View from the top: Emily Bell, director of digital content, Guardian News and Media

Emily Bell has masterminded The Guardian's digital development for almost a decade. Adam Hill asks what she has learned

Emily Bell is late, apologetic and clutching a mug bearing the legend ‘More tea, vicar?’ As the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media, she says another one branded ‘The Boss’ was inappropriate for our photos. Having endured the shoot through gritted teeth Bell happily holds forth in the confines of The Guardian canteen on issues such as the blogosphere, why Second Life is ‘so over’ and how competitive a mum she is on Guitar Hero.

She also talks about The Guardian’s impressive online track record – it has 20.5 million unique monthly users and earlier this year recorded its highest ever day’s traffic with more than eight million page impressions in 24 hours.

Given all this, Bell seems particularly well-placed to answer the question of how PR professionals should go about being ‘legitimate’ on the internet. ‘You don’t go about being authentic,’ says Bell sternly. ‘You have to be authentic.’

It is not as easy as it sounds – for example, prime ministerial hopeful David Miliband does not come up to scratch online, in Bell’s view. ‘Watching politicians blog is one of those painful things. Successful bloggers are thoughtful and quite spontaneous.’

With that in mind, there are obvious pitfalls in online engagement for PR professionals. ‘People talk about targeting and harnessing, which are active, control words,’ explains Bell. ‘That is a terrible mistake if you are not familiar with those worlds. It is more about integrating.’

PROs must first be alive to the possibilities of the medium, she believes. ‘Offline organisations sometimes see digital as a threat or as an opportunity to cut costs,’ continues Bell. ‘We are not using the move to digital as a chance to cut headcount. It is more exciting if you can see it as an opportunity to completely change your profile. But you can only do that if you understand digital rather than assume it will continue as the old order has.

‘If Facebook groups are forming around products, people or campaigns, there may be something you could put in that would be useful to the audience you are addressing,’ reasons Bell. ‘PROs absolutely should be aware of how communities are behaving and what they are talking about. If you have a brand or service you have to know whether people are slagging it off. But if you want to seed online conversations you need to think about how to do it – if not you are bound to be bitten on the arse. One thing the online community can detect is inauthenticity.’

Reputation challenges are another example of where PR experts might usefully reach online communities, says Bell: ‘In crisis management mode you cannot just rebut something – you need to have a conversation.’ She cites the case of Dell Hell, the computer company’s nightmare in which influential blogger Jeff Jarvis put the boot in online. True, Jarvis was eventually invited to interview company boss Michael Dell, agrees Bell, but it did take a staggering two years for Dell to come up with this reputation-defending response. ‘It wouldn’t take two years now,’ she laughs. ‘If there is anyone out there in PR and marketing who does not think the blogosphere is important, I confidently predict that they won’t be in a job in six months. I hate to think there are PR professionals who do not take notice of what is happening online.’

The increasing involvement – and influence – of ‘ordinary’ people online is of course a concern for PROs. ‘It is going to be a lot harder work but negative feedback online is bloody impossible to stop,’ muses Bell. ‘You can change the tip of the iceberg overnight but you cannot do a one-size-fits-all rebranding once your brand is out there. There is no place to hide on the internet.’

Hillary Clinton’s damaging ‘misremem¬bering’ earlier this year is a good example. The presidential hopeful recalled facing sniper fire at the airport on a visit to Bosnia in 1996. However, a YouTube post saw her smiling and waving as she got off that plane. ‘There is the ability for people to post archive material and make mischief,’ cautions Bell. ‘It is a warning to anyone with people, products and services that are generally discussed – the internet is a checking mechanism and a right of reply.’

The phrase Bell employs to describe The Guardian’s modus operandi is ‘to be of the web, not just on the web’. But while its online success is now viewed with envy in the field, it was not always thus. Medialand eyebrows were raised eight years ago when Bell, now 42, became editor of MediaGuardian.co.uk. After an Oxford law degree, she had an early taste of reporting at PRWeek’s sister title Campaign magazine, before spending much of the 1990s writing for The Observer, rising to business editor before her plunge into cyberspace. It was a risk to move into something that was seen as – at best – an adjunct to the real business of print. It also meant the experienced Bell relearning basic journalistic skills. ‘There was a huge adjustment in my first two years of working on the web of how to edit content, and understanding how people access it,’ she admits.

Bell certainly has the respect of her peers. Tom Loosemore, formerly the BBC’s project director for web 2.0 projects, says: ‘Emily is great, very clued up about online and really understands the issues and challenges. She also knows the importance of taking people with you.’

Janine Gibson, Media Guardian editor-in-chief, describes Bell as ‘quite pure in her decision making, quite rigorous. She is not fantastically tolerant about things that are done on a whim.’ Having said that, once Bell has decided something, she is not terribly big on ‘on the other hand’-type discussions. ‘She has a columnist’s approach to things,’ laughs Gibson. ‘That trait of take your thought and run with it.’

Bell’s learning curve became markedly steeper a few years back. For the first decade of the internet’s existence newspapers just replicated their main product online. But then, from 2004 onwards, web 2.0 changed the game as sites stopped being about flat content and moved towards models where anyone could edit or add content. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and the rise of citizen journalism have all transformed Bell’s business.

To reflect this over the past few months, The Guardian’s sites have been updated in their complexity. ‘The Guardian can become an international brand, not a national one,’ insists Bell. Updating its archive with a new system based on keywords, greater use of related content and better presentation of pictures, video and audio have been the goals.

‘It sounds really wanky – I do apologise – but we are one of the few places investing money in finding the right digital expression for what we do, be it making films on news items or hack Anna Picard producing the most fantastic blogs,’ Bell goes on.

But improvements take time. ‘Progress on the web is seldom quick or cheap,’ sighs Bell. Dawn Airey, soon to be chairman and CEO of Five, has known Bell for 20 years. ‘Emily is exasperated when she wants things to move faster,’ says Airey. ‘She is several steps ahead of the opposition and some of her peers and can get frustrated if everyone is not with her.’

Ill-briefed PR people elicit a similar annoyance. ‘We talk to corporate, music, arts and media PROs all the time,’ says Bell. ‘But there is nothing worse than targeted by someone who has no idea of your output or has no context for what they are telling you.’

Sensible approaches are welcome, however. ‘I do not want to be beaten to death by my site editors when this comes out,’ she smiles. ‘Just don’t spam us – that’s very uncool.’

 

Career Highlights

  • 2006 Director of digital content, Guardian News and Media
  • 2001 Editor-in-chief, Guardian Unlimited
  • 2000 Editor, MediaGuardian.co.uk
  • 1999 Business editor, The Observer
  • 1995 Media business editor, The Observer

 

Bell on...

…why PROs get it wrong online
‘People talk about targeting and harnessing [internet audiences], which are active, control words. That is a terrible mistake if you are not familiar with those worlds. It is more about integrating.’

…Facebook
‘If I were a reporter I would use it all the time as a professional tool; it is a really good means of networking.’

…the pitfalls of online PR
‘If you have a brand or service you have to know whether people are slagging it off. If you want to seed conversations you need to think carefully about how to do it – if not you are bound to be bitten on the arse, you really are. One thing the online community can detect is inauthenticity.’

…MPs’ blogs
‘Watching politicians blog is one of those painful things. Successful bloggers are thoughtful and quite spontaneous.’

…good PR
‘We talk to corporate, music, arts and media PROs all the time. But there is nothing worse than being targeted by someone who has no idea of your output or no context for what they are telling you.’

…Second Life
‘It’s so over – nobody’s left in it.'

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in