Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14th, 2009 by admin

I was fortunate enough to be invited in to University College London yesterday as a guest lecturer on its Masters course in Technology Entrepreneurship –

It’s a really well attended course and there were 45 students there to hear me talk about how PR can be the entrepreneur’s single most cost-effective marketing tool.

What’s more, many of them clearly took my message on board – by the time I returned to the office I had several e-mails waiting from students telling me all about the great products and companies they’re developing and wondering if I would be interested in writing about them.

Impressive and dynamic PR work from the entrepreneurs of tomorrow!

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On life as a writer

Posted in Uncategorized on October 9th, 2009 by admin

I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I spent most of my childhood reading books, and I daydreamt my teenage years away picturing my future life as a writer – by night I would be masking a riot of hedonistic, but elegant, excess as all essential research, and then I would emerge at around midday to flamboyantly touch my pen to paper and effortlessly produce works that would leave readers gasping for breath at my ability to rake up raw emotions, to tear apart false arguments, and to cast light into the shadowy corners of ignorance. My only concern was whether turning up to pick up the Bookers and Pulitzers would start to eat into my party time.

Of course, life as writer is nothing like that in reality. OK, my nights are admittedly a riot of hedonistic, but elegant, excess. (Last night I even had a bag of dry roasted – well it’s nearly the weekend). But my working day is much harder work than I ever thought it would be.  I’ve discovered that writing isn’t just a matter of sitting down with a good cappuccino, firing up the laptop and sitting back as the bon mots come fizzing out of my fingers. In fact most of the time I struggle to think of any mots, let alone some bon ones. Most of my time isn’t even spent writing – it’s spent researching and planning what I’m going to write and then editing what I have written.

This is a revelation that I share with people on my writing courses ( – writing is as much about planning and editing as it is about the act of writing. Most inexperienced writers make the twin mistakes of firstly diving straight into the actual act of writing without sufficient planning, and secondly not spending enough time editing their own work before declaring it complete. The result (unless you happen by chance to be a Byron or Hunter S. Thompson, both of whom not doubt had no need for such mundane activities as planning and editing) tends to be writing that lacks structure, flow and clarity.

So, one of the many pieces of advice I offer to anyone who wants to improve their writing is to spend a third of your time planning the piece, a third of the time writing it, and then the final third editing it. Taking this approach has the positive side-effect that you’ll spend a great deal less time staring at a blank page. I always assume that what I write will be bad on the first draft, but I know I’ll improve it on the second draft and by the time I’ve been through it three times someone might actually want to read it.

And I’m lucky enough that a few people do want to read the things I write, and so I get to do what I always dreamed of – earn a living as a writer. Admittedly it’s not exactly a spectacular living, and if I’m honest it barely pays for any hedonism at all (those nuts were a rare moment of reckless abandon) but I’m happy with it.

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A night in Balham

Posted in Uncategorized on October 1st, 2009 by admin

Mention Balham to most people – especially those old enough to remember Peter Sellers’s radio work – and they’ll gleefully respond with the phrase “Gateway to the South!” For the longest time there was little else to recommend the place. Bombed out of all recognition in the London Blitz, it’s now just a row of fairly unattractive low rent shops. All right it’s got a Waitrose. And it’s not far from Clapham. And it’s handy for the Northern Line. But having an easy means of escape is  hardly the highest praise that can be heaped on a place.

However, for those in the know there is now a very good reason to visit Balham. Tucked away on a side street, and very often ignored by those crawling between the pubs on the high street is the Balham Bowls Club. It was until a few years ago a functioning bowls club, frequented by distinguished gentlemen who no doubt muttered over their G&Ts about the raucous goings-on in the Be@One next door. And quite right too. Terrible place. Full of loud youngsters drinking brightly coloured cocktails. But then – as is often the way with places frequented by muttering old men – the tide of time overtook them and they found themselves having to sell their clubhouse. It was bought by someone who had the bright idea of turning it into a bar, and then the even brighter idea of not doing the usual strip-it-out-and-give-it-a-retro-refit but just leaving it as it is. So, all the old armchairs are there, the snooker room, the board listing past club presidents, the glasses that you remember from the 70s and wonder where they went to, the dusty portrait of the Queen, and best of all that oak-panelled sense of calm that you only ever get in places like that.

So, it’s a superb place for a couple of drinks of a Wednesday evening. And I was lucky enough to be there doing exactly that last night. I was even luckier to be doing it with one of the most charming and interesting PR executives I know. Which brings me away from ruminations on my local area and bars, and onto something closer to the alleged subject of this blog…..

We were discussing the many differences between working in-house and at an agency. She works in-house and has a great job that she loves. She had many good things to say about the agencies she worked at before going clientside. She even had some good things to say about the agencies who now work for her and pitch to her. But one thing neither she nor I could work out is why agencies insist on putting their most junior staff through the ordeal of calling up journalists and pitching stories to them. Very often this involves giving them fairly weak angles on unexciting stories, sitting them at a desk with a phone and telling them to get on with it. It rarely results in them placing a story, and more often results in them alienating the journalist, damaging the client brand and making the poor PR executive wish he or she was working somewhere else.

So, last night as we watched a large fluffy dog pad into the room and jump the queue at the bar to be served a bowl of fresh water, we agreed that the practice is rife and counter-productive in the long run (agencies making their junior staff do these ring-rounds, not dogs jumping queues in bars). She’d had to do it many times at the start of her career and had found it a largely embarassing and pointless exercise – she now builds long-term relationships with key journalists and phones them up when she’s got something genuinely interesting to discuss with them. I get a couple of calls a week from people who clearly don’t really understand what they’re pitching to me, and don’t really want to be doing it – I find it largely embarassing and pointless and would much prefer it if PR executives took the time to build a long-term relationship with me and called me when they have something interesting to say. I know that every other journalist would prefer that. I know that anyone who’s ever worked in a PR agency would prefer that. I know that clients would get more coverage and so would prefer it.

So, the question is this: why do agencies insist on putting their junior staff through this ordeal?

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Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists: part three

Posted in Uncategorized on September 14th, 2009 by admin

Back in June I began this series with number one – expecting us to be a free media monitoring service – then in July number two was – failing to follow up on face-to-face meetings. After a summer break in August I’m resuming with number three – sending us irrelevant press release after irrelevant press release.

This isn’t going to come as a revelation to anyone who works in PR. Almost every PR professional I’ve spoken to about this knows that journalists get annoyed by irrelevant press releases. Most of them explain to me that this is either a problem with the media lists they buy in not being as accurate or up to date as they should be, or the fault of PR agencies that work on the principle that if you fling enough mud at a wall some of it will stick. Some of them use a more pungent word than mud.

I agree that these two problems contribute significantly to the problem. However, they are not all of it. There are hundreds and hundreds of PR professionals who work for reputable companies and invest in good, well-researched media lists, who are sending out irrelevant press releases. These PRs are not bad at their jobs – most of them have qualifications from universities or an industry bodies, many have received training on how to write a press release, a good number have been in the industry for years producing press releases to the same professional standard, and almost all of them are producing pointless press releases that serve only to damage their company or their client in the eyes of the media.

These are intelligent people who work hard doing what they believe is a professional job. But they’re failing to connect with the journalists they’re paid to influence because they’re not making their press releases relevant.

In most cases the problem is they forget that the journalist isn’t interested in their company or client; the journalist is only interested in his or her readers and what will inform or entertain them. So, a press release that talks about how a company has won a major new client, boosted sales, hired a new Chief Executive or begun expanding into a new sector is entirely irrelevant to the journalist.

It may well be that there’s plenty in the press release that would interest those readrs, but that isn’t explained in the press release. All the journalists see is another press release talking about how great the company is. It’s the PR equivalent of the bloke trying to impress a girl by talking all night about himself, his great job, his fast car, and so on and on. How often does that ever work?

The very best PRs in the business understand this. They go that extra step to make their press releases relevant to different segments of their media list. And they get results. Journalists read their press releases, follow up on them, write about their companies and clients in the way the PR wants, and then go back to that PR for more news and views. All because they know that PR understands what they want.

Doing this isn’t easy. Achieving the balance between conveying the achievements of the company and giving the journalist something interesting is difficult. Furthermore, as anyone who works in PR knows, you have a short space of time to produce a press release, usually about a fairly uninteresting subject, and you’ve got clients and/or marketing departments breathing down your neck, insisting you talk up their latest achievements.

In my half-day course “Press Releases That Get Results” I give delegates a methodology they can use again and again to make their press releases count. People who’ve worked in PR for 20 years have found it a really useful eye opener. People who’ve just started out in PR have found it gives them the best possible start to their press release writing careers. To find out more, click here:

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A fresh approach to generating new business leads

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12th, 2009 by admin

One for the agencies this……

New business meetings – you always need them if you want to grow, in fact if you want to survive. But they’re hard to get. Budget-holders are busy. You’re competing against dozens, hundreds, thousands of other agencies, and let’s face it no one enjoys picking up the phone to call someone they don’t know.

Most agencies respond in one of three ways to this:

1) Rely on referrals, networking, and cross-selling for as long as they possibly can, until they realise – often too late – that this source isn’t going to support them forever.

2) Hire an in-house person to make calls, set meetings and possibly attend introductory meetings. How well this works depends on the ability of the person hired, and this can vary. Even the most talented and experienced tend to struggle because few of their colleagues understand their job and they quickly become isolated and demotivated. I’ve seen it happen time after time.

3) Outsource meeting setting to a specialist agency. There are many very bad telemarketing and new business agencies, and plenty of companies get their fingers burned. However, there are some that are good (if you want a recommendation for one I’d be happy to provide you with one). The problem is that they’re expensive. Their fees start at around £2,000 per month – if you’re paying any less you’re almost certainly throwing your money away – and few small agencies can afford that.

I believe there is a fourth option for those agencies with up to ten people: get your existing team to do the calling. Set aside one, two, three or four hours a week when everyone is on the phone trying to arrange meetings for the MD to attend. This is cheaper than hiring an agency, more effective and cheaper than hiring an in-house person, and best of all it produces a regular stream of new business opportunities for your agency.

Wondering how you’ll persuade your staff to take on this extra work?

Well, firstly you should point out that they have a vested interest in the future of this agency. They will also be able to influence the direction of the agency – they can call companies they want to work for. And you will probably have to give them a financial incentive. This could be dinner for two in a top restaurant for whoever sets the most meetings that week or it could be a direct payment for each meeting set. Whatever it is, it will be cheaper than hiring an agency or in-house person.

So, what do you need to do to make this happen?

Firstly, get the buy-in of your team as above.

Secondly, develop a list of target companies. You might need to spend a small amount of money on this and supplement it with some telephone research by your office junior.

Thirdly, train your staff on how to make these calls. I have spent many years setting new business meetings for PR agencies, and then training and managing a team of people who did it. I now offer a training course that will give your team the skills, knowledge and confidence to help you grow your business.

For more details see here:

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Which are the best books on how to write?

Posted in Uncategorized on August 5th, 2009 by admin

During my training sessions such as ‘How to write copy that journalists actually use’, ‘Press releases that get results’ and ‘Pitching ideas to editors’, I’m often asked which are the best books for people who want to improve their writing accuracy and style.

I recommend two books: ‘The Elements of Style’ and ‘The Economist Style Guide’.

The Elements of Style was written byWilliam Strunck (a Cornell professor) and EB White (author of children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). First published in 1918, it has been through several revisions and now comprises 105 pages of the crispest, most insightful and entertaining advice you will read on how to write. Some might find their forthright style a little hard to take, but I think that there can be few books that cram so much advice into so few words, and make it all seem so straightforward. When I first found this many years ago it was a revelation and an inspiration, and I now eagerly foist it onto anyone who asks for my advice on this.

The Economist is one of the best written publications you can buy today. I may disagree with its writers on almost every single point they make, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the way in which they make those points. In fact the way in which it has continued to grow its readership over the last two years when almost every single aspect of its free market doctrine has been shown to have failed is testament to the quality of its writing.This is reflected in its style guide which offers sensible advice on how to write accurately and clearly. It also contains a very useful alphabetised section, so if, for example, you are unsure whether something should be capitalised or hyphenated, you can go straight there and find out.

There are plenty of other good books on writing style, and I’d welcome feedback on what readers have found useful. So far though I am yet to find two better books on the English language. My advice to anyone who wants to become a better writer is to buy both these, read The Elements of Style cover to cover once a year, and keep The Economist Style Guide as a desk reference.

Oh, and come on one of my training courses.

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Backwards golf and how to make money from online publishing

Posted in Uncategorized on July 16th, 2009 by admin

I had an interesting couple of pints with some of the clever digital PR folks at Edelman last night. We discussed the irony of a print magazine about social media, the fun to be had in playing golf courses backwards (tee-off from the first but aim at the 18th green – sounds entertainingly dangerous!) and finally, the long-term decline of advertising.

As regular readers of my blog will know this is a theme I’ve touched on before.  In this recession trade titles are suffering from the slump in ad spend. They always do – but I’m not convinced that by 2011 ad spend in print will be back where it was in 2007. Marketers are putting more and more of their ad spend online. They’re increasingly convinced that it is more targeted, more trackable, and crucially, cheaper.

Marketers expect to spend less on online ads. This is a big problem for publications that rely on advertising for their revenue – which is almost all of them. If their ad revenue falls how can they continue to make a profit? Sure, they can save money on print and distribution, but still, for the majority the equation won’t add up.

The only way they can plug this revenue shortfall is to persuade readers to pay for content.

And yet we know this won’t work. In the early days of the web, publishers learnt very quickly that people will not pay for content. We expect the Internet to be free.

And this is where last night – well into our Staropramen – we came up with a good idea.

It’s based on two initial premises:

1) People’s expectation of the quality of online content has risen in the past decade – we have become more adept at sorting through the online waffle to find what is genuinely useful/interesting to us

2) People are now much more comfortable with paying for things online than they were ten years ago

So, while in 1999 paid-for content might have been a non-starter, that doesn’t mean that it still is in 2009.

Then the third, crucial, premise is:

3) People don’t subscribe to content online, not because they’re not willing to pay for it, but because they can’t be bothered with all the hassle. They know they’ll have to go thorugh half a dozen pages of form-filling, they’ll have to find their credit card details, they might be signing up to a long-term deal they can’t get out of, and then the site might go down meaning it was a waste of five minutes. Five minutes might not sound like a lot, but when we’re looing for information online we expect to receive it immediately.

So, here’s the idea we came up with……

You buy credits in advance and then buy content simply by clicking a button, and paying £1, 50p, 25p, 10p even, for that specific article. It would be a simple application that every publisher could add to their sites so there became one instant, low commitment way for people to pay for content. It would be like the Oyster card of online publishing. Or iTunes for written content.

Great idea or just the Staropramen talking?

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10 things that PRs do that really annoy journalists – part two

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7th, 2009 by admin

Ok, so this one genuinely confuses me. Over the years it has puzzled me but I still can’t figure out why PRs do it. Recently I’ve started asking other editors and journalists if they’ve had this happen. Around four out five have looked astonished and said “Yes! How weird is that? I thought it was just me. Now, why DO PRs do that?”

I’m talking about spending a fortune luring me out of my office to some fun event, taking the time and trouble to tell me about something interesting they or their clients are doing, and then completely failing to follow it up. No, more than that – on many occasions I’ve actively followed up on a discussion I’ve had with someone over lunch, at the racecourse, on the golf course, or somewhere similar, and found it almost impossible to get further information out of the PR.

Why does that happen?

As a journalist I get invited to quite a few events like that. I’m always up for going to them – it’s good as a freelance to get out of the office and meet some new people, and I’m never going to turn down tickets to see England play at the World Cup in Germany, or a golf day at the 2010 Ryder Cup course, or lunch in the Portrait Restaurant. Of course, the people who are inviting me know that they’re not buying coverage from me.  They are though getting my attention and have a chance to tell me about interesting products, services, ideas, news, and so on that I might want to put in my articles. That’s why they run these events. Presumably.

So, why do they then, almost without exception, fail to follow up after the event?

(I should point out that not every PR does this. I’ve got several PRs I work closely with, where the relationship began at one of these events. I came along, had a good time, discussed something interesting, and we followed it up afterwards. But, honestly, that is the exception.)

For a while I thought it was me – maybe having met me they decide that I’m not really that important a journalist after all, and they’re focusing their efforts on the other people who were there.  But then I discovered that most other journalists have the same problem.

Whatever the reason, it’s pretty annoying. Once or twice discussions at these events have prompted me to pitch ideas to titles I write for, and then, once I’ve been commissioned, I’ve had to go back to the editor and say I can’t complete it simply because the people who originally pitched the idea to me have gone AWOL. Letting my clients down like that does not make me happy. In fact it makes me very unhappy.

So, from the PR’s point of view, they’ve spent all that time and money and have not only achieved no coverage, they’ve also damaged their relationships with the people who came on it.

Now, why would they do that?

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The trainer’s quandry

Posted in Uncategorized on June 30th, 2009 by admin

As I’ve noted already on this blog, the ability to pitch story ideas to editors and journalists is absolutely crucial to success in almost every avenue of PR. For that reason many PRs I speak to seem to think it’s an innate skill – it’s one of those things you’ve either got or you haven’t.

I entirely disagree. Innate skill can help, but everyone can learn to do it. In fact that this is the same with almost any human activity – some people are more likely to succeed because of talent they’re born with, but anyone can – with enough hard work and the right training – learn to do it well.

On my Pitching to Editors course I’ve seen clear evidence of this. PRs have turned up, having been sent by their employers, and I can tell that they’re sceptical. Either they think they already know all they need to about pitching, or they don’t think that a training course is going to make any difference. As we discuss what we want to achieve in the training session they tell me that they’re fine getting stories in the lower level trades, but that it’s not possible for them to get coverage in the nationals or the top tier weeklies – the product/company/service isn’t interesting enough, the journalists just aren’t interested, or pitching simply isn’t something they do all that well.

I love it when people start with this attitude. I know that in four hours they’ll be thinking differently. They’ll have discovered exactly what journalists want in pitches from PRs, they’ll have learnt a step by step methodology for producing pitches that get results, and they’ll have put it into practice, producing a pitch that they can send out as soon as they get into the office the next day.

I also know that in four weeks, after they’ve worked with me for a few minutes every day building and sending a pitch a week, they’ll have got coverage in those nationals and top tier titles they thought were impossible.

Ask any trainer and they’ll tell you that’s what they love: transforming attitudes and helping people achieve what they thought was impossible.

They’ll also tell you that what frustrates them most about their work is that so few people realise how possible all this is. It’s a cliche that the ones who are most likely to ask for help are those least likely to need it,  but it’s so true. Most of those who come along to my training sessions are already well on the way to becoming outstanding PR professionals – they’re open to self-development and are reaping the benefits.

It’s the ones who don’t come along, who believe that they don’t need training or that training isn’t going to make any difference – you’ve either got the ability or you haven’t – that frustrate me. I know that they’re probably infuriating my fellow journalists and editors by continuing to send out really bad pitches. And they’re probably disappointing their clients or employers by not getting coverage in the top titles. But what’s worst of all is that this stubborn refusal to accept that training can make a difference is such a waste of their potential.

But if they never open their minds to the possibility of self-development they’ll never discover what a difference it can make. They’ll continue to see training as an expense, not an investment. Although they’d never openly admit this they probably see training as a bit of a con – one of those things that only fools waste their money on.

This is the trainer’s quandry – the people who are most in need of training are those least likely to accept it.

But what can I do about it?

What can any training provider do about it?

Answers on a postcard please…..

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Apostrophes- dull punctuation marks or works of art?

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23rd, 2009 by admin

Last Sunday I did the London to Brighton Bike Ride – a long way but a lot of fun, for anyone who’s interested  – and mid-last week the fine event organisers at the British Heart Foundation sent me an e-mail:

“Dear Alex

Best of luck for this sunday…

We are looking forward to welcoming you all to the London to Brighton Bike Ride 2009 on Sunday. Have a safe and enjoyable day and thank you from all the team UK.

To get you in the mood for the weekend, have a look at some photo’s and videos from last years Bike Ride

See you on sunday.”

Now I have a confession to make. I have to admit that my first reaction on receiving this charming and thoughtful e-mail was not to think “How kind of them to send that – they must be so busy in the run-up to the event”. It wasn’t even “What an excellent and innovative of digital communications – I must take a look at those photos and videos”.

No. I have to admit that my first thought was “What on earth possessed them to stick an apostrophe in ‘photo’s’?!! Why one there but not in ‘videos’?” I sat at my laptop for a few minutes fuming in disbelief, ranting inwardly about creeping illiteracy.

And then I thought more about it. I calmed myself down, and decided it was time to take a good long look at myself.

I mean what’s actually wrong with it? Why should the busy, good people at the BHF have bothered to worry about their apostrophes? I understood what they meant. Why should I get so angry about it? I was having a perfectly pleasant afternoon until I started getting unreasonably worked up over the placing of a small punctuation mark.

I thought back to a recent drive down to Somerset. As we’d meandered towards a fun-filled weekend with friends, driving along country lanes, past beautiful sunlit hedgerows, I’d spotted a roadsign:

“No through road for HGV’s”

Again, I’d fumed at this senseless addition of an apostrophe. But, again, it was harmless enough. It was like the apostrophes in “BBQ’s” on banners hanging outside B&Q, or all the apostrophes in “PR’s” that I see in e-mails almost every day. I realised that each one was just another little pin-prick the bubble of my fun – and it was my fault for letting it bother me.

In a moment of revelation I realised that I was pushing my bike up the hill of accuracy when I could instead be freewheeling down the slope of fun.

After all, I reasoned, maybe these apostrophes do have a place there. Some of them even look quite pretty, hanging there, breaking up words that look a bit too long, or a bit weird without an apostrophe in there.

So, I made a resolution there and then: no longer was I going to see the apostrophe as a tedious old punctuation mark. I was going to liberate it from this prison of punctuation. I was instead going to see it as an artistic expression.

No more would I urge people to  follow those dry, old, dusty rules about where it should and shouldn’t go. The new rule (not really a rule because rules are for squares) is that if it looks right, then stick it in!

Its been great. I feel s’o free! Less like some boring old fool slavishly following someone elses’ rule’s and more like a free s’p'i’r'it joyously living life to the full.

And I urge you to join me. Cas’t off the shackles of punctuation! Join my artisti’c revolution!Free your inner apos’trophe. I tell you, it’s just the beginning – today the apostroph’e; tomorrow the full sto.p After that who know’s what. We can liberate  ourselve’s entirely from the tirannie of all punctuashun? grmmer and speling.

Keep on freewheelin, friend’s!

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