Skoda, nepotism, and cheese

From the hurly-burly of the media come three noteworthy stories.

Firstly, Skoda, purveyor of one-time jokes on four wheels. “What do you call a skip with a roof?” “A Skoda”. Over the past ten years they’ve made a remarkable three-point turn, becoming the badge of choice for cunning consumers who know they’re essentially getting a VW but for several grand less. It’s of particular interest to me because about fifteen years ago when I first wanted to be a copywriter I worked for free on an advertising brief from Saatchi and Saatchi to reposition the brand. My fumbling attempts were laughable: one involved showing a rusty bucket next to a shiny Skoda with the line “Which would you rather have?” Cue guffawing aplenty and I became a technical author instead. Ho hum. But Skoda’s success shows how canny marketing and joined-up business sense can successfully realise a strategic objective and rehabilitate a damaged brand. Very much like myself who can now look in the mirror, stand erect and say every morning “I am a copywriter.”

Which leads me nicely to writers. On the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday morning, just before I plunged into the darkness that is the Underground, I heard the preamble to the next item which was to discuss whether children of famous writers benefit from being, well, children of famous writers. And, in a wonderful möbius loop of publicity, who was going to discuss this but Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. Apparently he’s been writing for ten years without telling anyone he’s Stephen King’s son, which is nice, but it still remains deliciously ironic that of course they benefit because they get invited to talk about it on broadcast media. A rose by any other name would have nowhere near as much PR potential. Just think, if my dad hadn’t been a logistics consultant I could have written The Great 21st Century British Novel. I’d imagine Christopher Tolkien benefitted from his father’s input to Lord of the Rings. Likewise Peter Amis probably got a lift from being his father’s son. Hmmm.

Which segues nicely to cheese. Today on Today, CheddarVision. Yes, CheddarVision. You can log on to a webcam and see cheese maturing. They’ve had half a million hits. HALF A MILLION. Let’s think about the ROI for second. Cost of buying webcam and URL, probably less than thirty quid. Cost of exposure to half a million ‘cheese geeks’ as James Naughtie termed them? Incalculable. It’s a brilliant, brilliant PR move. This isn’t just cheese, it is now Famous Cheese, and everyone will want a bite. They’ll do for West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers what Wallace and Gromit did for Wensleydale. The only off-note in this bouquet of creamy goodness is that I’ve looked good and hard and as far as I can tell it’s actually a static image, part of a Flash movie in fact. If this is so and it’s not ‘real’ then part of me thinks it’s foolish in the extreme because they could end up with, well, egg on their faces. But everyone at the agency today was looking at it to try and figure out whether or not it’s genuine and a rather tasty email thread ensued with fantastic cheese-related puns. Apparently you need to tune in at 10am every day to see it being turned. This could be Proof. So, it’s a 10am appointment on the internet for me tomorrow, hats off to Isotope Communications, and let them be edamned if it backfires. Gouda on them. They’ll brie laughing all the way to the bank.

Given the payback of publicity, crime pays

“The confession comes as Ramsay opens his first pub.”

It may seem strange to start a blog post with a quote from midway through a paper media piece, but this is the insightful sentence in The Guardian’s exclusive revelation that Gordon Ramsay stole the reservation book of Aubergine, the restaurant run by his one-time mentor and long-time tormentor, Marco Pierre White. However, it is just a sentence. And not a criminal one, yet.

So Ramsay’s suddenly decided to reveal that he stole the book. He could end up in hot water. He could be prosecuted. But for a man worth over 60 million pounds, well, the publicity is worth the outlay. “Ramsay opens new restaurant” is probably not news. “Ramsay stole the book” probably is.

It comes on the back of the Observer’s publication of an extract from a conman’s memoirs of, well, being a conman. The article’s footnote states that he contributed all proceeds of the review to charity. Fine. What about the resultant book sales from the publicity?

I had hoped that the days of any publicity being good publicity had ended. It seems however that journalists really do just believe that any news is good news, without really finding ‘the story': that, given the payback of publicity, crime pays.

PS And having eaten at both restaurants I can tell you that Aubergine is better.

Feed me, feed you – how to set up your own news syndication service

I’ve made frequent mention on this blog of ‘my feeds’. By this, I’m referring to the four RSS features in the right-hand column on this page – imaginatively and wittily entitled ‘The PR Pros Proclaim’, ‘The Journalists Retort’, ‘The Writers Mumble’ (for that is what they do) and ‘The Geeks Speak’.

Now, I don’t actually manually put the links into these features myself. The reason I call them ‘my feeds’ is that they’re feeds aggregated through Google Reader. I have a list of several blogs that I gather together under one tag, then syndicate the feed from that tag out to this blog (and, incidentally, anyone else who wants it). So, feeds in, tag out.

It’s a seriously clever feature and one that underpins the blog project I’m running at work, whereby I’ve assigned feeds to members of my team, who then pick out items of interest. So we share the task of news gathering and I’m the syndication point for that sharing. I can monitor their feeds and move them around, and all they see at their end is one feed syndicated from me. It’s a tremendously effective way of running your own news syndication service and one that will gain you the reputation in your company for having powers of sorcery.

The other really clever bit to all this, and one that still impresses me, is how you can also use Google News, Yahoo News and the Google Blog Search as part of this aggregation. Go to any of these services and type in your search terms – including the really useful ‘intitle’ parameter for Google – then when your results are displayed, simply subscribe to them. Yes, that’s right – these search features also generate feeds. So you’ve effectively set up your own news search agents that are going out onto the web, gathering the information you want, and pushing it back to you. Then you just gather that up into a tag alongside your other subscriptions and syndicate it out. (You can also do this with Technorati but I found it to be riddled with blog advertisments).

The third useful bit, and one I still haven’t exploited to the full yet, is Feedburner. This takes your ‘raw’ feed, in my case from Google Reader, and adds all sorts of fancypants stuff to it. I haven’t really looked into exactly what I can do with this yet but I’m sure I’ll get around to it sometime.

This is so incredibly useful that if it didn’t already exist you would have to invent it. It’s as if someone who really needed to keep up to date on specific areas of news – PR practitioners, journalists, comms in general – had said to a tecchie “What I really need is something that will go out and get the news I want, present it to me in a clear format, allow me to pass it on readily to other people and be available wherever I am. Oh, and I don’t want to pay for it.” If/when vertical search engines gather pace this will become even more powerful.

The only drawback to all this is trying to convince colleagues of its importance. Despite me repeatedly telling them it’ll take a maximum of five minutes to sign up to Google and set up the reader – or any other aggregator come to that – and that from then on it will be the virtual equivalent of going through the newspaper headlines each morning but much more quickly and effectively, they still don’t seem to quite get it. Perhaps readers of this blog will.

Turn on, tune in, stay tuned in

My copywriting feed (feel free to subscribe) carries a piece from Thomas Beller on the joy of earplugs. He loves the removed feeling of walking down a street and sort of being able to hear things, and sort of not. I liken it to the feeling of detachment I sensed when walking down the street listening to my iPod for the first time.

I’m deaf in one ear and whereas it doesn’t generally bother me I do have problems in noisy environments such as pubs. There is a benefit though in that, when I want silence for example when trying to sleep, I can simulate the earplug effect simply by lying on my good ear. This has also been known to work in pubs.

A busy PR agency isn’t the best place to be a writer. There are all sorts of distractions, from the necessary conversations/meetings/debates taking place around you to the TV and radio in the corner (which apparently is necessary although the news content of Magic FM is debateable). Some people turn on, tune in and drop out with headphones, but for me that replaces one distraction with another. It’s also the best way to cut oneself off from one’s colleagues to the extent that you often find yourself having to go over and wave in their faces to get their attention. Not good.

So you have to adapt. When the place is buzzing and people are moving around you just have to focus. When you need to turn around a press release within the hour you just have to switch everything off and concentrate. Meanwhile you must be available and ‘present’ if people need you. It’s a skill, like rubbing your stomach while patting your head.

Word count compression tricks – and a challenge

Three things that kept cropping up in a proofing session today:

  • Various.“We need to write various reports.” Aargh! Get rid of it! You don’t need ‘various’ at all. Give it a rest. You need to write some reports, many reports, or just ‘reports’.
  • In order to.“In order to produce babies we need to stick our fingers in each other’s tummy buttons.” Aaargh! Get rid of it! ‘In order’ is totally redundant, always. In fact you could say it’s out of order. To sleep, perchance to dream. Not in order to.
  • Designed to.“This car is designed to fall apart in six years.” Aaaaaaargh! Get rid of it! Either it’s designed to do something, or it isn’t. If a car is designed to fall apart in six years, then it will fall apart in six years goddammit. If it doesn’t, the designer got it wrong.

I’m a big fan of saying the same thing in fewer words. I generally find I can reduce a piece of text by at least 25 percent. In other words, I end up with 75 percent of the original word count but say exactly the same thing in virtually exactly the same way, but because I’m using fewer words it comes across much more quickly and, therefore, I hope, effectively.

In fact, if anyone’s reading this blog – which I doubt – then here’s a challenge: send me some text and I’ll reduce its word count by at least 25 percent. Go on, try me.

Let slip the blogs of war

Last night I heard a piece on Radio 4 by Paul Wood, a journalist of the BBC, covering the phenomenon of blogs posted by allied combatants in Iraq. These aren’t the filtered, considered views of embedded journalists nor are they the thoughts of military strategists. They’re the raw recollections of soldiers often minutes after action which, alongside contemporaneous YouTube accounts taken with ever-smaller portable cameras, herald a new form of citizen journalism: I term it martial journalism.

Some bloggers regret what they’ve posted. Others think twice and self-edit. Still others are ordered to cease and desist, but their conscience drives them to continue and risk court-martial.

Let us not fool ourselves: sometimes even soldiers will embroider truth or succumb to prejudice, or be influenced by their horrendous experiences to portray a situation in a way that they later discredit. But one cannot deny that this shows the power of blogging to provide a voice in regimes where voices can be silenced.

To find out more simply type Iraq blog into Google. Here, I’ve even done it for you.

Second Life is now sight and sound

It hits my feeds today that at NMC Campus they’re introducing Skype to Second Life. Apparently it sounds like a lot of people saying “Can you hear me now?” but it could be as prescient as Bell’s “Mr. Watson, come here” message.

I remember, over ten years ago, setting up my first Quake server with the tech bod at Imagination Technologies. Logging on for the first time, we had to test whether it was working so we called each other on the phone and next thing you know, we were virtually running around a series of caverns while virtually chatting to each other on the phone. One of the first things I said was “Isn’t this weird?” “Yes, it’s weird,” came the reply.

(We ended up with over 20 people playing regularly at lunchtime so unless we commandeered the company’s phone system to provide a voice platform for every player, we couldn’t continue do this.  I mean, it was possible, but the CEO would have picked up the phone and heard loud explosions from BFGs and a lot of whooping.)

It was a seminal moment, the combination of voice and (very pixelated) graphics proving much more immersive than just one or the other. And now, although NMC might be doing the same thing for much the same reason we did – for a blast – it’s on a much, much grander scale.

Big companies such as IBM are already populating the Second Life, and even though it’s not the biggest MUD it seems to be the one that’s captured public imagination. And this is where PR companies come in. Text100 was the first to establish a presence in Second Life and others such as Edelman are using it to promote virtual competitions to win virtual islands. Where the public go, public relations follows.

Is this just gimmickry or a significant development in the way companies do business? You could argue that companies have had a prominent web presence ever since they started taking websites seriously, but you can bet those first sites didn’t grab as much attention as entry into Second Life. Websites are now part and parcel of corporate life: they’re just another channel for business to communicate. In the fast-moving world of tech, today’s gimmick could be tomorrow’s channel. If the communication is more effective, then all the better.

If it works out, they’ve staked their claim and are ahead of the game, literally. If not, everyone will forget, because that’s what they do, eventually. What’s to lose?

When core skills go bad

Simon Wakeman makes the very valid point that writing should be a core competency for any PR practitioner. And, for this reason, he’s taken up blogging. Hurrah. It’s an excellent way to learn how to write impactful, direct, relevant, compelling copy, plus you start to learn about what goes on in bloggers’ minds. Not much, generally, but enough to titillate.

When I was first employed as a copywriter in PR I was a bit dismayed to find, in the company biogs, that just about everyone had studied English, or journalism, or had been a journalist, or said they had ‘excellent writing skills.’ So if everyone was so good, why was I needed?

Just over a year later, I’m starting to find out why. It’s because there is a difference between being ‘good at writing’ and ‘a writer.’ Some of the English graduates miss out the real hook to a piece and write as if putting together an essay; their conclusions come at the end in a flourish by which time most readers will have given up. Those with ‘excellent writing skills’ like to use baroque filigree curlicues, showing off their mastery of the Queen’s English and using ten long words when three good ones will do. The journos don’t seem able to spell or use grammar. Everyone else seems unable to put together a press release which, given that writing is a core competency, makes them at core incompetent.

It’s the synthesis of all this that makes a good copywriter. Being able to find the hook, adopt a tone of voice, produce something quickly and efficiently that is fit for porpoise. Then having the nous to follow up, chase down, get reviews and deadlines agreed. While all the time smiling, even if through gritted teeth, and encouraging people to have a go themselves and be approachable when needed and evangelical when not. It’s not just being able to execute the ‘writing bit’, it’s everything else that goes before and after that.

Which makes me wonder: if I’m a core competent, what’s everyone going to do while I’m off ill?