Posted on

A FUNGI TO BE WITH – eating wild mushrooms for the BBC

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

Sometimes you have to suffer for your art. Take tomorrow’s Open Country programme on BBC Radio 4. There I am scrunching through the leaf litter in the  New Forest looking for wild mushrooms when my guide, the mycologist John Wright (off Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage show), says to me “go on try that one.” So I do. With interesting consequences. Listen out for the sound of spitting tomorrow, Saturday, morning just after six or the following Thursday lunchtime.

And if you can’t catch it on the wireless then you can listen here once it’s been broadcast.

Posted on

POURING TROUBLE ON OILED WATER – part two

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

So at last Tony Hayward has admitted BP was ‘not prepared’ for the Gulf oil spill. In an interview for the BBC’s Money programme – his first since the disaster – the former oil company boss said BP wasn’t ready to deal with the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the media “feeding frenzy” that followed it. Hayward said as the face of BP he had been “demonised and vilified”, but he understood why.

“If I had done a degree at Rada [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] rather than a degree in geology, I may have done better, but I’m not certain it would’ve changed the outcome,” he said before adding “But certainly the perception of myself may have been different.”

Tony you could have saved yourself the time and expense of a degree in dramatic art and simply booked a couple of ACM Training’s media, crisis communications and emergency planning courses. They’d have set you back £99 per person or £999 per workshop but think how much you might have saved? The debacle is estimated to have cost BP £30 billion – of which a significant chunk was knocked off the company’s share price simply because of the spectacularly bad PR.

In just one day we could have helped you gaze at the “disaster horizon” and see (without yet another degree – this one in clairvoyance) which direction the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might be coming from. Then armed with the certain knowledge that if you drill for oil one day that oil is going to get spilt we’d have helped you draw up a very simple media plan complete with a number of straightforward, credible and punchy key messages that even a geologist could deliver.

Sorry for the sarcastic tone Tone but I still cannot quite grasp the fact that a company the size of BP should have been so useless in PR and media terms. There are small business across Britain bp than BP (better prepared than BP).

So if you’re reading this Tony give me a call or drop me a line and avoid another costly mistake in future. And if you’re not Tony Hayward but would like to know how we can help you and your organisation deal with the media in a crisis then why not come along to one of our public crisis communications workshops or book us to deliver crisis comms training in-house? 

Posted on 1 Comment

GLAMOURPUSS OCTOPUS – or why the media loves animals and celebrities

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

One’s an octopus. The other’s a glamourpuss. And they’re both suckers for soccer (or soccer players) in their own peculiar way. But Paul and Cheryl have more than that in common. Over the past week their tentacles have reached deep into the murky depths of the British media demonstrating once again that there’s nothing like animals and celebrity (or better still a combination of the two) to whet the appetite of a silly season sub editor.

First to Paul. That’s the unlikely name given to an octopus who lives in a tank at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen. Since when has Paul been a German name? And aren’t octopuses supposed to have alliterative monikers like Otto (which at least has the virtue of sounding vaguely Germanic)? But then Otto doesn’t scan too well with Paul’s skill as a psychic. Herr Otto, I mean Paul, has managed to pick the winners of every game involving Germany during the World Cup by choosing mussels coded with the national colours of the various teams. Call me an old cynic but clearly the England team’s mollusc was laced with a particularly nasty form of shellfish poisoning to avoid any slip ups in the group stages. Whether Paul’s punditry is a freak of nature or a fluke of chance matters not – you can’t buy this sort of publicity (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/10604336.stm if you missed it) but you can manufacture it. I’d stake my modest reputation on the fact that the managers at Sea Life set up the whole thing as a publicity stunt. Now that’s what I call a story with legs (or is it arms)? All you need to get free advertising in the editorial media is an understanding of what gets us hacks going. And Paul ticks a lot of boxes (as you’d expect with all those limbs) – his story’s topical, involves the national sport, is quirky and gives us a chance to have a wry smile at zose crazee Germans…

And so to the Geordie songstress. Cheryl’s story – or at least the most recent chapter – was an unfortunate accident. Let’s face it not even publicity-hungry ex-WAGs deliberately get themselves infected with something as nasty as malaria to try to deflect attention from their philandering former friends. But as soon as she contracted the disease – and even as she was being treated in intensive care – there were media opportunities being sought and exploited.

Malaria kills up to three million people a year – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa – and all those deaths rate barely a mention in the UK media. So you could, not unreasonably, argue that our obsession with celebrity is obscene when the relative value of human life seems so out of kilter. But at least Ms Tweedy’s suffering has put malaria on the map. Charities fighting the disease and its consequences have not been slow to use this opportunity for the good. In the same way that cancer charities sensitively handled the death of Jade Goody.

I’ll leave you with this question: which is the bigger parasite – the media or the malaria-causing Plasmodium protozoan carried by the female Anopheles mosquito?

If you’d like to use the media proactively (like Paul) you can learn how on our media strategies and campaigns workshop.

If you’d like to learn how to deal with the media in emergencies then our crisis communications workshop is for you.

Posted on

ON YOUR FARM – health food

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

What would you rather eat if you were laid up in hospital – a freshly cooked meal prepared from locally sourced produce or something knocked up in a factory and heated in a microwave? A no brainer isn’t it? The “real” food is tastier, nutritionally better and cheaper. So why are so many hospitals still serving ready meals that, according to experts, risk starving their patients? I’ll tell you why…because some NHS Trusts are seduced by the smooth talk of big business.

I’ve just presented a programme for BBC Radio Four on the Nottingham hospital trust that is refreshingly different. It’s supporting local farmers by sourcing all of its fresh food and drink from local producers. I talked to dairy farmer Robert Walker and followed his milk from cow to hospital ward, and along the way met butcher Richard Taylor, who supplies meat to the hospital. And at Nottingham City hospital I met the man behind the project, John Hughes.

You can listen here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s571

Posted on

(MC)CHRYSTAL CLEAR – pouring trouble on oiled waters

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

General Stanley McChrystal may be a brilliant military strategist but he ain’t gonna win any media campaign medals. His sacking as the commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan by American President Barack Obama for telling a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine there were “wimps in the White House” demonstrates that the ill-chosen word is mightier than the sword.

Eating one meal, running seven miles and sleeping for only four hours every 24 has clearly softened the hard man’s mind. Why else would he forget one of the rules of engagement with enemy media forces: don’t say what you think unless you’re happy to be quoted on it and can live with the consequences?

Another man to shoot himself in the foot is BP boss Tony Hayward. Telling the media he “wanted his life back” was an insensitive choice of words so soon after the loss of nine lives in the rig explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill. A PR gaffe compounded by the suggestion (true but unpalatable) that, relatively speaking, the leak was a drop in the ocean. He’s guilty of pouring trouble on oiled waters.

Frankly they’re both paid enough to do better and, money aside, are surrounded by advisors who are either useless or unheeded. Let me make myself McChrystal clear: think before you speak; ask yourself what the television-viewing, radio-listening, newspaper-reading, web-surfing public will make of what you’re about to say; and if you’re still happy then go ahead punk make my day – pull the trigger and let those words come firing out.

Posted on

WHAT MAKES NEWS?

Approx. reading time: 6 minutes

A well written news release can persuade the media to act as your de facto advertising agency and help you “sell” your “product.” The product can be something tangible that you want to market for strictly commercial reasons. Or it can be an intangible idea being marketed for social reasons. Trouble is, in both cases, most news release fail to get published or broadcast. And that means that an awful lot of creative juice is being spilled for nothing. So why do the majority fail? Most don’t work because they never quite overcome what I call the so what factor – that is they are of little or no interest to the newspaper-reading, radio-listening, television-viewing public or, in the case of specialist publications, of limited value to even the readers of the trade press. Some stumble because they are poorly written. Others trip up for seemingly arbitrary or trivial reasons like they were sent to the wrong person or on the wrong day.

This article was written as part of the course material for ACM Training’s writing press releases workshop. If you’d like to find out more about this workshop or the many others we offer in the fields of media, communication and organisational development then please click here.

To make sure that your news releases don’t fall at the first of these hurdles it’s worth exploring what makes news. And that means doing an almost forensic dissection of your target media – the media outlets you’re aiming to get your release into or on because that’s where your target audience are. Doesn’t matter if you’re pitching at mass circulation daily papers or magazines, your local papers or specialist trade publications. Read them from cover to cover. Get to know them inside outside out. The same applies if you’re targeting television or radio programmes except, of course, you’ll be watching or listening instead of reading. What sorts of stories do they cover? Draw up a list. It’s likely to be a fairly long one but I bet you people will be at the heart of most, if not all. That’s what we’re after – human interest stories (even if they’re about animals). 

Dog bites man, as the old saying goes, is not news. Happens all the time. Just ask your local postie. But man bites dog is news because it bucks the usual trend. So trend bucking is one news category. What are the others? Well, on the subject of trends you could add stories that conform to trends – those that serve to reinforce our world view. For example, most stories about global climate change fall into this category. I say most because those dissenting voices who say that climate change is natural rather than man made fall into the previous category. And before we leave trends behind there’s a news category dedicated to trend creation the most annoying of which are the stories in the style pages of Sunday supplements and glossy magazines which tell us gushingly that brown is the new black, or that the Boysenberry is going to the next must-have electronic gidget (that’s a cross between a gadget and a widget by the way and not a typo). Private Eye has a satirical column dedicated to these stories. It’s called the Neophiles. Despite this, it’s a rich vein worth tapping into if you possibly can and, who knows, you may get some additional, free publicity courtesy of the Eye if you pull it off.

Another vein you might exploit is nostalgia. Not news, of course, in the traditional sense because it’s the exact opposite – history. But local papers, especially, love stories about the way we were and publish old black and white photos by the column mile. If, for example, you’re a business trying to promote the opening of a new building, your local newspaper may ignore your news release because it’s deemed too commercial. But if you can find some old photographs of what was there before and engage a friendly local historian to say a few warm words then it may get picked up, even if only as a kind of before and after photo story. Better than nothing.

The Oxford Times recently carried a full page feature about a local company developing a jet engine which could cut the flight time from Britain to Australia to just a few hours. This is a classic example of the cutting edge category. It doesn’t have to be high tech engineering as in this case. It can be in medicine, construction, commerce…pretty much any field, including a grass one if it’s an agricultural story. 

The tabloids, in particular, are obsessed with the rich and (in)famous. So your news release might be able latch on to this. Charities especially, realise the importance of celebrity endorsement. They understand that if you keep the message the same but change the messenger it can make the difference between being ignored and being talked about. You don’t even need the celebrity’s permission to invoke their good name. For example, if you are trying to promote healthy packed lunches for school children and would like, but can’t afford, Jamie Oliver to launch your campaign, then I see nothing wrong with saying in the top line of your release: packed lunches in Anytown are getting a Jamie Oliver-style makeover. The celebrity doesn’t need to be a household name. If you can’t get anybody on the A-list don’t worry, there are another 25 letters in the alphabet. Okay, so Z-list celebs may not have universal appeal but even the Mayor or Mayoress of the smallest place ranks as something of a celeb in their local media. As a fellow Z -lister I know, having opened more than my fair share of summer fetes when I read the television news from Pebble Mill in the BBC’s Midlands region. The organisers of those events misguidedly assumed my mere presence would boost takings a thousand fold. It didn’t but what it did do was almost guarantee a pre-event announcement and/or a post-event snap in the local paper and, frequently, a mention on local radio too. Years later the transient nature of (very minor) celebrity was brought home to me in my local town, Ludlow. One of the area’s best loved but slightly eccentric characters came up to me in the street and said without a hint of irony: “You used to be that Richard Uridge on the telly didn’t you.”

The old saying there’s nothing new under the sun could be re-worked along the lines of there’s nothing new in the Sun. There’s very little genuine news around – that is, literally, something new or novel. So instead hundreds of acres of newsprint and thousands of hours of airtime are dedicated to stories that add to the debate on topical events or include expert opinion or speculation. The rolling news channels such as BBC News 24 and Sky News and stations like BBC Radio Five Live couldn’t function without these time-filling categories. They have an almost insatiable appetite for information to the extent that one of these days a broken toenail is going to get the breaking news treatment. Well maybe not quite, but if you’ve got an expert in your midst why not suggest them as a guest? Universities do. However, they and other organisations could do much more to help meet the demand.

You can even search religious texts like the Bible for clues as to what makes news. Papers are full of parables such as David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan. Here are some examples. Plucky pensioner (David) refuses to pay council tax to local authority (Goliath). “Metric martyr” grocer (David) takes on the crazy Brussels bureaucrats (Goliath) by refusing to sell his produce by kilogrammes. Defiant granny (Davina) bashes yob (Goliath) with handbag. Have-a-go hero (Good Samaritan) rescues kids from blazing house. Disgraced MP in expenses wrangle gets job as swineherd. Okay, I admit, I made up the last headline. Casting my mind back to Sunday School it’s the first part of the story of the Prodigal Son. That or wishful thinking. But you get my point. Can you reframe your story to give it a familiar feel?

Perhaps the single definition that underpins all of the others is impact on other people. Does your story impact on other people in any way? The bigger the impact and the greater the number of people affected the better. Step back from your story and try to look at it with objective eyes. Of course you are interested in it. But will enough other people feel the same way? The whole purpose of working out what makes news is that your news release must be newsworthy in someway. As we’ve seen, it’s a pretty broad definition that doesn’t have very much to do with news at all in many cases so there’s plenty of scope. But if you can’t picture your proposed story sitting comfortably within whatever programme or publication you are pitching it at, then you’ll probably be wasting your time writing it up. Save yourself the trouble. Concentrate on those news releases you feel have a better chance. Look at it this way – if your news release doesn’t tick at least one of the definition boxes then it may not work. Journalists are unlikely to risk breaking a tried and tested formula. We think we know what our audiences want and, rightly or wrongly, feed them this staple diet week in week out. To continue with the foodie metaphor for a moment, if you want us to change the menu then what you’re offering better be appetising because we don’t want our readers turning up their noses and going to another restaurant!

Got a category to suggest? Something that’s paid off for you and you’d like to share? Click here to email me and I’ll add it to the list.

Next time…structure and how the Pyramids of Egypt can help you write a successful news release.