Cairncross Review Review (Part the Second)

The silence is deafening and so is the noise.

The problem with the Cairncross Review is that it tackles issues which should trouble us all, and deeply, yet I’m seeing very little discussion of it not only amongst former journalist colleagues and photographers, but also the wider public.

Much of the problem seems to stem from a general lack of awareness that it was even being undertaken. When I look through the list of organisations and individuals who submitted responses to the call for evidence, all the usual suspects are there (Johnston Press, Facebook, Google, The Guardian, News UK), but not a lot from individuals with specific interests in the industry.

From the general public there were 588 responses, but the report doesn’t publish more than excerpts of these submissions. On the one hand, that’s a larger public response than I was expecting. On the other, it’s pretty abysmal given the importance of a thriving local press sector for our freedoms and democracy.

This relatively low response will be a result of factors such as ignorance of the existence of the review, apathy and perhaps most understandably, an exhaustion brought about by the constant white noise of Brexit debate.

And even I am sitting here wondering why I care so much for an industry which has now given me less than half of my professional life. I’m too busy with keeping my own business running (as well as trying to expand my documentary work, which is in itself a response to the collapse in local journalism) to invest in a future which will be entirely out of my hands.

For now I just need to summarise a few points from my reading of a selection of the responses, in no particular order:

  1. Facebook and Google consider themselves innocent in all this, indeed they claim to be putting masses of cash back into regional journalism and it’s the publishers which are failing to take advantage of the new opportunities open to them.
  2. The publishers consider themselves innocent in all this and their sales were fantastic and revenues strong until the nasty digital boys came and smashed up their game.
  3. Neither side can quite bring themselves to admit the truth, instead pushing positions which are self-serving and often delusional.
  4. Government ultimately has no answer to this. Whatever they do will be wrong and will end in tears, corruption and a slow death for local journalism (followed some time later, probably a Wednesday afternoon, by national journalism).

Whatever happens though, I will try to keep an eye on developments. I can’t help it, and I really do believe that if you care for democracy and a diversity of voices in the many media available to us, you should at least make an attempt to bone-up on the broad outlines of the Cairncross Review and the developments which arise from it.

From next week though, I need to get back to talking about my own work and personal projects before the crashing silence and deafening noise get too much.

Post Apocalyptic?

Yesterday I was nominated by my friend and office colleague David to take part in a Facebook seven-day black and white photo posting challenge. A personal photo each day, no people, no caption or explanation and I’m meant to nominate someone else each day.

Now much as I love David, he knows I’m not a massive fan of this kind of thing, but he’s a big fan of my photography so couldn’t resist just to see how I’d handle it. He also likes to watch me squirm, so that’s two excellent reasons for him to nominate me.

You might wonder why I’m not a big fan of this kind of thing then. Well, since you’ve made the mistake of asking, I’ll tell you.

I’ve been on Facebook for, oh I dunno, many years. Twitter and Instagram too. Over the years I’ve posted pictures I’m very proud of and some junk I probably should have left on my hard drive or in my head. Of late I’ve been working to get my feeds looking more consistent in quality, more coherent in style and less scattered with random junk. This kind of posting challenge may not help.

Therefore I’ll have to be careful that what I post adheres to qualities I can be proud of. Tough to do every single day. But that isn’t the only reason – When I post pictures online I’m aware there is a trade-off happening; I’m exposing my work to a wider audience, getting more eyeballs on my pictures and helping my search engine optimisation, while the social media platforms are benefitting from a constant supply of free content and data they can mine, monetise and aggregate for future, as yet un-defined purposes.

Perhaps I’m being too conspiracy-theorist about this, but here’s a final point to consider; I’m meant to nominate one person every day of the challenge. That’s seven people over seven days (and even I remember from my school times tables terrors, that comes to 49). Each of those 49 people is meant to nominate 7 people, so that’s 343. 343 x 49 = 16,807. You get the idea, if nobody drops the chain we’re quickly into millions of people posting more millions of photos (I tried to work it out, my brain melted).

So mana for Facebook as it keeps people going back to their pages, interacting and laying rich soil for the advertisers who pay Facebook to display their wares in our feeds. We’re all working to feed it like we’re being paid, feeling guilty if we don’t, and so it goes on.

Thankfully we’re not all robot slaves. I was the only person David nominated during his 7 days. My wife got nominated, made it to day 4 and then forgot to continue. There is hope for the human race when we don’t follow the peer pressure and the made-up rules.

So my plan is to post a photo each day, only nominate if I can think of someone who would like to be nominated and I’ll state here that I won’t be accepting future nominations for this kind of thing. If it’s a nomination to be King of the World, I might accept that, but not another photo challenge please.

Goodwill Hunting

I’m thinking it would be too easy to write yet another tale of woe about a small business getting caught with unauthorised images on their website, and if you read my blog regularly you won’t need me banging on about copyright yet again so I won’t. Of course if you want to know more about this, read The Guardian consumer column which will enlighten you further.

Instead I’m going to tell you a new and surprising fact; Photography is more crucial to the promotion of business than it has ever been.

That I’m saying this isn’t perhaps all that surprising. What IS surprising is that it’s been said by John Owens in PR Week. If you’re a photographer, you might be peeling your eyebrows off the ceiling after reading that. Yes, an organ of the public relations industry is extolling the virtues of photography in brand awareness. I utterly commend the article as essential reading to all PRs who either don’t know, or who might need a reminder of the importance of good quality, engaging imagery for their campaigns.

Richard Noble of Bloodhound SSC project on the phone

Behind the scenes, un-staged photos (such as this one of Richard Noble of the Bloodhound SSC project) are championed by the PR Week article.

The piece even concludes with an immensely useful check list written by Matthew fearn, picture editor of The Daily Telegraph, for PRs wishing to get exposure in national newspapers, but which is also a perfect outline of good practice for PRs sending images to trade and local press too.

There are one or two points in the article where I would advise caution, as you would expect me to (knowing what a cynic I can be), but I think they’re worth a little extra consideration.

The author sites a couple of examples where big name brands have engaged the goodwill of their customers to help with social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. In one case Lego asked customers to send in creative images of their models for use in what was a highly successful Facebook campaign. Lego’s head of social media Lars Silberbauer says, “At Lego, we are at a stage where we would rather build a stage around our customers’ content than a campaign using fixed assets.”

I say, “Yuhuh I bet you would.” Fixed assets are expensive and customer-supplied content is free. I’m not actually saying brands shouldn’t do this, but it must be done in good faith and brands need to be aware that crowdsourcing can backfire.

In the case of Lego, where customers knew exactly how their images would be used, the campaign was a success. In the case where Instagram wanted to grab rights from its users for unspecified use, the exercise blew up in their face. I wonder how many times a brand loved even as much as Lego could use this exercise. People are increasingly aware of the commercialisation of their non-commercial photos, and while I don’t condemn crowd participation per se, I would urge brands to ensure their use of freely-offered images is circumscribed and boundaries are clear.

You might conclude I’m worried about the public taking PR work away from me, but that isn’t such a concern. As long as the public aren’t being taken for fools and brands play fair, I’m comfortable with this. Any business doing PR properly will have a range of different avenues for exposure, including social media and low-end imagery alongside higher-end imagery, press PR and advertising. It shouldn’t be treated as a one-or-the-other equation.

PR is vital to any business of any size. It’s bad PR to use other people’s images without permission, it can be good PR to ask for pictures if the deal is fair, and a good photographer with real newspaper training and experience can help you get exposure at a fraction of the cost of advertising. So go hunt goodwill, just don’t shoot Bambi’s mother in the process.

Thistle hurt!

Isn’t Facebook wonderful? One minute you’re merrily promoting your fashion/corporate hospitality/events/recruitment/Nigerian food business, building up follows and likes, the next it looks like Jack Nicholson a-la “Here’s Johnny!” has been at your page with an axe.

Exactly this scenario befell Eagle & Thistle, who apparently run a fashion/corporate hospitality/events/recruitment/Nigerian food business (clearly wishing not to be pigeonholed into one sector).

All was going well until they sent a letter out to some (a?) photographer asking if they would be interested in working for free. What an opportunity! Of course the opportunity was too good to miss. The opportunity, that is, to expose Eagle & Thistle as gouging scroungers who thought photographers would love to work for a commercial business for nothing.

Here’s the letter they apparently sent:

“I am contacting you regarding two small shoots that we have coming up at Eagle and Thistle for images we require for our up and coming website. (Please see our facebook page for more info on the company http://www.facebook.com/pages/Eagle-Thistle-Group/201311073242812).

We need four images to represent each area of the company; Fashion, Food, The Eye and Recruitment.

We are hoping to do one of the shoots on Monday the 4th July in a studio for three images; one for fashion, one for food and one for the eye.

The second is for the recruitment section which will be held in an office/meeting room. If you are happy with moving location on the same day we can do that or if not Tuesday or Wednesday would be great. 

We would also like retouching done within two-three days if that would be suitable for you. 

Unfortunately this job would be unpaid but it would provide great experience and images for your portfolio to work with a huge up and coming company. 

More details of the shoot such as moodboards and briefs will be available should be you interested in working with us. 

Thanks so much for your time and if you are available please get back to me” 

Before you could say “let’s do some really bad PR today” photographers had exchanged the tempting offer across a number of social networking sites, and the Likes and comments on E&T’s Facebook page went into overdrive.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t as a result of photographers stumbling over each other to get the unpaid commission. The red mist had descended and E&T’s PR went a bit spoggley. Not only were they getting vitriolic comments from angry photographers (yours truly included), but they didn’t realise what was going wrong for several hours. According to a E&T statement, they were made aware of the situation on their FB page via a phone call. Since Facebook is currently their only real marketing tool at the moment, you’d think they would have been monitoring it a little more closely.

Once they spotted the mess they were in they were quick to apologise, closely followed by disengaging from all their Likers and deleting comments that didn’t quite fit the E&T image. Then removing the apology, because with all the comments gone it no longer made sense. Nice way to do PR.

As for the shoot which should have happened today, presumably the results will soon appear on this holding page, replacing the photos which E&T are already using, for which you might hope they’ve paid or got permission.

In the meantime, enjoy the embedded video, which I think really sets the quality benchmark for this “huge up and coming company” who apparently are helping fashion label Bunmi Koko (no sniggering) with forthcoming events. Good luck, BK, but keep an eye on your Facebook page…

As a bonus treat for you all, I’m including some of the choicest comments from the Facebook page as well as the apology, because I know E&T would be mortified to think they’d permanently deleted them all. Just click to view:

IMPORTANT UDATE:

Following the publication of the above blog article, I was contacted by Anthony, general manager for Eagle & Thistle to discuss the background of the original request for free images, and the resulting backlash through Facebook and other forums.

Having spoken to Anthony it seems clear that the original request was made more as a result of inexperience than out of malice, and I’ve explained to Anthony why so many photographers (myself included) were so angered by yet another request for free imagery.

According to Anthony, some comments made directly to him were extremely aggressive and included racist comments and death threats. I would like to assure Anthony that such comments would not be condoned by myself nor by the vast majority of professional photographers, in fact I hope not by anyone, photographer or not. Race isn’t what this blog article is about and racism has no place in our industry.

I have advised Anthony that if such threats have been made that these should be notified to the police. If anyone attempts to make threats via the comments section of this blog they will be blocked.

Furthermore, Anthony would like to make the following statement on behalf of Eagle & Thistle:

“Eagle & Thistle is a startup business finding its feet and learning as we go.

Last week we sent an email to a photographer asking if he would be able to undertake a photo shoot for our website, but with no resources at our disposal we couldn’t offer payment. And though the content of the email wasn’t meant for wider consumption, it never-the-less became public and resulted in a backlash against us.

We realise now that this request was naive and ill-considered, that photographers also have to make a living, and that quality photography is what helps businesses to establish and grow their reputations.

In light of this we wish to make it clear that from now on we will endeavor to work ethically with all our suppliers, in the same way we hope our clients would work with us.

We apologise for having thought that photographers should offer services for free, and hope that in future we can build good working relationships with all our suppliers, including creative professionals.”

How Pro is your Profile?

According to 90% of statistics, 75% of all life forms on Earth are either on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In or all three, while the remaining 25% haven’t developed opposable thumbs and don’t have broadband yet.

Ok I just made all that up, but statistically speaking I’m probably right, and anyway it’s fair to say that if you’re reading this article, you’re also (and probably simultaneously) chatting on Facebook, tweeting and maybe updating your Linked In account, or somesuch useful activity.

What you might also be doing is uploading another comical profile photo to one or all of these accounts, but if you’re using any of them as a way of presenting your “professional” self, should you really be uploading that photo of your bottom with the comedy mustache and glasses? Do your clients really want to see you, lobster-like from the beach, wearing a jaunty party hat, a bottle of wikkid, or whatever in your hand?

Even if your photo is more sober, do you look like one of Interpol’s most wanted; or as if you work in a stationery cupboard, surrounded by files, papers, shelves and broken fax machines?

self portrait of tim gander

The model wasn’t much cop, but at least he’s recognisable.

Your profile photo might be just a couple of hundred pixels, but that’s even more reason to make the most of each and every one of those babies. It’ll be the first thing anyone looks at when they see your profile, or any comment you make on a social or business site. So make it work for you; make sure it’s clear and makes a decent impression.

That isn’t to say it can’t be humorous, but remember that your sense of humour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. My photo is straight and simple, but at least I’m recognisable from it.

So often, that valuable little space on the web page is wasted with a photo that is too detailed to make sense, and the subject of the photo is so small in the frame that their own family couldn’t recognise them. But whether you’re beautiful or have a face like mine, what people want to see is you. They want to know what the person behind the Facebook account or Twitter conversation looks like because normal people engage and do business with other normal people.

Hiding behind an obscure photo, pattern or, perhaps worst of all, a blank space can make your comments on blogs and in discussions look like spam. People want to know you really exist, that you’re not hiding behind a phishing scam. It’s one more opportunity to make an impression and (oh how I hate marketing speak) “build your brand” *gag*.

So do yourself a favour. Get a decent photo, get a friend to take it. If you’ve hired a photographer to take pictures for your business anyway, ask them to shoot you a profile photo with decent lighting. Then stick with that picture for as long as possible, because it will be what people come to recognise you by on all the forums and sites you engage with. Keep changing it, and people will lose track of who you are.

Now go, get it done and don’t let me catch you looking like a drunken party closet terrorist again.