Coming Unspun: PR Can’t – and Won’t – Save New Labour

Before I get started, this blog is not about politics, it’s about PR and the limits of its impact on saving failing political parties and careers. I’ve spent a great deal of this morning listening to a debate on BBC Radio 5 Live held in Brighton, where the Labour Party annual conference is in full swing. I’ve been listening to sound bites, rallying calls and urges from the Chancellor to take Labour’s “good story” to the country ahead of next year’s UK general election.

I’m sure Labour will have its best spin doctors on the case in the next few months but spin can’t save the party now, and I don’t think policy can either. Even tough (belated) talk on curtailing bankers’ bonuses sounds as creaky as the stable door as it closes with no bolted horse in sight. Tony Blair’s immense presence helped a fast-falling party make it through the last election, but the sheer lack of leadership and personalities – economic conditions aside – means, I believe, that we can look forward to some aggressive and desperate spin from No.10 ahead of next year.

In fact, I think it’ll get ugly. The expenses issue affected all parties, so I don’t expect to see that to be used in any of the main parties’ campaigning, but there’s so much easy pickings for the opposition Tories and Lib Dems to fire at Labour that I’m interested to see what the Government’s line will be. It has to major on justifying its place to govern for another four years rather than "well, it’d be worse under the Conservatives", as that’s negative, hypothetical and unconstructive. And, looking at its record, it can’t. Brown is no Blair and I don’t think the public will believe anything the Government tells it now, and Germany's recent move to the Centre-Right can only be good news for David Cameron. This is one fix Labour can’t spin its way out of.


Striking the Balance

I’ve just completed reading this – in my view – rather juvenile blog on the behaviour of some PR people. I’m not going to waste too much of this sunny Friday afternoon responding to a post that – unintelligent use of profane language aside – I could have read a thousand times before, but it does raise the gnawing question as to why so many PR people are making so many basic mistakes.

I've been on both sides of the PR/Journalist fence so I've seen both viewpoints firsthand. You can filter out a lot of the journalist bravado here – for a start, what percentage of trade papers, for example, is PR-led and generated compared to journalists doing the actual digging themselves? But one can’t detract from the fact that there’s still a lot of bad PR practice going on there and, alas, I think there’ll be a certain element of this that will always be with us.

To be successful and build up a reputation, it’s up to us to make sure we manage our clients so that we only issue targeted, relevant information (note I didn’t use the word ‘news’) and don’t pick up the phone to someone for whom our call would not be relevant.


Doing business "globally" with Americans

The topic of 'how to do business globally, or even transatlantically' is so vast and constantly changing, you could easily fill a library on the subject. But even though it's a topic best approached with formal research and discussion, it comes up informally all the time, with companies constantly asking me for advice as someone who has worked in marketing in both the US and UK. Most of the time the companies that I come across are European companies that want to cut corners and launch a product or service to the US as cheaply as possibly, often making zero investment in the process, other than getting their product on the market there. A one hour conference call talking about America should do it, right? Spending marketing money on ensuring your company looks attractive to Americans is often the last thing invested in, or thought about. Dumb, huh? But I've seen it a dozen times. I'm sure the same exists for US companies wanting to get into Europe, I just meet less of them.

A topic that may be easier to tackle, and hence often the best place to start, is how to get your company's nomenclature up to speed if you are going to "appear American." Plus I'm one of those geeky linguistic types, who likes nothing more than to ponder the etymology of rarely-used words, so this topic interests me greatly.

For instance, someone asked me the other day whether their business should be characterised as 'global' or 'international' - and this got me thinking. It's a very good question. If you are running a business located outside the US, and want to be seen as American-friendly, you have to accept some truths about the country (truths which, I've often found, a lot of people from other countries don't like accepting).

One of these truths is a tendency on the part of Americans to use the word 'international' to mean 'outside America.' Weird, huh? Given that the US is part of this thing called the globe. And with globalisation ruling the roost, we can't really pretend to operate solely on our shores anymore - especially web businesses.

But true it is. Just look at how CNN International is the name of the part of the news organisation that's outside the States.

It is indicative of how a lot of Americans tend to look at the world: "us" and "them." If you don't like thinking about that truth, and working your product around it, you perhaps should look to launch in another country. But you won't, because the huge market opportunity of the US is so compelling, dammit.

So a top tip is, if you want to set up shop in America, and you are running a global business, you probably don't want to call yourself an international business. That just highlights the point about your company which you are desperately trying to sweep under the carpet right now.

Another thing is how professional your website looks. Trust me when I say that I use a lot of websites that don't appear very professional (in an American sense of the word). And they work just great and I love using them. However, to impress a mass market in the US, you have to remember that Americans are exceptionally protective of their privacy and safety. Intrusions on their person or home will be met with a proverbial shotgun. This extends to the look and feel of your website. If your site looks in anyway dodgy, you ain't getting invited in for fried chicken and biscuits, I can assure you. Having Google ads on your homepage is not the route towards looking professional, unless you are Google, that is.

Americans are also exceptionally thorough people, both at home and in the workplace. When they do QA on a product or service, they do QA. Just asking your four best friends to look at your site for glaring errors might work in Europe, but it is nowhere near enough to satisfy the appetite for quality that you will be met with on American soil. Americans are louder than average and more quick to lodge complaints. If they find something wrong with your website, they aren't likely to keep it to themselves.

If you want to see what a professional website looks like to an American, look at the types of online services that Americans gobble up. (E.g., Hulu.com looks a lot more professional in an American sense of the word than PirateBay.org). Just because you are a small startup - the "small guy in a big overbearing market" - a "fighter" - doesn't mean you are going to be held to any different standard than that. Which means that you do have to consider making that investment in 'frilly' things like look and feel, ensuring your language is friendly within the boundaries of the country you are launching it in, and ensuring your entire marketing image fits into a marketplace where your positioning will always, without fail, change the minute you cross the pond.

It's a huge topic that I hope to blog about more. A few starting points to ponder, anyway.

See Yourself as Others See You

I firmly believe that search engine optimisation (SEO) will do away with deplorable marketing puff. Why? Because search engines demand that we use plain English to describe our products and services if we want our websites to be found by potential customers. This means companies need to craft content containing words that resonate with the general public as opposed to the classic mantras such as 'market leading provider of [insert industry field here] solutions'. I welcome that, as I've been a strong opponent of needless puff for a long time.

I recently consulted on the re-writing of a website which was under-performing. The company was keen to describe itself a certain way which, while suiting its branding and not puffy at all, was not consistent with the way the public would be searching for its product online. A simple visit to Google's Keyword Tool helped us source the appropriate keywords that consumers were most likely to use to find the type of products the company offered. We redrafted the text and within a week – that quickly – the company was well placed in the top half Google’s first page of search.

The lesson here is to step away from your brand and see it as other people see you. If you're a double glazing firm, say so, resist the temptation to load your site with text about being 'a leading provider of insulation solutions' because Joe Public isn't searching online for that. They're too busy looking for 'double glazing', and they'll find your rivals if you're not careful.

Due to the sheer numbers of people searching for some keywords, a simple re-draft of the homepage is often worth more than many an expensive PR programme. But although we may see the long-overdue demise of marketing puff, there's still the need for creative, SEO-savvy copywriters to make that content come to life and draw in traffic.


President Obama's back to school address: carry an umbrella in a media shitstorm

It's now four hours till President Obama's much debated back to school address. The speech, at 12 pm EST today and intended to be aired live to students of all ages, will focus on the importance of staying school. (You can watch it online at WhiteHouse.gov). Bizarrely, there has been a huge media and political backlash in the US from opponents claiming that Obama's speech is "political" and therefore unsuitable for children to be forced to hear in school. Crazy, right? Especially considering plenty of other presidents have given addresses to schoolkids. But this media shitstorm got so serious that many parents were surprised to find their kids carrying permission slips home which they had to sign to let Junior watch the address. Yeah.

Disclaimer: I worship at the Obama altar so this post is bound to be a bit one-sided; however, I grew up in Oswego, NY, in the days when the TV got wheeled into the classroom on a huge mobile cart for every important televised event, be it a presidential address, or the launching of the Challenger space shuttle. The latter event obviously went disastrously wrong and I still remember how shocked teachers were went it blew up in front of our very eyes, and how confused all the kids were as to what had just happened. I was in the third grade (about 8 years old) and didn't fully understand the enormity of what had just taken place.

We also stood up every single day at 9 am, without fail, put our hands on our hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance simultaneously with the entire school. I don't know how common this practice is anymore, but I loved it, and I believe patriotism is one of the things that makes America great.

So - Obama's had to deal with a media crisis over an innocent strategy to stress a very non-political education agenda. And meanwhile his opponents' claims that this is "political" are completely hypocritical because that is exactly what their protests are.

One friend on Facebook described this as "a wholly embarrassing chapter in American history." I couldn't put it better myself.

Obama's media team expertly put the text of his speech online 24 hours before it will be televised to ensure a) any journalist covering it has no excuse not to get his words exactly right; b) to convince any naysayers that his address is actually for the good of children and not pushing some sneaky agenda; and c) to demonstrate just how pointless these weeks of debate have been.

Another masterful move in media manipulation from the Obama camp, the main reason being that his strategy is simple and follows the laws of common sense. It's a media strategy that seems remarkable only for its lack of complexity, but still, it's something that other world leaders could learn from: "carry an umbrella in a media shitstorm." It's not a bad lesson for schoolkids to be reminded of, either.


Anti-Social Behaviour

Ladies and gentlemen, do not adjust your sets, it is not 2007, but you’d be forgiven if you read entrepreneur Theo Paphitis’ tirade against Facebook abuse at work in today’s Daily Mail. It’s the right organ for this sort of rant but the timing is strange. I thought we’d all ditched the “should we ban Facebook at work?” debate two years ago? Isn’t 2009 all about Twitter at work? And somehow Twitter’s OK because you could argue it’s work related (which for me, it is. I’ll be tweeting this, and I hope you’ll RT it!).

Looking at the bigger picture, I think Theo and/or his PR advisors have decided to focus on this area for such a long opinion piece because social networking as a whole really is having a disruptive effect on UK business and many managers will empathise with Theo’s views. When I say ‘disruptive’ I mean in both senses of the word – the distraction factor for those who are just messing around with their friends and ‘disruptive’ in the way it has shook up the way companies do business.

I recently blogged on what social media means for small businesses and start-ups for SmallBizPod. As long as firms can make the most of their staff’s knowledge of social networking and use it as a force for good then there really could be no reason to ban it at work. So, which kind of ‘disruption’ do you want? Your call.