Archive for August, 2006

Aug 30 2006

Effective communication and ‘spin’ are not the same

Published by under Comms,Politics

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Now that we’re almost into September, the Conservative Party seems ready to call
time on the political Summer holiday by opening a debate on the perceived proliferation of government Press Officers under Labour.

Before I weigh in, I have to declare an interest here. Having spent eight years as a Civil Servant I still tend to get a little irritated by needless civil-service-bashing, particularly when motivated by a desire to shift blame or fill column inches.

Immediately before joining Hill & Knowlton, I spent six months as a government Press Officer. Six hectic months, at times filled with seven-day weeks and fourteen, eighteen and sometimes twenty-four hour days. Six months where I found it increasingly difficult to leave my work behind when I left the office. But, at the same time, six months which proved both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. No, Mr Heald, I don’t believe there were too many of us, although my experience is admittedly limited.

More fundamentally, though, I think it’s all too easy to confuse communication and ‘spin’. As a professional communicator it’s hardly surprising that I believe wholeheartedly in the value for any organisation of effective and frank communication with its stakeholders. But I have never thought of myself as a ‘spin doctor‘.

‘Spin’, to me, implies bias, intentional occlusion of the facts, perhaps even deceit. Communication, on the other hand, must be based on imparting facts, viewpoints and positions as clearly as possible.

Unfortunately to many observers the difference is not so clear cut but, for the sake of professionalism, it is surely incumbent upon the communications industry to make this distinction as starkly as possible.

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Aug 25 2006

Scientific breakthrough or monumental PR stunt?

Published by under Comms,Tech

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Nearly 40,000 people, of which I am one, are waiting tosee whether Irish technology research company Steorn has effectively discovered the Loch Ness Monster or merely created another Piltdown Man, whether their product is the genuine article or a South Korean clone.

Briefly, Steorn claim to have developed a technology, based on permanent magnets, which creates ‘free energy’ – shattering the First Law of Thermodynamics. It doesn’t sound possible.

The cynics’ fire is being amply stoked by Steorn’s rather peculiar method of publicising and verifying their claims – a full-page advert in the Economist a week ago, kicking off a process of verification by an as yet unnamed panel of twelve scientists.

Behind the scenes (although openly acknowledged by Steorn) you have Citigate Dewe Rogerson, who presumably must take some of the credit for the growing media interest in Steorn’s invention. And a relatively successful PR campaign it’s proving so far, too. Consistent top-ten Technorati search rankings, broadsheet coverage and just enough intrigue and mystique to keep you guessing.

In 1988, shortly before the Turin Shroud was carbon-dated to medieval times, a sceptical but curious group of us collared my school chaplain and asked him to pronounce, with the aid of divine inspiration, on the shroud’s authenticity. His response? “I hope it’s real”.

I feel rather the same about Steorn’s source of free energy. I’ve followed the progress of alternative energy technology for some time and, later this year, hope to trade in my 125cc Aprilia for a Vectrix – partly to ‘do my bit’, but partly because the technology is so exciting.

So I would be delighted if Steorn’s claims are true. But the sensible side of my brain, dredging up the long-forgotten theories of A-level Physics, is already convinced that it’s all smoke and mirrors, a PR stunt, a demonstration of the hysteria that can be whipped up by viral marketing.

We’ll find out soon enough. In five years we’ll either all be zipping around in clean, Steorn-powerd vehicles, or we won’t. In the same way as Copernicus won out over Ptolemy, that the textbooks of my parents’ generation continued to list the atom as the smallest unit of matter a full decade after Hiroshima, or indeed that up until last week our own solar system had nine planets, the first law of thermodynamics might be bunk after all.

But if, in five years time, all that’s changed is that my ancient Volvo costs £100 to fill up instead of £75, hats off to Steorn and Citigate; you had me going.

 

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Aug 23 2006

An observation on accountability

Published by under Comms

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A hypothetical situation: I, as an employee of ABC Public Relations Inc, agree a project with a client, with a set of deliverables to be produced within an agreed timeframe – in this case, two weeks.

After two weeks, 75% of the deliverables have been met. After three weeks, much prompting from the client and a string of excuses from the service provider, 95% of the deliverables have been met. A further three weeks later, with no movement on the remaining 5% of the project, the client receives an invoice for roughly double the fees initially quoted.

I honestly can’t imagine this scenario actually transpiring in the Public Relations industry – at least not if ABC Public Relations Inc wanted to survive beyond the current quarter.

So why on earth does the firm of builders I engaged last month to carry out some alterations to my house think this is an acceptable way to behave?

With apologies to Leo Bottary for blundering clumsily into his Client Service area of expertise …!

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Aug 18 2006

A blog is for life …

Published by under Comms,Digital

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Having started off my blog wondering about bird flu, I want to round off this week by talking about foot-in-mouth disease – an ailment which seems to remain endemic in the PR industry, despite the fact that we all really ought to know better.

TheRegister reported yesterday that cellphone giant Orange had suspended its Community Affairs Manager for some comments elsewhere on the web which are, depending on your point of view, at best spectacularly ill-advised, and at worst downright offensive. Perhaps not a great career move for Inigo Wilson – in fact one wonders how he’ll play this one down in future job interviews.

Wal-Mart’s Andrew Young, at 74, might find this less of an immediate worry. But after this week’s racist tirade (thanks, Wonkette, for the tip-off) I doubt he’ll be working in community relations again any time soon.

The danger, for individuals in even semi-public life, of shooting themselves in the foot in this way is nothing new. Margaret Thatcher told the Conservative Party Conference, around about the same time I was born, that “It will be years, and not in my lifetime, before a woman will lead the party or become Prime Minister”. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were first elected to Parliament in 1983 on an anti-nuclear ticket, and are now full square behind both replacing Trident and stimulating a new generation of privately-funded nuclear power stations. None of these three political careers has suffered irredeemable damage as a result of the odd policy inconsistency or off-the-cuff remark.

The difference, in the Web 2.0 era, is the immediacy and accessibility of what we write or say. A flippant interview comment or heat-of-the moment blog post can be picked up by a multitude of search engines in a matter of minutes. Emails are even worse, taking on a life of their own the moment you hit ‘send’ – we’ve all seen them.

Which is why, in my brief blogging career, I’ve taken to “sanity-checking” my ideas before posting them. The lines between provoking discussion, sparking controversy and causing offence are blurred and easily-crossed, and an out-of-context comment could potentially cost today’s bloggers dear a decade or two hence. So, to the small number of you who’ve become my voice of reason, thank you.

Back to bird ‘flu: I’m told its spread will be dictated by migratory patterns, and that as such we should all start to worry again next month. In the meantime, let’s all try to avoid foot-in-mouth disease.

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Aug 16 2006

Blogging as a PR tool? Start as you mean to go on.

Published by under Comms,Digital,Tech

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The utility and effectiveness of the CEO-Blog as a PR tool has been much debated since Seth Godin arguably kicked off the discussion almost two years ago. One of the most recent recruits to the world of the CEO-blog is Carphone Warehouse’s Charles Dunstone, in an apparent – and admirable – effort to mitigate the customer-service problems of his fixed line and broadband offshoot, Talk Talk (as distinct from the homonymous new wave synth-pop outfit).

I have to declare an interest here. As well as being a new recruit to the world of blogging (sorry, still can’t bring myself to say “blogosphere”), and having a consequent interest in the interface between blogging and stakeholder relations, I am also a TalkTalk customer. At least that’s what I aspire to be. So I was delighted to learn of the existence of Charles Dunstone’s blog.

Charles’s blog started off rather well, kicking off on 12 April and notching up a further four entries for the remainder of the month. Four entries in May – roughly one a week – but only one in June. July got better, with another four, but we’ve only heard from Charles once in August, and that was two weeks ago.

Just to be clear: On a personal level I am, thus far, reasonably happy with TalkTalk. My landline was connected on time, and I’ve managed to get through to the customer service line with none of the problems reported elsewhere. But customer service are taking a week or so to respond to emails, and my welcome pack’s gone AWOL in the mail. The real test will come next month, when my broadband is due to be connected. Equally I applaud Charles Dunstone’s brave decision to enter the fray with a very public admission that, yes, TalkTalk has had over-demand issues, and they’re working on it.

My colleague Bruno Soares pointed me in the direction of some very sage advice following my first post: post frequency isn’t everything. But isn’t it time Charles gave us another update? His is one CEO blog that I, and hundreds of thousands of others in broadband limbo, are following avidly.

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Aug 14 2006

Mountains out of molehills, and the role of think-tanks

Published by under Politics

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Our office is alive this morning with discussion of an article in the Sunday Times which, to my mind, amply illustrated quite how much attitudes towards the interrelationship between parties, politicians, think-tanks and the public and private sectors still need to evolve.

A brief rejoinder to the ST article: Think-tanks are, by and large, politically aligned bodies. We all knew that. They also thrive on corporate sponsorship – we knew that too. And their primary USP – their convening power – is hardly a surprise either. So whilst some of the braggadocio implicit in the IPPR‘s sales pitch, as retold in the article, was perhaps a little unwise, it’s hardly as if the IPPR – or any other think tank – is engaging in anything underhand.

Let’s credit our Ministers and senior officials with a little more intellect than the ST does, and give them the benefit of the doubt – attending a think tank seminar doth not a cash-for-access scandal make.

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Aug 07 2006

Reduce, reuse, recycle – yes, it’s hip to be green

Published by under Comms

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Whilst Tommy Sheridan has, no doubt, spent this past weekend celebrating, I spent much of my two days traversing my immediate neighbourhood in the interests of Freecycle.

Freecycle, if you’ve not heard of it, is one of those no-brainer community initiatives that really should have started among the hills and ‘Painted Ladies’ of San Francisco rather than its actual inception in the dusty grids of Tucson. Having moved house a fortnight ago, I’ve been Freecycling like mad to try to get rid of all the stuff we’ve realised we no longer need and don’t have the room for.

So far over the past few days I’ve Freecycled a tumble drier, a filing cabinet, three rolls of bubble-wrap, a never-used electric carving knife, some childrens’ chairs and miscellaneous dishes, pots and pans. Not a bad reduction in my own personal landfill quotient, and the new owners are delighted.

Of course my weekend’s antics are unlikely, in and of themselves, to reverse the effects of climate change. But we’ve got to start somewhere. My eight-year-old underlined that to me a couple of weeks ago, when I suggested we take the car on a one-mile errand because it was raining. The reply?

“Can’t we just walk and take an umbrella, Dad? We really should be reducing our carbon footprint, after all.”

The IPPR suggested last week that we’ve become over-exposed to ‘climate porn’ – that we’re unable to see the forest for the trees, if you’ll pardon the choice of metaphor. I think this is very astute; too often we see climate change as a political football, rather than a compelling issue in and of itself. Look at the gathering storm surrounding Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the suspect origins of last months’s YouTube spoof.

Back to the point, though. Individual actions might not, in isolation, save the world. But they don’t cost anything either. As a parent, it surely has to be my duty to teach my kids to reduce, reuse, recycle until it becomes second nature. And, as anyone who’s listened to Jack Johnson’s The Three R’s recently will know, it makes you feel pretty good too. So go on, get Freecycling.

A footnote: It’s WWDC-day today. Anyone else hanging out for this afternoon’s Stevenote? Any bets as to today’s One More Thing? Here’s hoping for something exciting.

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Aug 03 2006

Whatever happened to Bird Flu?

Published by under Media,Politics

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A friend far longer established in the blogging community than I told me last week that the first post in a blog is always the most difficult. So I shall make this brief, and resist the urge to kick off with an inevitably awkward and uninteresting “about me” post. What I will say is hi, welcome, thanks for dropping by. As this blog evolves, it will bring you my thoughts on anything from technology to politics, the PR industry to parenthood, and who knows what else along the way.

Bird Flu. Not so long ago we were all being told to prepare for an “Avian Influenza Pandemic” that had governments scurrying to stockpile arguably useless vaccines, corporates channeling huge amounts of effort and resource into their Avian Influenza Crisis Management Strategy (that’s a “bird ‘flu plan”), and individuals left wondering exactly when and to what extent we should start to panic. Lock up your children, bird ‘flu’s a-comin’!

So where is it?

Well according to birdfluupdate.org it’s alive and well in Asia, with new cases and the odd human death being reported in Indonesia and Thailand, while Big Pharma Inc presses ahead with the development of the cures and vaccines that will keep their shareholders and pension funds in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. But where’s the coverage? Where’s the panic?

The short answer, of course, is that it’s just not news any more. Israel’s adventures in Lebanon, and allegations of UK and US intransigence and complicity, dominate this week’s front pages. Before that it was the storm in John Prescott’s accountability teacup, and next week it’ll be something else.

I doubt we’ll see bird ‘flu in the headlines again until more cases are discovered in Western Europe. In the meantime, as H5N1 steadfastly refuses to cross the species barrier, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Sit back, relax, stick Sky on and watch live as Beirut crumbles, Iraq descends into civil war and the once oh-so-promising Labour government continues to slowly – and sadly – implode.

At least we haven’t all got bird ‘flu.

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