Miriam Cosic writes in The Australian about journalist Nick Davies. He says more than half the news in Britain’s top five newspapers was generated by public relations companies or taken from wire services.
Davies is in Australia to promote his book Flat Earth News.
While this is a great background piece that makes me want to rush out and buy the book – I will look for it this afternoon – it paints a depressing picture of the state of journalism.
I’ve worked in the industry for almost thirty years. I can’t help but agree with Davies’ basic premise that today’s journalists are now expected to do a once-over-lightly job and rock the boat as little as possible.
Blame the large media companies
Davis points the finger of blame at the media corporations. This analysis can’t be separated from the widely reported decline of traditional news media.
Conventional thinking says people are moving away from newspapers, magazines and broadcast news because of the Internet. I believe the audiences would be declining even without the arrival of online news because news audiences are being turned off by the news media.
One aspect of this whole issue that was overlooked in The Australian story is that public relations companies now massively outgun newspapers in terms of personnel, expertise and experience.
This is particularly noticable in New Zealand. Here the newspapers appear to be largely staffed by young reporters in their 20s and early 30s while many of the brightest and best of the older generation are now employed by PR companies.
With publicity you don’t usually pay the media to promote your message. And you have no say over timing, placement or presentation.
You can’t even be sure your message will run.
In theory, you get publicity when the story you tell is so compelling journalists and editors fall over themselves to publish it. Remember their idea of compelling isn’t the same as yours.
Editors need to give readers, viewers or listeners the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They also look for entertaining material to brighten their pages. They can be grumpy.
Editors are not your sales team
Editors don’t care whether their stories help you or your business if they are doing their job properly.
There are publications where this doesn’t apply.
A common misunderstanding about publicity is a press release is best way to get it. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are usually written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with background.
Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the place for rubbish. Press releases mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura of useful media activity.
Press releases just part of the mix
Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or something posh sounding like ‘media consul’ – will tell you press releases are only one, not particularly useful, strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.
The best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may interest their readers. Like everything else in business, this is about forming the right relationships.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to call on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that makes them more interesting to journalists or editors. They introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.
Occasionally when you have something important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it isn’t always the best way of telling a story, but it is a great way to make or maintain contact.
There are no pass and fail marks. There are ways to get the best from a test.
If a boss asks you to take a psychometric test, the chances are they want to know if you are right for a job. If you don’t match their needs, they may find a suitable opening elsewhere.
Psychometrics make the best use of employees
Some bosses use the tests like the Hogwarts sorting hat to make the best use of employees.
Supporters think the tests reveal attitudes and beliefs as well as personality. They can put empathic workers with good communications skills in front of customers. They can keep miserable bastards in the back rooms where they won’t upset anyone.
This is controversial. Not everyone agrees psychometric tests have value. Reducing personalities to a handful of key terms is handy. But it oversimplifies. It can lead to wrong assumptions about how people react to various circumstances.
Also, people change. If you take the same test on two different days you may get different results.
While it is possible to game a psychometric test: to show the personality needed for a plum job, cheating is hard and pointless.
Well-designed psychometric tests have subtle cross-references to tease out inconsistencies and spot cheats. Testers know when replies are not genuine.
Showing up as flaky and dishonest is not good (unless perhaps you are seeking a career where these traits are an asset). Alternatively, you may just end up looking like you’re confused or crazy.
This aside, cheating a psychometric test is pointless because the purpose is to decide whether you are a good fit for a particular job.
Why would you want to trick your way into a role which, by definition, you are unsuitable? Not only will you make yourself unhappy, but you’ll almost certainly doom yourself to failure.
So, what can you do to get the best from a test?
Ten tips for getting a good psychometric test result:
Have a good sleep before your test. You’ll think clearer.
Relax. Calm those nerves. This isn’t going to hurt. You’ll give a more accurate picture of your personality if you’re in relaxed frame of mind.
Read the instructions carefully. Read the questions carefully. Reread anything that’s unclear. If the tester says anything you don’t understand before the test starts ask for clarification.
Make sure you are comfortable.
Don’t hurry. Psychometric tests are rarely timed, so work through the questions carefully and consider each answer before ticking the box or clicking the mouse.
The testers want to know what you are like as an employee, so answer the questions based on what you are like at work and not at home or in private.
Answer the questions based on how you feel now and not in the past or in the future. The company wants to use your current personality.
Don’t read too much into each question. Individual questions don’t have hidden underlying meanings, the subtlety lies in how the questions mesh together.
Avoid making too many extreme answers. If you have to mark things on a scale of one to five make sure there are more twos, threes and fours than ones or fives.
After the test is over ask the tester to discuss the results with you. While you may not get the job in question, the test may offer insights in to more suitable career options.
That hasn’t stopped it being popular with human resource managers and recruiters. They see it as a quick, efficient way of sorting people.
From their point of view CVs, interviews and references only show a person’s skills and experience. Uncovering their personality – in particular their ability to mesh with a corporate culture – is harder.
That’s the sales pitch. In reality stressed recruiters use a barrage of tests, including psychometrics, to speed hiring.
Some tests are automated. Candidates sit computerised psychometric tests – perhaps in a recruitment company’s offices. In other cases professionals supervise paper-based tests.
Psychometric testing a waste of time?
Without a qualified, experienced professional to interpret results, psychometric tests are a waste of time.
The results are complex to interpret and sensible analysis is beyond a layperson. It might be fine to hire a cleaner on the basis of an automated test, sane people wouldn’t hire knowledge workers that way.
I met psychometric testing a decade ago.
After a series of intense interviews for a senior position, I was asked to take a series of tests. The session lasted four hours, almost without a break. I warmed up with what looked like IQ tests and moved on to logical reasoning exercises.
A long and vaguely baffling exercise followed where I had to choose from seemingly random pairs of job titles in order of preference. For example, the test might pair ‘janitor’ and ‘rocket scientist’.
Picking one of those isn’t hard. In fact, the test was obviously designed for an American audience and included some job descriptions that, while not incomprehensible, certainly were not familiar.
Finally the real psychometric tests – I suspect the job-ranking test might be a form of psychometric exercise too. Answering the questions isn’t difficult; indeed, the tester asked me not to think too hard but to go with my first response to any question.
By the end of the four-hour test session I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted, thirsty and hungry. After a 30-minute lunch break I returned for a task-specific question and answer session.
A few days later an industrial psychiatrist called me to discuss the tests. He discussed my longer-term career prospects and plans and made suggestions that I hadn’t otherwise considered.
I worried the tests might show him that I was an employment basket case – or worse. In fact the news was largely positive and insightful. It turns out I’m far better at certain things that I previously thought. As it happens I got the job, but that’s another story.
Going purely on my experience, I can see some merit in the ideas behind this kind of testing. Personality is the most important factor when hiring an executive, more important than skills and experience and as important as aptitude. It makes sense to establish objective benchmarks that go beyond the kind of human prejudices we can all be, even unwittingly, guilty of.
I have two concerns. First, despite what the professionals say, it is possible for people to learn how to answer psychometric tests in a way that portrays them in a favourable light.
Many years ago I interviewed John Wareham a New Zealand-born recruitment expert who helped develop these tests, he said the trick people quickly learn is to avoid the extremes.
Most tests ask you to rate things on a scale of 1 to 5 – if you want to get a good job make sure the bulk of your answers cluster around the centre of this range. On the other hand minor alarm bells ring if you fail to tick any extreme answers.
Wareham also said the tests quickly detect any dishonesty by cross-referencing, so answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.
My second fear is that managers often use it as a way of offloading decision-making responsibility. External objective measures are good, but they can’t make decisions. There’s a temptation to just look at printouts and test scores and not go beyond this to look at other, possibly more compelling, evidence.
Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.
Frear says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work.
Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.
It makes sense.
Low-value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?
To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.
The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.
Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain
Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.
It can be but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.
Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.
Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one, a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.
If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.