Are PRs really “the enemy”?

After attending an angry lecture delivered by journalist Robert Peston, I wrote a piece for the Guardian arguing that he was wrong to paint PRs as purely “the enemy” of journalists.

robert-peston-the-bbcs-ec-011

Last Thursday, I attended the Charles Wheeler Award ceremony where the BBC’s economics editor, Robert Peston, delivered his speech which has got people hot under the collar.

I came away from it feeling excited for the future shape of journalism, inspired by the elastic potential of journalism to be brilliant, as well as being made to feel afraid to admit that I work in PR. Like announcing “I’m a babykiller”, it tends to provoke a negative reaction, but for PR it’s normally not deserved. As for the reaction to Peston’s speech, journalists have revelled in hating the “professional bullshitters”, and the head of the PRCA Francis Ingham has piped up to protest that it’s the PR’s job to “give [journalists] the news”.

Peston was concerned that too much of what gets into the news is created by PR agencies.

That’s one of the main things that put me off a career in PR. He was also worried about the quality of journalism such as BuzzFeed’s listicles, citing 18 Dogs Who Love The Open Road, but that is down to giving readers what they want – something he calls “going too far in allowing readers to dictate content”. Peston, being bringer of bad news as he reports on the economy, presumably knows that people need light entertainment as well as hard news.

So what was the point of this PR-bashing? He was hammering home that people need to do their jobs better – which applies to both journalists and PRs. He’s an opinionated man, even referring to himself as “eccentric” and he was certainly rattling some cages. For the younger people in the room (of whom there were very few, being largely an over-50s event) it was a call to arms, and perhaps for the older ones it served as a eulogy for the mythical golden era of newspaper journalism.

His words were slightly less venomous when spoken in the room than when they appeared in print and online over the following days, but some of the generalisations did seem unfair. I asked a former journalist from Media Week for his opinion, which was that just as many harsh assumptions are made about journalists. The average PR person might treat journalists like deities, but Joe Public often believes ‘hacks’ to be devious and underhand: unjust terms that could be used to tar either industry. Questionable practices do exist in both journalism and PR, so it’s up to an individual to decide what they feel is acceptable and to pursue a job in an organisation with the right values.

In his book The Universal Journalist, published before the phone hacking scandal, David Randall says that “we can decide that there are some things we will not do and leave the paper – either discreetly after having found another post, or publicly, in a blaze of righteous indignation. If more of us did that, and made clear our reasons for doing so, journalism would be better for it.”

So if hacks can be badly behaved, are the PRs really “the enemy” as Peston calls us? Do we provide value to journalists as well as our clients? In terms of what our role is, we are a resource for journalists to use and abuse, a little black book for our clients, and we’re paid to know what’s newsworthy. If a client’s piece of ‘news’ will not be of interest to the media, they need to be told so, and a good agency won’t gloss over that fact, it will advise as to what is worth sharing. And at the risk of being misinterpreted, we are also paid to be creative. We come up with ideas that the press actively want to use – a journalist confessed to me that around a third of his stories came from PRs, and felt this was usual for the industry. Peston also felt that just feeding facts to the media would get boring, but a public relations job offers the chance to shape the marketing strategy and, at a more senior level, even to shape the overall business strategy of a given company.

Working in a small company, I’ve had a lot of strategic input with clients and been given a lot of freedom. I don’t identify with the majority of what Peston described and I enjoy working with a team of former journalists with an unwritten policy of “no bullshit” – though I think for some large corporate agencies or overly ‘fluffy’ consumer agencies Peston may well be correct. However, he is worried about the presence of “bullshit”, and actually it’s a journalist’s job to know what bullshit is. Good journalists simply ignore or block PRs who provide useless or deliberately vague information, so the young journalists Peston criticises could do with more guidance (as well as more pay).

Robert Peston has certainly stirred something up in people on both sides of the fence, and I see it as an incentive to do a better job, to maintain a critical mind about what constitutes quality journalism, and above all to continually question the news value of everything.

Lauren Ingram is a tech PR at Clarity PR and sometime journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @fakebananas

You can read the original article on the Guardian website here.

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5 New Ways To Consume Information

mmm learning

Feed your brain

Several young companies are looking at the way we consume information and news, throwing what exists out of the window and demanding a radically different experience. The sites and apps below cover fiction, non-fiction and news. Do you use any of them already? What do you think of them?

News:

1. Quartz: a business news site owned by Atlantic Media. The idea behind it was to “devise how the Economist would look like if it had been born in 2012”, says their co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Kevin J. Delaney. Articles on Quartz have unusual story angles, witty writing and huge photos, all provided on the infinite scrolling landing page. Unlike the majority of older publications, here the writers themselves choose the photos, write the headlines, and provide links in the body of the text, ready for the editor. This seems like a very sensible approach, and apparently it works well too, pulling in five million unique visitors per month despite only launching last year. Rather than having a strict, defined roster of topics, Quartz organises its news around changing ‘obsessions’, for example explosive growth, China’s transition, and the mobile web. They also place a lot of value on transparency – when content is sponsored, they tell you. They don’t accept gifts from PRs, and they disclose an awful lot so they don’t mislead readers, as seen on their ethics page. They also have geeky credentials: instead of building separate apps for iPhones, iPads, Android and so on, they simply built an HTML5 website which fits any size screen.

2. Pandodaily: a news site covering all the action in Silicon Valley as it happens. Their main page contains a ticker of news from other sites – the way they see it, if they weren’t the first to get the news story, then they won’t rewrite it for the sake of it. So instead, they aim to be first! Besides, there are so many startups in the world (of which apparently 90% fail), covering every story with one team of writers is just unrealistic. Pandodaily was started in 2012 by former TechCrunch senior editor Sarah Lacy, who became disillusioned with TC’s profit chasing after it was acquired by AOL in 2010, and she says of her team “As a writer, I’m creating the ultimate club of which I’d want to be a member”. Contributors to the site include Mike Arrington, who started TechCrunch back in 2005, and Paul Carr, who is mentioned further down in this post under NSFWCORP.

3. Circa: an app for accessing news on the go, Circa gives you the news in snack-size manageable chunks, with a Google map of where the news is taking place, short hard facts and one or two quotations from key people. It launched around a year ago and has been getting a lot of positive press, though some publications are nervous that unlike news aggregators, Circa does less to direct traffic to news sites with the full story. Two very helpful functions are the subscription function, so you can get push notifications when there’s developments in a news story you want to follow, and the greying out of stories you’ve already read. Personally I’m not a fan of the swipe scrolling style in the app, but you can change that very easily in the settings. Overall, it’s a rather beautiful app with a neat design, and you’ll find yourself using it more and more.

Fiction:

Readmill app

Readmill for iOS and Android

4. Readmill: an ebook reader app that makes reading on a device more beautiful and more shareable. It’s finally also available on Android (rejoice!), and is a firm favourite amongst fans of typography and design. You can save highlighted sections of text, comment on them, and also follow other readers if you like their taste in books. For those who prefer to keep their reading time private and separate from the world around them (like myself), Readmill still has plenty to keep you interested. It gives you stats on how quickly you read, can sync your books and your progress across devices and has a black background nighttime reading option. If you’re a fiction lover, you should take a look at their blog for some daily inspiration, and check the app regularly for free ebooks.

Non-fiction:

5. Blinkist: an iOS and web app from a German startup that gives you concise summaries of non-fiction books, in a series of 2 minute ‘blinks’. It’s a great app for absorbing knowledge on the go, you get unlimited access to their books for the first month, after that there’s a subscription model. It’s helpful if you’ve heard people talking about a book, bought it months ago to see what the fuss is about, and haven’t had time since then to read it. The Blinkist app is not intended to replace the full version of books (many readers will feel inspired to read the whole thing) but to provide bite-sized learning. You can read my TechCrunch article about it here.

NB. I came up with a very similar business idea when I was a teenager (but in print form) and never tried to make it happen. Kicking myself now!

Honourable mention goes to:

NSFWCORP: describing itself as “The Future of Journalism (With Jokes)”, this monthly print publication is headed up by another former TechCrunch journalist, current Pandodaily contributor and outspoken character Paul Carr. You need to be a subscriber to access the content online, and unlike other publications it doesn’t operate on a freemium model. A quotation from Ryan Lizza from The New Yorker on the NSFWCORP landing page echoes my own sentiments: “I don’t really know what NSFWCORP is”.

Have you come across other noteworthy sites or apps? Where do you access the news?

Blinkist book summaries arrive: TechCrunch

I wrote a news article for the startup scene’s bible TechCrunch, all about a startup I had been keeping track of in Berlin called Blinkist, which creates book summaries. I covered their official global launch below:

Blinkist Book Summaries Arrive to Improve Your Commute And Make You Look Smart

blinkist-category-view

Do you own a copy of The Lean Startup? Have you actually read it, or is it in your bedroom or ebook reader, barely touched? This is where Berlin-based startup Blinkist comes in. Aimed squarely at people who are time-poor and knowledge-hungry, they provide summaries of non-fiction books in ‘blinks’, and are launching their product internationally today.

The idea is that you can absorb knowledge on the go, catching up on key insights of books you haven’t had time to read, with each point being summarised in one ‘blink’ that can be read in under two minutes. Each book is condensed by a writer not an algorithm, and should take no more than 15 minutes to read the whole thing, so it’s quite a convenient app for the commute.

Previously only active in Germany, Switzerland and Austria since their app launch in January, Blinkist is rolling out globally today, with a particular focus on the US. They have also just released a new version of the iOS app, and a complementary web app. The next two months are key for Blinkist, as they are aiming to close a round of funding in December (investors as yet undisclosed) and to use that funding to grow their content, user base, and partnerships with publishers. Currently they are funded by Deutsche Telekom’s incubator hub:raum, plus a pool of angel investors. It works on a freemium model, in which you get one month of free access to their library, and after that you pay $4.99/month, or extend your free access by getting friends to sign up.

The app is likely to attract criticism from purists who believe that only reading summaries is ‘cheating’, but they tell me they aren’t looking to replace books, rather they have the opposite in mind, as a at the very beginning of an interesting journey for the user, just like Neil deGrasse Tyson talks of triggering interest in order to ‘set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven’. So your 15 minutes spent reading the summary might well be what encourages you to buy the book itself.

A key differentiator is that Blinkist was designed with mobile in mind, as their CEO and co-founder Holger Seim explains. They also place a lot of value on design, which is clear as soon as you start playing with the app. Beautiful UX is doubly important because they are not the only service offering summaries: there is the imaginatively titled Business Book Summaries, but at $10 per summary or a year’s subscription for $225 the offer is less attractive, and the selection tends to be a little more staid. Blinkist offers much talked about reads such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Noam Chomsky’s Rogue States. At the moment, around 20 books are being added to the Blinkist library each month, and this amount is set to increase significantly over the next few months.

In terms of user base, the Blinkist app is proving popular with two key groups: busy entrepreneurs who want an overview of popular books, and avid readers who may read as many as 60 books per year, Seim explains. Whether the freemium model will work for Blinkist remains to be seen, but Seim is optimistic, noting that they are experiencing good conversion rates and high interest so far.

Check out the original piece on TechCrunch here.

5 Things Worth Following

Follow Friday kitteh

Here are five blogs or people worth following, as decreed by James Whatley, king of social media. Or more specifically, he’s the Lead Social Strategist at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising and Soho Square. I made him talk to me about what I should be reading more of to make an impact in social media, or interesting reads generally, and these are suggestions that cropped up:

1. We Are Social: social media agency with an awesome blog. Not only are they experts in their field and their blogs showcases that, but they have positioned themselves as experts from the very start: with their name.

2. Steve Waddington: definitely follow his blog and Twitter. He’s the European Digital & Social Media Director @KetchumPR and he is excellent if you want to better understand how to work well in PR and social media.

3. Web Curios newsletter: from Imperica, in your inbox every Friday. The first section is social media specific, other than that: lots of random crepe harvested from all over the interwebs.

4. Robert Scoble’s blog: super cool guy, interesting blog,  tech celebrity. Follow his blog or just carry on living in a hole. Whichever. Follow him on Twitter as well.

5. Brown Cardigan: well this one is just a way to lose several hours in the internet’s seedy underbelly. Sometimes NSFW so be careful. Something with a similarly random feel is ConsumeConsume.

Follow them and enjoy x

Berlin and the tech startup scene – 10 things to know before making the move

This blogpost was commissioned by The Guardian, appeared on their site on 25th October 2013 and was shared over 600 times. It caused quite a stir – more than I had expected – so see what you think.

Europe’s hippest city has a thriving startup ‘scene’, but beware, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media make out

Sunday afternoon in Goerlitzer Park

Berliners relax on a Sunday afternoon – it is very easy to fall into the city’s non-stop party scene. Photograph: Lauren Ingram

I moved to Berlin in January this year and lived there for eight months, in which I gained and lost three jobs, two boyfriends, and one flat. Clearly, I had a whale of a time. Nonetheless, it’s not quite as wonderful as the media would have you believe. Here’s what I wish someone had told me beforehand:

1. The Berlin startup scene is a total bubble

It is without a doubt a ‘scene’: people value being part of it, they socialise within it, use startup buzzwords like UX and MVP, and in the process they cut off access to outsiders. Some people don’t actually know what startups are. Seriously. When I first got a whiff of the startup scene, I was intrigued, and I think I started emitting some kind of hormone and was quickly dragged into its orbit.

2. Wearing a tiger onesie to work isn’t necessarily a smart plan

This one I should have been able to work out for myself. Morale was low in the office as the future of our startup (Gidsy) was uncertain, and a tiger suit seemed like an excellent idea at the time. As it turns out, that was the day I was made redundant. So that was awkward. Lesson learned.

3. Nobody has a real job

Admittedly, people tried to warn me. Like a relationship with a dodgy new boyfriend, I said: “Oh but it’ll be different with me”. It’s not different. Proper, full-time jobs are few and far between, everybody else works weird hours for low pay, has various “projects” on the go which never materialise, and goes out on Sunday nights until 5am. It’s a totally unsustainable (if highly enjoyable) lifestyle.

4. It’s possible to fall down the party hole

Clubs stay open from Friday until Monday, so it’s no wonder that people don’t have real jobs. In fact, from my tireless field research, I’ve concluded that clubs are open all week too. Sometimes you find yourself coming home at 7am on a Wednesday, wondering what you’re doing with your life. Spotting a man with a syringe doesn’t help.

5. It’s incredibly inward-looking

Everyone living in it is very Berlin-centric. They talk about the city, they love it, they live and breathe it and they complain about it. They follow Berlin blogs, they post about Berlin on Facebook, they share Berlin moments like in-jokes. The very act of writing this is hypocritical because it’s all about Berlin. “Oh, how meta,” the hipsters would say.

6. Getting paid is a luxury not a right

There’s no minimum wage in Germany (land of plenty, yes, that economic superpower). Luckily, it’s possible to live even on the princely sum of €491 (£418) per month. Expats love to complain that rent is no longer cheap due to the flood of expats (!) driving up prices. However, my rent was €225 per month including bills. It wasn’t even a crack den.

7. Fail culture rules

Talk of failure is everywhere, and to be honest I would rather be winning. Startups choose to ‘fail fast, fail hard, embrace failure’, and so on. Sometimes this probably means: “We have no idea what we’re doing, but when we get it wrong it doesn’t matter because we’re a startup, and failure is awesome. The internet told me so.”

8. The independent bars and cafes are surprisingly similar

Berlin hustles harder

When I was a tourist in Berlin, I bemoaned the lack of indie cafes in London and preached to the uninitiated about the myriad places in Berlin. Living there made me realise that 90% of them have identikit mismatched vintage furniture, candles, and possibly the same playlist audible in the background. Still rather lovely though.

9. Nobody speaks German

That’s a slight exaggeration. However, despite spending time, money and effort grappling with the unwieldy German language, I found that I was surrounded by people from Spain, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, everywhere. So English is what you hear in the streets and the office, and Germans I met spoke it fluently. So all this “ich habe eine Schwester” business was frankly embarrassing.

10. Your circle of friends will be ever decreasing

Berlin is amazingly transient. When I arrived, I went to lots of networking events, and a friend who had been there for two years asked if I could take her along as many of her friends had already left the city. Fortunately, the constant shift means that people are very open and friendly, and you might leave with a different batch of pals than the ones you started with.

Ok, so it goes up to 11 … Hey, it worked for Spinal Tap.

11. The streets are not paved with gold

They are strewn with graffiti and crack-addled weirdos, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. A whirlwind weekend break in the city will leave you a little breathless and wanting more. I made the decision to break up with Berlin. We were in love, we fought a lot, and it was exhilarating for the most part, but I’m getting back together with London, my long-term love.

At the end of her time in Berlin, Lauren compiled a list of people to see, places to go, and more, in the form of the Berlin Startup Cheat Sheet.

You can see the original Guardian article here.