Monday, November 26, 2007

Brass Tack #8 – Give them a well-composed photograph.

Andy Warhol was in the same mindset as many tabloid editors when he described his idea of a good picture as ‘one that's in focus and of a famous person’.

You’d be amazed what a difference a photograph can make to getting high visibility in the press. Editors give priority to stories that are accompanied by a strong and engaging photographic image. The trick is to keep it simple without lapsing into visual cliché.

Issue 14 of Behind The Spin included a few useful tips for PR photography. Borkowski PR image compiler, Mike Gilmore listed ‘an arresting image as one of his ‘seven routes into the press’ (the others were sex, celebrity, controversy, humour/the bizarre/human interest, a news link and animals!) and then discussed Tom, the Bacardi Breezer Cat as an example of a product image that has arrested. Indeed, this campaign opened up most of these other routes in to the press as well.

In the same issue, Leeds Met PR student, Joe Sharp discussed pictures of people as well as products and suggested alternatives to the usual handshake photos and smiley headshots that litter the less glamorous pages of the press. He advised portraits of ‘key media-friendly company people’ either ‘doing unexpected things’ with their products or ‘doing normal things’ in the community that emphasise their qualities as human beings.

Joe also offered a useful reminder to provide captions with photographs.

My own advice is to think about the composition of the photo. Should the image look posed or a captured moment in the life of your subject? If the image is of two or more people, how much space is there between them? What’s in the background and does this add to or detract from the message that the image is trying to convey?

Rather than compress a whole textbook of advice on how to take a good photograph, I’ll offer this link to Photo District News’s choice of 30 new and emerging photographers to look out for in 2007. Think about how their images work and let them be an inspiration!

Filed under:
media relations       press release       photograph      press photography       Behind The Spin      Borkowski PR     Mike Gilmore     
Tom the Bacardi Breezer cat      Leeds Metropolitian University      
Joe Sharp       Photo District News

Brass Tack #7 – Make it easy to copy and paste.

Still on the topic of press releases, this piece of advice may raise a few eyebrows. Many journalists would claim to balk at the idea of copying and pasting phrases from press releases into the text of their articles – well perhaps the odd quotation…

Nevertheless, many PR people would judge it a great success if the text of their press release made it virtually unscathed into the column centimetres. It would be an indicator that the item was well in tune with the style and news-sense of the publication.

Press releases are supposed to make life easier for journalists and it is not a sin of plagiarism if journalists use bits of them in their final stories. That's how it works. (And no, that's not why they call it 'writing copy'!)

So here’s my confession. When I’m writing my regular music column in the Coventry Telegraph, I often start by copying and pasting the best bits of a press release onto a blank page, along with any emailed comments and website information that might come in useful. Then I work on the text, shift bits around, rephrase, add words of my own, edit, check for word length and consistency in style and narrative, make further adjustments - et voila! – an article that has made use of these sources but still stands on its own terms as a piece of, dare I say it, music journalism.

Working this way, especially when I’m up against a tight deadline, makes me feel more kindly disposed to sources who have sent material that is easy to copy and paste – and less kindly disposed to sources who have sent me information on old fashioned pdf files, in tables that have to be converted back to text, or in any other format that slows down the creative process of writing copy.

Here's an example of a news item that was put together (not by me!) from two press releases, both of which were very easy to copy and paste.

Filed under:
media relations       press release      PR sources      journalists      music journalism     Coventry Telegraph

Saturday, November 24, 2007

New threads...

...OK, they're off the peg. But it was about time Screaming Headlines had a makeover.

Been busy updating reflections on the recent FolkArts England conference on Folk Forum. Very enjoyable event. Back to Brass Tacks shortly.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Brass Tack #6 - Give them an interesting quote or two.

Quotes are recommended for press releases, if only to humanise them and prevent them from being little more than promotional announcements.

The trouble with many quotes is that they actually enhance that impression. The most popular opening phrase for a quote in a press release seems to be ‘I am delighted…’, as in

Managing Director, Kelly Jones says, ‘I am delighted that we have achieved our target to double our sales of fitted kitchens…’;
Concert organiser, Seth Simpson says, ‘I am delighted that we have persuaded the king of Delta Blues to perform at the Skinners Arms…’

It would appear that delight is a widespread feeling shared by spokespeople of organisations everywhere. The world is a delightful place!

Quotes in press releases offer the opportunity to journalists to give the impression that they have actually researched the story and spoken to someone in your organisation. It’s an illusion that is easily shattered, especially if the same quotation appears like a soundbite in every media outlet.

When including a quotation in your press release, think of these two things.

1. You are putting words in someone else’s mouth. Even if you did ask your MD to give you a quote to include in the press release, they will probably respond with ‘say something along the lines of so-and-so – I’ll leave it up to you’. This is fine but leaves open the possibility that they appear to make a public statement that can harm their reputation or even get them sued. So if someone invites you to come up with the public statement that they would have said if they’d only given it some thought, get their OK before the release goes out.

2. Quotes are meant to be transcripts of spoken words (even if they are actually made up). So do at least try to write them as if they were spontaneous, spoken statements rather than extensions of management-speak wrapped up in quotation marks. Would your spokesperson really scintillate as a conversationalist with phrases like, ‘This new policy is a manifestation of our commitment to remain at the cutting edge…’?

The University of Central Lancashire offers some useful advice to journalists on phrasing and setting out quotes. It’s equally valid for a PR seeking to convince journalists that here’s is a story worth running.

Filed under:
media relations       press quotes      press release      journalists     University of Central Lancashire

Monday, November 05, 2007

Brass Tack #5 - Tell the story simply

‘The news’ may present itself as a reliable and factual account of what is happening out there in the ‘real world’. However, news items tend to be short pieces of information that are easy to consume and understand and it is clearly impossible for such an item to reproduce ‘reality’ with all its complexities, contexts and interpretative nuances.

Therefore, what the news actually does is to tell isolated, fragmented stories of events that have happened / are happening and then leaves it to its readers, viewers and listeners to make sense of it, discuss it or ignore it.

This means that if you want your story to become news, you must find a simple way of telling it. To achieve this, one piece of advice that is most frequently given is to ensure that the story provides answers to the five W questions: What’s happening? Who’s involved? Where? When? and Why? (Other accounts also slip in an H for How?)

In theory, this means it is possible to tell the story in one or two sentences:

What happened?) A toddler was rescued from a well (Who?) by a passing dog walker (Where?) in the grounds of Hockley Hall
(When?) last night (Why?) after a game of hide-and-seek
went drastically wrong.

Clearly, in this example, more details are needed to ‘flesh out’ the story from these ‘bare bones’ – but that’s how news stories work. While a detective story writer might leave it to the last page before revealing ‘whodunnit’, a journalist often starts with the punch line and then fills out the story with detail, context, background, quotes, with each paragraph providing more and more redundant information. If you don’t believe me, ask Walter Cronkite.

This isn’t because journalists are backward-thinking people. It’s to make life easy for sub-editors who may want to reduce a 200-word story to 175 words to fit the space on the page. Rather than re-write the story, all they have to do is lop off the last couple of paragraphs and the story will still make sense.

There’s a further practical benefit for a press release that can get the 5Ws across in the first sentence or two before ‘filling out’ the story: it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to impress the editor that here’s a story worth covering.

A good press release works in much the same way as a good CV. It shouldn’t be more than two sides of A4 and if it fails to impress in the top half of the first side, the rest of it won’t get read.

Filed under:
media relations       news narrative      press release     Walter Cronkite      journalists

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Brass Tack #4 - Leave clever headlines to the experts.

Newspaper sub-editors (at least some of them) are very good at writing eye-catching, cutely phrased headlines. We may think of some headlines as excruciating but they are part of the fabric of popular culture.

Headlines are a little like kitsch. At one level they are all awful but look closer and you can distinguish 'good-awful' from 'god-awful'. Sub-editors aspire to the former and do so with the knowledge of their readership and house style of their publication.

They will apply various rhetorical devices, such as puns (‘Cat burglar commits the purrfect crime’; ‘Ice cream firm earns lots of lolly’), alliteration (‘Birmingham Balti business is booming’, ‘Silver surfers score success’), assonance (‘Ladies lay waste to garden fete’), references to well-known catch-phrases (‘Bish bash bosh – make more dosh’) and other linguistic techniques to ensure the message jumps from the page to engage their readers' interest.

That’s what sub-editors are trained to do. All you need to do is provide then with a blank canvas to work on - a simple headline that makes it abundantly clear what the story is about, e.g. ‘Pupils raise funds for school swimming pool’, and leave it to the subs to come up with ‘Students splash out’.

Filed under:
media relations       headlines      press release     rhetoric      journalists

Friday, October 26, 2007

Brass Tack #3 - Press releases are still popular with journalists... least, well-written and well-presented press releases that make their lives easier. No-one knows the exact number, but the destiny of something like nine out of ten press releases is shredder-fodder. Journalists receive so many that only the best will get considered.

Bear in mind that busy journalists have short attention spans. If your press release fails to convey its potential for a good news story within the first few lines, the chances are that the journalist will not read further. There just isn't time. And there are too many other press releases clamouring for attention.

It’s therefore surprising how many badly written, poorly presented press releases that don’t have an interesting story to tell are still sent to newsrooms. Reduce your chances of rejection by presenting your story in a simple and well-organised press release that contains all of the following information:

  • who you are
  • the date of the story
  • the date (and if necessary, the time) that the story may be available to the public. Most stories are for ‘immediate’ release, although a story could be ‘embargoed’, i.e. you request the news organisation not to publish it until a certain date and time. Most journalists respect embargo requests.
  • a headline (but look out for Brass Tack #4)
  • the story itself (I'll make further comments on this in Brass Tack #5)
  • full contact details to enable them to follow up your story and ask you questions (Brass Tack #13 will say more on this)
  • additional and background information not necessarily for publication but will be useful for the journalist to understand your story better (Brass Tack #18 will say more on this)

The Aimhigher Practitioner website provides a good set of guidelines on press releases. So does Taurus Public Relations.

Filed under:
media relations      news release       press release      journalists

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Brass Tack #2 - Give them a hook on which to hang the story.

This is the news angle – the way into the story – and it should be clear from the first line of your press release or the first thing you say on the phone to the newsroom.

‘The annual XYZ Blues Festival is happening next weekend’ is a parish notice. But start by saying ‘Veteran Louisiana guitarist, Wild Boy Williams visits the UK for the first time in 50 years to appear at the XYZ Blues Festival…’ and the story starts to get interesting. The journalist is more likely to be hooked and reeled in.

There are plenty of hooks to choose from. Here are a few:

  • Achieving a world first
  • Appointing a new senior manager
  • Serving the thousandth/millionth customer
  • Announcing record-breaking profits
  • Creating more jobs
  • Introducing a greener initiative
  • Hosting a visit by a celebrity
  • Inventing a problem-solving product
  • Praising the achievement of an employee
  • Sponsoring a worthy cause
  • Bringing something new and unique to the community

Click here for some more ideas.

Filed under:
media relations     news angle     journalists

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Brass Tack #1 - Give them a story, not a plug.

Journalists don’t like to feel their purpose in life is to give you free advertising. They produce news and news needs to inform the world of something new, exciting, different, surprising, meaningful and relevant to its readers, viewers and listeners.

Therefore, the information you give them must have news value.‘We’re opening a holiday caravan park’ is a plug. ‘We’re challenging Jeremy Clarkson to spend a weekend in one of our caravans’ is news. (And Jeremy Clarkson accepting the challenge would be headline news!)

Much has been written by journalists and academics on the topic of news value. Many have tried to analyse it. Others say that it can’t be defined but you know it when you see it. Here’s a very basic, bottom-line definition. If you want people to know about it, it’s probably a plug. But if people find it interesting, it’s got news value.

Filed under:
media relations     news values     journalists

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How to influence editors and bring joy to journalists.

Here’s a statement that has almost reached the status of glib catchphrase: ‘Advertising is what you say about yourself. PR is what others say about you’.

It’s an adage that’s meant to emphasise the role of PR as boosting reputation. But it’s often misinterpreted as ‘PR = free advertising’.

Obviously, if a journalist is convinced that your product is the greatest invention since gravity and is willing to tell the world, you have achieved an important public relations objective. The problem with news producers, however, is that they see their role as producing the news, not promoting products.

This means that if you want journalists on your side, you have to keep them happy. And newshounds are never happier than having a good juicy story to sink their teeth into.

The ideal outcome of working with the news media is for the journalist to get a great story starring you as the hero, not the villain. If you are promoting a product, launching an event or even putting across your side of the argument when someone has a grievance against you, you can vastly improve your chances of achieving this win-win situation.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be setting out twenty brass-tack principles for media relations. Follow these and journalists will appreciate the effort. Ignore them and your story will probably not make it past the shredder.

Filed under:
media relations     advertising     publicity    journalists

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The great CSR con

The Economist recently reviewed Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism in which he argues that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a ‘dangerous diversion that is undermining democracy’. The gist of Reich’s argument is that corporations will claim to be socially responsible for actions that are of benefit to their ‘bottom line’ and that, ultimately, profits will always win over altruism as a motivation for anything they do.

To illustrate – as long as people are happy to consume Golden Munchie Burgers, the company that produces them will continue to wipe out areas of rainforest the size of Warwickshire on a weekly basis to produce grazing land for methane-producing cattle in order to ensure a steady supply of beef (and other derivatives).

But as soon as consumers get wind of the impact that Golden Munchie Global Corp are having on the environment, they might not be so keen to keep munching. Indeed they might even regard the act of boycotting Golden Munchie Burger Bars as a personal stand towards helping the environment. When this point is reached – and Golden Munchie find themselves selling fewer burgers – this is the time to start convincing the consumer that the company really does care about the environment.

This is achieved by having a visible and credible CSR policy in place so that consumers can continue to munch without guilt – or even believe that in some way they are helping the environment by buying more Golden Munchie Burgers.

So why is this undermining democracy? According to the article, Reich gives two reasons.

Firstly, if the public thinks that corporations are being socially responsible, they will put less pressure on governments to do something about issues of social concern - the environment, health, wealth, education or whatever cause needs to be addressed. There will be less perceived need by voters for radical political action.

Secondly, the concept of CSR encourages politicians themselves to ‘score points’ by criticising socially irresponsible corporations, rather than take action, i.e. pass laws, to force corporations to toe the line.

Rather than present CSR as a form of enlightened self-interest – or, in a Kantian sense, an act of public duty – this argument points to CSR as an ideological sleight-of-hand. By giving the appearance of acting in the interests of society, corporations are able to justify the free-market conditions in which they operate and avoid political intervention that might get in the way of maximising profits.

This is an interesting twist on Milton Friedman’s original argument that the only social responsibility that business has is to increase profits. Friedman’s influence on Thatcher - and all that followed, and continues to follow in today’s political environment! – suggests that the free market economy is still number one in the list of solutions to all the world’s problems. And if the free market depends on the continued willingness by consumers with a conscience to munch burgers, then CSR is clearly the way forward.

Filed under:
CSR     The Economist     Robert Reich     environment    democracy    Milton Friedman    free market

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Two reasons to smile…

I wasn’t sure at first whether to waste cyberspace drawing attention to this recent Daily Mail item on ‘trendy Mickey Mouse degrees’, which inevitably includes reference to Media Studies. I’ve already commented on media paranoia about courses that put them under a microscope and on individuals who trot out the usual stereotypes about Media Studies.

However I had to smile at the photo caption ‘More students are receiving first class degrees under the Labour government’. Could it really be that voting Labour makes your kids brighter? This reflects a similar view of causality as Boris Johnson’s famous claim that 'voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3'.

More cause to smile was an email I received today from a senior manager of one of Britain’s top television companies about three UCE Media Studies students who have been on work placement in different departments of that company. I quote: ‘each manager was extremely impressed and reported that they would have no hesitation in employing them right now’.

Media Studies students impress media bosses. Hmm - now there's a headline for the Daily Mail.

Filed under:
Daily Mail     Media Studies     UCE     Boris Johnson

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Up-front media relations

Clarence Mitchell is the new PR representative for the embattled McCann family. Having worked with them closely as head of media monitoring for the Cabinet Office, the former BBC reporter announced to assembled journalists in the McCann’s home village of Rothley that he was giving up his role as a civil servant to work full-time for the couple.

As the supertanker of public opinion appears to be slowly turning to the idea that Kate and Gerry McCann might in some hapless way be responsible for the death of their daughter Madeleine, Mitchell’s announcement conveyed two strong messages:

1) He is wholly convinced of their innocence, to the extent that he has given up his job to support them, and
2) The media should remain focused on the need to find Madeleine, who he believes is still alive, and not to get distracted by speculation about her parents

Almost from the beginning of this sad story, commentators have noted the McCann’s own skills in media relations and their campaign to keep this as a high profile case in the news agenda. The formal announcement of a new media spokesman presents an interesting contrast to the usual tendency to keep the ‘PR process’ hidden from the public.

The strategic thinking here is that it is better to be up-front about having a PR spokesman (and one who is himself relatively ‘high profile’), than to be accused of attempting to influence the media agenda through behind-the-scenes manipulation or spin.

From a PR perspective, the thin silver lining in this dark and cloudy affair is that the story reinforces an association in the mind of the public of PR with honesty. The essence of the McCanns’ case is that they have nothing to hide – including the fact that they are using PR techniques to get their message across.

Filed under:
Clarence Mitchell     Madeleine McCann     media relations

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A meme for the middle aged

Here's an example of what you might call an Internet meme that landed in my inbox recently. It appealed to the Grumpy Old Man that shares residence with my inner child!

Thought I'd pass it on to you. According to Darren Barefoot, that's what you do with memes.


First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us.

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a tin, and didn't get tested for diabetes.

Then after that trauma, our baby cots were covered with bright coloured lead-based paints.

We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention, the risks we took hitchhiking.

As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags.

Riding in the back of a van - loose - was always great fun.

We drank water from the garden hosepipe and NOT from a bottle.

We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died from this.

We ate cakes, white bread and real butter and drank pop with sugar in it, but we weren't overweight because......


We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on.

No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K.

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem.

We did not have Playstations, Nintendos, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies, no surround sound, no cell phones, no text messaging, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms..........WE HAD FRIENDS and we went outside and found them!

We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents.

We played with worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.

We made up games with sticks and tennis balls and although we were told it would happen, we did not poke out any eyes.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just yelled for them!

Local teams had tryouts and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn to deal with disappointment. Imagine that!!

The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law!

This generation has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever!

The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

And YOU are one of them!


The author continues with a plea to keep the meme going.
You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives for our own good.

And while you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave their parents were.

Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn't it?

Filed under:
meme     Internet meme     Darren Barefoot     blogging     viral

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to earn the trust of viewers...

Let’s add this to the resources – a transcript of Jeremy Paxman’s speech to the Annual International Television Festival.

You’d expect him to ask incisive questions – that’s his job. And he does, this time directing them to his own profession. They are not the sort of questions that he should have to ask more than once. For example:
‘Is there something rotten in the state of television, some systemic sickness, that renders it inherently dishonest?’

'What is television for?'

The questions hang in the air. Who should answer them? Step forward Channel 4 Chief, Andy Duncan who claimed two years ago that we can trust television. In the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s criticism of television, his speech included the interesting claim that:
Big Brother winners are all role models in their way … because in the final analysis viewers choose people whose values they identify with and admire.

That’s a bit like Rupert Murdoch’s claim in an earlier MacTaggart Lecture that public service equals meeting market demand:
Anybody who, within the law of the land, provides a service which the public wants at a price it can afford is providing a public service.*

What does ITV Head, Michael Grade think? I’ve already referred to his recent speech to the Royal Television Society on precisely this question of honest television. He reminded delegates of their responsibility to maintain the trust of viewers, precisely because of the medium’s potential to betray that trust:
Television is an intimate, narrative medium. Its programmes - both fact and fiction - tell stories that inform and shape people’s knowledge and their views of the world around them.

How about BBC Director General, Mark Thompson? He is now requiring every programme maker to take part in training sessions on trust. He countered suggestions that this is an over-reaction in last Friday’s Guardian but also made a distinction between trusting the news and trusting the hype:
we find ourselves wrestling with the aftermath, not of an intricate piece of investigative journalism, but of a competition the first prize of which was a hoodie last worn by Sharon Osbourne's dog. Not of a serious editorial error in the actual BBC programme about the Queen - but of an error in a publicity tape.

What is at stake here is not public trust in a particular broadcasting organisation, but in television itself as a product and a professional practice – and not just TV journalism but all forms of television. Without wishing to repeat my argument that television is inherently an illusion and artificial construction of reality, it does pain me to admit that there may be some merit in Rupert Murdoch’s slightly rhetorical point:
For 50 years British television has operated on the assumption that the people could not be trusted to watch what they wanted to watch, so that it had to be controlled by like-minded people who knew what was good for us.*

Perhaps the best way for broadcasters to win back public trust is to trust the public.

But I would add this as a rider. Murdoch sees the free market as the mechanism to achieve this, rather than a ‘narrow élite, which controls British television’. Unfortunately this argument confuses popularity with quality, i.e. if ratings are high the programme must be good! Yeah right.

Instead I would make this plea to the industry: trust the public, yes, but also please credit us with some intelligence!’

* ‘Freedom in Publishing’, James McTaggart Memorial Lecture, London: News Corporation Ltd., 1989, p.4

trust    Jeremy Paxman    McTaggart Lecture     Andy Duncan    Channel 4   
Big Brother    Rupert Murdoch    Michael Grade    ITV    Mark Thompson    BBC    public service broadcasting    broadcast journalism   

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Could Channel 4 Give Your Mortgage Cancer?

The excellent Strive Notes blog was quicker off the mark than me, but I must alert Screaming Headline readers to this article in Monday's Guardian.

As preparations become more feverish for the new semester of teaching, among other things, a module called Journalism in Context, I found Peter Cole's article a potentially useful resource with its characterisation of the Express and the Mail and their reflection (reinforcement?) of the values of 'Middle England'.

Coincidentally, Caroline Wilson alerted me to another link which provides a fun distraction with its random generation of Daily Mail headlines - offering further insight into the values of Britain's second biggest selling daily.

Guardian    Daily Mail    Daily Express    middle England    Peter Cole   

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sorry - you didn't get through this time...

I’m catching up again. Since my last post, television’s use of premium phone lines has been high on the news agenda. Indeed the revelations have been rocking the nation since Richard and Judy’s Channel 4 show hit the headlines in February for its You Say We Pay scam.

Not only have Channel 4, GMTV and Five found themselves in trouble – corruption has been discovered deep in the core of public service broadcasting, providing a golden opportunity for organisations who are not fans of the BBC to make life awkward for Aunty.

In the righteous environment of radio phone-ins and newspaper comment columns, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that fakery is (and always has been) a fact of life in broadcasting. But it is. It’s the nature of the beast. That presenter might appear to be looking and smiling at you but she is actually reading an autocue. That undercover documentary might be uncovering extremist views allegedly expressed by preachers in a mosque, but it’s been edited.

Just as the Big Brother house has no function in life other than to be a setting for a TV show (demonstrating the concept of ‘reality television’ as an oxymoron), just as radio phone-in discussions themselves are astro-turfed by callers who fail to announce their allegiances to vested interests and lobby groups, so the phone-in competition constitutes an ephemeral, postmodern phenomenon, borne of the need of broadcasters to convince themselves that they have an audience but of little value to most audience members themselves.

I witnessed competition fakery myself back in the 70s. I was a guest on a music radio show whose part-time presenter only had an hour to set up his programme and check his mail to see if anyone had entered the previous week’s competition. It was a usually bit of promotion – the prize would be something like free tickets to a concert by some artist desperate to summon up an audience.

On this occasion, no-one had entered. But rather then explode the myth of broadcasting as one big happy communal activity with everyone giving the radio 100% attention, the presenter chose not to announce this impressive display of apathy. ‘Give me the name of a long road round here with lots of houses’, he asked me, off air. He then announced the winner of last week’s competition as a Mr Smith of that road (no door number, of course!).

I’d completely forgotten this incident until recently when the Blue Peter exposé hit the headlines – not the fake competitor but the news that the original Petra had died as a puppy and had been replaced by a look-alike. It brought home the illusory quality of television and radio as environments that provide perfect breeding grounds for mass deception. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d superglued the duck to the skateboard.

Of course, it becomes a more serious issue when people pay premium rates for phone-in competitions after the winners have already been decided. The only surprise for me when this started to dominate the news agenda was that there were any genuine winners at all. I’d always assumed that ‘Mrs Bloggs of Bletchley’ was a fictitious figure and that anyone who actually phoned a TV show in the middle of the night in the hope of winning £250 for recognising that France is a foreign country beginning with F deserves to be ripped off.

ITV boss, Michael Grade believes that viewers’ trust is the most precious commodity of television. As unlicensed digital broadcasting provides a platform for a ragbag of tastes and ideologies, integrity becomes even more vital for the bona fide broadcaster. A bit like religion, broadcasting only works if enough people have faith.

Richard and Judy    Channel 4    GMTV    Channel Five    BBC   
premium rate phone-in    Big Brother    astroturfing    Blue Peter     Michael Grade

Friday, June 15, 2007

Profits or reputation. You choose.

When does stating disagreement about something constitute making malicious statements? One answer it seems is when you criticise the music industry for its actions against people who download music.

Here’s a topic that’s providing more ammunition for the argument that suing people – and for that matter, generally threatening people – for saying and doing things contrary to one’s corporate interests is probably not ‘good PR’.

In fact, if I had the time and motivation to find a foolproof way of quantifying an organisation’s reputation, I could probably come up with something like ‘Wilby’s Law’: ‘Given the constant of an environment in which information may be openly exchanged (such as the blogosphere), the extent of a party’s propensity to repress opinion and/or action contrary to its interests is in inverse proportion to the extent of its public esteem’.

The formula is demonstrated yet again this week in the New Music Strategies blog maintained by my UCE colleague Andrew Dubber.

In this case, the ‘party with the propensity’ is Paul Birch, board member of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry and the British Phonographic Industry.

The opinion he is seeking to repress is generally the ‘indiscriminate criticism of the Recording Industry Association of America’ and, in particular, this link to the Download Squad that could somehow be reached by surfing from Dubber’s blog.

The extent of the RIAA’s public esteem, or apparent lack of it, is evidenced by the responses that have been posted on Dubber’s blog – and elsewhere – to the dialogue between Dubber and Birch. Birch threatens to complain to the University of Central England because Dubber has allowed discussion on his blog about the legitimacy of the RIAA’s actions against individuals who download music or share music files.

Here’s a taste of Birch’s comments:

You might argue that your professional blog is your opinion alone, however you are interwoven into the views and policy of the University of Central England and I think that puts you in an exposed positon (sic) Andrew.

If you persist then I shall make a formal complaint to the University.
Your choice.

One less objective than myself might paraphrase this, ‘Nice job you’ve got there – you wouldn’t want anything to happen to it, would you?’

music downloads    Andrew Dubber    RIAA     UCE     blogs     reputation     litigation    free speech

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Firmly embedded in our popular culture are the phrases ‘Big Mac’, ‘golden arches’ and ‘do you want fries with that?’ And when we think of McDonald’s, the first concept that comes to mind these days is not a Scottish clan that was given a rough time by the Campbells in 1692.

Not content with their dominion in the minds of all seeking instant gastronomic gratification, the corporation has recently set its sights on the Oxford English Dictionary for listing the term ‘McJob’, defined as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector".

According to today’s Guardian, a public petition is being launched on behalf of the company's 67,000 British employees and other fast-food service personnel, to remove this ‘insulting’ definition.

If they get their way, one wonders if they’ll turn their attention to the rewriting of history or demand that copies of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (where the term originated) be removed from our library shelves.

The story has been picked up by Strive Notes with some commentary on whether this campaign is cleverly targeting the OED in an effort to change public perception, although the Guardian reports a poll, commissioned as part of the campaign, in which over two thirds agree with McDonald’s that the term is outdated. (Is it me or does anyone else detect the slight whiff of astroturf here?)

The problem with viewing this as a legitimate PR exercise is one of ethics. Dictionary definitions change to reflect changes in language and culture. Putting one’s corporate weight behind a lobby campaign to try and force that change to happen is arguably indefensible if PR is to maintain any integrity as a profession. Many people use the admittedly rhetorical term ‘McJob’ to mean precisely what the OED states. The dictionary isn’t forcing people to use this term and will no doubt drop the word – or at least mark it as archaic – if the term is no longer used.

McDonald’s lost a lot of credibility during the McLibel case in the UK, despite actually winning the case. The episode enhanced their reputation as a touchy, litigious organisation that doesn’t respond well to criticism or to the use of the Mc- prefix in any way that could conceivably act against their corporate interests.

Running PR campaigns like legal campaigns could well result in short-term victorious headlines, but I would offer this simple observation for anyone in corporate PR - you don’t change how people really feel about you by censoring dictionaries.

McDonald’s    OED    corporate PR     ethics     McLibel     astroturfing

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The curse of the exploding tomato

I first heard Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s outburst as a clip on BBC's Five Live. It launched a phone-in discussion on whether it is right for a reporter to ‘lose it’.

Out of context it sounds like Sweeney lost a few things during his exposé on Scientology - apart from his temper: objectivity, the ability to appraise something dispassionately, and the ability to ensure that a topic of valid journalistic interest does not become a story about personalities. The sign of a good journalist, one might argue, is one that does not become ‘the story’.

It is clear that Mr Sweeney’s red face of anger resulted in a number of other BBC faces equally red with embarrassment. Whatever you might think of the cult of Scientiology (or should I say ‘faith’? – after all I don’t want this blog being stalked by sinister young Americans in dark suits and dark glasses), they definitely scored something of a PR hit in their battle with the Beeb. In terms of impression management, our noble corporation found itself very much on the defensive.

The use of tactics and counter-tactics in how a story is aired on one television show is all good knock-about stuff but it would be worrying if these surface-level shenanigans diverted public attention away from the genuine concerns that people have with the ‘Church’ of Scientology and its methods of ensuring that its members are not ‘corrupted’ by alternative belief systems, such as – well just about any other religion, philosophy or world view.

Sweeney regrets his performance. As a dedicated seeker of truth, he slipped up and he readily admits it. We haven’t yet heard anyone taking responsibility on behalf of the BBC itself for allowing its flagship of journalistic integrity, Panorama degenerate to sensation-seeking, tabloid television.

During my student days, some friends and I were discussing the prospect of a National Front rally that was planned for our city. Should we demonstrate against them? Shout at them? Get into a battle? In the end, we took the view that the best tactic was to laugh at them and show them that it is impossible to take them seriously. By the same token, I suspect that programmes like Have I Got News For You or Radio 4’s The News Quiz could inflict a lot more damage on the reputation of crazy cults (sorry – ‘faiths’) than any hard-hitting documentary by an angry journalist determined to expose them.

Here are some resources: the Observer’s account of the incident and discussion on investigative journalism in the age of video networking; and the BBC website’s own coverage of the story with links to clips of news reports, an interview with Panorama’s editor, Sandy Smith, and John Sweeney’s exploding tomato impression.

John Sweeney    Panorama    Scientology     BBC     investigative journalism

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Professional guidance for PR protégés

There’s a definite air of euphoria in the corridors of Media and Comms at UCE this week. We’ve had a lot of good news recently – a successful course validation, a member of staff gaining an impressive postgrad qualification, a substantial research grant and a very respectable 7th place in the Guardian university league table for Media Courses (3rd place if assessed on a like-for-like basis).

This was helped by a healthy 9 out of 10 score for job prospects (check here for the Guardian’s methodology) – always welcome news that indicates greater employer recognition of a Media Studies degree as a worthwhile qualification.

Since taking on responsibility as Acting Degree Leader for the PR pathway of UCE’s Media and Communication degree, I have certainly been able to rely on strong employer support for our programme and our students. As one of the conditions of CIPR approval for the degree, we have a panel of employers chaired by Julia Willoughby of Willoughby PR and meeting regularly to offer advice, news of possible student projects, placement news, visiting speakers and general guidance. Their attitude is fantastic – any support they offer is based on the idea that this is a long-term investment for PR as a profession. If they can help and support our students – and the way we teach them – today, the profession will soon benefit from the skills, knowledge and professional commitment of newly qualified members. And, let’s face it, a lot of success in PR is based on the ability to network, make contacts, getting tuned into the grapevine and being known – so it’s in the interest of PR students and PR professionals to have the channels of two-way communication well and truly open.

With this in mind, I have been working on a mentoring scheme. The idea is to match individual 2nd year students with mentors from within the profession - individual PR people who, in some cases, may be recent graduates themselves. The benefit for the student is to have someone from outside the university but inside the profession who can provide support and guidance to their study and skills development, intelligence on placement, project or job opportunities and a chance for students to build up a network of professional contacts.

At first sight, the scheme has lots to offer to students – but what are the benefits to employers? I thought I might have to struggle to convince PR professionals to get involved but I’m delighted to discover that I was wrong.

It’s true that employers like to get involved in students’ personal development and, as I said, see this as a good way of investing in the future of the profession. But there’s so much more to be gained from working with students. Enthusiastic students with fresh ideas can be very inspirational, especially in an industry that relies on creative thinking and an abundance of fresh ideas.

Working as a mentor can also contribute much to the CPD (Continuing Professional Development) of recent recruits into PR and play a big part in their annual appraisal process. Even as a grizzled old academic I can verify that a great way to learn something new is to work out how to teach it to someone else!

I plan to report on the progress of the mentoring scheme in this blog. In the long run, I hope this works as a further factor in promoting the employability of our students. And boosting the credibility of Media Studies.

mentoring    Media Studies    UCE     PR education     Guardian     Willoughby_PR

Monday, April 23, 2007

What happens when traditional journalists meet 'tech savvy students'...

Am adding this link to an article in today's Guardian as a useful resource for students of citizen journalism. It's an interesting reflection on the changing roles of - and relationships between - 'citizens' and 'journalists' and also raises questions of trust when the public sphere is a digital environment.

Filed under:
Virginia Tech   public sphere   citizen journalism  journalism education

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bloggers eye view of Virginia Tech

I drove home from work today to the breaking news about the Virginia Tech shootings. You don't have to work on a campus to appreciate the awfulness of the events but mental images become very vivid of students and professors starting another day of classes before their lives abruptly change - or cease. As the story unfolded, I stayed tuned to Five Live news, hoping to gather more information to fill the gaps in the pictures forming in my mind. When I got home, Chele was glued to BBC News 24 for the same reason.

When it became clear that the gunman was dead, the story moved into a different phase. The question was no longer 'What happened?' but 'Why did it happen?' Right now I'm listening to the news conference where the University President and Chief of Campus Police are facing aggressive questions from journalists on the level of security and why classes weren't cancelled after the first shootings.

We'll be able to read the analyses at leisure in the press tomorrow and beyond, but the first phase of the story - its breaking and unfolding - highlighted the weakness and frustration of mainstream news media trying to make sense of the sparse information that was emerging and the strength of 'citizen journalism' as students and witnesses blogged their personal accounts and experiences.

We were able to read an eye-witness account of one student directly affected, and injured, by the shooting in the Madness on Campus thread of the Live Journal blog. We could also witness the tensions between the mainstream media and the bloggers. With no other sources available, various news media, including MTV News, the Boston Herald and the Guardian, invaded the bloggers' space, only to find themselves repelled by insults and cries of 'whores', 'vultures' and 'ghouls'.

We've become used to relying on the media even though we may sometimes hate their methods of gathering - and competing with each other to gather - the fresh angle, the goriest photo, the most heart-rending witness account. However, while the horrors of the events in Virginia unfolded, it became clear that the untrained, non-professional 'citizen' journalists were able to keep the world informed while the official news media could only watch helplessly from a distance before being allowed access to a news conference to cry out 'Why?'

To anyone affected by these events who happens across this blog, Chele and I send our heartfelt prayers and best wishes.

Filed under:
Virginia Tech   blogs   citizen journalism

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The truth market

Mark Borkowski offers his analysis of the debacle of Iranian hostages selling their stories to the redtops.

His basic argument presents the press as amoral; it's in the their nature to get a story and will adapt in any way they need to the circumstances and political climate to get a scoop. As for the MOD, they were naive, failing to take into account that PR - or at least media relations - is a fact of life.

Lessons, says Borkowski, can be learned from Hollywood. The media don't report the world, or reflect the world, or represent the world - they are the world.

Yes reality does exist beyond the newsroom but as any basic Media Studies textbook will confirm, media reality is systematically distorted. We're not necessarily talking about journalistic conspiracies to bend the truth. Very often the truth bends itself to jump onto the media bandwagon.

The Sun's exclusive report of 'brave Faye Turney's terror' is loaded with the assumptions of how a British servicewoman might expect to be treated by Iranian captors - potential rapists and violaters of her 'baby' (the boat, not her daughter, Molly).

Her reported reaction was that of a real trooper - 'F*** off'.

The Daily Mail's stance does at first sight present a veneer of morality. Their headline last Thursday was They won't be selling their story, minister. This comment, aimed at Defence Secretary Des Browne, appeared over a photo of a coffin of one of the British servicemen recently killed in Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the story does not indicate how much money the Mail had itself offered for an Iranian hostage's story.

Filed under:
Mark Borkowski   Iranian Hostages   Sun  Daily Mail  Faye Turney   media relations

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Drugs, obesity and media studies

Welcome to the world of Boris Johnson, as seen through the rose-tinted windscreens of his high-performance cars.

Today's Portsmouth Today reports comments of the 'Motormouth MP' which have led to demands for an apology from 'furious city leaders'. He characterised the home of HMS Victory as 'one of the most depressed towns in southern England, a place that is arguably too full of drugs, obesity, under-achievement and Labour MPs.'

His views weren't expressed in any speech in the House, or indeed during his recent visit to the University of Portsmouth. The words appeared in that most eminent publication, GQ Magazine, as part of Boris's write-up on test driving a Maybach limousine. He combined his journalistic and political commitments by using the £340,000 vehicle for his official visit to the University on behalf of the Conservative party.

The indignant city fathers are undoubtedly still smarting from the late Spike Milligan's consignment of Portsmouth into oblivion on BBC's Room 101. But the city wasn't the only target of stereotyping in Johnson's jottings. I quote...

As soon as we pull up outside the University of Portsmouth, I can see the look of astonishment on the face of the Vice Chancellor. The streets are full of rain. Poor bedraggled students splash across the campus in search of their lectures in feminism and media studies.
Ah yes, we're in familiar territory here. And this from the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, who claimed during the last election that 'Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3'.

Somewhere in this infinite universe, there must be a parallel world in which David Cameron not only wins the next election but also allows Boris to stay in charge of the nation's universities. It hardly bears thinking about. But then perhaps in another parallel world, feminism and media studies are included in the curriculum at Eton...

Filed under:
Boris Johnson   Portsmouth  media studies

Friday, March 30, 2007

Click here! Meet interesting people.

A note to any of my students checking out this blog (some of them do apparently!) – if you would like a brief respite from lectures given by myself and colleagues and have your lectures delivered by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, Richard Dawkins, Bjorn Lomborg, Barry Schwartz, Peter Gabriel or Bono, visit TEDtalks (Technology, Entertainment and Design). The website offers a growing selection of videos of talks given by a diverse range of interesting, brilliant or iconoclastic people.

You can download audio or video or simply watch online. Click and enjoy (and be inspired, at least by some of them). The site also includes its own blog plus access to press and blog coverage of this gathering of ‘icons, geniuses and mavericks’ whose words and ideas are archived here.

Filed under:
TED talks

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ITV's answer to The Apprentice?

This is all getting very incestuous.

For years the popular press has thrived on stories from Reality TV – now Reality TV is setting its sights on life behind the scenes of the print media. And who better to give us an insight into the trials and tribulations of producing a glossy magazine than a bunch of Z-listers?

Deadline hits the screens next Wednesday (4th April) at 10pm on ITV2 and 11pm on ITV1. The magazine will be edited by Janet Street-Porter, with Darryn Lyons running the picture desk and Daily Star's copy editor Joe Mott.

The celebrity reporters are:

Celebrity Love Island evictee, Abi Titmuss
Radio 1 presenter and Celebrity Big Brother evictee, Lisa I’Anson
Ex-Neighbours actor and Australia’s Big Brother evictee, Blair McDonough
Ex-Eastenders actor Chris Parker (remember Spencer Moon?)
Dean Holdsworth – football player
Iwan Thomas MBE – athlete
Spoof chat show host and writer for Independent on Sunday, Dom Joly
Spooky presenter of FTN’s Most Haunted, Yvette Fielding
Writer, theatre producer and famous daughter, Imogen Lloyd Webber
Former ITV This Morning presenter and estranged wife of a quiz show compere, Ingrid Tarrant

In keeping with the experience of most newsrooms these days, the staff numbers for the publication are to be systematically reduced – indeed Ms Street Porter’s task is to determine each night which celebrity is the most incompetent and give them their marching orders. Comparisons with Sir Alan Sugar are inevitable.

Only last November, Michael Grade announced his first priority was to improve ITV programming. Anyone anticipating a new era of creative, blue sky, out-of-the-box thinking will find this combination of tired old formats and uninspiring celebrities an interesting response to the challenge of winning back ITV’s wayward audiences.

Filed under:
Deadline   celebrity  reality TV  ITV  Michael Grade

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Confessions of an 'extreme blogger'

OK - time to get a new routine. I took a short break from blogging last November. Next thing I know it's Daylight Saving Time again and not a word has been added to Screaming Headlines.

For excuses, choose a combination from any of the following: I've been busy (I have!), I've become accustomed to a new routine; I've been blogging elsewhere (a news blog for a folk band I play for); I've been focused on my PhD research; I've been preparing teaching materials for new subjects/marking assignments/external name it, I've been up my eyes in it.

But I've missed this routine and today I've been shamed back into blogging by two events. One is news of a survey that discovered over 2.7 million blogs lying around abandoned in cyberspace. The other is an email from a friend which demonstates a masterful technique in tact and persuasive skills (Bill is wasted as a folksinger!). I quote:
I have noticed that only very, busy people own or run a Blog. I haven't read a single Blog that says .... "Got up this morning, washed, dressed.... nothing to do.".

Those with Blogs seem to be excruciatingly busy dashing around at 500 mpg. Bloggers seem to be either journalists, politicians, multi-skilled musicians, Friends Of The Planet people or terrorists/ wannabe terrorists.

Bloggers live life in the fast lane, rush around like the proverbial Bat Out Of Hell and then, as quick as a flash, somehow find the time to get a few words down on their Blog before going on to the next task. Do Bloggers make lists? No! Do they plan their next day in their Outlook Diary? No! Why? Because they are just too busy!

Out of these Bloggers are fast emerging the "Extreme Blogger". These are Bloggers who are just so busy that they haven't even got time to update their Blog. Now that is what I call busy! How can they do anything when they haven't got time to actually DO anything?

Pete do you know anyone that falls into this category?

Another friend has a maxim that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. (He's always asking me to write his press releases!)

So - point taken. Screaming Headlines is active again. However I am determined to keep this going at a pace that suits me and fits into my priorities. Worrying about how much traffic passes this way leads to madness. I shall control this blog - I will not let it control me.

Now I've got a conference paper to prepare. Until next time...

Filed under:
blogging   time management