Communications is notorious for moving at breakneck speed; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say that a PR year is like a dog year. We juggle communicating with stakeholders from our own teams, to customers, to journalists, to analysts, and with partners, not to mention the higher-ups in our own companies – and they have stakeholders too! All this collaboration and co-ordination needs thought and not just snap judgments. But if you put that on top of all the other mental load that we’ve been experiencing this year, you’ve got a super-quick recipe for burnout.
The Roots of Slow Thinking
But why is this? It’s not just stress and fear of the pandemic – to really understand this we have to go a little deeper. We tend to quote Daniel Kahneman a lot, either in pieces for this newsletter or our own sales collateral, because his work is very important to reputation – and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a banger*.
The primary thesis in TFAS is that humans prefer to ‘think fast’. We run on automatic, we take shortcuts, we become creatures of habit – whether that’s preferring Sainsbury’s over Tesco, McDonald’s over Burger King, or whatever else. This is because this automatic, ‘fast’ thinking is less energy-consuming than the alternative. Thinking ‘slowly’, deeply, or however you want to refer to it, is literally an energy drain. It’s tiring.
And during the pandemic, we’ve all had to think more slowly. Where do I need to wear a mask? How many people can I socialise with? Am I following the latest government guidelines? Am I more than two metres away from that dogwalker on the pavement? Do I have hand sanitiser with me? Is it safe to go to the cinema?
Every single time you force your brain to think, it’s working out like an Olympic athlete. When you add all of this to the fast-paced world of comms and it’s no wonder people are exhausted – it’s been a tiring year! Clearly, the same is true for other industries as well – it’s not just comms, it’s HR, it’s sales, and so on – any part of the business that went into over-drive has been running on empty for some time.
Can I Think Fast and Still Get the Job Done?
As a manager or director in comms, it’s a tough job to balance looking after your team and still getting the job done, because a lot of our work is ‘thinking slow’, deliberate, considered work. There will be some jobs – reports and the like – that can be done on automatic, but in general, it’s better to look at measures where you can save mental energy to begin with. So here are a few starters for ten:
– Know Thyself: You can’t do a good job if you’re not looking after yourself, so be aware of whether you’re having an especially bad / tiring day. Be kind to yourself and remember that we’re living through a pandemic and that’s incredibly hard.
– Know Your Team: They’ll be having ‘off days’ as well, and that’s ok. Everyone will have felt the strain of the pandemic differently, so keep an eye on them, force them to be kind to themselves. Above all, make sure they’re taking holidays!
– Trust (and use) Your Team: With any luck, not everyone will be having a bad day at the same time, and while we’re not saying to ‘push everything down’ and delegate wildly, your team is there to support you – so make use of them (and vice versa). Sometimes this means getting someone else to check that email you’ve just written if you know you’re having an off-day because you’ve exhausted yourself mentally and sometimes it’s doing that for someone else.
– Rest Properly: The urge to ‘fight back to normal’ at weekends can be strong, so if you’re busy during the week, don’t push yourself to catch up with *all* your friends and relatives at the weekend, because that requires lots of thought, and although it might be good for you on a social level, it’s also draining. Get the balance right.
– Insist on Routines: Routines are mental shortcuts (‘thinking fast’) – and as you build habits and get into them, you can ‘think fast’ about them, rather than always having to ‘think slow’. Similarly, avoid unnecessary distractions – unsubscribe from newsletters (not Firefly’s, obviously) and try not to multi-task too much. This will help to conserve that valuable mental energy!
As I write this, the government is issuing new guidelines on how many people can gather in public in the UK, and the news sites are speculating about the possibility of curfews being introduced. The Economist is warning that unless we can beat Covid globally, we won’t beat it at all – and even the most optimistic estimate doesn’t see us beating the pandemic before the end of 2020. In short – it ain’t over yet.
This means that we need to start – or continue – measures to adapt to this temporary (but lengthy) difficult period. Most of us have our masks, hand sanitiser and (where appropriate) home offices set up, but now it’s time to make sure that we’re being kind to ourselves, realise the impact that the pandemic has on our mental states, and adapt sustainably so that we can continue communicating efficiently and effectively.
* Put it next to Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything and Kotter’s Leading Change and you’ve got three of the best communications books in the world.
Those who have broken into the PR business in the last five years are often recounted with stories of ‘the good old days’ when PRs would write press releases, mail them out (literally) and wait for the coverage to roll in. Times have most definitely changed.
According to the FT, the ratio of PR professional to journalists in the US is almost four to one – and I can’t imagine the ratio in the UK being far behind. It’s not just a case of the PR industry thriving but, as Ian Burrell reported in The Independent at the end of last year; there were 70,000 journalists in traditional media in 2002, whereas there were just 40,000 in 2010. If updated figures are published in 2013, I will be afraid to look.
So, what does this mean for ‘media relations’?
Harder for PRs
There are two ways of looking at it. One may be forgiven for thinking ‘only the strongest survive’ i.e. publications which attract the most readers and therefore the most advertisers continue, whereas ‘duds’ die out. This would mean PRs simply have to work harder to trim the fat and set expectations of what clients can expect in terms of coverage. Anything short of Apple releasing a new iPhone is faced with intense competition to attract the attention of vastly reduced editorial teams at major publications.
Against a lot more competition, PRs for lesser known brands have to find new and inventive ways of catching the attention of the media while pitching only the purest, non-self promotional content, let alone considering what the readers of the publication are interested in.
Easier for PRs
With reduced editorial teams and less budget for investigative journalism, there is an argument that journalists are more reliant on the PR industry than ever. When clients talk about staging press events these days, PRs will try and discourage them in favour of telephone briefings (again, unless you’re Apple or the like) – why? Because journalists often cannot afford five minutes out of the office, let alone hours. As a result, they can often rely on PRs to do the leg work.
PRs get hundreds of journalist requests a day, ranging from ‘comments on the budget’ to ‘case studies of people that are scared of furniture’. Whereas in the past a journalist would have to deal with layers of bureaucracy to get to a company’s CEO on the line, now all they have to do is simply email the company’s PR team saying “can I speak to Mr. CEO” and wait for the PR team to turn things around as quickly as possible. There are not too many professions with that level of support.
What’s a PR to do?
Competition is good for any business – it brings out the best in all parties. The consolidation of traditional media means PR, like journalism, has to adapt and innovate. The innovations are not always clear – for example, effectively pitching to journalists is so incredibly important and is the difference between effective PR and complete failure – and that’s before we even address what the story being sold in is about.
As there are fewer journalists, PRs are increasingly picking up the slack, while at the same time educating clients on the need to comment on topics and issues that are not always directly related to plugging products and services. That surely cannot be a bad thing.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that while traditional media may be consolidating, in today’s world of blogs and online publications, journalists are by no means the only ‘influencers’ out there. Social media, blogs, podcasts, online video and e-zines are all on the up and perhaps present the greatest array of channels to reach stakeholders that there has ever been.
These new channels are covered extensively on our blog, such as Podcasting: why it should be the PR consultant’s best friend just last month, and my colleague’s look at Vine in this issue of Spark.
The PR/Journalist ratio may be widening, but so too is the array of channels to stakeholders.
Our media friends have been busy publishing Christmas gift guides, left, right and centre. You’ve seen them in print, you’ve seen them online; “for him”, “for her”, “for the oldies”, for “the young ones”, “for that woman in accounts who you got allocated in Secret Santa”… While they’ve been busying away, have you considered what they might want for Christmas?
With a little help from the team at Give as you Live – which raises money for your favourite charity as you online shop, at no cost to you – us PR folk have thrown together the ultimate Christmas present list for our very favourite people of all: journalists.
1. The Bullshit Alarm – available at Hawkin’s Bazaar for £7, raises 15p for your favourite charity when bought through Give as you Live.
When interviewing spokespeople or talking to those with a less-than-considered pitch, this handy tool will alert hacks to stretched truths or outright lies. “Yes, we really are the world leaders…”
2. iPhone cover with charger – available at Dino Direct for £54.19, raises £1.53 for your favourite charity when bought through Give as you Live.
Keep your spokesperson talking. This iPhone cover with built in charger will make even the dullest of product briefings last and last, so that maybe you’ll give that little nugget of information that will lead you to a front page glory spread. Giving journalists no chance for escape.
3. Leather bag – available at Hush for £120, raises £6 for your favourite charity when bought through Give as you Live.
Always on the move, from briefing, to launch, to office, to pub. In order to keep ownership of the things held most dearly (iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iwallet, ineedmoretime) this bag comes with a ‘highly recommended’ tag. More glamorous than a carrier bag, and reusable too.
5. Eight cans of Starbucks Double shot – available at British Corner Shop for £23.12, raises 58p for your favourite charity when bought through Give as you Live.
They may not be paying their taxes, but Starbucks coffees keep journalists working those 25 hour days. Help them to stock up for morning/mid morning/pre-lunch/lunch/post lunch/afternoon/home time/pre-bed caffeine-fuelled pick ups.
6. King of Naps Pillow – available at CafePress for £15, raises 1.13p for your favourite charity when bought through Give as you Live.
They’re up early, in the office by the time the rest of the world is debating what to wear and assessing Susannah’s style choice on BBC Breakfast. This King of Naps pillow allows journalists to capture those 40 winks in a bit of down time, perhaps when Nick Clegg is speaking, or at a Peter Andre book launch, for example. Capture some of that beauty sleep, not that they need it, they’re all gorgeous!
When did you say that bullshit alarm is arriving?
Merry Christmas to all our friends in the media, from the Firefly team