Hotwire Blog

15 April, 2008

PR conspiracy theories

Reading Professor David Miller and Dr William Dinan’s story in The Independent Monday 14 April about the public relations industry I had to ask myself whether I had spent the last twenty years in a parallel universe. Miller and Dinan have written a highly emotionally charged article where they say that PR poses a real threat to journalists and news. Their main beef is PR in politics but they must have put pen to paper in a pretty sad moment and in their highly charged and negative article manage to criticise the industry wholesale.

Since Gutenberg invented the printing press humans have been given an increasing number of communications outlets. Today we are literally bombarded by opinions and news. Does it not make sense therefore that companies, governments, political parties, politicians and other groups and individuals that have things to say, issues to communicate and have interaction – reactive or proactive – with journalists and the media, have someone to help them do this? Journalists are people with natural scepticism and even with ‘us lot’ on board there is no way they will be manipulated. Miller and Dinan talk of control of the information environment. Having dealt with reporters through a long working career I just can’t see it happening.

Parallels with other industries drive home what nonsense this piece is. For instance, who does their own accounts and tax returns? Accountancy and finance is a specialist profession which requires a great degree of skill and very few people or companies would even dream of attempting to do their own tax return. We have teachers and university professors because society decided that teaching children and young people at home wasn’t as good as specialised places of learning. With the proliferation of media outlets, journalists working 24/7 and a very critical society where reporters and ‘commentators’ delight in bringing us down a peg or two, it is pretty unlikely that people and organisations with something to say would attempt to deal with the media on their own.

It may be that there are a few rotten apples in my industry but which profession doesn’t have those? Miller and Dinan come across as conspiracy theorists, digging up examples from 1919 and twisting new tools such as webcasts and the use of video as proof that the world of PR is rotten to the core.

If I come across as offended it is because I am. It annoys me immensely to read such nonsense. Even worse, in a newspaper I respect a lot. I am immensely proud of my industry. It is full of excellent people who do a fantastic job helping their clients and employers tell the world what they are all about. PR people work for charities to help raise funds to feed people living in areas struck by famine. PR people work for companies who sell products and services and who employ us all and pay tax to pay for university professors. PR people work for political parties who are keen that voters understand what they stand for. What is wrong with that?

20 July, 2007

PR 2.0 vs. Industry 0.2

It’s as simple as Watzlawick once said: “You can’t stop communicating. Even when you say nothing, that’s a statement.” Over the last few months I’ve seen the debate intensify about how organisations might benefit from Web 2.0 technologies, such as corporate blogging, podcasts and Web TV, and how PR can assist with the communications.

But I feel that many are missing the point. It should be about dialogue. However, often whenever organisations talk about Web 2.0 they talk about the tools and how to use (or even abuse) them. The focus is on the speed and extensiveness of communications. But companies need to address communications strategically rather than from a tools perspective. They need to define their communications objectives, and embrace the opportunity for dialogue that the new tools give them.

However, there are lots of examples out there to illustrate how companies still need to embrace the basic principles of PR. Recently, there was an accident at a nuclear power plant in Germany, and it took more than a week before the operator Vattenfall provided a statement. Even the regional government was quicker to comment on the issue. And even worse, Vattenfall did something we in Germany call “salami tactics”: only when forced by the government, the media and the lawyers, did they acknowledged the inevitable. It seems before we can talk about PR 2.0, the industry standard needs to move from 0.2 to at least 1.0.

18 July, 2007

Might as well face it, I'm addicted to Facebook...

“How many people have asked to be my friend today? Who’s tagged me in yet another unfortunate photo? How does my cousin always reply to a wall-post in a matter of minutes, no matter what time of day it is?”

Yes, my name’s Emma Cohen and I’m a Facebook addict.

There, I’ve said it. I’m not ashamed…well actually I am a bit…I mean how normal is it for a twenty-something (ok, pushing thirty), sociable London girl with a long-term boyfriend to wait with baited breath every time they log on to a website to see how many new friends they now have?

The answer, hilariously enough, is pretty normal actually.

If the recent stats from Facebook themselves are anything to go by, obsessing about Facebook couldn’t be more normal - apparently the site has grown 523% in the past six months with the average user spending around 143 minutes on there every month. Hmm, that’s funny, I have friends who I’m sure spend more like 143 minutes a day on there.

And it’s not just students anymore – Facebook’s original audience. Its appeal has spread to the masses, from my boyfriend’s eleven year old cousin to my best friend’s sixty year old mum! And yes, they’re both ‘my friends’.

So why is it we can’t get enough of this site? Why do we feel the need to reach out to people from our past who we either actively decided not to stay in touch with, were never really friendly with or didn’t ever even really like in the first place and instead ask them ‘to be our friends’?

It’s simple. Social networking sites like Facebook have captured the imagination of the always-on generation – people constantly looking for better and more immediate ways of communicating with others. With Facebook, you’re not just talking to one person, you’re talking to everyone you choose to call ‘your friend’. Why call everyone you know to let them know you just got engaged? Just update your status on Facebook and boom, the news is out faster than you can type JUST MARRIED. It’s all about community.

Of course the other reason we can’t stop logging on could be an inherent desire for popularity and to have as many – if not more – friend’s than anyone else. This coupled with our relentless need to know other people’s business is quite frankly basic human nature.

So am I addicted? Yes, but try to make me go to rehab, I say no, no, no…

01 June, 2007

Do you use VoiP? You geek!

It’s official – if you use Skype you’re a geek. A Forrester Research report published earlier this month titled The VoIP Customer Experience: Work In Progress concludes the major VoIP players “have to radically improve the experience” to attract mainstream users.

So far, the big players such as Skype and Google have done very well at attracting the geeks… I mean early adopters (hey, I’m one too). But they have now hit a wall and can’t penetrate beyond the five percent of the population who love to download, wear headsets and don’t mind crackly calls.

“Bit obvious” you say?

I don’t think so. Skype sold last year for $2.6 billion plus stock. Surely this astronomical valuation was for more than its ability to reach the early adopters who are using Skype purely to make free PC-to-PC calls.

And the tech-savvy market is growing isn’t it? Uptake of new technology is increasingly swift and we are all now familiar with gigabytes and Googles, video on demand and megapixel cameras.

So why are the purveyors of VoIP failing to reach the mainstream?

I can’t help but think that the technology breakthroughs that make it are those that make our lives easier, not just cheaper. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, but is so important that we are willing to make calls while tied to our computers.

One of our clients in the VoIP space, Jajah, announced this week that they have received investments from Intel and Deutsche Telekom. While the amounts involved are fairly small, the impact is potentially massive. The big players are embracing VoIP for the first time, giving it the first realistic chance of reaching a mass audience.

This is one geek who can’t wait.

Measurements in a new media world

On Thursday (31 May), we spoke at a Dow Jones Expert Series event on measurement and it raised some interesting questions about measurement in both traditional media, and increasingly new media.

It was clear from the interest of the delegates that measurement is an area where PR agencies and clients alike are seeking ways to improve and develop. PR has been for many years seen as the ‘un-measurable’ of the marketing mix. While it is changing (quite rightly), if yesterday's event showed anything, it was that there are still many PR professionals that put measurement in the 'nice to have but not essential' bracket. Unless measurement is put at the heart of a PR campaigns then how do you know it is effective? How do you adapt and learn from past activities? How do you justify PR spend?

In traditional media, there are lots of tools to help improve measurement. We already use several products with clients, as well as our own methodology, to help measure campaigns. However, measurement is a continual process and we (like many others in the marketing industry) are actively seeking ways to build more sophistication and tools into all our campaigns. Hopefully there will be more to say on this later in the year.

However, while clients are increasingly looking at investing in measurement of traditional media coverage in print, online and broadcast, the world of new media is a completely different world and many PR professionals have yet to grapple with it fully. We believe that in the new media world measurement really morphs into monitoring and our fellow speakers yesterday agreed. Indeed, how do you measure 83.7 million blogs (according to Technorati and growing at 180,000 a day)?

By monitoring the blogosphere organisations can see whether there are potential issues to manage or indeed, opportunities to predict big stories and take them out to the traditional media, as well as responding to relevant and influential blogs. In particular, monitoring can raise alarm bells before an issue hits the mainstream, or at the very worst, allows you to have messages and responses ready. Apple’s monitoring of blogs around its release of the iPod Nano is the perfect example of seeing an issue early (easily scratched screens) and responding in the appropriate manner to reduce the potential negative impact to iPod sales and Apple’s brand.

The PR industry is recognising that in the new media world we now live and work in measurement is changing. For traditional media, there are increasingly sophisticated tools to track and measure campaigns, yet in the new media world, monitoring must be brought into the fold. A combination of measurement and monitoring is required to give a full picture of the traditional and new media landscapes and for communication campaigns to be truly effective.

21 May, 2007

Calling excellent PR professionals

We have lived with a skill shortage for as long as I can remember in technology PR. This was certainly true in the late ‘90s and although there were more candidates on the market in ’01 and ’02 it has always been a struggle to hire the really great people – the people we (and our competitors) are after. Recently the market seems as tight as ever and one top recruiter told us that they have handled only 10 technology candidates in the past twelve months – while having almost thirty live vacancies in tech PR on their books.

In terms of where the real shortage lies, it's predominantly for people with four to six years experience – account managers and account directors, the people who weren’t being recruited in 2001 – 2003 when many agencies stopped recruiting all together. The pressure to compromise on quality is huge, but is something Hotwire isn’t prepared to do; unfortunately some agencies have had to go that way.

There are two bits of bright news – first, as Hotwire gets better known, we are getting a gratifying flow of direct applications. We love these. Using a recruitment agency involves a hefty fee, so we always look first at applicants who contact us direct. It shows as well that they are entrepreneurial. We have recently taken on an amazing Australian Senior Account Executive who was enterprising enough to contact us directly from Sydney and two calls and some references later we made her an offer.

The other bit of good news is the ongoing success of our graduate programme. This year we had 600 applications for positions with Hotwire, and after a stringent filtering process we made 10 offers to graduates who we think are truly phenomenal.

My guess is that we aren’t the only agency taking on loads of graduates and over the next two years the skill shortage will ease and some semblance of a normal market will return. For the moment, it’s a candidate’s market and the whole industry is fighting over a small pool of the best ones.

18 May, 2007

The global media

I recently contributed to a webinar hosted by Hotwire's US banking and finance practice agency partner, William Mills. The seminar was an introduction to the European market for US companies, and delved into all the idiosyncrasies of the main European countries from a demographic, cultural, political, social and PR perspective. Admittedly it was more the latter than the former as we only had an hour! The seminar was predominantly focussed on the wide and diverse FS sector, however it never ceases to amaze me, that while the industry preaches the growth of the global economy, how this is seldom reflected by the media make-up.

In the banking space, for example, we have only one true global title - The Banker. The space is fortunate enough to have a lot of pan-European titles and a fair smattering of smaller global titles, especially within the online environment. Yet still regional boundaries really, really matter. Isn't that odd within this new digital, online age?

How many of you, I wonder, are head of PR/marketing EMEA? A sizeable chunk if our client base is anything to go by. Now answer me this, how many pan-EMEA publications can you mention? Yup, I'm struggling as well.

OK, so obviously there isn't an enormous demand to cater for such a wide and diverse media…or is there?

This might be a niche example, but let's take a brief look at the smart card industry. The humble smart card has rapidly grown into a fairly ubiquitous platform residing, as it does, within every mobile phone handset and an increasingly healthy proportion of your debit, credit, travel and ID cards (plus a whole host of other emerging and visionary applications). If we focus on the debit and credit card for a moment we will see it becoming fairly standard across the Continent within the next two or three years. Now the Middle East is in the midst of its own EMV (the standard that underpins the debit/credit chip and PIN card) migration although it looks set to be less a Big Bang rollout and more a steady drip-drip. In Africa the smart card is seen as a vehicle to provide banking to the un-banked, bringing the possibility of paying by card rather than cash to remote and poor communities for the first time.

From my experience of doing outreach into the Middle East and Africa over the past three years they are crying out to hear about the European experience. They want to know what is going on and just because they are 'behind' does not mean they are going to slavishly follow the European migration path step-by-step. Instead they are more likely to leapfrog directly to where we are today or beyond. So why does the media not reach internationally to share the same information to such a broad audience?

Yes, we can probably discount print publications through shear distribution cost - especially to Africa - but the on-lines are also peculiarly tied to their regional localities.

Let me give you another example of why I feel this is odd. Part of the SOA dream is the erosion of silos. These silos are not only inter-departmental but also cross-border. I appreciate that the number of examples of companies with cross-border IT implementations are few but the wave of M&A activity is going to make this increasingly commonplace - after all, one of the significant parts of the business case for the Santander/Abbey merger was supposed to be the IT rationalisations. Now name me a pan-European IT title? In fact, let me go one further, name me a European IT title that will accept a non-national case study. Other than the occasional rogue example that slips past the editorial controls it isn’t easy, is it?

It's nothing more than an observation at this stage but actually I think it is time that the publishing houses woke up and accepted that the world is globalising. Some aspect of globalisation creeps into virtually every edition. The majority of vendors are global or certainly have global aspirations. China is the next big market, not just for IT vendors but business as a whole. Basically, globalisation is not just coming, it's here. That's not a bold statement, it's a statement that simply underlines the fact that the media, not just the trades, but also many of the on-lines, are falling out of step with the evolution of the global economy and I think it is time they considered this a problem.

09 May, 2007

The battle for the empty chair

Hotwire's seminar last week, The Battle for the Empty Chair, provoked a lively debate with the help of two great speakers in Gareth Jones from Marketing and Derek Owen from NEC. We were discussing the future of marketing and who will be the owner of the marketing strategy in this age of digital media. Rather than a being a land grab between marketing and communications the consensus was that these departments need to adopt a much more integrated approach to working together. Nothing new there then you might say.

Do we need to acquire and learn new skills to adapt to the growth in digital media? Yes. Do we need separate departments to focus on digital media? Probably not (worth noting at this point that there was broad scepticism of agencies who have attempted to ride the digital media wave by doing this).

In fact, while the way we deliver the message may be different via a blog or a podcast, the essence - in terms of the message - must fit within a broader and integrated marketing communications strategy. Some of you will no doubt remember how this same debate kicked off 10 years ago when everyone was asking whether we needed separate online teams to cope with the Internet.

More then anything, what I took away from the debate is that we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, we need to get a proper grip on digital so that we can respond to the changing media diets of our customers, but we need to approach these new channels in the same way we do others. Working towards an overall strategy and with clear objectives and measurement, and then choosing the tactics and media channels that will best support these.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying put the brakes on digital media. In fact, I would say that many businesses, particularly in the B2B arena, are missing a trick by not exploiting digital media more that they are. I just feel we are in danger of fetishising digital media as a new channel, at the expense of the bigger picture of understanding and influencing our customers.

Is there room for calculated experimentation? Absolutely! Without experimentation our approach to public relations and marketing won’t evolve. But just as in science where experimentation is followed by rigorous assessment, so it should in our industries. Only by doing this will learn and move forward.