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...to the blog for Velvet Integrated PR, an agency specialising in PR for the marketing services industry (advertising, design, digital, social media etc), the retail sector and entrepreneurs/SMES.

This is where we talk and rant about everyday things that somehow, always manage to come back to the subject of marketing and retail. We hope you enjoy it - do leave a comment and let us know!

It’s quite sad. As we approach the final days of the referendum campaign, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in how things have turned out.

The debate over the European Union and our place within it is a fascinating one. It allows us to reflect on who we are and what it means to be British (or European) in the 21st Century. And for the politically-minded among us, it’s a great discussion around constitutions, power and how to maintain strong democratic institutions.

Instead the campaign has been dominated by fear, by both sides.

From Leave, it’s been a fear of foreigners. Nigel Farage using a poster of Syrian refugees (which it turns out resembles Nazi propaganda from the 1930s) exploits the suffering of people and the fear that people have towards them.

And from Remain: fear over the economic fallout, while an absolutely legitimate concern, has been amplified to the point that we have now been threatened with a Brexit budget by the Chancellor if we don’t vote in. The fear over the prospect of a recession has actually increased the likelihood of a recession if we leave.

Things could have been much better than this.

It’s easy to stoke fear. Stories about waves of immigrants or mass unemployment are powerful narratives that can root deeply in people’s heads. And let’s be honest: it can be quite an effective tactic at motivating turnout.

What’s hard is having a reasoned, rational discussion about this.

For these last few days, what I hope we can do is turn our attention away from ugly, fear politics and turn our attention towards the positive aspects of the campaign. The conversations on doorsteps, the chats in bars, and the talks we have amongst friends.

Let’s discuss the debate on our own terms, instead of the terms that the media narrative has set out for us.

And let’s be honest about our relationship with the EU. It’s not perfect, it’s not broken either. But however we decide to move forward, whether staying in or going it alone, let’s do so with open eyes and reasoned thought.

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I spotted this ad on the tube the other day. It stopped me short. If you’ve been following the food debate recently you’ll now know that fat is no longer the enemy. Come on keep up! Butter now trumps margarine in the health stakes – in moderation of course! No longer can margarine claim the ‘healthy-heart’ positioning it’s enjoyed since the 80s. So where does it go next? This poster seems to present a strategy of sorts but it also poses a bit of an ethical dilemma.

Like many people I care both about my own-wellbeing and the environment. Is margarine really more environmentally-friendly than butter? Where’s the proof and how robust is it?  Sensing the way the food/health debate is going, is this a brand clutching at the straws of environmentalism?

But quite frankly, I don’t want my choice of spread to present me with a dilemma. Don’t make me choose between my own selfish wellbeing and the more altruistic choice that is the environment.  By doing so, you might just make me feel a bit worse about your brand!

Having said that, mine is only one interpretation.  There’s a lot of messaging going on in this seeming simple poster. It’s all quite confusing if you haven’t been keeping abreast of the fat is good debate, know that much about vegan principles (the ad chucks in a Vegan symbol for good measure) or don’t have a handle on the environmental impact of dairy farming. Add in the dairy-free, saturated fats and “powered by plants’ messaging and it’s all a bit overwhelming!

Humans beings are very complicated.

We've never made decisions based on a purely rational, objective assessment of what's in our self-interest, nor do we behave and react in perfectly predictable ways.

Humans are fickle, mysterious and sometimes outright ridiculous. Consider the dozens of cognitive biases (that we know of!) that make our decisions unpredictable. Not to mention the powerful and important role that emotions play in helping us react and respond quickly to events.

But in a world of wonderfully complex humans, understanding people is quite hard. We can never know truly how another person is thinking, let alone how the 70 million people in the UK or the 7 billion people around the world are thinking. There are simply too many variables to know for sure - we can only try.

This has huge implications for PR and our ability to do measurement.

How PR Deals With Measurement

PR is based on a simple yet challenging proposition: that an organisation's relationships with the millions (or billions) of people who encounter them can be managed and improved in a systematic way. We know that it works - there are countless case studies of PR helping businesses to grow and achieve their goals.

But PR is a very human profession. We help businesses to interact with stakeholders, but we only have imperfect information on how they think or what determines how they behave.

This makes measurement an especially difficult challenge. If it's impossible to understand every factor that goes into a person's opinions or decisions, how do we know if our tactics are working? How do we know how much that boost in sales can be attributed to PR? And how do we prove that PR offers good value for money?

Certainly, a lot of work and effort has been put into improving PR measurement across the industry. We are long past the days of measuring PR purely on Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE). Today, PRs demonstrate their value and ability to provide ROI based on building relationships with key stakeholders. The internet and social media have opened up the range of options for measurement and evaluation, providing fast and accessible data not only on what coverage has been secured, but also the level of engagement, the number of shares, and the interests and demographics of their readers. Even doing an automated sentiment analysis of how readers are reacting to a news story is coming within our reach.

The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) has been one of the key drivers in establishing industry-wide standards for measurement and evaluation. Through the Barcelona Principles (established 2010 and updated 2015), a number of core expectations have been established - i.e. you can't just measure AVE and outputs; you need to measure business outcomes, incorporate quantitative and qualitative methods, and be transparent and consistent.

Alongside this, AMEC's Valid Metrics Framework has helped to structure our thinking. By putting the PR process into a set of matrices and campaign phases, we are guided into thinking about measuring a wider range of factors in the PR process.

And of course a whole host of thought leadership has been put forward on the subject. The website prguidetomeasurement.org is a particularly useful resource on this.

The Crucial Element That PR Measurement Is Missing

These innovations have been hugely important. Going beyond press clippings to analyse engagement, brand awareness, business outcomes, and a host of other factors has done much to enrich PR, prove its value, and enhance evaluation.

But we can go further.

Yes, it is useful to measure the number of likes and comments a LinkedIn post gets as part of measuring engagement. After all, we can compare that data to previous posts and see whether this campaign was more effective at encouraging engagement from more people.

But aren't you curious about why you got those likes? What part of your PR campaign worked? Why did it work with this stakeholder but not that stakeholder?

Let’s take this curiosity and explore it further. What if instead of focusing our measuring instruments solely on concepts like engagement, we looked behind them? Instead of just measuring engagement, we measure the process that leads a stakeholder towards their decision to engage.

This means asking questions like:

  • What leads a member of my target audience to like a LinkedIn post?
  • What variables are involved in that decision, and which of those variables can a PR campaign influence?
  • How successful has my PR campaign been in getting people to travel that pathway? What other pathways exist, and how can we find them?

This is much more difficult to do, but so much more rewarding. If we can track the processes behind factors like awareness, decisions to engage, decisions to buy, etc., we get a much more complete picture of what PR is doing.

By embracing complexity, we can see the world in more detail and evaluate our actions and approaches accordingly. We can get closer to the people we are seeking to relate to, and closer to the core of what PR is all about.

Of course we don't know all the variables that go into human decision making and opinion forming in the areas that PR is interested in. We may never know. But the more we explore and we seek to expand our knowledge, the more we will be able to measure and understand.

This December in the UK has been decidedly different from any other Christmas in recent times. Instead of wrapping up warm in our winter woolies, we’re peeling off the layers in the unseasonably mild weather. Temperatures hitting the mid-teens in Celsius have become the norm and we’re continually opening the windows in the office to let the cool air in.

So this has made me think about what’s changed about the Christmas period over the years. As a child, I noticed the nation’s mild obsession with whether it’ll be a white Christmas. This doesn’t seem so important anymore, especially as most of the UK doesn’t receive even a flake.

Another aspect that’s changed is shopping and the sales. Back at the beginning of the nineties, winter sale shopping was virtually confined to Boxing Day and beyond. Also, Internet and mobile shopping didn’t exist so you took a trip out the High Street in person. Now the major end of season discounts start way before Christmas, in early December. Retailers try to lure us away from Christmas parties with online previews and fantastic offers.

The battle for Christmas TV used to be between Coronation St and Eastenders but now Downton Abbey is in the fray. Although it must be noted that it’s the latter’s final episode ever this year. We have so much more choice in our viewing like the many digital channels and on-demand streaming services such as Netflix where you can avoid Christmas programming altogether.

But there is one thing I personally hope won’t change and that’s a desire to spend time with family and friends and looking out for people who would value your company during the festive period. This is what we’ll all remember affectionately beyond the comings and goings of the changing world.

As we approach the end of the year, it’s a great time to reflect. To ask ourselves where we have come from and where we are going, so that we can use that clarity to reach further and achieve more.

On New Year’s Day, millions of people across the world will be thinking about what 2016 will mean to them. Yet the biggest and most challenging question we all must answer is also the simplest: what do we do and why do we do it?

As a PR agency, we find ourselves in a profession where 57% of UK parents aren’t entirely sure what a “PR manager” does. What PR agencies do, and indeed the whole point of the £7.5 billion PR industry, can sometimes be left quite vague – or worse, explained using frustrating and incoherent buzzwords.

But PR does matter and it does make a valuable and positive difference, as our clients will attest. Here are five ways in which PR can help you:

1. Build awareness, credibility, and attract new business

This is the bread and butter of PR – establishing your company as authoritative, credible and familiar.

We do this primarily through securing media coverage for our clients, which can range from a quick comment in a trade magazine to an in-depth feature in a national newspaper. The goal is to ensure that positive third-party perspectives of your company are seen by your target audience. As consumers and potential clients increasingly rely on reviews and name recognition when deciding what to buy or who to hire, this can be the difference between a lost opportunity and a valuable sale.

A PR agency will analyse how your competitors are doing media-wise, identify coverage opportunities and offer a strategy so that your business competes in this space.

2. Create valuable content

Ever since Bill Gates declared “content is king” back in 1996, “content” for marketers has been the buzzword of a generation. The power of content, and of a regular content calendar, to help businesses stay relevant and keep ahead of the competition is increasingly being valued and recognised by the wider business community. Given content is of the moment, it’s easy to forget that PR professionals have been content experts for decades. After all, using the right words to convey the right idea to the right people is a fundamental part of what they do. Their expertise can help your company produce the best and most relevant content for your industry.

Ultimately, creating good content relies on a mixture of instinct and planning. It means telling a consistent story that is tailored to every platform, channel, and output, whether earned, paid or owned. Your message needs to reach people and matter to people, whether you encounter it through social media, a guest feature in a magazine, an email newsletter, a blog, an app, or a news story. PR agencies can help from Word doc to the weeks after publication, making the most of opportunities at each stage.

3. Develop your social media presence

Social media is a strange and wild beast. Each platform has its own rules and conventions, different tactics for building up followings, and often fundamentally different audiences.

Social media can also be somewhat unpredictable. Your cleverly crafted hashtag campaign may not get the reaction you were expecting, as the Victorian Taxi Association found out to its detriment with its #YourTaxis campaign.

Yet for most companies, social media is unavoidable. If people are talking about you or your competitors on Twitter or on LinkedIn, having a presence there is critical. What PR agencies can do is provide support on this front, helping you to develop a strategy for meeting your goals, prepare content, and keep track of what people are saying.

4. Recruit new talent and keep your staff happy

Recruitment isn’t the first thing people think of when considering the benefits of PR. But third-party reviews, awareness of the company, and authority within the industry are important factors in getting the most talented people to get in touch. The days of posting a job ad in the newspaper and hoping for the best have long passed. Nowadays, getting potential employees to come to you can be a more fruitful way of sourcing the best candidates. Media coverage within industry publications can not only get you new clients, it can get you new employees.

PR can also play a role in keeping your existing employees happy and well-informed. Getting information on employee concerns, reassuring them about changes that your company may be undergoing, and motivating everyone to achieve their best - all of this relies on the effective communications strategies that PR agencies are so good at.

5. Get support during mergers and acquisitions (M&A)

One of the biggest challenges that a company can go through is a merger or an acquisition. It’s easy to imagine why - emotions can run high, structures that have existed for decades can be completely transformed or dismantled, and rumours can spiral out of control very quickly. Making sure that all relevant stakeholders hear accurate information is essential for a smooth transition.

An external PR agency, separate from the M&A process, can offer the guidance and expertise to communicate this process effectively. And if a crisis emerges, it is very useful to have experienced people on hand who can react quickly and effectively.

The opportunities that PR provides are potentially life changing. By getting news coverage, thought leadership pieces, positive social media sentiment, new staff, and new sales, PR can be a valuable and inexpensive way of getting ahead of your competitors. What PR agencies do is provide expertise and experience to help their clients be successful. Here at Velvet, we take that and go that extra mile, providing more than PR.

Ultimately, that is what PR is and that is why we do it.

My family takes Christmas very seriously. Possibly too seriously. Years ago, all my mum’s huge extended family would get together and we’d sit 25-30 people for Christmas lunch (with a huge sack of potatoes, another of sprouts, enough stuffing to choke a moose, a turkey big enough to require its own postcode and so on).

But even now, with a much smaller gathering of immediate family only, it truly begins for us on or around 6th December – my brother and sister’s birthday (not twins, they just share a birthday). That’s when we traditionally picked a weekend and met up for lunch after a morning of Christmas shopping.

Shopping and food have been mainstays of the Haji household for decades, to the point where we have to circulate wish lists before the end of November so that we can all agree who’s getting what for whom.

Yet even with most of our shopping now done online, we still meet up at our parents’ house on that first weekend in December. We agree who’s buying what this year when it comes to crackers, chocolates etc. and we help them put up their absurdly enormous collection of decorations, including a tree covered in enough lights to be seen from orbit and a Charles Dickens-themed Christmas model village that my parents spent years slowly acquiring piece by piece. It now occupies more acreage than Disneyland.

The funny thing is, my English mum comes from a family with lots of Christmas traditions, but it’s my Indian dad who’s really picked up the baton. He loves Christmas and everything about it.

If it was down to just me, to be honest, I’d probably be a bit more ‘bah, humbug’ about the whole thing – but four decades of indoctrination are not shrugged off overnight. And who doesn’t like presents?

It sneaks up on you like a bad migraine.

At first, you begin to notice it in the TV ads, then on the supermarket shelves and fronts of people's houses. Something just seems a little strange about everything in the world, like some secret, sinister force is slowly taking over. Before you know it, it's infected everything and everyone like a weirdly joyous plague.

I am, of course, talking about Christmas. That compulsory celebration of which we are all painfully familiar. The time of uncomfortable family reunions and frenzied shopping. When the hordes of Christmas-obsessed happiness warriors descend and declare that a merry Christmas shall be foisted on us all. And with strained faces we all pretend to be inhabited by this Christmas spirit, dutifully wearing our flimsy party hats while “I wish it could be Christmas every day” blasts out of loudspeakers like wartime propaganda.

But there is one thing that is magical about Christmas - something that almost makes the endurance worthwhile. And that is the customary and delightful EastEnders Christmas special. Yes I know, soap operas may have the entertainment value of a washing machine, and plots that appear to have been drawn out using crayons. But one has to admire the bravery and mercy of a programme that emerges onto our screens on the evening of the 25th and brings the Christmas spirit down with a thud. When some character we're supposed to sympathise with dies, or some happy marriage we're supposed to care about is broken up by an affair, it’s a delight to see the tense air of manufactured happiness being punctured and demolished. I wouldn't exchange this small pleasure for anything, except perhaps for avoiding the whole Christmas ordeal in the first place.

So for me, Christmas starts when that awful red, green and snowy fog descends on the world. But it ends triumphantly with a moment of deeply satisfying schadenfreude sat watching BBC One.

They say Christmas comes too early each year. But for me and my family, it can’t come soon enough. Because what else do we have to look forward to in November? Rain? Wind? Storms with rubbish names?

Christmas is all about being together as a family. And despite being the son of a reverend – it’s not the birth of Jesus Christ that interests me. It’s more the return of my very own, waistline-heavy Christmas baby, developed as a consequence of the deluge of food, booze, inactivity and gluttonous presents – that I look forward to. God Bless Capitalism.

So for me, Christmas starts as soon as the family gets together for my mum’s birthday at the beginning of November. The talk of what we want from each other, the order of food that we want to eat on Christmas day (I’m drooling now) and the anticipation of whether we can beat the record of three Christmas dinners in three days, which was frankly one of the greatest times of my life.

Why celebrate Christmas on just one day when you can spread the excitement over two months? I’m considering opening a bottle of port this weekend and tucking into an early box of Guylian chocolates right now.

So, to those who get annoyed at Christmas coming too early, that retailers are spoiling it, that there shouldn’t be Christmas ads at the beginning of November I say ‘BAH Humbug!” Go get yourself a festive log, a tin of cheese biscuits and a party hat. Because it’s November people – and Christmas is here!

Christmas has always been a special time for me. One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when Father Christmas bought me a tape player with two microphones on which I recorded myself speaking A LOT! I think that is where I developed a love of the sound of my own voice.

One of the things I love about Christmas is the sense of community and the excuse it gives to get together with old friends you haven’t seen for a while. Growing up in a village means that my Christmas time is full of reunions by the fire in our local pub.

Christmas always used to start for me after our carol service at school, after which we were handed back to parents for the holidays. However, since starting work it has been getting later and later. Christmas now begins when I get home to decorate our tree and educate my niece on some of the great Christmas movies – and no, Frozen is not on my list.

My favourite day of the year is Christmas Eve – every year the whole family sits and watches a couple of films during the afternoon. In the evening we sit down for roast beef followed by a trip to the local pub for a few drinks before Midnight Mass.

To be honest I am already excited about Christmas, but unfortunately I have to wait a few more weeks before I can take the Christmas jumper out of the cupboard and bombard everyone with Michael Bublé’s Christmas album.

This year I will be celebrating my first Velvet Christmas and can’t wait to enjoy a few festive drinks with some new friends.

I just can’t believe that it was 20 years ago that I sat on Father Christmas’ lap in his workshop in Lapland (I promise to circulate the photo).

To read Tasha's previous post on #whenxmasbegins for her, check it out here.

We don't know about you, but we love a bit of Twitter. Allowing you to interact with people instantly across the globe, the social platform has not only become a new tool for keeping with breaking news, but also an enabler for brands to become innovative in a new field. But with over 302,000,000 active users, who is best to follow? Thankfully, the Velvet team is here to share its favourite Twitter accounts.

Fabian - Mine has to be @PopJustice for the simple price reason that Peter Robinson, the editor and sole tweeter, is so critical of everything pop that I can’t help but laugh. His running commentary on the Tidal launch had me glued for hours – I kept up with his hypothetical scenarios around Jessie J turning up late dressed as a TUC cracker rather than the actual Tidal event.

Nastasha - @SkintLondon is a mix of amusing tweets, local news stories you wouldn’t normally catch, and online some great, unmissable foody freebies and cultural deals!

Anil - Definitely The QI Elves (@qikipedia). An endless stream of odd factoids, entertaining quotes and other random nonsense. One of my favourite TV shows duplicated perfectly in 140-character form.