“Hello?.. No, Home Affairs does not deal with soft furnishings.”

Bang.

Though one must say they don’t look dissimilar. Here’s images of HMM (ie MTAS); and here’s the only one I could find of HM NMTAS. Interesting to contrast the expressions on the two pages.

Apple screws up UPS recall, but could script “Batteries On A Plane” from it

The other day a UPS man nearly passed me on my way home. But I had a suspicion, so I asked him if he’d returned from trying to drop a battery off. Indeed he had. It was the replacement for the dodgy (word used on advisement) one that originally came with my machine, 20 months ago. He handed over the package, I took it home, and quietly congratulated Apple on doing quite a good job. Swapping x million batteries over isn’t trivial, after all.

Of course, I have to return the old one. Easy enough: there’s a prepaid label in the box. Put the old battery in, leave it unsealed (apparently the UPS person has to see the evil battery inside; it’s a legal requirement in the recall) and call in UPS. There’s even a number in the booklet. You get ten days to return it. After that Apple suspects you’ve kept it and will charge your credit card. But there’s plenty of time for that to not happen, eh?

So this morning I called UPS on the number given.
“I need a pickup – it’s an Apple battery recall,” I said.
“Does it say Standard or Express Saver on the label?” the UPS telephone-answering woman asked.
“Express Saver,” I replied, impressed that something as simple as a battery should get Express status.
“I’m sorry, then, we can’t take it,” said the woman.
Me: silence. “What?”
“Because Express Saver goes on a plane, but we can’t take batteries on a plane.”

Obvious, really: these things are already classed as a fire hazard, though I’m not sure even Samuel L Jackson would sign up for Batteries On A Plane. (Scene 1: SLJ: “I want these motherfscking batteries off this motherfscking plane!” Flunky: “OK, sir, we’ll send them by boat.” SLJ: “Uh, great.” Roll credits.)

Back to the conversation with UPS. “Can’t you just pick this up and then send it by land?”

But of course not. UPS is nothing if not inflexible. No can do. If the label doesn’t say Standard, it won’t get standard treatment. “You’ll have to contact Apple and get them to send you a new label,” said the UPS woman, not helpfully.

So now, the clock is ticking on getting the battery back (after which my credit card will get charged), and through no fault of my own I’m having to traverse the hell of voice menus, repeating my phone number to robots and pressing button 9 now. I ring the Apple number given in the little booklet. I’m on hold for six minutes, my anger slowly rising as intermittently a recorded voice comes on – terribly distorted – which just adds to the annoyance. The thing about waiting in queues like these is that first, you have no way of venting; the machines aren’t listening to hear who’s getting irate, and who’s just doing something useful with their time (the latter is hard to do while holding a mobile on a train and praying you’re not about to go through a tunnel); and second, it’s never for a good thing. You aren’t going to end up thousands of pounds richer. If you win the Lottery, I bet you don’t hang on for 15 minutes while they say “Please have your six winning lottery ticket numbers ready, and while you’re there please decide whether you’d like your life ripped to shreds by choosing the publicity option or whether you’d prefer to choose no publicity and have people think you’re drug dealers because you’ve become suspiciously rich overnight”. No, I bet that one is coloured red and sits on its own desk.

Eventually, annoyed that I was calling an 0845 number from my mobile and getting no indication of whether I was going to get answered within five minutes (I wasn’t) I hung up after seven minutes. I’ll have to try from a landline when I get an unknown amount of time free.

So two things.
(1) This is Apple’s fault. This was screwed up from the beginning: Apple’s battery (OK, made by Sony; so in that sense they didn’t make it happen, but they assume responsibility; it’s Apple’s brand on the battery). Then the battery-serial-number-checking website didn’t work from the start, incorrectly refusing some numbers which were valid (such as mine) which meant I had to make a phone call; and now they have an invalid UPS label on the battery, which becomes a problem that for some reason I have to sort out. I could forgive any one of these on its own, but together they’re just an enormous pain.
(2) Telephone support should be answered within 5 minutes. Always. Or else, you should get the option of a callback. (BT does this: it’s very professional and works really well.) These days, making people hang on a phone line is the short cut to making them hate your brand.

Plus – iTunes 7 doesn’t seem to recognise my ageing iPod nano. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t installed the new Quicktime. What a great week.

Update: OK, just got off the phone to Apple in India. Once you actually get through, the people are terrific. (I’ve got to say that I don’t have a problem with where people are answering from, as long as the system means they’re clued in to what’s happening. Bangalore gets bad press because skinflint companies cut corners on the support systems that would let people answering phones actually solve problems.) I’m getting a new label, and the countdown clock has been reset. Wizzo. Now I’m off to work on Batteries On A Boat, my blockbuster film. It’ll be like Speed 3, if we can only get Sandra Bullock.

Sick paper’s evil stunt prank headline shock er, evilness, is out of date

Quite frequently I look at tabloid (OK, downmarket) papers and wonder whether there isn’t a huge disconnect between the people who write them – and particularly the people who edit them – and the people who the previous group think are going to read them.

Take this example, where the deputy news editor on the Bolton Evening News chugged through YouTube in search of “local content” (mm-hmm) and came across some footage that some kids had shot of themselves chucking a bike onto some rail tracks.

Here’s what the news editor James Higgins told the site (or possibly told the BEN’s PR, it’s not clear:

“We are always trying to come up with new ways of letting our readers know what is going on in Bolton and this is a perfect example of thinking outside the box.

“We were also able to tie it in with our website with a link to the video which could be seen for several hours until it was withdrawn from YouTube by the youths later in the day.”

OK. Now, can you guess what the headline was on the story? No? Remember, this is approved by people for whom phrases like “thinking outside the box” come easily.

It was BIKE BOYS’ SICK PRANK.

To me, that’s an insulting headline – insulting to the reader. It assumes that the reader will agree that’s a “sick” prank and moreover it doesn’t give the reader any ownership of the story. It presents the verdict on the kids (being kids, if stupid ones). It’s demotic and pointless.

It’s interesting to contrast that with Roy Greenslade’s assertion that

regional and local journalism is just not good enough to retain readers let alone win new ones. I am not arguing that everything is worse than it was years ago in some entirely mythical golden age (though I’d be happy to debate that possibility too). What I mean is that newspapers have failed to raise their game in the face of competition from elsewhere.

Absolutely. You’d not find anywhere else where that YouTube video would attract the words “sick prank” (except where sick was used hyperbolically; climbers will call a route “sick hard”, as in hard++).

Headlines like that deserve to die. But it seems they are – people aren’t buying the papers that carry them. That sound you hear in the background is one hand applauding – I’m happy to see them go, but not if they’re replaced by ignorance and indifference to anything at all.

Computers that write news: imagine the paper of the future.. written by Google

At the Johnson King blog, Andrew Chatterton writes:

The recent news of a US business information outfit replacing some of the tasks done by its journalists with computers will undoubtedly send shock waves across newsrooms throughout the country. Financial journalists are first in the ‘firing line’ as new software can turn around an earnings story within 0.3 seconds of a company making its results public!

This will surely be a threat to all journalists, not just financial hacks. As software intelligence increases, it’s feasible that any type of press release could be turned into an article before you can say ‘copy and paste’.

Indeed could we see chief executives briefing some sophisticated software and a laptop over lunch at Claridges? Newsrooms filled only with PCs and one techy to see to the needs of these next generation journalists? Or maybe even software that has the ability to scan blogs and automatically turn them into news stories? One for Charles Arthur to ponder on perhaps…

Well, having been passed the baton.. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, and that I did at the talk to Fullrun recently. It’s already trivial to imagine a computer-generated newspaper. Get Google News, capture the most common headlines, create a summary story from the stories that appear most often, categorised by politics/sport/science/technology/medicine/celebrities/wouldyoubelieveit!/heartwarming/reviews.

You could even generate different versions by twiddling the knobs – more celebs, less politics gives you the downmarket version, and so on. Then print it.

To be honest, the first time I saw Metro (the daily morning freesheet in London, though also in other UK cities, having come here like the Vikings from Scandinavia), I thought it was computer-generated, or at least computer-chosen. That was a couple of years ago; since then it’s got a little more personality, but not so much you’d spot it. And I think it would be tough to say what its political stance was, though its parentage (Associated Newspaper, ergo a sibling of the Daily Mail) does show up from time to time – such as today’s splash (front-page lead), headlined “Shoplifters to be spared jail”, which is factually incorrect as it’s reporting a recommendation that shoplifters not be sent to jail.

Two things, though. Obviously, you don’t want the Google Newspaper to be on the web. Else it would index itself, which would lead to recursion. Second, if it was successful, it would have no journalists, yet rely on journalism. A paradox, of sorts, though the existence of the Press Association means that such things as local papers with national reporting has solved that one for decades.

The Google Newspaper: is it evitable?

Bad Pitch blog explains how not to make bad pitches to journalists

Been a while since I mentioned the BPB. It’s still going strong, though (obviously; it’s not like it’s going to run out of source material in a hurry..)

A very good post though which backs up – completely independently – many of the things that I spoke to the Fullrun audience a few weeks back is up, called 10 Reporter Hacks. That’s “hacks” as in “ways to break in” (like computer hacking, yes?).

Headings include “All Hail Google [News]”, “Social Study”, “LinkedIn”, “RSS-s-s”, “Step Away From the Computer”, “Analyze This”, “Get Interpersonal”, “Source File” and a few others. Read it – you’ve got the time. It’s a short-cut guide for anyone just starting out in PR, or anyone who’s forgotten because of client demands what those strange “journalist” things on the ends of phones are really like outside the zoo.