Sandi Thom special: this week's PR Business column
Sandi Thom made it to number one in the charts last Sunday despite the shock revelation that PR had been involved in her rise to fame.
For those of you who had better things to read about, let me recap. Sandi Thom became famous in March when the papers started writing about a series on gigs she had been holding in her basement and broadcasting on the internet. At first, the story went, only hundreds watched then thousands, then a virtual Glastonbury-size crowd, all drawn to by the power of word of mouth and the web.
Except that that wasn't exactly how it happened. Alarm bells rang for some when they wondered how pulling off an online gig to thousands could be managed by an amateur. They also thought her website looked remarkably slick for a struggling, unsigned musician.
Yes, Ms Thom already had a canny publicist on board and – some claim – a secret record deal already. The handfuls of people who turned up online to watch the gigs may partly have known about it by word of mouth, but many knew because her manager had emailed a database of close to a million people about it.
In some ways this episode was as much about musical snobbery as the web and the sometimes dingy nature of music industry marketing. The web, with its openness and immediacy just means that we can all "discover" an artist at the same time. It's part of the flattening, compressing effect on culture and the media that the web can sometimes have.
Everything happens so much faster online. The iPod Nano product crisis communications reached critical mass barely three weeks after it launched last September, something that five or ten years ago would have taken many months. Now Sandi Thom can rise from obscurity to stardom and be denigrated as passé and a fake even before the old measure of an overnight success (a number one single).
There's one more thing about Basement Gig-gate that has have significance for the development of online PR: the persistent, grubby idea that you can subvert online communities, pull one over on the increasingly web-savvy public.
In some regards Sandi Thom's team have succeeded in doing in this. They created a great story which the media hungrily devoured and have a hit single on their hands – but they may have overplayed it and been exposed as having misled people. That will have caused her reputation damage.
It is some PR attitudes like this not just the tactics and techniques of PR that need to change as we move to a networked, connected media world where anyone and everyone has the power to publish, cross-examine and critique in real time.
We are moving from an age of Chatham House rules to glass house rules: from an age of privileged briefings and information to one where almost every domain is public, the layers of secrecy torn down by bloggers and the all seeing eye of Google.
I have heard some surprisingly bright people say that they advocate "seeding" discussion on message boards and speculate about how they can go further in gaming online audiences on blogs and social networks.
My response: don't do it (you fool).
Even if you're happy to live down to the popular media caricature of the lying, spinning PR person, the fact is cheat online and you're very likely to be found out. The online world is becoming evermore transparent, and the risk to reputation of exposure as a fraudulent communicator is surely too high to bear for yourself or your clients.
: : Bonus rant: the media couldn't lose on this story,but even as they give stag-gasps of amazement that Sandi Thom's rise to fame may have been planned, there were still obvious signs that they reflexively parrot PR lines. Or maybe not. I was just surprised to read in the Guardian account of the affair last week that Sandi Thom to read the obvious "key message" that she had been "compared to KT Tunstall and Janis Joplin". Google returns 13,600 "Sandi Thom Joplin" references so this message obviously travelled far and wide.
The question is: compared by who? Her publicist and her press release that's who. I can see the parallels with KT Tunstall - MoR folk-rock sung by a lady. But Joplin? That's like comparing Snow Patrol with Jimi Hendrix.
Compare and contrast for yourself, dear reader: