Media

PR masterclass lessons from our new president

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

Our new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has shown that he’s a master of a good PR stunt and, although this alone won’t solve our county’s myriad issues, it has given him the goodwill and support to allow him some breathing space.

Change is as good as a holiday, as many a wise person has said, and the recent changes in our political landscape have certainly created s sense of heady excitement, not too unlike that felt in our festive summer months. Of course, we’re all jaded enough to not head down a well-trodden path of celebration yet; we know that the empty rhetoric means nothing if solid political policy doesn’t follow.

It comes at a time when some of our opposition parties are caught up in in-fighting and struggling to find their way and purpose. In an environment where their main foe (and reason for existing, some may say) is no longer there, it’s even more important for them to have a solidified vision and a coherent message. Perhaps they would do well in looking to our new president to pick up some handy hints on how they can sharpen up their PR plan:

1. Make a couple of grand gestures to show you are control

Being in control is as much as about what you show, as about that which you actually do. On the morning that our former president, Jacob Zuma, resigned, the properties of his friends and no.-1 arch-enemies, the Guptas, were raided in a dramatic dawn bust. Streets were cordoned off and interviews were conducted in public, surrounded by very impressive-looking police teams.

As many cynics mumbled, there probably wasn’t a huge amount of actual forensic evidence gained from this; I’m sure that many a hard-drive was wiped clean and many a stack of paper shredded long in advance. But it wasn’t really about that. It was about making a grand gesture to show who was now in control and showing that dramatic changes were underfoot.

2. Disarm your enemies with charm

There are two kinds of politicians: those who get things happening by trying to get everyone on their side (see former US president, Barack Obama, and Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau) and those who trample over objections, making people do their will by pure force alone (see Donald Trump).

The past few years have seen nothing if not a massive battle of wills every time our political parties come face-to-face, and we’d become used to parliamentary meetings and SONA debates that were as dramatic and confrontational as a WWF wrestling finale. But there is only so much that pure aggression, stubbornness and force of will can achieve, and it seems our new president knows the power in disarming the enemies with charm. It puts objectors on the backfoot and positions them as obstructers to the peace — and often, as in the case with Julius Malema, leaves them in a position where they need to find a new enemy to object to and a new purpose for being.

3. Stop for a selfie

There’s not much more of a measure these days which shows popularity such as being asked to be in a selfie: it shows that a person is not only famous but also liked enough for someone else to want to be seen in a photo with them.

For politicians — often described as being aloof and out of touch with the common person, and in recent years, purposely being surrounded by huge security teams — a small gesture like this goes a massive way in telling a new story. Being seen “in among the people”, dressed casually and without a barriers of security people keeping the public an arm’s length away, is a strong message that the new president wants to be seen as a man of the people, approachable, and open to hearing the thoughts and wishes of South Africans.

4. Align yourself with a (folk) hero

A good speechwriter knows that a tug on the heartstrings can always be a winner — and so the quote from the recently departed Hugh Masekela in Ramaphosa’s SONA speech was a masterstroke. It not only showed that the president is someone who is in tune with popular culture but it also aligned him with a man whose place in commenting on and fighting against the inhumanities of our past had a warmth and credibility.

Even more amusing, however, was former finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s apparent attempt to do the same, by quoting Kendrick Lamar at the end of his budget speech. It didn’t quite have the same outcome, though, as it showed a lack of sensitivity and seriousness in a time when measures were being announced that will have a profound impact on the people of South Africa.

5. Create a hashtag

Of course, no good PR campaign would be without a hashtag, and soon after the president quoted Bra Hugh in his SONA address, the hashtag #SendMe began doing the rounds on social media. It was an inspired choice of quote — it demonstrated a commitment to changing things, and getting his hands dirty, but it also invited the general public to get involved and be a part of this change.

So, a strong start to a PR campaign, which seems to have done what it set out to do: a general public who is, in large, open to working with a new leader and positive about his leadership; opposition parties who are, largely, cooperative; and a generally positive environment and stable economy, despite some tough measures being announced in the budget.

Yes, we’re still in the honeymoon phase of this “New Dawn” — we will need to see what substance lies underneath the positive spin. But having a president who understands the value of appearances and perception, and who wants to get people on side, can’t be a bad start.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

A look back at the year that has been

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I think I speak for many of us when I say that I’m looking forward to the end of the year, both with some trepidation and some relief. As is the case every year, time seems to rush past faster and faster; how did we get here so quickly? It was surely only the other day when we were sitting down to earnestly plan what this year would entail. And yet… what a year. What a year. Bring on the time off; it feels well-deserved.

This time of the year is often one for reflection and contemplation. In no particular order, here are some of the things that resonated with me over the past year.

Smaller is sometimes better
It’s not the first time this has been said and it certainly won’t be the last. Agencies that are not looking for ways to make their business models smaller and nimbler will struggle, as clients look to partners who can turn excellent work round quickly without massive, cumbersome teams.

The past year has seen a number of the bigger, established local agencies suffer from some serious blows. On the flipside, however, I’ve noticed many smaller hot shops building their business through innovative new business models, based on small core teams, serviced by excellent contractors and freelancers.

Mediocre isn’t going to cut it any more
When times get tough, the weakest links get let loose. There are so many examples of poor work being produced by agencies and, with this, I’ve seen many clients moving their work to agencies and suppliers that they trust.

Agencies don’t have the buffers to support staff who coast through under the radar, letting other people carry them, anymore; and clients don’t have the budgets to have multiple reverts with agencies who just don’t get it, or who waste time and money with enormous account teams in every meeting.

I still believe here is enough of a pie to share among all (or at least most) of us, but only to those that deserve it.

The ride will continue to be bumpy for some time yet
The past year has certainly been no joy ride, and the economic tremors we have felt here are sure to continue as our political situation continues to be unstable. However, we’re not alone: Trumponomics, Brexitonomics and more continue to give our foreign friends the heeby-jeebies and there’s no sign of it calming down for them, either.

The solution? Apart from putting all eggs in a Bitcoin basket, the same holds true of every phase of economic uncertainty — hold tight and ride it out, if possible.

I would add, for those in our industry, there is the need to consciously make changes to operate in a way that is tighter and nimbler. See point one above for those who are finding the economy particularly tough. Massive account teams, duplicated roles and bogged-down ways of working just won’t cut it any more.

Things aren’t necessarily getting worse; we’re just more aware of them
If 2016 was the year in which all of our favourite celebrities died, 2017 was the one where we found out all the ones left were really creepy. In the tsunami of relegations about celebrity sex pests and the resulting #metoo stories, it would not have been surprising to assume that things were suddenly getting out of control. But I think it is a case of us being more aware — and of people standing up and saying enough is enough — rather than things necessarily being “worse” than before.

Harassment and bullying of women and the young — and any other groups who are marginalised or weak — is not new. Every woman in the industry I know has a story, or many, to tell of how they have been at the receiving end, whether it be unwanted sexual attention, or being patronised, downtrodden or “mansplained” to by men in the workplace. And things are not going to suddenly change but, the more they are spoken about, and the more we say they are “not OK”, the more things will start to transform.

In times of darkness, look for light
It’s pretty easy to get downcast when looking at the news and social media feeds awash of people talking about the demise of the country, impending economic doom and so on.

So, here’s the thing. It’s not just us who are in a shitty place. Have a look around the world. Having lived and worked overseas for more than a decade and, after having come home again, I can promise that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

While we are all bitching and moaning about how tough it is, there are others who are using this time to their advantage. In times of downturn, innovation and entrepreneurship flourish. While we sitting here talking about the lack of opportunity, there are a load of global brands and companies from around the world coming to South Africa — and Africa — to build their fortunes.

I have a strong belief that our reality is driven by our thoughts and actions. Which means that how 2018 unfolds for us will very much be down to the changes and outlook that we implement now.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

A lament for the dying art of craftsmanship

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This article first appeared in Marklives. 

In a time of conversations being led by little yellow smiley faces, are we losing the art of craftsmanship and being a wordsmith? And does this matter?

I recently picked up a beloved book from my childhood: Roald Dahl’s “Enormous Crocodile”. I hadn’t looked at this book for decades but, after opening its pages, I was instantly transfixed by its beautiful, and witty, language. He writes about the crocodile being “a wicked beastly beast”, “a foul and filthy fiend” and how the other animals in the jungle hoped that he got “squashed and squished and squizzled and boiled up into crocodile stew”. How wonderful and delightful to read, despite it being aimed at children. I would be hard-pressed to find many adult books today written in such enticing English.

Around the same time that I picked up this old book, I also paged through a UK high-end fashion magazine, which offered a contrast. Silly articles about silly people and brain-deadening lists of acronyms, peppered with lolzes. To be fair, I like a fluffy celeb piece as much as the next person but, in this case, there were “features” that were so badly written that, if they had been Google-translated from Greek, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

So, is this really an issue? Does caring about this make one a miserable old nit-picking fuddy-duddy? Maybe so, and millennials may snigger behind their hands as much as they like. And, yes, language does — and should — change and develop over time.

Some years ago, we all thought emoticons were weird childish things that only kids (or maybe the Japanese — just check out Guadatama for reference) would find relevant. But, these days, everyone, including my pensioner mother, litters their communications with said little faces. Execs at Facebook recently talked about this, how language is moving towards simplification and how emoticons represent an intuitiveness that transcends language and political borders. Brands are following suit; there are some that now run transactions and customer services not just through bots but through a predetermined set of emoticons.

Perhaps this simplification is not a dumbing down but rather a move, driven by globalisation, to the creation of a way of communicating that breaks down barriers to a common understanding that is accessible to all. But, hell, how I miss some of the craftsmanship of our past.

There is an argument that, before we simplify, we need to have mastered the complex. Picasso, known for his crazy, stylised artworks, had mastered incredible realism in painting before he moved onto his famous stylised works. It was this that made him a master — he had perfected the perfect, and so moved to something that could be expressed better through simplification and stylisation. That’s what makes him a genius, rather than artists who used simplification because they were unable to master the complex.

The same could be said about language.

In our industry, yes, it is important for us to be able to communicate in a way that is accessible to all. The problem is that many people in our industry perhaps are unable to communicate in any other way. This is an issue because we are supposed to be experts in communications, and our clients are paying us for this expertise.

Maybe no one cares. But maybe they do.

I stopped visiting a local restaurant because its awfully sub-edited (or lack thereof) menu pissed me off every time I went there. I couldn’t keep looking at “chocolate mouse” or “snail’s in Garlic butter” without having something inside me die. Said restaurant is now out of business. Perhaps the lack of care in the menu translated into the general lack of care to its overall business.

While 90% of the population may not notice or care, 10% do. We recently started working with a client that demands a certain level of care and craftsmanship in writing. In our first meeting, I was handed the following quote by art critic Robert Hughes, which has set the tone for the rest of the working relationship:

“I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling… I love the spectacle of skill… I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones…”

As with the articles in the UK fashion magazine mentioned before, I see countless examples in our industry of shoddy writing and a basic lack of understanding of grammar. I have heard time and again of agencies lamenting the lack of copywriters entering the industry and have seen too many examples to mention of “communications experts” publishing pieces that show an eye-watering lack of a basic understanding of grammar.

Where is the problem coming in? Is this a failure of teaching in our schools and tertiary educations? I certainly see countless examples of graduates who have no understanding of the different between “peek” and “peak” or who love to use random apostrophes or capital letters for no apparent reason. Or is it this same old argument of “millennials being different”? Again, perhaps so. The people who literally never read a book (or magazine or back of a cereal packet) seem to be demonstrably more so than those who do.

Maybe we just need to change, and to accept the move towards a future where we communicate in a new kind of sign language based around yellow faces and little pictures of monkeys covering their eyes in shame? Or maybe not. Because if Dahl could use beautifully crafted and intelligent language to thrill children and adults alike, decade after decade, could we not do the same?

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

 

When PR agencies go rogue

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

The unfolding details of the #GuptaLeaks emails have been fascinating reading, despite whether they prove to be true or, as those implicated state, “fake news”. For those of us in the PR and communications industry, the most fascinating of all must surely be the integral role that the now-infamous UK agency, Bell Pottinger, has allegedly played.

I wrote about it in a recent column but, as more allegations and titillating details have emerged, I have found myself riveted to the story, and more needs to be said concerning what this means about us and our industry.

At first look, the unravelling allegations seem right out of a Jason Bourne movie, or perhaps a radically updated James Bond one. All the requisite details are there — from outrageous amounts of money being lugged around, literally, if reports are to be believed, in unmarked bags; to plotting and scheming that spans continents and reaches right into the highest levels of government. Central to all of this seems to be the role that our ‘favourite villainous’ spin-doctors, Bell Pottinger, have played.

I’ve often told people that what we do is not rocket science. When people are having a panic attack about the size of a logo or a media invite going out a day late, it’s not the end of the world; no one’s life is at stake. That what we, as PR people do, is not so earth-shatteringly important as to lose a night’s (ok, or too many nights’) sleep over.

And, to be fair, what Bell Pottinger have been accused of doing is not a million miles away from that which has been common place for years. Some of the most well-known, -experienced and -admired people in the industry have cut their teeth in the political sphere — think Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s political spin-doctor for his years in power. The role that PR plays within the political landscape — building relationships with and securing support from influential groups; informing public opinion; building up a person or organisations’ reputation — is not new.

But this is PR in a different league.

Apparently, a group of wealthy, connected and powerful businessmen have, literally, attempted to take over a democratically elected government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

So, where does the work that “legitimate” lobbying (or, on a much-smaller and more-insignificant scale, the corporate or consumer PR work we do for brands) cross the line to become that which we find so horrifying with all that appears to be the case with Bell Pottinger and the #GuptaLeaks saga? There’s a very fine line between the two and, in this case, several red flags which should make us alarmed, very alarmed.

The first is that private wealth, coming from a very small group of people, funded the PR company that in turn used its expertise to influence government and legislation. This is a fundamental spit in the face of democracy — it means that, if you’re wealthy enough, you’re able to overcome the rules and leverage the power of a democratically elected government in your own favour. It means that, if you’re not wealthy beyond belief (which is pretty much everyone else), you’re powerless to change this. It overrides the very founding belief of democracy, which is that no person is more important or has more rights than the next.

The second red flag is that of how the PR agency rolled out its campaign. According to various news reports, it engaged in a number of dubious tactics, including fake “influencers” and Twitter trolls which spread its dodgy messaging and which were unleashed in full force against any detractors. Hand in hand with this was the besmirching of innocent people’s names and reputations [latest: BREAKING: Protesters target our Peter Bruce after anti-Gupta articles on TimesLive — ed-at-large] when they “got in the way” and the creation of messaging that was not only aimed at excusing its client’s behaviour but at hiding and obscuring the truth.

This is not about press releases pushing the benefits of some product or other. This is about the development of stories and narratives that went further to sow political and racial divisions in an already divided and politically sensitive country.

I wonder what it must be like to have been part of the Bell Pottinger team who worked on this account, if all the allegations prove to be true. I’ve always found it difficult, if not impossible, to work on ‘PRing’ an account that I found morally dubious.

So what do you think the agency team members thought or felt when they were working on this account? Did they honestly think they were doing some kind of valuable or good work? Did they think that we fools at the bottom of the darkest African continent knew or deserved no better? Or did they just take the big fat pay cheque and walk away, not caring what havoc they’ve caused at the other end of the world?

The reality is that this PR, lobbying, spin doctoring, whatever we may call it, has been bent and twisted to benefit a very few, those who already inhabit a league of wealth and power that’s incomprehensible to most South Africans. This is not a game that is being played with no consequences. Real people and real lives have been impacted, and the politics of a nation that we used to believe was protected by a mythical rainbow has been permanently besmirched.

Imagine being the spin doctors who are proud to have that on their résumé?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

The problem with fake influencers

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

Hot on the back of fake news, we now, by all accounts, have to deal with fake influencers. And as PR and media relations move more and more away from drafting conventional press releases and working with traditional media, we need to be very aware of the value of working with influencers, and the danger of working with and supporting those whose value is based on falsehoods.

The local influencer scene was hit by a mini-skandaal recently, when local bloggers Leigh van den Berg, from Lipgloss is My Life, and Candice-Lee Kannemeyer, from In My Bag, set up a dodgy Instagram account designed to expose and show how easy it is to quickly build a social-media profile with an impressive amount of followers — all of which were fake. Their account, called fake_fake_fake1981, made it very obvious that it was a fake account, stating it in the profile plus the name. They quickly grew a following, buying a thousand followers for a handful of US dollars, and paying for likes on dodgy pics (one of which was just a blank white space).

The two reckon that this practice is widespread in the local blogging and ‘influencer’ community, with a good many boosting their followers and profiles by huge margins. So what is the issue with this? So what if people want to boost their egos by appearing to have lot of fans?

Lots, really. Because these people are using these stats, these fake followers, to make money. The rates they charge for sponsored posts, for covering an event or for writing about a brand or product, are based purely on the amount of followers they have and the reach of their influence. And when the stats are fake, these people, make no mistake, are scam artists taking advantage of brands and businesses.

As the PR industry, we need to ensure we’re not feeding this fire. I have seen a good few examples where PR agencies have placed features with dodgy influencers (and questionable media outlets), adding the “reach” and AVE “monetary value” to their campaign reports. The value of the agency and the work that it does is often measured on these reports, meaning that the value of the agency is based on inflated metrics, based on falsehoods.*

I have a big issue with this. The very foundation of strong PR is based on relationships and trust (whether that be with media contacts, clients or other stakeholders) and, when agencies mislead their clients by falsely inflating figures, that is a fundamental break of that trust.

So, what to do, and what should clients and PR managers look out for?

Like most things in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If a local social-media superstar has hundreds of thousands of followers, look into this carefully. (Although I would caution not to tar everyone with the same brush; many have credibly worked to build this following legitimately). Look for and ask for stats for their other platforms, backed up by credible measurement tools such as Google Analytics — if their blog or website’s stats don’t measure up to their social media ones, something is probably out.

Dig around into the followers themselves; if they just follow thousands of people, without having followers themselves, or if they have little or no content, they are likely to be bots.

Interrogate the comments and likes under posts — often bots give themselves away by posting generic comments under posts, and these may be picked out if they don’t quite make sense compared to the content of the posts.

The same goes for dodgy media publications that PRs include in their media reports. Spend a little time checking out these publications; if they’re portals that simply host loaded press releases, they shouldn’t strictly be counted as earned-media coverage, and certainly shouldn’t incur an inflated PR AVE value.
The out-take? Let’s, as the PR industry, take collective responsibility for acting in an authentic and transparent way. We, often rightly in scenarios like these, are accused of dodgy practices and spin-doctoring. Let’s not give the haters more reason to hate us.

*I am going to add another personal whinge to this, and this is the widely used practice of multiplying AVE figures for coverage placed by three in order to reach the “PR Value”. This has widely been phased out by most credible businesses, because it uses a random metric to inflate measurables, making the value offered by the agency appear more than it is. If people are going to use AVE as a measurable — and the value of that as a credible measureable is a debate be held over for another time — then it should be measured in its purest form, so as to compare apples with apples, not apples with elephants.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

The role of PR during times of fake news

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Fake news. Until a year or so ago, we probably wouldn’t have understood the term. But now we cannot help but know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soon becomes added to the Oxford Dictionary or named “phrase of the year”. The concept has played a fundamental part in how we currently understand and engage with information, so much so that the president of the US is not only incredibly vocal about news he deems fake, but, if the rumours are even half to be believed, was elected on the back of it.

Propaganda and the use of news and information to drive beliefs and certain causes are nothing new. But what is truly alarming is the out-and-out attack on media by a leader of a democratic country, and the demeaning of anything that challenges him or that he perceives as against his agenda, as fake.

Once a free and (somewhat) unencumbered media is deemed as “fake”, it delegitimises a number of things, not least the freedom of the public to challenge measures done by those in authority when they believe that what they are doing is wrong. When a leader starts to decide what information is “correct” and what is not, it is not a long jump to an authoritarian era where the only news and information allowed is state-owned propaganda, controlled by the “thought police” that, until recently, we believed were exclusive to Orwellian novels and tin-pot dictators.

Back here on our own shores, we are incredibly lucky (and I don’t say this lightly) to have a free and challenging press. We cannot underestimate the value of this.

But the concept of a free and objective press (however much this is or isn’t a reality) has been under fire from many sides for a while. And we, as PR practitioners (and the wider advertising and marketing industry) need to have their back. Not adding to the chaos and the attacks.
Not too long ago it was alleged that a local PR business was involved in a fake news campaign for a political party in the lead up to our local government elections. According to the allegations, local “influencers” were paid to spread good news about said party (which is common to most, if not all, “influencer” campaigns). The worrying bit was that they were also paid to spread fake news about the other parties, sharing false documents purportedly made by these other parties, along with nasty stories about them. Around this time, too, we also saw the birth of local fake news sites and the emergence of “Paid Twitter” — an army of twitter trolls, attacking the enemies of their powerful bankrollers.

Even more recently, we’ve seen allegations that the UK-based Bell Pottinger PR agency had been dabbling in influencing South African politics and race relations on behalf of our infamous local villains, the Gupta family. If these allegations are to be believed, the business was paid handsomely to spread false news about those who stand in the way of the family’s ambitions, while flooding outlets and social media channels with propaganda-led missives that obscured the truth and drove divisions.

There’s a line that is being crossed here and we in the PR industry need to be very, very careful that we don’t cross it.

Before the widespread emergence of social media, the majority of any news and information that we received came through these traditional media channels. The restriction of who could and couldn’t distribute information, meant, largely, that a sort of gentleman’s code was followed: media outlets largely attempted to be free, fair, objective and report news that was backed up with research and solid facts (I’m discounting the tabloids and their attention-grabbing headlines about aliens and tokoloshes for argument’s sake here).

Then the explosion of the internet and social media happened and, with the blink of an eye, literally anyone could become a publisher. Which meant that any old rubbish could be shared and presented as the truth. Coupled with this is the radical shrinking of the traditional media. You only have to go into any newsroom and see that most newspaper houses are not just working on skeleton staff, they are literally, Miss Haversham-like, sitting in dusty buildings holding on to an era that is fast disappearing.

There just isn’t the time or resources available for them to research, interrogate and create the news stories that are needed to fill the endless needs of 24-hour channels and an audience demanding real-time updates. And in this rush, unsubstantiated “fake news” gets pushed out as “real news” — one only needs to see the chaos that ensued this past weekend when Huffington Post South Africa published a piece from a person, who didn’t exist, calling for sectors of the population to lose voting rights. Quite rightly, the publication was called to account, deleted the post, and issued an apology, while its local partner, Media24, announced that it would be investigating the situation.

But how much fake stuff enters the public domain, and how much of it is consumed by an audience that is not tech-savvy and cynical enough to question it? It all means that our very jobs as PRs — the creating of news and sharing of content on behalf of our clients and brands — play an ever-bigger role. But we need to be curators with integrity and be responsible in that the news that we are creating is true and grounded in reality. Media, and the public, need to know that, when we share this news, there is a fundamental basis in truth.

There is enough ‘fakeness’ and rubbish out there. We cannot and should not be adding to this.

It’s not even just about ethics. We will do ourselves out of jobs if we become the purveyors of fake news. The only reason we are able to be successful is if we have good relationships with the media and the public who receive this information, and that they trust us.

Once that trust is gone, our industry will soon follow.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

 

Turbulent times for industry women

If I’d had to describe myself a year ago, I probably would’ve come up with a description along the lines of “feminist lite”. A belief in a Spice Girls-esque version of Girl Power, I suppose, where feisty women hung around in girl gangs, talking about equality while comparing the best brand of sparkly nail polish and badass heels. But something’s happened over the past year to change this.

Time for us PRs to take some flack

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently I wrote about experiences I’d had in dealing with media and journalists where I felt that, sometimes, their behaviour fell short of expectations. It wouldn’t be fair not to stand up and take the heat in return, so I asked our friends in the media to let rip with their feedback on pet hates they have with dealing with PRs. And let rip they did.

Embarrassingly enough, the same old stuff kept on being mentioned — the same careless approach that PRs have been accused of doing for years on end. How have we not learned yet to sort it out?

So, nothing new here, folks’ let’s have a little chat among ourselves about what we could be doing better.

1. Being careless and sloppy

This was the biggest bugbear from literally everyone I spoke to: inviting people to events or telling them about things in cities that they don’t live in; typos; poor grammar; badly written copy; getting names wrong on emails/invites/name tags — the list goes on.

As one journalist said to me, “My pet hate is when a PR sends a personalised email addressing journo from rival magazine and references wrong publication.”

Come on, people. That’s just rude, if nothing else.

Apart from that, we are pitching and selling ourselves as experts in communication, yet we can’t even get a name spelt correctly? Hmmmm.

2. Not having a clue about media

This is just as unforgivable, in my opinion. Again, we are supposed to be experts on media — what the difference is between different media outlets and platforms; who writes about what; what their audience likes to hear about or read, and so on. Yet, again, the same frustrations are cited by journalists over and again.

Pitching ideas or stories that are completely irrelevant to the media outlet (an example was given of a PR sending local community news to a tech publication). Sending byline pieces where the “author” quotes themselves. Not knowing (or even bothering to research) who they are pitching to or knowing what beat they cover. Or, as cited by the editor of this venerable website, “Have never heard of them. Have email address, hits send”. I had a boss once who was insistent I send out samples of washing powder to fashion bloggers, convinced that they would be gagging to write about this wonder product among their reviews of trends and catwalk outfits. Just embarrassing all around.

So often this is blamed upon the “juniors or interns” who don’t really know what they are doing and are just trying to carry out some vague instructions from a senior. That’s a cop-out and unacceptable, however.

First, whoever is mentoring and managing those juniors needs to take the time to sit with their team, explaining how things work and what is trying to be achieved. Clients are paying the business to care, and to be professionals. Palming it off on juniors is not good enough.

Secondly, everyone who works in PR, at all levels, needs to eat, breath and sleep media. They need to be avid readers and obsessed with media — whether that be a passion for magazines, a hunger for news, or fanatical about blogging. If they can’t be bothered to understand the difference between a community newspaper and a tech blog; or how an editor and a features writer differ, they are probably working in the wrong industry.

3. The “follow-up” phonecall

Dreaded by media worldwide. Dreamt up by some evil account director somewhere, in the aim of further killing any sort of amicable relations between the PR and media contacts.

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, it goes something like this.

Scary account director (or client, maybe) tells junior PR person that they need to get reams of coverage everywhere about whatever dull thing the brand has just done. Poor young PR person dutifully sends out dull press release to every known email address linked to a media outlet. Deathly silence in return. Scary account director (or client) requests results from poor, quivering, young PR person.

“What do you mean, we’re not on the front page of every newspaper?” they demand angrily. “Give them a call personally and make sure they run it!”

Poor, young PR person then calls up every poor journalist on the list (usually who are on deadline/holiday/or in the middle of having an operation in hospital) and meekly asks them “whether they had received the press release and would they be publishing it?”

Here’s the deal, though. The chances are they had received it, along with a hundred other waffling and irrelevant press releases. And they don’t want to do anything with it because it is irrelevant or boring or just because they don’t like the product or the person sending it. The phone call won’t make any difference. If the story or brand is interesting enough, they will run it, and they will make contact if they need any more information.

A recent example came from an editor of a luxury magazine who tells of a poor PR who kept hounding them with mournful phonecalls, pleading with them to run features about some dental floss among their fashion pages

Let’s just make it the year we kill off this “follow-up” phone call, now already?

4. The dreaded “spray-and-pray” approach

This is the unending belief in quantity over quality, and, again, it’s just laziness in not bothering to individually address and develop a bespoke pitch to each media person.

UK blogger, Kat Williams, summarises this perfectly when she talks about her frustration with being spammed:

“These emails are usually flanked with the imposing phrase ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ (capitals and bold type are obviously mandatory to demonstrate just how damn important this piece of ‘news’ actually is)….

These days, and for the most part, journalists and bloggers want to publish exclusive content. We want to be the first to break a piece of news or showcase an amazing story idea. By sending out a press release to everyone, you’re offering the exact opposite of what we really want. The most likely outcome is not that it’ll be picked up and written about with enthusiasm, sending thousands of new customers your way, it is more probable that it’ll be relegated to a spam folder… because that’s exactly what a generic pitch sent out to hundreds of media outlets with the vague hope that at least one of them will bite is. Big fat spam.”

5. Not understanding that journalists are (quelle surprise!!) people, too

Strangely enough, most journalists aren’t gagging to spend their free evenings at our crappy brand launches. So, if we’re expecting them to come, we should at least make it pleasant for them. And let’s not ask them to do stuff they don’t feel comfortable with.

Blogger Leigh van den Berg explains this neatly: “I think it’s rude when people expect me to write about an event, but don’t invite me to it. I’m uncomfortable endorsing anything I haven’t been able to try, test, taste, experience myself. I’m all about credibility.

“My reader’s [sic] rely on me for an honest write-up. If you send me something and I don’t like it, I’m not going to feature it. Please don’t assume that, just because you sent me your super-fancy product with a side order of Lindt, I OWE you a rave review.

“And really? You’re inviting me to your hot new bar opening sans partner? Gosh. That sounds like fun. Here’s me standing in the corner all alone like Loser Girl while I pretend to tweet stuff…”

(PS I reckon her piece about PRs is required reading for everyone in the industry and should be taught as compulsory reading material.)

6. The stuff of nightmares

Then there are just some horror stories that stand alone in their awfulness. Both of these were submitted incognito by an ex-journalist who wanted to remain anonymous as they had recently moved over to the dark side themselves, becoming a “Pee-Arr”.

Horror story #1: “A PR agency sending out press information that was incorrect, resulting in one of the parties concerned threatening to sue the publication when it was published”.

Horror story #2: “I was invited to go to a conference [overseas] with a multinational [redacted] vendor and, having the flights home messed up by the PR who booked them, I was almost stranded at [an overseas] airport. I managed to sort it out, but when I tried to contact the PRs during the ordeal to ask for help, the reply I got was ‘the flights should be fine’. There was me, near tears and having no idea how I was getting home, and that was what I got? From my hosts?”

Yikes!

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

When a creative agency must PR itself

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I’ve been involved with several advertising and creative agencies which have asked me to advise them on “PRing” themselves and raising their profiles. An odd thing, when you think of it: creative agencies that specialise in communications asking for help, essentially, to communicate. But not so odd when we think that many agencies — ad, design — are so specialised in what they do, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and translate that into profile-building for themselves. After all, we don’t often (if ever?) see an ad agency running an ad about itself.

A few years ago, as with most of the other industries, media and marketing had numerous print publications, websites, local awards and recognition initiatives and other media platforms in which to showcase themselves. We had seemingly endless opportunities to profile people, share case studies and brag about successes. But, bit by bit, these have fallen away, and there just a handful of outlets and places left dedicated to showcasing and talking about the marketing industry (including this respected leading website *wink wink*).

So, agencies need to think harder and smarter than just sending out press releases and placing “thought-leadership pieces” if they want to grow their reputation (although I would argue this stands for brands and businesses in any industry these days). As daunting as this sounds, growing the profile of a creative agency doesn’t need to be too complicated, and there are a few basics that any creative agency may do first before thinking they have to spend their hard-earned margins upon hiring people to run their media relations or PR campaign:

1. Develop a personality

We always tell brands that they need to understand their personalities and ensure that this comes through in everything they do, and this is the same for agencies. So many agencies have conflicting or confusing personalities — the exco team talks one language while juniors speak another.

An agency needs to work out what its personality is, and weave that through everything it does, whether that be wacky and eccentric, or authoritative and corporate. This, after all, is what makes clients want to work with an agency, and the best talent to work for it.

Part of this is developing a face for the business that represents this. Think of many of the agencies that you admire and respect; I’d place money on them having a senior person who is the face of the agency that brings this personality to life.

2. Sort your social platforms out

It sounds obvious but it constantly surprises me how many local agencies have rubbish social media platforms; it’s the first place that so many potential staff members or clients look at. It’s the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to share news, showcase work and paint a picture of the culture and people who make up the business. Along with this, any agency that professes to be knowledgeable about social media and digital comms (which all have to be, I would argue), falls short when their own channels are poor.

And yet I see so many dire attempts: either outdated and old news, or boring bragging. The mistake is often that businesses feel that they need to be on every single platform, and keeping them all updated and interesting becomes, literally, a full-time job. Rather choose one or two and do them well. And don’t feel that they need to be over-thought or crafted — this is the one place where the creative teams may go wild and create the kind of crazy content that client would never sign off.

3. Understand that every touch point is important in growing your reputation

As with any brand, telling people about how wonderful you are isn’t as effective as the experience they have with you themselves. So why is the focus always on media stories and press releases?

More important, I believe, is ensuring that every single time someone —current or potential client, employee, supplier and everyone else — comes into contact with that agency, they need to have a positive and pleasant experience with it.

I know of agencies which profess to be creative hotshops, yet entering their offices is like entering a morgue in a bad 1960’s hospital drama. I know of other agencies which profess to be open and friendly, and yet they treat their suppliers horribly. And I know of still others that promote their open and friendly culture, and yet which are also known for keeping their staff in the dark of major agency changes and for being stingy with salaries and career development.

The problem with these is that they are so focused upon landing the next big client and making the next buck that they don’t realise that all these people who they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis are forming — and sharing — opinions about the business. It’s no use sending out a press release saying that a business is wonderful and successful, when staff is telling everyone over a beer about their Stalinist work processes.

4. Handle the challenges, not just the successes, well

A good business is one that works well not only in times of success but in weathering bad times, too.

A decade or so ago, PnP was hit with a crisis when a nutter threatened to have poisoned a number of unknown products in store, leading to thousands of products having to be recalled. This could have led to panic and a loss of confidence in the brand, but the communications team jumped quickly into action and executed a well thought-out and thorough plan which kept everyone updated on what it was doing to take responsibly and fix the issue. The result? That year the retail brand was named “Most Trusted Brand” in South Africa.

The same goes for agencies. It’s all very well and easy to go around shouting about how many Loeries have been scooped up. Yet how do you go about acting in times of trouble? Do you take responsibility and fix a problem? Do you blame it on the juniors? Do you tell staff what is happening to their jobs and involve them in decision-making?

I think this is the mark of a great and long-lasting agency brand. And I think it says more about them than a cabinet full of awards trophies.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

Driving change at global indie agencies

DeathtoStock_London6.jpg

This article first appeared on Marklives.

A turn away from the concept of integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades — to niche, Uber-like agencies; the importance of diversity; and why clients hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake are just some of the topics covered at the 2016 Indie Summit (The Independent Agencies Global Leadership Summit) which I attended last month in London.

A conference and networking event for senior management of independent marketing and communications agencies from around the world, we spent two days exploring a number of opportunities and challenges facing our industry. In no particular order, here are some of the things that I found valuable, reassuring, notable or just plain interesting:

1. As much as agencies change, they stay the same

Several things struck me about how agencies globally are looking these days.

The first was that there seems to be a turn away from the concept of huge, big integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades but masters of none, if you like. To be fair, I am sure if it had been a summit of big networked agencies, this would be different but, certainly among the independents, there was a return to focusing upon niche and specialised expertise.

This was echoed by the clients that were there; a common theme from them was that, despite boundaries between agencies’ work streams and offerings becoming blurred, they were all looking for agencies that had specialised and in-depth knowledge of certain areas, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering.

Another theme was that of increasingly flat structures, and a move away from fixed hierarchies. Over and again, we heard about how agencies are moving to empower (often younger) employees, understanding that allowing them to make decisions, play a valuable role in the organisation and essentially be mini-entrepreneurs in a business ends up benefiting everyone.

Lastly, we heard a lot about diversity. One client spoke about how he would never award business to an agency if he didn’t see a diversity in age, sex, race and background — for how could they ever be able to have an insight and understanding into various clients needs if it were a pitch team of cookie-cutter white males?

Ironically, then, was the makeup of the attendees of the conference: in the 200 or so attendees from agencies around the globe, I would say a conservative estimate was that 70%+ of them were white men…

Looks like it is the world over — not just South Africa — that needs to make some serious changes in this respect.

2. All clients want the same things

It seems clients everywhere want the same things, and the same themes keep coming up when they spoke about what they love and hate about working with agencies.

Delegates kept mentioning the value that good agencies bring: an inspirational culture, optimism, powerful ideas, a wealth of knowledge and bravery. The ability to look at a complexity of client needs and turn it into a simple solution; and the ability to look at a problem from the outside and introduce a new way of looking at things.

Collaboration kept on coming up, and how they were looking for tight relationships where the boundaries between client and agency were indivisible. And, again, diversity, diversity, diversity.

But it’s not all roses; again, the same themes kept coming up when they were asked about what they found challenging about working with agencies. They hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake; agencies spend too much time talking about how great they are, without listening to what the client is saying or needing. Their feelings towards awards are ambivalent, too; although they are a nice to have, they don’t feel that it makes a difference in appointing an agency (in Germany, there is apparently even an industry award for “credential presentations”!).

But the biggest bugbear was the lack of transparency; this was mentioned over and over again — in costs (especially media buying); how the agency delivers on a brief (pretending they have the skills when they need to outsource); and in relationships (such as sucking up to the client in order to win brownie points).

The main takeout I had — and it’s nothing new, let’s be honest — is that a client chooses to work with an agency because of chemistry, much like one would choose a lover. All of them cited the need for diversity in talent, the need for listening, flexibility, and a strength in insights and the ability to transform them into powerful ideas.

3. The trends that are driving us forward

There’s a whole lot happening out there that it helps to be aware of. Here are a few I found interesting:

The growth of Uber-like agencies — where client can draw upon talent in an ad hoc way.

Global agencies are starting to work more like management consultancies that happen to have a specialisation in the field of communications, rather than agencies that work as suppliers.

One of the biggest consumer trends the world over at the moment is the trend of “Me”. This stems from the pressure to fulfil potential, a pressure to be authentic, and the pressure to be “me” (as opposed to one of a “tribe’). This means a couple of things for brands: it means that people are no longer defined by broad groupings of religion or nationality, for example, but rather by micro-definitions, such as what they eat. It also means that they expect more from brands; they want to be acknowledged and followed back from brands on social media, and they like to be rated by brands (such as Uber does).

The “next big thing” (or things) in technology will not be about a development in technology. Those ideas that work are those that start with basic human need and wants, and use technology to benefit lives, and make them cheaper, easier and/or quicker. Consumers don’t know what they want until they are told, but we are able to see what is happening elsewhere and use that technology to innovate.

Facebook is planning on taking over the world. Seriously. And those who think it is ‘just’ a social-media platform are foolish. There are massive plans to be in every part of our lives, based upon being immediate (becoming a messaging app that is part of every conversation — even one-on-ones with retailers and brands); expressive (expect to see much more emojis in the future; it understands how our brains process images thousands of time faster than words); and immersive (along with introducing 360 video, live streaming and virtual reality, its drones plan to bring wifi to, literally, the whole world). Facebook’s advice to brands for the future? Reach people where they are (on mobile and through apps); embrace messaging platforms as a new way for brands to communicate in a one-on-one formats; experiment with expressive storytelling formats (such as Boomerang): and begin to use more immersive formats (such as 360 videos).

4. A few other interesting things and resources I found useful:

  • The Browser (and the Daily Browser emailer): some of the best writing on the internet handpicked and delivered each day in one place.
  • The Future Foundation: global consumer trends, with a free newsletter sharing global trends and insights.
  • TrendWatching: another monthly free newsletter collating global consumer trends.
  • The Staffing and Entertainment Collective: staffing for events and activations in multiple global locations.
  • Interesting read: “Negotiating to win” written by Gary Noesner, the former head of the FBI Hostage Negotiation Unit.

Overall, there were two things that kept on coming through, over and over again.

The first was to listen: listen to clients, make decisions in a calm environment, and create an atmosphere in which input is encouraged.
Positivity: talk positively; treat people positively; and make stuff happen in a positive way.
~~~

PS It’s not just in South Africa that politics are giving business leaders the heebie-jeebies. The world over, there is a demand for a new kind of doing and a new kind of thinking. The danger is that this seems to be leading to the thinking of the past. A frustration with the status quo is resulting in revolt and a general rejection of rationality, and of emotion rejecting facts. Coming from SA, it’s all very easy to get embroiled in the chaos of our own politics — but it’s simultaneously comforting and horrifying to be reminded that agencies and businesses everywhere over are looking with trepidation at how the rise of populist politics will affect them, too. How this rolls out will be interesting, and probably unsettling — even in advance of the Brexit referendum result, agencies at the conference were reporting of deals, network acquisitions and mergers, and client projects being put on hold or cancelled because of uncertainty of what will happen next politically and economically.

A little chat about media bartering

This article first appeared on Marklives.

A big part of PR centres on media relations, and working in partnership with journalists to develop and secure media content on a client’s behalf. The trick is knowing what makes good media content, and providing media and bloggers with information that is compelling, interesting and valuable. We all know cases of PRs spamming media with branded nonsense, and everyone loves to jump on board to ‘name and shame’ some inexperienced PR intern who did a rubbish cut-and-paste job on their pitch to media. But what about when it is the journalists who go rogue?

In recent times I’ve been party to a couple of cases of questionable, behaviour from media contacts we have been working with — not keeping to their side of a deal, plagiarism and pure non-delivery.

There seems to be a common belief that the PRs are the ‘baddies’, hounding poor journalists and drowning them irrelevant crap. And, fair enough, this is often true. But both media and PRs need to have a mutual respect and understanding for this symbiotic relationship — essentially a business agreement — to work.

A PR’s very job exists around the concept of taking their clients’ (often dull and overly branded) information and repurposing so that it is meaningful and newsworthy. It is our responsibility to understand that sending out a press release, about how wonderful a brand thinks it is, is not enough. Hounding people to cover rubbish ‘news’ is not on. And being too lazy to get a journalist’s name right or understand what they write about is just downright rude.

But, likewise, the media has a responsibility to play fair. Below are some real recent examples where I feel that our media friends have not been playing according to the rules of the game:

1. Keep to your side of the deal

The simple truth is both parties have to give in order for both parties to gain. If a brand or a PR consultant has developed a programme or worked up a story, which the media outlet has agreed to cover, it is only fair to deliver upon that promise.

We recently ran a week-long press trip where we took some media guests on a (no exaggeration) money-can’t-buy experience. The trip included staying in places that the public have no access to, a helicopter flip over the Kruger Park, and so on. An expensive exercise for a non-profit initiative that is raising funds to support anti-rhino poaching efforts.

Beforehand we made all media guests aware of the itinerary, agreed in advance that this was of interest to their readers and that they would run a substantial amount of media coverage in return to publicise how the public may get involved and support. After enjoying the trip and all it had to offer, one media guest and their editor have gone, literally, AWOL. No media coverage, nada, and avoiding responding to all emails and follow up communications.

If the content wasn’t of interest or relevant to the readers, shouldn’t the trip have been turned down in advance? And if something came along afterwards that meant they couldn’t run the story (we know that nothing can ever be guaranteed), couldn’t they have given us the heads up and chatted to us about it?

(Side note: fair enough if the experience is rubbish — we understand totally if a journalist comes to an event or experience and has a bad experience, and decides not to write about it.)

2. Don’t plagiarise

At the time of writing, we‘ve had not one, but two, examples where media outlets have copied our press release or content verbatim, without a brand reference or credit.

One example resulted in a full-page feature in a regional newspaper — literally word for word, including extensive details and information that the brand had pulled together comparing prices and stats for travel. Not a peep about the brand’s blog where they had lifted all the content from.

3. Understanding the meaning of a RSVP

We get it. Media types get overwhelmed by millions of invites every day to all sorts of fabulous and glittering occasions. It’s easiest just to confirm attendance to all and then decide on the day which looks the most exciting.

But have a think about what goes behind the invite. If it’s a brand event, the brand probably has spent a big chunk of its budget upon making it as nice as they possibly can. It has spent money upon catering for everyone who said they could come. Last-minute cancellations mean that, not only has the host spent money upon catering for the no-shows, it’s probably too late to fill the space with anyone else.

It happens incredibly often — we’ve even had last-minute cancellations on non-refundable airfare.

Am I being unreasonable? What are your thoughts? And, yes, I know we PRs can be just as unbearable. Next month’s column is about rubbish things we do to irritate journalists. You’re welcome to add your stories. Hit me up on Twitter at @EmmainSA.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

Innovation in PR - so what's the deal?

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Last month I wrote about how everyone in the wider advertising and communications industry is innovating — except, it seems, us PR people. I felt there was just too much cookie-cutter, dullsville farming out of crappy media releases for many of us to be considered credible players in the communications industry. Quite rightly, I was then asked: what is the answer? How should we be innovating?

I think the answer will be different for each agency or consultant, depending upon their experience and where their passions lie. But looking at what is happening with bigger agencies overseas, and from what I can see happening here, there are some interesting territories that we, as modern agencies, could (or should) be considering doing to survive the long term.

Diversification in offering (and hiring of talent)

Most PR people are pretty much jack-of-all-trades. We’re copywriters, strategists, media-relations gurus, industry schmoozers and general dog’s bodies all in one. It means, though, we can’t offer much except that. And a decade ago it was OK to send out a bunch of press release and let other people do all the work.

But it’s not good enough now — in a time when everyone is consuming information across a million different platforms in a million different formats. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be taking on briefs to develop videos, emailers, design and visual identify projects and other collateral. And, instead of outsourcing it, we should be looking to hire that talent and build those skills into our offering. Why should that go to the ad people?

Creating specialised business units

So many PR agencies, especially in this country, lump all kinds of PR together. If we’re lucky, there may be some kind of focus or specialisation in corporate vs consumer-facing work, or perhaps a couple of social media managers making up a “digital” team. But, again, I think we’re missing a trick by just focusing upon using our skills in traditional old media relations.

The exciting agencies overseas have taken their skills and developed business units or specialised offerings that focus in on a tight understanding of a niche area. Some have sponsorship arms that focus upon clever management of brand assets and faces of brands; others have research teams that develop clever insights that media campaigns may be built around. Still others have rolled out events teams that do more than simply manage activations that hand out product samples — they are teams that understand that value of news creation, and so their events and stunts are clever enough to make headlines.

Freuds — the UK-based agency made famous initially for its celebrity connections — has become serious players through developing a number of specialised offerings. Alongside talent management, it now offers an industry-leading insights division, as well as being lead agencies in brand and strategy development.

Exposure PR meanwhile, in London, Tokyo and New York, started life as a fashion agency sending out samples and managing fashion shows. If you look at its showreel at the (shit-hot) work it does now — across all categories — there isn’t a PR poppie with a clipboard in sight.

Another London based ‘previously PR-only’ agency, Lewis, now places as much emphasis on its other offerings — including content, research, advertising and marketing — as traditional PR, and is a strong proponent for saying ‘goodbye to the single-practice agency’.

Imagine how much more interesting we could be instead of just drafting those dull old “thought leader” pieces?

Development of new revenue streams

A smart entrepreneur once told me that the secret to success (and millions in the bank, one assumes) was not in creating many businesses, but rather in creating one which had several income streams.

Again, the ad and digital people have worked this out: the big ad agencies have incorporated income-producing business units (such as media strategy and buying teams) into their offerings, while the digital folks are cleverly using their talents to create passive income streams through apps and digital innovation.

And what have we PR people been doing meanwhile? Not much except blithering about whether AVE is a good measurement of success (pro tip: it’s not) and patting ourselves on the back because we learnt how to do a Facebook promoted post.

Personally, I’ve been thinking about some ways in which to develop new income streams which work alongside our PR business (which I’m obviously not going to share in this forum yet — at least until they have been wildly successful and I’m reclining in my private island in the Bahamas). But here are some thought starters-I’ll chuck in for free. Why aren’t PR people being publishers? Could we commercialise a model based around global-asset management for brands — managing the creation, development, licensing and issuing of collateral to news outlets on their behalf? Or what about developing a shit-hot media monitoring, contacts and measurement tool that actually works? The possibilities are endless…

PR agency of the future

Much has been spoken about the “ad agencies of the future”, but not that much about what the PR agency of the future will be. It won’t be much different to that we are seeing now, unless we, as an industry, get out of our little boxes and start to take more risks.

We need to be trying new ways of doing things (even if we fail a couple of times along the way) and we need to become proper consultants who counsel at leadership level, instead of being purely implementers. For me, this means that PR agencies need to radically change from being simply “media-relations specialists” to start looking closely at how they can build their offering to deliver clever insights, creative execution, and innovative offerings and products.

Only then will we still be relevant enough to see in the next couple of decades.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.

Media Update interview - PR without limits

The Friday Street Club

This interview first appeared in Media Update. 

Two years ago, communications expert Emma King realised she didn’t want to play it safe anymore. By then, she had been working in PR for 15 years. First, it was in London for a number of major brands. Following that, it was in corporate communications and for an ad agency in South Africa. She was comfortable. But she knew that PR could be done differently. Or even done better. 

“I’ve worked with big integrated agencies and especially the ones that have been around a long time,” says King. These are the agencies that are built around a business model that was created 20 years ago and are made up of huge teams of people, taking six months to do a TV ad. It worked then when there were big campaigns. However, King was finding that more clients were looking for something that was both quicker and more nimble. 

And so, in 2015, King decided to give these clients what they needed, which led to the formation of The Friday Street Club. 

Defined as a creative communications company with roots in PR, digital, and social, the boutique agency, through King, is striving to find new ways of communicating. “A lot of other PR’s are stuck in their old school way of working, which is very much about sending out a press release or maybe doing an event,” says King. But this isn’t the future of PR. 

Instead, the future lies in understanding that PR can be, and achieve, more. “It’s understanding that you can create a reputation or build a relationship with someone – which is what PR is – through a number of things,” says King. In fact, everything is an opportunity. It’s from the moment you walk into a store and what your logo looks like, to your website and how well it functions. It could even be an event or through something that you read in the news. 

King’s point is that there really shouldn’t be any limits when it comes to PR. At least there doesn’t have to be. Some clients may want standard service, a press release or two a month, says King, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, it means that as a PR agency, you can become comfortable. 

“But what if PR could be more than that?” asks King. “Why can’t it be a pop-up event? Why not take on branding and work out brand communication? Why don’t you come up with an idea which other agencies – be that digital or advertising – usually come up with?” 

These aren’t absurd questions to ask. Or even to consider. King believes that PR agencies are just as capable as advertising agencies are of being the lead agency. “If done right, I don’t see why a PR agency can’t be a lead agency,” agrees King. It’s not happening yet – a few things will need to change before it does – but it’s possible. After all, PR agencies have an understanding of strategy and communications, and, more often than not, of what customers want. 

In short, they are in prime position. 

To do this successfully though, PR’s to need to have an understanding of a variety of disciplines. “Even if you aren’t necessarily a designer or a web developer, you must understand enough of it to talk about it confidently,” explains King. And this is where she believes The Friday Street Club can play a pivotal role; “Fortunately, my background in corporate comms and working in an ad agency have allowed me to be able to talk on a functional level about a number of things.” 

This means King is happy enough to talk about websites and coding as well as about any design or strategic process should the need arise. It doesn’t mean, however, that The Friday Street Club will be the pioneers. King’s happy for others to do that and to collaborate with them. However, she does aim to run an agency that is not afraid of challenging any PR boundaries. Or of searching for better ways to communicate. 

Why isn't PR innovating?

This article first appeared in Marklives. 

Recently, I happened to sit in on some masters lectures at the UCT GSB for a course built around the concept of innovation. Filled with a colourful selection of young and eager minds coming from a range of backgrounds, the students were lapping up how innovation — in all of its forms — may be used for problem-solving, keeping relevant and driving entrepreneurship. It struck me: why isn’t the PR industry in South Africa innovating more?

I so often see PR businesses doing the same old work and rolling out the same old schpiel that they have been doing for eons. Press release after dull press release is farmed out to poor journalists, and coverage reports praising the merits of AVE and tenuous claims of ROI are faithfully pulled together, month after month. It’s been the same since I entered the industry — which was millions of years ago — we were not far off communicating in cave paintings and smoke signals back then.

But, looking around, I see the other disciplines innovating like crazy. There’s not an ad agency which hasn’t completely relooked at its business and reskilled its teams to be able to provide a shit-hot digital offering. Never mind the digital peeps, who wouldn’t have even had a job or a business five-to-ten years ago, but who are now gobbling up larger and larger chunks of the budgets.

And what has the PR set been doing meanwhile? Not much.

Sending out the same-old spammy press releases and drafting dull old “thought-leader pieces”. And, if we were really brave, thinking we ‘got digital’ by inviting some ‘influencers’ to an event or posting some content on Facebook.

I think we missed the boat.

When “social media” starting taking off about eight years ago or so, a wise old PR guy I knew in London said he thought it was “our time”. We, as PR people, could have jumped up and taken the lead in managing and driving the new ways of communicating, self-publishing and using new platforms. And why not?

We knew how to create content that was interesting enough for people to pick up and run with themselves (vs salesy ad-speak). We knew how to build relationships with people who had big circles of influence. We knew how to move fast with strategic communications, instead of working on copy that needed to go through a million creative reviews and client reverts.

We could have led the charge, innovated, and owned the new way of communicating that was springing up and becoming powerful then.

But we didn’t.

While we were snoozing, the others ran with it. The ad agencies and the digital people are the ones who are producing content and managing communities. They are often the lead agencies on social media and digital work. But we just keep on farming out the same old stuff — while the media landscape we work with gets smaller and smaller, and less and less influential.

So what’s the answer?

If we look to innovation models that are being taught to entrepreneurs and business thinker, there’s something we could learn.

We need to radically look at and change the way we are operating, and where our industry is going. We need to learn new skills and start to train and take on board talent who allow us to produce new kinds of work — designers, video content producers, and developers — why should they just work for ad agencies? And we need to look at what we do, what we offer and how we are working with clients critically, and then begin to work with new business models that are more sustainable long-term than the ones we are currently working with.

Change is scary, but change is good. If we don’t embrace it and learn to radically change the way we do business, we’re soon going to be as obsolete as a VHS video tape.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.