Guest blog by Ian Williams, financial service PR professional and director of communications at Think Money Group.
It’s annoying isn’t it: half way through signing up to some online payment provider, or a music download service, you have to click “I agree”. And of course we always agree and we haven’t actually read what we are agreeing too.
In fact at Think Money we recently did some research* into just this topic. We established that 37 million of us (75%) had agreed to a contract or legal agreement without reading it – typically iTunes store, PayPal and eBay user agreements were mentioned. But others admitted to signing up to phone contracts, broadband contracts and even loans without reading the T&Cs.
More worryingly three quarters (75%) of those that did sign on the dotted line (either literally, or metaphorically for online agreements) said that they came to regret doing so. I think there are two problems here. Firstly the contracts are too long and too dull (70% of people gave length as a reason for not reading them). We calculated that it would take over an hour to read many of them, even assuming you could make head or tale of the legalese. Reportedly, some current accounts have more than 29,000 words in the T&Cs. There’s no doubt that many of these agreements are so asymmetric as to be unfair.
But the second problem is that as consumers, we know that we’ll get stung either way. We don’t read small print as there’s always a clause which means “heads you lose, tails the company wins”. This is a problem of trust, and is based on years of experience of coming off worse when dealing with banks, insurance companies and the like. In fact over one in five (23%) said they didn’t read the agreements because they didn’t trust the firms to stick to them.
Not reading actually goes further than this – the recent OFT report into Personal Current Accounts showed that only two thirds (67%) of people who never go overdrawn read their bank statements. Interestingly, the more people were overdrawn, and the more they were being charged, the less likely they were to read their statement – just 39% of people who are always overdrawn said they read their statement.
Typically, regulators’ response to this type of problem has been counter-productive. Faced with a problem of, say, people not knowing what the interest rate is on their credit card the regulator has just obliged firms to add extra detail and length to the statements people already aren’t reading. Regulated products such as mortgages and pensions now have so many pages of disclosures and Key Features even the most assiduous consumer would struggle through it.
So what does all this mean for us, the PR person? Two things, I think:
Firstly we must redouble our efforts with our clients and employers to promote clear communication, to remove corporate double speak and to champion simple, easy to understand products and services with the minimum of “wrinkles”.
Secondly, we must accept that many people simple don’t read any more. I am not suggesting that they can’t read (although in some cases that may be true). So we must think video, audio and images. Apple products are so intuitive that in effect, they come with no instructions. My new TV is more complex but came with a “quick start guide” that features a series of different pictures and virtually no words.
There’s no doubt that the majority of people find personal finance dull. Over the past few years the media channels and communications tools we have at our disposal have changed. But the challenge for financial communicators and PR people remains the same – to make personal finance interesting and engaging. That’s what makes the job fun.
Ian Williams is a financial service PR professional and director of communications at Think Money Group
*Research conducted by Opinium who questioned 2,017 adults (a nationally representative sample) between 29th and 31st January 2013
Public Relations is the art of influencing perceptions, opinions and behaviour through editorial, or ‘earned media’ as opposed to through advertising. PR used to be primarily about achieving media coverage in order to achieve the desired goals, but the media industry is changing rapidly because of advances in technology. These days the scope for PR is now much wider than ever before.
PR is now about generating content that people will use and share. That content could be a news release or story idea that journalists will write about, but this is now just one strand of modern PR. The content could equally be video, photos, audio, infographics, web apps, microsites, social media content, articles, blogs, whitepapers, or discussions in online forums.
Digital technology and social media has blown the PR toolkit wide open, so that a company can now bypass traditional media altogether if they want, and talk directly to their target audience.
Any business, whether it is B2C or B2B, needs to consider all strands of PR when creating a strategy to meet its objectives. More often than not, the objective is to generate business growth, in which case a combination of tools is required, not just media relations.
Increasingly, business growth is focussed on search engine optimisation so that people can find you easily in the online world. If SEO is important to your business, then modern PR is integral to that. The combination of tactics mentioned above, particularly generating online copy, social media activity and online coverage all contribute significantly to boosting natural search rankings.
So what is PR? Not what it used to be, that’s for sure. PR is where communication meets technology to raise awareness of your business and influence what people think of it.
There has been a lot of talk in 2012 of the PR industry’s identity crisis. Is PR dead? Are traditional PR agencies old hat? Are advertising people taking over? Ultimately, I’m not into all that navel gazing and I don’t waste a lot of time worrying about how PR people want to define themselves or why they may or may not feel threatened by other creative industries.
What most concerns me is making a positive difference to my clients’ businesses. It has become abundantly clear that the media industry is becoming less and less powerful and that consumers’ media consumption habits are changing fast. PR used to be about getting in the papers but it’s not as simple as that any more and this has been the case for a long time. Forget about measuring PR purely in terms of the amount of newspaper and magazine coverage. What really matters is changing behaviour, changing perceptions, driving online activity and generating leads.
PR now has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside digital marketing, SEO, sales and advertising. It has to prove its worth in terms of contributing to business development and show that the money spent on PR activity is giving a good return. There is so much crossover now with other disciplines, that a good PR service should be integrated with marketing, social media, SEO and advertising and a PR practitioner should have a thorough understanding of those disciplines.
PR should not be a cookie cutter approach though, in the sense that different businesses will have different objectives and challenges, and therefore the role of PR is not simply to issue press releases. What I do for one client completely differs from what I do for another, depending on how large the company is, who the target customers are and what the goals are. In some cases it might cover social media, and not others. Same goes for traditional media relations and again for copywriting.
Ultimately, I believe the point of PR is to drive a business forward, whether that is to help generate new customers from a wide consumer base, or to develop corporate partnerships or clients from a niche business base. A word of caution though, PR cannot operate in a vacuum – in other words, you can’t expect to only spend money on PR and rely on it as a silver bullet to solve all you business growth needs. Great PR is PR that works in tandem with other marketing activity. Great PR also relies on good content, and that content requires time, planning, creativity and a bit of money along the way too.
Gaining media coverage is what the PR business is all about. Whether the objective is to drive traffic, grow a membership base, increase new business inquiries, raise awareness, improve SEO etc. However, it’s important to leverage that media coverage in as many ways as possible. If you glance at your media coverage, get a good feeling about it and then just file it away, then you aren’t doing it justice. You should promote your PR.
Here are some ways that smaller companies can leverage their media coverage to maximum effect:
- Circulate to employees to show that the company has a high profile
- Send to clients/ prospective clients
- Share via social media, such as posting on your facebook page
- Put it on display in office – perhaps in reception, if you have one
- Post on website, in your online media centre
- Use on proposals/ presentations
- Write a blog about it – how the story happened or who the case studies are in the piece
After all, you worked hard to earn that media coverage, so why not show it off!
Traditionally when you think about defining PR you’d probably say things like ‘enhancing reputation’, ‘influencing opinion’, ‘creating word of mouth’ or ‘generating advocates’. However, we believe that PR is now much broader than that, to the point where it is as much about search engine optimisation as it is about reputation.
SEO is of course all about driving traffic to your site via high rankings on search engines.
The types of people that have traditionally been in the hitherto separate camps of PR and SEO are very different types of people. PRs tend to be creatives, relationship builders, writers and communicators and SEO experts tend to be, well, techies.
They are very different disciplines, there is no doubt about that. You might almost go so far to say that PR is an art and SEO is a science. However, practitioners in both disciplines are going to have to learn to bridge that gap, and fast. PRs must at least have a very good knowledge of the core principles of SEO and vice versa for SEO and PR.
SEO agencies must team up with PR people to generate the best type of online content and the most effective PR coverage.
PR people must collaborate with SEO experts to enhance and leverage their campaigns. The commercial reality in 2011 is that companies need to drive traffic to their websites and SEO is a much more cost-effective way of doing it than competing for key-word advertising. We may well see more PR agencies take on SEO people to sit alongside the account management, creative and planning people.
There will already be clients out there who want to undertake PR purely for the rich SEO benefits that it brings. For these companies, creating a good impression with viewers of the online media where you achieve coverage is a nice by-product, but not the core aim. Not least because the conversion rates for good SEO are arguably much better than PR on its own. This trend is going to grow – significantly.
Clients should look for PR agencies that are very capable at SEO and SEO agencies that have access to quality PR resources. There may even be PR/ SEO teams that evolve out of this in the same way that copywriters and art directors go together in an advertising agency.
My definitions of news
In my opinion, there are two main types of news (from a PR point of view) – hard news and soft news. Hard news is when something is actually happening and soft news is when you ‘create’ something.
Both of these types of news can be divided into external (or industry) and internal (or company).
Here are some examples:
Hard/ External news – the FSA fines a broker for a data breach; a bank suffers an ATM robbery; an insurance company wins an award; the financial ombudsman publishes a list of most complained about institutions.
Hard/ Internal news – one building society takes over another; a credit card provider launches a new product; an insurance company signs a distribution deal with a supermarket.
Soft/ External news – a mortgage broker comments on the Bank of England’s interest rate decision; a credit card company says that it will voluntarily change its literature in the face of criticism from the Treasury Select committee; a lender donates money to an emergency charity appeal.
Soft/ Internal news – a fund manager announces the anniversary of the launch of a fund; a loan provider issues a survey around Mothering Sunday; a bank releases stats on the most popular time of day that people log-on to their online banking service.
You’ll notice that the first category you have no control over, other than how you react to the situation (or crisis). The second category is all about planning, but at least you saw it coming. The third one is about spotting an opportunity and reacting quickly. The fourth category is the one where it can go wrong. There’s too much temptation to overfill this category when there’s not enough going on in categories 1 – 3.
If you’re a company that provides a product which has become commoditised and you are in the middle of the pack when it comes to price and service then all you’ve really got is category 4. This is when you start spending loads of money on surveys.
But wait! It doesn’t have to be like that. There is actually some very, very good content in category 4 – just look at the Nationwide Building Society House Price Index. So surveys are not necessarily bad. They just need careful planning and good placement.
The other option is to move out of category 4 and into category 3. That means being really savvy about piggybacking, which is quite an art. More on that here.
Must try harder
This is the first in a series of blogs looking at the online media capabilities of various types of financial services provider and the first organisations I’m looking at are the Building Societies. I’m a big fan of the mutual sector, having worked for Nationwide Building Society in the past and I am fully behind the concept of putting members’ interests above shareholders. However, it is disappointing to see that Building Societies fall short when it comes to online media centres and using their website to communicate with journalists.
For this blog I analysed the websites of all 56 Building Society brands, even though recent mergers mean that strictly speaking there are only now 49 Building Societies. The results were quite eye-opening and I imagine if I were a journalist looking for information on these organisations I might have to work quite hard to get it.
48 of the 56 Building Societies provided links to news about their organisation. That’s 86% but it really should be 100%. Every organisation has news of some sort or another, even the tiniest Building Society with a handful or branches. At the very least, they should showcase their community involvement.
Next up, I looked at the availability of contact details for PR contacts. This is where things start to go downhill for Building Societies, because just 30 of them (54%) listed a phone number for a journalist to call. Of course, I understand that only the larger Societies have dedicated PR people, with Nationwide the only one to have a press office of a significant size. However, there should be someone, potentially the Sales & Marketing Director or the CEO who should be listed. Likewise, email contact details were slightly worse, with 29 Societies (52%) listing them.
Finally, I looked at social media capabilities and, frankly, this is laughable. Building Societies have a strong role to play in their communities and now is a good time to promote the mutual model. Creating and taking part in communities is important online as it is offline so Building Societies should recognise that. Just four Societies are involved in social media at all, that’s a lowly 7%. Respect is due to Saffron Building Society for their blog, facebook page and twitter feed. Well done also to Ipswich Building Society for their twitter feed and Hanley Economic for their CEO blog. I guess Stroud & Swindon should also get a mention because they make limited use of social bookmarking tools on the site.
Overall, the sector could do a lot better without too much more effort. Nationwide Building Society in particular needs to get to grips with social media and quickly because it sets an example for the rest. Come on guys, you can’t ignore it any longer!
I was recently asked to write an article for What Investment magazine on spread betting (I’ll post a link when it is published), which is the first time that I have written in a freelance journalist capacity. Having spent eleven years trying to get journalists to write about my clients or my company, I now found myself on the other side of the fence and it was an enlightening experience.
Writing a feature for a magazine is actually quite different to the writing that I was used to, which is primarily news releases, thought-leadership articles or features for internal magazines. What was refreshingly new was the impartiality aspect of the writing – normally I am used to having an agenda and pushing a particular point of view, but now I was free to take the article in any direction that felt right.
I dealt with around eight different organisations and commentators for this piece and found it quite an eye-opener. Consequently, I have some tips for organisations dealing with journalist requests, especially if you don’t have a dedicated PR person:
- Ignore the deadline. If you want the coverage, get off your arse, drop whatever else it is you were doing and sort it out straight away. The earlier you get your information and quote to the journalist the greater the chance that it will make it into the early drafts of their article. Plus the greater the chance that you can actually influence the direction of the article.
- Don’t send too much. It’s better to send three carefully crafted paragraphs which get to the point than send two pages of data. Just make life simple for the journalist. Reading an essay is a lot of work.
- Don’t cop out by sending pre-existing press releases, articles or reports. Don’t tell the journalist that everything they need to know is ‘on page 9 of 27’. Pull together a bespoke response and do the legwork yourself.
- Try and take a different point of view to the masses. If a journalist has got nine separate people saying roughly the same thing then you are competing for airtime. If you take a contrary opinion to the rest of the sheep then you immediately stand out.
- Be human. Don’t make your spokespeople sound like robots. We’re writing for people here, so speak like a real person, not like a corporate drone.
- Clarify exactly what is needed. If the journalist’s initial request is a little generic then feel free drill down into a bit more detail. At this stage, the brief their editor has given them may well be fairly open, so if you are savvy, this is your time to suggest different angles.
- Make sure you have stock items like photos and case studies on file.
If you scan a lot of news releases you’ll notice a high proportion of them use a similar sort of language. It’s the language of corporate speak, only to be found in PR and marketing materials and never used by anyone in real life. There seems to be a distinct lack of creativity when it comes to using adjectives in external communications. The worst culprits are the words ‘leading’ and ‘delighted’.
Why can’t PRs think of more words to use than ‘leading’ and ‘delighted’?! It seems like every company is a leader and every spokesperson is always gushing that they are delighted about winning a new client, hiring a new manager or winning an award. Why don’t you stop and think for a moment about whether this is really news and what you really feel about it.
Let’s take leading first – it’s actually ridiculous to use this adjective when you think about it, because so few companies ever substantiate or qualify this claim. Do you sell the most, do you have the most customers or members, are you the fastest growing, have you won the most awards, are you the most trusted by consumers? If you are, then say you are – don’t just say you are the number one. In any case, no journalist is ever, in a million years, going to write about your company in the exact same way as you have presented it in your carefully crafted news release.
Secondly, we come to ‘delighted’. If you look on twitter for #delighted there are an increasing bunch of well-respected journalists who tweet every time some hapless spokesperson uses ‘delighted’ in a quote. And the rest of us are all having a good laugh at the spokespeople’s (and PR’s) expense.
Are you really delighted? Can you not think of something else to say?
Being lazy about language makes your news look like an identikit communication and undermines what is a potentially serious or interesting message. Get creative and do yourself justice.
I have noticed a huge variation in the quality of online media centres in the financial services sector. It’s vitally important that your media centre functions effectively, looks good and helps you to interact with the media. If it isn’t up to scratch then you are missing out on big opportunities and making the company look amateurish.
Here are the seven deadly sins of online media centres:
- Not having contact details. If you want to do PR then you need to be instantly contactable. That means email address, landline, mobile and any other details you think might be relevant. What bugs me the most are those standardised email contact forms. Nothing says ‘we don’t really want to talk to you but we’re making a token effort’ like one of those forms. The journalist will think ‘get stuffed’.
- Not having your news releases/ articles/ white papers in an easily searchable archive. You’ve written all this good stuff – why make it difficult for people to find what they want?
- Not having any content or not having updated it for months/ years. I’ve seen quite a few online media centres that haven’t had any fresh content for a year or more. What happened, did you just get bored? It makes your organisation look like it has one foot in the grave.
- Not having any sharing functions. Make it easy for users to post things to twitter, tag it in delicious or whatever.
- Not having any multi-media content. Get with it and have pictures at the very least and ideally some video. It’s so much more engaging.
- Not having the functionality for people to join/ sign up for news. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Just give people the option to ‘opt in’ if they want to.
- Posting your coverage as company news. It’s fine to post your coverage and include links to online articles where you have been quoted. It shows that you are a mover and a shaker. But don’t dress them up as ‘press releases’ or something that they are not. Would you expect a journalist to report on something that has been written by a rival? Of course not. Stick your coverage in a section called ‘in the news’ or ‘media coverage’ or something like that.
I’d also add one more which isn’t necessarily ‘deadly’ but is certainly a bugbear of mine – calling it a press centre. Hello? The days of Fleet St. are over. The media are newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, website, blogs and social media sites. It should cater for all of these.