Let’s see if I can witter on for a bit on this cold and latest-snow-still-on-the-ground Friday afternoon before I have to use the words ‘Toyota‘ and ‘recall’, shall I? What prompted that, especially for yer ‘ever ‘umble news ed, was this, ‘retweeted’, if memory serves, by one of Toyota GB’s PRs earlier this week. OK, the writer’s a PR positively pushing the use of social media to an audience that presumably includes current and prospective clients for the agency but the points made are valid. And of some interest to a certain news ed who has (a) jumped the fence from media to PR and, unusually, back more than once and (b) who has relied rather more than expected lately on Twitter tweets to keep up with the, ahem, aforementioned recall(s).

It’s a decade since I leaped back across into journalism from my last stints in in-house and agency PR but I don’t reckon the basics of what we called ‘media relations’ have changed that much. Get hack interested in client’s ‘story’ and do what it takes to get it ‘published’, measure ‘value’ of same, and charge client/claim credit accordingly. Repeat often and successfully enough to remain employed. Two decades ago, when I first started to help launch laptop computers and office networking tech, it was easy. Craft up mail list, write interesting press release (you have one opening para and about 15 seconds to engage busy, deadline-pressured journo), post, wait day or two while scanning magazines and newspapers for early ‘hits’, pick up phone and ‘sell in’ story (sometimes persuading some poor tech writer to take release out of wastebasket for another look) and wait, some more, for stories to be published. And so it went. OK, there’s much more to good PR/media than that, but it works – some years back I saw a study that claimed that something like 70% of ‘stories’ in the average tabloid newspaper got started with someone sending out a press release. Any time you read “A new survey says…”, I’ll give you one guess where it originated.

Advertising, sometimes attached to the PR agencies I worked for, was also a relatively easy choice. Craft campaign, prepare media material (newspaper/magazine ads, radio audio clips, TV video clips), book slots, schelp, monitor campaign, measure results, bill.

Now, imagine the challenge facing today’s generation of keen young marketeers, ad folk, ‘meedjah’ experts, PRs and all the rest. In a tiny early 90s Antipodean market, we could cover the advertising and PR/media bases by hitting 3 terrestial TV channels, about five national radio networks, five specialist magazines and a dozen newspapers. Fast forward to the second decade of the noughties, and whoa! – global households with 500 TV channels, multiple channel delivery methods (aerial, cable, satellite, etc), AM/FM and digital radio through the air or down the cable, internet in the home on PC, TV and gawdknowswhat, or on the fly by laptop, notebook or mobile phone. Video clips fly through the ether from one person to another on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Mobile phone apps can keep your friends up to date on where you are on the planet in real time. Blog any time and anywhere you like. And so it goes. I still read the papers but only online; I cannot recall when I last paid money for one. Even London’s Evening Standard, the staple read on my homeward Tube journey in London 20-some years ago, is now handed out free. You can now reach anyone on the planet any which way you like, but how do you target a specific demographic?

Same with PR. Press releases are now mostly electronic instead of paper and phone schmoozing still works but, as LawsonClarke’s article notes, you can also reach journalists many other ways online. “Online PR has really taken off in the past 12 months, resulting in new opportunities as both ‘branded’ on-line news channels increase their presence, and ‘citizen journalists’ also extend their influence,” the agency said. “A year ago, few of us had even heard of Twitter but it is already favoured by Fortune 100 companies (54%) over corporate blogs (32%) and Facebook (29%) as the social media platforms of choice. With 58.4m global visitors in September 2009 (excluding mobile or desktop app usage), Twitter is being adopted as a mainstream communication channel, offering PR opportunities for monitoring rising trends, talking with influencers, and broadcasting news, both directly and through social media’s powerful word of mouth.” And: “Internet advertising is expected to grow 9%, and that will drive the traditional media to look for new on-line outlets.” Which will suit just-auto’s parent company and our three other industry websites just fine.

“Twitter,” the article added, “has seen a three digit growth in 2009, and was on track to reach 18m users by the end of the year. It is claimed that 19% of internet users in the USA are already on Twitter.” As is just-auto. The writer might also have noted Twitter tweets’ numerous appearances in Garry Trudeau’s satirical Doonesbury cartoon strip for several weeks and the hilarious, and genuine, tweets made over a similar period by the strip’s fictitious TV news reporter character Roland Hedley. What price the value of that sort of exposure?

What’s been really interesting these past weeks, is how much, and mostly well, Toyota GB’s PR team has used it to communicate with us, and many other ‘followers’ on its recalls. Just today, they again turned to online social media to deliver us a corporate statement mentioned in this update. Honda UK also used Twitter to give UK media its angle on the Jazz/Fit electric window switch recall we reported a couple of weeks ago.

Toyota and Honda have usually used their 140-character tweet allocation to attract attention and direct us to a link where the press release, statement, or, in Honda’s recall case, consumer website are waiting to provide the detail they think we’ll want. More is just a phone call away to a real person, of course. But Mr Curmudgeon here has questions. In the old days, a proactive PR put Targeted Journalist on a mail list. Or he/she rang and wrote to request inclusion on same. Once emails arrived, it was much the same – we are impressed and annoyed in about equal measure as to who has added us to email lists off their own bat in the 10 years we’ve been going.

But Twitter? You have to sign up to follow a specific person or company. And the car companies alone have just about everyone bar the office cat tweeting. Plus tweets from even more people for specific ad/media campaigns. Who or what to to follow? Do we care if Autos Inc is recalling 1m cars to check for wobbly wheels? You betcha. Are we interested in learning PR Joe is waiting in an airport lounge on the way to take Lucky Contest Winner on his prize-winning trip to Japan? Zzzzzzzz. Right now, it’s easy enough to regularly scan the tweets from the 14 PRs and media outlets we follow and the website even tells us the number of new entries since we last looked. But, how to sift out the dross when it’s hundreds or thousands? I love technology and embrace new developments like this but I can’t help thinking tweets won’t replace conventional communications just yet though, properly developed, they could. Discuss (and perhap enjoy a certain Mr Clarkson’s view, too).

Have a nice weekend.

Graeme Roberts
Deputy/News Editor