Memo to Polly Toynbee: insulting the customers doesn’t work

Last thought on the Polly Toynbee/Guardian piece: At the end of it she says:

In the end, it’s up to you. If you always read this on the web, go out and buy a copy, skinflint. Use it or lose it.

How about this? Create the compelling content and people will come to you instead – give them a compelling and unique reason for looking at the print instead of the web. Don’t blame or insult the consumer, that’s never going to increase sales. And find decent ads that they may click on.

It seems to me that insults are rarely going to work. Like many others in the world of media she’s clinging to the old model – buying the paper – instead of looking to see what alternatives there may be.

Guardian boss: PRs need to learn to pitch by Twitter

Like many journalists, The Guardian’s tech editor Charles Arthur deals with a lot of enquiries and press releases coming from PR operators – some of them relevant, many of them not. But in an effort to try and make PRs be more concise with him, he’s decided to take it to Twitter. He’s removed his email address from Gorkana and wants pitched by tweet alone.

For Charles, it’s a chance to free his inbox from some clutter and perhaps free up a chunk of his time as well. For me, it’s completely fascinating on a number of levels:

It forces PRs to play catch-up and be Twitter-savvy

It changes the rules of interaction between PRs and press

Firstly, making PRs change their method of contact is quite interesting. I’ve often argued that even if they do nothing else, PRs should be monitoring Twitter to see what is said about their clients, but now they have to learn how to use it if they want to appeal to the UK’s top mainstream technology supplement. It’s not the only bit of education involved as Charles also hopes it means people will start to be more relevant in what they send to him.

Secondly, making the PR and journalism interaction take place out in the open is a significant game-changer (and how long before some organisations insist on it for all comms involving publicly funded bodies?). A phone call or email are limited to those involved, but a tweet can be seen by anyone.

So by theoretically tweeting a pitch to Charles – and remember you can’t direct mail unless Charles follows you – everyone knows that you’ve pitched to him and knows what you are offering. So if Charles rejects it, you can’t then go to someone else and say ‘I’m offering you first bite…’ which then gives you the quandry of going to reporters one at a time or all at once. (But Charles himself is quite accepting of this, saying “I’d understand it was non-exclusive. That’s OK – exclusives last about three minutes online.”

At the other end, it’s a lot harder for a person to ignore a @reply than an email – and takes less time to reply to as well.

There’s also the possibility that this might increase PR tweetspam because if PR A sees that PR B has sent Charles a tweet about a product and A has something similar, then they are also going to get in touch with him.

(of course, some are also wondering if this will lead to people phoning up to see if someone received a tweet, just as some currently call to see if an email was of interest/received)

It’s going to be interesting to watch because if Charles – who is one of the more polite and patient senior newspaper staffers when dealing with PRs – does stick to his guns, does it mean he runs the risk of missing a good tale by email? What implications are there for PRs who don’t/won’t use Twitter? Will other reporters follow suit? Will PRs return the favour by saying ‘reach us only via Twitter?’ (Which would crazy, but that’s another post.)

But I wanted to ask Charles a couple of questions about it and he graciously took the time to answer them for me.

What do you expect to gain from this?
Less spam in my inbox. Seriously: there’s no reflection given to the stuff people spew at me. How many separate technology sections are there in Fleet Street? One. How many technology correspondents are there on Fleet Street? About five…If you can’t tailor your email output to a group that select, you simply shouldn’t be in the business.

How many pitches a day do you get?
Oh, God, twenty? Thirty? People to meet: average two a day. Twitter is starting to build up; I tell people to pitch the idea in 140 chars.
(Note: for a comparison to what Charles is saying, see Chris Anderson from Wired’s now legendary post on PR people)

Anyway, Charles continues…
(Or try to DM me, but I’m not following them so it’s lost.) Then there’s just all the other part-ideas. The thing though is that almost all PR stuff is announcements.

And then, he had the decency to point out something that’s probably obvious to those who have worked in editorial departments and PR but perhaps not to all…

I have a sedimentary concept of news. At the bottom you have all the debris: announcements. Almost all press releases are announcements. Above those are “issues” – topics that have people energised about something, but with no particular timeliness. (Eg parking near your house being discussed for charging by the council. Grinds on for months. It’s an issue.)

Then there’s news – when an announcement plus some issue comes together and makes news. That’s the top level, where I work. Why bombard me with sediment? I’m working at the news level. I need issues, not announcements.

And here’s possibly the most salient point from his email when talking about sending out a press release via email to a lot of reporters: I realise it’s the client who pays the bills, so they want the press release put in front of as many people as possible. But I’m afraid that model is officially broken, and has been for about five years – possibly ten or more.”

Now that’s an opinion I’m coming back to tomorrow…(what? a blog can’t do cliffhangers? It’s how you get readers coming back. Works for Jack Bauer every week)

(As an aside Anna Svenson also pointed out that Dan Martin of www.BusinessZone.co.uk has done the same – pitches via Twitter – and hopefully Dan will drop us a note to let us know how he got on with it. And thanks again to Charles for taking the time for this.)

A thought on papers linking all over the place

As most web readers know, The Huffington Post is often cited as a good example of what journalism may be in the future – or rather, what a newspaper may be – and while it doesn’t tickle my fancy, I’ll let others enjoy it (each to their own and all that) but there’s also been a row recently about links where the The New York Times Company is being sued for copyright infringement over some local sites linking with headlines/intros to another publisher’s articles. The other publisher claims that by going straight to the story page and not going through a main page or anything, then they are deprived of advertising.

Now, I can sympathise a little, but a couple of points:
1) The links are useful. The more places you are linked at, the more chances people will come and read your story. It’s like a headline in a paper. If they don’t like it, they’ll move on and won’t read it.
2) I still don’t know anyone who clicks on ads on the web. I know people who go for promo codes that are emailed/texted to them but a normal ad rarely seems to do the trick, but someone must be doing it I guess.

However, what caught my eye was this comment by Jeff Jarvis: “they will allow a local publication to do local well and link to other stories rather than rewriting them: Do what you do best, link to the rest.

Here’s a thought for many a local paper – and I appreciate that Jeff is talking more about the US where local has a different definition to the UK – To hell with the rest. Do local, do nothing but local, do it better than anyone else. Someone else wants to talk about Gaza? Let them, unless you have a strong local angle. Famine in Africa? Is there a local angle? Then it’s not in. Instead of pushing for the larger and larger coverage, dump it. Let people go the BBC or The Guardian or somwhere for that. Let them come to you for the local.

And if you’re that good at it, then everyone will link to you. And if everyone’s looking at your site, then it’s up to you to try and find a way to make that profitable (if profit is your thing).

The Joys of SEO

(There really deserves to be a bigger, harder, longer pun in this one, but I’m hard pushed for time and this keyboard is really stiff)

Neil McIntosh has been blogging about recent reports on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – and there’s an article by Shane Richmond in The Telegraph and not one, but two hilarious Guardian columns playing along – and, without free drugs to boost my memory, it brought back to my mind the time, before the credit crunch, I saw a company try to boost web ranking by inserting the phrase women’s car insurance into a release.

A release about a car crash.

And that was how it read.

It was so bad, it was a cock up and a balls up. It had lines like “The driver, who did not have women’s car insurance was unhurt after the incident” and “the drivers of the other cars, who did not have women’s car insurance – some because they were male” and “drivers are reminded that women’s car insurance is a must”.

It was awful. You can say it was trying to sex up a routine car crash, but it was worse than a piece of Harry Potter sex fanfic. I would like to think we’ve moved on from that, but for some, I don’t think we have…It’s almost as bad as the SEO firms that think online PR starts and ends with free PR release sites (though, as you’ll see from above, I’ve started handing out PR tips for free. iPhones – old style and iPhone 3G should be able to access it and it should be viewable on the Wii and PS3 browsers as well. For free.).

(And the company who had the naked cheek to write that release aren’t anywhere near the top Google rankings for women’s car insurance or SEO strategy I’m pleased to say.)