Thursday, 30 July 2009

“Another remarkable day in internet land”

I would have to agree with comedian Richard Herring that this Monday was another fine example of how Twitter is having a marked effect on traditional media.

The furore kicked off thanks to an online Guardian article about modern comedy and how it has become more acceptable to make offensive or often racist jokes. Despite not knowing the work of all the comedians mentioned, even I got the initial impression that there was a lack of context which meant the piece was pointing fingers – a fine line to walk when it comes to such sensitive topics. In true Twitter form it was only an hour or so until one of the accused comedians, Richard Herring, was spreading his outrage at being misquoted and being portrayed as racist.

It was interesting to see people’s perspective of what a ‘respected broad sheet’ means in terms of journalism compared to a tabloid as the fact that the article came from the Guardian certainly heightened the anger. Numerous blogs and tweets were up within 24 hours in support of the wrongly quoted comedians. With the eyes and tweets of the world now in motion, no journalist is excused for quick or sloppy research. With Richard Herring’s response letter being printed in the Guardian tomorrow, surely Twitter has again proved its worth past telling people what you’re having for lunch in 140 characters.

You can read the full Guardian article here:

and Richard Herring’s response here:

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Have you been Shortlisted for your own personal Stylist this autumn?

Breaking news in the world of magazines...

For every woman who’s ever been handed a free copy of Shortlist on a rainy day, only to sit down and trudge through a wealth of sport and gangster film reviews, for every one of us who is forced to splash her cash at the tills for a magazine that thinks Madonna’s latest adoption is the most newsworthy story of the week, or forced to watch Natalie Cassidy’s weight rise and fall...apparently our prayers have been answered.

Project Y has been under operation for nearly 8 months now but with the big reveal today: Shortlist, the free male weekly title, is to distribute a new women’s magazine on Wednesday from late September/October.

Titled Stylist, 400,000 copies will be dispersed over 6 cities, giving you content such as the high-end fashion you may expect right through to travel, people and careers.

We’ve seen this before you might say – revolutionary topics such as “I earned more than my husband so he left me” or “I’m the breadwinner in our house” featuring the obligatory stiletto heels and red lipped smirk. But Chief Exec Mike Soutar of FHM fame seems to be taking this seriously:

“...There are some important things it will never do: it will never publish unflattering paparazzi shots of celebrities looking their worst, never invent spurious stories about stars’ relationships and never cynically exploit women’s body anxieties.”

Sounds like a publicist’s dream – polished images and positive content. But even the likes of Grazia can’t resist a comment or two on the fashion fails and tangoed terrors.

We all get frustrated with the lengths some titles go to chart weight loss – stopping just short of calling them in for a weekly weigh-in. But everyone likes a little comment here and there, something that makes these glamorous celebrities seem human. Kate Winslet has built her career on interviews talking about how much she has struggled with, and learnt to love, her “real body.” Surely a sweat patch here or there or a mascara-teared picture looking worse for wear only helps this?

Targeting “affluent professional women” or as one reporter hilariously put it “20-40 year old women who enjoy 11 years of freedom and career building before starting a family”, Stylist is looking to challenge the Grazias and Marie Claires of this world.

Bypassing the comment that women only have 11 years of freedom (?!), it’s going to be a tough market to crack and I certainly wish editor Lisa Smorsaski (formerly of More) the best of luck.
It’s a step in a different direction – one that men’s magazines such as GQ and Esquire seem to have succeeded in achieving where most women’s magazines have failed.

But from one 20-40 year old woman in the “career-building” time of life who will be handed the title one Wednesday in Birmingham, could we please have just a little bit of celebrity smirking? In the nicest possible way of course...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Declaring War on the Twitter Frauds

There’s something that’s been bugging me of late. Since Twitter has exploded into the mainstream, more and more companies, individuals and sites have been springing up which claim to be able to artificially grow your number of followers in an instant. What’s more, there are plenty of people out there who seem to think this is a genius idea. 0 to 1000 followers in a few seconds flat? My, aren’t you popular! That’s sure to impress the suits who insisted you start a Twitter feed for their company because they’ve suddenly realised they need a social media strategy.

I hate to ruin the party, but isn’t this completely missing the point? The idea of Twitter – particularly from a business point of view – is that it allows you to form valuable, personal connections with like-minded people who are genuinely interested in your opinions/services/products and vice versa. What possible purpose can it serve to have a following made up of users who either don’t exist or have absolutely no relevance to you whatsoever?

In the same way that Youtube cheats pay to increase the number of views to their videos, so Twitter frauds are creating a false reality just to puff up their own egos – or those of their bosses and clients. The practice delivers zero commercial benefits: these people aren’t going to form a relationship with you or your brand and help you convert their following into sales, work or footfall.

All it does is cheapen the entire concept of Twitter and cause a headache for everybody else. 300 followers who are grown organically and are bona fide fans of your brand and Twitter commentary are worth infinitely more than 30,000 fake followers – but try telling that to the powers that be who just look at the numbers.

And therein lies the problem. When using Twitter and other social media, businesses need to embrace a major cultural shift and understand that it’s about quality, not quantity. It’s about connecting with the right people and having conversations which give your brand personality and humanity, not blindly pushing sales messages to as many people as possible.

Until this sea change occurs, we’ve got a battle on our hands. As for the Twitter frauds, they may be winning the numbers war, but in my book it’s a very hollow victory indeed.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Freedom of the Press

So much for the silly season. Today’s scoop in The Grauniad about phone tapping at the News of the World has been described by former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil as nothing less than the “most significant of our time” (and he should know).

Murky waters these and some of the biggest names in print media, including my former classmate Rebekah Wade (it was Rebecca when I knew her) appear to be up to their neck in it. There are several fascinating questions about the role of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in particular, but for media watchers one of the key ones is how other News International titles, in particular The Times, are going to react to this story.

Murdoch’s empire does not have a good track record in this regard. Witness the total refusal to run anything during the last but one NOTW related scandal back in 2003, namely the collapse of the Victoria Beckham kidnapping case (remember that?) which was ultimately referred to the Attorney General and was widely covered by all the other broadsheets.

Currently, The Times is running an item on Cameron’s backing of former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, who is the Tory chief’s communications adviser, following a “just the facts” story in this morning’s hard copy paper. But, the real question is whether Murdoch will give the paper its freedom to really go after this story by unleashing its investigative journalists and commentators. If this story mushrooms (and I think it will) while The Times sits on the sidelines it could totally undermine its credibility as a serious newspaper. One to watch.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Plinth-Watch: High Art - or Reality TV at its Worst?

This week marked the beginning of Antony Gormley’s ambitious “One And Other” art project – a human art installation which invites members of the public to spend an hour atop the empty fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square.

Gormley has managed to attract more than 21,000 applicants for the 2400 places available over the 100 days the project will run for. For those of us who hail from the Big Brother generation, obsessed with experiencing their Warholian 15 minutes of fame no matter what inane or humiliating depths they must sink to in order to achieve it, its popularity should come as no surprise.

However, having tuned in to the One and Other webcam at various points during the past few days ( if you’re interested) I can’t help but feel disappointed at the standard of those selected to take part. Let me paint you a picture. So far, the spectacular turns atop the fourth plinth include: a bloke in a panda suit on a mobile phone (think Trigger Happy TV but without the humour); a man with a blackboard and chalk who’s ‘thing’ was to scribble smart arse comments (which he clearly thought were great witticisms) and offer them out to the crowd of bemused tourists who were more interested in taking their picture with the stone lions; and a Christian Aid worker collecting for charity (inoffensive enough –but come on, it’s not art, is it?).

Maybe I’ve missed the point, but I thought this was an art project – not an opportunity for every X-Factor reject, fame-seeker or do-gooder to use the plinth as a soapbox. It wouldn’t be so bad if they genuinely had something interesting to say (or do) but for the most part, they don’t. The sad thing is, while people are attracted by the idea of being the centre of attention for a fleeting moment, when the moment comes, the majority haven’t really got anything of value to contribute.

Perhaps Gormley is trying to make some sort of incisive comment about the banal, navel-gazing nature of modern culture. Then again, he might just be as disappointed as I am.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In Retrospect . . . again

The title of yesterday’s blog was inspired by Robert S McNamara’s 1995 book in which the former American Secretary of Defense admitted, with hindsight, that he and others in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations got so many decisions “wrong, terribly wrong” in their running of the Vietnam War or, as it became known, “McNamara’s War”. It is a superb and controversial book, unsparing in its self-assessment of the author’s own failings, an apology for his role in inflicting the long nightmare of America’s involvement in South East Asia.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I got home last night and learned that McNamara had passed away that very morning. The Washington Post had immediately leapt into action and opened a discussion forum on McNamara’s life, inviting readers to post their own thoughts on his passing. Predictably, 95% of the comments were highly negative.

This is not the place, and we certainly don’t have the time, to start a discussion on American involvement in Vietnam, but I could not help thinking that, however controversial he may have been, at least McNamara had the honesty and courage to admit he was wrong, albeit thirty years later. I listened to McNamara speak at the Hay on Wye book festival many years ago and was hugely impressed by his humility and remorse. In an era of self-justificatory memoirs from politicians and those in public life, I doubt whether we will often see such courage again.

One final thought. Prior to becoming Secretary of Defense, McNamara was CEO of the Ford Motor Company and is generally credited with the introduction of the seat belt in the mid-1950s, in the process saving countless lives. Any fair assessment of his legacy will take this into account.

Monday, 6 July 2009

In Retrospect

It’s not fashionable at the moment to publicly defend financiers, but the news that the Serious Fraud Office is investigating the Phoenix 4 who so memorably ‘saved’ Rover, is a reminder that financiers do, on occasion, get things right.

Those of us with long enough memories can remember how John Moulton of Alchemy Partners, the venture capitalist, was treated, by Sir Ken Jackson of the AEEU engineering union in particular, when he came up with the plan to turn Rover into a niche sports car manufacturer, based on the MGF design. I remember words like parasite and asset stripper were freely used.

The story of Moulton’s involvement with Rover is worth repeating, if for no other reason than to remember the dire straits the company was in. Moulton was attending a board meeting at Hayden McLennan as non-executive director when he learned by chance that the firm had run out of its main product, namely camouflage netting. He enquired why, and was told that they simply couldn't meet the demand from their primary customer, Rover, to disguise acres and acres of its unsold new cars in fields up and down the country (honestly, you can’t write comedy like this).

Moulton’s plan was brilliant but unorthodox. He convinced BMW to sell him Rover at a knock down price and cover its losses by selling Land Rover to Ford with the sweetener, for BMW, of keeping the prized Mini Cooper brand made at Cowley.

Moulton made no secret of the fact that there would be job losses, but the trade unions went on the search for a White Knight and duly found one in the shape of the Phoenix 4 who promised to retain all jobs at Longbridge and continue manufacturing in the volume car market, up against Ford, Vauxhall etal. The end was inevitable, although it took five years.

As Moulton said at the time: “The reality is, there are two choices, no jobs or some jobs.” How right he was and what a pity he was unable to put his plan into action.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Never mind the width, feel the quality (ooh .. er .. madam!)

Apologies for the Kenneth Williams inspired headline, but I have been asked to put down my thoughts on the alleged demise of the Birmingham Post.

Rumours continue to circulate (much denied I hasten to add) that the Post is going to go to a weekly format. For those like myself who are only now dipping a cautious toe onto the communications superhighway, this would be a tragedy, if not of biblical proportions, then certainly enough to make me a bit grumpy!

Walk into any professional services firm within a ½ mile radius of Colmore Row and you will find the Post. Partners, associates and mere minions like myself pick it up and give it a flick through every day. It’s readership may be relatively small, but it is of the very highest quality.

I am reminded of a story from across the pond which occurred during the first season of the great American TV series Hill Street Blues (they don’t make ’em like that anymore!). Anyway, ratings for the first few episodes were disappointingly low and NBC considered cancelling the whole thing until a bright spark in the advertising department pointed out that those who were tuning in were exactly the sort of viewer, young urban professionals with high disposable incomes, that key advertisers like BMW and Mercedes Benz were struggling to connect with.

Hey presto, a new strategy was born, premium television with, crucially, premium advertising rates. I’m not saying the same strategy would work for the Post. I fear the global downturn for the newspaper industry will demand a far more subtle strategy than just putting up prices. But, there has to be some way to keep this institution, which offers such a valuable means of engagement with such a high quality readership, as a daily going concern.