I have never been much of a Jeremy Corbyn fan.
Perhaps it was the years spent with him as my MP when I lived in Finsbury Park. Maybe it is his support of Arsenal. But his lack of a team that could think more than one move ahead was also something that worried me.
In the early days of his leadership we saw him miss open goal after open goal. His team seemed bereft of ideas and lacking in any kind of strategy. They still often do when it comes to Brexit.
But the new debate surrounding Corbyn’s sacking of Lord Mendelsohn shows that some advanced media thinking is now going into decisions. On the face of it this may look like a Politically Correct move to distance his front bench from the sleazy party and its fallout. But what it does to to keep the story alive, move it on and draw the focus to the political.
Nadhim Zahawi has already been rebuked by the Prime Minister for attending (and making his excuses and leaving early). But this (apparently agreed) sacking from the front bench sets a moral high ground and threatens to leave the Prime Minister with no option but to bow to pressure to sack Zahawi.
This is the chess of politics that observers most enjoy, and which the very best ideas and PR people put into everything that they do.
As accusations, counter-claims of over-zealousness and uncharted territory for men who enjoy sexism on their night out mix into a heady brew, it remains to be seen whether Zahawi can make it to the finishing line of the weekend. After all, that is the relatively safe space for politicians, where sport takes over the news agenda. At least until Sunday’s Marr Show.
Me too is a reflex. And you know what? It works. For a while at least. After all, the zeitgeist is where it is at. It is also relatively inexpensive, as it doesn’t involve a whole lot of thinking.
When it comes to marketing, PR and advertising, me too can work like a charm. Just photocopy someone else’s ideas and ride their wave.
But me too has a limited shelf-life and hinges on what is now a very limited attention span. Whilst it is true that you may be able to get that YouTube star on the cheap just as she hits the big time (and before she reveals herself as a transphobic racist Twitter bin fire), you have to get the timing just right.
When me too becomes everyone too then you are throwing your money away.
After all, a penguin will hold your attention magnificently well, as will two. But when all you see is penguins then you are going to get excited when you see a tiger. Especially if it eats the penguins. [Would they do that?]
What was seen as current, daring and exciting can become seen as clichéd, overdone and boring. Even spins or parodies on a popular theme can become staid and boring. If people groan when they see your marketing then you are getting it wrong, and that applies to celebrity endorsements and creative styles too.
Think about cutting edge political commentator celebrities from 2015. Would you want them plugging your product, campaign or ideas now? They may still have reach, but they are not going to amplify much (with a few exceptions).
Another thing to remember is that zeitgeist is seldom universal nowadays. Yes, the water cooler is still in existence (despite what some may tell you). But what is considered current for millennials is not always going down well with the baby boomers, and vice-versa. In fact, once a current trend becomes even vaguely common knowledge among boomers then you can consider it done. Move on. Sit and think. Sometimes original ideas are best. You may even get someone riding YOUR wave.
Being rude, crude, un-fact-checked, or even downright offensive had, until recently, been the path to power and influence for those using the media to build a career.
Katie Hopkins was top of the columnist pile, Nigel Farage had Question Time as his own and little Toby Young was appointed by a chum to a government post to stir up the lefties and the oiks.
Only no one reckoned with the fallout from the Trump presidency and the subsequent Weinstein A-Bomb. Suddenly, being a pub bore was no longer a desirable character trait. Twitter would call you out and may not stop until you were fired.
People were pointing. shouting and then laughing. Katie wound up being ditched by LBC and the Daily Mail, Nigel moaned about being skint and Toby was forced to resign.
Even Spiked, the online magazine for economically liberal Tories who used to be communists but now like public schools and dinner parties, has seen its commentators and its manufactured ire largely ignored. They still let them review the papers, which is nice, because they’re nostalgic about the print industry, inky-fingered sons of toil and that young woman that they got off with at the Wapping dispute picket line.
So far, so good, you may say. But what this marks is a change in the way that ideas can and will be communicated. I am not holding out for a return to a fictional golden age of journalism. But things will alter. Thinking of the prevailing decent view and then positing the opposite doesn’t play so well any more. You need to be cleverer than that.
But it is not only journalists who need to beware of potential pitfalls. Those looking to promote and sell need to be aware too. For example, Poundland just about squeaked through with a Marmite-y Elf on the Shelf Twitter campaign over Christmas. But they were derided as much as they were applauded for it.
Similar stunts, humour or even ads will need to walk a fine line between grabbing the attention and grabbing your crotch in a crowded park. The bold and the clever will know. You can be controversial or edgy without being, to put it bluntly, a wanker.
But not everyone knows when they are being a wanker. Hence Toby Young.
A new client recently asked me why they should hire me when they could probably get three content farmers from a freelance-for-hire site for the fee I was asking for.
Good question. Here’s the answer. And yes, they hired me.
Content is a question of quality AND quantity. That is not to say that you can’t do well in searches with a LOT of fairly average content. It’s probably a good idea if you don’t have a lot to spend, or a lot to say. But sub-standard or dull copy won’t do a lot to enhance your brand once those Google users reach your website. And it won’t help you when Google shifts the goal posts, again. In fact, it could well work against you.
In explaining, I cited a previous client who had a fantastic amount of fairly dreadful content. This was packed with keywords, links, relevant information and even useful pages. The problem was that it looked like it had been delivered by a dumper truck. It was dull, it was jumbled and it was not something you could enjoyably read. This was content as landfill.
But Google decided it was even worse than that. They de-listed the entire site.
This was when the client came to me.
Building a brand with content
We slowly began to build quality content, with blogs, news and quality content in long form. We went back to the pre-web basics of creating something that people wanted to read. After all, that is the point of creating communications. Too many content managers worry more about their search engine readers than their human ones and that is a mistake.
With a new content plan in place, and with readable copy on the site, we started to attract readers via a press campaign, giving away content and creating more that was enjoyable and informative. Before long, Google was re-listing the website, the national press were picking up on stories we created and the CEO was appearing as a commentator on the industry on news programmes.
This had not happened before. But then the CEO did not have an authoritative voice and a platform for it before. All a journalist would see would be a whole lot of listings, noise and babble. So, for an outlay that was being made anyway, I added the bonus of a media profile. He was an easy sell, as he knew all about the business. You could see it in his (my) words.
With this all in place, the platform grew and the content kept coming. Some from me, some from other quality contributors. We could have added some lesser quality content at this point (and it may have helped with SEO), but the CEO wanted to keep his strong voice across the site with good content.
This was a good call, as the offers for the business started to come in, which was what the CEO wanted all along. Now people could see the quality and the potential. Previously, they couldn’t even Google it.
Before too long, the business was sold.
Kevin Spacey’s PR team must have been initially pleased with themselves as the story broke over his alleged sexual assault of a a then 14-year-old Anthony Rapp. Their client was accused of pretty much the worst thing you can be accused of, yet the initial headlines were about Kevin Spacey coming out as a gay man.
Spacey’s team had time to strategise, write and re-write, prepared by months of rumour and some solid Twitter accusations. They then waited for the bomb to drop, ready with their own even larger ammunition, which would pack an even bigger bang. Spacey’s sexuality was barely a secret any more, but they knew that this was still a huge story about a much-loved and respected actor.
Initially, this strategy worked. Sexual assault was not in the headlines or the opening paragraph in many stories on major news networks and newspaper websites. Instead, we were presented with an actor struggling with his identity and sexuality. The assault was dismissed as a drunken incident. Insignificant and long-since forgotten.
But this is 2017. Comment is instant and networks can gather and react fast. Within minutes of the headlines, Twitter was awash with condemnation of the strategy.
Spacey had tried to conflate his actions with his sexuality. This was a step too far for commentators who had seen this kind of thing in the 1970s and 1980s, when the tabloid press was only too willing to confuse being gay with being a pederast or paedophile. Similarly, younger LGBTQI tweeters were dumbfounded by Spacey’s conflation.
In short, this was a very short-term win that turned into a long-term disaster and a lesson in how not to do disaster PR in 2017. The centre held. But only for about 30 minutes. This was a landmark in public relations. A tipping point. This was the day that everyone could suddenly smell bullshit.
It wasn’t long before journalists and columnists could smell blood over this rather unpleasant stench, with everyone from the Sun to the Guardian publishing columns slating Spacey’s tactics. The picture in the US media was much the same.
Before too long, Netflix was distancing itself from Spacey and others were following. The strategy had not only failed, it had spectacularly backfired. Within hours, people were speculating as to just how much Spacey was like his character Frank Underwood in House of Cards. After all this was almost an Underwood play. ‘There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.’
So far so bad for Spacey, but this was a sea-change moment in PR too. The public have already become accustomed to President Trump dropping bombs (sometimes literally) to deflect attention away from a crisis, with Spacey’s team illustrating how that works outside the Whitehouse. Much active crisis management from PRs will now result in them being called out for ‘doing a Spacey’, damaging both agency and client alike.
New ideas and new strategies will now have to be called upon in even the smallest crisis where saying nothing and going on a long holiday is not an option. PR now has its own crisis to manage, which could easily snowball. To quote Francis Urquhart (the original House of Cards lead in the 1990 UK version): ‘Nothing lasts for ever. Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end some day.’