I’m often asked why I went into PR rather than pursue my primary skill of journalism. For many PRs, the reason for moving to the “dark side” is due to money. The wages are assumed to be better, although that sometimes hides the fact opportunities for journalists can thin-out once over a certain age.
Yet that wasn’t my reason. I’m that rare creature in PR (at least according to the prejudices of many journalists). I’m someone committed to advocacy. What’s more, I’m committed to the advocacy of business – primarily because I think business needs defending from the sometimes-crass economic illiteracy of some (though by no means all) journalists.
Of course, as banks and multinationals roll from one scandal to another I can find myself questioning my core assumptions. Yet every now and again I witness the sort of journalism that reasserts my absolute belief that, fundamentally, business is a good thing, and needs defending. And that too few journalists realise this.
I prime example occurred on Channel 4 News this week. Usually a programme I admire, their reporter Symeon Brown retreated into the “all profit is evil” type of claptrap that has me shouting at the screen and feeling vindicated in my career choices. Brown was interviewing the owner of a hip new restaurant in London’s Brick Lane: world epicentre of hip new eating trends, as well as some struggling with changing tastes and demographics.
The restaurant in question is the Cereal Killer Café, owned and run by the Keery twins: two likely lads brought up in the wrong part of Belfast yet risking all to bring their venture to a spot where such ventures are appreciated for their novelty. In fact, the Cereal Killer Café is one of those remarkable businesses where you immediately exclaim: “why has no one thought of this before?” It’s so simple it’s brilliant. The twins – both sporting the improbable hipster beards that are de rigueur for the area – have brought together the world’s breakfast cereals in one café: charging £2.50 to £3.20 a time.
Genius! Yet that’s not how Symeon Brown saw it. He was sceptical – quite rightly, given that he’s a journalist. Yet, as a man branding himself a senior research and investigations reporter, his scepticism seemed somewhat skewed. Not for Brown penetrating questions on the Keery brothers’ business model. Here, there are questions aplenty. Is their extended supply chain (involving perishables sourced globally and sold in small portions for minimal amounts) not too stretched given the scale of operation? Also, is it not a novelty offering – meaning that the idea’s shelf-life could be limited to as short a fashionspan of those hipster beards? And what about scaling up? This is hardly a patentable idea, meaning that rivals could quickly roll-out versions in other hipster hangouts (Brixton, Brighton, Manchester etc).
All good questions – worthy of an interview. Instead, however, we were treated to this gem from Mr Brown: “Do you think that this [the £3.20 he failed to pay for his bowl of imported novelty cereal] is affordable for the area?”
Gary – the poor twin having to tackle this jaw-droppingly daft question – responded by saying he thought it was “cheap for the area”.
Brown went on to point out that the borough they were in (Tower Hamlets – a borough that includes Canary Wharf, note) was one of the most deprived in London, and that three pounds would be unaffordable to many “local” people. Gary then tries to engage in a normal conversation with Brown regarding the area’s demographics before quickly realising he was being led into a trap and deciding to stop the interview.
Brown then looks at the camera, somewhat shyly, though it’s clear he’s pleased. After all, he’d got what he wanted – the holy grail for television interviewers: the walkout. Indeed, Channel 4 News decided to make this interview a highlight of the programme – several times previewing it in a “coming up, the amazing moment when….” kind of way. They’ve since posted it as a “must see” moment on their website and they’ve uploaded it onto youtube, showing that – as far as the editors of Channel 4 News are concerned – the boy Brown done good.
So there it is: why – in a single one-minute video – I went into PR. Entrepreneurs such as the Keery twins need defending from journalists such as Symeon Brown.
I’ve known Brick Lane for 30 years and it’s never been such a vibrant, successful, happenin’ place as it is now. It is young, new, edgy, alive. Cereal Killer Café will be employing people, buying services and paying rates: all wonderful news for a deprived area. What’s more Brick Lane is part of the tangle of streets from Spitalfields to Hoxton that have been converted from desolate wastelands 20 years ago into one of the most productive parts of the UK economy – thanks in no small part to people like the Keery twins.
Once calmed, Keery was able to gather his thoughts and write an articulate and witty response to Brown on the café’s Facebook page. I hope it works. By that, not that it will “go viral” and increase footfall at the Cereal Killer Café. I’m sure it will. But that Symeon Brown and the good people of Channel 4 News reflect on the idiocy of their approach to a small business trying to make a go-of-it without the sanctimonious infrastructure of a state-funded TV channel, the backing of a major news corporation (ITN) or the gilded self-actualised moral-certainty of being able to pursue careers distanced from the economic realities most people have to face every day.
Brown was using a camera as a weapon for a drive-by shooting of something he found offensive: people using their graft and creativity to generate profit. It was an appalling abuse of power and he deserves censure. My guess, however, is that it’ll end up in his trophy cabinet, along with some of his more laudable work on excluded minorities in inner cities.
As for the question. Gary’s answer that it was “cheap for the area” was spot on. The “reporter” paid £3.20 (in fact he walked out without paying) for one of the more obscure items on the menu. Indeed, this is very reasonable. The cheap-n-cheerful Aladin Restaurant on the same street offers starters from £3.50, so the imported bowl of specialist cereal is well-priced compared to them. Bread at the nearby Fika (a Swedish hipster hangout) costs £3.50 a portion, with starters mostly £4-5. Most foodstalls on a Sunday (when Brick Lane is a market) sell street-food for £5 a portion. And the famous Brick Lane Beigel shop (not a smart hangout by any means) sells filled bagels from £3 upwards. Meanwhile, Pret a Manger (there are at least three branches nearby) offers porridge at £2.82 a pot (if eating in). It’s their most popular item (selling 3.2 million pots a year), which fits in nicely with the café’s £2.50 standard price for most bowls.
In fact, my guess is that margins are pretty tight for the Keery twins, as they often are for start-ups. Nonetheless, they’d clearly done their homework regarding where to pitch it price-wise, which is more than can be said for Symeon Brown.