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In An Era Of Fake News, Editors Can't Serve Two Masters

A few months ago I was thrown off a jury. Not because I am an argumentative pain in the backside, which I am. But because I knew one of the barristers. A group of us was being assessed for jury suitability and he and I both immediately made it clear that our friendship represented a serious conflict of interest. Though I would have attempted to be scrupulously honest and unbiased, it would have been impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this episode in the context of journalism and in particular the role of multi-talented and multi-employed George Osborne who edits the Evening Standard, a newspaper I used to work for. He is certainly the least experienced yet most highly-paid high-profile editor in Britain, possibly the world, but I wonder if he is also the most compromised.

The salary he earns from editing London’s free newspaper is supplemented with at least eight other roles. Most recently, he was appointed chair of a group of high-profile business leaders who will oversee Exor, the holding company of the Agnelli family, which owns Juventus football club, Fiat, Ferrari and myriad other businesses, including The Economist magazine.

He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a dean’s fellow at Stanford business school, chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and an adviser to BlackRock, the US asset manager, for which he is paid an eye-watering £650,000 a year for working one day a week.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne’s tireless work ethic will ensure he fulfils all of his obligations – with the exception of one. Editor. Because like me at jury selection, he cannot possibly say that he is not conflicted by personal interest. His honesty, capacity for unbiased decision-making, ability to judge stories without fear or favour is highly compromised by his close – and remunerated – association with some of the world’s biggest companies and most powerful business leaders.

It’s crucial that readers trust what they are reading. Osborne’s latest wheeze is reportedly to offer special clients favourable reporting in return for paid advertising. It’s a partnership so fraught with potential mistrust and conflict of interest that Starbucks has flatly rejected the offer – because readers will not know what is real reporting and what has been paid for. Although the Evening Standard is at pains to point out that any content created by this project will be clearly flagged as commercial.

But the same dilemma exists for Osborne and the reporting of business stories. We cannot know for sure what is real journalism and what, because of his many jobs, has been paid for.

Journalists have always displayed a bias in story selection that has not been made clear to readers. We’ve all contributed to an article that we knew had personal significance to our boss or proprietor. There are numerous columnists – especially on the sports pages – who fail to declare a personal interest in the individuals they’re writing about (and whose autobiographies they have sometimes helped to write). And most writers of travel features, for instance, have created a piece of journalism based on the fact that they’ve been handed a luxury freebie.

So honesty and transparency have always been issues, yet never to the same degree as Editor Osborne. His over-enthusiasm in the Evening Standard towards companies such as Uber – a significant BlackRock investment – is just one of the most notable examples. Yet BlackRock has assets worth more than $2bn in pretty much every single major business you can think of.

So how can the Editor of a newspaper disassociate himself from the fair reporting of a company or individual who is in some way associated with those who pay him extraordinarily generous annual stipends? When editorial conference focuses on the day’s reporting of business news, does the Editor of the Evening Standard recuse himself from discussions about BlackRock and Exor clients, or does he helpfully proffer his expertise and inside knowledge? Can he honestly say that his judgement is not compromised?

As I said earlier, I’m not concerned about Osborne’s physical and intellectual capacity to carry out his roles. This is about ethics. Readers need to know that what they’re consuming is honest and unbiased and if there is potential doubt about the content, they should be told.

So when a restaurant critic is friends with the chef or owner of a swanky new joint they – nearly always – own up. When I worked on the Daily Mail I remember being admonished for not revealing in a piece about the internet property company Zoopla that it was part-owned by the same people who owned the newspaper. Richard Desmond, who owned the Daily Express, sometimes asked us to plug one of the new ventures he was helping to back and would always provide a quote somewhere in the piece making clear his link.

Sometimes clarity and transparency is lacking. One editor incessantly forced us to plug the clients of a PR company that one of his children worked for, for no other reason than that family connection. That kind of murky deal still goes on but not right at the top. An Editor must be seen to be above it all, his or her judgement cannot be clouded by unspoken financial commitments or interests.

Of course they can still show bias – Osborne’s almost daily vendetta against Theresa May is evidence of that. It’s petty, nasty and over-the-top but not against the spirit of editorship. Everyone has favourites they shower with praise and enemies they seek to destroy.

As an industry, journalism has never been more vital to society. Yet because of the scourge of fake news it is also one of the least trusted. Osborne’s editorship can only dent that level of trust further. There are many talented journalists who work on the Evening Standard and the paper’s columnists are some of the best-connected writers around.

But they will never again be able to write about individuals who are conflicted by multiple interests without knowing, deep-down, that their boss is one of the most conflicted of all.

 

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Paywalls - If You Build It They Will Come

The other night I asked my teenage son to plough through his mountain of homework and finish it by the time I got home. Asked being the crucial word here. That I found him on the PS4 when I returned will come as no surprise to any parent of a teenager.

The next evening I didn’t ask, I compelled him. There was no other option, no get-out clause, no invitation for his subconscious ‘other’ to get away with it.

Asking someone to do something is never going to be the same as telling them. And it is this semantic gulf that has been exercising me after becoming embroiled in a very minor Twitter spat with a writer who contributes to the Guardian.

The media company and its journalists have been working overtime to capitalise on the brilliant reporting of Carole Cadwalladr, whose exposes of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the deeply worrying side of the internet have been exemplary. Journalism at its finest and an example of what true teamwork on a budget can achieve.

This is the kind of work, say Guardian cheerleaders, that shows how important it is you fund us. We may be giving the stuff away for free but we’re politely ‘asking’ you to donate. 'A favour' as the Guardian website gently suggests on every page you ever click on. Persuasive, laudable but totally unrealistic. Yes, some will donate – others, like me, may even do the quaint old-fashioned thing of exchanging money for a hard copy. But the majority will do what they’ve always done and plunder it for free.

On Twitter, I asked one of those calling out for Carole-donors if maybe the answer is to charge for such unique and well-researched material, that readers should pay for the privilege. ‘That is why we’re asking you to pay,’ came the slightly patronising response. ‘Don’t ask, tell,’ I replied. Which then led to her lobbing some abuse my way and hastily shutting down the discussion.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across another example. In the New Statesman, its deputy editor Helen Lewis – in a typically excellent piece on the struggles of media in the internet age – defended her magazine’s recent decision to charge for accessing the NS website.

There are two broad options for media owners today, she suggested. One is to create material that will attract advertising, the sort favoured by clickbait sites or unashamedly populist ones such as MailOnline. The other ‘is to reject serfdom and build up your own kingdom: attract readers directly to your website, and ask them to pay something, rather than fund your journalism largely through adverts that users can find intrusive and irritating.’

True, except in one small detail. These companies are not asking, they are compelling. Like my teenage son and his homework, asking will not always get the desired response. Telling – forcing? – will. The New Statesman, like The Times, Telegraph, Spectator and many others, is not asking me to contribute, it is compelling me too. And I do pay, it’s a brilliant product.

Thus, there is a third way. Clickbait, paywalls and the Guardian’s model of voluntary donations. Apparently, it’s working. According to the Guardian Media Group’s chief executive David Pemsel, there are 200,000 subscribers and 300,000 members, as well as 300,000 donors from across the world who have made one-off payments. Though he doesn’t say if there is any crossover between the three.

The internet is coincidentally enjoying its teenage years much like my son, and the same problem exists. Asking is not the same as demanding. I doubt whether the Guardian’s fingers-crossed-free model is sustainable. A paywall will soon be erected and brilliant journalism such as Carole’s will cease to be given away for free as part of a cynical attempt to secure more eyeballs.

There was another bit of that Twitter exchange that made me laugh. My opponent said: ‘If enough people give then it might be viable to survive in a…paywall era.’

When I pointed out that we always lived in a paywall era, it’s just that we used to call it a ‘cover price’, she replied that we ‘obviously did not always live in a paywall era…’ before flouncing off to bed in a huff.

Much like my teenage son.

 

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If Brands Truly Believe In Values, They Must Practise What They Preach

Many years ago when I worked at the Daily Mail, I made the dreadful mistake of expressing my thoughts. Well, one thought in particular.

Richard Branson, I pleaded in conference, was a ‘good thing’. A dynamic, swashbuckling entrepreneur who literally flew the flag for Britain, a homegrown disruptor with a perma-grin, making business less boring. With hindsight, my outburst was unwise timing. We were in the process of running a series of articles written by Tom Bower that would later lead to his coruscating biography of Branson which painted him as a megalomaniac hypocrite, and less than saintly too.

Needless to say, I wasn’t involved in the subsequent editorial process, although my admiration for what Branson has done – and for the high-quality offerings of many of the Virgin brands – remain undimmed, despite having read a book dripping with poison.

The Mail has always had a thing for Branson, criticising him and his businesses at every opportunity. And why not? It’s a free country. If you have an agenda against someone, express it - as long as you stay within the boundaries of the law and have some facts to back it up. It’s why our newspapers are looked upon so enviously by the rest of the world. There are no sacred cows here and freedom of expression and belief is valued more highly than a reluctance to upset.

They key words here are beliefs and valued. We have become a society in which both are more important than ever. We carefully consider inviting brands into our homes now rather than just do so unthinkingly. We want them to represent more than just the product, they need to reflect us in some way, promote values and beliefs that we hold dear. Governments don’t just make policy, they govern – and live - according to a defined set of values and beliefs that we the wider populace recognise as sacrosanct. And if they don’t, they’re out with unparalleled swiftness. Advertisers, public relations companies and marketers don’t just sell ‘useful’ things – the need of something is sometimes secondary to its values.

And so a brand known for trumpeting its values openly was always going to embarrass itself by taking on another brand that is equally sure of what it believes in. Recently, Virgin Trains had to backtrack on its decision to stop selling the Daily Mail. In announcing the ban, a Virgin spokesman said that the Mail – strident in its opinions about Brexit, immigration, political correctness, rising rail fares and corporate greed (among other things) – was ‘not compatible’ with Virgin Trains’ brands or beliefs. In an internal memo justifying the decision, bosses added they objected to: ‘the Mail’s editorial position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment’.

As do I, but I still read the paper – along with every other national – each day. I need to for my job, which entails helping brands and executives understand their customers better and help them tell stories which engage more effectively. But I also like the mix of shouty opinions, pointless gossip, erudite analysis and well-written concision. I don’t agree with much of it but does that make me a hypocrite for buying it?

Hypocrisy is certainly a problem for Richard Branson and the complex web of Virgin companies that he fronts.

I have no desire to visit Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates for the sole reason that it refuses to recognise Israel. Remember how we were aghast at that video of the judo winner mumbling words to a different tune because the organisers refused to play the Israeli national anthem? Does the UAE care if we boycott it? I doubt it but I do anyway. Values you see. I suppose Richard Branson and Virgin were grateful for the UAE’s $380m recent cash injection, despite its unforgiving religious and political stance being entirely incompatible with the company’s more liberal stance.

Living in one of the most polluted areas of Britain, I walk, cycle and do anything I can not to use my car or public transport. I still fly – yes, I’m a hypocrite and I'm lucky enough to be in Virgin's Flying Club – but I do all I can to minimise my impact on the environment. I try to live by some values. Meanwhile, Virgin and Richard Branson – adamant that we must do all we can to protect the environment – are spending billions on rocket-fuelled space tourismthat is as far from ‘green’ as you can get. This article by Naomi Klein is brilliant on his and others' green credentials.

I think it’s wrong to promote gambling on platforms where children are frequent visitors – Virgin does. We all abhor human rights abuses, Richard Branson certainly does. Yet his company recently announced an investment to transform 50 islands in the Red Sea, owned by Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its shocking human rights record.

I’ve ceased a close friendship with someone who deliberately – and gleefully - cheats the taxman of millions. I like him but I can’t stand his values, I find them incompatible to our friendship. I suspect notorious tax exile Richard Branson, whose values on responsible capitalism I share, would not feel the same should they ever meet.

Of course, I’m as big a hypocrite as anyone. I do still drive and fly, buy plastic, work for Middle Eastern companies and am a willing participant in tax-avoidance every time I pay cash to the cleaner or builder. But, like Paul Dacre in that features conference long ago, I’d never do anything to prevent people from expressing thoughts that I disagreed with.

No one should value censorship above freedom. I'm still an enthusiastic Virgin customer and a huge fan of Richard Branson but, even though he eventually saw sense, the company tainted itself by forgetting the central truth about brands and their values. Your words need to match your actions.

 

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