January 15, 2017 Andy Green

Interview: Mark Borkowski and Andy Green

Andy:  Mark, how would you describe yourself?
Mark:   ‘A good human’.

A:  A good human in a vocational sense?
M: In a vocational sense I think my Skype handle is ‘publicist’ so I am a publicist. That’s on my passport. I think that I would have said ten years ago I was a storyteller, but that has become much maligned and everybody now’s a friggin’ storyteller.

A: So ‘publicist’ rather than ‘public relations’?
M: Yes well I’ve always said that the term ‘public relations’ is a many-headed Hydra isn’t it? You can cut one off head or one can shrivel and die because it’s no longer relevant, and another one grows up. So, within it I think you call it now ‘content generation media management’.
What I understood from my early days in theatre is that the only way when you had a limited marketing budget that just went into posters and leaflets, no money to buy advertising, then the front page of the Swindon Evening Advertiser was my canvas. And if I could get the front page with a story related to the upcoming production, whether it was a celebrity or an issue that I could turn into a story which was from the fabric of the play, people would come, and people would talk about it.
And you and I have had conversations for many years about word of mouth, and you know, my hero, P.T. Barnum who never said ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’. What he did say is ‘Every crowd has a silver lining’, and that’s because he believed that if he could take his show onto the streets and people could marvel at it, or they would leave the Big Top after seeing it, they would be talking about it, and that’s what we want to do. So, I generated word of mouth through my publicity activity and by harvesting relationships and getting TVs, radios, journalists to write about it now online off, you will get an audience.
And going back to the circus world, circus people have a very interesting thing; when it all led to going from town to town and week after week and the company was fed by the success of the show, even now if you ask a circus man ‘How did he do?’ and if he does bad business, you know ‘How did you do in Tunbridge Wells, Gerry?’ and he will say ‘Starved’, meaning bad business, not enough money to pay for the food. And what I knew is, no bums on seats, no box office, we were doing bad business, but if we could generate a big word of mouth campaign driven by media and what we had, we’d have a full house, so I’d always think of my, what I did as ‘bums on seats PR’, ‘word of mouth PR’.

A: Now, some people would sneer at the term ‘publicist’ but you very proudly trumpet the term.
M: Yeah, listen I’m, I feel that everything is different, everything is the same, and as humans read Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox there’s this sort of seething beast of the jungle inside every man and woman, and we’re driven by those primary fears, you know feeding, you know, fighting, territory, nurturing and whatever.
And whatever the medium is in front of us to a certain extent is driven by our needs, and our needs are very basic, and those needs are the needs of the crowd, we crowd together, we become herd mentality. So all those, how shall we say, anthropological elements of what, of study, I guess, drive us back to needs, and people will always need certain things.
So publicity, publicists of every generation have used technology where, you know, mailmerge, the telegraph, television, radio, film to transmit their message. So, but it was always to generate attention and a lot of people talk about themselves as content generators.
Now, I guess that’s what I am, but it’s all driven down to what I think the term is within PR, whether that’s media relations or whatever, it’s publicity, and publicity still makes the world go round and if we want a great example of someone who mastered the art of modern publicity, who is a self-publicist, you would look to Donald Trump or you’d look to Nigel Farage. So if anybody says to me it’s an old fashioned word I’ll say look at the great publicists in the world and they are running the world now. Vladimir Putin is a publicist, Goebbels, was a publicist.
They understand that creating publicity, grading people word of mouth through whatever medium, is the route to power and influence.

A: If Barnum were alive today, what sort of things would he be doing different?
M: We have modern Barnums today. You know, if you want to know a modern Barnum that’s Simon Cowell. Barnum wanted to create a sense of wonder, wanted everybody to be amazed, wanted everybody to be entertained, and to a certain extent that’s what a number of people do, they entertain.
Political leaders are now not selling complex messages, they’re entertaining people, they’re giving people hope. Obama said ‘We’re going to make America great again’; people read that as ‘He’s going to give me a job, he’s going to make my life better’, and escapism is always part of the game; Simon Cowell and Endemol or all the great television companies, you know, want to create escapism, and escapism is delivered by cannon fodder being part of the process.
So, Barnum would absolutely be a reality TV mogul, and he would be right alongside Donald Trump.

A: So is there something there about the fact it’s not just communicators, but the strong inherent brands?
M: Yes, I think there’s a lot talked about brands and people talk now about how social media’s a great platform for brands.
The statistics suggest that only three per cent who, you know, on Facebook recognise it as a brand platform.
The idea that everything has a strong brand. What is the most compelling, emblematic brand symbol that’s lasted two thousand and eighteen years nearly, is the crucifix. If we think about what’s built around that it’s all a brand ethos; you have the brand ‘Bible’, it’s called ‘The Bible’, you have a tentative sort of, you know, group of disciples, all of those sorts of things go back, there’s no difference in building Christianity as a brand, in all the language we now borrow when we talk about brand building.

A: You’re sort of dismissive of the word ‘storytelling’, why’s that?
M: No, I think it’s overused, that’s all. I think a number of words that we use in the ‘slanguage’ of our business, I just don’t think there’s any purity in it anymore, I think it’s been devalued, that’s all.
I think there are some great storytellers out there, some great, but we need to look back at what is a story. A lot of people in advertising, you know, in particular in media, I mean, everything’s blurring at the moment, the lines have blurred between marketing, advertising, sales, promotion, whatever we want to call it, and somewhere in the middle of it is a great brand story, a great brand narrative.
You know, some of those things that people expect and see as a brand story is not a story at all. Stories live in the hearts and minds as an atavistic longing for stories, you know, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Morgan, they’re great storytellers, you know, Grimm was a great storyteller, but somebody working from Adam and Eve is not a great storyteller, I’m sorry.

A: You have been following the comm trends closely and there are enormous changes happening in the communications industry due to rapid changing technology. You have some disruptive thoughts on that, particularly on how we use tech and how it changed the way we live.  Where do you think we are heading?
M: I go back to this line ‘everything is different, everything is the same’. If a lifetime in PR teaches you anything it’s that the direction of the future is almost always found in yesterday’s barely remembered headlines. If PR is to survive in this scary new world we will have to do a lot more than simply massaging client egos with fawning coverage.
Technology hasn’t so much changed our way of life as accelerated it. The speed at which ideas spread throughout our profoundly interconnected lives is has given the comms industry more authority and opportunity than ever before. The difficulty is, this has also turbo-charged our worst habits, especially attention to detail and ability to focus on facts. A stat that never fails to shock is that the average online attention span is less than that of a goldfish. This is an enormous challenge for communicators- how do we get anyone to care about our messages when we are competing against an infinite number of news sources and the billion-loud babble of social media?
One of the issues is ‘channels’; how do we communicate our message on a channel? So therefore there’s a growth in what we call these micro-channels. So I think we’re losing the ability and the art of mass communication because the tools of mass communication have been ‘disimmediated’.
So now it’s micro-channels, and how we best use our micro-channels?
Here at Borkowski, we believe that there is about two hundred global influencers; they chop and change but we can actually track, you know, how those people affect different marketplaces, so we’re going to be highly automated, data is going to be looked at in a different way, data can tell us a lot of things, but also tell us the wrong things, because we’re analysing data in the wrong way. Hence why the pollsters have got it wrong time and time again.
Pure data is, it’s the same as getting alcohol from a chemist and then trying to make gin and tonic out of it; it’s too strong.
We all herd. We all crowd around things that will still matter to us.
I think the new, the digital natives are the generation now who’ve lost any anchor with what is known as ‘analogue media’. That’s when things will take another sea change in the way that we have to be more social in our contact, how, I mean they see themselves as not responsible for what it was, and how the economic and political changes we’re going to see perhaps in the next six months to six years will fundamentally shape society, because there’s not the same values.
So how we interface with what we sell and present, how our brand has responsibility to things like diversity, sustainability, trust – all those things will come back into play, and what are the mechanisms we will then use to communicate them.
So, the social, economic, political, geopolitical elements will shape our business, and how we build attention and how we create something – beyond the listicle or the soundbite – is all those sorts of things we have to think about.

A: You make reference there about ‘influencers’.
M: Trusted influencers with real reach is where we’re moving towards. I don’t mean the, sort of, young boy or young girl angst driven in their own home. We’ve all seen how the Vine Stars were going to make massive movies of the future; what happened to Vine?
The responsibility, the channels of the influencers and what they do with their influence, and the responsibility they take with it, and how they create bigger ideas, bigger thought leadership is going.
I think if we focus on some of the failings, the filter bubble that we, we only want to hear we only see what we want to hear, the interesting people who can write well and keep a succinct balanced debate bringing both the left and the right together in a space where there can be some genuine discourse, I think those are the generations who are going to build. They’ll have really quite pure channels that will encourage ideas and big thinking, that, we need ability to think, to break out of the filter bubble, to really develop our own strengths and personality without outside influence, and those people who will do that will become the visionaries.

A: Do you think all these big corporations such as Google, Facebook are using us to generate revenue? In the long term, will we regret trusting them too much?
M: I think we have reached the point where, for most people, the trade-off of personal data for services provided by a Google or a Facebook is understood and accepted. We are post-truth but we are also post-private, and there is no going back. The real issue is that Google and Facebook haven’t truly come to terms with what they have become. They are no longer simply tech or social networking companies- they are major media players. To admit this, however, would be to open them up to greater scrutiny and regulation of content, something that will inevitably happen. In order to maintain the trust of its users these companies need to demonstrate greater transparency and social responsibility.

A: Today, everybody is a journalist and we are witnessing shrinking newsrooms. As if real journalism is being punished by the rise of social media… How do you think media will respond to that? How about PR?
M: So far the response of traditional media has been to put their heads in the sand. There is still the hope that things can’t get any worse,  that with the rise of so-called fake news readers will be encouraged to return to authoritative and fact-checked news sources. This won’t happen. A generation is now too used to not paying for journalism – and there is an abundance of top-notch free content out there to justify this position. Traditional media, if it is to survive, will drastically need to change its business model. There will always be a place for newsprint, but it will be a niche product, like vinyl is for old school music lovers. For reaching the majority there needs to be more innovation in terms of how news content is monetised.

A: At some point all these advancement create anxiety in consumers as well as companies. There are always something new, spin is so high and hard to keep up. What do the companies do to keep up with the change? OR maybe they should not…
M: As a company, the best way to fail is assuming your customers are interested. There is absolutely no room for complacency. You need to speak directly to your customers. This doesn’t just mean the occasional twitter response; real engagement is having products that your customers will champion and cherish. As communicators our greatest innovation is storytelling- handled creatively, this is an effective tool for inspiring your customers.

A: Now we are talking about another revolution: ‘Industry 4.0’ which will change the way people work, live…How do you industries will cope with this?
M: What we need to bear in mind is that phrases like ‘internet of things’ and ‘industry 4.0’ are rarefied buzzwords- for most people they mean next to nothing. Whatever great and wonderful innovations come our way in data and automation we must never forget the human factor. For all the exciting opportunities that will be opened up, there will always be a significant mass of people who are left behind. As communicators our challenge is to break corporate silos and speak to audiences who aren’t part of the initiated.

A: As a comms professional I also believe it is crucial to follow up the consumer trends. Can you identify some of the main trends that would be rising in the year of 2017? What would they be expecting from the brands?
M: 2017 will be the year that consumers finally start spending real money on virtual reality. VR has been a hot trend for many years, but until consumers start really engaging with it the actual use of the tech will be, appropriately enough, virtual. VR for PR no longer has the exotic ring to it that it once did and by the end of the year we will be able to separate the fad from the reality.
We are also going to see greater pressure being put on social media companies to take more editorial ownership of their content. With the acceleration of fake stories circulating around Facebook and Google there is the expectation that these companies will take a greater responsibility in policing against misinformation and deception.

A: What does future PR agencies look like in your mind? What kind of specialties will they need to carry?
M: We don’t spend enough time trying to understand how we’ve arrived at where we are now, let alone possess the cognitive equipment to gaze into the future. What I can say is that there is a real risk that PR becomes more marginalised and narrow in its reach. We are increasingly seeing the lines blur between the PR function and digital marketing and content creation.
Often this morphs into companies talking about themselves to themselves and their peers, but barely breaking out into larger audiences. I have described this obsession with digital content as being like branding raindrops in a storm. A ‘future-proof’ PR needs to be connecting with at least 5 different generations simultaneously. We need people who are adept at digital content and viral seeding. But we also still need more public points of contact – and there is still no better vehicle for this than the traditional media.

A: I know your son’s just started a Journalism course at Cardiff University; would you recommend him to follow in your footsteps?
M: I don’t think, I think he will, I think both my kids will do their own thing in their own way. It’s for them to discover what they want to do. I’d be very interested to see where they both go in the next five years; hopefully I’ll be around to see it.

A: Would you recommend a career as a publicist?
M: Well, listen, this is, everybody will need to communicate their ideas, their product, their thoughts, whatever, their bright ideas, their hope, the peace, love and understanding of the future, and whoever’s, whoever has been a leader, great leader, has always had a great publicist and, you know a right hand person, a conciliator, I think that there’ll always be a place for someone who can read the crowd, understand the crowd, understand the tools that reach that crowd, and understand how to shape those messages with the technology of the day.
And hopefully it won’t be small ideas.

A: Well thank you.
M: Welcome Andy.