Alex Singleton

Circle Health


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


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

MarketingWeek’s Mark Ritson: social media is over-rated. What’s needed is integration

Posted By: Alex Singleton, On: May 29th, 2016, In Categories: Integrated marketing, Social media

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