Archive for February, 2009

The future of PR and social media

A fascinating debate about the future of PR has been triggered by Jeff Jarvis who writes one of the most respected blogs about the internet and the media, He also writes the new media column for the Guardian.

Jeff Jarvis has claimed in his new book, ‘‘, that traditional PR agencies are doomed because they are just middlemen who represent the views of their clients. Therefore he argues they cannot help companies develop new direct relationships with customers,through social media. It has sparked dismay from traditional PR agencies and Edelman PR has taken him to task.

Here is my contribution to the debate:

1. Justin Hunt says:
February 24, 2009 at 3:46 pm

I used to be a new media writer for The Guardian and before then I was head of PR for Capital Radio in London, dealing with showbiz tabloid writers. I now blog for Media Week and have set up a social media consultancy in brighton called ItsOpen ( which gives me a useful slant on this debate.

Traditional PR agencies who simply pump out client messages and will not dare challenge their clients are dead. There are a lot of traditional PR agencies who simply do not understand social media. And they could be dangerous to their clients. Or possibly reassuring to traditional, head-in-the sand clients. PR agencies grew up to a position of power on the basis of having close relationships with editors on newspapers and specific writers. Now they are scared. They don’t know bloggers and are terrified about what they might have to deal with.

I do believe there is room for a new kind of agency – which is what we are trying to create ( PR agencies now have to encourage companies to open up and be honest, show more humanity and personality. You have to get them to create content which is genuinely useful and interesting to their audiences. Traditional corporate speak is no longer required. It was always sterile but now social media exposes it for what it really is.

The rise of social media presents a whole raft of areas which can be liberating for companies. For example after being restricted to the scarcity of print space they can now link, use podcasts, videos etc to talk in more depth and richness about their policies and what they do. Plus they can use crowd sourcing tools to develop better products and services as Jeff has covered before. The role of a new agency is to encourage companies to embrace social media to participate and have conversations.

There is so much more companies can do as well in terms of using these new 2.0 channels to distribute their news ie automated updates on Twitter etc and getting personally involved in social media. The best PR people were able to give journalists what they wanted.

The best PR people will encourage companies to give their customers what they want. PR agencies have to reinvent themselves. And it will be very painful for them. The current crop of senior PR people are not net natives. However what we are finding is that in-house PR people are catching up with what is going on because members of their company are raising issues with them. They are starting to feel the effects of the change. Bloggers writing about them. Questions coming into the press office from Facebook groups etc. These kinds of questions demand real honest advice. Spin will not work.

Heads of in-house PR, I think, are realising the inadequacies of the jargon of traditional agencies. They want real conversations with real agencies. They know the world is changing and they know that the reputations of their companies could be damaged in seconds by a blogger. They know they need to act differently.

The traditional PR industry is based on an old traditional media model. So long as you get coverage in the newspapers everything is fine. Which is obviously no longer the case. The guy at Edelman is desperately trying to protect the reputation of the agency. He wants to be seen as leading edge. He wants to demonstrate he understands the new culture because clients are looking to him for advice. He wants to protect his client income. He’s desperately trying to PR his agency. If he wants some advice, he should put a young member of his agency on the board and listen to him or her.

Overall the big PR agencies, in my experience, don’t get social media. They might talk 2.0 but they don’t grasp the fundamental change it represents to our lives and business. And that is why smart companies are looking for specialists, different kinds of agencies who are more in tune with the new 2.0 language. I think the rise of social media is going to enfranchise and bring to the centre new kinds of individuals with a range of skills.

Obama’s social media manager comes to town

Thomas Gensemer, from the agency Blue State Digital, was responsible for managing Obama’s social media campaign. He is over here to help sprinkle some social media magic dust on  Labour’s online activities. It is interesting to hear his views on how the political parties here are getting on.

I personally think that social media could make politics in this country more interesting and relevant if the parties take risks and genuinely open up and engage in honest conversations. By-passing the traditional media – who have contributed to cynicism about politics in this country – could help. But I think the political process has to be opened up: videoing cabinet meetings;  and sharing them online; encouraging the electorate to contribute views on policies and actually feeding back to them; making politics more personal; involving online communities.

MPs could also give more insights into their constituency work, personal campaigns etc. It would be good to share more information about bills and the issues surrounding them.

Pancake Man goes viral on YouTube

tatelyleJohn and I spent this morning with William Baldwin-Charles, head of Media Relations for Tate&Lyle, who told me their marketing department had put a pancake on YouTube and it has attracted millions of viewers. He encouraged me to take a look.

I think this is the one! If it isn’t maybe William could direct us to the correct one. But this underlines how a simple fun idea can spread so fast. I think it cost a few thousand to put together. But it is probably a lot more efficient than traditional PR or an ad.

If you have any more interesting YouTube examples (business to business in particular we’d be interested in), send them our way or post the link in the comments below and we will put them up here.

ItsOpen/Twitter cartoon exhibition

We asked Robert Thompson to draw some Twitter cartoons for us.

Robert’s cartoons regularly appear in The Observer, Private Eye, The Guardian and The Spectator.

Robert came up with these. Let us know what you think. Or just pass them
onto your friends for fun.

The ItsOpen team


Red Nose Day to be on social networks

rednosedayComic Relief is about to unleash another Red Nose Day, and this time it’s going to be making full use of social media, according to New Media Age. Celebrities will be coming in to tweet on the event on March 13, doubtless led by Twitter aficionados such as Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross. Backstage content such as celeb photos and news will be posted online, and anyone wanting to buy stuff can do so on social networks.

As  creative communications director Chris Ward says:  “A lot has changed in the digital world since the last event two years ago.” Comic Relief is also stephen-fryplanning to sustain the momentum with 44 days of digital activity. Channels on Flickr and Twitter will be launched on the day itself, hosted by celebrities, and a new channel on YouTube will be hosted by a group of super users.

All this digital activity is good exposure for Comic Relief’s sponsors, such as BT, Sainsbury’s, Subway, TK Maxx and It will be interesting to see what effect it has on boosting support and making the day a success.

What big advertising agencies see in social media

martin-sorrellWPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell is considered a sage of the advertising world these days, and it’s interesting to hear his comments about social media. In an interview this week on the US advertising blog Agency Spy Sorrell was asked whether advertising behemoths like WPP were in danger of being left behind? Not at all, he says – he sees new media, and social networks in particular, as an opportunity not a threat.

“They’ve enabled us to become closer to the consumer and learn more about their media habits and the changing media market place. Interactive dialogues have enhanced our understanding of the consumer and have enabled us and will enable us to target more and more effectively.”

Sorrell says WPP has seen major new ways of growing its public relations campaigns through social networks and communities and polling. It has also seen social networks and new media, such as mobile and video, catalysing the opportunities for consumer insight, advertising, branding and identity, healthcare and other areas

You can read the full interview here.

McDonald’s gets the hang of social media

mcdonaldsCompanies in a controversial line of business have a special reason to take social media seriously. None more so than McDonald’s, which as the leading fast food operator  is attracting a lot of the blame for the world-wide obesity epidemic. So the brand has an important job to do in combating negative perceptions.

It has to be said, its initial efforts in this area were typically ham fisted.  A few years ago it was criticised for ‘flogging’ – promoting itself in what appeared to be independent blogs but were actually just an advertising wheeze.

But it seems to have got the hang of things now. The company runs a corporate social responsibility blog called Values in Practice, which does a good job of projecting its caring side. All the necessary buzzwords are there: ‘empowerment’, ‘values’, ‘responsibilities, ‘trust’  – a recent post blows its horn about the attention it pays to agricultural sustainability. It also runs regular podcasts on green and sustainability issues. The writers manage to avoid being pompous, and wryly let us know they’re aware of how McDonalds is perceived – a recent podcast on employment opportunities asks, ‘Ever wondered what it’s like to have a McJob?’

Another blog called Mom’s Quality Correspondents has a more folksy down-home feel, talking about health, nutrition, and also the company’s charity work. That actually did rather more to soften my own negative perceptions. Who knew that it provides hostels called Ronald McDonald Houses in many US cities and around the world, located near children’s hospitals, where families with sick children can stay for a small donation, or even for free?

On the other side of the fence, McDonald’s is learning how to deal with problems that come to light through social media. It was at the sharp end over a recent incident at a Philadelphia outlet, when students of nearby Penn University got into an argument with staff. The students gave a blow by blow account of the fracas on Facebook, describing the staff members as having been abusive and unreasonable – and the profile quickly attracted a lot of interest from other students. Spotting the danger, a local manager called to apologise and explain he had been on holiday at the time. He confirmed the students’ story, and the guilty staff members were immediately sacked.

None of this mere window dressing. Without an active and imaginative social media policy McDonald’s is the kind of company that could quickly find itself in trouble. As it is, it’s making the most of the opportunities to cultivate friends and pacify enemies.

Deception, dishonesty and duplicity: welcome to astroturfing

Fascinating article in the FT about the phenomena of ” “flogging,” astroturfing,” and “comment spamming”.

So what are they?

Well, “flogging” means writing a fake blog to get publicity for your product – according to the FT piece, Sony tried to increase sales of its PSP portable by starting a blog purporting to be written by two boys wanting PSPs for Christmas.

“Astroturfing” – generating fake grassroots enthusiasm – involves companies paying bloggers to write favourably about products they’ve never actually used.

And “comment spamming” is writing lots of flattering comments about a company in the comments sections of blogs.

Needless to say, none of these practices are a good idea, and you really have to wonder at the mentality of the marketing geniuses who have been engaging in them. Apparently the computer supplier Belkin went so far as to advertise online for people willing to write enthusiastic reviews of Belkin products on Amazon for 65 cents a time. Not only dense, but counter-productive too: now that everyone knows Belkin is so desperate for good reviews it has to pay for them, who will buy their products?

In fairness, we can assume that the most senior people in the guilty organisations didn’t know what was going on, which is why the most savvy companies, like IBM and Coca Cola, have produced guidelines requiring employees to act honestly and ethically in all their dealings in the online world.

Charlene Li, author of Groundswell, in ItsOpen podcast interview

charlene-liCharlene Li, author of the best-selling book, ‘Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies’ , has agreed to do a podcast interview with ItsOpen, as part of our on-going podcast series.

We are thrilled, as Charlene is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on social media and emerging technologies. She discusses these topics on her blog, The Altimeter.

Charlene is one of the most frequently-quoted industry analysts and has appeared on 60 Minutes, The McNeil News Hour, ABC News, CNN, and CNBC. She is also frequently quoted by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, and Associated Press. She is a much-sought-after public speaker and has presented frequently at top technology conferences such as Web 2.0 Expo, SXSW, and ad:tech.

Most recently, Charlene was a Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. She joined Forrester in 1999, after spending five years in online and newspaper publishing with the San Jose Mercury News and Community Newspaper Company. She was also a consultant with Monitor Group in Boston and Amsterdam. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and received a magna cum laude degree from Harvard College.

Charlene is the mother of two kids and blogs about that experience on her personal blog, Midnight Musings and at Silicon Valley Moms Blog.

If you have any questions which you would like us to put to Charlene, we are interviewing her at the end of this month. Please submit them as comments at the foot of this piece,  and we will do our best to find time to put them to Charlene.

When social media turns bad

We talk a lot here about the benefits social media can bring to an organisation: reaching a wider audience, starting a conversation with your customers, collaborating with partners…

guardian-logoBut there’s a darker side to social media too. This week’s Media Guardian has an article by James Silver that talks about the abuse some journalists receive when their articles are put up for comment online.

One blogger, Emily Gould, was “bombarded with vitriolic messages” when she wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine.  The journalist yasmin-alibhai-brown1Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said she felt like a “wreck” for days after comments appeared on a column she’d written about the white working-class.

Predictably, Silver’s article itself has attracted unsympathetic comments such as “Any ‘journalist’ upset about responses to a story is probably too delicate a little blossom to be in the business in the first place” and “Journalists (and especially columnists) need to get over themselves and stop whining”.

The Internet has certainly changed the relationship between journalists and their readers – for the worse, some would argue. It’s one thing to engage in lively debate with your audience or your customers, and quite another to sit on the receiving end of abuse that can be read by millions of people. Any organisation wanting to have a debate with its customers needs to tread with caution. It’s not easy to put the genie back in the bottle.