Amidst all the high-profile outrage surrounding the Sunderland manager, di Canio’s recent declaration that he is a fascist, I have found myself wondering how a multi-billion pound industry can pay so little attention to its press machine.
The rights and wrongs of his political beliefs are probably best debated in another forum, but the simple fact is that the handling of the media circus has been highly damaging or the Premiership club.
Important political allies and backers of the team have sought to distance themselves in light of the furore; David Miliband seems to be particularly concerned about the contagion (although he is already leaving to start a career in the United States), he has made a point of stepping down from the Club’s board.
It is astonishing that an industry that thrives in the public eye is so incapable of handling its own media image. While players agents and advisors manipulate self-interests. Most of their power is used to manipulate petty transfer tittle-tattle on tabloid back pages. The reality of the work debases the concept of communication.
The correct PR path in circumstances like these is to address the question, offer an explanation and put the issue to rest. Refusing to answer means the fiasco could drag on forever: the facts of the matter are left open to debate and silence is quickly filled with noxious speculation.
If di Canio is indeed a fascist, he is failing to show radical authoritarian leadership through his PR.
The world’s problems start with Cy- this week, from cyber-attacks to Cyprus. Big data is the fetish of the day, and the former story proved an ample smoke screen distraction from the thousands of lives left in the lurch by the latter.
We love a good story, and while we grow weary of yet another rag to add to the smouldering pile of recession-related, economic downturn articles, there’s nothing like a good tech conspiracy story to distract the masses from the troubles that be.
In years passed – I’m thinking particularly of the immediate post-war period here – the propaganda machine was well-oiled by a team of mechanics with a strong sense of nationhood or loyalty to the Crown.
As traditional structures of social cohesion break down – the kinds that would encourage individuals to willingly keep to a strict code of omertà – the State propaganda machine has had to adapt.
In light of technological advances, this machine has become more robust than ever. Controlling the truth the public are exposed to has become a sophisticated PR spin exercise: tight, rigorous structures of PR infantry are the gatekeepers to the State’s secrets ensuring our heads are turned firmly in the opposite direction to where the action is taking place.
There is an increasing dissatisfaction amongst the British public with traditional politics and politicians who are perceived as untrustworthy and lacking conviction. Gone are the days of revered and reviled politicians with a cult-like following. In a muddied playing field where the only political colours seem to be varying shades of brown, strong personalities are succeeding in favour of particular social mores.
In this new political era, where the differences between figureheads seem minimal at best, could we be approaching an era where personality means more than values?
Boris Johnson, who has remained a constant feature in the public eye under a plethora of different guises, has come under fire on more than one occasion for misdemeanour, yet has emerged relatively unscathed when it comes to public opinion.
The public are endeared by his bumbling Have I Got News For You comedic persona and he has an uncanny ability to rouse the crowd. Scandal after scandal, Johnson has emerged triumphant, securing his place as Mayor of London for a second consecutive term, with many a bookie taking bets that he may vie for party leadership in the future, despite denying the suggestion on numerous occasions.
However, following the Eddie Mair interview this weekend, it will be interesting to see if Johnson has been beaten at his own game. Tired and unprepared for the onslaught upon his integrity, Johnson was unable to keep up with, counter-spin, or wriggle out of, Eddie Mair’s questioning. Not since the Paxman vs. Howard interview in 1997 have we seen such squirming.
We will have to watch to see if memes develop around this to damage Johnson’s career, or whether the event will simply go further to expanding his public profile. In an interview earlier yesterday, he appeared to take the critique with good grace, stating that Mair was “perfectly within his rights to have a bash at me”. Only time will tell if the Cult of Boris will live to tell another tale.
Yesterday evening, I gave a talk at TEDxWarsaw on my particular breed of Googlephobia. Through the talk I told a cautionary tale about the silent siphoning of our most valuable assets – our behaviours – by the internet’s imperial superpowers and how this translates in our daily lives. The talk received a fantastic response, and I received a flurry of tweets afterwards directing me to various websites by people who shared my concern. I am by no means a refusenik, but without clarity and choice, the company that has cradled us through our early internet days will lose our trust.
The main parallel between Google, Facebook, their compatriots and the fight for the Americas in the sixteenth century: false exchange. The internet giants, like England, Spain and France in their hay day, are conquering billions of people. There may not be death and bloodshed in the same proportion, but there is one major casualty, which some argue is already a cold corpse: privacy.
An early adopter of all the major technological innovations of the past 25 years, technological advancement is not something I am against. But I am deeply concerned about the implications that the exchange of our personal data has for us as human beings. Nick Pickles argued the case very eloquently at Advertising Week Europe this week: people need to make informed consent of the exchange they are making. A Facebook profile can give over 400 pieces of information about an individual to marketers; information almost literally worth its weight in gold to them ten years ago.
To return to my [Brave] New World analogy, our exchange of information for services is not unlike the first European settlers giving Native Americans glass beads in exchange for gold. Dazzled by the unusual form, they handed over their precious materials willingly, thinking it a reasonable exchange, unaware of how such exchanges would help fund the demise of their people. I’m not saying that we will meet our ends as a result of these exchanges, but it could certainly limit our personal liberty and lead to behavioural homogeny. The knowledge that we are constantly being monitored discourages, if not actively limits, dissent.
The powerful should be surveyed, made transparent, accountable. The meek, by contrast should be given the privilege of privacy – or at least the knowledge and the option to choose whether they consent to the exchange or not. The power balance is inverted, however, and as ever, the powerful are able to hide behind protocol and the law, whereas Joe Bloggs is monitored to the point that Google and Facebook know the minutiae of his life, from what soap he uses to his sexual tastes. If we are going to give over this information, much of it sensitive, we should be aware of exactly what we are giving over, have the option to view what is stored, and should certainly be given the option to opt in or out. The MD of Google UK/IE at Advertising Week Europe this week was challenged about why Google do not pay people for the information that they harvest from them. He responded that Google provide a host of wonderful services for free. Surely there should be a subscription model then by which we can opt out of tracking?
Software may be eating everything. But one thing that I’ve seen at Advertising Week Europe today is that we’re learning to adapt to these changes with zeal. This morning, Trevor Beattie announced the death of the thirty second advert, advocating a culture of five second segments instead.
In the midst of the sea of white noise we are bombarded with on a daily basis, we have learned to select what is vital – or at least pleasurable – in as few as two seconds.
Beattie couldn’t have asked for a better example when wishing to show how our perception of time has changed: when Beattie made his cue for silence, a slightly zealous engineer let the film start rolling instead. To one engineer, thirty seconds was an eternity before it had even begun.
The Now! Economy celebrates breadth and speed over depth and endurance, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of advertising. Ad Land needs to adapt, and visionaries like Beattie are leading the way with their rallying cries.
The world of traditional broadcast media is changing, and we must embrace the chaos left in the wake of change and use it as an opportunity to innovate and introduce creative evolutionary solutions.
What is clear is that a more human approach to the medium is needed. Jargon turns craft into content and people into consumers, forgetting the instincts that drive us as human beings and causing cynicism and disengagement on both sides.
At the WIRED talk this morning, Paul Adams, Head of Brand Design at Facebook, made the observation that the best relationships are developed through a series of small, recurring interactions between people rather than grand gestures. We are moving away from the 15 seconds of fame model back towards a modern incarnation of the ‘quality over quantity’ ideal – or at least that’s what will be required of brands who wish to distinguish themselves from the deluge of faceless information out there.
Data is dead: targeted information can only engage people if it is somehow made useful. The value of most data is ephemeral at best, and will never reveal peoples’ intentions. Understanding and relationships can only be built by asking the right questions. The much-maligned crowd knows this, and has reacted with instinctive aversion to the condescension of the media machine.
Being liked is all too easy these days. Brands who want to make an impact will have to focus on wanting to be loved, requiring sincerity, clarity and genuine engagement.
If there’s one thing Advertising Week Europe has, it’s engagement with its crowd: the queues have trailed right down Piccadilly and onto Regent Street and the demand for events has been spectacular. I have a great feeling about the rest of the week.
The zeitgeist of the modern age is firmly rooted in social networks and crowdsourcing. This has manifested itself in several instances within the music industry in recent years with artists like Radiohead and Amanda Palmer turning to their fan bases for direct support. This trend has crystalised today with the publication of a recent study by Nielsen revealing the desire amongst consumers for a different kind of engagement with artists.
According to Nielsen, bespoke, alternative and rare products such as handwritten lyrics and limited edition t-shirts could provide a real source of untapped revenue at a time when the music industry needs it most.
Nielson posits that a fans who might usually spend $15 on an album would spend much more if provided with the opportunity to buy premium content, particularly content that gives the feeling of a connection to the artist.
Over 53% of the most active music buyers said that they would be willing to pay for exclusive content from their favourite band, followed by 22% of the more ambivalent music consumers. Nielson calculates that this revenue could be worth between $564m for individuals buying exclusive content from one band, toting up to as much as $2.6bn incremental revenue if they were to buy from other bands as well.
The message is clear: bands need to reach out to the crowd and make sure that they inspire feelings of love amongst their fanbase. The verb ‘to like’ has suffered from hyperinflation in the Now! Economy, and if brands want to secure their futures, they better start investing in love instead: it may well prove the only lucrative currency.
And so it was the week where the nation was transfixed by a moonwalking Shetland pony. Racking up nearly four million youtube views, and prompting the Daily Mail to ask ‘Is this the funniest ad of the year?’, Three’s Fleetwood Mac loving, Tina Turner wig wearing equine has taken the blogosphere by storm.
My inclination was to be cynical – I’ve seen it all before. In the days before circuses became more ethically minded, I encountered tap-dancing chickens, rollerskating bears, and a twinkle toed horse that would have left Three’s Shetland eating dust. Animals have always had a huge power to captivate the public imagination. It’s something Barnum understood well. His African elephant Jumbo was a walking, trumpeting advert for his show, in spite of the fact he never actually appeared in the ring himself. Even his acquisition from London Zoo attracted huge attention. When Barnum’s intentions to buy the elephant became known, 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria protest. No doubt the master showman would have been delighted with the publicity.
Some of my most successful stunts have rested on the irrational predilection of editors for animals behaving in human like fashion. Setting up canine weddings at Harrods, complete with cakes, veils, and horse drawn carriages, was a particularly enjoyable one. And who will ever forget the Tamworth Two: the plucky pigs that made their escape from the abattoir and went on a cross country dash, ultimately ending their days in an animal sanctuary rather than a bacon sarnie, thanks to our campaign in The Daily Mail?
But perhaps there’s more to the success of this ad that meets the eye.
What hasn’t been widely noted by commentators (except by the wags at The Poke, who made the spoof above) is two significant media events shaping the public imagination at the moment: the huge Fleetwood Mac comeback tour, and of course, the horsemeat scandal. The ad has served as pleasing reminder that ponies are cuddly and cute, accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack of sunny folk-rock – the perfect antidote to unsavoury speculation about the stuff on our dinner plate.
Would the ad have had the same resonance if it hadn’t arrived on the back of these popular memes? There’s no way of knowing. But viewed in this light, it certainly makes the campaign looks smarter, savvier, and more contemporary, whether the brains at the creative agency behind it, Weiden+Kennedy, were intentionally playing on them or not.
It’s a reminder of the fact that, in the Now Economy, brands need to be fleet of foot. Advertising cannot exist in a silo. Twitter ensures that the synchronicities with current news stories are likely to be spotted, spread, and turned into blogosphere fodder. In a worst case scenario, they can cause a significant crisis: just ask Nike about their Oscar Pistorius ‘I am the bullet in the chamber’ ads.
This is why integrated, PR led approaches to comms are more crucial than ever. It isn’t enough to understand trends. The brands of tomorrow will understand how their marketing strategies interact with breaking news. They’ll be in possession of the narratives that are firing the public psyche today, and understand how to turn them to their advantage.
What’s certain though is that come what may, people are always going to like animals doing funny stuff. For better or worse, dancing ponies are here to stay. No matter how infuriating we find them.
The Truth must dazzle gradually. Or every man be blind. – an interesting aphorism from the pen of Emily Dickinson.
Sipping a lukewarm soya latte served by a man wearing a comedy moustache in a breathlessly contemporary Shoreditch caff, a client declared “I guess PR is all about crisis these days”; fascinating point of view.
At the time, like the caff (no, I’m not going to name it – it doesn’t deserve the benefit of a negative riff), I put it out of my mind as yet another exaggerated view of the misunderstood craft of modern public relations. Later, while shuffling back to office, his presumption reasserted itself.
The woe of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Party is out there for all to see, and for many people to feel. Chekhov apparently once said that any idiot can face a crisis, but that it is day-to-day living that wears you down. I’d like to suggest that the daily tyranny of social media might be added to this wearing-down process. Since its inception, the yoke of responsibility has become harder to bear for most people in the public eye.
The Liberals’ immediate reaction to this crisis has been to deny all knowledge of the sexual misdemeanours occurring under their watch. Such denial of knowledge, and thus responsibility, is becoming increasingly commonplace. From the senior management at Barclays bank in the wake of the LIBOR fixing scandal, to George Entwistle as the Jimmy Savile affair blazed on, it seems that nobody in a position of power knows what is going on below them these days.
In the digital era however, hiding behind ignorance isn’t as easy as it may have been in the past. It doesn’t take much digging to find a paper trail, and chronicling wrongdoing when a scandal breaks as a means of proving or disproving guilt is becoming standard practice in the news.
The crowd’s capacity for distrust attacks the weak and sullies reputations on a daily basis, rather like the medieval stocks. Public figures are tried by social media and judged for their sins; just look for the indelible stain of rotten tomatoes as you browse the media.
The avalanche of Twitter retweets must be utterly perplexing for the political spin machine. Robust PR has always been a game of solid advice delivered by independent consultants with a helicopter vision, consultants able to look at a client’s universe from the outside in. Internal, hubristic advice can miss the obvious as it is encumbered by myopic hope. Administrators and hope-holders pray that a maelstrom will pass, despite knowing where the locked cupboards are that store the familiar hanging corpses.
It’s time to wake up. Reputation damage isn’t just caused caused by what you know and what you are able to bury. Total transparency isn’t just a sound bite, it’s a reality – and falling in the comedy cow pat is avoidable if you face the worst case scenario. It’s not what you know that breaks figures – it’s what you don’t know. True, trusted help should be centred around rigorous governance that doesn’t let matters slip.
Unfortunately, the devious and the Machiavellian are thick on the ground. I like to refer to them as Subterranean Pond Rock Scum: happy to enjoy the perks of the job, these creatures edit the work description for greater gain. Finding those authentic, true and trustworthy is extremely challenging.
The post-Thatcherite, capitalist belief in success at any cost has created a generation of individuals blessed with the ability of conversing from both sides of the mouth. They trade in the speech equivalent of a linoleum: a cheap veneer to cover rotten flooring, adept at manoeuvring away from the mess that their stupidity has fashioned. Check for smiles and laughter: these people are great at hiding the facts because the difficult stuff might threaten their position.
If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. Unfortunately, there are few defences when the tsunami hits.
So what are the key attributes required to be a modern day PR, if the gig is all about crisis? Consider this: enduring reputations are earned and must reflect proven capabilities, values and accomplishments.
The expanding digital and social media universe amplifies reputational risks and feeds off the weak and unprepared.
Business brands and individuals face intense collateral damage and need to monitor their reputations in a way never seen before. Clients require experienced, battle-hardy, intelligent support as value is derived from what is understood, more than who is influenced.
If you haven’t the stuff, the moral compass and intelligence for the Now! Economy, pass on by. PR isn’t about clipboard Nazis, Yes men and women, or fluff and bluster. It’s about bright heads and formidable experience. Ask the difficult questions and dig deep. Challenge those you trust.
I’ll leave the last word to Banksy: “Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed and with total clarity.”
Do we worship celebrities? Maybe. A while ago, a smart wag who was looking for a quick column inch to help promote a book identified a psychological condition: Celebrity Worship Syndrome. An unfortunate malady has developed from this type of homage.
Certainly brands seek the endorsement of the gods of sport and entertainment, and over the years major brands have enjoyed the fruits of their investment. But the Now Economy age is challenging our appetite for the celebrity deity. Yesterday, Nike distanced itself from its iconic Blade Runner charge, Oscar Pistorius. His alleged crime, framed by an OJ Simpson-style court room soap opera, was perhaps a tragic reality moment too far.
Roping in celebrities, then giving them whopping amounts of money so the target customer associates himself with their products, is now under the microscope as never before. Some onlookers argue that it has lead to greater brand risk. The Tiger Woods meltdown is a stain and Lance Armstrong is a shocking historical footnote; but neither dropped the brand into a sewer of disrepute. Instead brands just seek a shinier version to replace the shattered and defamed icon.
Will the likes of Gillette or Nike stop embracing celebrities? I doubt it, but the process of choosing personalities will become more scrupulous and the potential benefits derived from endorsements will encounter tougher inspection.
The pressure loaded upon celebrities is a matter of brutal fact. Thrust into a harsh spot light, the lustful crowd feasts upon and then shares failure. The spectacle is a microwaved morsel inside a 24 minute news cycle; fleeting and inconsequential. Brands are naturally cautious when employing a celebrity, and by acting fast and making appropriate silences to distance themselves from a downturn, they are swiftly able to offer up a new hero to bear the yoke of burden. For a price.
The media may use a calamity to produce lurid headlines suggesting a meltdown. But the facts are clear: recent sports star crises might herald brand obituarists to reach for the quill, but it’s nothing more than rhetoric. The storm rises, the storm passes. The subsequent calm creates a happy opportunity for an agency to launch a bright, new, shining opportunity. The crowd sighs and faces a fresh champion served on a golden podium to be toasted by cheap champagne. The spin cycle of sporting heroes continues.
So why has Stuart Higgins packed his bags and taken the long 12 hour flight to South Africa to wrangle one of the toughest PR gigs of the moment? Benjamin Disraeli said “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes”.
Higgins is no slouch as the ex-editor of the Sun was. Having first served as Editor, Higgins is the game keeper has turned poacher. He has worked with a number of high-profile figures with great success, most notably in his efforts to humanise Andy Murray.
Some commentators might suggest the Pistorius spill would usually be a job for Max Clifford or a US juggernaut, but I’m not surprised. The job has fallen into the hands of Higgins for a number of reasons: first and foremost is familiarity. Higgins provided Pistorius with PR support for the 2012 Olympic Games, and it appears Clifford may be laying low at the moment. The US megafauna, such as Matthew Hiltzik and Mark Fabiani are probably put off by the budget, and are likely to feel greater psychological separation from South Africa than those in the UK do.
Pistorius’s fall from grace will not be judged by a jury, a process abolished by South Africa in 1969. This gritty, high-profile case will put Higgins’s mark on the international map win or lose. I wish him luck with a very tough gig.