Between a Pox and a Hard Place

Big pharma companies are the industry everyone loves to hate, or at least in the case of the media. It’s not hard to see why. The industry is repeatedly rocked by scandals of companies bribing doctors and allegations of malpractice, making it an easy target for shock headlines. The industry’s latest woes come in the form of the governments’ £500million bill for allegedly ineffective flu drugs.

Back in 2005, when the swine-flu epidemic hysteria reached its peak, the UK Government started stockpiling Tamiflu, a drug created by Roche and touted as the best hope in avoiding a major flu outbreak.  Come 2014 a Cochrane review reveals that Roche did not release all of their trial research, which is in fact entirely legal, and its drug is perhaps not as effective as first suggested.

Cue media outrage, finger pointing and headlines demanding to know why tax payers’ money is being squandered on useless drugs.  Seeing these headlines you’d be forgiven for thinking that the media had argued all along that the drugs were a waste of money. However, looking back it appears that many headlines carry the tell-tale symptoms of hypocrisy. As Oliver Wright at the Independent points out, during the swine flu panic headlines were screaming for the Government to purchase Tamiflu to defend against an outbreak.

What are we to make of this? We know shocking headlines catch eyes and sell papers and some are indeed guilty of over-dramatising the story… but in the case of scandalous healthcare stories where is a journalist to look for the real answers? The jury is still out on whether Tamiflu is effective in treating flu symptoms. Various regulatory bodies and doctors say it is useless, whilst others claim it’s a perfectly good treatment. Let’s not forget this drug has the necessary regulatory approval. It’s only due to the passing comments of a doctor and the belligerence of the BMJ that the research was even questioned. So if all the regulatory bodies and research, at the time, backed the use of Tamiflu it seems only right that journalists would jump on the bandwagon, only to be swept up in later controversies.

The healthcare industry by nature is about the long-play. Research evolves and unforeseen issues in treatments can take years, even decades to arise. So perhaps this should serve as a cautionary tale of over-dramatising healthcare stories in favour of a little discretion and foresight into how the story could play out later down the line.


When #PricelessSurprises became #CostlyMistakes

We wouldn’t have wanted to be in House PR’s shoes yesterday.  No, not even a ticket to the Brit Awards (and the remote possibility of rubbing shoulders with David Bowie), would have made us change places with them after the furore that blew up on Twitter around #PricelessSurprises for their client MasterCard.  So what did House PR do that was so wrong?

The agency committed what is commonly known in the PR world as the eighth deadly sin.  They presumed to tell a journalist what they should write.  They used the sought-after Brit Awards press seat allocation as collateral, dangling the tickets tantalisingly in front of some of the UK’s top showbiz reporters, in return for an agreed list of specific coverage. This even included a suggested Tweet for each journalist to cut and paste.

The relationship between hack and PR professional is a delicate thing, and it’s driven by our news media’s need for authenticity and balance.  There is a fine, unspoken line that both parties respect and don’t cross. For the journalist,  this means cutting the PR person enough slack to let them ask for a brand or website mention in the article that they, after all, supplied the idea, spokespeople, evidence and statistics for. Within the boundaries of good balance and objectivity, sometimes a journalist will be able to do exactly that.

For the PR person, this means perhaps working some of the brand’s key messages into the story that they pass on or perhaps supplying an image or b-roll that incorporates client branding in it. Or even perhaps asking in a slightly embarrassed, humble tone, if they would mind awfully, if it’s not too much trouble, mentioning their client by name in their piece. But true PR professionals never, ever presume to have rights over what the journalist will finally publish. Once that line is crossed, the trusted relationship is over.  Which does nobody any favours.

Telegraph Mandrake columnist, Tim Walker has pointed out, what House PR should have done is to pay for advertising alone.  This, in marketing terms, is how you control what appears in the press and is posted on social channels.  Well, direct advertising is probably not the right medium for subtle brand placement.  But there are an increasing number of other forms of paid and owned media that could have been explored. A paid blogging programme for example, could have delivered the brand mentions and hashtags that they were looking to journalists for. Not to mention targeted, sponsored posts on Linkedin.  House PR was already paying to promote #PricelessSurprises on Twitter and we’re pretty sure, if they’d just asked the journalists that were invited to the Brit Awards to use that hashtag, most of them probably would have done so.

As it stands, #PricelessSurprises was hijacked yesterday by just about every p*ssed off hack in London and yet was still promoted all day. But then there’s no such thing as bad PR, so they say…

It might not have helped the PR industry’s reputation, but this story has certainly provided us with a useful case study for our trainees at Racepoint and for those degree students we regularly provide workshops to.

Rumours, headlines and the x-surface-factor

Last week some exciting rumours hit the web, starting on Pocket-lint. It seems an anonymous tipster had got in touch to reveal top secret details of new Xbox products coming up to launch. Amongst other exciting details was the promise of a brand new Xbox console, not to be labelled ‘720’, and a 7-inch gaming table dubbed the X-Surface.

Related and less detailed rumours had appeared before, but this latest gaming-insider-info was quickly picked up on numerous other sites. Then it was revealed to be a hoax.

It turned out the ‘news’ came from a prankster who had clearly reached frustration breaking point with tech and gaming websites reporting unconfirmed rumours. On a dedicated Tumblr blog the wily tipster explains these actions, wanting to highlight the lack of fact-checking some sites do on rumours and leaked stories.

That’s all good and noble and all, although it does somewhat ignore Pocket-Lint’s disclaimer:

“Naturally, when a tipster is anonymous, there is some degree of trepidation attached to believing what they say verbatim. However, considering the facts Pocket-lint has been given, and the lack of outlandish claims, everything our source says is plausible”.

It’s also sad that it’ll discourage future rumour stories that may be correct, as Pocket-Lint suggested in an update to the original article.

As a PR, it also highlighted something else to me – the desire for news sites and blogs to post a story, any story, with a headline including a well know brand or product, sometimes to their detriment.

Don’t get me wrong, this makes a lot of sense. Having New iPhone Launched smack in the middle of your homepage will grab more than your average traffic. And since the majority of sites rely on traffic to support their business model, I can see why even the vaguest of rumours is worth considering.

However, this focus on big brands, products and rumours shouldn’t come at the expense of stories from smaller brands that have something darn interesting to say or show. In my time as a PR I’ve been told by journalists several times news, a new product, or briefing sounds interesting, but the lack of brand awareness of the client company means they can’t dedicate the time to covering it. They sometimes play it off to the high level nature of their publication (I’m looking at you nationals).

This may sound idealistic and a little romantic, that the little guy should get an equal look-in as the goliath brands of the world. And since it does, here’s a real example (with details lacking to protect my cowardly self).

Earlier this year, a client launched a new product that attracted a lot of media attention. The client was very tight lipped in the run up to the launch and was reluctant to do any pre-briefs ahead of a launch event. Event invites started and we had a few yes/no/maybe responses, when the client gave us permission to do a select few pre-briefs with trusted contacts. However, we couldn’t provide details in advance beyond ‘a new product from X company’. So we approached a few nationals who had covered the company’s products at launch before. The response from one was words to the effect ‘Unless you’re Apple or Google, we can’t dedicate the time to come to an event or an interview on something without knowing exactly what it is’.

Happily another contact, who was also open to coming to the event, took a briefing on merit and past experience, assuming it would be a good story from a known company. And it was. On the day, the article was one of the most read and shared the outlet’s website. Then the first contact got back in touch, requesting any future announcements be given as a pre-brief in future.

So in some cases, a good story from a reputable client is out-weighed by an unconfirmed rumour from a well known name. Desire for high search traffic aside, this doesn’t seem right.

UK Readers: ‘We love online news…as long as it is celeb gossip… on our iPads…and we don’t have to pay’

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has revealed there’s something of a mix future for online news journalism and paid content.

Three-quarters of Brits read news everyday – which is low

According to the survey findings, based on a poll of 6,000 people from the UK, US, Germany, France and Denmark (so when I say ‘rest of the world’ that’s sort of not at all true), around three quarters of us Brits access news every day. ‘Access news’ meaning either watching TV, listening to radio, reading it online or in good old fashioned inky finger newspapers.

Not a bad stat, but compared to the Germans we’re lagging behind. 90% of our Deutschland friends are accessing news on a daily basis. We’re also lagging behind the Denmark, the US and France.

Daily access of news online by country, Reuters

Source: Reuters, via BBC News Online

Celebs vs politicians

But maybe it’s about the quality of news read, rather than quantity? Actually, no.

According to the BBC’s abridged reporting of the survey, us Brits are far more into celeb news (that is gossip, film and music) than political news. 21% of readers in the UK are hungry for celeb-centric stories, compared to 16% in the US, 14% in France and Germany and a miniscule 9% in Denmark (although to be far, I can’t name a Danish celeb).

The BBC attributes (blames) this on sites like Mail Online, Holy Moly and Female First.

In comparison, 37% of UK readers were interested in political news. This sounds good, until you compared it to the US’s 63%.

Future is bright for online journalism and the social media savvy

The upside to this, from the future of journalism perspective, is UK users are more likely to find news online than anywhere else – 82% of those snap-shotted in the survey had read online news in the last week.

More good news for online comes in the social media usage and discovery stats. On average, 20% of readers are now likely to find a story through social media sites (Facebook and Twitter named specifically). For younger readers, those tweet posting / status updating whipper-snappers, this goes up to a whopping 43%. More exciting still, social media collectively surpasses search engines as a source – take that Google News.

Mixed results for paid content

Sadly, one of the lowest numbers in the entire report is the percentage of UK readers willing to pay for news online: just 4%. It’s not much better elsewhere, the highest figure came from Denmark and barely broke into double figures at 12%.

Its better news for those who’ve looked into a tablet app as well as a website – 21% of tablet owners have paid for news. As always this is always a slightly skewed statistic. Tablet owners tend to be at the upper end of the affluent scale, so have more dosh to splash on digital content. I’m not sure Mail Online readers will be queuing up to pay for a tablet app ticker of celebs posing at the Wimbledon final. Never say never though.

So while there’s money to be made and online eyeballs to be grabbed, the ball is still in the media innovators’ corner to secure the future value of news journalism. The full report can be read for free online here.


Is TechCrunch about to go the way of Sparta?

It is if you’re looking at the image on Michael Arrington’s latest post. It seems the conflicting reports and statements from AOL, which now owns TechCrunch, over the last few days are about to come to a serious head.

TechCrunch’s sale to AOL raised a few eyebrows back in September last year, the most notable being would the site retain its notable, and sometimes infamous, editorial independence under AOL’s ownership.

MG Siegler for one, wasn’t sure this morning when he wrote, “This site is about to change forever and we’re in the total ******* dark. I’ve been able to piece together little bits of information here and there, and it’s not looking good”. And now Arrington, who recently stepped down as editor of TechCrunch to run his own investment fund, CrunchFund, has come out with an ultimatum:

“We’ve proposed two options to Aol.

1. Reaffirmation of the editorial independence promised at the time of acquisition. Given the current circumstances, that means autonomy from Huffington Post, unfettered editorial independence and a blanket right to editorial self determination. To put it simply, TechCrunch would stay with Aol but would be independent of the Huffington Post.


2. Sell TechCrunch back to the original shareholders.”

So that could be his last TechCrunch post. Or it could well be a storm in a teacup. Of all this intriguing toing and froing, the most interesting is just how openly the dispute is being discussed – thanks to blogging and self-publishing. The only way it could get more exciting is if it all went quiet. Then we’d know for sure something is up.