You can’t watch this film

It could be cynically described as the most elaborate marketing campaign of the century. The Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking debacle never fails to draw attention or mystery; especially in this typically slow news season. Just who are the Guardians of Peace (GOP)? Is this hacking collective just playing on the Pyongyang government warning? The latest rumour is that this act of cyber theft or terrorism was an inside job. Given my geeky persuasion, you may now expect me to divulge into the technological aspects of this story. No. I have a bigger issue, one that a lot of us take for granted:

Freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech advocates were quick in criticising Sony Pictures’ initial decision to drop the release of “The Interview” after threats of violence. We can’t let such a great American corporation (even though it’s a subsidiary to a Japanese corporation) bow to the whims of a fanatical government, disavowing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Putting President Barack Obama in a rather awkward position, to uphold these values, show strength in front of the tyrannical North Korea, but to take the potential act of terrorism seriously. Of course Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesperson added a rather wet:

“… Mr Cameron gave a “very high importance” to the principle of freedom of speech and said people should “never be shy” about defending it when asked about the announcement.” (Quoted from the Telegraph)

In stouter terms, Jimmy Kimmel described the event as:

“An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” – @jimmykimmel.

In the midst of this quasi-articulate attack on Sony Pictures deployed by freedom of speech advocates, I couldn’t help but remember one of the best polemic books of 2013. “You can’t read this book” by controversial columnist Nick Cohen, which begins:

“Do you believe in freedom of speech?

Really, are you sure?

You may say you do. It’s the sort of thing that everyone says. Just as everyone says they have a sense of humour, especially when they don’t… In the late twentieth century states, courts, private companies and public bureaucracies confined information, their argument runs. If it spread beyond those with ‘a need to know’, the authorities of the nation state, whether a dictatorship or a democracy, could imprison or fine the leaker…

That manageable world has gone for good. If one person living in a court’s jurisdiction breaks an injunction, a judge can punish him. But how can a judge punish a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand on Twitter or Facebook?”

The book continues to say we have to assert the values of the Enlightenment; recognising a fine balance between freedom of information and freedom of speech. That in the US, corporate interests prevent public discussions that occur that may prove a challenge to a corporation’s power. In the case of North Korea, censoring the release of a film that questions the authority of their leader.

Whilst not known as a source of intellectual vigour (especially because of this article), the Metro did publish a comment in its paper (to paraphrase),

“North Korea threatens US due to the release of this comedy film, but how would Britain or America act if North Korea were to release their own comedy film?”

Its comedy film wars. I doubt ambassadors of the Western world would label this an act of terrorism, and I wonder how many freedom of speech advocates would hold the mantle here? We can’t just use the sacred term ‘freedom of speech’ to justify if we do or don’t take offence at something.

Because the reality is, none of us really have freedom of speech. It’s a point that Cohen asserts early in the book. On a daily basis all of us filter our thoughts for various reasons. Especially when it comes to the spread of information – if freedom of speech did exist then I could talk about some rather juicy city gossip without the risk of getting sued. Even the First Amendment has exceptions (such as religious violence and offences against children).

The new atheism movement that befell with the release of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins based its strong arguments on the fact that scientific or philosophical enquiry should not be censored by the worry of offending the religious. We should protect those in danger, such as when Salmon Rushdie released the Satanic Verses.

What we should remember in this situation with Sony Pictures is that in this digital age, the spread of information has become coextensive with speech. Now individuals are acting through social media as their own publishing sources. This blog is a perfect example, as it sits as my online ‘personal printing press’. It doesn’t need to pump out useful public information – it could be full of untruths and scandal if I wanted. Yet some governments and corporations may see my act of publishing a blog post in the same light as an editor approving a Guardian news story.

Which, at its heart, lies the real mystery about the Sony Pictures attack. Even though North Korea has limited digital capabilities, the country has failed to recognise a cinema release of the film isn’t the only option. It’s likely Sony Pictures will release the film to be streamed online; which I believe will be a Hollywood first. That way the threat of violence will be drastically reduced as people watch the film in the safety of their own homes.

Freedom of speech advocates can target Sony Pictures for their (current) decision to withhold the film due to threats of violence. But the same advocates should also consider what freedom of speech really means. To say you “Can’t watch this film” isn’t such a big issue, when on a daily basis we are constantly having information filtered or blocked from us.

Perhaps ultimately, this isn’t about freedom of speech at all, instead just a means to sell a Hollywood blockbuster before the New Year.

Lessons from NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Launch

Imagine if the Apollo 11 1969 moon landing took place today. What would the PR around it look like? Well, it would probably look like the first unmanned test flight of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. Being a little bit of a Space-bod myself, I watched NASA’s live coverage of the launch in complete awe. Which included online streaming from the launch pad, through the stratosphere and into abyss of Space.

It was special.

From the launch pad journalists watched the countdown, keeping their cameras focused as the rocket climbed ever-higher. At the same time, NASA had attached multiple cameras on the ground and on the rocket itself; surveying its journey into the heavens. All of this was streamed live online; including traditional online news sources, such as BBC News and The Times.

As the rocket rose higher, Mission Control provided a layman’s scientific guide to each stage of the launch procedure. Once in Space, cameras were used to show the Earth, supported by 3D graphic simulations showing angle, rotation and speed of the vessel. This was more than a simple webcam attached to the rocket; it had to survive speeds of 20,000+ mph, travelling 3,609 miles from Earth.

If only my physics class at Secondary School could have been so creative. Read the Telegraph’s live blog to get a better feeling of the flight.

Approximately 27,000 spectators watched the launch in person; the online audience reached a peak of 3 million. Including 360,000 retweets of the #OrionLaunch on Twitter. Aside from the live stream, NASA published various pictures and infographics to explain the science behind the event.

What did we learn from the Orion Launch?

You need to think beyond the press conference
For a big real-world launch like Orion, a simple press conference would not have done justice to the event. The launch took place at Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida – but people all over the world wanted to watch it. Using social media (mostly Twitter) and a live stream, gave all sorts of media the ability to cover the event. From national press, to niche Space publications and blogs. An event like this attracts a range of demographics that only a social media campaign can fulfil.

The skillset of a PR professional needs to include broadcast
The dial-up days of internet connectivity are over; superfast broadband coverage is supercharging the content that needs to be produced. This means high-quality video streaming. The new press conference is a client’s private television show; the days of PR involving pure journalist liaison are over (and have been for a long time).

Content can be specially packaged for the media
The national press and trade publications all struggle with tight deadlines, massive competition and reduced resources. So you could try inviting international journalists to watch the launch in Florida, but don’t be surprised if you get a few rejections. The live stream was a genius way to get coverage from every national publication because it was easy. The media could embed the stream or use the recording afterwards, then write words around it. They could even interview their own experts about how the launch went. Because of this, the whole event was visually engaging and people will remember it.


The obvious downside of trying to arrange an Orion Launch style event? It’s damn expensive. I’ve live streamed events in the past and often the cost of hiring a studio can be a bit much. Thankfully none of the clients I have worked with have ever requested putting anything into space.


Over 50,000 people visited Thought Symposium this year

Can you believe it? It’s the last working Friday of the year for the vast majority of us in PR and public affairs. And what a year it has been!

We have had some historic political moments; UKIP’s victory in the European Elections, the Scottish Referendum and Ed Miliband’s bacon sarnie moment.

Even in the world of PR we’ve witnessed big events; Max Clifford is jailed for sex assaults, Kim Kardashian attempted to break the internet and the ice bucket challenge raised millions for charity.

Most importantly, digital tech is continuing to disrupt ‘business as usual’. Taxi app, Uber, re-thinks how a service should work, causing international condemnation. The growth of cryptocurrency may throw our centralised finance system into question. A number of high-profile hack attacks have proved just how ‘information porous’ organisations are in the 21st Century.

Throughout all of this I’ve managed to balance a full-time job in an agency, whilst updating this blog. It’s been a big year for Thought Symposium. Thanks to all you lovely readers, media measurement company Cision has ranked this blog as one of the Top 10 PR Blogs in the UK. Over 50,000 of you have visited over the last 12 months – the highest visitor stat I’ve personally had, of which I’m truly grateful.

For those of you who just love reading statistics from Google Analytics, I’ve included some of the highlights below.

Google Analytics - grab – Web Statistics 2014

  • Thought Symposium received 52,739 visits
  • There were 75 new posts published
  • The busiest day of the year was Monday 7th July 2014, with 299 visits

Top 5 posts of the year

  1. My PayPal account has been hacked
  2. Three UK saved me from Sony Xperia Hell
  3. How I landed myself a Graduate PR Role (an old one, published June 2012!)
  4. Facebook is a misleading advertising network that promotes an out-dated approach to social media
  5. A stiff few minutes on Page 3

Top 4 traffic sources

  1. Organic search (Mostly Google, with a pinch of Bing)
  2. Direct traffic
  3. Referral
  4. Social Media

Top 5 social media traffic sources

  1. Twitter
  2. Facebook
  3. Google+
  4. LinkedIn
  5. WordPress

Top 5 search terms

  1. Digital strategy example
  2. Has paypal been hacked
  3. Pr graduate schemes
  4. Sony xperia z charging problems
  5. Public relations blog

For me, this blog is simply a ‘creative outlet’ and so it’s great people enjoy reading the posts I write. Whilst big numbers in Google Analytics is impressive, the in-depth results suggest that I should better target my posts towards story driven content.

Thank you for reading Thought Symposium in 2014. Have a wonderful Christmas. I’ll be back posting in January, after I’ve recovered from one colossal festive hangover…

Trends and issues affecting the PR industry in 2015 (#PR2015)

The value of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) comes from the sum of its members. The #PR2015 guide launched today highlights this, with each CIPR group looking ahead to the coming 12 months. There are a number of trends and issues.

PR2015 logo

Common themes include: content marketing, media change, integration, the blurring of internal and external audiences, etc. Just read the foreword.

I’ve had a read through and found these interesting titbits of insight.

“The demise and contraction of local media, newspapers in particular, is a blow to local democracy and also to the pool of capable people able to quickly assimilate complex issues and recreate them into focused content.” (Pg. 8) Stuart Baird MCIPR, Committee member of CIPR Midlands

The CIPR was key to bringing my new blood into the profession. I studied on a CIPR approved course at University and was a CIPR Student Ambassador for a year (AKA. The cool kid). Some, shall we say, more traditional PR practitioners find this path odd, considering their generation mostly hailed from journalism.

“Digitally focused PRs will need to understand how paid, owned and earned channels work together, and the role their skills can play in supporting the development of fully integrated campaigns” (Pg. 10) Abi Whitfield MCIPR, Chair of CIPR North West

The piece goes on to describe the shortage of able practitioners to deliver such skills, especially as client budgets decrease. Whilst I agree that more outreach is needed in schools to talk about the benefits of the PR industry, I’m also highly aware that the next ‘digital’ generation may be a threat to my own role! In my view the PR industry needs to work closer with technical third parties (such as measurement companies) and be more willing to share transparently with Open Source programming communities. We need innovation here. Yes, part of innovation is delivered through training new blood.

“… we are living in extraordinary political times! The certainty we got from knowing the date of the General Election five years in advance has been blown away by the fact we have probably not seen an election where no one can say with any confidence what is likely to happen…” (Pg. 26) Simon McVicker FCIPR, Chair of CIPR PA

Could the two-horse political party race be over? It’s difficult to predict what will happen in May 2015. Especially as party advertising budgets dwindle and the importance of social media is recognised. Our democracy today is blighted by low turn-out and as recognised by Demos, a digitally empowered civil society may reconnect Europeans with democracy. This will be a social media election; although some of my public affairs colleagues may disagree! Another post on this later on…


Anyway, I’ve rambled on for far too long now. Find the embed of the guide below.

You’ll need to think like a start-up in 2015

I’m calling it: 2015 will be the year that communications agencies will need to think like a start-up.

This was reinforced earlier this month with the release of new data from accountants Kingston Smith revealing “Profit margins at the top 40 UK PR agencies declined last year to the lowest level for a decade…” There are a number of reasons for this, and Stephen Waddington provides an excellent overview.

What do I mean by think like a start-up though?

One of the reasons behind struggling profit margins is the challenge of modernisation; meaning everything now involves the big digital question. How is this campaign going to work online?

For the last two years my role at Keene Communications has centred on this question. I was brought in to provide the agency with digital capabilities, drive client results through social media, and beat competition through digital developments.

Even though the agency has a 25-year history, implementing digital approaches has meant thinking like a start-up, even if I didn’t realise it at first.

Quite often the competition reveals itself to be agencies boasting large, often international employee counts. In the spirit of a start-up though, this doesn’t matter. We strive to be at the forefront through developing creative digital ideas that deliver practical results.

And wow, we have developed some fun digital tools as a result. Our cloud server is full of technological toys; many of these experimental tools have already been used to deliver client work.

However, all of these developments over the last two years remain hidden from view. So a new saying has emerged in the office “We’re the best kept secret on Whitehall”; it’s not good. Especially for creativity. The real digital experts lurk in the countless Open Source communities online. For us, for Keene, to properly think like a start-up, we need to be working with our digital partners.

So today we’ve launched Keene Labs, our response to thinking like a start-up in 2015. A project area on our company Wiki where we work with Open Source communities to evaluate and develop promising new technologies that can be applied to our own work.

Keene Labs logo

Because it’s a Wiki, the whole Keene Labs project area is in a constant state of ‘work in progress’! It probably offers a deeper level of intellectual property transparency than most agencies would be comfortable to give away. All the contents covers digital and social media tools we are developing right now. It’s hot stuff.

Do have a look, and if you’re interested in helping develop any of these ideas with us or would like any information, just comment below.

Facebook ‘likes’ beheading videos

This morning my request to Facebook to remove a graphic beheading video was denied. The video appeared yesterday afternoon, doing the rounds on multiple social media sites. The site in question features macabre photo galleries of extremists decapitating helpless victims; in the name of promoting Islamophobia.

It is truly disturbing. So is Facebook’s response:

“Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment.

We reviewed the share you reported for containing graphic violence and found it doesn’t violate our Community standards.”

Say, what?

So I had a look at the Community Standards:

Graphic Content

Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences and raise awareness about issues important to them. Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, it is to condemn it. However, graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site.

When people share any content, we expect that they will share in a responsible manner. That includes choosing carefully the audience for the content. For graphic videos, people should warn their audience about the nature of the content in the video so that their audience can make an informed choice about whether to watch it.”

To say that this Community Standard is flaky to say the least, it’s lawyer-written garble to say “Facebook’s Law”. Having unfortunately visited the website in question I would say images are shared for sadistic effect, promoting an equally dangerous view of Islamophobia in the UK. Watching these videos can only be of sadistic interest. And in all of this, note the helpless victim pushed to the ground with a machete above his neck doesn’t get a single say.

It’s surprising that Facebook’s policy on nudity is a lot more clear-cut. Even though I would rather see a porn star on my news feed than a murder. A friend of mine recently had a picture of her semi-nude baby removed by Facebook – it really was innocent. Priorities?

The censorship of certain content on social media has long been a contentious issue. As an advocate for freedom of expression, a supporter of the Liberal Democrats blocking the snooper’s charter, it pains me to admit some content should be censored.








Cash-strapped newspapers choose sponsored content

When it comes to sponsoring articles, bloggers have been leading the way for at least the last five years (in my experience). The message from the Financial Times’ article ‘Newspaper groups ‘go native’ to win revenues’ paints a bleak picture of how the interests of readers may become less relevant for cash-strapped newspapers.

In the article that could have ironically been sponsored by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Digital Media Correspondent Robert Cookson mentions,

“The problem is that publishers label sponsored content in different ways, some of them much more obvious than others. And even when an article is clearly branded, readers often struggle to interpret exactly what terms such as “sponsored” mean.”

Only last week the ASA warned video bloggers (vloggers) to make it clearer when they are paid to promote products. A warning that in turn was listened to by all the major members of the blogging community who rely on sponsored posts to generate revenue.

There is in reality a mass of confusion to what sponsored content really is. Social media is personal recommendation. Therefore it’s not uncommon for a blogger to recommend a product for absolutely no cash. Due to this it would be impossible for the ASA in practice to identify bloggers for breaking the rules – it’s just social dude.

On other occasions money may pass hands, but here is the truth. The successful bloggers have usually built an audience through their own ‘bloggeristic’ integrity – any hollow sponsored posts could lose an audience built over a number of years in seconds. Because the reality is most sponsored content is complete rubbish.

It is a lesson I learnt three years ago, when I agreed to publish an insurance-based blog post for the sum of £50. It had no relevance. Utterly out of keeping with the blog’s industry focus. For that I lost readership, rendering the £50 a cold reminder of how not to do sponsored content.

The Financial Times article reminds me that in the digital world ‘natives’ have already made these mistakes. Whilst traditional newspapers beckon audiences of millions, their knowledge of handling digital content can still be in its infancy. This is a PR issue – their reputation is at risk.

As Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP rightly mentions in the article, “If you mislead the consumer, it’s dangerous”. The best bloggers will always make it clear if content is sponsored, either in the footer of the article or in the title. It is still a difficult balance though. Unless it is high-quality relevant content, then you will inevitably put some readers off.

This is the skill of the PR person, to organise or produce content that has value in its own right. Something a blogger or journalist would want to cover. Anything else is advertising. A dull drum of repetitive thuds that only lessens a readers’ experience.


It’s a #FacebookFail for James Bond Spectre announcement

As the title for the new James Bond film to be released next year was announced, a coordinated media effort was taking place in the background. Those of us who work with social media know the difficulties of planning content, making sure everything is posted in a timely manner.

However, sometimes in the heat of the moment mistakes are made. Unfortunately the Skyfall UK & IRE Facebook Page had a little mishap with sharing the news of Spectre, creating a little spectacle – making multiple reiterations within minutes.

James Bond Spectre

It’s out! Although watch the spelling of that hashtag…

James Bond Spectre announcement 2

A few minutes later everything was fixed. Phew.

James Bond, post gone!

But wait? Where has the post gone?

James Bond Spectre announcement fixed

Oh, it’s been completely deleted and replaced.

It’s a little sad to say the least to have followed those developments so closely, and I’m not criticising the team in charge, we all make mistakes. However, it does highlight the need to keep an up-to-date content calendar with prepared posts that have been agreed with the client (if you’re an agency).

In this example, posts were timed perfectly with the announcement with changes made in minutes. But what a farce.