Things read differently when you’re ill

This particular Friendly Ghost isn’t feeling too great right now. It’s got the worst sore throat known to man, woman or ghost and as a result seems to be addressing itself in the third person singular. A sorry state of affairs.

It bought two books to cheer itself up on the way back from the doctors: Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel on which Blade Runner was based; and a biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick. The former because it always wanted to read it, and the latter because it is fascinated by maths and physics and the people who can do it, mainly because it can’t.

So the ill ghost is looking forward to this, if for no other reason than it’ll hopefully be an antidote to the Guardian. For some reason, reading Saturday’s Guardian seemed different from usual. Perhaps it’s the illness, but it just seemd to be a load of clever dickery, an excuse for twee middle English educated types to show off their long words and keen sense of irony rather than anything genuinely fresh or original. Radio 4’s been going off the boil recently too. And David Cameron is starting to appeal. Either the Friendly Ghost is growing up, down, sideways, or just fading away into the ether…


Blogging and PR vs bloggers and PR people

Generally I really don’t like blog posts about blogging. There’s something distasteful about it, like a dog returning to its vomit or some sort of horizontally influenced circle jerk. But I knew I’d end up doing it sooner or later, so here we are: Philippe Borremans reports from the Euroblog 2007 conference on the findings from the 2nd European survey of PR professionals. It turns out that (and I’m blatantly going to copy from his text here, which is probably partly why I don’t like blog posts about blogging):

  • 89% of PR professionals surveyed think that blogs and social software will be widespread and integrated into communications as websites are today.
  • 69% say they do not have the skilled personnel to handle them and 42% are unable to demonstrate the ROI of blogging. 

… in other words everyone thinks it’s important but noone knows what to do about it. This is true: I’m currently involved in a blogging project that is considered to be breaking new ground within my company. However, we don’t really know what we’re going to do with the results, and to mask this we tell people that any strategy we adopt must fit in with our parent corporation’s strategy (they don’t have one yet) and our client’s strategy (they also don’t have one yet). Thing is, blogs can be pretty scary. Get it wrong and you get it very wrong.

The 3 biggest challenges for PR Professionals to use blogs in their organisation are:

  • having time to blog regularly (83%)
  • reacting to comments/feedback from the audience (83%)
  • creating content and ideas for posts (80%)

… implying that PR professionals are generally disorganised and unimaginative. Check that. 

The 3 biggest opportunities for PR Professionals are:

  • environmental scanning, keeping a finger on the pulse (81%)
  • fast reaction time to issues (74%)
  • opportunity for authentic, personal communications (77%)

… which is a set of findings I cannot lampoon in any way. Since I got involved in blogging I now have a very comprehensive set of feeds, incorporating Google News searches, Yahoo News searches and blog searches that give me, within five minutes each morning, a complete panorama of the news I want. This has already enabled us to react really quickly to threats and we’re getting a reputation for being totally on the ball. Yet – to go back to the previous point about not knowing what to do with blogs – we haven’t taken up this opportunity for comms yet. The problem is that bloggers don’t regard companies – let alone agencies, let alone PR agencies – as having ‘personal’ communications. But that’s what bloggers want. And in a way, that’s what we want too. So let’s talk.

There must be companies out there embracing blogging. If so, it implies they have outward-looking, free-thinking invididuals not only able to perceive the promise of blogging, but willing to entertain the concept and courageous enough to do something about it. But that requires that the bloggers also have a sufficiently broad and accepting worldview to play ball.

The best advice I could give on copywriting

The other night I made a curry. In the best tradition of curry-making I just chucked everything in that I could find, complete with hard-boiled egg. I always find a hard-boiled egg really adds that certain something to a good curry. That, and peanuts.

I ate it, and it was good. But it was better the next night. It’s always better the next night. Stews, curries, anything that needs to settle and marinade and become complex. Wines, beers, christmas cake, they all improve for being left to mature.

So in response to the (frequent) questions I’m asked on how to write, I’d say leave it overnight. Never, ever dash something off and then hand it over. If you leave it, preferably printed, on your desk, and come back to it the next day, I guarantee you will see ways in which to improve it. You might spot howlers (I’ve worked for a multimedia hardware company that once produced thousands of flyers with ‘mutlimedia’ in the title – before my time there I should add). You might spot some grammatical errors. But more likely than not, you’ll come to it with a fresh mind and, almost like a different person editing what you’ve written, you’ll get a much clearer idea of how your argument flows and where it’s heading.

I’m noticing this with blog postings in particular. It’s a real discipline. I write, then post, then see that I need to edit. So I edit, then edit some more, then edit again, all the time very aware that the technology might be grabbing and disseminating what I really don’t want to be grabbed and disseminated because it’s not right.

There lies the rub. Can we really blog and be writers? Is thinking exactly the same thing as writing? Do hard boiled eggs and peanuts really belong in a curry?

Eric Sykes and the art of writing comedy

So two days ago I saw David Cameron, and it got me thinking about how, although I hate to say it, I kind of admire the way he really does cycle to work without much fanfaranade and brouhaha. Just so I could get the words fanfaranade and brouhaha into this paragraph.

Today, I saw Eric Sykes on the same road. It’s near Orme Court where he and Spike Milligan used to have their writing base, and which also served as a base for such other uniquely British comic greats as Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Johnny Speight. For all I know, Eric Sykes could still be working there, churning out golden comic prose for today’s lesser comic mortals, with Spike Milligan in the corner acting as a kind of stuffed muse.*

What will be his legacy as a comic writer? He’s one of those ‘forgotten’ comics – not celebrities, but comics, the kind who work in the engine room of comedy, much as copywriters are often described as the engine room of accounts. I’m not sure I personally like that description applied to myself – it smacks too much of the sinister mechanic in Das Boot – but when Eric Sykes’s time comes – which won’t be much longer by the looks of things, bless him – it will be headline news.

So he was, maybe still is, a great comedy writer. What is comedy writing? Why are some things funny? And why do the really funny things keep getting funnier the more you think about them? I think it’s multi-layering. You can, if you want, get a laugh out of saying ‘bum’ or ‘knob’, but that’s just one ‘hit’. You can gurn and grimace and get a similar effect. But I think real comedy writing takes character and situation and overlays one on top of the other.

A colleague said she’d seen Alan Rickman coming out of Happy Snaps once (another Harry Potter link there). Another’s response (who is also a copywriter): “Hmmmm…… me with beard, me without beard, me looking snide, me looking sarcastic, me looking evil. Excellent, excellent.” This email made me laugh out loud, which emails seldom do. It just gets funnier the more you think about it.

Now the idea of Alan Rickman coming out of Happy Snaps is of itself risible. But when you then take the characters he plays – vain, egotistical, slightly sinister – and overlay that onto the situation, that’s real humour. It’s a collision of parody and reality. Perhaps that’s also why Spike Milligan stole the show in The Life of Brian.

* A little more research reveals that, despite the very strong ties between Sykes and Milligan, and between Milligan and Monty Python, he never worked with the Pythons. In fact, he disliked them: he was often quoted as saying that although Monty Python was brilliant it marked the start of a decline in comedy. And, in a delicious twist of irony, it turns out their office is next door but three to the local Opus Dei headquarters. Does Eric know? Perhaps he should be told.

David Cameron could be The Real Thing

This morning I was walking to work through Bayswater listening to Today on my mobile phone’s radio (a very neat little Sony Ericsson K750, well worth investigating btw). They were discussing David Cameron’s potentially risky strategy of placing himself at the forefront of the environmental issue. Suddenly, who should cycle past me but the man himself, complete with kiddy carrier on the back. I had to do a double-take but it was definitely him.

So he does cycle to work. And he isn’t noticeable. I’m sure he cycles to work with hardly anyone recognising him. I know he’s kind of famous for cycling but the point is he really does do it. It’s PR and it’s politics and it’s branding (check out the new Conservative logo) and it’s all joined up. Quite a heady mix.

To complete the circle, James Naughtie appealed for people to comment on their website which, five minutes later, I was able to do.

But the thing that impressed me the most was that I couldn’t see Cameron wearing any earphones. While the nation was debating his latest manoeuvre, and while I was tuning in via a mobile, Cameron seemed to have made the deliberate decision to enjoy getting from A to B without being connected. It gives an interesting insight into how the man works. And, grudgingly, as a lifelong Labour supporter – who may be dithering – I admire this.

Is it just me, or is it the WordPress interface?

I’ve had my attention drawn to some typos in my postings here, which for a copywriter is a bit worrying. You could argue that so long as the thought processes are intact a few deliferate mistales here and there won’t matter, but clients will not be impressed.

Thing is, I can write pages and pages of copy in Word or just about any other publishing app with no problems whatsoever. So what’s going on here? Is it the WordPress interface – which I find a little over-engineered and sluggish – or is it the process of blogging which can involve so much more than just words (sounds like the cue for a song…) By which I mean, by the time I’ve sat down, thought about my topic(s) for the day, researched, typed it, interactively added links as I go along, then added images, then more hyperlinks, have I spent so long adding the meta-text that I’ve forgotten the importance of the actual text?

Which, in a way, is why I started the blog in the first place. I want to know what goes through the minds of bloggers. And I’m finding that it is in fact quite a skill to write condensed, accurate copy while juggling the ‘hyperstuff’.

A forward-thinking approach to research

Wikipedia is a strange beast. On the one hand it’s a semi-accurate jumble of ill-researched opinion. On the other it’s a valuable source of information. You could almost use it as an example of the place where blogging – with its often cavalier attitude to the facts – meets journalism, with its emphasis on good research, sources and sensitivity to shades of meaning.

What better training ground then for people whose careers may depend on accurate research and actually teasing apart fact from fiction? Politics postgrads at the University of East Anglia are being asked to edit eight articles in the online encyclopedia, then write one of their own. Immediately they’re being wrenched from the stuffy, theory-driven world of academia to real-life situations where people will read what they write, and where their actions may have consequences. Meanwhile Wikipedia gets a tidy-up. A small one admittedly, but it can’t hurt to have some pages spring-cleaned by people trained in critical thought.

What a great idea. I love great ideas. I love it when someone really does add up two and two and gets four.

The Keg.

So the world’s smallest hard disk-based MP3 player goes on sale outside Japan.

It’s called the Kenwood ‘Media Keg’. It holds 10GB (my phone can hold 8GB, possibly even 12GB in the near future). It weighs twice as much as the Nano and, at 271 squid, is nearly twice the price too.

I’d say all it has going for it is the Kenwood brand. It will be interesting to see whether this hopelessly marketed product makes it on the strength of this.

PR is not a disaster – it’s propaganda

You’ve got to love a blog called PR Disasters. This isn’t schadenfreude (you’ve also got to love the Germans for coming up with words like that). It’s an insightful look into How Not To Do It, and by that token, take everything PR Disasters documents, and do it the other way.

Today it criticises a sweeping destruction of PR as propaganda. Well, unfortunately, that’s what PR is – or was. Edward Bernays originally coined the phrase when trying to think of a more acceptable term for the activities indulged in during wartime. Said Bernays, “When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words Council on Public Relations.” Nice.

Anyway, back to the video. It’s incredibly manipulative – not persuasive, manipulative. It uses emotive images, referring to ‘unknown PR companies’ using ‘sophisticated techniques’ to ‘manipulate’ people, talking about the ‘dirty little secret’ of most news being in fact PR and comparing it to advertising. I could just about buy the argument about a lot of news being PR, but that’s largely in the hands of a free press who take the decision, knowingly, to publish it. Sometimes, of course, the press gets it wrong but that’s life.

Everything else in the video is a gross distortion. If you’re not in PR, of course you don’t know who the invisible PR companies are. Before I worked in financial IT, I didn’t know who Warburgs were (they’re now UBS). I’m sure most people hadn’t even heard of Barings before Nick Leeson brought them to their knees single-handed. And these are companies that deal with money – your money. Not even your opinion – your money. Of course PR companies use sophisticated techniques. That’s because the audience is sophisticated. And PR=advertising? C’maaaaan. Everything’s blown out of the water when a web address is shown at the end: There’s your agenda. Now we know. Or we would do if the website existed. Like The Electric Banana, it doesn’t seem to exist any more. How much more invisible could you get? None. None more invisible.

The problem is that a lot of the comments (it’s a YouTube video – democracy in action) think the video’s great. And it is a problem. It’s the ultimate irony: PR has bad PR.

But hang on a minute: let’s backtrack. If I were opening a restaurant, I would be a fool not to advertise. That’s self-promotion. I would relish a good review. That’s endorsement. I would even consider inviting critics in, to write about me. Is that manipulation? Or is it the truth?

Propaganda existed at a time when opinions were necessarily polarised. Now, in our complex, balanced and checked, media-saturated world, we have PR. Heck, PR is just an opinion. Get over it.

The problem is really who to believe. Do we believe a loose cannon – and I can’t think of any looser than an enterprise that calls itself Guerilla News – or do we believe the sophisticates?