WRITE STUFF: 15 pieces of advice for journalists heading to a career in PR

23106362469_a553484d8b_bSo, what is the difference was between journalism and PR? I’ve stopped and asked myself the question this week. I’ve been thinking of how to explain the difference.

For 12-years I was a journalist and rose to become assistant chief reporter of a daily regional newspaper. Back then I would have told you that the difference was news was everything they don’t want you to know. The rest is PR, I’d have said.

Eight years on and director of my own company I know the difference is more to it than that just a lack of shouting news editors and no double murders.

The truth is that if there was a Venn diagram, there would be surprising little between the two. At best, it’s a common use of the English language and the knowledge that news is people. And people like to read about people.

Here are 15 differences

A yardstick of success. As a journalist, your measure is if you’ve got the front page. Failing that, it’s a healthy number of pageleads. As a comms person, it’s a number of things. Chiefly, being able to show the material difference your content has made. The number of foster carers recruited, for example.

Criticism. I say this with love, knowing journalists will take umbrage. There is nobody so thin skinned as a journalist. I knew this when I was one. I know it now too. As a comms person you are like a sniper in no man’s land. Under fire from all sides. Your organisation and those outside will throw things at you.

Professional regard. Journalists are special. Not trusted, especially. But special. They have a Press bench and a Press pass. Doors open. Comms people have a daily battle to have their opinion listened to. Solicitors? Planning inspectors? Doctors? Their word is law. But anyone with spell check and clipart thinks they are a comms person.

Audience. A journalist, in the words of a former colleague only half in jest ‘tries to make old people scared to leave their homes.’ They used to have one main channel. Like the printed newspaper or radio bulletin. Now they have to use more. A comms person needs to know as many of the 40 different skills as possible.

Skills. While the reporter needs more skills now than ever the PR or comms person needs to draw either individually or across a team up to 40 skills.

Diplomacy. A journalist can smile politely and ask why the chief executive has failed to build 100 homes on time. A comms person needs the tact to talk through the implications of how that failure will play out and suggest a course of action.

There are no jacks under it. As a journalist, I’d be encouraged to make a story a bit more exciting by ‘putting the jacks under it.’ Outrage, slam, row. As a comms person you play it straight. You stick to the facts which are always sacred.

Accuracy. Now, here’s a thing. I was more accurate as a PR person than a journalist. There. I’ve said it. The news desk request to write a story to fit a pre-determined idea is a thing. I’ve done it. In comms and PR you need to be certain of your ground or you become the story.

A difference. A journalist can try and make a difference by holding power to account. A comms person can make a difference by drawing up the right content in the right place at the right time.

Planning. Long term planning on newspapers was often tomorrow. The concept of a comms plan to work out the business priority, the audience and the channel is alien.

Obsolescence. The journalist suffers from being in an industry whose business model is being re-invented and as a result there are casualties. Comms as an area is developing.

Hours. Long hours to make sure the paper is filled are common on newspapers – who are often renamed media companies. Hours in comms and PR are long. But it’s rare to be stood outside a burning factory in Smethwick, I find.

Writing. Just because you can write for a newspaper doesn’t mean you can write for the web. Or Facebook or Snapchat.

Your employer and your ethics. You bat for your employer as  a PR person. But you bat for your ethics first. At times you have to know your ground and say a firm ‘no.’

Innovation. There can’t be a more exciting time to be a comms person than now. The internet has tipped up old certainties. The tools we can use are evolving and the guidebook on how to use them you can write yourself. How good is that?

Like many former journalists, I admire good journalism. But don’t anyone think that being a reporter and being a press officer or a PR person are remotely the same.

Picture credit: Mattiece David / Flickr


MINDFUL AWARE: And how to deal with negative or inappropriate comments… and keep sane

2474521727_6b00bc3b61_bJust this week I was reminded that those who run social media accounts for an organisation need extra sets of skills.

To make something work well you need to put body and soul into it. You expose yourself online much more than you do offline. It can be 10 o’clock at night and you are dipping in to respond to a query.

There’s an excellent post on comms2point0 by Emily Taylor on how to deal with criticism on behalf of an organisation. That’s when people get angry about a project that isn’t going down well or some other aspect of what your employer is doing. It’s a great post. You can read it here.

But in an off-line conversation, I was also reminded that a thick skin is also something you need. It’ssomething I’ve blogged about before.

There are anecdotes of unpleasant trolling of staff. Thankfully, that’s rare.

But I’m struck by a dedicated local government officer who looks after a corporate account who told me: “I don’t look at Twitter in the evening now. I have enough of people telling me I’m an idiot between 9 and 5.”

There’s some excellent advice on staying positive online if you are getting cheesed off with your friends’ perfect baby pictures when you are, say, a new parent. Use the off switch. Unfriend. But when you are running a corporate account it’s not so easy.

For five years I ran a corporate Twitter account and was responsible for the training of more than 60 others.

Advice for people who speak online for an organisation

What advice did I give above and beyond the points made in Lucy’s post?

Don’t take it personally.

Count to 10 before replying.

Never argue with an idiot. They bring you down to their level and to a passer-by it’s just two idiots arguing.

Talk to a colleague or a friend if you feel things are getting on top of you. Blow off steam.

Ask – or maybe even let – a colleague to step in and take over for a while.

If you feel it becoming an issue talk to someone and make your line manager aware. Stress is a workplace issue and your employer has a duty to you. Asking for help isn’t being weak it’s being strong.

Have set hours when you will deal with stuff and time when you won’t. You are not on 24/7.

You’re not alone.

Picture credit: Ben Tesch / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/4LEz6H


LIGHTBULB TYPES: The Great Universal Sticky ‘Do They Get It?’ Problem and the Three Types in Your Team

7142989057_53d70b6bae_zTwice in the past couple of weeks I’ve been reminded about about the great universal sticky problem and what to do about it.

The problem that almost dare not speak it’s name is how much your team are keen to change, innovate, be creative and explore new ways of communicating. Do they see an infographic or Snapchat and want to know more? Or do they roll their eyes and look at the clock?

In short, do they ‘get it’?

The subject came up at BlueLightCamp in Birmingham which was an excellent event for people in organisations who may deal with emergencies.

You may be a great person in a senior position. You may want your team to change and adapt. But the hard fact is that they all may not. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. And it’s not your fault. So stop blaming yourself.

When I was in local government I was fortunate enough to have a boss who did ‘get it’ and was keen for me to experiment and try things out. I was lucky. Early on I helped organise an unconference in the town where I worked to talk through some of  the bright ideas on how to communicate better using the web. I invited the rest of the team along expecting them to come and ‘get it’ straight away. I was expecting a Simpsons moment where everyone comes, the penny drops and everyone cheers wildly. Of 16, just four came. Two were unimpressed and two ‘got it.’

It took me a while to work this out. My team, your team, their team, everyone’s team is generally made up of three types of people.

Section One: People with light bulbs over their head

They are the ones who need to be celebrated. They have ideas, energy and enthusiasm. They can see that the world has changed and they want to try and create the new rules. They want things to work and they’ll leave at 7pm at night if they have to and carry on at home.

Section Two: People who need a piece of paper

They are the ones who don’t have a lightbulb above their head. But they may have a bit of a glimmer. But the glimmer is obscured by worrying about permission and bandwidth and what the director might say. But if they have a piece of paper in their hand to say that ‘it’s alright, I have permission and I’ve been on a training session’ then that glimmer may spark. And some of them may well turn into people with lightbulbs over their head. They’ll leave the office at about a quarter past five.

Section Three: People who are unengaged

They don’t have a lightbulb over their head. Someone tried to do something differently in 2003 and it didn’t work. This won’t work either. They’ll fold their arms. They’ll mutter. They may even be actively unengaged and want the thing to fall over. They’ll leave the office at five o’clock on the dot and hate staying any later.

A simple plan for what to do

Give everyone the same opportunity. But concentre on the folk from section one. Their bright ideas, creativity and innovation will drive you forward. They’ll may even bright some of the section two people along when they realise that this is do-able.

And the section three people? If they don’t want to play you can’t make them. Make it clear that this is the path you’ll be going down. They can come with you or be left behind.

But don’t beat yourself up. Not everyone agreed with Winston Churchill, Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Jobs.

Creative commons picture credit: NASA.


COMMS TIP: Why You Need to Challenge Like a Three-Year-Old

P1030315I’ve blogged about the need to be the grit in the oyster in comms and PR and to the need challenge.

That scheme the chief executive has? It’s going to fail and you need to diplomatically warn them.

That elected member who demands a press release? It’s down to you to tell them that won’t work.

Unless you do you are nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist.

Here’s one way you can challenge… by be an annoying three-year-old.

Or rather, adopt the questioning strategy of a small child who is asking questions because they are just plain nosey.

If you are a parent you’ve been there. Picture the scene in a super market right now somewhere in the world.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s a tin of beans, Jimmy.’

‘Why do we have tins of beans?’

‘So the food doesn’t go off.’

‘What’s ‘off’…?’

And there we have an explanation to Jimmy of food storage, freshness and the degrading process that makes food dangerous to eat.

Small children have got a brilliant quality of cutting through the crap.

A couple of times recently in a training session I’ve thought of the two-year-old interrogation strategy.

We’re doing a ‘thing’. It’s great.

Why?

Because it’s a good idea.

Why?

Because if we give people some basic information it reduces the chance of them coming back with an even worse problem.

Will that cost you money?

Yes, lots, about £10,000 a time.

How many could we stop coming back with a worse problem?

So, the ‘thing’ moves from being a good thing to a thing that is going to tangibly improve lives… and tangibly save money.

That’s win and win.

It’s also the beginnings of your evaluation because as we know, it’s not the column inches or the tweets but what people have done as a result.

‘Hey, chief executive, we’ve just communicated to a load of people and 100 have gone away with information that could stop them costing us £10,000 each.’

Does that sound better?

So, shouldn’t you be more of a three-year-old?

Picture credit

My daughter.


COMMS ADVICE: Be Bold, Be the bit of Grit in the Oyster

3875021320_445f89a757_b (1)If there is one piece of advice I came to late in my career that I value  it is this… the role of comms is sometimes to be the bit of grit in the oyster.

It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.

Really?

What the heck does this mean?

My take on it is that sometimes, the role of the comms person is to politely stand your ground and to challenge and to point out where things won’t work.

The chief exec of the water company blamed for water shortage taking questions with a clean bottle of water, British Gas staging a Twitter Q&A on the day of a price hike or senior officer hellbent on back of bus ads… because that’s the way they’ve always done it.

I was reminded of the need for this a short while back in a comms planning workshop where one attendee mentioned the pressure she was under to come up with evaluation weeks after the launch of a campaign to encourage people to sign-up to volunteer for a specific task.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m getting pressure to show if the campaign is a success but we know it takes six months for it to work.

“It’s been a month and the thing is, it’s really difficult, because it’s a senior person who is asking.”

Of course, in an ideal world that senior person would immediately see the folly of asking how many cars the Forth Bridge had carried after just a week into its construction.

But life is not like that.

So, if tact and diplomacy don’t work, sometimes your role as a comms person is to be the person to draw a line in the sand and point out where something, in your professional opinion, doesn’t work.

When I worked as part of a comms team I’d often find it useful instead of directly rubbishing an idea directly just spelling out the logical sequence of events that decision would bring.

“We can have a back of bus advert by all means,” it’s better to say, “but do we know if the Primary school children we’re trying to get through to drive? And how many signed up for that course last year as a result of it? Could we talk to some parents and teachers to see what the best route may be, too?”

Be professional, be polite but never be afraid be the grit in the oyster. It will almost always be the harder path but if you take it you will almost always win respect. Involve your boss if needs be. Or their boss.

If you don’t are you sure you aren’t just being a glorified shorthand typist?


UNCLE KEITH: Never argue with an idiot and 11 things on being social for your organisation

860372850_bfa68652cc_bTim Berners-Lee, Paul Otlet and Clay Shirky add to that list of web visionaries if you will my Uncle Keith.

Bear with me on this one.

When I was 18 he came back from Australia to visit and he took me to the pub in the Cumbrian village Portinscale near Keswick where he was born.

He buys me a pint and after we take a drink he tells me he’s doing to tell me something really important.

He levels with me and I’m expecting some tips on how to chat up women. Or at the very least play cricket better. He leans across the table.

“Dan,” he says, “the best advice I can give you in life is never argue with an idiot.

“You end up on the same level and to a passer-by it’s just two idiots arguing.”

At the time it didn’t really register.

When that advice made sense…

Years passed by and as the social web became something that started to fascinate I end up helping train and advise people. Often, people are worried about being inundated with abuse from trolls when actually that very rarely happens. In my long experience most people are not looking for a fight but looking for information or maybe sometimes to let off some steam. A professional and human voice can really help.

But sometimes my Uncle Keith’s words came back as good sensible advice. It’s Cumbrian for ‘do not feed the trolls.’

When Cineworld looked a bit silly…

A customer unhappy at the pricing structure that Cineworld had fired a questioning tweet at them. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to ask. The response was a masterclass in how to be a bit overbearing.

Maybe as others have said Cineworld’s Twitter operator was having a bit of a bad day. But their response was at best high handed.

You can read the entire exchange via this storify here.

Eleven things to remember when you’re operating social media for an organisation

1. You’re the public face of that organisation.

2. In a little guy v big guy row you can expect people take the side of the little guy as a default setting.

3. The vast majority of people you’ll come across are really decent.

4. If they’re not you need to rise above it.

5. And count to ten.

6. You need to not take things personally when you are the voice of the organisation. They’re not having a go at you personally when they’re complaining.

7. You need to print off the picture at the top of the post and stick it by your screen.

8. Remember the Channel 4 social media policy of  ‘don’t make your boss look stupid.’

9. Most of the time you’ll not need the above at all. Seriously.

10. Be human. It beats everything. The @londonmidland Twitter bio has the words:  “We aim to reply to all tweets, but pls try to be polite if things have gone wrong – we’re real people just trying to help!”

11. Shout a colleague for a second opinion or help if you’re unsure.

Creative commons credits

Two men arguing (remixed) http://www.flickr.com/photos/97248642@N00/860372850/sizes/o/