Sky News Studio

Sky News made the headlines in March 2009 when it appointed a Twitter correspondent to scour the real-time platform ‘for stories’ and give Sky News a presence on the Twittersphere.  At the time Guardian writer Jemima Kiss said that she was “in two minds about the creation of a Twitter Correspondent.”

An internal Sky News memo obtained by Techcrunch at the time highlighted how the editorial team saw that news stories were breaking on Twitter thanks to users who eye-witnessed stories and then reported them to their followers.  Ruth Barnett, who today is the channel’s Online Politics Producer, was chosen as their Twitter correspondent.

I meet with Sky News Executive Editor Chris Birkett earlier this week, who confirmed that searching for news on Twitter and other social media platforms is now part of every journalist’s remit at Sky News.  I asked Chris about the impact that social media’s had on its newsgathering and content promotion operation.

Birkett said that their web and online team are responsible amongst other things for verifying content sent in to the newsroom through social media channels.  Birkett added that the number of users accessing Sky News online was being challenged by those who got the outlets news through their social media feeds.

Sky News Executive Editor Chris Birkett

Today the Sky News website has an audience reach of c.7.5 million unique users – 3.3 million in Europe and a further 4.2 million in other markets around the world.  Their iPhone app has been downloaded 2 million times, with Birkett confirming a “massive rise in users accessing the site through mobile devices,” something that is encouraging the news outlet to make it’s app available on other platforms, such Android, which recently announced it supported flash video.

Birkett noted that 18,000 people watched the Sky News Leader’s Debate from their smartphone.  We were also shown the development room where they were testing their forthcoming iPad app.

The one disappointment from a mobile aspect was that while the iPhone app has the facility for users to send in user generated content (ugc) the numbers have not yet excited editorial staff.  ‘Not yet’ being the watchword.

Asked if Sky News had benefited from The Times and Sunday Times paywall Birkett said that there didn’t appear to be a surge in traffic, which leaves one to question where Times Online users gone to?  Birkett did say though that Sky News has 650 staff – a lot less than the BBC, 500 of which are at the Sky News Centre and of which 150 are journalists.  The Times and Sunday Times meanwhile have dedicated 700 journalists, allowing the Wapping titles to provide the in-depth comment and analysis while Sky News focus on short video.

We are looking forward to another visit and further insight from Sky News.

Following on from the CIPR’s acclaimed Digital Impact conference last month the institute will be hosting a series of social media meetings this summer.

Entitled The CIPR’s Social Summer events will take place every Thursday until the end of August and will bring together leading PR and social media professionals to discuss and debate this ‘not so new’ communications channel.  Speakers include Philip Sheldrake, who yesterday presented a session on analytics, Andrew Smith, Stuart Bruce, Stephen Waddington, Steve Earl and myself.

The events will be held at the institute’s London head-office with sessions ranging from social media analytics and the rise of mobile networking to insight and tips on how to get ahead in social.  I will be hosting an after-work session on how social media is used in the newsroom and broadcast television.

The fact of the matter is that while social media has affected how we do public relations – forcing many of us into real-time reaction and into a culture of conversation and dialogue, newsrooms and television programmers have had to adapt to ensure that their own industries survive the change in the balance of power between providers and consumers of news and content.

But how does the communications industry adapt?  What does we need to learn from sectors that for so long we’ve work with?  How do we work together to make sure that the people that we wish to speak with engage with us?  These and so many more questions will be debated during my session on 15th July.

To find out more about this and other CIPR social summer sessions visit the wiki and sign-up soon.  Tickets for each session are only £10 on the door, to cover the cost of beer and a seat!

Below is my presentation that I gave at the Digital Impact conference and which I’ll be expanding from in July.

So this summer, remember, PR is getting social!

Senior media and communications executives met in London this week for the 2010 FT Digital Media and Broadcast conference (#ftmedia10).  At the heart of the debate were the questions of how the sectors were emerging from the global recession and the impact of online and social media on the creative industry and its revenues.

WPP Group Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell launched the opening salvo by questioning companies that, from an advertising perspective, were being over-optimistic about social media.  Sir Martin described social media as a phenomenon that was “personal” and therefore “not suited to being invaded by adverts.”  He was right.  This phenomenon is personal and it works because it’s based on conversational marketing that’s more suited to public relations than advertising.

Answering a question that I put to him about if he agreed with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comment that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm,’ Sir Martin said that “privacy was still the norm” and that this was one point with which he disagreed with Mark on.  “People are still concerned by it and the invasion of it,” Sir Martin added.  We should remember that privacy is individuality.

This opening day coincided with one of the speakers’ key policy announcements.  Mark Thompson, the BBC’s Director General, had been forced to bring forward by a week the results of the much-anticipated strategic review into the corporation.  Thompson outlined to the conference the plans that he was putting forward for consultation.

I was thankful that while we were in a panel discussion on ‘The Future Of News,’ before Thompson arrived, friends at the BBC tweeted me to let me know that Mark was first on Five Live and then on the BBC News Channel.  I also received a link to the following blog by Pete Ashton, which in my view nailed it with regards to what Thompson is aiming for.

While Strategic Review is aiming to slim down the BBC, detractors will keep giving it flak to avoid commentators questioning why their own companies are not performing as well as they should be.  A contact at the BBC tweeted me a private message that stated the obvious, “Part of the fun is that the BBC will always get flak for whatever it does from someone.” Pete Ashton’s blog post said it well by highlighting how the “BBC spent a decade or more figuring it out and, surprise, they’ve kinda successful at this digital / internet game.”  And that is why I applaud the BBC.

So the Auntie is going on a self-imposed diet and will be focusing on: 1) best journalism in the world, 2) Inspiring content that brings knowledge, music and culture to life, 3) Ambitious UK drama and comedy, 4) Outstanding children’s content, and 5) Events that bring communities and the nation together.  These sound like the corporation’s key strengths, but will the cutbacks satisfy its critics?  Will it hell.  But here is the problem, apart from the reaction to the BBC’s own 6 Music DAB station – which is wrong (#saveBBC6music), a slimmed down Auntie will emerge stronger, tougher and more focused on delivering great content.

In fact, in his speech, Thompson stated without any ambiguity, “one day, the web may be the principle platform for all the BBC’s services.”  Ten years ago the BBC went online.  Today, commercial news outlets are still trying to see how to make online work for an audience that is reluctant to pay.

Before Mark Thompson’s arrival New York Times Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, Financial Times CEO John Ridding and Google’s MD Matt Brittin had been discussing the future of news.  All the talk in the lead up to the conference had been about paywalls, would they or wouldn’t they work?

Ridding confirmed that readers were willing to pay for content by stating that the FT had “40 per cent year on year growth” with regards to subscriptions, while Brittin said that “British content [journalism] had a reputation for quality.”  But of course Brittin represented the outcast of the industry after Rupert Murdoch threatened to pull News International content out of Google’s News and it’s search.  Of course Brittin was well armed and highlighted that the search mammoth “send over 4 billion hits a month to publishers websites,” a fact that news publishers cannot ignore.

The Apple iPad was also talked about with comments from the panel about it’s potential for generating revenue.  The FT’s Ridding noted a word of caution by highlighting the risks of subscription fatigue amongst readers.

At this point you start to see what I’d noted for some time, how the media landscape was changing and how the various communications sectors were battling for survival.  Convergence is the word that sprang to mind.

For production companies it is about maximising revenues that can be reinvested elsewhere.  Yes, broadcasters are shop window from which historically they have made money, but with this stream’s drying up forcing many producers to become creative and look to use social media and other networking tools to make money.

Producers such as Endemol know that in today’s multi-platform world the audience is no longer just on television, and they are not just a viewer.  Thanks to user-generated-content and the various online tools people today are producers, promoters and marketers.  A point that is also relevant to the audiences that PRs and journalists are working to engage and influence.

The conference set out a world that is very different to that of a few back.  Consumers are more demanding and want content on the go.  They also want to be able to communicate and share, both opinion and content.  Social media is having a profound effect on how companies interact with consumers, how newspapers and media outlets get stories and how the customer is served.

Today, we live in a world where the audience wants ‘quality’ content that is either “free or cheap” and, as VivaKi’s Rishad Tobaccowala said, “the half life of data is minutes” as everything becomes “real-time”.

So there, go figure how to crack this one and bring the audience onside.  What I do know is that as a PR we need to learn quickly how to navigate this changing media landscape.

No more news?  I think not!
No more news?

The MacTaggart Lecture took place last week with News Corporation’s James Murdoch deciding at long last to take the stand at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival. Murdoch wasted no time in setting his stall out to get support as he painted a grim picture of the state of the UK’s media industry. Pointing the finger at the BBC, Murdoch described the corporation as a villain that had a “chilling” hold on the UK media landscape.

Given that we are in a recession Auntie was always going to be an easy target for the man from Sky. Murdoch though did have an audience.

After all, for quite a number of years we have been told that the news industry is dying a slow death. Print media – national, local and magazines – was passing away. Broadcast news is on the way out. Even subscription-based online news sites were in A&E. All very terminal. And all before one of the worst recessions in living memory, which has this year pushed advertising income down in many newspaper groups by between 20 and 30 per cent.

We are told that we, the consumers, are guilty of killing the industry by wanting our news for free. So whose fault is it that leading papers like The Observer are considering ceasing all together?

The fact is that since media executives decided to chase online advertising revenue stream at the beginning of the decade circulation of print newspapers and magazines have been dropping. As Alan Mutter points out in his blog, publishers couldn’t “figure out how to charge for content without throttling their web traffic and the online advertising that comes along with it.” What execs did was undermine their own industry by offering the goods for free, on a different platform maybe, but still without charge. Thus conditioning consumers to expect news on the house. Interesting strategy.

The Wall Street Journal though stepped out early on and offered access to its content online through a subscription service. They were one of the first to implement this strategy and in 2007 found itself with a daily circulation of more than 2 million, with approximately 931,000 paying online subscribers. While the Journal might be seen as a niche title with a focus on business and finance it certainly is a healthy position to be in, bucking the worldwide downward trend in income and circulation.

Meanwhile the UK-owned Financial Times is a title that has used a subscription-based strategy to its advantage. It decided to reduce the amount of free content available online and started to charge for access to the Lex column, FT Alphaville and others. FT.com now has 117,000 individual subscribers and makes it’s content available on a range of platforms including the US Kindle, as well as a new iPhone app, which was released to rave reviews. The app does what it’s designed to do – give users a taste of the quality journalism that the FT is renowned for through access to free content. But it also tempts users to subscribe to the FT so that they can make the most of the app.

Earlier this year Rupert Murdoch signalled that his news organisations would start charging for access to content online. This after News Corporation announced a 97 per cent slump across its newspaper titles. The rest of the industry took a deep breath, as the unspoken had at long last been made public.

Advertising-reliant media has been hit hard, leaving the industry to rethink its business and wonder how it is going to survive in the recession. The fact is that it can no longer rely on advertising revenue alone from its print and online platforms. With advertising budgets slashed, the news and media industries must find income from the people on the street. That means charging them for content.

Like the FT, The Times already offers a subscription service to readers. I subscribe to both, which is why I wonder if we will see The Times follow the FT’s model of offering limited free content online and in depth to subscribers or pay as you read customers.

Print itself might become a pointer to a fuller online package where news packages can be developed by taste and interest. Pay 90 pence and get part of the story. Subscribe and you get the full picture, together with the background briefings and extra content – video, podcasts, reviews, etc.

And what about magazines, I hear you ask? Well, yes, some titles have been bucking the downward trend, but overall sales are down. The proposition will need to be rethought and subscription services will be brought in.

Publishers like News Corporation have been backing the Kindle as a portable aggregator of news. And it makes sense. What also makes sense is the news of News Corporation meeting with other major publishers to discuss the setting of a consortium that would charge for news online.

Some people have come out and very publically stated that charging for news online won’t work. People expect it for free and won’t part with their cash. I think people will pay, but they will have to believe that they are getting value. In fact people already pay. The Times and The Financial Times already offer and heavily promote subscription based services to their print titles. The FT itself gives access to their content online to those who subscribe to the print edition of the FT. So, could a subscription service similar to this work? I think so. While I myself am a subscriber to both of these titles, as well as plenty of other magazines, I feel that subscription based wall offers exclusivity and value. Of course publishers will have to make sure that what is offered is exclusive, something that differentiates them from their competitors.

Not just that, but if your daily and monthly subscriptions were updated to a Kindle, Apple Tables or other eReader device, say at night when traditionally they went to press, then you knew that you were getting your titles within minutes of the copy being finished.

What you need is an ‘iTunes-style’ store through which you can get access and pay for a wide range of titles from around the world. A store through which you can get your UK titles as well as international titles that tick your interest box, so if you’re into fashion your GQ and Vogue from France, Italy, Japan and the US. And if it’s music, then Spin, Rolling Stone from the US, as well as UK’s NME. All downloaded to your device and updates sent via Wi-Fi wherever you are.

Of course social media will have a game to play in a new media landscape.  Titles are already publishing stories on Twitter, sending updates of breaking news stories as well sharing thoughts and knowledges and subjects they cover.  Social media is drawing people in to titles and for PRs enabling another tool to listen and follow journalists on their beat.

And ramping up subscriptions when advertising is down can only be a good thing for an industry that as tradition relied on advertising income.

You know, it might just make sense.

And as for the BBC? Well, news outlets need a standard to measure themselves against and the BBC is that standard for news quality. Criticising the BBC in my opinion is highlighting the weaknesses in your offering.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has decided to keep us waiting for their interim ‘Digital Britain’ report which was due out today, 26 January 2009.  A spokesperson confirmed that it’s been delayed until the end of the month, which to us is the end of the week.

Anyhow, the long awaited report, which won’t be finalised until late Spring this year, is expected to outline the Government’s vision for, er, a Digital Britain.  To be specific, it will be looking to regulate the net so that it can be made available to everyone nationwide.  It is expected that the report will also set minimum broadband speeds and impose obligations on telecoms to meet these requirements.  Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said the government was looking at regulating the internet to “even up” the imbalance with television.

Of course all this makes sense.  But there are a number of major obstacles, first of which is investment, or lack of, in new fibre-optic cabling and ensuring that exchanges up and down the country, which are controlled by BT, are upgraded so that broadband speeds can be increased.  Britain is lagging behind not just Asia, but Europe when it comes to speeds, with the UK average just over a year ago – light years in net time being 3Mbs.  This is way behind the 4.8Mbs in Germany, the 7.4Mbs in Sweden, 10Mbs in Japan or between 50 and 100Mbs in South Korea.  Often seen at the gold standard, South Korea is able to achieve this thanks to Government contributions and commitment to building a fibre-optic network.  Now let’s imagine how BT and other service providers such as Virgin Media feel about this?

Government commitment is key.  And while the UK Government has been asking a lot of questions about what Digital Britain should be like, the time is right for it to invest in a tool that will help all kind of businesses reach their customers during these difficult times.

The Christmas of 2008 saw the start of Britain’s first recession since the early 1990’s.  A recession that has made many high street retailers cut prices to ensure survival.  Yet for some stores, like Woolworths, it was too late.  Their time was up.  But while gloom was spreading like a virus down the high-street shoppers turned to the internet and spent over £4.6bn last month, up 14% on 2007.  Online sales accounted for £43.8bn in 2008, 15 per cent of total retail spending.

Consumers are becoming more demanding, especially when there aren’t many pounds in their pockets.  They want quality and competitive pricing, something that the internet allows them find.  Yet businesses with retail operations still appear to not embracing the net as a new channel for sales, which is why Government needs to step in and rid the nation of this digital ignorance.

The Digital Britain report is the perfect opportunities for Government to show it’s committed to helping businesses reach out to consumers.  The internet is another pathway, another pavement.  South Korea, is not just the country with one of the fastest networks, it is also one of the cheapest.  And with the Government’s commitment to spending it’s way out of a recession, investing in the internet would send a signal of it’s commitment to investing in the future.

Charging for the net is outdated.  It’s akin to charging us to walk down to Tesco to buy something.

Having said all this, bureaucracy does have a habit of getting in the way of progress.