Bang On by Richard J. Hillgrove VI

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

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When is it OK not to get client sign-off on a press release?

To get client sign-off or not, that’s increasingly the big question for PR agencies.  

In these days of media quicksilver, there’s often no time to argue the toss. But can breaching client approval protocols and confidentiality ever be the right thing?

I must admit I’ve taken client approval – or lack of it – right to the line at times. I might have lifted a quote already used in a different media outlet and used it again in a slightly different context with a different news peg.

It’s all about making things work and managing expectations. There’s nothing worse than having to report back to the client that the press release they were so excited about piqued no one’s interest but theirs. 

A good PR knows how to create good content so why should a client feel compelled to guide every word? After all, you wouldn’t keep a dog and bark yourself. 

Similarly, you wouldn’t question a surgeon as he operated on you in theatre. No, you trust them and put your life in their hands. Why would placing stories in the media be any different?

It’s not as if the tail can wag the dog anyway. A newspaper like the Times won't send over the final version of a story for 'approval' to an interviewee. Yes, you can often squeeze quote approval out of national newspapers, but not full copy approval and definitely not headline approval.

The time is coming when clients will have to be more trusting of their PRs, put the brand in their hands or die. That time will be when PR agencies become more like news outlets, and it’s coming soon.  

The stories that truly fly in the media have head-on impact combined with a deep truth about them. They are independent, free of puffery, but that means clients are unlikely to give them the green light, especially if unanimous approval is required from a whole team of people.

The fact remains that stories with a sales message embedded into a negative sentiment are much more likely to get editorial approval than an obvious PR puff, but too few clients have the stomach for it.

They can see what journalists want but chicken out when it comes to joining in and playing the game. 

Brave brands have taken the bull by the horns and turned tactical with TV. Airline was a warts-and-all, fly on the wall documentary series that starred Britannia for the first season and then EasyJet. By 2003 it had become ITV’s most popular factual programme. 

This was no promotional video to puff up EasyJet, but an honest account of the ups and downs of a low-cost airline that saw brand recognition soar. It was its authenticity that made it fly, not any fake customer service hype.

Meanwhile, it’s clear the writing is on the wall for the traditional model of funding journalism. The Guardian has resorted to cap-in-hand tactics as it constantly asks for donations on its website to maintain its editorial independence. It has even mooted heading back to Manchester to save money.

Branded content that’s been fully approved by a committee of marketers isn’t going to save the day. That’s too forced and unrealistic. Besides, millennials will always smell a rat. They aren’t all that interested in scripted video vignettes that try too hard to appear gritty. Nowadays it’s imperative we keep it real.

As editorial budgets shrink, the model most likely to make it is sponsored independent editorial.

According to Julian Assange, Unilever provided the funding for a whole team of 'independent' Guardian journalists to go about their normal work. This had nothing to do with advertorials and everything to do with real journalism as the fourth estate faces a decline in its fortunes. 

Here’s the bottom line: quality journalism can't survive if journalists can't pay the bills and PRs rely on journalists.

On a personal level, the story is pretty poor. A recent survey published by the Press Gazette showed that one-third of freelance journalists now make ends meet on state benefits.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists questioned some 621 freelancers. Of the 526 who answered questions about their earnings, 73 said they earned less than £5,000 as pay has fallen dramatically in recent years.

It followed data from the Labour Force Survey which showed a surge in the number of freelance journalists in the UK to 34,000 in 2016 from 18,000 a year earlier. 84,000 people in total categorise themselves as journalists, compared to 64,000 in 2015.

Many of these journalists are just not going to be able to make a living unless things change.

Nowadays, magazine groups bring along a 'money guy' to editorial meetings where the unspoken rule is you have to pay to play.

But rather than fund journalists to work for one media outlet like, say, the Sun, Mail Online, Closer Magazine or BuzzFeed, we’re likely to see a new set of swings and roundabouts.

The new media playground will see groups of independent journalists who can pitch and share. They might provide exclusives for one outlet or service many. The common key will be content that stands up and is factual. 

It’s a game that might not always see the funders on the winning side, but that’s a gamble they’ll have to take. The odds are stacked too high with AI threatening to wreak havoc in the media.

The die may be cast, but the jackpot will go to those who play their cards right by creating content that’s radical enough to snatch people’s attention with copy that screams ‘look at me’.

It’s not just native content that’s the holy grail; it’s raw and real native content.

Online marketers rely heavily on content curation and sharing, making tidy piles of keyword specific articles from the – at the time of writing – 1,193,310,618 websites on the internet.

Twitter sees an average of around 6,000 tweets per second – that’s more than 350,000 tweets sent per minute, 500 million per day and around 200 billion per year.

On Facebook, close to 3 billion content items are shared every day. Facebook also sees more than 3bn likes, more than 350m photos uploaded every day and users watch 100m hours of video.

On Google-owned YouTube, 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute and almost 5bn videos watched every single day

But who wants to refry the refried beans? They must surely lose their taste after a while.

As with all content, the key is to master both the private and public experience.

Our private experience is driven by what we’ve shown an interest in, bringing us content that’s highly personalised and relevant to us. We’re led to believe this is a good thing, but in truth, it’s nothing more than a digital straightjacket. 

Many people like variety. Life to them is a potpourri of experience. These people don’t want to be defined by what they showed an active interest in last week. Would Christopher Columbus have set out to discover America if all he was presented with was local information based on his home in Spain? What a bland and boring existence that is. 

We are tribal beings. That’s why the Glastonbury Festival sells out in 0.0001 seconds when tickets go on sale online. People want to touch, feel and be around other real people. They don’t want to be stuck at home plugged into a virtual reality machine like a character in The Matrix. 

Marketers can cash in on that tribal instinct. So what if O2 is the organisation behind you enjoying VIP treatment at a concert venue? You would only mind if you were excluded from the event because it was for O2 customers only.

We need independent marketers to stage advertiser-funded events that move away from the partisan approach of in-house marketing teams.

Information overload and the battle to grab people’s attention is a major issue that threatens to load the dice. As Nobel Prize winner, economist and artificial intelligence pioneer Herbert A Simon said: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means the dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes.” 

Holding that precious attention and building loyalty is like balancing on a tightrope. Marketers must not look down as they perform backwards and forward somersaults to do so. 

Taking risks daily – that’s what it takes to make it all come together. The agency of the future will be better placed to make those risks worthwhile. 

The new hybrid content generator funded by big business will wear its vested interest like a badge but wear it lightly. 

This way it’s not only the marketing mavens who will do well, but independent and quality journalistic enquiry will flourish too.

You can Bang On to Richard about this column on email or Twitter @6hillgrove

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