Archive for October, 2012

Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle

Yesterday I took part in the Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle debate at the brilliant Battle of Ideas at the Barbican. Roy Greenslade and I, loosely defending the right to celebrity privacy, took on Jo Phillips and Patrick Hayes, arguing the case for unrestricted press freedom. I say loosely because what emerged through the very wide ranging discussion was an understanding across the board of the complex nuances of the argument. Phone hacking, naked royals and plebgate were all deftly handled by the able panel, and the ghost of Jimmy Savile was predictably present at the table. I won’t attempt to encapsulate the entire argument- the Battle of Ideas will be posting the full debate on their youtube channel in due course- but a few points are worth drawing out.

Jo Phillips illustrated the tabloid obsession with celebrity when she spoke about her experiences working on the media strategy for Live8 in 2005, and the challenges of striking the balance between focussing press attention on the stars and the rather more serious messages motivating the campaign. The charities involved were concerned that too much attention was being paid to the celebrities. But of course, celebrity sells. It was the stars that gave the campaign its extraordinary reach around the world.

Celebrities are the gods of a secular age. This isn’t driven by the editors, it is driven by the readers who will buy extra issues in their thousands when a particular star appears on the cover. Although the revelations of Leveson may have caused editors to think twice about publishing stories such as the recent Kate Middleton pictures, they seem to have had almost no discernible impact on the reading habits of the Great British public themselves. It was ever thus- I told the story of one of the old ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 19th Century that published an illustration of ‘life on the moon’, selling 20,000 copies. When the image was inevitably outed as a fake, the title in question was able to print another 40,000 copies due to popular demand. Truth, and ethics, have rarely been the determining factor in our buying choices when it comes to newspapers.

But do we really believe that fame and privacy are incompatible? Have our fabulously wealthy, pampered celebrities entered into a Faustian pact? There are, of course, those celebrities that pursue fame at any cost. It is harder to have sympathy with those that happily profit from the public airing of their dirty laundry: the recent playing out of the Alex Reid/ Chantelle Houghton break up springs to mind. But others chose to manage their fame in a more private, dignified way- as a sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted, side effect of a career in the public eye. Leveson has revealed the depths to which certain tabloid journalists have sunk in pursuit of sensation. Even those that believe in the unqualified good of a free press must be troubled by Sienna Miller’s account of being pursued down a dark alley by a group of camera wielding men, or the treatment of Charlotte Church’s mother by News of the World after her attempted suicide. This is not simply publishing stories that the individuals concerned might prefer to keep under wraps. In numerous incidents what is being described is concerted campaigns of intimidation and bullying.

Patrick Hayes highlighted the emphasis placed on intrusion into celebrity lives when, in his view, this is a phenomenon common to all of us in the modern world, citing the increasing infringement on private life by the state. Perhaps tabloid intrusion into the private lives of public figures has set a precedent for the way in which we all live now. These are two sides of the same coin: if we are concerned about one, we have to be concerned about the other. Hence the imposition on our privacy by the state is hardly a compelling argument for allowing tabloids to disclose so much of celebrities’ lives to us- unless the former is viewed as an unqualified good.

Roy Greenslade offered the concluding comments, arguing that, as a national newspaper editor, there were occasions when he was faced with compelling reasons to step outside a normal ethical framework. He believes that when a story is genuinely in the national interest, it is justified for a newspaper to do whatever is necessary to uncover it- even if that means breaking the law. But the end must justify the means. And when tawdry but ultimately inconsequential stories about Max Mosley’s sex life traumatise his family to the extent that his son commits suicide, it is rather difficult to argue that anyone is served by the means.

Battle of Ideas: This Weekend

This weekend I’m taking part in the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican- a fantastic event that gets 350 illustrious speakers from around the globe and all walks of life together to ‘shape the future through debate’. There’s a highly pertinent strand of the programme focussing on Battle for the Media, that will be attempting to wrangle the challenges of living in a post Leveson world. I’ll be on the panel Taming Tabloid Tittle-Tattle at 5pm on Sunday, going head-to-head with Roy Greenslade of the Evening Standard, journo and commentator Patrick Hayes, journo and former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown Jo Phillips, and broadcast and print journalist Nathalie Rothschild.

With sessions over the weekend including Social Media: Good or Bad?, Capitalism: Kill or Cure?, Who Needs Art Anyway? and the ominous sounding Media-Bashing Live, it’s doubtless going to be a weekend to get the cogs whirling and pulses raising. Do come on down if you can.

Brands like Red Bull like Felix

So #Felix is no longer just a brand of cat food or a defunct cartoon character, but embodies a new marque of heroism and maverick adventure.  A stuntman extraordinaire, who last night earned much sort after one word equity.

Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian, former military parachutist,  skydived into the record books. Jumping from 23 miles above the earth, Felix reached a mind numbing maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour (1,342 kilometres per hour)- amounting to Mach 1.24, faster than the speed of sound.

In the midst of all the furore surrounding our new superstar, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the brand hero who made it all possible – Red Bull.

Over the past 10 years Red Bull has done its level best to own and invest its central ethos into speed, adventure and heroics . From the Flugtag to Felix,  Red Bull has taken the reins, moving beyond usual corporate sponsorship and creating extraordinary events tailor-made to communicate its values,  in an uncompromising pursuit of brand nirvana.

Back in a land time has forgotten I developed a strategic roll out for a net channel, Network of The World: a challenging brand with a passion to be the first footing web entrepreneurs of the new age of information culture. NOW were looking for a big  idea to kick start the brand across the globe. I found a team of adventurers with a big event idea, and they introduced me to Joe Kittinger.

Until yesterday Mr Kittinger was the parachute record holder. His 1960 record was broken by Felix, who Kittinger coached and mentored throughout the development of the jump. Kittinger was the only person allowed to communicate with Mr Baumgartner while he was inside the capsule which carried him into space.

Kittinger was a scarily impressive action man; a real life super hero whose bravery allowed the development of suits used by the Space crews who ultimately stepped foot on the moon. His primitive jumps 50 years ago did not benefit from the technology which aided Felix in the 21st century. His adventure had all the qualities of great stories that capture imaginations around the world. It was dangerous, it was visually captivating, it was a tale of one man triumphing against the odds, and he was ready to work with us to make it happen again.

We spent months working on a means to bring the event to fruition, but alas NOW did not have the resources to enable a edge of space jump back in 1999. Their loss was Red Bull’s gain, and so naturally I have been watching Red Bull’s methodology of delivering the hype for Felix’s jump keenly.

The brand has paid meticulous attention to detail, drilling down to the heroics and the romance of the story, creating a captivating narrative that will benefit them for years to come. They are one of very few brands with the guts and disruptive forethought to own this type of event, and a number of lessons might be learnt from them.

Many, many brands search for global ubiquity. Many are on the constant look out for big ideas, throwing massive budgets behind half pregnant creatives framed by global advertising support. Few ignite the imagination and match a brand ethos. All too often time is wasted on ill considered, flash-in-the-pan stunts that fail to ignite a relationship with the brand. Few invest in the brain power and few have the culture of patience to work through an idea. In a strict risk averse culture, it is almost impossible to nurture Maverick thought, or to embrace the odd personalities with the best ideas.

Yesterday Felix and Red Bull raised the bar. The challenge is clear: just as Baumgartner took Kittinger’s mantel, the global brand that will claim Red Bull’s throne will be the one that is able to contemplate the true definition of the little word with frightening, but powerful, career implications – risk.

Prince Harry Delivers

Back in August Mark predicted Prince Harry’s overexposure in Vegas would result in a significant tourism boom for Sin City, writing in his blog:

‘(Prince Harry’s) party machine  focused exceptional  attention on Las Vegas this week. It’s now enjoying  astonishing and unprecedented Royal endorsement, the kind of patronage money can’t buy… Without spending a cent, the casino owners will cash in on a massive jackpot; a payout of undreamt fortunes.’

This morning the papers report that the naked pictures of the Prince have resulted in a $23 million boost to the city. Proof- if ever it were needed- that sometimes all good PR requires is a little bit of cheek.

Jimmy Saville and the Fleet Street Gravediggers

Savillegate rages on today, with Mike Smith’s impassioned and lengthy
rebuttal of claims of institutional sexism at the Beeb made over the
weekend during an hour long appearance on Richard Bacon’s Radio 1 show.
With accusations of child-abuse against the TV presenter mounting day by
day, it is becoming apparent that the true character of Saville is
woefully far removed from the national icon he was considered during his
As Seth Godin says: ‘Now that information is ubiquitous, theobligation
changes. It’s no longer okay to not know.’
As someone who has spent his career as a custodian of reputations (though
not, thank goodness, of Saville’s- it’s unlikely I’d be sitting down
writing this if I were), I’m fascinated by lurid revelations and
posthumous attacks. Though the staggering extent of Saville’s crimes
cannot be ignored, the case raises wider questions about stories of a
similar nature, and why they hold such fascination for journalists.
Are these corrections of long-held injustice, or are they salubrious paper
The answer is- it depends. I’d divide the post-hoc tabloid revelation into
two key types:
Type 1 consists of pointless (but paper selling) revelations which benefit
nobody. Usually, the accused is dead AND the circumstance in which they
operated is now long-corrected. So, for example, when it emerged in 2007
that Arthur Miller had a secret son who suffered from Down’s syndrome
locked away in an institution, the way in which it was splashed all over
the papers was arguably in poor taste, in spite of the moral outrage it
naturally evoked. Miller was long dead, the son had long since been
reunited with Miller’s non-disabled daughter, and people with Down’s are
now treated with considerably more understanding. Why dredge it up at all?
Type 2 can be hard to distinguish, but it consists of revelations which,
whilst sometimes over-enthusiastic and morbid, can be justified in that
they will contribute to the overturning of injustice which continues. In
these cases, the accused can be dead or alive, so long as the context of
their misdemeanours still exists. While lurid, the posthumous airing of
Amy Winehouse’s dirty laundry was useful in so far as it de-romanticised
alcohol and drug abuse for a generation in which such abuse has reached
epidemic proportions.
Jimmy Saville’s victims must have the space to air their grievances. But
beyond that, the true relevance of this story lies in the extent to which
it speaks of the culture in the television industry today. Ask the interns and runners of the BBC, ITV et al what goes on in those dressing rooms now. If the answer is less
than pleasant, then perhaps a bit of collateral luvvie damage is necessary to
expose the corrupt power systems that comfortable institutions so often

Why CEOs must get PRs on board

Danny Rogers, the editor of PR Week, has, in a recent Independent article, highlighted a curious phenomenon blighting the boards of the majority of FTSE 100 firms. According to a recent survey, 54% of them still do not have a communications expert at executive board level.
Considering that in the modern climate, most major decisions business leaders make will ultimately become public knowledge, thanks to the inherent transparency and traceability of digital communication, this statistic seems like madness. But in my experience CEO are bewildered by the PR process. We in the PR industry have done a poor job of defining and promoting what we do.
The term “PR” has become synonymous with “press releases” (easy enough to understand why), “buzz,” “publicity,” and “spin.” What good PR actually entails is a lot more: it underpins every conversation that is happening around a brand, every aspect of how it is perceived, and it should, therefore, sit at the centre of the brand communication process. But the talent pool is thin and many global networks are struggling to define the imperative. Instead many companies are lassoing their brands and limiting their horizons. Fear and process are embraced both overtly and on a subliminal level, because doing things the way they’ve always been done is easier than recognising the need for change and implementing it.
I’ve a  more spiritual point of view on the issue.  PR thinking comes in two types: processed and intuitive. Of course the former is necessary at the base level, but problems arise when it dominates- and defines- what you do. The best practitioners know when to make the leap from the daily grind to a moment of wild inspiration.
I’ve  always tried to place myself in the latter camp. Borkowski’s culture has remained much unchanged in 25 years, and our PR has always been led by powerful, truthful stories, drawn organically from a brand and fed to media who genuinely want them.
Consider this:  the PR industry, rather than talking about what it attempts to  do, should talk more effectively, more provocatively and to a wider audience about what it can achieve at the heart of the brand. If it is able to decode and present challenging ideas to effect internal and external behaviour, it might achieve traction at board level.
I’m bold enough to suggest all our clients consider disrupting their current processes, and draw PR to their heart. After all this is not an age for opportunism or blind luck. Clever ideas need a strategic backbone. They can’t float aimlessly in the ether, waiting for the herd to react. We think it’s important to make considered, emotional and intellectual observations about the culture of publicity. Strategic counsel is no longer a luxury for big brands and early adopters: the marmite opinions of millions of motivated commentators mean that public opinion is more visible, faster moving and more risky than ever before, and will determine everything about a brand’s success- or otherwise.
However, we understand the challenges many organisations face in the struggle to shift internal structures to fit the demands of the age. Borkowski can help. We’re not simply the go-to publicity agency. We are personable group who offer a sympathetic helping hand, leaving the much maligned ego at the door.

IKEA: A Storm in a Flatpack

IKEA, the Swedish lifestyle and furniture goliath, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism on Tuesday after it emerged that the company airbrushed images of women from the Saudi edition of its consumer bible.

Not surprisingly this decision has created a mega PR storm in a flat pack. Will the hue and cry harm the blue and yellow consumer icon with an estimated brand value of over $11 billion? Speculation suggests the gaffe is akin to a Soviet information ministry official airbrushing Trotsky from Politburo publicity. But is this a brand wounding blow? Or just another example of brand hubris?

Ikea’s crisis management is in fair shape; it acted quickly in an attempt to extinguish the negative chatter by offering a full mea culpa. Noticeably, the vacuum is temporarily plugged, although the social media sites perpetuate the embarrassing mistake. Its on-going actions will be studied with some interest. Hopefully they’ll take greater care and not ignore the warning.

A lesson learnt, earlier in my career when representing the likes of Cirque du Soleil and the Bolshoi Ballet, both companies of world renown, is that it isn’t always easy to translate a global brand to the local idiom. The brand ethos and global marketing assets sometimes disengaged with a local audience who didn’t buy into a homogenised corporate entertainment approach. The Saudi example proves that as Ikea expands it must take greater care to elongate the IKEA clichés across cultures. Many brands are focused on this issue, tuning their offering to suit local sensibilities. But that doesn’t mean blindly adhering to a simplistic reading of a region’s values. It means cultivating a sophisticated understanding of the native terrain- with investment in deep research- in order to foster an approach to communications that genuinely chimes with the needs and desires of local people, while remaining true to the heart of the brand.

The shrinking media universe continually proves brand mishaps are consumed with glee. Perhaps IKEA needs to do some long and hard thinking about the gospel of the flat pack. “Happiness is not reaching your goal. Happiness is being on the way.” This was the Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad’s message to his co-workers. It was written in the mid-70s and yet has echoing resonance when considering the airbrush SNAFU.