Earlier this the week Uber announced it would be sponsoring Thames Clippers. It's not buying them, it's not calling them U-Boats, it's not making them turn up on demand and it's not stopping anyone else from turning up and using them. It is getting naming rights and adding riverboats to the Uber app. The service's new name will be "Uber Boat by Thames Clippers", a mouthful only upright brandingfolk will employ.
That's basically all you need to know. However, a lengthy press release was despatched to coincide with the announcement and various media platforms dutifully regurgitated the contents. I haven't seen that press release, but I thought I'd have a go at piecing it together from four published articles... by the Evening Standard, City AM, Time Out and Secret London. If two of them used a particular word or phrase I've used bold text, if three used it I've underlined and if all four slotted it in somewhere I've added red.
Here's what I get if I compare the four titles.
Uberteams up withThames Clippers to launch Uber Boat in London
You'd expect Uber Boat to appear in all four headings, and it does. Clippers appears only three times but Thames scores the full four. So does launch/launches/launching, because that's the obvious term to use in a story about a new boat service, and because the press release spoonfed it perfectly.
I'll now try to reconstruct the main body of that press release. What might the first sentence have been?
Uber is to launch its firstcommuterboat service in London in partnership with Thames Clippers.
Uber and launch appear again, obviously. Three of the articles make the point that this is Uber's first such service, a statement akin to pointing out that the Dangleway was London's first cablecar. City AM initially blunders by suggesting that this is the world's first Uber Boat, whereas in fact one already exists plying the Croatian coast. The other word that crops up a lot in this opening salvo is partnership, because that's what this is (and because that's what the press release said).
The riverboats will be branded as Uber Boats by Thames Clippers and the service will launch later this summer.
Only one of the four news reports, from Time Out, correctly names the new brand as Uber Boat by Thames Clippers. The Evening Standard adds an 's' on the end of Boat, which just goes to show that cutting and pasting is harder than it looks. City AM and Secret London entirely ignore the second half of the name, which'll have the new brand's asset manager tearing their hair out. Meanwhile three of the four are careful to point out that nothing's happened yet, the official launch date is later this summer, a fact City AM carelessly overlooks.
The fleet of 20 boats will run to a timetable from 23 piers along the Thames from Putney to Woolwich.
Three of the four specifically mention a fleet of 20 boats, three emphasise the fact there's still a timetable and two run with the factual nugget of 23 piers. The two extremes of the current network (at Putney and Woolwich) have also been included to add a little weight to the final article. It's this easy to get newspapers and websites to publish your facts, not their opinions.
Passengers can buy tickets via the Uber app and board using a QR code on their phone, but will still have the option to buy tickets via existing channels or use a contactless or Oyster card.
In this sentence Uber users are made to feel special because they can faff around with a QR code to board the boat, while non-subscribers are simultaneously reassured they'll still be able to wave a card at the reader instead. It pays to cut and paste these kinds of phrases, or at least only lightly tweak them, rather than risk making a factual error.
Uber has trialled boat services before, notably an island-hopping service in Croatia in 2017 and punting trips in Cambridge last summer, but this is the first time it's offered a commuter-style service.
Time Out and the Evening Standard were both interested in lifting this part of the press release, whereas City AM and Secret London ignored it. I think the press release also contained information about Thames Clippers reducing its passenger density from 1.4 passengers per square metre to 0.85, because no hard-pressed journalist comes up with this kind of gobbet by themselves, but only one of the four articles mentioned it so I can't be sure.
Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe, said: ‘Many Londoners are looking for new ways to travel around the city, particularly when they start commuting back to work.’
Finally here's the bit where PR teams ensure that newspapers print exactly what they want without editing the words, and that's by shoehorning all the important information into a made-up quote. Three of the articles took the bait.
Thames Clippers co-founder and CEO Sean Collins added: “In our 22nd year of operation it is key that we continue to support London and its commuters with the ease of lockdown and return to work.”
They weren't quite so successful with Sean's quote, which City AM and Secret London ignored and Time Out seriously curtailed, but at least the first half made the cut.
In conclusion, a heck of a lot of what look like news stories are actually words spoonfed by the writer of a press release. All four of the news platforms I studied did a good job of reworking the information for their respective audiences, but still managed to write pretty much exactly what Uber and Thames Clippers wanted them to say. A lot of so-called news isn't news at all.