Archive for November, 2012
This afternoon, Twitter has been captivated by a brand new golden balls. We don’t know who he is yet, or why he did it, but he ensured Whitehall was shut down for several hours after he scaled the statue of the first Duke of Cambridge, Prince George, stripped off and performed a number of acrobatic balances atop George’s hat.
I have long been a champion of what I like to call the Fabulous Nobodies: the ordinary people who experience a meteoric ascent to fame- or infamy- in the most unpredictable of circumstances. The rise of the Fabulous Nobodies coincides with the advent of social media. The man in the street is now able to create his own heroes, and it turns out he’s often just as interested in an errant deer chasing dog, or a naked man balancing on a statue, as the latest record-company-groomed, airbrushed pop starlet.
This reveals an important truth about narratives that captivate. We are drawn to stories that resonate with our everyday experiences; the raw materials of real life are easily recognisable to us, and that is why the memes that spread online are so often the ones that strike us as human, rather than those created by committees of marketing folk. It is the inherent, addictive shareability of these stories that assures their dissemination and leads to the creation of legendary figures for the Now Economy. The bad news is you can’t make them up. The good news is they exist in every single organisation that has human beings at its heart. All you have to do is look for them. As the internet becomes an ever more ubiquitous tool in the spreading of information, shifting the focus of communications from broadcast to interaction, those that will survive and thrive are the brands that understand the power of the real stories that drive them.
In honour of the newest, most celebrated ‘member’ of my Official Chart of Fabulous Nobodies, I thought I’d run down a few of my favourites of all time: the good, the bad and the ugly.
1) Guy Goma. Remember the ‘cabbie who was waiting for his fare’ in the BBC reception? He was hauled in front of the cameras by researchers who believed he was an IT expert. Except he wasn’t an IT expert and, once the story got out, it went wild across the web, taking the truth and creating a better story from it, to the extent that Goma, who had in fact come in for a job interview, became a cabbie whisked at random into the studio. And that invented truth is the one that sticks in people’s brains.
2) Jedward. The Irish irritants from the 2009 X Factor continue to carve a semblance of a career for themselves as far removed from music as it is possible to be when one has a record in the shops. The mere fact that they survived, week after week, in the face of booing and staged derision from the shows judges, proves how viral their success had become. Jedward are the pop equivalents of puppets on children’s television – they are there to shout and gurn and be pleasingly annoying. They will last in the nether regions of the collective consciousness for a while yet, thanks to viral, net-based love.
3) Balloon Boy. The insalubrious tale of the family who sought fame with unbecoming desperation and how they exploited the fears of the world to get attention for themselves, by pretending that their six year old son had been carried off by a helium balloon they used to track the weather. The six year old was in the attic all the time that the search and rescue teams were pumping thousands of dollars into trying to rescue him. The parents’ hoax, created out of a desperation for fame after appearing on Wife Swap and Storm Chasers, in the hope that they would get a reality TV contract out of it, ended with short jail sentences for them both.
5) Terry Jones. The pastor of a tiny Pentecostal church in Florida who decided that it would be a good idea to declare 9/11 Koran burning day. Within hours, his lunatic anti-Muslim agenda was getting oxygen from the world’s media, the White House and an enormous number of furious Muslims. Now Jones has been called by the FBI, White House officials and the world’s media. There have been protests about his actions across the Muslim world and intolerance has been amplified. And this before Jones even set match to book – something he never need do at all. The desired effect, making the world a less friendly place, had already been achieved.
6) Star Wars Kid. A chunky 15-year-old Canadian who filmed himself swinging a golf club around as if it were a lightsabre and ended up posted to YouTube by friends, to the hilarity of millions. The video became a cult hit, mimicked and jazzed up with special effects and sliced into footage from films like The Matrix. The film, in all its iterations, sped round and round the globe. The kid in question claimed to want his life back, especially after early mean comments, but then a wave of love came flooding in. Eventually his parents discussed suing the friends who posted the video, but it was too late to stop the viral nature of the video.
7) Mahir Cagri. A Turkish journalist who was looking for a wife, Cagri created a website with a friend to aid him in his search. The website went viral with astonishing rapidity thanks to the broken English he employed (his catchphrase, “I Kiss You” being the most notable example) and the incredibly cheesy photos – posing in red Speedos, playing Ping Pong – that he posted. Instead of finding a wife, he found a harsh mistress by the name of Fame, and ended up releasing a single and a book. He also got a ranking on the Forbes top 100 celebrities list and made appearances on chat show worldwide.
8) Leeroy Jenkins. A World Of Warcraft player charges into a high-level dungeon with a distinctive cry of “Leeeeeeeerooooy… Jeeenkins!”, ruining the meticulous attack plans of his group and getting them all killed. Like Star Wars Kid, the online gameplay footage went global, with jammed versions putting the nerdy battle cry into the mouths of all sorts.
9) Claire Swire. Claire went on a date with a guy and then sent him an email describing in vivid detail how much she liked giving him oral sex. The email went viral to 60 million people after he forwarded it to all his friends and Claire became one of the first big victims of the lack of privacy in the new social media world.
10) JK Wedding Entrance Dance. The wedding procession for Jill Peterson and Kevin Heinz of St Paul, Minnesota, choreographed to the song Forever by Chris Brown. Popularized on YouTube with 1.75 million views in less than five days in 2009. The video was later imitated in an episode of the American version of The Office.
11) Steven Slater. From the moment JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater swore at a passenger over the PA, grabbed a beer and descended to the tarmac at JFK airport down the emergency chute, the entire internet lead the response, whilst JetBlue’s corporate arm squashed the company’s previously golden child social networking department’s ability to respond. JetBlue were caught between a rock and a hard place. The brand was powerless, trapped in the headlights of an extreme action, one which captured the global wave and birthed another fabulous internet nobody.
12) Chesley B. Sullenberger III. The splendidly-named Sullenberger became an instant hero when he landed the Airbus he was flying in the Hudson river, just next to Manhattan, after it ran into technical difficulties in January 2009. Within hours of saving the lives of all on board, Facebook groups had sprung up praising him and the web-based cult of Sullenberger flew around the globe.
13) Sarah Palin. What election will be the same in the wake of Barack Obama’s canny use of Twitter to swell support for his 2008 campaign? More astonishing still was Sarah Palin’s rise into the upper echelons of American politics, largely driven by a huge groundswell of interest on the internet, which carried her name, either in all seriousness or in satirical sideswipes. The end result was to transmute a minor, gaffe-prone politician into a national treasure of the American political right.
14) Fenton When Max Findlay took his dog Fenton for a relaxed stroll on Richmond Common, little did he realise he was about to become one of YouTube’s biggest ever hits. With 7.5million views and counting, the enthusiasm for the video of the mayhem that unfolded when Fenton ran into a herd of deer, and his owner’s desperate cries of ‘Jesus Christ…Fenton!’, is the ultimate expression of the British love of life’s eccentric bunglers. Inevitably it has generated a host of commercial spin offs, including T-shirts, mugs, and a Where’s Wally style book where Fenton runs amok at various London landmarks.
Autumn is a time for change. Recent weeks have seen a number of significant individuals take up prominent leadership roles: not only in Washington and the China Communist Party, but also in the major powerhouses of the communications world.
What is heartening is the fact that positions at the top are increasingly being occupied by those with a PR background. Recently, Everything Everywhere announced that Stuart Jackson was leaving his post as Director of Communications to take up a new role as Director of the Chief Executive Office. The move evinced the increased weighting that is being placed on public relations at senior management level. Put simply: boards are recognising that in the Now Economy, success begins and ends with the ability of a company to engage in a genuine, deep, meaningful two way dialogue with their customers.
This week Harris Diamond has been announced as the new CEO of global ad firm McCann World Group. Diamond has a distinguished track record- in PR. Previously top cheese at Weber Sandwich, Diamond is just the latest in an increasing number of professionals with a PR background being recruited by the advertising industry. Traditionally seen as our more creative cousins, there is a growing understanding that, in the modern world, innovative communications mean much more than making a sexy looking ad and buying some space to stick it on. In order to have traction, creative content must be generated in conversation with its audience. PRs have an understanding not only of compelling stories that capture the crowd, but also the conditions that must be in place to give the narratives they generate life in the long term, serving a brand long after a particular campaign disappears from our TV screens and billboards.
Of course, the result of this is that PRs are going to have to step up to the mark. Silos must be busted; mindless drudgery expelled from the workplace. We have thus far made poor work of defining what it is we do, and we must move to rectify this. Diamond’s job title- CEO of the Constituency Management Group- is hardly likely to elucidate matters: I’ve been given sleepless nights trying to work out exactly what the poor chap’s remit entails. We must hope that his mastery of the craft of communications shines through, and that he’s not just a bean counter in a PR person’s suit.
Speaking more widely, it is up to PR folk to ensure our skill set is fully understood; we must set our terms of engagement. We are being offered the opportunity to take our place at the top table, and we must seize it before it slips through our grasp.
Before even gobbling down her first kangaroo gonad, Tory Nadine Dorries has unleashed a storm of criticism for her decision to appear in televisual Hades I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, with David Cameron yesterday backing her suspension from her duties as MP. A rash of politicos have been quick to follow suit.
But let’s not be too quick to dismiss her stunt. It’s a bold move, and I applaud her bravery. As we know from her outspoken stance on abortion in 2011, Dorries’ is not a woman afraid of the limelight. Appearing in a show like this takes guts, and it is heartening to see a politician willing to take a risk, particularly in a week that has seen political paranoia ramped up to the max in the wake of Savilegate, resulting in the retrospective inquiry into the allegations of child abuse in North Wales.
She has taken advantage of an opportunity to bring her brand to a younger generation who feel disconnected with politics. Play her hand well, and she could genuinely change the way an apathetic public think about politicians, or even prompt them to think about them at all. In the jungle, she will have a space to air her views in terms the man in the street will relate to- and with 16 million watching, it is a platform not to be sniffed at. Whether the timbre of her stance on sexual politics will resonate with ordinary people remains to be seen.
It’s a high risk move. She has perhaps underestimated the power of the edit. The ultimate winners will of course be ITV, who have once again served up a compelling cast of those blinded by fame and ambition; a collection of individuals worthy of Greek tragedy. Gifts from reality TV producers are rarely what they seem and should be handled with care.
As far as Dorries goes, the proof of the pudding will lie in the eating. Will she have the personality, wit and humanity to survive and prosper in the jungle? Or will she ultimately prove as unpalatable as a scorpion’s scrotum?
What with the recent slew of allegations around Savillegate (and the numerous other stars who’ve faced a barrage of less than savoury attention ), something has been preying on my mind- is a spotless reputation an attainable goal anymore? Eric Schmidt once said that “Now that information is ubiquitous, the obligation changes. It’s no longer okay to not know.” Is it possible to be a hero in the Now Economy?
It’s a pertinent question not just for celebs, but for CEOs. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to be able to run a high-profile career any longer without coming in for some flack. One would hope there aren’t too many CEOs involved in lascivious activities with the young or infirm (though I could probably tell you a few stories), but everyone has a skeleton or two to worry about.
It struck me, however, that the secret of attaining hero status in the Now Economy has to do with accepting this fact, and incorporating the less positive aspects of your persona into your legend. Steve Jobs, arguably the ultimate modern business hero, was allegedly something of a difficult character to be around, and stories about his less than civil treatment of employees and collaborators are rife. However, rather than working to suppress this, those in charge of Jobs’s reputation managed to incorporate his flaws into a highly individual ‘flawed genius’ reputation, which has gone on to propel him further into the realms of myth than he might otherwise have found himself.
There are others: Michael O’Leary, whose insensitivity and an outlook some might call backward have ended up propelling him into the prepared statement hall of fame, arguably even Branson, business celeb among business celebs, wisely took qualities which some would consider arrogant and turned them to his advantage. The ultimate political star of the Now Economy, Boris Johnson, has taken clumsiness and a gift for the gaffe and turned them into art forms.
Consider, then, when building your personal brand for the first time, that streamlining and suppressing no longer work, no matter how savvy you may be. Many negative traits can be forgiven and even idealised by the public if properly balanced with your work and your motivating passions- though possibly not if you’ve been sneaking into hospitals after hours. Then you might still be best place to keep schtum and pray.