Alex Singleton

Circle Health

Circlebath

Some career news: I am moving on from the business group London First, a role I’ve really enjoyed. At LF, I’ve worked to raise the group’s profile and influence, principally through media coverage, in so-called “tier one” outlets such as the Financial Times, Evening Standard, City AM and on the BBC. In fact, our coverage in UK titles is up by about 450 per cent since I joined and, in August, LF’s content made seven front pages. That’s a record for the organisation, I think, and one I don’t think I will be repeating soon.

The team at London First is truly first rate and I’ve made some really good friends. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for two outstanding line managers, Michael and Will, and learned a lot from both.

Still, all good things must come to an end. And I’m excited to be joining Circle Health, a great company which runs hospitals and other healthcare services. It’s AIM-listed and co-owned by its (1000+) employees. Its hospital in Bath (pictured above) was described by The Guardian as delivering “among the best accommodation offered by private and NHS hospitals”. Here I’ll be leading comms and marketing – from social media and brand marketing to internal comms and stakeholder engagement.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: September 7th, 2016, In Categories: Circle Health

PRCA’s name change cements the organisation as the voice of the industry

PRCA - Logo Blue

Last week the Public Relations Consultants Association tweaked its name. It is now the Public Relations and Communications Association. A tiny alteration, you may think, but it is one that helps the organisation more accurately describe what it does. It also reflects the fact that many people in our sector would say that they work in comms in preference to using the term PR.

As a term, public relations has its devotees. Some try to claim that PR is strategic and comms is tactical, but given that the largest companies have a “comms strategy”, that doesn’t seem a particularly plausible distinction.

In practice, communications or comms is what big, in-house employers call the function officially. Indeed, it’s very rare, for example, to find a “director of public relations” these days. Recently, Tony Halmos, the revered director of public relations at the Corporation of London, retired – and the job title has disappeared.

PR, as it tends to be used by practitioners, is a useful colloquialism for comms, a term for communication that is aiming to increase sales to consumers, or a reference to media relations. Its two-letter initials are short and the general public has a feel for what it means – a good, well-paid job which is something to do with image or getting your message out.

I don’t think we should get too hung up on defining these terms – or being po-faced when they are used in ways normal people use them, rather than complying with the definitions from PR textbooks.

The PRCA name change will undoubtedly make the association appeal to people in marketing departments who wouldn’t naturally think of themselves as working “in PR”. And some internal communicators object to being called PR practitioners as they don’t deal with “the public”.

So the PRCA’s name change is a shrewd move that both cements the association as the leading voice in the comms world and also sets itself up for further growth.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: August 24th, 2016, In Categories: Blog

How to produce the perfect quote to ride a breaking news story

man-hands-reading-newspaper

Do you ever try to jump on breaking news stories in an attempt to get quoted? Many people find that success seems random – and lots of time and effort can go into developing and issuing quotes that never get news. There are ways of making it less random: here are four ways to maximise the chance of success.

First, keep it snappy. Organisations often get bogged down in subordinate clauses or creating six-sentence quotes, trying to address every nuance and detail possible. But even the most upmarket newspapers are unlikely to quote more than a couple of sentences. If your quote is more than a two sentences long, then you ought to split them into paragraphs that are essentially rival options for reporters to quote.

Given this, it’s vital to write sentences (or at worst pairs of sentences) that are standalone – that don’t require the journalist to include lots of other text for them to be understood. PR practitioners who are only internally focussed can make the mistake of thinking that success is just about getting a quote signed off internally, but actual success is about getting something approved internally that is also interesting enough for journalists to use.

Secondly, avoid trying to force irrelevant product mentions or branding where they oughtn’t to be. A news story in The Times is not going to include a quote like: “At XYZ Healthcare, Britain’s newest provider of walk-in medical centres, we believe that today’s government announcement…” A quote will appear because someone from your company is an authority of the subject – the head of investments at a pensions company, for example, talking about outlook for the stock market. The company will get a mention by the reporter (“Joe Blake of XYX Pensions said…”) but it generally reduces your likelihood of success if you try to plug your company in the quote.

Thirdly, never use the phrase “we welcome” in a quote. It’s boring – unless you are welcoming something that most people would suspect you to be against. News is fundamentally about conflict, after all.

Finally, speed is everything. If it takes five hours to get sign-off, or if you try to respond to things that have already hit morning newspapers, the approach won’t normally be successful. You need to be getting quotes to journalists before they’ve started writing their stories. That means developing relationships with stakeholders who give you the head’s up about their news in advance, by using tools like Google News and Signal, or by subscribing to the Press Association Mediapoint Wire.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: May 30th, 2016, In Categories: Media relations

How to follow best practice when you’re told to spray and pray

Here’s a problem that practitioners new to PR can face. They know – from reading books, blogs and magazines, and going to events – that some of the stuff they’re told to do at work is bad practice.

But when their boss, a colleague from another division, or a client tells them to do counterproductive things – such as spraying irrelevant press releases at thousands of journalists, or asking journalists “did you get my press release?” – well, how can they avoid doing such things? Indeed, someone just last week put it to me: “When the people in charge just will not listen – what do you do? Any advice on how to deal with that problem would be great.”

This is a tough question. But it seems to me that a large part of success in PR, especially as practitioners get more senior, is educating others – both people in your own organisation and externally – about how public relations works and what level of quality and resources are required to achieve success.

Clients (internal and external) get all sorts of wrong steers. Lots of nonsense is spouted by people who don’t know what they’re doing. These include the claim that public relations offers “free publicity” that’s “three times as effective as advertising” through a seemingly magical device called “a press release” in which self-indulgent, jargon-infested drivel will somehow make front pages.

It is not helped by the fact that many PR people will agree to issue a press release not because it will work but because it will get someone off their back. This is the road to ruin: it sets entirely the wrong expectations.

Yes, agreeing to send a worthless press release makes life easy in the short term. But it creates future problems. First, it damages your reputation with your client (because your activities don’t seem to actually deliver results, and even if they claim that they don’t need it to land anywhere, except on their website, they are inevitably two-faced about that and later grumble that it didn’t make the media). Secondly, it damages your reputation with journalists (they block you for being a spammer). Thirdly, it throws away an ideal opportunity to suggest that you get involved upstream in their work (people generally do appreciate the idea that a PR person is going to engage strategically and early on).

The key to saying no to something is to have some alternative proposals up your sleeve – that way you don’t just look difficult or incapable, but knowledgeable. Frequently, when someone asks you to issue a press releasing announcing that “we are putting the customer at the heart of everything we do”, or asks for their executive team portrait to “go viral on Instagram”, that’s not what they are actually after. It’s just that, in the absence of a proper strategic plan for PR, they feel that something needs to be done. The most effective PR practitioners see the gap and propose a strategy and series of techniques that will actual deliver useful business objectives.

Of course, all this is rather difficult if you’re in your first job after university and you’re experimenting with what works. But if that’s you, here are some thoughts on how to improve your status – and ability to push back against idiocy.

First, a track record of success makes it easy to use your own techniques (best practice) rather than follow those wrongheaded but commonplace ones. If you’re getting people onto BBC One and into the FT, What Hi-Fi or whatever you’re supposed to be trying to do, it’s easier to suggest that you should be set objectives and left to use your own techniques.

Secondly, it can be difficult for more senior colleagues to see you as an authority. This is why it is so vital that you invest in a postgraduate qualification. I have no commercial interest in recommending this course of action, but I believe it can offer a real boost to your career. And even someone with a bald patch, like me, believes there is still so much to learn. I did a CIPR crisis communications diploma last year – getting a distinction was genuinely one of the proudest moments of my life. Do you think such qualifications help people take your opinion more seriously? It certainly does. It also shows your employer that you’re seriously committed to your career and makes you look more valuable as an employee.

Thirdly, if you’re part of a big team, are there wiser souls – such as ex-journalists – who you can seek advice from? They might be up for delivering some training across the whole team.

Fourthly, if your organisation has a training budget, go on a course and do the deal with your boss that you’ll report back what was taught. In some organisations, people who go on training are asked to present to the rest of the team, which is a good way of engaging in a conversation about what best practice looks like, without looking like you’re challenging someone’s authority.

Fourthly, it’s worth noting that results are not necessarily what all managers are trying to deliver. They may be trying to have a quiet life and they may find that box ticking enables them to prove outputs and justify what’s down on a time. It works for them, but if you’re ambitious it’s not exactly a useful form of training for you.

Finally, the unfortunate truth is that some bosses in PR are micromanagers, who cannot help but obsessively trap you into doing bad work. That’s life. Success and happiness in your career means you need to change your employer.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: February 22nd, 2016, In Categories: Media relations

Do results from media relations seem random? They shouldn’t be

Newspaper

A COMMON experience that new people doing media relations find is that success seems random. They churn out press releases and ring up lots of journalists. But some stories work and most don’t – and it’s not clear why.

Media relations, when done correctly, actually delivers pretty predictable and reliable results. But it requires a few things to be in place.

First, you can’t do media relations reliably if you don’t understand the titles that you’re pitching to. A good media relations specialist will have a researched and chosen a selection of important journalists who are really relevant to their employer. Crucially, the media bod will have read each journalist’s back catalogue of articles (going back several years) and check out new pieces as they are published. That way, the media person will have a pretty reliable idea of whether a story is likely to work before they pitch it.

Of course, at the low-end, commodity end of media relations this doesn’t happen. The property correspondent at a business publication tells me that she receives lots of press releases announcing new hotels being opened in Spain, but she actually writes at a higher level about major trends in commercial property and so doesn’t find those pitches relevant. PR people who haven’t done their homework keep pitching guest articles to The Economist, which quite obviously doesn’t take them. This approach is the cause of PR people saying that they find journalists to be rude, but the alleged rudeness is actually the fault of bad practice by PR people.

Secondly, it’s no good if you position yourself internally like a servant who waits for the bell to be rung – and then enters the room to be told to issue a press release on something. In fact, it is a vital function of media relations staff to guide colleagues away from talking about themselves in self-indulgent press releases that no self-respecting publication will use.

Instead, it’s important to be involved right at the start of the process, advising on what will actually be of interest and of high enough quality to make Newsnight or The Times. Indeed, this stage is arguably the single most important part of media relations specialist’s role, because doing it well sets you up for success. But to be any good, you need a really developed nose for what constitutes news – which will only happen from extensive study of the media outlets you want to appear in.

Thirdly, spray and pray commoditises your content. What good publications normally want are exclusive stories and exclusive comment. It de-risks your work if you can give a major and relevant outlet your story exclusively. They’ll run it bigger and it will give them the opportunity to hold it over until a day when they can give it the space it needs. This is not always the right approach but does improve the reliability of success.

Fourthly, if your boss insists that you ring lists of journalists who you’ve spammed to ask them “Did you get my press release?” – well, then you have boss who doesn’t know what he’s doing. You are essentially telling the journalist that (a) you’re an amateur and (b) your employer or client has such a low opinion of their status as a journalist that you’re going to waste their time by not treating them as high-quality contact but as a tick box on telesales calling list.

Fifthly, a budget is essential. This is the problem many small agencies get into: they don’t explain the necessity of, and don’t get agreement about, a budget in addition to their fees. And so – with no budget – all they can do is sent low-end press releases and letters to newspapers. The truth is that high-end media outlets are interested in covering high-end new stuff – such as economic analyses, properly commissioned polls, trends backed up by data. If you’re a FTSE100 company your annual report and major appointments will be covered automatically – but don’t expect this if you’re an SME.

As you can see, there are a range of pitfalls that media relations people fall into – and it’s why many new entrants in PR try to run from doing media relations as quickly as possible, and why many PR people say their job is stressful. But if you avoid these pitfalls, the results quickly become more reliable – and the job becomes much more fulfilling.

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: February 18th, 2016, In Categories: Media relations