A bit more (not less) PR might yet save the Green Deal!

I’m not sure whether it comes as a result of the infamous Malcolm Tucker, the concept of ‘spin’, or Siobhan, the desperately embarrassing PR girl from the BBC satire W1A, but all too often the public relations industry seems to be falsely cast as the villain of the piece.

One of the more recent cases of PR (or rather, PR spend) being unfairly stigmatised, has come with the Government’s management of its flagship Green Deal energy saving scheme. Now, there are a number of reasons why the Green Deal is yet to set the world alight, yet any reports of the scheme’s return on investment always seem to go hand-in-hand with a totting-up of just how much has been spent – or wasted, as seems to be the assumption – on PR.

The irony is, here we have a scheme which, to quote a colleague of mine, “is like nothing this country has ever seen before”. Surely PR is the perfect vehicle to communicate just how the Green Deal could transform the UK’s inefficient housing stock? After all, how can UK homeowners be expected to take advantage of the finance on offer to improve their properties without having the scheme explained to them? A well-planned PR strategy should be the perfect fit for the Green Deal, yet to the contrary, it’s being used as a stick to beat the scheme’s administrators over the head with.

The point here is, there can be any number of reasons why a product or service fails before we even look at PR. In this case, we can take our pick from the red tape preventing the UK’s heating engineers from becoming suitably accredited, to the fact that renewable technologies are simply too expensive to install in this country. But none of these real issues are perceived by the media as being anything close to as alarming as the Government’s spend on PR. Instead we’re forced to read reports of how the Government has wasted over £100k on PR advisors. That’s a whopping 0.3 per cent of the total spend, by the way.

Will the PR industry ever shake off this misplaced assumption that a communication strategy is nothing other than an overpriced luxury? Credibility is one of PR’s main assets and credit should be given where it’s due from time to time.

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New Troubleshooter is a welcome antidote to The Apprentice

At last a watchable programme about business.

Last night’s New Troubleshooter with Lord Digby Jones shooting from the hip was the best bit of business TV since … umm … well the last Troubleshooter series in the mid-1980s probably!

Now admittedly the standard isn’t high. Leader of the pack in recent years has been The Apprentice which portrays business as some sort of primeval, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest examination, involving haring round London in Black Cabs and performing idiotic tasks at Waterloo Station.

If these people are, to use the late David Halberstam’s phrase coined for the whizz-kids of the Kennedy Administration, the ‘Best and the Brightest’, then we really are in trouble.

Instead, last night, we had talk of balance sheets, cash statements and working capital. Sounds boring? Well actually, it was quite compelling.

When His Lordship asked the young Finance Controller for the cash flow implications of increasing the stock levels in the business and the poor chap had to admit that he didn’t have a clue, my wife shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The attempts at convincing the MD of the need for some demand forecasting had me rolling my eyes.

I’m old enough to remember the original Troubleshooter with the late Sir John Harvey Jones, former CEO of ICI. He too proved that business can make good television.

I vividly remember him walking into the stockroom of a small brewery which was jammed to the rafters with bottles of beer.

“What’s going on?” he asked. The MD looked to the floor. “We’ve not been able to sell it at current prices,” he admitted.

Sir John turned to him and said: “Sell it for whatever you can get. You need to turn this lot into cash. When I next come in here I want to see this place empty.” That’s where I first learned that lack of cash can pull a business under just as quickly as lack of sales.

Last night wasn’t perfect. I’d liked to have found out whether the company did ever produce a forecast and the results of their intellectual property application in regard to their new branding.

But, it was a much-needed start. Let’s hope the BBC sees fit to commission a second series.

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He Won the Battle but…

Farage v Clegg - The Guardian

Last night was Farage v Clegg round two and the general consensus is that Farage took Clegg to the cleaners.  He amassed three times as many new followers as Clegg so must have won.  Twitter has spoken.

In the main, I agree with the Twittersphere.  The problem for Clegg is that he sounded like a public school boy at a lectern in the refectory.  It was all a bit debating society.  He orated whilst Farage spoke and came across as a bit preachy and insincere.  It was all very rehearsed, especially the bits that he really didn’t want to sound rehearsed at all – like the oft repeated line about everyone from Romania moving to Orpington or something.  (I was watching from behind a cushion by now.)

Whenever Clegg got a bit hot under the collar I could see him hanging  from a peg in the cricket pavilion circa 1979 – one sock up and one down –  whilst the big boys laughed.  When he was picked on, he went all mean accusing Farage of being a despot loving, gay hating, misogynistic, fantastical liar.  I just wanted it to stop.

In complete contrast, Farage just seemed to tell it as it was.  No sweeping hand gestures, developed over years as the President of the Debating Society –  just quiet mocking with the occasional killer line thrown in when Clegg was least suspecting it.

So, did Farage win?  To coin a phrase from my own childhood – I fear he won the battle but lost the war.  Yes, he talked to us like grown-ups.  Yes, he did a brilliant job of being one of the people and not one of the immigrant employing, au pair classes.  Yes, he delivered some major blows to the Deputy PM – but I would I vote for him?  Never.   I’m not saying I would vote for Clegg either but if I had to pick one (because Putin was holding a gun to my head), it wouldn’t be Farage.

In the cold light of day, I can’t shake the feeling that he is a bigoted sexist who would bankrupt the country.  He’d never be at Number 10 – he’d either be in the pub or shouting at someone in Europe because he didn’t like their policy on bananas.

The biggest shock of the night for me, at least, was Farage’s shock admission that he wasn’t yet 50 (he marked that event today).  He needs to speak to the person who looks after Cameron’s forehead.

If Jeremy Kyle ever left ITV, Farage would get my vote – but in an election, he wouldn’t.  And I suspect that I am not alone.

Twitter is indicative of the mood of the moment.  It’s superficial and where politics is concerned, longevity will always win out.  Will the jump in Twitter numbers translate into a jump in party members? Of course not.  We’ve become the viral generation – easily roused, easily bored.  This coup d’etat  for Farage is next week’s Oscar selfie – just nowhere near as beautiful.

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April Fools Day Round Up

The PR professional’s favourite day of the year has come and gone, and a whole host of April Fools stunts large and small were shared across the country.

Here are our favourites:

Domino’s Edibox

A delicious world-first from Domino’s: the Edibox, which is apparently the first ever 100% edible pizza box. Like the pizza chain said, “Why think outside the box – when you can eat it?” I’m hearin’ that.


Meet the Royals

All PR peeps know that shoehorning Kate Middleton into your campaign will add instant talkability so this fake Groupon offer in which you can meet the royal couple and hold baby George was a sure-fire winner.

Thorpe Bark

Dogs across the country were thrilled to learn that Thorpe Park is to become the world’s first dog-friendly theme park following ‘constant requests from owners’. I like this purely for the use of the ‘Thorpe Bark’ pun.

Romantic tablet: the Cudl

Tesco’s Andorid tablet the Hudl was yesterday joined by the Cudl – the world’s first tablet for couples.

Henry VIII and his Seven Wives

An ‘anonymous historian’ claimed to have found evidence that Henry VIII had seven wives, not six. The historian turned out to be Suzannah Lipcomb, historian and TV personality.

Plymouth pitch turns orange

Plymouth Argyle decided to change their pitch from green to orange as “our players are struggling to see each other during a game as their shirts are merging with the pitch.”


Lazy Kit Kat

Kit Kat released a pre-snapped Kit Kat for those who can’t be bothered  to do it themselves (and who clearly don’t know how to eat a Kit Kat properly: nibbling along the sides is the only way).

Bathstore Mirrorgram

A clever way to cash in on the current selfie trend, Bathstore launched the first dedicated ‘selfie’ mirror – the Mirrorgram. “This exclusive technology allows you to turn your every reflection into stunning vintage snaps using a digital camera installed behind a one-way mirror.”

Walkers Taste App

Walkers Crisps launch the ‘Flavacator’ app that allows the customer to taste their crisps through their screen by licking it. Delightful.

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Selfies and Self Respect: The Female Form and its Place in Marketing

The Oxford Dictionary named ‘selfie’ the word of the year in 2013, and its accuracy in capturing the zeitgeist of 2014 is rather a damning indictment of our times.

This (rather narcissistic) phenomenon is symptomatic of the obsession with their own reflection that, correct me if I’m wrong, Generation Z seems to possess – and this leaves the fashion and beauty industry with quite the conundrum. In the current climate of No More Page Three and the rising anger towards society’s (or the media’s) rendering of beauty norms for women, the feminist agenda is struggling to find a stance  - and billion-dollar brands even more so.

In an era where ‘no make-up selfies’ – which are at once lauded for being real and vilified for being vain – are on trend, how do we reconcile this with the attitude of fashion powerhouse Vogue’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, who commented, “Readers don’t want real people on the cover – they can see that in the mirror for free”. Ouch. Where then does the markering industry stand on what is one of the great divisive issues of our generation: female beauty?

Back to that buzzword ‘selfie’. It’s having something of a moment recently, with Cancer Research UK’s ‘no make-up selfie’ campaign generating £2million in just a couple of days, Ellen Degeneres’  Oscars selfie ‘sending Twitter into meltdown’ and even a viral song celebrating the concept, imaginatively named #SELFIE, receiving more than 24 million views at time of writing.

People, and particularly women, have never been more focused on their appearance, and the backlash against the presentation of female ideals seems to be rising to breaking point. This video offers a pretty damning indictment of the images individuals should aspire to emulate according to the beauty industry, and at the time of writing has had more than 4 million views on YouTube.

Some brands seem to be catching up with the backlash – a lingerie store in America has recently launched a series of adverts featuring models who have not been Photoshopped in a body-confidence campaign that has gone viral.

Aerie, a subsidiary of American Eagle, the popular American clothing retailer, claim in the ads that it’s’ time for a change’, and boldly declares ‘No more retouching our girls and no more supermodels’.

This can be contrasted with the stance that CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries famously took with regards to the type of customer he wants – that is, “cool, good-looking people”. The outfitter notably doesn’t stock larger sizes for women, but one has to question how long such a provocative judgement can be upheld.

Dove’s well-crafted ‘Campaign For Real Beauty could be considered to be the first global brand to start a big conversation about female beauty, and has seen great success with its 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches,” a social experiment shows women describing their appearances to a forensic sketch artist with unflattering results- and became the most-watched video ad of all time.

Most recently Dove has partnered with Girl Guides to develop a body confidence badge which Girl Guides can work towards – an ideal partnership that signifies that the brand’s focus on self-esteem is going strong. Dove is undoubtedly leading the way as the champion brand for women who feel maligned by narrow beauty ideals they cannot aspire to.

Where then does all this leave those brands (and there are a lot of them) that capitalise on selling ‘perfection’? Rare is the brand that taps into the real and significant shift in women’s perceptions of what is acceptable – and more and more women are disaffiliating themselves with the ‘ideal’ presentation of female beauty.

With marketing so centred around self-improvement, glamour and aspiration it will be interesting to see what direction brands will take with this new trend for female empowerment, and indeed, whether this is just a fad. Commenting on the call for ‘real’ models, Emma Bazilian, a staff writer at Adweek said, ‘Hopefully, this is a new age in advertising for female empowerment.’ I couldn’t agree more, but my cynicism wins out: if the selfie generation can’t achieve the impression of perfection in a photo, they’ll sure as hell adjust that Instagram filter till they can fake it.

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“We’re just chucking stuff out there and hoping something sticks!”

The starting point for our latest research was a conversation with a commercial director of a major supplier of valves and other equipment to industry.

As the conversation turned to PR support for a new product launch he came out with the quote I’ve been using ever since to convince clients, and potential clients, of the need to integrate PR into their wider marketing activities, pull people into them and provide real measurability.

“Our marketing has to change,” he said. “We’re just chucking stuff out there, direct mail, adverts, PR, catalogues, and hoping something sticks.”

This was by no means a criticism of his marketing director. Both realised, as do a lot of B2B marketers, that the web was going to force them to change their marketing strategies.

Essentially both were asking themselves the same questions that many are asking. “How can I get real measurability to prove marketing’s worth?” “Is our marketing selling the value-add message, such as technical support, advice and consultancy, not just product?” “Is there a better, more cost-effective and measurable way to fill the sales funnel?” “Can social media enable us to engage with potential customers more directly?”

The truth of the matter is that many B2B marketers are on a journey. Moving away from “just chucking stuff out there” towards more inbound and content-based marketing, which empathises with the customer not just sells to them.

We wanted to find out where B2B marketers are on that journey. The results of our research suggest that B2B marketers, far from being conservative and “stuck in their ways” are taking a very strategic approach, evaluating and measuring not just jumping in with both feet. By way of evidence 46% of respondents regard their current social media stance as “cautious, still considering.”

Yes, there are obstacles in the way, not least the fact that many B2B marketers do not regard their company websites as being in a fit state to drive traffic towards, but these obstacles are not regarded as being insurmountable.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: 91% of respondents say their use of social media will increase in the next five years.

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When B2B Meets Social

WPR’s dedicated B2B team thought it was high time to find out the true opinions of fellow B2B marketers when it comes to social media – and its value to the B2B sector.

Over a 4 week period we contacted a whole host of B2B marketers, including those who use social media regularly for business and those who haven’t yet taken the plunge. The aim was to find out which platforms marketers are using and what value they are seeing, and also why some businesses are acting with caution.

On a personal level our respondents appeared to be consuming rather than generating content, with only 9% regularly blogging – but we’re sure busy schedules will contribute heavily to this. On the other hand 56% have Twitter, 71% have Facebook and 77% have a LinkedIn profile.

20% of marketers described themselves as “early adopters”, whilst 45.5% said their company was “still considering” fully embracing social as part of their marketing mix.

Finding out more about platform strategy was key to our study and it turns out 82% use Twitter, 68% use LinkedIn and 59% use Facebook.  Twitter has long been seen as a useful B2B tool, and of course LinkedIn is ideal for creating valuable business relationships so this was no surprise. But we were glad to see the number of respondents using Facebook for business. The platform offers a variety of options for showcasing work effectively and targeting only those who matter to your business – so no wonder it’s being utilised by more and more B2B companies.

The reason the majority of our respondents use social is to communicate with customers and show a general awareness of their industry (88%). This indicates that social media still isn’t being considered as a revenue generating tool for a lot of B2B businesses – our research found that this very much linked the ability to prove the return social media activities.

At WPR the return on investment for our clients is the most important aspect of a campaign – and this also the case for social media campaigns. Tracking and measurement tools allow us to report on everything from driving traffic, to reach of messages and to brand sentiment. It is these elements which show the true value of social media for all businesses.

To read the full report click here: WPR B2B Marketers on Social

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British Gas “Freezing Pensioners, not Prices” – The WPR view

Yesterday British Gas held a Twitter Q&A with Customer Service Director Bert Pijls. Carrying out an activity such as this on the day they announced a 9.2% hike in heating prices might be considered by some to be naïve. BG later came out and said that the Twitter Q&A was held because of the price hike, rather than in despite of it. Therefore we’d suggest that rather than just naivety, British Gas showed extraordinary arrogance too.


The Social View – Stephen Graham Account Manager

Almost 11,500 tweets were sent yesterday using the hashtag #askBG, as the Twitterati mob mauled British Gas in 140 character blow after blow.

Perhaps naivety could have been forgiven. We’ve seen many a big brand come a cropper on social media before. However, the belief that a 9.2% hike in energy prices could have been argued out of on Twitter was misguided. When a public backlash is anticipated there needs to be a well-rehearsed PR crisis plan in place, and more often than not it shouldn’t include a Twitter Q&A – certainly not in this instance.

To make matters worse, BG ignored a lot of the tweets. It would always have been impossible to respond to the hoard of messages they received but rabbits and headlights do come to mind. Certainly, if the majority of questions are not answered in a Twitter Q&A, it’s also hard to deem it a success, or useful at all.

Too often big brands will trip up on social media when it comes to a PR crisis but there is more to this story than just mistaken tweets. Whilst I’m not sure this British Gas Social Media Manager role will be filled any time soon, there is a Corporate Communications team at British Gas HQ that need to hold their hands up…

The political view – Tom Leatherbarrow Head of B2B


The most extraordinary thing about yesterday’s social media car crash was not that British Gas took to Twitter to defend themselves, but that the decision seems to have been taken without any regard for the macro-political environment in which BG is now operating.

Like it or not Ed Miliband has put energy prices front and centre in the whole cost of living debate and it isn’t going to go away. Maybe a year or 18 months ago you could have used social media to appear open and engaging but not now.

Yesterday, BG made themselves look foolish, the Prime Minister weak, the Energy Secretary pathetic and Ed Miliband look like the Champion of the People. Not bad for one day’s work.

Sometimes in PR, the best tactic is to say nothing and yesterday was one of those days. I suspect there will be many in BG who are just keeping their heads down today, confident this will all blow over when EDF and EON announce their rises in the next week or so. Well they’d be wrong.

British Gas is still the dominant gas market player and winter is coming on. Every OAP death which has even the whiff of an old person turning down the heat or turning it off is going to be crawled over by the media now.

What’s your view?

BG may think it has weathered the storm, but this may only be the beginning.

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Likes And Followers – What Are They Really Worth?

Having a good number of fans across your social media portfolio is seen as imperative in today’s social media driven world – to the extent that they are now being seen as a form of virtual currency. A Twitter profile with a substantial amount of followers automatically gains more trust, authority and reliability, while a Facebook page bursting with thousands of fans will give the impression that it’s a really popular brand. The emergence of social media means businesses have been forced to become more digitally savvy, and it’s no coincidence to see that there has been a huge shift in marketing spend towards digital in the last few years. As a result, it’s now seen as even more important to boost your follower to get your company on top – thus appearing more influential and reputable than your competitors.

Having an impressive looking social fan base is now so important to a lot of businesses, companies, brands or even just the general public that likes can actually be purchased online. For real money! Whilst less efficient than buying followers, other non-organic methods of boosting numbers also include creating fake profiles to follow your own business, or begging anyone you know to like your pages.

With these tactics for gaining irrelevant and ultimately useless fans on a profile readily available, is the number of fans a company has really trustworthy, reliable, or even important? Although it may give a great first impression, you’re really only cheating yourself and the real people that choose to follow you.

What is far more important for brands is engagement – how many people are taking notice of your posts, how many fans share your content and how many conversations you’re starting or joining. That’s what really matters. One of the key benefits of social media for businesses is opening up the channels of communication between brands and consumers – allowing companies to get closer to their customers than ever before. Done properly, the move to the social media world is likely to make a positive difference. But be warned anyone who considers ‘buying their fanbase’. A page can have 10,000 ‘likes’ and look fantastic and influential at a first glance; but if nobody is taking notice of it, nobody is engaging with it, then there will be no point in posting any content at all because the majority of your followers don’t even exist. You’re talking, but no-one’s really listening.

So stop concentrating purely on that number at the top of your page and putting money and time into making it rise above that of your competitors, and value instead the followers that you do have – the real people who are going to be interested in what you say. Engage in conversations with them and get talking to new prospective followers who will actually make a real, positive difference to your campaign.

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It’s going to take a lot more than charity bike rides to pull the police out of this PR mess!

Yesterday’s report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) accusing the officers involved in Plebgate of a lack of honesty and integrity (how polite), drew the usual response from the force involved, namely no disciplinary action against the officers.

To be fair, I suppose that makes a nice change from retiring the officers involved on full pension, a la Norman Bettison.

There is a wider issue here though, namely as former MP Chris Mullin, who knows a bit about bringing the police to account, put it: “If they can do this to a Cabinet Minister, what would they do to a black lad from Brixton?”

The impression I get from the higher echelons of the police is that the recent setbacks (The Hillsborough Independent Panel Report, Ian Tomlinson, phone hacking) are just that, setbacks, which can be easily dealt with by putting on an open day, organising a charity bike ride or visiting a local school for the photo opportunities.

The British do not riot (well not often) or take to the streets. In 1848, when practically the whole of Europe was ablaze with revolution, the British stayed at home.

However, the police should not interpret the lack of banners or street protests as a sign that the British public are still onside. In conversations I’ve had, I detect that a lot of people are sitting at home in front of their TVs muttering, “I’m not happy at all with this”.

That is the reputational problem the police face today and it is going to take more than a few nice stories in the local paper to fix it.

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Has social media turned us all into brands?

Social Media - personal brandingAs my colleague Jade wrote not so long ago, social media is taking on a dominant cultural significance in almost all of our lives, penetrating both our public and private lives on a daily basis. However, it’s hard work keeping up on social media – and regularly updating your social networks has become a bit of a job itself. It’s no longer just about interacting with your friends, but managing your own personal brand online.

Take for example dating. If you’re seeing someone, you might be inclined to give them a quick Google.  It seems innocent enough at first; you just want to see if they punctuate correctly and can differentiate between various homophones. You then might move on to scope their selfies on Instagram, finally finishing up at LinkedIn (logged out, of course) for a quick scout through their employment history and a subsequent estimation of their salary.

Whilst undeniably snoopy, this activity surpasses pure nosiness. What you’re really looking at is your prospective partner’s brand reputation, their cultural capital and if they’re worth the emotional investment – much in the same way you’d look at a brand with a financial investment.

In the same vein, recruiters also employ similar techniques to check you’re trustworthy enough to represent their brand. In fact 91% of recruiters have openly admitted to using social media to screen candidates, using search engines to gauge prospective employees’ online reputations. Not only this, but 69% of these recruiters advised that they’d rejected an applicant on the basis of what they’d seen online – with unfavourable behaviour or poor communication skills being cited as top reasons for rejection.

The bottom line is this: if we’re on social media, everything’s out there to see – and so we’re presenting ourselves as brands as one way or another. Your personal branding carries a cultural weight and significance, and depending on how well you present yourself it can affect how people from all facets of your life view you – even those whom you’ve never met. First impressions no longer come from when you walk into the interview room, but as soon as your prospective employer finds your online existence – and it’s up to you to make sure you’re upholding your brand’s reputation.

It’s undeniable that our online presence is now one of the pieces that make up our personality, at least to the outside world. Google your name and see what comes up – are you presenting yourself as a worthwhile investment?

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Miliband’s Dad – should Ed’ bring back MailWatch?

I suspect there is a lot of debate this morning (at least there should be) amongst PRs about how they would have advised Ed Miliband to respond to the Daily Mail’s attack on his father.

PRs are naturally conciliatory. God only knows I’ve taken it in the teeth often enough and not bitten back, but I think I would have been tempted to in this case.

PR wisdom is that you should never take on the man with the microphone, in this case Mail editor Paul Dacre, but there is plenty enough historical evidence to justify a more robust response.

A university friend of mine once wrote to former Senator Lloyd Bentsen (he of the great put down to Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy”) to ask him what went wrong with the Dukakis campaign in 1988 as part of the research for his MA. Incredibly the late Senator replied and said the big mistake had been not biting back hard enough when the Bush campaign and right wing media laid into them in the spring of 1988 when they had a double digit opinion poll lead.

Clinton learnt that lesson in 1992 with his rapid rebuttal techniques only for John Kerry to forget it again when faced with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

New Labour also learnt the lesson with Alistair Campbell initiating MailWatch in the late 1990s as a rapid rebuttal to anything derogatory  that appeared in that day’s paper. Ultimately, under pressure from Blair who wanted a more conciliatory stance and the Mail itself (“if you can’t take it don’t dish it out”), Campbell stopped, but was tempted on more than one occasion, according to his diaries, to bring it back.

Which brings us to Miliband. In my book the response is a hit both morally and politically. I’m not sure you can let that sort of thing lie but he gains in two ways.

Firstly, he looks a more sympathetic figure this morning and not the policy wonk he has always been portrayed as. Secondly, he dominated the news cycle on Tuesday wiping the Tory Conference out.

As for the Mail, misjudgement does not sufficiently cover it. Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian says it offended the British sense of fair play, but if I was in charge at The Daily Mail and General Trust, owners of the newspaper, I would be more worried by the Twitter response, which was not anger, but ridicule, and that is much, much worse.

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