CIPR Cymru Wales: using digital tools to improve performance

This morning I was at a CIPR event in Cardiff, where Ali Goldsworthy, Head of Supporter Strategy and Engagement at the consumer group Which?, gave an insightful talk on running campaigns. What came though – along with the passion she very clearly had – was the importance of using digital tools to increase performance in an ongoing fashion.

Pretty much everyone says evaluation is important, but in my view the first reason for doing it is not to prove to prove that you’re doing a good job. It is actually to test out tweaks and raise performance. At Which?, they test constantly what they’re doing to see, for example, not just whether particular campaigns bring in good numbers of supporters, but to see how engaged those supporters are over time. And they change how they allocate their resources accordingly. For example, they find Facebook delivers better results for them than Twitter – something they might not realise if they weren’t evaluating properly.

While direct marketers have always taken evaluation seriously, good evaluation isn’t universal in the PR world. But there have been some great strides in recent years. The Barcelona Principles highlighted the problems with AVEs and signposted practitioners towards best practice. And there is a fantastic book, Evaluating Public Relations, by Tom Watson and Paul Noble – something I personally use as a resource. I can recommend it highly.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: June 30th, 2015, In Categories: Online marketing, PR books, Social media

In defence of local government communicators

“Look at these council communicators”, the critics say. “Why are taxpayers being forced to pay for spin?” Those lobbing criticism, at their most extreme, believe that it’s fine for private sector organisations to employ PR people, because they have to compete for business, but there’s little need for the state sector to employ them at all because they have a monopoly on the services they provide.

Actually, the reverse is true. The public has two choices when unhappy with the direction of a private company: Voice and Exit. Voice is where they turn to social media to vent their criticism, or write a letter of complaint. But many consumers just Exit: they ditch one supplier for another.

When services are provided by the public sector – such as street cleaning, applying for a dropped kerb or accessing social services – it’s unlikely that Exit is an option. Voting is all very well but the opportunity doesn’t appear every year and the public only gets to choose between very broad selections of policies.

So the public’s strongest recourse is Voice, and it’s why the public relations is actually an essential part – a core function – of what a council should do. Indeed, it is impossible to be an effective council without public relations. That’s because only by relating to the public (through listening and changing behaviour) can a council truly understand and serve its residents.

The debate is not helped by a fundamental misunderstanding of what public relations practitioners do. I collaborate with local government communicators most weeks and the people I come across are extremely professional public servants who help their councils function smoothly. The idea that these are sinister spin doctors dedicated to hoodwinking the public is a fantasy.

After all, many of them have signed up to an independent code of conduct, backed by a Royal Charter, which requires them to act honestly.

Moreover, only a minority of communication by council communication teams is media relations: they run public consultations, deal with enquiries from the public, ensure staff throughout their council are kept informed about what’s going on, do design and desktop publishing, run public events, respond to Freedom of Information requests, engage on social media, update the council website and so on. As for expenditure on media relations, it is surely the duty of any public authority to engage with local newspapers and respond to queries on their activities.

Rather than doing down local authority communicators, we should be celebrating their vital work in making councils understand and service their residents. They’re not an optional extra – they’re actually a backbone of our councils on which everything else relies.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: June 22nd, 2015, In Categories: PR strategy

If you want to master PESO, study Howard Gossage

Steve Harrison

One of the rising acronyms of public relations is PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned). It marks the increasing prominence in discussions about PR – particularly among those focussed on marketing communications – to think further than just earning media coverage and to talk about digital advertising and giving a paid-for boost to organic Facebook and Twitter messages.

This may be seen as a new development in PR, and in terms of technology and focus there’s plenty of change happening to our sector. But Stuart Bruce, one of the earliest PR bloggers, says that paid-for advertising has always been used by PR practitioners:

Indeed, the “shared” bit of PESO has a long heritage in how people and organisations communicate. In Roman times, way before not just Twitter but also printing presses, analogue social media thrived as a way of sharing messages and engaging people. As Tom Standage, author of The Writing on The Wall, a book about the first 2,000 years of social media, explains:

When Cicero or another politician made a noteworthy speech, he would distribute it by making copies available to his close associates, who would read it and pass it on to others. Many more people might then read the speech than had heard it being delivered… Anyone who wished to retain a copy of a speech or book would have it transcribed by scribes before passing it on…

With information flitting from one correspondent to another, this informal system enabled information to penetrate the farthest provinces within a few weeks at most. News from Rome took around five weeks to reach Britain in the west… There was no formal postal service, so letters had to be carried by messengers or given to friends, traders, or travellers heading in the right direction.

I’ve written before about the “Pamphlet War” which took place – a sort of upmarket Twitter spat – after Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which supported the French aristocracy.

But, for me, the most significant figure in analogue social media was a 20th century advertising and PR practitioner, Howard Gossage. He invented the name “Friends of the Earth” and ran single-insertion adverts in conjunction with press conferences. He blurred the boundaries between paid and earned, with great effect.

Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

His most notable technique was that he made his campaigns two-way. He would always put a form on the bottom of his adverts so that people could respond, and he’d write future adverts responding to the feedback. This ran massively contrary to the ad industry norm, where agencies would design every advert in a campaign prior to any going live.

Last week, I went along to Google’s London headquarters to see a preview of a new documentary on Gossage, by Steve Harrison (pictured above). The documentary is not available online yet, but Steve’s biography of the man, Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man, is well worth reading.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: June 20th, 2015, In Categories: Social media

Simplicity is key to all effective PR campaigns


One of the challenges of planning a PR campaign is complexity. Especially if lots of people are involved, there’s a tendency to pile on more and more activities and platforms, before actually asking a fundamental question. Does our message create an emotional connection with the people we’re talking to? (In media relations terms, that means: is this newsworthy?)

Adding lots of platforms such as Instagram and Periscope, a paid campaign on Facebook, and a range of stunts and gimmicks too early in the process may keep team members enthused but it can blind people to the fact that the campaign is simply not going to work. If you believe that can send a press release to the five most relevant journalists and get coverage – i.e. it’s good enough for cynical journos – then it’s strong enough to be used more widely and on more platforms. If not, are you sure you want to proceed? (Mass media, of course, doesn’t have to be the starting point, but it often is.)

A core skill of PR practitioners is being able to predict the likely outcome of an activity, including how likely a story will gain coverage. Employees working on a new product or project will always think their work is fascinating to the public (“Replacement printed circuit boards for industrial machinery is really interesting. Of course The Daily Mail will cover it!”).

But strong PR practitioners, over time, tend to build trust with colleagues and are able to steer people away from activities that won’t work. It’s frustrating when you meet people who won’t take good advice – we’ve all come across them. But when you’re working for good people who respect your input, helping them see a campaign in its simplest form really improves the likelihood of success.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: June 18th, 2015, In Categories: PR strategy

We need a step-change in mentoring in the PR profession

The public relations profession is raising its game: postgraduate PR qualifications (which lead to higher salaries) are becoming more common. Likewise, there have been significant increases in the number of practitioners committing to continuing professional development. Yet there is much still be to done in developing the sector’s skills – and, in particular, we need to make mentoring a commonplace activity.

Mentoring is really helpful. Over the past year, I have been meeting regularly with someone who has had a top-level career in PR, and find it immensely useful to hear from someone with a couple of decades more experience than I do. I really wish I’d had a mentor earlier. Meanwhile, once a month I mentor a three practitioners at the start of their careers.

What is mentoring and why does it work work? Well, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, it involves “questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing”. It works as an arrangement where “a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of staff”.

It is my firm belief that mentoring benefits both parties (mentor and mentee) and helps people increase their performance – delivering a better service to clients and employers. I’m sure it’s good for emotional wellbeing, too.

So I’d like to see mentoring become a mainstream activity in the PR world, not just stuck as a niche.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: June 11th, 2015, In Categories: PR strategy