‘THE FAME FORMULA or In Search Of The Sons Of Barnum’

Readability or reality – the uncomfortable lessons of the MH370 news narrative


It’s a good job wreckage has been found off the coast of Australia, because if the search for missing flight MH370 goes on much longer the world won’t actually have any journalists left. Malaysia has acted like a kind of media black hole, sucking more and more of the world’s journalists away from their home countries and into its gaping maw. Our screens fill more and more with shots of wailing families, repeated footage of bemused politicians and, well, not very much else.

This is the biggest breaking story of the year so far, and in some ways it’s easy to see why. Since the plane went missing almost two weeks ago on a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing there has been the perfect combination of lack of hard fact and availability of rumour to drive 24 hour media into a frenzy. There have been false leads, different potential villains (the first officer! A shadowy passenger! The pilot! The co-pilot!), confusion as to when the plane’s communications system were disabled (and, lest we forget, the moment we discovered “deliberate action” had been taken with them, whatever that is). Did the plane turn back? If so where did it turn to? All of the intrigue is extremely addictive, especially when coupled with the human angle. Outraged families of those on board are stranded, desperate for information, willing to vent their rage to any nearby camera.

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The Diminishing Political Personality

Last week, the British Left mourned as it bid farewell to two of its leading lights – old Labour icon Tony Benn and legendary union leader Bob Crow. Both men will be sorely missed, too, by headline writers and casual observers of political theatre. Each was a stunning PR operator who made the weather and livened up the political news agenda.

Benn had an instinctive understanding of humanity – how to stir the heart and speak to the soul of all who encountered him. In the days following his passing, stories have emerged of his warmth and compassion and the power of his oratory. Among the political classes, even his opponents have fallen over themselves to praise him. Tory MPs from Zac Goldsmith to Peter Bone speak of a good-hearted, principled man. Even David Cameron said “there was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him”. Perhaps more important, though are the stories which have emerged on comment threads from ordinary people – the man who shared an unforgettable conversation with him on a train three days after Benn lost his seat. Endless people who name Benn as an inspiration, who say he was the man who got them interested in politics.

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The Samsung Sugar Rush Selfie.

If you were a conspiracy theorist the “selfie” would be starting to look like a pretty blatant illuminati signal. Last year we had three world leaders taking one, and now Ellen DeGeneres has pulled stars of the silver screen into the world’s most retweeted tweet. What purpose do these smartphone shots serve?

One thing’s for sure – PR orthodoxy is now seriously in favour of them. Want to look cheeky and relatable? Snap a selfie. It’s not totally flawed, either. Ellen’s effort on Sunday night earned her 1.7m retweets in less than an hour – a new world record. Ever since astronaut Luca Parmitano snapped himself drifting in deep space last year, selfies have become a shorthand for a sort of ironic normality. They are a way, for those pinned up among the literal or metaphorical stars, to show the rest of us their ordinary side. “Look!” says the photo, hastily beamed out via Instagram or Twitter. “I’m as goofy as you!”

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David Blaine: A lesson in purpose and passion

It took the urban dictionary to sum up the true definition of passion. It says:

“Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialised into action to put as much heart, mind, body and soul into something as is possible.”

Quite.

Passion was the theme of last week. I spent most of mine with David Blaine. There are many adjectives that sum up David and passion is certainly one of them. This is a man who is wholly dedicated to his craft. There have been many impostors along the way, and yet Blaine does not let any of them derail his vision. Ultimately he knows others will not venture beyond his extremes.

David Blaine was only four years old when a magician on the New York subway sparked his passion. His lifetime since has been spent honing his craft. That he is an innovator is undisputed. His magic operates on an uncommonly personal level. He took an age old skill and turned it into something unique. He started on the street which meant understanding enchantment and personalisation was vital above all. He leaves everyone in his wake in awe. Above all it is impossible not to be infected by his passion, the way he talks, his knowledge and unprecedented commitment.

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Journalist bites PR. Never explain, never complain.

Last Wednesday, the cuddly, credit card provider Mastercard ran into an alleged PR fail storm when their PR agency mishandled and misjudged a bevy of journalists they were inviting to the Brit awards. Scribblers claim that, in exchange for entry to the event, they were asked by email to guarantee coverage, and were requested to keep to social media guidelines including using brand hashtags. Why the inane babble was thought important, is another discussion.

The first thing to say is that this is but a irritating itch, not a full blown brand ebola. Journalists may have ‘taken to Twitter’ to gloat over the misstep, but I can¹t see anyone getting fired over a few tantrums. House PR, who sent the offending emails, have only ‘become the story’ for a tiny circle of media old wives. The man and woman from Kettering hasn’t the faintest idea that any of this has happened. Mastercard’s logo still proudly enveloped the event like an amorphous boil.

That said, there are warning signs of deeper problems here.

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Flappy Birds – a PR Cul-du-sac ?

It’s now been a week since Flappy Birds, the infuriating iOS game, was taken down from the app store, and I’m still waiting to find out what it was a stunt for.

For those unfamiliar, the game requires users to navigate a yellow, beaked blob with an insipid expression past a series of Super Mario World-esque green pipes. Keep going until you snuff it, then either stop or have a shot at beating your score. So far, so derivative.

Flappy Birds is different because of its maddening difficulty level. A generation of gamers used to being spoonfed their points, coins or lives have been driven insane by the bird’s insistence on flying to its doom. As a result, the game’s creator, Vietnamese designer Dong Nguyen, took the game off sale, saying he could not handle the impact it was having on users.

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Jose Mourinho the meme generator and public relations master

Hats off to Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho – a true media operator. Where rivals babble incoherently about “games of two halves” or, at best, indulge in bland 1970s-style trash talk, Mourinho understands that the battles played out in the media can be just as important as those won or lost on the pitch.

After he dominated the sports pages last weekend with his assertion that Chelsea are a “little horse” in the Premiere League title race – a comment he later admitted was a “mind game” – we thought we’d put together a list of what brands can learn from the master.

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5 PR lessons from the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince

The artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince is on our fair shores at the moment, reminding me of what a roller coaster it was to work with him 15 years ago. His set on Tuesday night at the Electric Ballroom in Camden may have seen only 1,000 fans in the comparatively tiny room, but the excitement it has generated has been huge. The singer has refused to reveal details of other venues on his tour, presumably preferring to keep fans guessing via Twitter clues, as he did before the first show.

A pure showman with relentless dedication, Prince has much to teach brands about exciting the crowd time and again.

1. Know your limits
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but there’s a difference between extending your audience and overreaching it. Prince is and really always has been a cult proposition, and he knows it. A performance to 1,000 rabid fans with queues snaking round the block is preferable to an anodyne arena tour in terms of driving interest. Often, stirring your core demographic up to fever pitch works better than prompting a lukewarm response from a wider audience – though beware of becoming trapped in the ghetto.

2. Let the work do the talking
There was a time when Prince went in for stunts (remember the squiggle?). No more. Tuesday’s gig was, by all accounts, an old-school slice of hard, unadulterated funk. It was delivered straight to the fans with no interviews and no nonsense. Brands can learn from the ecstatic response: what you produce, not what you say you produce, is what matters in the Now Economy.

3. Different, but the same
Prince’s latest jaunt to London is supposedly not just another solo tour, it’s as frontman of an all female band 3RDEYEGIRL. Obviously nobody buys this; I’ve yet to see a single lead photo of the gig which actually includes the women. That said, a little confusion as to Prince’s current musical status is a clever way of bringing mystique to the artist-fan relationship, nowadays too often ruined by over-familiarity. By varying their approaches to their audiences while keeping their core narrative the same, brands can stave off boredom and maintain interest.

4. No distractions
For a hypersexualised male diva who is rumoured to be of alien origin, Prince has kept himself remarkably far from scandal. Aside from personal fallout, the impact of salacious headlines on a superstar’s career is to divert attention from their art. All at once, the person onstage is not a conduit for the music of the spheres, they’re a slightly grubby man. Few brands will have to deal with a sex scandal in their time, but they can learn from Prince’s focus; think twice before embarking on any project likely to provoke media controversy. Usually, the short term gain isn’t worth it.

5. Leave them wanting more
Prince’s arrival was calculated to leave audiences gloriously unsatisfied. A period of uncertainty was followed by a flurry of astonishing activity, as Prince not only popped up in his intimate nighttime appearance but supposedly played in the living room of the still-relatively-hip Lianne La Havas. Then, all at once, just as the headlines hit, he vanished again. Whether you’re planning to unleash a set of blistering funk classics or release your latest deodorant on the world, learning to master the controlled burst of publicity is a must for any brand manager.

Scarlett, Oxfam & Sodastream

So Scarlett Johansson has parted ways with Oxfam. The actress, who has served as an ambassador for the humanitarian group for eight years, quit yesterday over a “fundamental difference of opinion” (read: PR disaster waiting to happen). Johansson has recently signed as brand ambassador for the drinks-fizzinator (possibly not a real word) manufacturer Sodastream. It seems Oxfam’s support for marginalised Palestinians sits badly with Sodastream maintaining a factory in the occupied West Bank.

This is the PR meltdown that never happened; thanks to careful stewardship (and, one imagines, a lot of hair-pulling and arse-kissing behind the scenes), everyone has emerged positively reeking of roses. Painting the split as a “difference of opinion” was a genius move. It allowed Johansson to highlight her belief in “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”, rather than any belief in receiving lots of cash for sponsorship deals. Similarly, it provided Oxfam with a platform to highlight its views on the perceived injustices happening in that part of the world. Sodastream, meanwhile, got pictures of Johansson sucking seductively on a drinking straw on virtually every news site known to man.

All PR pixies concerned are to be applauded, for ’tis not always thus. In 2012, skincare brand Nivea dropped Rihanna as its brand ambassador because new CEO Stefan Heidenreich decided that gyrating about in lingerie on a brand-sponsored tour didn’t quite square with the beauty company’s family image. Coming at a time when Ri-Ri was constantly making headlines for partying too hard, it didn’t look great for her, but it perhaps looked worse for the brand, who temporarily appeared stuffy and churlish. A 2011 survey by Ipsos Mori found that 23% of Americans and 19% of Britons said that Tiger Woods’s well-chronicled misdemeanours made them consider boycotting products he had endorsed.

Spare a thought, too, for the poor celebrities; it’s not only brands who can find their image damaged by dodgy dealing on the other side of the partnership. The Kardashian sisters found themselves lowered in the public estimation (if such a thing were possible) after they endorsed the ‘Kardashian Kard’, a prepaid card aimed at young adults. Backed by Mastercard, the Kard’s huge fees led Former Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to declare: “Keeping up with the Kardashians is impossible using these cards.” The sisters terminated the deal in 2010.

Oxfam and Johannson’s well-judged parting of ways carries a lesson for brands operating in the Now Economy. In an age where fans can be mobilised in huge numbers and at frightening speeds, hypocrisy just won’t wash anymore, and both sides did well to separate amicably before pro-Palestine activists’ Twitter campaigning got too ugly. We at Borkowski wish Oxfam all the luck in the world when searching for a more suitable partner; we reckon Justin Bieber might have a few free spaces soon.

The public want dialectic interactions with brands

Whether it’s the Adidas Olympics, the lazy brand leveraging notions, the mobile space, even the Costa Book Prize, over the last decade we’ve become used to the venues and events living in symbiosis with the corporate giants. Many of these relationships have been mutually beneficial, allowing for the growth and survival of one party, whilst providing advertising, sales, and moral kudos for the other. Few, however managed to leverage love.

The problem comes when brands try to recreate this somewhat organic mechanism out of the other, with sponsored award ceremonies, festival hospitality media and D-list kettling areas letting off puffed-up hot air and hype.The public are wisening up to it.

Whilst we may not begrudge a brand’s advertising if it has saved a cherished venue or funded up-and-coming talent, the call for authenticity is growing ever louder in the Age of Transparency. We can even see it in our architecture, with blocks of concrete increasingly being swapped for panes of glass. As communication avenues have opened up between brands and the public, so the public’s need for real, dialectic interactions has grown.

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Borkowski