Monday, 21 December 2009

NLA Wolf in the Pot?

I'm sure we all remember the story of The Three Little Pigs. I read it quite a lot these days (not for my own pleasure you understand, but for the edification of somebody rather smaller...). It strikes me that the greedy wolf rather overstretched himself. If he'd been content to eat just two of the three pigs and then move on,he might have gone on to lead a happy, carnivorous life -rather than ending up in the pot.

The same may be true of the NLA.

They've had an easy ride over the past ten or so years. They produce nothing, but manage nonetheless to be rewarded handsomely on the back of other people's labour. There've been occasional mutterings about taking them on, but those mutterings never quite make it to the top of anyone's agenda. In effect, they keep on eating the easy-to-reach little pigs.

Until now.

In their greed to assert copyright over something that (in our view) isn't copyrightable -and to demand payment for something that is available for free- they're like the greedy wolf. They've overstretched themselves, and in doing so, they have thrown into question the whole legitimacy of their existing structures. Like the wolf, maybe they'll end up in the pot.

Meltwater's reference to the Copyright Tribunal changes everything. It shows that people are no longer prepared just to roll over when the NLA tells them to. It will inevitably make people think again about the unfairness of their existing licences. We applaud Meltwater. We'll be giving serious thought to how the PRCA ought to respond to their bold move.

And in the meantime, I imagine the NLA and will keep on huffing and puffing....

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

How NOT to treat customers

The Daily Mail, Telegraph etc etc today run a story about a mother asking a South Eastern train employee to help her cross a footbridge with her buggy, and being refused 'because they were not insured to lift things like prams'. Now, I must confess an interest. I have a two-month old son, and I use South Eastern trains.

SE's response was reasonable enough I thought: "Our staff will help passengers when possible. However we also need to strike a balance where the number one priority for our staff is the safe running of trains. If it is going to interfere with the safe running of the trains then that must take priority."

Reasonable enough on the face of it.

Yesterday evening rather contradicted that image of reasonableness though. I was on my train home from Charing Cross, with the train about to leave in three minutes. Someone ran to the ticket barrier; his ticket didn't work. This happens quite often, because the barriers often malfunction.He showed the ticket to one of the SE staff to let him through. The SE bloke flicked him a finger, pointed him to the other platform. ie the wrong, further away platform.... The guy looked bemused but ran there instead and was let through the barrier there instead. He then doubled back. The guy who'd turned him away obviously couldn't care less.

I have some difficulty seeing how this meets the SE line 'our staff will help passengers where possible'. I'd rather presumed letting people through malfunctioning barriers was entirely what barrier staff were there for....

I rang SE today to ask them for a view. It took a good few minutes to get through their automated system before someone eventually picked up. They had no response. They also have no email address apparently...

Never mind the 21st century, perhaps they should enter the 20th century and get one? Not exactly the best example of customer service or communications excellence now is it?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Honesty - A business imperative

Today's guest blog is by Mark Knight, Director at Broadgate Mainland.

The infamous ‘Hand of Henry’ incident in the week-before-last’s world cup qualifying match generated a media frenzy of indignation in support of the hard done by Irish, victims of Gallic dishonesty.

This controversial event has already kicked off debate on how it represents the erosion of sporting standards.

The public relations industry is no stranger to the honesty argument. How many of you can put your hand on your heart and say that you have not lied as part of your job? Cue howls of indignation at PR offices around the country!

Okay, the vast majority of these are probably white lies: client tied up in meetings so can’t return your (journalist’s) call and the new product/service is generating huge interest (not) from customers and prospects.

The world post the economic recession is going to be a different place with the share of voice tipping the scales in favour of empowered consumers and make-or-break word of mouth endorsement. The general public and the media will simply not accept the levels of subterfuge that some PR agencies and company press offices have adopted as the norm.

Will companies dare to run the risk of PRs causing an outbreak of hysteria on blogs and forums or even worse a negative SideWiki next to a hard earned page one entry on Google?

A reputation of a company is built on honesty and trust. While these rules may get bent when times are good, they undergo intense scrutiny when life gets tough.

PR will always be about presenting situations in the best possible light. But to avoid a ‘Hand of Henry’ incident it’s best to remember PRs and their brands do exist in their own scrutinised, multi-view world. Adopting the highest standards of honesty is not only morally right, it is a business imperative.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Leading Public Sector Communications Teams

Today's guest blog comes courtesy of Ian Ratcliffe,Head of Marketing and Communications for Stockport Council, and Vice Chair of LG Communications.

Stockport Council is an Associate Member of the PRCA

Yesterday in Stockport, as Vice Chair of LG Communications, the national body working to raise the standard of communications in the public sector, it was my pleasure to host a day’s seminar involving notable speakers on the subject of Leading Public Sector Communications Teams.

It was a great day that allowed everyone to get together and discuss how communications has an even greater role to play than ever before.

We are all facing difficult times ahead so it was timely to see what we’re up to and look at the key issues concerning leaders of communications.

We had a fantastic group of speakers starting with our very own Leader of Stockport Council, Cllr Dave Goddard who made a strong case for organisational leaders valuing and resourcing their comms teams. In turn, it is essential that the communicators themselves demonstrate huge civic pride in everything they do and bring passion to their role.

Joe Simpson, Director of Politics and Partnerships at the Leadership Centre for Local Government made a fascinating presentation on the importance of storytelling and the transition from ‘communications’ to ‘conversations’ – mirrored in the transition from print to social media.

Next up we then learned some interesting lessons from Mike Greenwood, Chairman of Stockport PCT, as he described this time in the public sector. Mike is an ambassador of strong and effective brand in engendering public pride in an area and made reference to the importance of effective partnerships.

Attention was then turn to an individual level, with the focus on the skills that communicators will need in this new changed and changing economic environment. David Broome and Lucinda Barber from VMA made a thought-provoking presentation on the skills required from a comms leader, which had us all thinking about the passion we need to instil in every part of our role.

Paul Newman, Head of Comms at MediaCity:UK gave us some great leadership advice on not being sidestepped by the small issues – it’s not about where you are now, but where you want to be. Wise words! Paul also updated everyone on the progress of the wonderful Media City project at Salford.

I was very pleased to see that Andy Carter, Head of Communications at Leeds City Council was able to join us for the day. After 12 weeks of the bin men striking, he had us all intrigued by his experience of leading a crisis communications strategy – which I am glad to say has now come to an end! Exciting times and some good lessons learned.

With the perspective of someone who has been both a long-serving council leader of a major city and now a senior executive at a leading communication consultancy, a big thank you to Donald Anderson, Director at PPS, who travelled down from Edinburgh to tell us about his time as Leader of Edinburgh Council. His experience of comms during the Cowgate Fire and the G8 summit certainly gave us some perspective and showed us how the personal touches are often the mark of real leadership, and how they can make a big difference.

We closed the day with Nick Jaspan, founder of the phenomenally successful Nick’s switch from print to online media stressed the ever growing importance of social media and networking in the comms world. On a personal level, if we do not adapt to a rapidly-changing environment, we will get left behind.

I have chosen to end my blog with thanks to your very own Director General, Francis Ingham, who I am sure will be blogging about his day with us yesterday! Francis’s presentation focused our attention firmly on the future of communications and about making the next few years about opportunities – as PR thrives on change! I also found his words on taking our own professional development seriously, as comms leaders will only be accepted on the top table if they have the skills top people expect!

So much to take in, but a great day overall. I hope that everyone who attended can take away the good advice and use it to forge a path for themselves and their teams over the next few years.

Hope to see you all at another LG Communications seminar in the near future.

Ian Ratcliffe

Vice Chair, LG Communications

Head of Marketing and Communications at Stockport Council

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In defence of the public sector

An interesting night last night, as PRCA in-house associate member Keith Johnston (from STEP) and I defended the public sector's use of PR and PA agencies in a debate with the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA).

It happened because we wouldn't let a TPA 'research' report into public sector comms stand. They argued that public bodies were spending vast amounts of money on comms and lobbying, and should somehow be legally prohibited from using PR and PA agencies. In fact, they went further than that, and argued in favour of a slash and burn programme of cuts to public sector comms. To their credit, they accepted our challenge to a debate, and the English Speaking Union was kind enough to host us.

The TPA's argument was the bizarre one that all comms serves to reinforce the status quo, and to cement the Government's position. They use the word 'government' to cover any public body, including, for example, all local authorities. I really must break the news to the 200+ Conservative Councils that they are , in fact, doing Gordon Brown's work...

We disagreed naturally. And we made three points. First, that public sector bodies have a duty to communicate with their voters, their taxpayers and their customers. Second, that to suggest this comms activity is all intended to support Central Government's agenda is patently nuts. And third, that using an agency to bring in special expertise is often the sensible, financially responsible thing to do.

Well, it was an interesting debate, and in my thoroughly biased opinion, I thought we edged it. Even if we were up against someone who was specifically -and rather strangely- introduced as the 'World Debating Champion'. Just who did he beat to get that title? Was it a United Nations hosted face-off with Obama and Blair that he just edged on points??

The result? Well, we lost by a few votes. But then again the TPA had brought along more staff than we had. And they all voted for their boss, natch.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

PR - The pivotal player

With the promise of thought leadership from the PRCA, I’m pleased to announce the first in a series of guest posts from the PR Industry’s finest. First up Mark Stringer, Founder of Pretty Green.

Being asked to write on someone else's blog, is a bit like staying at someone else’s house; it's nice to be asked round, but once you get there you realize you prefer the comfort and security of your own home where there's a lock on all the toilet doors - There's nothing more embarrassing than walking in on your best mate’s wife and trying to explain that you didn't realise she was on the toilet.

Anyway, here I am, sitting in Francis’ front room, having a good snoop around. First impressions: It's obvious that he is passionate about the industry, what it stands for and what it can achieve. I think we might get along, as long as I don’t overstay my welcome…

I share his views, but, having not come from a public affairs background, I'm less ‘Minister’ and more ‘Court Jester’, whose perspective is that our role as PR Professionals is to create and harness content to drive positive brand reputation through the way we behave.

I've a great respect for public affairs, stakeholder management, NGOs; the hard-nosed, behind-the-scenes aspect of the industry. But, I still believe that PR can sit on the top table, without having to be a Corporate Agency. It just means we have to be more strategic and more creative.

Undoubtedly the pet hate for every agency-person is being perceived as the agency that simply promotes what someone else has created. "We've got this (insert Advert, promotion, new bottle etc), can you just get some coverage". A frustrating but popular misconception of what PR is all about.

In today's combusted landscape the beauty is that creating and distributing content is easier than ever before and the PR industry now has a great opportunity to become not only a seat warmer at the top table, but the pivotal player.

We're better placed to lead Digital than the media agencies or the Ad agencies because we know how to integrate it into the editorial mix rather than looking at it as an isolated entity. We are skilled in creating experiences that not only bring brands to life but also deliver editorial and we know how to build strong brand reputations.

But the magic happens when we are able to create as well as distribute. What's interesting is you're often a minority if you talk about your creative director, or creative team, something I've never understood.

Yes PR people are generally more creative than a lot of other disciplines, due to the need to write and create stories on a daily basis, but true ‘creatives’ will always be an essential part of the mix; people who stretch the boundaries and make us feel uncomfortable. The big thinkers, whose ides continue to push us and excite us (and initially leave us dumbfounded).

Anyway, now's the time for us all to believe we belong round the top table, and that we can drive the full marketing agenda, not just the news agenda, and organisations like the PRCA can help us achieve that.

But, as I said before, I feel like I'm sat in someone else's front room and I shouldn't really be ranting too much or I might not be invited round again. Besides, we've got Beyonce in town, so I'm off to find some buskers as we've got some content to create and distribute for Trident and given that as of Friday we've got one less paper to sell-in to, we're going to have to work that little bit harder.

And as one person asked in the office, does the decline of London Lite mean that we'll return to the halcyon days of hearing "Standard, Standard! Read all about it"? We do hope so.

Thanks for having me... I’ll make sure I shut the door behind me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

PRCA in strong financial position

Following the CIPR's announcement regarding its finances, a number of members have asked me to reassure them as to our position.

It's a reassurance I'm delighted to give, because we are in an extremely healthy position.

Our reserves are very significant because of sound financial management over a number of years. The Association has produced a surplus in each of the previous four years, and confidently expects to produce one in 2009/10 too.

Our agency membership has grown by 50% over the past two years, and we recently announced in-house and international membership programmes too, further diversifying our revenue streams. Income from our business partners, training and events has significantly increased over the past two years. As a result of strong performance in all of these areas, turnover is up by around 50% compared with two years ago.

So, we entered this recession in a strong position, and we will exit it in an even stronger one.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A week of celebrating PR

PR all too often gets slagged off by its detractors, and all too often is poor at coming to its own defence. So the awards season is always a good time to remember the good work that PR professionals do.

The PRCA are national sponsors of the CIPR's PRide awards, so the next few weeks will see us at their dozen or so ceremonies, meeting members, handing over trophies. But of course it's not just those guys who run awards - our own take place on November 3rd, and are on track to be an even bigger success than last year's. Corp Comms' are up soon, ditto AMEC's, ditto the second outing of the Fresh PR awards.

The most enjoyable element of awards of course is seeing your friends and colleagues win. So last week's awards in Cardiff were especially good, as Golley Slater and its eminence grise Martin Long won Welsh agency of the year. For those of you who know Martin, you'll realise that it was entirely appropriate the evening ended in a cocktail bar named Ten Foot Tall.

PR Week's event was a storming success too (though not quite so storming for the protesters who were escorted out I guess...). It was a pleasure seeing two titans of the industry presenting and receiving the UK agency of the year award -Colin Byrne handing it over to Robert Phillips. And seeing Alex Aiken beam with pride at winning in-house team of the year. Long overdue.

A good night was had by all -a sore head the morning too I'm sure.

One final thought amid the celebratory stuff. Tamsin Cave of the self-styled 'Alliance for Lobbying Transparency' took exception to my recent post in favour of self-regulation. She called it 'sanctimonious', but decided to reply to it elsewhere. Let me put aside the intense irony of the ALT chief calling anyone sanctimonious (pot kettle comparisons rather spring to mind...), and just say this -if you don't like what I say, then post a comment, and let's debate. But if you want to take issue, don't post a comment on your own blog -a blog which deliberately stops anyone commenting. Seems a little chicken to me.....

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Unhorsing the free riders....

The news that Tory Shadow Cabinet member Francis Maude has pulled out of an APCO reception ( ) should give us all pause for thought. He’s done it in order to avoid being associated with a lobby company. And that’s something that affects us all, and should worry us all.

It follows his recent announcement that a future Conservative Government would impose statutory regulation should the industry as a whole not sign up to self-regulation.

I used to work at the Tory Party, and from what I can judge, this is no idle threat.

Too many public affairs agencies out there still choose not to be regulated. They provide various –frequently transparent- excuses for this. They say that their internal codes of conduct are than independent ones; that it wouldn’t be fair to their clients to reveal who they work with. Etc, etc, etc. What they really mean is that they’re free riders on the ethicality of their peers. That they are ashamed of who they work for. That they are incapable of adhering to proper codes of conduct.

Well, they now have a choice. If they continue to remain outside the pale of decent practice, then they will bring statutory regulation down upon not only themselves, but upon the public affairs industry as a whole. Their intransigence and obstinacy will inflict personal professional damage upon us all.

We’ll be working over the next few months to extend our coverage of the industry, and to increase the already forty-plus public affairs agencies that are today members of the PRCA and already embrace self-regulation. And we’ll also be naming and shaming those companies –and their chiefs- that are putting our industry’s future at risk. Because it’s time they realised the threat they pose to the industry that they purport to love.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The power of personal endorsement

A slightly unusual post today –though I hope with a vague professional purpose.

Yesterday was pretty memorable, though it began ordinarily enough. Having spent last week at home waiting (unsuccessfully) for the supposedly imminent arrival of our second child, I returned to work, albeit with an intentionally light diary. Ahead of evening drinks for financial PR agencies hosted at College Hill, I had lunch with the effervescent Don Clark, until recently Sales Director at Vocus. Our discussion of his big plans for the future was proceeding nicely until I received the message that my son’s entry into the world was imminent.

Cue urgent phone calls to arrive a speedy return home. Cue also extraordinary enthusiasm from the restaurant staff. With a Mediterranean flourish, they produced a bottle of spirits while I waited for a cab, and toasts began –at the restaurant’s expense.

Result? A nervous ten-minutes made much less tense, and an extremely satisfied customer. Result also, this ringing endorsement –About Thyme is an excellent restaurant, with good, unfussy food, a decent wine list, and –most of all- friendly and welcoming staff. It’s also a great place to have lunch if you’re wife’s about to give birth! Professional point? Your customers can be great builders of your corporate reputation. I certainly intend singing About Thyme’s praises.

And for those of you who might be interested to know, I made it home in time (just) to see the birth of my 10lb 0oz son!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

In defence of public sector comms

With public expenditure clearly set to be the defining issue of the next general election, it now seems inevitable that there must be a serious debate about the use of taxpayers’ money to fund comms work. And by that, I mean not just public sector bodies using agencies, but also public sector bodies directly employing comms professionals too.

There are simple –and simplistic- headlines to be won by comms’ bashing, and the Mail does seem to reserve a page a day for just that. But it is surely ironic that the very mouthpieces which call for public service reform, and for organisations to talk better with the public they serve, are so ready to bash the people who would help to deliver that reform and facilitate that dialogue.

Equally, with all the main political parties talking of the need for tax rises and spending cuts, the days of public largesse are obviously over, and each area of public expenditure needs to justify itself.

That’s why we need a serious debate about this. One that doesn’t try to frame the choice as being between nurses and spin doctors; police on the beat and fat cats.

To that end, we’ve challenged the Tax Payers’ Alliance to debate just this issue. Much of their language on it’s plain stupid. And their ‘research’ wouldn’t stand up as a school project, let alone as the basis on which to legislate.

I’m delighted to say they’ve accepted, and the English Speaking Union have kindly agreed to play host. It’s on November 16th, in the evening. We’ll circulate details in due course. But it promises to be an interesting night, and I’m determined to bring a bit of sanity to this debate. Hopefully the TPA’s own comms people will publicise it too –ah, the irony....

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Making the most of opportunities

Today’s unemployment figures make a sobering read for anyone –but if you’re looking to take the first step in your working life, they’re particularly unwelcome.

As in any downturn, new graduates face a tough time, with a wearisome hard slog of applications, interviews and ‘on this occasion you were unsuccessful in your application….best wishes for your future career’ letters.

Last week’s PR Week carried a pretty good analysis of what that means for our industry. Some agencies are recruiting graduates in similar numbers as over the last few years, but most have been forced to cut back. That’s hardly surprising –our industry can’t expect to be immune from what’s happening elsewhere in the economy.

So it’s more important than ever that if you’re offered the opportunity to prove your value to a potential employer, you grab it with both hands.

I say this because the PR Week piece happened to coincide with a brilliant example of how not to forge a career in PR. A PRCA member (no, I won’t name them) had awarded a highly-prized work placement to someone in her final year at university, looking for a future in PR. Did she make the most of it? Did she make a fantastic impression and smooth her way into the PR world? Well, she certainly made an impression, but maybe not a career-enhancing one.

After two days, she decided not to come back in. Apparently, she hadn’t been given enough responsibility; enough management opportunities; enough face-time with the MD. Naturally, she’d still like a career in PR though. A piece of advice –it’s probably not the career for you…..

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Is the market stabilising?

The question I most frequently ask members is ‘how’s business?’. As you’d expect, some of the answers have been rather gloomy. But recently, there’s been a discernible change.

Nobody should think that everything’s suddenly perfect. But a significant minority of members now say that things are improving -and the majority of members say that things are now stable.

Our most up-to-date quarterly benchmarking data is just in, covering the period April to June. And it provides figures to back up the words I’ve been hearing. I won’t go into the detail too much, because the full report will be launched next week on our website, but the headlines are certainly encouraging.

The number of members reporting an increase in client spend now roughly matches the number reporting a decrease; the number saying that the new business pipeline is busy now exceeds the number saying it’s quiet. And the number saying they’re reducing headcount is now pretty much matched by those saying they’re increasing headcount.

Don’t read too much into this –the downturn hasn’t suddenly performed an abrupt u-turn. And it would be a brave man who predicted the recovery had started -but it might also be sensible to say that maybe the market’s now stabilised? The only way is up hopefully….

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Anger at the NLA's proposals growing

Well, our work to make the industry aware of the NLA's proposals continues -and the anger those plans are generating has started to snowball.

I've spent the last week talking with members about the NLA plan to charge for the receipt or forwarding of URLs. At first there was disbelief -these URLs are, after all, in the public domain; and when they are received, it is with the explicit intention of directing readers towards the newspapers' own sites. But once people understand that the NLA are deadly serious, there is genuine anger. It's anger not just at the actual cost, or the appalling timing. It's anger mainly at the fundamental absurdity of charging for receiving a weblink to material which the newspapers themselves have decided to make available for free. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -this would be money for nothing.

Yesterday, the NLA's MD conducted a webcast through the PRCA. Over forty agencies tuned in to hear him explain and defend his plans. Those members didn't hold back in expressing their astonishment and anger. He was left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling he has provoked. If you want to see it, it's on our website

He also agreed to undertake a series of face-to-face meetings with the PR community. He's agreed to do one in London and two outside of London. We'll be organising them and meeting the costs. We'll publicise those events in due course -I'd urge you to attend and to be honest about your feelings. Monday also sees us convene a roundtable with other stakeholders -the PCAs, the aggregators etc. According to the NLA, the PCAs support their new billing plans -well, we'll see!

So -go to our website, look at the NLA's plans; let me know what you think; let the NLA know; let PRWeek and other publications know. Because if we are robust and determined in opposing this outrageous back door tax on knowledge, then I am certain we can stop it from happening.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

On the NLA's Web Proposals

Our industry faces many challenges right now –proving the value we bring; owning the digital space; stopping giving away time for nothing. These are not the easiest of times for anyone.

We really don’t need extra costs heaped on us right now. But that’s precisely what the NLA is proposing.

There’s a good deal of effort being made to confuse the issue, but at its heart is the newspapers’ claim that they should be able to charge for the receipt and circulation of URLs.

They’re not talking about the forwarding of material –they’re talking about charging agencies and their clients for URLs. They’re talking about charging PRCA members for directing their clients to the newspapers’ own sites. And then charging clients too. That is simply outrageous. If the newspapers want to make their content available for free, and then live off the advertising revenue, then good luck to them. If they want to charge for web content, then –again-that’s their choice. But charging for links to publicly available, free material is utterly ridiculous.

We’ll be fighting this all the way –if you feel the same, then be vocal about it, support us in the media, and let the NLA know that they have gone too far.