Article 2014 The Year in Review

Press release of the year: The bitcoin innovation

Novelty and innovation are always surefire ways to get the attention of a journalist. One of the most exciting innovations of 2014, for journalists anyway, was bitcoin (even here on Contributoria most months we’ll get a piece submitted about crypto-currency).

When journalists are excited about something, there is a window of opportunity to grab some media attention; if you can wrap your product or service in the technological flavour of the month then you provide a hook that will get a press release from inbox to published article and you get something that will share well across social media (which is still skewed towards a love of anything “tech”). As such, 2014 was the year of the bitcoin press release: a particular story that hooked brands to the hot tech topic of crypto-currency.

The bitcoin press release is a generic story. At the heart of this is the idea of “bitcoin first” - being the first in your sector to accept bitcoin for payment.

Bitcoin first can be applied to any sector. This story is itself part of a genre of technically led story so if we can understand bitcoin first, we can understand the big, tech-led PR trend of 2015 too, before it even happens.

Firstly, the technology at the heart of the story needs to be at a particular point in its adoption: “To run a technology story, it needs to be about something new and interesting, but not so cutting edge that nobody understands the detail or relevance”, Ross Hawkes, senior lecturer in journalism at Birmingham City University told me. Bitcoin is not that new, but at the start of 2014 it was much more widely known about than it had been in previous years; it was ripe and ready to go.

So you have your technology. Where to next? Well, it does need to stand up, too. We can’t just hitch our wagon to anything that comes past and hope for the best - journalists are busy, but they’re not stupid.

The University of Cumbria made quite a splash by becoming the first (publicly funded) university to accept bitcoin as payment for fees. Professor Jem Bendell, of Cumbria’s Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS), was keen to point out to me that, while the courses did benefit from media exposure, their move to take bitcoin was a natural part of their work.

“We are a university that educates the professions”, Prof. Bendell told me. “It is natural for us to seek to participate in what we are studying and teaching on. Therefore, as we have a Masters-level course in currency innovation, and a research programme on it, it was natural to explore how to accept bitcoin ourselves.”

He also pointed out that IFLAS has coordinated a number of international research events that relate to currency innovation, including the UN’s first event on the topic. Cumbria’s bitcoin first is far from lightweight, then; there is a really strong narrative here and that completes a well-rounded story.

The RNLI made a similar splash as the first UK charity to take bitcoin for donations. The case here seems much thinner, although its press release does situate this move as part of an historical tradition for innovation; the RNLI was the first charity to run street collections, in 1891. The true foundations that allow the RNLI press release to stand comes when we learn that they have an innovation team that has been mapping trends; this project was initiated through researching technological and social developments, they say. It turns out their research was bang on the money.

“We’ve had over 250 donations in bitcoin, totalling over £2,000 so far”, Luke Williams, social media innovation officer at the RNLI said. “We had no initial expectation of the amount we’d raise, so we’re really pleased with this amount. Aside from spikes in donations when we’ve seen media coverage, we’ve had a fairly constant flow of donations, which is encouraging.”

Of course, nobody knew that this would actually work, but the pitch was good enough to sell the story to media outlets. Howard Lake, publisher of UK Fundraising was one journalist who ran the story. “Any charity using crypto-currency is interesting to us, but one of this scale makes it really interesting”, he said. “They got in touch with me. They told me how much research they had done and they said it was a test. They offered me a follow-up and if it had failed I’d have reported that. I think they did do well out of the PR for this. But has it fundraised? Yes it has. In my eyes, that legitimises it.”

Lake worked this story. He took the follow-up offer and has continued coverage of the story. He’s also confronted the elephant in the room by asking “has the announcement brought you anything more than good PR?”.

Not all journalists develop these technology-led press releases quite so far; in many cases the articles that are produced from the press releases are scantly developed and feel pretty much like they’ve been churned.

I asked Ross Hawkes why this happens. “Sometimes this might be due to newsroom constraints, but there are other explanations”, he said. “A specialist journalist who understands the education sector, for example, doesn’t necessarily know or understand fully the debates around certain technologies. So this, combined with some of the time constraints and pressures, means they could be more reliant on the information presented to them in the press release.”

This perhaps explains why Times Higher Education ran a piece that is very close to the University of Cumbria’s press release, whereas a more technology-focused publication like Tech Week Europe dug further into the story, and offered a critique of the move, almost dismissing it as a PR stunt. The writer of the latter is better briefed on crypto-currency and is also focused on the technology dimension of the story, as opposed to the sector-specific educational context.

For the PR people behind the press release, the tighter the churn the better for them as it means that they control the story.

The team from the University of Cumbria were very keen to distance their work from the charge of being a “PR stunt” when I spoke to them, but it was certainly a very well-managed activity, articulated in a way that could get attention.

“Good PR has to have substance behind it”, Prof. Bendell stressed. “So I think (our bitcoin first) was good PR because it wasn’t a stunt.”

The distinction here is one of significance; Bendell and his colleagues aren’t denying that they articulated their work in a press-friendly way - a follow-up press release hung on an event where the first bitcoin payment was made rather ceremoniously on stage, and came packaged with multimedia footage - rather they are saying that they have taken work they were doing and presented it cannily to a media machine that would take it from them (sometimes rather unthinkingly).

The media lens is on bitcoin, so attention is there for the taking. Luke Williams explained the success of the RNLI campaign to me: “We’ve had a great amount of interest with over 2,000 mentions on Twitter and a wide range of news articles, from well-known sites like the Guardian and the New York Times to specialist charity press like UK Fundraising, Civil Society, Charity Digital News and more technical press like the Drum and Coindesk, as well as great support from the Reddit bitcoin community.”

Of course, the same is true for the publications. They are hungry for stories on the hot topics of the day because these bring the most attention, the most click-throughs. Lake confirmed to me that the RNLI bitcoin story was one of the most popular on his site that month.

We don’t yet know what the hot technology of 2015 will be, but we know that media outlets will want stories about it and we know that the opportunity is there for people to grab that lens and use it for their own benefit. Believe it or not, I scored my own bitcoin first this year when I became the first satirist to accept the crypto-currency. Sadly my press release fell at the second hurdle; it didn’t stack up as anything substantial. Nor can I report a great number of payments like the RNLI can (though if truth be told to actually get paid would have spoilt the joke a little). Perhaps I’ll try a little harder in 2015, with some elaborate joke about wearables.

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