Why are we not listening to journalists about how to best engage with them???

I despair. I absolutely despair. How is it, that in 2014, there are still PRs and PR agencies out there that are spamming journalists with irrelevant and non-newsworthy press releases and stories?? And even worst, why are there still PRs and PR Agencies that are phoning journalists asking if they have received a press release! In what world is this going to be effective??

This is what the latest research from DWPub found, who published the results of a survey into “What do journalists think of PR people”. What bothers me so much is that so little has changed in the ten or so years I’ve been involved in PR. Ten years ago journalists were telling me NOT to call and ask if they had received a press release. Ten years ago journalists were telling me to RESEARCH the publication and stories that they penned and to make sure that I was pitching RELEVANT information and stories. And no doubt this same conversation has been going on for decades in one way or another.

No wonder the relationship between journalists and PR types is so strained.

According to the research, 80% of journalists said that “Lack of understanding of your publication and subject area” is their greatest frustration with PR people. As DWPub’s own analysis says:

“There’s a pattern emerging – all they (journalists) really want is for the PR to know what they cover and to make sure whatever they’re pitching is relevant and newsworthy”

Which, lets be honest, isn’t a lot to ask.

But it’s the agencies that are to blame. Junior PR types are not born with the idea to follow up an email (within a few minutes) with a call to ask if the journalists received the press release – they are being instructed by their experienced comrades. Mass emailing of a release to hundreds of journalists is being pushed from the top of these agencies (including some I’ve recently worked with – see my recent post on saying no) for reasons that escape me. Please stop.

So please – as an industry – lets all heed this advice from journalists. After all, we all want positive coverage, so lets all stop phoning journalists to ask if they received a press release (they did!) and start taking a moment to be sure that the story is newsworthy, and that it is relevant for both the journalist and the publication.

I’ll leave you with a favourite comment highlighted in the report, which kinda sums up my (and the journalists) point:

Pitch relevant news to the relevant publication. I can’t believe we still get PRs calling the news desk of the Daily Star and asking for our Fine Arts editor!”

Here’s a link to the full survey: http://blog.dwpub.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/DWPub-journalist-survey-What-do-journalists-think-of-PR-people.pdf

And DWPub’s own press release (lets hope they didn’t do a mass email sell-in with follow up phone call: http://blog.dwpub.com/2014/10/journalists-think-pr-professsionals/#.VDWzv2ddV3I

Apple at it again

So I recently published a little blog post linking to an exposé of Apple’s PR operation (here: (https://ollielawsonpr.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/an-detailed-look-into-apples-pr-and-media-operation-by-9to5-mac/ )

Only a few weeks later and we see another example of their approach – this time Computer Bild fell foul of their bullying and intimidation tactics when they published a video showing how easy it is to bend an iPhone 6 Plus. Apple’s response was to take Computer Bild off their good boy list and no more testing devices or invites to Apple events.

Ignoring the fact that this is quite a childish way to react, how do they think trying to intimidate journalists and publications – the main route their customers learn about their products – is going to turn out?

Here’s the open letter Computer Bild’s Editor in Chief Axel Telzerow wrote to Apple:


Apple’s response to Bendgate has been to claim there isn’t a problem – which reminds me of another inadequate response to a phone problem when one of the previous Apple models had a signal problem – the response was to ‘hold it properly’.

Time will tell if Bendgate is a real issue or not, and while Apple remains at the top this approach will probably continue to work for them, but I expect there will be long-term issues if Apple continue to act like this.

Digital PR – is PPC/Online advertising PR? and why do PR Agencies offer the service?

I attended an interesting PRCA event last night (Wednesday 10th) on the publication of some research into the world of digital PR. The results will be published in their entirety today (here’s a link), but some top level findings included 44% of organisations only spend 1-10% of their PR budget on digital and 62% expect to see this increase in the next 12 months (I’m typing this from notes, so until I double check my notes I wouldn’t take this as gospel).

As I said, it was a decent debate, but I did feel that the panel could have done with some in-house representation (they were all agency types). But one piece of evidence – and the subsequent discussion – caught my eye and thoughts.

It was around PPC and paid content. There was a large difference between the services that agencies were offering – in this case PPC/online advertising, and the needs of in-house types (see the picture of a full graph). The panel suggested this was due to in-house professionals not being aware of all the offers and services from PR agencies. But I’m not so sure. Surely PPC and online advertising is (by definition) marketing, not PR? And a lot of in-house PR/Coms teams are separate to the marketing teams? (Obviously, I’m generalising as there are more ‘marcoms’ professionals these days, but would they identify as ‘PR’ and manage the PR agency??)

I wonder if the industry (PR industry) – particularly the agencies – are simply embarking on a land grab of a lucrative market?? They see this as an area that kinda fits with general PR and comms and want a slice of it.

Obviously, a great PR campaign includes PPC. But it also includes advertising, events, photography and often new visuals – yet PR agencies don’t claim to be experts in advertising, events or visual design – they outsource it to partners/other agencies (of course some of the larger agencies do in fact have all these skills under the same roof – but most don’t). Can the same also be argued for SEO?

As one of the panellists said “focus on what we’re good at – story telling”.

I’ve actually pretty unsure about this one, maybe paid/PPC really does sit under PR, I don’t know, but I’m keen to find out, so do let me know your thoughts.

Here’s a link to the full report – http://news.prca.org.uk/digital-pr-report-2014-reveals-growth-in-client-and-pr-agency-investment-in-paid-digital/


An detailed look into Apple’s PR and Media Operation by 9to5 Mac

Here’s a really interesting piece from 9to5 Mac on the PR and media operation at Apple (by@markgurman) . It’s well worth a read – and apologies to the Twitterer who I found this via. I’m afraid I clicked on the link a few days ago and only just got around to reading it – do let me know if it was you!

It paints a picture of control, manipulation and advantage of having an army of supporters ready to go into battle on Apple’s behalf. It talks of removing ‘privileges’ from journalists and publications that don’t stay on message and are supportive (Gizmodo has reportedly been barred from all Apple launch events since 2010, after they got their hands on a prototype Iphone 4) and only sending review items to those who will write positively.

Interestingly, I just don’t see how it would work for any other company or organisation. With so many high-profile ‘friends’ and the evangelical love that Apple finds in its followers (they are followers, not customers…) they can get away with this approach, and – obviously from their general reputation and profit margin – it has proved very successful! However, we would all love to only engage with our favourite and supportive journalists, but rarely have that luxury.

It will also be fascinating to see how this pans out over the years – as the latter parts of the story shows, changes are afoot within Apple (post Steve Jobs) and within the PR department.

Disclosure time. I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have an Ipad (1), and once had an IPhone 4s, but both have been superseded by my superior (in my humble opinion…) Blackberry Q10.

Link here: http://9to5mac.com/2014/08/29/seeing-through-the-illusion-understanding-apples-mastery-of-the-media/

How not to communicate during a crisis – by Secret Cinema

Last week Secret Cinema, who claim to host ‘immersive’ cinema/film experiences had to cancel the opening two nights of their London Back to the Future show (LINK). Whatever ‘unforeseen circumstances’ are, if the cancellations alone were not bad enough, then the way they actually communicated and dealt with the crisis made everything worst.

The opening night (Thursday 24th July) was cancelled barely two hours before the start. Via Facebook and Email. No explanation was given, just a brief statement and short apology. The impact was extenuating by Secret Cinema having previously told people not to take to mobile phones to the event (there were not any mobile phones in 1955 – when the event was set), so hundreds of the 3500 daily attendees were already well on their way to the event (an effective crisis communication plan should have foreseen this stumbling block).

Predictably, this kicked off a social media storm. With most anger aimed at the timing of the announcement and the lack of any information – including no offer of a refund (which was clarified as being available later), not simply the cancellation. The only social media engagement from Secret Cinema was to ask people to email them their complaint (which were not replied to if you believe Twitter). Everything else was met with silence, including requests for comment from The Evening Standard and The Independent. Thus, and not at all surprisingly, the press coverage was negative and included that Secret Cinema were not available to comment.

The first evening alone is worth a blog post on terrible crisis communication, except things got even worse on the second night, Friday (25th) – which just so happens to be the night I was due attend.

On the evening of the first show, after a few hours of pandemonium around the Secret Cinema social media channels, another apologetic message was shared. Once again, no explanation on the reasons or issues, but an all important line about another announcement – about Friday’s show – due at 11am on the Friday. And then silence.

Friday 11am – 3500 people wait (plus all those enjoying the social media storm) with baited breath to find out if the show they have forked out 55 quid for, have spent time and money sorting outfits and accessories for was going ahead. The Secret Cinema social media channels were once again a buzz with chatter:

11am came. It went. No announcement.

11:30am came. It went. No update.

12noon came. It went. Still nothing.

Finally at 12.15pm a message: “we will make an announcement shortly”

Cue more silence. And more social media uproar.

Finally at 3:30pm two hours before the show was due to start, and four and half hours after an announcement was promised, another cancellation message.
By 9pm the weekend shows had also been cancelled (and subsequently the entire first week). Yet still there was nothing more that a few paragraphs saying it was unavoidable and apologising. Still no media interview, or news of any sort. It wasn’t until Saturday that any news organisations were able to speak to the founder Fabien Riggall – when he finally agreed to speak to the BBC (LINK)

If anyone was ever in any doubt that PR plays an important role in an organisation, or that knowledge and experience in dealing with a crisis is vital to a healthy company then please see Secret Cinema social media and press coverage as to why it is so vital. Secret Cinema’s reputation was always going to take a hit when cancelling the first week of the show. But cancellations happen. Mistakes and cock-ups happen. It is how you deal with them, how you react to them and how you communicate these cock-ups to your customers that can mean the difference between a damaged reputation and potentially the end of your organisation.

I don’t know the details of why it was cancelled, but seeing as they had to cancel the whole first week it was obviously a serious issue. The call had to be made earlier than two hours on the first night and barely three on the second. And if you say you’re going to make an announcement at 11am, you make damn sure that you make an announcement at 11am.

As well as having to cancel the opening few days, Secret Cinema has come across as absolute amateurs through its lack of communication.

I’m reminded of a bit advice from the CEO of an American company I once worked for – “mess up, fess up”. Once they knew they were going to have to can the first weekend, they should have put their hands up, apologised, admitted they messed up and moved on. Fabien Riggal should have been talking to the press and announcements and updates should have been regular. Who knows, if the public had known what was going on they may have had ideas on how to help. Instead Secret Cinema received tons of negative press (both for the cancellation and the communication of the event), full of speculation about unfinished and unsafe set, livestock issues and animal welfare issues, legal issues with confiscating phones – all of these were eventually denied, but not before they were plastered all over the news and social media platforms.

Whatever your response to a crisis, silence is never ever the answer.

The damage wasn’t in the cancellations, it was the way it was handled. Nearly all the people I’ve spoken to who were due to attend the first few days have said they want a refund not to reschedule their ticket – and after the shambles of last week, can you blame them?

Secret Cinema is going to have to take financial hit from this, and massive reputation damage – this was always going to happen following the cancellation of the opening week of a show, but it is going to be a lot worst due to how the crisis was communicated.

In terms of communication crisis scenario planning, this is a pretty obvious one to foresee. I can’t believe that over their 10 years in existence they not even spent five minutes thinking about how and what they communicate in the event of a delay or cancellation of one of their shows? I just hope that if they did, this wasn’t the plan they come up with.

I doubt they will be able to put on something so ambitious again (and sell tickets at least), and I have to wonder if they will ever get anything on again.

For more info on the Secret Cinema Back to the Future cancellation visit:
Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/secret-cinema-interview-why-were-back-to-the-future-screenings-cancelled-9630777.html
Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/25/back-to-the-future-secret-cinema-london-screenings

Why do we find it so hard to say no??

I’m writing this post not much more than an hour after getting home from where I spent the afternoon trying to sell-in a non-story. A non-story into trade press with very tenuous connections (I should probably take this moment to point out that this is my second day and I’m only at this agency for a week – holiday cover, so not much I could do about it but suck it up) and when I asked why we were pushing this non-story into trade sectors where it wasn’t relevant I was given the common response “the client wants it”.

Why do we find it so hard to say no to clients? Why do we find it so hard to advise our clients about the best approach, and what the press sees as a story and what they don’t? I’m reminded of my favourite “just say no” PR disaster last year when British Gas had a live Twitter Q&A the day after increasing their energy bills by 10% (http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/oct/17/british-gas-backlash-price-hike-energy-bills ). There is no way any talented PR guy could have thought the timing was a good idea. So why didn’t they tell the CEO or whoever how bad an idea it is? And why does ‘the client want it’ mean we have to ignore everything we have learnt and know about news and PR?

As an aside, today was the first time in about five years since I last did a mass sell-in and I have to say how nice and patient all the journalists were in taking my call. Even when we both knew they would not be interested in the story.

Marathon training!

So not strictly about PR, but I thought I would briefly share an observation about marathon training. In a few weeks time I will be attempting the Edinburgh Marathon and have been training in and around North London for the past few months and I’ve noticed something. I’ve noticed that runners don’t acknowledge each other. Not a nod, smile, or even a wink of encouragement. I guess that is just part of the way in London, like the silence on the tube, or the strange looks when you try and start a conversation with a stranger on the bus.

On marathon day everyone is supportive and encouraging. Why not during training and other runs?

Anyway, I just think it’s a shame.

I’m running the Edinburgh Marathon for the Campaign against the Arms Trade (http://www.caat.org.uk/) on the 25th May. If you fancy sponsoring me, here’s the LINK

CIPR research shows internships remain of little benefit to the PR industry or to the interns themselves, so lets get rid of them!

Today (April 16th) the Chartered Institute of Public Relations published research into internships, which found that they are of limited benefit to either the PR industry or young people looking to get into Public Relations.


The link outlines the findings, and it has given me the opportunity to return to a favourite issue of mine. Diversity in PR. I’ve always been anti-unpaid internships in general as they can exclude those who can’t afford to live and work without a wage – particularly in London (where I live and work, so this comment focuses on London). Unless the intern is from or has family in London – or is from a wealthy family who can cover the astronomical costs of living within sensible commuting distance – they simply will not be able to afford it. Once you consider how important experience is when securing your first PR job, we are just excluding a huge proportion of talented young people.

The recent PRWeek census shows how little diversity we currently have as an industry. How can we truly expect to offer our clients and their various issues a great service when we are all white, wealthy graduates? (http://www.prweek.com/article/1225129/pr-census-2013)

As a sector we’ve been talking about this for years, but this latest research shows that nothing is changing. Only 26% of interns were paid, and that was the minimum wage. 76% class themselves as upper or middle class and only 24% are non-white. If we can consider these young interns the future of the PR industry (and I think we can) then it doesn’t bode well for the diversity issue we say we are so concerned about.

Add to this the finding that only 57% of respondents said that their internship has helped them to prepare for a PR career and I have to question the value of internships at all.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of helping to launch the PR Higher Apprenticeship (when Pearson we’re still involved – more info here: http://www.prapprenticeships.com/ ) with the PRCA (now working with Creative Process). The project was started due to the lack of diversity within the PR sector, with the aim of opening the sector up to non-graduates from different backgrounds. It paid a wage, and while some agencies chose to pay the apprentices the bare minimum, most where on a decent entry level wage – around and above the London Living Wage.

As well as an actual paid job in a PR agency or in-house team, it also included a structured training programme that was developed by the PR industry itself (I forget the exact figure but somewhere around 150 PR professionals directly inputted into what the training programme included and involved) that actually left them with the skills they needed to make a success in PR. I met the first 20 or so apprentices and was blown away by the energy and talent on show, and continue to watch them taking the industry by storm – I’m pretty sure that one day I will be asking one of them for a job!

We need more agencies and in-house teams taking on apprentices from varied backgrounds and paying them a living wage that means we attract young people from wealthy and non-wealthy backgrounds, not taking on non and low-paid (or properly trained) interns. We need to build a future talent base that brings more to the table than all the same minds and experiences and internships aren’t going to achieve this.

Until we do we are going to continue to just talk about diversity without making any dent into the problem.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Crisis Communications – A text message was not a great idea, but what where the alternatives?

So the story is a sad one, but it is believed that Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, missing for more than two weeks, went down somewhere over the Indian ocean with all lives lost.

Now I appreciate that there are more important things to worry about than the PR response from Malaysia Airlines, but part of their response hit the headlines earlier on in the week.

Generally I think their crisis response has been good – in very difficult circumstances and with very little information to work with (the plane was lost, there wasn’t much else to go with) they continued with daily press conferences and shared everything they had to share, even when it was just theories – they fed the 24 hour news monster. Pretty much everything they could have done was done.

But then came the text message. Once all the evidence was gathered the conclusion was reached that it is beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 crashed into the sea. However, they choose to share this conclusion with the families of the passengers via a text message.

A text message?!? My (and most of Twitter’s) reaction wasn’t very positive. A callous and unsympathetic way to notify families that their loved ones were lost. But then I started to wonder about the alternatives. In a 24-hour digital news world, how do you reach hundreds of stakeholders (in this case the families), who are scattered all over the world with the same news at the same time. Clearly they need to hear the news before the main press conference announcing it to the world, so how do you avoid time differences, different locations, and the journalists that are camped alongside the families?

Could local representatives share the bad news? Possibly, but is a faceless executive from the local office really any better? And logistically how do you reach everyone at the same time (once some of families have been given the news, it’s likely to reach the press, and then the risk is some families hearing through the news/TV – not what you want to happen). A telephone call is better than a text, but unless it’s a massive conference call (which would have to be across time zones – would you want to be told your parents were most likely dead at 3am in the morning?) you’d need an army of competent staff to make the calls and deal with questions and grieving families.

The more I think about it the more I’m unsure what is the best answer. A better response would have been to ask families how they would want to be communicated with and be prepared to use a number of different channels dependent on response. This means that some families may get the news via a text message, some maybe an email, some a call and some face to face. While hardly ideal, it must be better than a blanket text message. This sort of crisis would (should) have been at the top of any scenario planning, so communicating with hundreds of families from all across the globe should have been expected, and the relevant systems should already have been in place. It would be a logistical nightmare, but simply sending them all a text message is not the answer.

Oh, and where there are journalists and cameras present with relatives (as with the group of Chinese families in the hotel), you need to control the press and don’t let them in the same room as the families receiving the news of lost families. It does not make for positive TV.

If you want to read more about Malaysia Airline’s overall crisis response there is a good review over at Agnes Day: http://agnesday.com/malaysia-airlines-crisis-communications-flight-mh370/

And here’s a great example of decent crisis communications and the importance of scenario planning: http://www.fastcompany.com/3027798/the-secret-to-airbnbs-freakishly-rapid-orgy-response-scenario-planning?partnerg

Going the wrong way in your PR career – from in-house to agency, and why is it so hard?

We all know how a PR career usually works. You spend your formative years in a PR agency. You find a specialism or sector. You work long hours, win clients, lose clients, fall out with journalists, work hard and play hard. But then, when the time is right, you jump ship and cross to the ‘other side’ – you find yourself a comfortable in-house role to see out the rest of your career.

I’m generalising here of course. Many PR professionals stay on the agency side, and some start and finish in-house. But today I want to talk about the other guys. Those that start in-house and then after making their mark quite fancy hopping the other way into a PR agency. While it’s not unheard of, it remains frowned upon. In-house managers will happily take on someone who only has agency experience, but how many hiring managers from an agency will take on someone from an exclusively in-house background??

Obviously this is pretty much determined by level and experience. I doubt if someone with one or two years in-house experience would have any trouble finding an Account Exec level role in an agency. but how about a seven/eight year veteran (can you be a veteran after eight years? a discussion for another blog post perhaps), looking to return to agency at around AD or similar level? (e.g. me!)

Please forgive a sporting analogy here (particularly if you’re not that into sports), but I’ve always thought of the difference to that of 5 aside and 11 aside football (or Rugby 7’s and full International if you prefer). It’s the same sport, but the skills and talents are slightly different. And being good at one, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be good at the other.

But how are the PR skills between agency and in-house different? Are they that different? What is it that scares agency types about hiring an in-house guy like me?

OK, so maybe we don’t have to worry about time sheets, but juggling multiple issues, with multiple stakeholders goes hand in hand with an in-house role, just as it does with agency work. In fact, doesn’t being immersed within a business offer a different perspective to those who have only ever experienced life within an agency?

New business? Yep, so this may well be a major factor in why it’s hard to go from in-house to a senior agency role. However, by sitting client side for so long, and having been pitched to so often we can spot a bad pitch from twenty paces. And don’t get me started on the number of times I’ve been at a networking event and an agency type has tried to ‘new business’ me – again, experience and being on the end of it surely offers an interesting perspective, and a view point not necessary available from within an agency?

I appreciate that there is a chance that I’m very wrong about this and that they are not just different sports, but one that uses your hands and one that uses a bat (a future blog post will (hopefully) cover my experience of working in an agency after being in-house for so long).

Does anyone have experience of going about your PR career the wrong way? Or maybe there are some hiring managers that are adverse to taking an in-house type into an agency – do please share your thoughts.

Ollie Lawson