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.’
“Have you got all this in a spreadsheet?”
This is often my question upon arriving at a business and a new client tells me all about their customer base.
I hate spreadsheets.
Most often, the answer is ‘no’. Most often this answer comes from a business that does a good degree of business online and most of it via a computer in some way or other.
This is the wrong answer.
The beauty of modern business is that it comes with a slew of data. Companies such as Google or Facebook made their fortunes realising how valuable that is to enable them to sell things. Some businesses realise this. But very few realise that data mining is hugely valuable for ideas and for marketing.
There are stories in there.
I am terrible at science, but there should be a formula that goes something like Data X x Data Y + Interesting correlation = story. It is simple PR stuff.
Let’s imagine a stationery business. Most red pens are sold in Nottingham. Most blue pens are bought by men aged 55-59. No men have ever bought a green pen. Women buy 75% of pencils sold. Millennials purchased 200% more paper than in previous years. You get the idea.
These are all story starters that someone creative could turn into headlines. It doesn’t take much. But it does take a good eye for facts and for the media mindset. It also takes skill to know what to do with the data you are mining and how to represent it.
There is another way to do this too. This requires slightly more skill and insight into the sort of business you are dealing with. Whereas browsing spreadsheets is like mining an established seam, this is like digging a hole not knowing what is there. Or, to put it more simply, it is guesswork.
Working backwards, I conjure up data-led stories that would work for the company in question and then see if the numbers can back it up. It helps if you have a really good data or programming person onside in the business.
If the numbers don’t exist, then you can always make them.
I don’t mean by lying. Although some may be tempted.
Just look at advertising for how this works. You create the story. So, most professional novelists use our red pens. Most cancer surgeons use green felt tips. Most cartoonists use Brand X pencils.
Note, it does not say ‘buy’. If you send every professional novelist in the UK a red pen then chances are you can survey them and ask ‘did you use that?’ If 51% say yes then your claim is true. 8/10 ad men and women say they prefer to do it that way. Watch the ads and pay attention next time you see a usage statistic.
Everyone uses a freebie. Especially if it is something they are likely to use anyway.
I am often asked for the one tip that I would give to writers, journalists, copywriters and, well, just about anyone who writes. My answer is always the same, whether you write for a living or for fun. Take notes. Get a notebook. Fill it. Then fill another one. And so on.
90% of what you write down will be irrelevant at best and incomprehensible at worst. Those who take notes religiously know only too well the feeling of going back through their notes and wondering just who the hell wrote them. Was it a maniac? A spider? A fool? But they also know that these books can turn up gold when you go back to them before boxing them up for posterity or to simply save space.
Note-taking is an essential for anyone who uses ideas and imagination in their day to day life. Ideas are fleeting. You have to catch them before they go. No matter how crazed they sound. Many people have multiple notebooks: one in their work bag, one on their desk, one by the sofa and one by the bed. Inspiration can strike anywhere and at any time. So you need to be ready.
Does it matter what sort of notebook you use? Well, yes and no. A 99p reporter’s pad is just as useful as a top of the range leather-bound journal when it comes to taking notes. But notebooks can impart both care and character, as author Paul Auster is only too aware. After all, you may well look after a £10 notebook better than a £1 one. You may even feel more confident taking it out in meetings or when you are out and about. But whichever works for you is fine. Something with a page marker can be great, as you can automatically go to the next blank page without a fuss.
What do I use? Well, I have boxes of different notebooks in the attic. From the cheap or giveaway to Moleskine journals.Nowadays, I keep one hardback Moleskine for meetings and away days, with smaller Moleskine paperbacks for fitting in a pocket. More importantly, I have gone electronic in the last few years.
It may sound like a cult to those who don’t use it, but I am fully committed to Evernote. I can take notes on my phone and sync them across devices, with a back up kept permanently online and offline. This means I can go back to notes at any time (without digging in the loft) and I can search my notes by key words or themes. New projects mean a new notebook, which can just sit with the rest on my phone or laptop.
I have a pro account (and I am not being paid for this), but have not yet gone as far as buying Evernote-enabled Moleskine notebooks. Although I do browse the Evernote blog every now and again, discovering gems such as how Siri can now make an Evernote note.
Try it if you have a smartphone. You have nothing to lose but your need to find a pen when you have an idea.
But whatever you do, do keep taking notes. Once you finish a notebook spend an hour or so reviewing it. There may be missed gems in there, or rejected ideas that could now have their time. I was once described as someone who is three years ahead of his time in terms of ideas, so I am always sure to go back and check once the world has caught up.
Those un-useable or out there ideas may be at the very forefront of fashion or thinking right now. It’s like having my work already done.
Truly great ideas seemingly come out of nowhere. Flashes of inspiration that suddenly fight their way into your cerebral cortex and out of your mouth or on to the page.
Only it doesn’t really work like that. Every idea you have, no matter how left-field or out-of-character it may be, is a product of your environment, your learning and your past. Nothing is created in a vacuum, so you will wear your influences, whether that is on your sleeve or deep in your heart.
In many cases, this is great. You can create the new out of the old. After all, punk rock in the UK was part Situationism, part glam, part pub rock, part Angry Brigade and part leftover stock at the clothing shop that Malcom McLaren’s ran with Vivienne Westwood.
But you also risk simply imitating what has gone before. Playing it safe. Playing the percentages.
Legendary ad man Dave Trott has spoken about this in the past and how when ads that look like X are selling, you certainly notice when someone produces on that looks like an O. Trott has done this himself, notably with the Lipsmackin’ Pepsi Cola campaign. Here is something cooler than Coke, that you can attempt to recreate in the playground. See also MeowMix (which I don’t think was Trott’s) or those arty Guinness ads that became an anchor around the neck of admen for years. An original that became something that people tried to imitate.
Being different is as important as being right or being good. Maybe even more so. Your clients may want a ‘me-too’ campaign or copy, but imagine how much more inspiring something original will be. Both for you and the client. You have to innovate.
That brings me to the picture above, which was taken in my neighbourhood. The council were scrubbing the massage parlour stickers off the lampposts and applying anti-stick paint.
So one masseuse (or their flyer/sticker kid) decided to innovate. Sticking their ad to the bollards put up to ensure the street and lamppost clean went smoothly. Sure, it was temporary. But it certainly showed some original, daring thinking.
A fellow writer recently posted a question. Someone had sent them a woeful press release. Spelling mistakes, dire copy, factual errors. The whole lot. Should they say anything to the PR company who sent it?
Some time ago, my answer would have been to ignore it. Let it go. But I have changed my tune in the last couple of years, not least because I have seen so much poor work and sloppy execution of half-baked ideas, in both PR and journalism. ‘Will this do?’ is not even a question uttered by the untalented any more. They just press send (often CC-ing all).
So, I’ve started to tell people their work is shit.
Now, this sloppiness may be a consequence of cost-cutting and corner-cutting in both fields. But there is no excuse for not taking the time to check and review work, especially in PR or advertising. After all, we’re not talking typos here, it is the entire work that is causing a stink.
For this reason, as well my own taste for a little subversion or shaming, I have started to point it out. After all, if someone wants me to go to the trouble of opening their email, reading their copy or listening to their ad then they should expect some push back if that is sub-par.
I was expecting the odd ‘you got me’ or mea culpa, mixed with the odd instruction to go forth and multiply. But something quite odd started to happen instead. The insulted parties have started to ask to hire me. In some cases this has been to improve upon the work I had criticised. But in an increasing number of cases they wanted to know more. They wanted a damn good kicking.
These CEOs and bosses were simply so busy attending meetings, signing contracts and managing the business that they were often ignoring 50% of their output. They thought someone else had it. They didn’t.
To put it bluntly, no one was calling them on their mistakes or quality, nor their lack of imagination or ideas. They had busy yes-men (and -women) to spare, but no one who wanted to stop the presses, or kick up a stink. So, this random guy calling their work a huge steaming turd was actually refreshing to them. Who could have guessed?
So, now, part of what I do work-wise is to continue working for these businesses, being the bullshit detector and the little boy who says that the Emperor has no clothes on.
Occasionally they’ll ask for a deep dig on their sites, strategies or campaigns. But what they always want is a list of misfires, errors, potential problems and downright lazy or unimaginative work. Singing ‘you’re shit and you know you are’ is something I used to save for the football. But now I shout it loudly in the boardrooms and CEO’s offices across the UK and even globally.