Wednesday, August 30, 2006

When does PR become spin?

1. When it's Government PR
2. When there are 3200 press officers employed by the Government.

Great story for The Telegraph

Filed under:
spin   government PR

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Who's afraid of Media Studies?

Whenever I hear the likes of BBC Radio 4's John Humphrys or Radio 5 Live’s Peter Allen knocking Media Studies degrees, I wonder what these guys are afraid of.

Do such critics really believe that the media are so transparent, so unproblematic, so inconsequential and with such little impact on the way we think, consume, vote, choose our friends, choose our enemies, etc., that they are not worthy of critical study? Would they prefer it if students didn’t learn about such things?

It’s usually around the time that A-level results come out that those of us who teach Media Studies find ourselves having to defend our existence against a barrage of mainly media-inspired propaganda against such courses.

The argument rumbles on with this article that appeared in the Independent On Sunday. The debate sets up the usual positions of academic-vs-vocational education and the value of each although the article does attempt to offer a balanced view.

There are still many media organisations which look to media course providers to concentrate on vocational skills and ditch the theory. But this leaves open the scary prospect of newspapers and broadcasters staffed by people who know how to use a computer or microphone but have no idea how to construct an intelligent argument or give an objective interpretation of what’s happening in the world. We've all witnessed the inane gibberings of those lifestyle journalists, television continuity announcers and local radio presenters who fit into this category.

It’s interesting that the article equates Media Studies with Journalism courses. One of my family members is studying for a Joint Honours in Media AND Journalism at De Montfort University, which clearly does draw a distinction between the two disciplines. I teach on a degree at UCE which offers a wide range of specialist routes through Media Studies - journalism, radio, TV and video, web design, photography, music industries and, interestingly, PR.

PR has been (still is) traditionally seen as part of the domain of business schools and degrees in Marketing. However, its agenda-setting influence on other media practices (especially journalism) and its central role in promotional culture makes it an important and valid – some would say vital – object of study for students of media and culture.

If media studies graduates spent three years simply learning which buttons to press, then the critics might have a point. But a degree course is more than a training programme. It should be encouraging would-be media workers to address some fundamental questions about media production – not only ‘how do we do it?’ but also ‘what is it doing to us?’

Filed under:
Media Studies   journalism education   journalism training    Independent   UCE   
De Montfort University   PR education

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Do newspapers have a future?

Well, do they? And does journalism? These are questions that were raised last week in The Economist’s cover story and commented on by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Independent editor Simon Kelner on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The article asks whether the demand for newspapers will disappear as more of us turn to the Internet for our news. Much of the Radio 4 discussion focuses on the market and money – whether the impact of the fall of readership and advertisers and the costs of investing in new technology will see the demise of newsprint. Both editors, from their perspectives in the quality sector, don’t believe this will happen in the foreseeable future but comment that newspapers will have to adapt to survive the digital age.

The impact on journalism itself is something else that The Economist raises. As readership declines, economies are made in the newsroom itself:
In order to cut costs, (newspapers) are already spending less on journalism. Many are also trying to attract younger readers by shifting the mix of their stories towards entertainment, lifestyle and subjects that may seem more relevant to people's daily lives than international affairs and politics are.

Lifestyle, consumer-orientated and celebrity ‘journalism’ costs considerably less than journalism that investigates, travels the globe and holds politicians and governments to account. There is a growing number of ‘news’ sources – PR and promotions people – who are only too happy to make life easier for the journalist and cheaper for the newspaper in a professional environment driven by market pressures.

As a consequence, news media are increasingly dependent on PR, a situation that many commentators have seen as a threat to the status of journalism itself. The Economist continues:
Journalism schools and think-tanks, especially in America, are worried about the effect of a crumbling Fourth Estate. Are today's news organisations “up to the task of sustaining the informed citizenry on which democracy depends?” asked a recent report about newspapers from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The article reminds us that democracy has survived television and points to positive influences of the Internet – news aggregation websites, online versions of specific newspapers (especially The Guardian) and the ‘new force of “citizen” journalists and bloggers … itching to hold politicians to account.’

Last year, one of the most popular topics selected by my first-year journalism students for a research assignment was the impact of the Internet on news reporting. It’s encouraging to see that journalists of the future are taking such an active interest in the future of journalism.

Filed under:
online news   new media   Guardian    Independent   Economist   Today programme   
PR sources   lifestyle journalism   Fourth Estate   journalism education

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Corporate Blogging la la la la la

‘Blogosphere loosens grip on communication controls’ screams one of the headlines in this month’s edition of the CIPR’s Profile magazine.

The article by Torin Douglas describes how large companies are now testing the waters. BT’s chief operating officer John Pettifer is about to start his own blog. It continues:

The decision follows much internal debate and some nervousness in the company’s communications department, because blogs are by definition interactive – a conversation, not a column – and employees and customers are invited to join in the discussion.

It’s interesting that a company’s communications department should be nervous about employees and customers having something to say. The article also referred to the Chief Executive of Carphone Warehouse Charles Dunstone, who’s been running his own blog for a few months now and using it as an opportunity to tell the world how his company is better value than BT.

As a Carphone Warehouse customer, I certainly have something to say. My mobile phone is faulty (it’s actually a design fault) and I want to get it changed. One of their shop managers haughtily informed me that I couldn’t as there are still five months on my 18-month contract. I could get it repaired but there was no loan phone available. I told her that my wife and I wouldn’t be renewing our contracts if they weren’t willing to give us phones that are not faulty. She said there was nothing she could do about it.

At least I could go into the shop and talk to her. I’ve not been able to speak to their Customer Services people by phone (the phone lines are usually too busy). I’ve sent emails and not even received any acknowledgement. So, here I thought was a perfect opportunity to speak to the man at the top.

But no, actually his blog isn’t interactive at all. There is no link that I can see for comments. All we get is a list of Mr Dunstone’s proclamations in reverse chronological order. It might look like a blog, but actually it isn’t. It’s as interactive as the regular receipt of Talk Talk junk mail that lands on my hall carpet.

When channels of communication for customers are restricted to the point of hardly existing at all, an image of the company is conjured up in my mind. It’s an image of someone with their hands over their ears and singing ‘la la la la la’ while others are trying to say something that this person doesn’t want to hear.

Filed under:
blogs    corporate blogging   marketing    online_PR   BT   Carphone Warehouse

Monday, August 21, 2006

Increase your word power with Big Brother

I’m no fan of Channel 4’s Big Brother but I have to admit that this series has been educational. I’ve learned a new word – ‘coprolalia’ – a condition where sufferers can’t help swearing. This is a symptom of approximately 10% of people with Tourette’s Syndrome.

One of these people is Pete Bennett, the obvious favourite to win this year’s programme. He might yell out an embarrassing expletive when he’s nervous but it seems we’ve all taken him into our hearts. In PR terms, Mr Bennett is a big success.

The Observer reports that his win has been hailed as the best PR possible for Tourette’s, despite initial concerns expressed by the Tourette’s Syndrome Association that Pete was being exploited and that his language problem would reflect badly on all sufferers.

The Sun however describes the win as ‘causing havoc with the schedules’ as Pete’s involuntary outbursts mean that he can’t appear on live television before the watershed (presumably because little darlings who should be in bed by 9pm have never hear of the W word!).

This series of the programme itself had some stormy moments in PR terms. Earlier this month, the premium phone line regulator ICSTIS started investigating 2700 complaints from viewers who had voted housemates off the programme only to see four of them reinstated. This followed the golden ticket fiasco when the winner, Suzie Verrico gained more exposure than she bargained for with allegations of her ticket being fixed.

The important thing was that the series ended on a positive note with a popular choice of the overall winner. Public opinion is likely to gloss over the earlier problems and feel well-disposed towards the series, which means (oh joy of joys) it will be back next year.

Filed under:
Channel 4    Big Brother    Tourette's    Observer    Sun    ICSTIS

Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes in the Grassroots?

One frequently used explanation of PR goes like this: Advertising is what you say about yourself; PR is what others say about you.

‘Others’ of course includes journalists. So in PR terms, this morning’s ‘news’ item on BBC1’s Breakfast show certainly hit the mark. Others still might say that the item was pure hype.

The item did bring into sharp focus how the promotion of a new consumer product – in this case, the ‘cult movie’ Snakes On A Plane – can worm its way into the news agenda through viral marketing techniques, including the use of blogs and YouTube. Feel free to debate whether such techniques count as ‘PR’ but in my book, when these techniques become headline news themselves, we are witnessing a successful PR campaign.

Snakes have had a bad press since Eve bit the apple, and the filmmakers couldn’t have wished for better timing in news terms to release a movie about out-of-control evil beings let loose in an airliner flying over the ocean.

However, ‘SOAP’ is also destined to become a classic case study of the internet’s impact on marketing and PR practices. Here’s an account of how promotional messages about the movie are targeted at phones, not by the marketing company but at a fraction of the cost by members of the public. You get a call on your mobile, you see it’s from someone you know and you find yourself listening to a personalised recorded message from the movie’s star, Samuel L. Jackson because that someone you know logged onto the movie’s website and set it up.

It seems that the filmmakers have kept up a regular dialogue with fans through their own websites, even taking on board fans’ suggestions to change parts of the script. Fans have also been invited to compose songs, poems and sketches about the movie that get worldwide distribution via YouTube – superb exposure at the fraction of the cost of an advertising campaign.

Are we on the verges of Astroturfing territory here? The campaign is certainly using the latest web-based interactive devices to whip up grassroots interest. But the ViralOne website argues – in response to concern expressed by Paull Young – that ‘stealth’ or ‘guerilla’ marketing doesn’t fit into this activity, presumably because the grassroots response of fans is (sort of) genuine. All the marketing people have to do is sow the seeds and add the fertiliser.

Filed under:
astroturfing   stealth marketing   guerilla marketing    Snakes on a Plane

Monday, August 14, 2006

PR - a glimpse into the dark side

Paull Young is an Australian PR man who has taken a stand against ‘astroturfing’. This term describes the practice by organisations with vested interests of creating a false impression of grassroots opinion which appear to support their interests by targeting letters to newspapers, calls to radio phone-ins, and so on.

He provides a link to this article in the Australian journal Overland, describing a workshop event in which tactics like astroturfing are advocated to discredit NGOs, activist organisations or anyone else who might get in the way of questionable corporate behaviour.

The event was organised by Canadian PR 'consultant', Ross Irvine who argues:
The stratagem is to promote not with facts but values. This is what activists do, and what industry must do better.

The article is worth reading, especially if you believe that all PR is concerned with telling the truth, building relationships and keeping channels of communications open. It offers a disturbing insight into the dark side of PR. And it’s pretty scary.

(Thanks again to Philip Mediations Young for enabling me to follow the links to these sites.)

Filed under:

Net gains in news for young audiences

Thanks to Gillian Rutledge for spotting this article on the BBC News website. It raises an interesting question for people like me who teach journalism - how does one enthuse students to take note of what's happening in 'traditional' news media (especially newspapers, magazines and radio) when 15-24 year-olds in particular are moving away in their droves to plug into new media?

This is part of a worldwide trend, also reported by the BBC last May. For young people, the internet is becoming the main source of news and is even challenging the dominance of television.

The implications of this could provide some worthwhile topics for seminar discussion. What is the impact of the growing popularity of online news on the concept of public service broadcasting? Does journalism as a profession need to rethink its approach to training? Can anyone log on and become a journalist?

Filed under:
journalism training    journalism education    online news    new media

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Tony turns the tables

I caught most of Channel 4's programme earlier this evening - Tony Benn Interviewing The Interviewers. It was trailed by the Press Gazette, which used the word 'grill' in its headline to describe Benn's approach to interviewing John Humphrys, Jon Snow, Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman.

I wouldn't describe any of the interviews as a grilling. In fact, Benn deliberately avoided using such tactics as bullying or interrupting to prove a point that interviews could elicit more light and less heat if conducted in a less aggressive manner.

Interestingly his approach did seem to unnerve his interviewees. Especially for Robinson and Paxman, Benn gave them plenty of rope and they almost hung themselves by waffling on and admitting that they are accountable to their audiences - which means that ratings do matter - and that certain phrases, e.g 'the international community' are overused and meaningless in political news reporting.

But he did get some candid responses as well. Snow argued that any point that couldn't be made by an interviewee in 30 seconds isn't worth making. Robinson defended the news media for not covering certain public meetings that were 'boring'. And Paxman's bottom-line was that his basic motivation behind any interview is to 'find out things', which would explain why he is noted for asking the same question over and over again until things are found out.

Benn's own motivation was to reiterate his concern over the power of the news media to set the agenda of public opinion and the responsibility of presenters to allow the public to have full access to the facts.

By the way, Nick Robinson's blog is worth the occasional visit for an inside view of the life and thoughts of the BBC's political editor. Actually he's on holiday at the moment and the blog is being kept up to date by BBC News 24's James Landale.

Filed under:
interview    politics    Channel 4    Press Gazette    BBC

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Smoke alarm at Reuters

OK, can you spot the difference?

The photo was taken last Saturday by a Reuters freelance, Adnan Hajj, depicting the effect of an Israeli air-strike on a suburb of Beirut. However it appears that the original image (on the right) did not make its point strongly enough and so it was doctored to portray more smoke. What surprises me is that it took Reuters a whole day to decide that the smoke in the image on the left looked unnatural, that the picture should be withdrawn and that no more of Mr Hajj's should be used.

News photos are meant to be snapshots of reality to add authority to the stories. Of course in these digital times, photos are often anything but this. If memory serves me, the Evening Standard had its knuckles rapped by the PCC for showing an image of John Prescott in a pub with a bottle of champagne on his table - portraying him as a 'champagne socialist'. In fact the image of the bottle had been superimposed over the bottle of beer that had actually been on the table.

The last General Election saw a Tory candidate getting into trouble when his campaign team altered slogans on placards, shown in an image of himself and Ann Widdicombe at a demonstration supporting a Malawi family facing deportation. The words were changed to appeal to the more hard-line Tory vote.

And who can forget the Daily Star's claim that the Pope was a Fulham supporter and published an image of His Holiness wearing a Fulham scarf!

Filed under:
Reuters    press photography    Middle East    Evening Standard    PCC    Daily Star   
war reporting

Who's that tapping on one's mobile...?

I've only been running this blog for a couple of weeks and for the third time I find myself commenting on the News Of The World itself becoming the subject of headlines. This morning I woke up to the news that the NOTW's royal editor, Clive Goodman was one of three people arrested for alleged taps of voicemail messages left on mobile phones of staff in Clarence House, home of Charles and Camilla. The story is gleefully reported by The Guardian.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer said he will be interested to see how the police investigation goes on.

You bet he will. The PCC's Code of Practice states that:

The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs.
(Clause 10: Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

There is a public interest defence available to newspapers that break this clause, i.e. it's OK to tap people's phones to get a story if it is in the public's interest to do so. So for students of journalism, here's something you might want to think about - if the NOTW were reported to the PCC (assuming none of the NOTW's staff got convicted first) and if you were the editor, how would you put together your public interest defence?

While you're pondering on that, here's some interesting background information. The PCC's code is subject to review and revision by the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, which is chaired by Les Hinton. He also happens to be Executive Chairman of Rupert Murdoch's News International, parent company of NOTW.

Oh yes, and one of the Committee members is Neil Wallis, deputy editor of NOTW.

Filed under:
News of the World    phone tapping    Prince Charles    Guardian    BBC   
Today programme    PCC    Rupert Murdoch    journalism education

Monday, August 07, 2006

Welcome to the world of hacks and flacks

Thanks to Philip Young of the University of Sunderland for giving Screaming Headlines a mention in his excellent Mediations blog.

Philip comments that I describe myself in my profile as a ‘PR lecturer and as a publicist’ and asks ‘Why publicist and not PR practitioner?’

I nearly did describe myself as a music PR practitioner, but stopped short when I reflected on what I actually do in this area. Apart from playing in a band that specialises in mainly Irish and Scottish traditional songs and tunes, I organise music events and promote them, i.e. let people know that they’re happening and try and encourage them to turn up.

Some might see this differently, but to my mind this isn’t quite what PR is meant to be about. In the Behind The Spin blog, Chris Taylor of the London Business School defines PR as “... the discipline that works to align what others think of you, with what you think of yourself, and seeks to elevate both”. In this sense, PR is in the business of managing public opinion, not at a superficial level, but seeking to get others to think well of you and to place you in a relatively high position in their view of what’s good about the world. If I were trying to boost the public reputation of mainly Irish and Scottish traditional songs and tunes, then I would probably describe my work as that of a PR specialist.

What I actually do falls closer to Taylor’s reference to ‘publicity’ which happens when a message is ‘received by the desired audience, who respond favourably’. But you may well argue that there is a very fine line between the definitions of publicity and PR. Indeed, students of PR will know that there are several competing definitions of the subject and that these reflect changes in society, culture, economic activity and the motivation of whoever is doing the defining.

For example, there are journalists who would define PR as a regular bombardment of information systematically designed to conceal the truth and would describe people who practise PR as 'flacks'.

Most of us are familiar with the derogatory term ‘hack’ when used to characterise reporters who write badly and often with little regard of the impact of their scribblings on the lives of those they write about. ‘Flack’ is a term that has become more popular in the last few years (especially in the US) to describe PR people who adopt a similar attitude in their own work. ‘Flacks’ are people who will say anything for and about their client with little regard to whether their statements are actually true or false – spin-doctors without the subtlety!

Here's one dramatic illustration of how a ‘flack’ allegedly invents news, or gives out ‘news’ that people want to hear. While many journalists see PROs as ‘flacks’, you could define ‘hacks’ as those journalists who are more likely to accept and reproduce the claims of ‘flacks’ in their columns or on the airwaves.

Ironically, the terms ‘hacks’ and ‘flacks’ reflect the universalising qualities of one of the primary tools of spin – the sound-bite. They are instant signifiers that deny any space for qualification by implying that all journalists are ‘hacks’ and all PR practitioners are ‘flacks’.

There may be scope for discussion on whether I should describe myself as a PR practitioner as opposed to a publicist, but would my music promotion come under the heading of ‘flack’? When describing headline acts, I often use terms such as ‘legendary’, ‘award-winning’, ‘spectacular’, ‘internationally acclaimed’ and so on, mainly because I’m not likely to convince people to come to their concerts if I described these artists as ‘everyday’, ‘picked up an obscure award from a little-known website,’ ‘wear gaudy clothes’ or ‘once did a gig in Belgium’.

That’s not so much ‘flackery’ as ‘hype’.

Filed under:
PR definitions    blogs    music journalism    music PR    publicity    hack    flack

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sex, lies and News Of The World

There's no mention yet in the current online version of News Of The World of Tommy Sheridan's success in suing Rupert Murdoch's Sunday organ for libellous stories about the Scottish MP's sex life.

The tabloid has been ordered to pay £200,000 damages although it plans to appeal. Meanwhile, it looks as if this Sunday's edition will regale us with claims that one of the brothers, whose home was raided in Forest Gate by police looking for a 'cyanide bomb', was collecting child porn images on his computer. Ah well - no longer the anti-terrorist squad got confused. Terrorosts, sex fiends, they're all the same...

The NOW will also be delving into the sex life of another politician - this time the avuncular TV pundit, Michael Portillo who seems to have been reinstated in the public eye as a hot-blooded heterosexual. The story uses quaint, old-fashioned language which is more in keeping with tales of Jeeves and Wooster - Portillo is described as having 'romps' with a 'Hungarian beauty' who has been joining him for 'trysts' during her lunch beak. What-ho!

Filed under:
News of the World    Rupert Murdoch    Tommy Sheridan    libel    Forest Gate    tabloid    newspaper language

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Good morning Coventry!

My local newspaper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph is changing to a morning newspaper in October. This is reported in the excellent Hold The Front Page website (which I recommend to all students of journalism and would-be journalists to check out on a regular basis!).

The Editor, Alan Kirby talks about readers' changing buying habits as the reason behind the change. Apparently it used to be a morning newspaper but switched to 'evening' (actually the lunchtime edition at 11am and 'city final' at 3.30pm) in the 1950s. But I'm less certain that the paper will fare so well when it is in direct competition with the national dailies these days, despite the general shift by newspaper readers from national to local.

A few years ago I was visiting BBC's Coventry and Warwickshire radio station when the news broke that the former Labour Party leader, John Smith had died. Obviously, the radio station was able to broadcast the 'hot' news immediately. But after only half an hour, I stepped out into the streets of the city to find that the Evening Telegraph's lunchtime edition was brought out earlier than normal with the story on its front page. This makes me wonder - if people have already bought an early morning edition (carrying yesterday's news), would the newspaper be able to bring the day's breaking news to its readership? Kirby believes that the newspaper's website will be the best vehicle for the day's breaking news.

I guess he's done his market research but I can't help thinking that this local newspaper is taking a big gamble.

Filed under:
Coventry Telegraph    local newspapers    Hold The Front Page    online news

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

British Tabloids - weapons of mass deception?

One of my former students at UCE, Ros Tappenden has built up an impressive online portfolio of her work in print and multimedia journalism. Of special interest to this blog is her dissertation which examined and analysed the contrasting stances adopted by The Mirror and The Sun on events related to the Iraq War - the search for WMDs, the death of David Kelly, the Hutton Report and its explosive impact on the BBC - offering useful contemporary insights into the practices of political spin.'In the age of political PR', she asks, ' does this reflect the ability of the press to act as a fourth estate?'

She includes reference to several key theoretical concepts in the study of journalism - not only 'fourth estate' but also public sphere, hegemony, news values and theories of propaganda. Surf around her site and you'll also find some interesting work on embedded journalists in the Iraq War and the impact of media ownership.

Ros works for ITV Central and the 24 Hour Museum and is about to join Newsquest as a trainee journalist. Any students reading this blog might well want to check out her portfolio for resources and indicator on how to land a first class honours.

Filed under:
Mirror    Sun    tabloid    Middle East    Hutton Report    BBC    spin    politics   
war reporting    media ownership    journalism education

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

News to make you laugh or cry

According to the Newspaper Marketing Agency, ‘It’s a common myth that newspapers are a purely rational medium… good for informing people but the wrong environment for the more emotionally-based communication ideas. Just as newspaper articles can move us deeply, so newspaper advertising provokes a strong emotional response.’

Ads for cars, supermarkets, deodorants, even moistened toilet paper were tested ('Newspapers improve Andrex bottom line!’) and judged to prove more effective on newsprint at an emotional level with consumers. The NMA argue that reader loyalty, the fact that advertisers can target precise audiences and the level of reader receptiveness (people take time out from the daily grind to read the paper and indulge in ‘me time’) all contribute to the effectiveness of newspapers not only for direct product advertising but also for promoting brand loyalty.

They compare the press with other media as vehicles for advertising and attempt to dispel suggestions that TV is better at hitting home with promotional messages. It seems that twice as many 16-24 year olds read about the last series of Celebrity Big Brother in newspapers than actually watched the final programme.

Without advertisers, newspapers would cease to exist. But their dependence on advertising has always raised questions about their objectivity, values and news agenda.

The NMA's website is a very handy resource for anyone preparing essays or seminars on the relationship between the press and advertisers. You have to register to get access to the good stuff.

Filed under:
NMA    marketing    advertising


Thanks to colleagues at UCE Birmingham who have been plugging this blog on their own sites. I'm happy to return the favour. Links are to the right of your screen, but here they are in slightly more detail:

Interactive PR - Paul Bradshaw's blog on all matters relating to new media and PR. Paul was Editor of Internet Monthly Magazine and now lectures on the www and designs websites.

The Wireless - Andrew Dubber's wide ranging blog on various aspects of radio, online music, new technology and the media. Dubber lectures on music industries.

New Music Strategies - another Dubber site - 'a blog on its way to a book'.

PR Student - Caroline Wilson's blog of excellent resources and links for anyone studying or practising PR

Good Green PR - Caroline's worthy attempt to present PR in a good light, indeed a green light, by showing how it may help to change people's behaviour to make this world a happier place.

Always happy to plug more blogs.

Filed under:
blogs    journalism education