City AM turns commercial news model upside down

Broadsheet newspaper

Was there ever a divide between editorial and commercial content? That’s the thought that came into my head as I read earlier this week that City AM is “turning the commercial model [of news] upside down on its head”,

The more sceptical of the approach, such as The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, have reiterated the loss-making nature of the paper, suggesting a radical change was necessary to fix the broken business model. This seems pretty harsh as the entire media industry has struggled to make their business models profitable, particularly The Guardian that has the third highest global readership in English but is still facing financial crisis.

City AM’s approach of allowing certain organisations (for a price) direct access to their publishing platform, judging the value of their content by readership figures, surely makes sense? If a columnist at a newspaper can’t win over any readers then they’re out of a job. As Yardley has mentioned, organisations have access to subject-matter experts; possessing a body of knowledge much higher than the average journalists. This is valuable and signifies that news needs to be more varied and open.

City AM’s decision at its best will lead to high quality content from experts. However, the newspaper could risk its reputation if an onslaught of shameless advertorial tat ensues.

Yet again, if the content produced by brands isn’t engaging enough then readership will be down for them, rendering their partnership with City AM worthless. So the onus is now on organisations to produce journalistic content that can navigate issues with credibility.

As mentioned in The Drum,

“… says that the strategy is possible because the City AM audience is open to “thought leadership”. He is surprisingly confident that if ad clients abuse the system, the readers will blame the authors of the misinformation, not the newspaper. “The anger, disappointment and negativity will not feature on the brand of City AM.”

In my view this is the only part of City AM’s approach that makes alarm bells ring in my head. It shows a surprising amount of confidence in City AM’s readers as it’s often difficult to determine the originator of content these days. If an article has ‘advertorial’ slapped on it then I personally tend to skip the article. So understanding how City AM’s readers react to the change will be interesting and could pave the way for other publications in the industry.

However, with my professional interests aside working in PR, I do praise this decision by City AM. It’s brave, and in many ways the only option to develop a media business considering the close ties all journalists already have with sourcing news from PR professionals and brands. What City AM have done is displace the middle-man; whether brands and organisations can be trusted to adhere to journalistic news values – well, that’s another matter.

Buzzfeed’s approach to investigative journalism

Heidi Blake, at Social Media Week

After working for the Sunday Times as assistant editor and in the Insights Team, Heidi Blake made the radical decision to leave the traditional newspaper world, joining Buzzfeed as UK investigations editor in January 2015. Investigative journalism stories typically hang well from the reputation of a mainstream news title; Buzzfeed is a different animal.

Heidi Blake, at Social Media Week

Heidi has a well-known reputation in journalism for being behind some of the biggest investigative stories of the 21st Century; including the award-winning story into the alleged bribery to Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup (AKA. Fifa Files). Therefore her move to Buzzfeed, the infamously listical ‘social news and entertainment company’, did cause surprise in the industry; a well-known ‘traditional’ journalist moving to a new form of social media news website.

From the very start of her talk at Social Media Week London, it was clear that part of Heidi’s decision to move from the Sunday Times was due to their corporate decision to launch the paywall. As soon as the paid-for barrier was raised in 2010, it became much harder to draw people to the website, with the newspaper frequently losing out to social media sharing opportunities. So despite her award-winning Fifa Files story, competitors frequently gained more traction online.

Reading between the lines of her talk, clearly many journalists at the Sunday Times were concerned by the paywall decision. There was no doubt the newspaper was losing power to its competitors on social media, which really made the reputation of the Sunday Times’ name ineffective; nobody knows your article exists.

At the same time Buzzfeed was making a lot of money from social advertising but wanted to reinvest in hard hitting journalism; Heidi was the clear choice. The remit was the same as a newspaper, to see heads roll and a positive impact to society. Proper investigative journalism should be about bodies found and money stolen, and Buzzfeed can help frame those stories to make an impact.

Okay, clearly there were a few jokes about Heidi’s job becoming the master of Buzzfeed post-style lists. Heck, why not? The format of writing a story about “The top 50 bribes for the 2022 World Cup” may actually gain more traction than a long-form broadsheet article. It’s already working, the Buzzfeed investigations team’s post “15 Insane Confessions of a Buckingham Palace Guard” went viral on social media.

Integrating social media into investigative stories has been critical. Traditional newspapers could almost be likened to dictators, as it’s the editor who has the final say. Unlike Buzzfeed where people’s feedback on social media has democratised the news process; an online audience curates and stories can be targeted at different social media communities.

https://twitter.com/onbdn/status/644088793805529088

To an extent this allows Buzzfeed to guide it’s ethical decisions too, the guiding philosophy for Buzzfeed is to not be a barrier to information. If others are publishing sensitive photos that have already gone viral online, Buzzfeed may as well publish too.

Even in terms of investigating, it’s now possible to geo-lock social media searches to spot keyword related phrases that are linked with a current investigation. Incredibly useful for monitoring what staff of an organisation might be writing about on social media; it immediately provides a first-hand account. LinkedIn is another obvious choice, as the social network allows investigators to search vertically across typically difficult to navigate organisational structures.

Whether Buzzfeed can fulfil it’s aim to become the defining media company of the 21st Century remains to be seen.

Should journalists be responsible for online audience growth?

Trinity Mirror’s restructured Midlands newsrooms means that journalists will now be held responsible for growing online audiences. It’s not unusual. Last week I spoke to a journalist from a top tabloid newspaper in the UK who revealed that stories for online were being selected for their expected website traffic. Like it or not; online traffic is the fuel for advertising revenue, employers meeting pay check, and profit.

Is this right? Should journalists be held responsible for online audience growth? I have mixed thoughts.

Journalists should be responsible
On the other side of the media fence, public relations practitioners are held responsible for online audience growth. The challenging side of the role is to predict KPIs, have them agreed with clients, and then meet them. This may be increasing fans on social media or aiming to drive sign-ups for an event – there are all kinds of ways to drive audience growth with digital. It’s only natural that as media outlets compete for online dominance that the journalists who create the content should be held responsible for its success.

Journalists should not be responsible
As if the squeeze on media room budgets wasn’t enough for newspapers, pushing journalists to play as digital marketer too may be the last straw. Quality content cannot be judged by website traffic and audience growth alone. In fact, the posts that drive the most traffic tend to be frustrating clickbait instead (just look at what the Daily Mail has become). Ultimately, online audience growth is factored by more than just creating content; advertising, digital marketing and sponsorships/partnerships have a role.

The danger
If clickability and shareability are used as deciding factors between a successful or unsuccessful article, then we will see more BuzzFeed styled posts and valueless clickbait. If journalists focus on producing these articles, then this will come at the cost of long-form in-depth content.

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.

 

I work in PR, but haven’t pitched to a journalist for a year

Somewhere in-between the next coffee and wishing that the morning would end to excuse the monotony of breakfast (an important meal I refuse to appreciate), an email will be delivered.

“Dear Michael,
We’ve been shortlisted for another award!”

DELETE

As the owner of a mildly read blog, my personal email is regularly doorstepped by PR requests. Occasionally so thwart with poor grammar, it can leave a bitter taste of failure – as an industry we just have to be better. If I think that, then one can only imagine the frustration of journalists.

The last time I pitched to a journalist was on a graduate scheme – that was almost 2 years ago. Yet I work in the PR industry. I can even prove it; my MCIPR membership has just been renewed.

This isn’t going to be a post examining the different definitions of PR because that would be tedious. But for argument’s sake, here is the CIPR definition:

“Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

From this definition I can confirm that I…

  • Look after the reputations of clients through earning understanding, support, and influencing opinion and behaviour;
  • Maintain a mutual understanding between organisations and its publics.

The only difference is, I don’t need a journalist acting as a mediator between my client’s organisation and its publics. That’s partly because I work in digital/social media, and journalist liaison doesn’t blight my to-do list – others do that. It’s mostly because digital alternatives provide a means to get in touch with niche audiences that mainstream publications are unable to target.

Journalists still have enormous value; they know how to frame stories, sell them to their audience, and hold the most influential positions online. In all the social reporting I’ve done, mainstream news outlets command huge engagement rates and sway conversations. Traditional media is very much alive, don’t let anyone tell you different.

Don’t let this deter from the fact that, depending on your clients, PR can be achieved without journalist liaison. Whilst a journalist’s skills should be envied, their media world is no longer exclusive. Only a few weeks ago I was chatting with a blogger who sways a collective influence comparable to the Mail Online.

At the recent Social Media Week event I helped arranged, one member of the audience remarked that bloggers are perfect for communicating with particular niches. They also have time to review products, know how to spread the word across media channels and engage with their audience at an individual level. This is more than most time-strapped journalist can offer, or frankly technically achieve.

Yes, I’ve been around journalists who scream that bloggers are mere amateurs. So what? This is just a typical British cynicism, when really Amateur in French means ‘lover of’. I’m a proud amateur of blogging. It has led to this blog receiving 30,000+ visits this year; it is why I will never demand a penny from those who read my words. It is why an industry PR book review on my blog would gain far more influential coverage in comparison with a mainstream publication, as I attract beautifully niche visitors.

That all-encompassing “little black contacts book” that my lecturer once mentioned contains the names of bloggers, not journalists. It is also a lot smaller, because I’m able to give organisations the ability to publish their own content, to far more specific audiences.

Digital marketing and social media provide other options to fulfil the goals of PR. We all know this, but sometimes it’s worth highlighting as a blog post. Especially as there are some in the industry, who I’ve spoken to, who believe speaking with journalists defines PR as PR.

 

 

 

 

 

Alastair Campbell is right. PR has changed, but now what?

You may not realise this but Alastair Campbell isn’t just a brilliant speech writer, he is also a novelist. I first had the opportunity to see him in the flesh at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2008, where he gave a frank and candid account of his experience with depression (going far more in-depth than Wikipedia). His book ‘All in the Mind’ is a tragic comedy, highlighting the relationship between ordinary people and the doctors who treat them. It’s worth a read.

When I reached the front of the signing queue, with my freshly printed copy of his first novel, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought was currently the most important area of PR. It didn’t take long for him to answer; “digital”. Five years later digital communication has become my full-time job, although my entrance into the profession is fairly unique. I was once studying a Cisco Network Engineering Course. You can’t predict your future career.

It seems, neither could you have predicted the evolution of the PR industry in the 21st Century and the revolutionary impact this has had on the media industry. In Alastair’s Huffington Post article published in June he was quite clear on how the world of PR is changing.

In a world of greater chaos, people search for greater clarity. In a world of ceaseless innovation, people take comfort from the known and the familiar. In a world of more negativity, people look for more hope. But in a world of more choice and more information, people are getting better at knowing reality from spin, separating good from mediocre, they’re faster at making judgments at which is which, and often they are right.

With more choice and information, people are searching for the reality of situations and are getting better at recognising spin. The idea that PR is to “get good press” is redundant. Can you guess where that has left spin?

…the real spin doctors in the modern world are journalists, broadcasters and bloggers, and they want their readers, viewers and listeners to think they have the monopoly on truth, and so subtly and not so subtly suggest people ignore everyone else – politicians and their spokesmen, companies and their advisers, countries and their brand managers.

No matter what your personal opinion of Alastair is, I believe his opinion sways a lot of weight. Yet it is written in the context of public affairs. I’ve found bloggers in other areas of the industry to be far more amenable, accepting that even though I am a PR professional, I am still telling them the truth. The integrity of the PR industry may be questionable, along with public affairs but credit should be given to individual practitioners; integrity speaks volumes.

Digital has firmly placed the rocket up the anus of the communications world and some big changes need to be made. Upgrading the CIPR’s definition of PR (which has been a source of incongruity for many years), conducting training measuring sales success through PR and firmly denouncing the alarmingly amateur efforts of SEO-only agencies would help. Never has there been more competition in PR because of digital.

PR Professionals, even if they once were ‘Spin Doctors’, no longer hold any authority to be named by that title. We need to be platform agnostic instigators who are on social media to take part in conversations; transparency is so important.

Plague Doctor
The all knowing Spin Doctor? This painting of a Plague Doctor was designed by Frank To.

I’m fortunate to have a close working relationship with David Phillips, co-author of Online Public Relations (new edition out later this year), where he outlines the distinctions of transparency rather well. Particularly radical transparency; making organisations completely transparent about their operations and products. Not brave enough to adopt this? Too late, a blogger has just published all of your organisation’s details already. This is the age we live in.

I could go on about where the PR industry is heading forever. Alastair Campbell has summed it up well in his article but it’s nowhere near the full picture. The relevancy of our industry is reliant upon its workers to keep up-to-date with the times. This is more than using the latest social media sensation. This is about developing new tools which allow us to carry out our jobs in a quicker, more concise way. Forget campaign creativity – our industry has enough of that. We need data creativity and until we find the right person, our days as PR Professionals are numbered.

That is currently the future of the PR industry. Now what?

Reading is brain food for good writing

No matter how many training sessions you attend with journalists from The Sun, The Mirror and BBC News – being a good writer is about finding your inner voice. Unfortunately for public relations professionals, we often spend so much time client side that we forget to talk like proper humans. It’s a serious matter and takes a degree of self-determination to alter. No better way to do this than reading.

On a daily basis I spend a round trip of three hours travelling to central London. Over the course of a five day week this is calculated to approximately 15 hours of commuting (that’s not considering any London based engagements outside of the ordinary). On average it probably takes a person 20 hours to read a book of 400 pages (crowd sourced stat here). This means if I read more on the way to work I could roughly devour four books a week!

Four books of varying writing styles, ranging content and factuality means one happy bookworm. Even if I did manage to bomb my way through 48 books a year, extent doesn’t matter, rather what is learnt. Sometimes it seems that, as PR professionals, we are so busy producing content that we actually run out of time to appreciate well-written content. Life doesn’t read like a press release and it’s a mistake to keep our noses fixated in our day-to-day client activities.

Over the last few months I’ve drastically changed the way I consume content; focusing on diversifying material and upping relevant client related publications. On a regular basis this includes (but not limited to) reading:

–          The Telegraph
–          The Financial Times
–          The Times
–          The Express
–          The Mirror
–          The Economist
–          New Humanist Magazine
–          The Huffington Post

That’s not including the client specific publications (namely tech trade, travel and political dabblings). What really brings all of these publications alive is when office spats are created as a result of the mix of views presented by a mix of publications. At the beginning of this week I debated on the proposed censorship of pornographic content across UK websites as a result of a pull-out in the times.

Reading is brain food for good writing. Reading allows us to experiment with writing in different voices and, in doing so, can help us find our own. Putting digital wizardry aside; the key to being successful in PR is to be good at writing, which means enjoy to reading. I’m still learning something new each day.

Bell Pottinger Group were not to Blame

On the 5th December 2011 a video emerged from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showing Bell Pottinger Group offering reputation management to the despotic regime of Uzbekistan. Countless human rights groups protest due to the country’s use of child labour, torture and media control. Dozens of journalists and activists are systematically tortured in the country’s jails each day. Leader, Islam Karimov, keeps oppression fresh by tolerating no opposition.

Bureau journalists contacted the Bell Pottinger posing as members of Azimov Group stating that the government of Uzbekistan was committed to real change would like to promote good relations with the UK. Bell Pottinger, feeling that this tyranny could do with a spot of reputation management, accepted to meet.

Uzbekistan's Controversial Cotton Fields

Managing Director of Bell Pottinger public affairs, David Wilson, checked after the first meeting that the Uzbekistan government was indeed willing to change their approaches which included child labour, human rights and democracy. The fake Azimov Group agreed.

The key arguments that Bell Pottinger Group will drive for the Uzbekistan presentation (as can be viewed here) are:

–       Uzbekistan is changing. A strong programme of reform is correcting past problems.

–       Uzbekistan is important. Its co-operation with the West has greatly helped US and UK forces in Afghanistan.

–       Uzbekistan can be an excellent trading partner. Its exports are valued and valuable. Its people are becoming more prosperous. The UK should not allow others to get ahead of it in trade with Uzbekistan.

Their Digital PR recommendations were:

–       Drown out negative content

–       Push our messaging to the top of global search engines

–       Direct journalists and internet users to key websites and content

–       Shape the online conversation and debate regarding Uzbenistan’s cotton trade and issues concerning child labour and help to redress the balance in reporting.

I have to reiterate that David Wilson had only agreed to any of this only if the Uzbekistan government was willing to

David Wilson

change. As an expert in public affairs it is rather unusual how David Wilson had not noticed the long history of Uzbekistan not allowing reporters to observe their progress (let alone the jail sentences and torture).

During meetings Bell Pottinger’s close relationship with PM, David Cameron, became apparent. Yet a quick statement by Cameron’s spokesperson denied that lobbying companies influence the government. Clearly not the case, as it did become apparent that Bell Pottinger’s past client, Dyson, had caused the PM to discuss copyright issues with the Chinese PM. Whilst it is true that business matters would be discussed when considering the running of states, it seems unlikely that such a discussion would have materialised from luck.

Bell Pottinger Group were not to Blame
Despite the evidence brought forward from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism I do not believe Bell Pottinger is to blame from the criticisms brought forward by the media since. It strikes unfair how suddenly journalists became outraged by the lobbying industry when their own influence is dubious. I concede that the management exampled by Bell Pottinger on this occasion was not righteous – in places it seemed ignorant considering the extensive history of Uzbekistan.

Instead the investigation raised more questions surrounding the integrity of the lobbying industry, occasionally referred to as ‘the dark arts’. Anybody with an inclination towards politics will know the influence of businesses and states when decision making is in progress. Why shouldn’t lobbyists be transparent and argue for the concerns of the client?

The key point of this investigation was when the bureau said the government of Uzbekistan was seeking real change. Only once this has been announced was the rest of the investigation possible but it was based upon a lie told by journalists. Yes, it provided transparency but under the wrong circumstances. If the Bureau had announced that Uzbeckistan was not seeking changes then I believe Bell Pottinger would have dropped proceedings with pitching the campaign.

Broader education is required publically of the lobbying industry. It starts with providing proper regulation of the industry in the UK. In America a measure of statuary transparency exists which requires companies to disclose client contracts and announce their contact with politicians. A requirement such as this may be the right path to take to ensure integrity remains at the centre of this, at times, questionable industry.