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Journalism and the Great Robot Wars

robot-1294923_640Fans of late 90s TV may remember the superlative Robot Wars – now gracing our screens once again, over a decade after its first run ended. While the robots on the show haven’t changed (Sir Killalot is still badass), how the wider world perceives robots has completely transformed in that period. What’s more, today’s robots – which are in simple terms pieces of very advanced software – are more often than not, invisible to us. Consider that around a decade ago we were excited about having simple robot vacuum cleaners in our homes. Now, robots are increasingly sophisticated and are being used in ever more innovative ways across all industries. Soon, there will very few areas of our lives that are untouched by robots – from our bank tellers to our ‘smart mirrors’.

But what about journalism? Given not an hour goes by at Spark when one of the team isn’t communicating with a journalist in some way – this is of interest. Journalism requires levels of nuance, critical reasoning, comprehension and skill (much like PR – believe or not!) that robots cannot match. Some media groups are exploring how robots could be used in journalism. One of the world’s largest media outfits, Associated Press (AP), has in fact been using robots for some time. AP has employed software robots to ‘write’ stories based on quarterly financial results; it is publishing a whopping 3,000 such stories every quarter.

As astonishing as that may sound, what does this really mean for journalism? It’s inevitable that automation and robotics will impact journalism in some way, as it will every industry. The instantaneous nature of 24/7 news and online publishing has created such a clamor for constant news – that the future will likely see robots fulfilling this type of demand through the creation of short, formulaic articles. But while the growth of robot reporters may understandably worry the journalism industry in the short term, in the long term there may actually be advantages. Some commentators suggest that freeing journalists from the ‘drudge work’ allows them to devote more time and resources to investigative stories.

Ultimately, it’s hugely important to distinguish between news pieces produced in a standard format based on reported figures, and a long-form article requiring considerable research and analysis. Clearly, robots are incapable of producing such quality work – journalists are safe for now.

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Coverage Cup round up

Coverage cupIt’s September, and the days are getting shorter, and the kids are back to school – making the morning commute even more arduous. However, it’s not all doom and gloom as although the seasons change, Spark continues to harvest a bumper crop of media coverage.

The Trustmarque team led the charge, securing two pieces of coverage in The Times’ Future of Healthcare supplement. Not to be outdone, IOActive achieved coverage in The Times’ Future of Transport supplement – while, HCL’s opinion on robotic process automation was featured in the publication’s Future of Outsourcing supplement. Elsewhere, the Dynatrace team secured a briefing with the BBC to discuss the company’s retail benchmarking report and reaped the rewards with a fantastic piece of online coverage.

As the sky turns overcast, its seems fitting that the Trustmarque’s focused on cloud with coverage on ComputingCBR and Cloud Tech. Moving away from the cloud, Verizon’s IoT report was carried by Data Economy and the findings of Huntsman’s FoI requests covered by Local Government Executive. Elsewhere, the Venafi team was quick to respond to Google’s use of encryption – achieving coverage on Business Reporter.

Lastly, but by no means least –  Carbon Black responded to hackers targeting the US elections, securing coverage on Infosecurity, while ViaSat’s blog on removing latency as a satellite broadband concern was carried by Capacity.

The full list of coverage cup nominations is below:

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Sticks and Stones: Where does the PR language barrier lie?

wordsMost people realised that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” wasn’t really true by the time we finished school. For anyone who held on past that, a career in PR is a pretty good way of finally banishing any lingering thoughts you might have. Words such as “leak,” “incompetent,” “massive losses” and “incident with a bag of jaffa oranges in a massage parlour” can have serious consequences for clients, their employees, and ultimately the agency itself. This goes double for the words you put out yourself. Even if they’re completely innocuous, if the wrong words get to the wrong people, it can be at least a little embarrassing, although it might not be clear who for.

I’m thinking about words a lot as here at Spark, as we’re currently re-examining the language we use when talking about ourselves, and when talking to other audiences. One thing that’s come up a lot is, just what is the appropriate language to use at what time and in what place? Is it acceptable to describe something as “crap” on a corporate website? Is there such a thing as being too formal? Is it ever appropriate to “reach out” to someone, unless you’re trying to save them from a crumbling bridge? And is it possible to apply fixed, consistent rules to something as fluid and personal as language?

Ultimately, and much as this sounds like a cop-out, the answer is “it varies.” You have to know who you’re speaking to and, more importantly, who you’re speaking for. If I’m speaking to a journalist as Dom Walsh, Going To The Pub, then my language will be a lot looser than when speaking as Dom Walsh from Spark Communications. And as soon as I adopt the voice of a particular client, then – unless that client has a very relaxed attitude to how it’s quoted – everything will become a lot more formal and controlled. The same holds true for writing; if we want to add personality to a blog, or the Spark site, or our Twitter, then some PG-related language can work to do that. But if I want to recount the time I saw a ***** ****** a ******** in the ******** with a ******* before ********ing ********’s ********, I should hold off until I can place it in a more appropriate medium, like a family round robin email.

Ultimately, we at PR agencies are hired at least partly because we understand what tone and language to use, and where. A client should trust that an agency is always using the right language with the right people at the right time. This doesn’t mean acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths, but it means being able to demonstrate that we can be as formal, or as mucky, as the occasion demands. In fact, why not check out some of our work to see how we do just that?

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Being the big fish in the big PR pond

Big FishThe PRCA’s recent PR Census found that the UK PR industry is worth £12.9bn per year stemming from 83,000 PRs, a number that has risen by 21,000 since their last census in 2013. That rate of growth is staggering, and it stands to reason that as the pool gets larger the noise levels rise. In such a large crowd, how can one individual make their voice heard above the rest?

One of the first things I was told when entering the industry was the importance of media relations. There is little point in having a story if you have no means of telling it. A big part of this is providing relevant, interesting, topical content. This may sound obvious, but there is a reason that some journalists consider PRs to be pests, as opposed to being a useful source.

While the industry isn’t what it was a few decades ago, where boozy lunches with clients and journalists were used to build relationships, the industry is still all about rapport. While the entertainment side of the role can go a long way, making a journalist’s job easier by consistently providing articles of genuine interest can go even further. Here are some tips for building a positive relationship with a journalist:

  • Don’t approach the wrong person – approaching the wrong journalist is a sure-fire way to irritate them. When choosing targets it is important to take into account their role as well as their beat and make sure you are approaching the correct person in the correct position.
  • Know your news – it is crucial that you know your news, and can talk to a journalist about why this is important. There is a strong chance that a journalist will ask you questions about the news you are pitching if they are interested. Preparation is key to avoid being caught out, so making sure you fully understand what you are selling is essential.
  • Know the journalist’s preference – while some journalists will prefer an email-only approach others will be more susceptible to a phone call. Some would prefer an email pitch before starting a conversation. It is integral that you pick up on this early doors so you stand a better chance of getting their interest.
  • Have a conversation – if you have built up a rapport with a journalist, and they have the time, then it makes sense to approach with a brief conversation before pitching your news to them.

Here at Spark we are taught a best practice approach to journalist communication. We marry this with a number of engaging journalist outings such as our recent Bubble Football and Ping Pong events to build a relationship that goes beyond a two-minute pitch call.

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When to respond – Hillary and hijacking the news

hillary-41775_640As an obsessive political junkie, the weeks since the Republican National Convention (RNC) have been nothing short of stunning. I’ve been glued to the news, rubbernecking all of the unhinged statements and general lunacy that has poured forth from the Trump campaign. Particular highlights have included his refusal to endorse Speaker Paul Ryan, feuding with parents of deceased war hero Humayun Khan and threatening to withdraw from both NATO and the WTO. He has even insinuated Hillary Clinton could be assassinated for appointing anti-second amendment judges. One aspect of the Trump meltdown which, I’ve found interesting and has gone relatively unnoticed, has been the general lack of response from the Clinton camp. Hillary seems to be quite content to watch her opponent continue to spout without firing back heavily and is responding only selectively.

There are plenty of times in PR when hijacking a story is a great way to push your own message out, and Hillary’s reticence got me thinking about the whens and hows of hijacking a news story.

Add to the story

Firstly, although it might seem obvious, the only reason to respond to breaking news is when there is something to add to the story. When news comes out about some major data breach or hacking attack, journalists need experts who can discuss the story at hand. Therefore, it’s vital for any spokesperson to have both strong technical knowledge but also a firm handle on the particular issue before commenting.

While news hijacking can be a great tool to push core messages, going too heavily is not a good idea. When data breaches like Sony and Ashley Madison occur, of course, it makes sense to speak about the need for stronger cyber-security measures, but it has to be linked to the specifics of the case – how these specific victims are likely to be affected and what defences were in place in each instance. The more relevant the comments are, the better.

Less can be more

Hillary isn’t going to be able to counter every insanity from her opponent – there just isn’t time. As one Clinton staffer said: “[Trump] can set himself on fire at breakfast; kill a nun at lunch and water board a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.” So she is being selective about which ones she responds to. It’s the same with tech companies. There is a front page every day, but it’s not possible to have a voice every time. Pick the most relevant and highest profile cases, ones where your voice is going to be heard. But going to the media every other day with comments on each story is a sure-fire way to get tuned out. More isn’t necessarily better.

Lack of speed kills

Finally, any effective news hijack needs to be quick. When it comes to Trump, the machine gun-rate at which he spews out conspiracy theories or offensive comments means that today’s news is forgotten by tomorrow. There is no point is speaking out on a story which broke a week ago – in the digital age, it might as well have happened in 1992.

So when the right opportunity comes up, respond as quickly as possible. If even an hour goes by, half the publications may have covered the story. And get ready because, unfortunately just like The Donald suggesting yet another bonkers theory, there is always going to be another story tomorrow.

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