Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Naga Munchetty | Greta Thunberg | Man City scandal | Global Fake News

It's been a week of PR blunders so without even touching Thomas Cook and the Labour Party, and staying well clear of the reputational graphite billowing from the exploded reactor cores of the UK and US governments, let's have a look at blunderful weeks for the BBC and Manchester City, another apocalypse scenario for the future of communications, and the pressure now mounting on Greta Thunberg supporters. 

BBC's self-inflicted Naga-aggravation

The BBC’s decision to censure presenter Naga Munchetty for calling out a racist Donald Trump Tweet – through the lens of her own experiences – has unsurprisingly caused the corporation more harm than good.

Munchetty’s honesty largely drew praise and her editorialising barely scratched the surface of the strong views (often presented as questions of hypotheses) frequently aired by her older white male colleagues past and present, particularly Paxman, Humphrys, Andrew Neil, and even the likes of Eddie Mair when he was calling Boris Johnson a “nasty piece of work”. He was right, but was that statement any less partial than what Naga said about Trump?

And even if it was, is it anywhere close to being as dangerous as, for instance, Brendan O’Neill advocating rioting on Politics Live?

The BBC is in a difficult position just now, running the gauntlet between accusations of woke-signalling liberal bias from the right and a chumocratic failure to hold Brexit to account from the left. The siege mentality created by this situation almost definitely contributed to their kneejerk reprimand of Munchetty.

The problem is that their latest intervention comes across as hand-wringing, prissy and jobsworth at a time when moments of dignity, strength and honesty are at a premium. The BBC often eschews any attempt at objectivity by instead obsessing over neutrality and, as a result, stifling common sense.

Far better would have been to acknowledge any technical rule breech and apologise as the BBC but to defend Munchetty on the basis that we are living in exceptional times and our broadcasters’ first duty is to help people make sense of them. Munchetty was using her personal experience to do just that.

Whether the BBC backtrack from their mistake or not, the outpouring of #IStandWithNaga Tweets suggests that at least Munchetty’s star has risen in the fallout, while the BBC have yet another storm to weather.

Greta Thunberg: Creating a moment is not building a legacy

Pre-Greta Thunberg, over 25 years ago, a passionate 13-year-old called Severn Cullis-Suzuki delivered a powerful speech at Rio Earth Summit that garnered worldwide attention.

This week we’ve seen Greta enhance her profile as the global figurehead in the battle against climate crisis. Greta is world famous and has succeeded in using that fame to create a pivotal moment in humanity’s understanding of our planet’s future.

But that’s exactly how it felt when Cullis-Suzuki took to the stage for a salvo which led her to be known, before YouTube, before Twitter, before the 24-hours news cycle, as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes".

The key words though, and the warning for those who are celebrating Greta’s admittedly massive publicity achievements, are “5 minutes”.

There is a big lesson here. The fact that you haven’t heard of Cullis-Suzuki demonstrates that a moment will quickly evaporate if there isn’t a commitment to exploit it and achieve long-term change. For every supporter of Greta there is a fossil-fuelled corporation or government, or a climate truther ready to sweep this moment under the carpet, just as there was when Cullis-Suzuki gradually faded into an ultra-environmentalist niche which marginalised exactly the kind of thinking we need right now.

We have to learn from history.

Manchester City's defensive mix-up exacerbated racism furore

This week Manchester City footballer Bernardo Silva was accused of racism after comparing a childhood photo of his teammate and friend Benjamin Mendy to a cartoon character with black skin and big red lips in a Twitter post, with the caption “Guess who?”.
This racially charged locker-room banter, aired across social media has split public opinion. Kick it Out and the FA both criticised the Tweet, while Mendy himself and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola insisted it wasn’t racist.
At first glance, this is a PR whopper. City and Silva’s comms outfits should’ve locked this down immediately, both managing Guardiola’s response and preventing Silva from doubling down. Silva is a role-model to thousands of young fans, so even the slightest whiff of racial insensitivity risks a reputational crisis especially at a time where racial abuse during matches is subject to a lot of publicity.
In a wider sense it reflects badly on the footballing community. The story will fizzle out but the number of fans defending the Tweet as ‘banter’ does not suggest a high widespread level of racial awareness.
It’s too late to act now, but here’s some PR 101: if a spokesperson creates a scandal, however justified, it’s essential to keep them, and their bosses, on a short leash, and project, as a minimum, some empathy with the complainants. City, Silva and Guardiola’s reputations won’t suffer long term but they made a mess of this.

Global Extent of Fake News Unveiled 

A new study at Oxford University has found that the number of countries who have experienced coordinated social-media manipulation campaigns is rocketing. In 2017 the number stood at 28, it was 48 a year later and this year it was 70. In some ways this isn't surprising.

Consider, for instance, that the price of the entire 2016 disinformation campaign that helped the Presidential upset of the century, cost less than a single F-15 jet.

Which has helped Putin push the planet further in his favoured direction? With chaos like that, at prices like these – is it any wonder that international propaganda is fast becoming the arena where nuclear powers fight it out?
Unfortunately, these countries aren’t liberal democracies leading the charge on the environment, the rights of the oppressed and the rule of law. This is a trend started by Russia in Ukraine, and now including China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

The only reason North Korea aren’t on there is because they can’t produce enough electricity to support a good internet connection. When the Hong Kong protests covered the news a few weeks ago, with it came another sinking feeling. Not just because this was a desperate fight for collapsing human rights, but because it could easily be a case study of how governments treat dissent.

Oh – and TikTok is a friendly cover for a Chinese propaganda tool, so these aren’t problems for people you won’t meet, they are in your teenager’s phone right now. Happy Friday!
Delivering Big Publicity Ideas 

Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Mercury Prize | Gender Evolution| Trudeau | Climate Strikes | Newspaper Fails

It’s been a whirlwind week in the media with themes we’ve discussed in particular encompassing newspaper journalism, political scandal, climate, gender and a resurgence in contemporary music (with a backdoor boast).

Climate Strike set to have deep impact

As we look out the window of our Central London office this afternoon, we can see today’s Climate Strike unfolding up close. Until the fat lady sings it’s too early to assess its full impact but it should, with Greta Thunberg continuing to operate as an effective and morally uncompromised figurehead, advance the slow-burning acceptance that urgent evasive action is required by governments and corporations if we have any chance of averting – or even slowing down- the current climate crisis. That is, as long as nothing happens which might alienate the sympathetic but uninvolved onlooker.
Bad Week for outdated Hatchet Jobs & Scoops

A number of self-destructive decisions by newspaper editors made headlines this week. From The Mail’s xenophobic hatchet job on the RNLI, to unethical intrusions on the personal lives of sporting legends Gareth Thomas and Ben Stokes, tabloids seemed intent on alienating the general public. The Guardian got in on the act too, drawing criticism for an unnecessarily cruel editorial on David Cameron’s “privileged pain” after the death of his severely disabled son. All were widely derided, while the victims’ responses were largely effective. The RNLI’s was eloquent and self-assured, while Stokes and Thomas were both excoriating in their criticism of journalistic malpractice.

There is a lesson here for traditional media sources. In the so-called Age of Post-Truth, truly trusted sources still have a lot to gain. As trust in the internet falls, trust in older sources is actually rising. That’s not a phenomenon confined to broadsheets; readers of the Mail and Sun trust those papers to deliver the news and opinion that matters to them. Years after Leveson failed to clear the air, newspapers should be very wary of opting for overreaching clickbait over hard-won trust.

You can see our founder Mark Borkowski discussing the Ben Stokes case on ITV News here, while we also talked about The Sun’s misjudgement and Stokes’ response in our blog.
Justin Trudeau: What Should he do next?

Imagine being in the Trudeau camp; it’s finally election season, finally a chance to showcase your carefully honed political strategy. Trudeau is a man famous for his ability with crowds, and you feel comfortable that the coming weeks will push him past recent scandals and back into power.

But then the Blackface crisis. Ahem. Crises. He claims that he hadn’t told his team about this, but then he would say that. And the response has a whiff of a scenario that has been discussed and prepared for, and about which the candidate has spent sleepless nights worrying. The statement was well delivered. Phrases like “I should have known better – but I didn’t” distance the campaign from allegations of deliberate racism. Big sad eyes and admissions of a ‘privileged upbringing’ being part of the problem subtly shift the blame and demonstrate awareness of structural racism. So far, it’s the best of a bad situation.

But the moment that Trudeau must have known that he was in real trouble was when he was asked at the press conference: “Is that the only time in your life you’ve ever done something like that?”

Suddenly this is very deep water, and the prospect of tipped-off journalists laying traps before a photo-a-day drip, drip, drip slides into focus. Now it’s DEFCON 1 and this is the fight of his life.
There are three things he should do:
  1. Lance the boil. Get out there and apologise for everything that the researcher could possibly have. It’s coming, and if you apologise now and get outflanked by new information, then what you said stops looking honest, far less compassionate, and starts looking conniving.
  2. Dead cat. Their researchers have been doing a great job, now it’s your side’s chance to get even. Straight off the back of the apology, grab the news agenda. Pray that there’s a photo of your opponent shaking hands with a famous gangster or that they’ve been expensing their cocaine habit to the Canadian taxpayer. It’s time to pull the entire debate into the gutter.
  3. Keep your enemies close. Your own party won’t be too happy about this, and already ambitious young climbers will be practising their nomination acceptance speeches in their bathroom mirrors. Pull them into you and get them out on TV, making sure that in the public eye they are tied to you as closely as possible. Now your success is their success and you can enjoy watching their work-rate pick up.
And above all – cynically hope that the general public don’t care. It’s certainly possible.

Society's Understanding of Gender is Evolving

In a tectonic shift reminiscent of the change in rhetoric from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate emergency’, but in which words take on new importance, we’ve seen a number of stories this week which underline that society at large is evolving beyond gender and sexuality binaries.

First Sam Smith declaring their pronouns as they/them, then Miriam Webster bestowing a symbolic sense of officialdom on the use of ‘they’ as a nonbinary pronoun in their latest dictionary, and finally Mark Ronson declaring his identity as sapiosexual.

These announcements haven’t been straightforward triumphant processions, and anyone publicly stepping outside the old definitions risks backlash from the socially conservative political right, but the conversation around gender is evolving quickly and irrevocably, and brands and businesses need to be aware that they can’t communicate effectively if such a fundamental conversation leaves them behind and they’re left shouting into the void of a bygone era.

Mercury (P)Rising

We’ve talked a lot about the newly crowned Mercury Award-winner Dave in these trends, praising both his showman-like command of public relations and his musical talent, while also predicting last night’s win way back in early March.

This year’s nominee roster felt like the most significant and timely in recent memory including Slowthai’s bold and uncompromising Nothing Great About Britain, Idles’ brutal and politically charged Joy as an Act of Resistance, Little Simz’s powerful and stylish Grey Area and Anna Calvi’s hauntingly complex Hunter.

As well as undisputed talent on show, the awards regained what the BBC’s Mark Savage described as a chaotic urgency that has been missing from award shows since the heyday of Britpop.

Savage was referring to the ceremony, which saw IDLES performing in the crowd, a failed Black Midi somersault, and Slowthai’s much discussed F#£k Boris t-shirt and mimicked beheading.  

But it runs deeper than that; musically, demographically and ideologically, this was a genuinely diverse and interesting line-up which said something meaningful in a voice that was great to listen to. Once you strip away all the layers of music industry, that’s what separates a genuine star from a flash-in-the-pan.

As Alexis Petredis put it in today’s Guardian: “watching the Mercury prize made British and Irish music seem alive and thrilling, angry and vital: something [it] hasn’t done in years”.

When you connect talent and originality with a powerful message you will be heard. After what feels like a fallow spell, it seems that musicians are proving to be an influential and resounding voice condemning and scrutinising these barmy times we live in.
Delivering Big Publicity Ideas 

Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: An Influencer Nightmare | Post-Truth Fact Checking | The Summer of Lizzo

It’s been another week for media chickens coming home to roost. On Monday Pornhub copped yet more criticism for the dissonance between its puckish do-gooder outer image and the dark and serious nature of the content it hosts. Then, Fireman Sam’s lack of diversity credentials dealt him another reputational blowas we thought it might. We’ve also seen the continuation of the seed change in modern theatre spurred by the Young Vic Tree scandal in Chicago this week, and another cultural appropriation controversy, this time involving Johnny Depp’s new perfume advert, which had the reverse effect of attracting more attention to the product…Kardashian-style.

Influencers: The end of an Empire?

Remember Caroline Calloway, influencer extraordinaire with a habit for scandal? Calloway built her profile as an American student in Cambridge, crafting long Instagram captions that sold a fairy-tale story of castles and champagne. In 2015 she reneged on a $500,000 book deal, having to pay back the $100,000 advance, which she had already spent. Next she ran a tour of ‘creativity workshops’ charging $165 a head, widely derided as a Fyre Festival-esque ‘scam’, a symbol for some of an industry that had grown far too big for its boots. 

Now Calloway is back on the radar after the publication of an exposé written by her former ghostwriter, Natalie Beach. The remarkable piece raises many questions about the dark underbelly of influencer marketing. Is the industry really ‘out of hand’, as fashion PR pioneer Lynne Franks suggested this week? Ultimately all marketing is built on telling stories that audiences genuinely believe in. In this case, Calloway’s story simply ceased to make sense. Whether it was her baffled fans baulking at a $165 workshop, or Beach herself, cast out from Calloway’s personal mythology, marketers should beware the moment that their story ceases to be believable.

The internet has politicised everything - even facts

Faced with a newly inaugurated President Trump, Facebook knew that they would have to do much better running into the 2020 Presidential election in countering fake news. They predominantly attempted at both source and delivery. They steadily closed fake news distributors, sending many of them into a spiral of diminishing audiences and plummeting finances, and boosted the output of their fact checking team

Their campaign to close the distributors proved to be extremely controversial, provoking increasingly hysterical accusations from charismatic charlatans firing up their misled fanatics. But after the controversy, these tub-thumpers had spent so long attacking their mainstream media rivals that they found themselves short of any support once the plug had been pulled. But just as a supposedly explosive problem proved simple, a supposedly simple problem proves to be built on quicksand.

The central issue, one that both human and algorithm can’t tackle, is that we can’t settle on a steady agreement of what is true. Just this week, an anti-abortion political video that was fact-checked by Facebook’s team drew so much criticism from both the Republican base and hierarchy that it was forced into a full retreat.

When Facebook flagged the statement that ‘abortion is never medically necessary’ as being untrue, activist group @LiveAction took to Twitter to accuse the fact checking team of being made up of ‘abortionists and abortion trainers’. Soon prominent Republican Senators like Ted Cruz were releasing letters to Mark Zuckerberg. Cruz has cleverly made this battle with Facebook his principle argument in the Senate – knowing that it protects and fires up his base.

The fact check mark was taken down, and we all took another step into our era of hyper-speed, liquid truth – regardless of any potential casualty.

Lizzo's glorious summer 

This summer was all about Lizzo. Her honesty about mental health and body image seems to have chimed perfectly with a cultural moment, leading to scores of accolades and high-profile fans. And now she has a role in Hustlers, a film that looks primed to be a hit with audiences. What’s behind this sudden explosion in fame? The answer is simple: money. Given that her inclusion in the cast of Hustlers must have predated her mainstream exposure, a music industry executive must have decided to pump money into making Lizzo a star.
While Lizzo might seem an organic product of the zeitgeist, that’s far from the case. She’s the woman of the moment, but not by accident. And if she’s not careful, soon another brainchild of a marketing executive will take her place. Some people are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them and some have an amazing agent. 

Delivering Big Publicity Ideas 

Borkowski Weekly Media Trends: Friday 6 September

Contrary to popular belief there’s been loads happening outside the Brexit bubble this week. We’ll deal with the titanoshambles that has been Westminster, but other interesting threads worth keeping an eye on include: Lana Del Rey following in the footsteps of Lizzo as an almost universally acclaimed artist taking a reputational hit by entering into an unnecessary scrap about criticism of her music; Kylie Jenner not quite getting the dystopian future symbolism we discussed last week…although there was some supporting evidence for our Terminator scenario…; the possibility that our crisis of trust is a myth vs another sign that we should be wary of trusting media giants; fresh questions about whether clicks and likes actually equate to cultural capital; another controversy for the seemingly cancel-proof Scarlet Johansson; and a sign of long term seed change in fashion, celebrity and influencer marketing post Fyre Festival courtesy of Business of Fashion.

Boris Johnson and the sudden collapse of a facade

The electorate are so fundamentally pissed off with the political class that Cumming’s only hope was to get in there and be everything they aren’t. But the issue is that Cummings background is in the wild, snarling attack dog tactics of single-issue campaigns and not the gentle building of consensus that is required in our age of multi-party politics.
But it started so well. Disciplined, ambitious, competent. For the first few weeks, it looked so beautiful that comparisons to fabled days of New Labour media virtuosity were beginning to be made. Cummings fired up the dark Facebook posts, put Johnson on the road and got him doing the Churchill stoop and scowl act. It all worked brilliantly, until the return of Parliament and a sudden series of disastrous optics:
  • It started with the prorogation. Which quickly caused a livid parliament and cries of ‘stop the coup’ calling over the BBC pre-election broadcast. And it caused the first ever capturing of the facial expression of a Prime Minister realising that he no longer enjoyed a majority in real time. Wow.
  • The lounging aristocrat. A pose that seemed to embody the sheer arrogance of Rees Mogg’s in the run up to an imminent government bleeding across into the non-politico world and caused four MPs to change their votes away from the government, and therefore out of the party.
  • The purge. There’s a fine line between looking strong and screaming ‘we will purge you’ down the phone at lifelong disciples of your party. Especially when you aren’t even a member of said party.
  • The brother. Good God, have you ever seen anything more brutal than a man who would prefer to walk away from his hard-fought ministerial career than support his own brother? Who needs televised fairy tales with dragons when you’ve got BBC Parliament - this is politics as blood sport.
  • It took Tony Blair a full decade of leadership to lose four votes in parliament. Mr. Johnson lost three in his first twenty-four hours. Now he is impotent, faced with the parliamentary equivalent of an elder sibling pinning him down, whacking his own fist into his face and then telling him to stop hitting himself. Checkmate.
  • The mildly fascistic motif of banks of police officers standing behind a PM, being severely undermined when one of their number collapsed. No wonder – they had been asked to stand at attention for a full hour on that stage because the PM couldn’t be bothered to be on time.
  • Please leave my town’. Even the walkabouts are resulting in polite, ever so British character assassinations and the hashtag is booming in Germany. I think they have a word for that sensation... Politics! It’s all so simple until other people get involved!
Poor Mr. Cummings, it’s all gone wrong just as he was believing his own hype.

Pornhub's 'Dirtiest Porn Ever' campaign

Pornhub started this week pretty well. In their new ‘Dirtiest Porn Ever’ campaign, the website released a new adult film shot on a beach littered with plastics, raising awareness of plastic pollution. 
Unfortunately, the week ended with something of a cock up. On Friday Pornhub were accused of profiting from ‘revenge porn’ by a victim on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. Despite their protestations, the report seems to have struck a chord with consumers, as one of the top stories on the BBC News website.
Pornhub’s stark reversal of PR fortunes is an important reminder for brands built on, shall we say, tricky behaviours. Pornhub needs to remember that they are ultimately selling something that many people view as a problem or at the very least an Activity Which Shall Not Be Named. When your product is that controversial, any publicity can quickly turn into bad publicity, drawing attention straight back to the elephant in the room. Pornhub are on the right track with their playful approach to communications, but they must remember that they simply have to work harder than everyone else.

Popeyes Chicken's Willy Wonka story leaves a sour taste

The viral success of American chain Popeyes Chicken’s Chicken Sandwich, which led the product to sell out nationwide, has proved a double edged sword. While McDonalds were barely able to contain the Rick and Morty-inspired return of their Szechuan Sauce Popeye’s have utterly failed to prevent hype turning into shrieking hysteria fuelled by stories of lawsuits and armed robberies.

With such a tense and highly-strung atmosphere, the time was ripe for a big gracious gesture to show how humble and bighearted Popeyes could be despite their success. Chicken sandwiches for sick kids? For the homeless? For refugees? Nope instead they sent millionaire musician (and we use that term loosely) Diplo a PLANE full of the sandwiches. One: slap in the face to all the normal hardworking people who just wanted a sandwich but had been told they’d sold out. Two: A private jet?! Really?!? In the age of Extinction Rebellion lavish air travel is becoming a hot button issue - as even our own dear leaders know to their cost. Three: the recipient was a rich popstar who lives a notoriously lavish lifestyle. This was a ‘let them eat cake’ for 2019 and Popeyes’ reputation will suffer accordingly.

More and more TV shows aging badly

South Park made It cool not to care, then the world changed. It’s 2019…were we really expecting South Park to age well? The answer is NO but it’s not suffering alone.

Iconic TV shows of yesteryear including The Simpsons and Friends have faced backlash from viewers and media for outdated storylines and characters failing the political correctness litmus test.

Lots of other edgy late nineties/early two thousand creators, like Ricky Gervais and Seth McFarlane, built their brand railing against the censors in their heyday but have been scrutinised for their reliance on dehumanising trans jokes and lazy stereotypes.

South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brand of lewd and childish content is struggling to cut through times of virtue signalling and cancel culture. Their childish attempt to permeate the latter fell hopelessly short with their ad campaign #CancelSouthPark that attempted to energise its fans by literally pretending the 'PC brigade' were trying to censor the show.

We may be at the gates of a cultural revolution; the legacies of the great TV shows may be in jeopardy. It’s looking like the quintessential Fawlty Towers will suffer after John Cleese controversial Brexit remarks and outdated. Time to start thinking twice about your favourite TV shows, can they survive 2019 and beyond?
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