Wednesday, 7 September 2011

F is for Facts

Quite simply they maketh the story. Sometimes an idea will arise that feels great and makes sense and is all lyrical and topical. You go with it, write it up, work in the key messages, create great quotes, get it signed off, pitch it and the outcome is a great big zero. An essential question before you go anywhere near the phone, an email or a meeting: what are the facts? If there aren't any it's not going to work. News is about facts, occurrences, events - not about abstract ideas.

If the story feels right, there will be a fact to be found. Maybe it will take a day or two and an omnibus poll to validate the idea, but it's worth the wait.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks' resignation: timing is everything

Why are so many people are puzzled at the length of time it has taken Rebekah Brooks to resign? The delay between major organizational crisis and senior executive resignation is most frequently part of the crisis management process. The more that public and media fury can be concentrated on an individual, the more it moves away from the organization itself. Once the individual has soaked up the wrath, he or she is shunted off, leaving a rather less personal and therefore less engaging focus for public outrage in its wake. Tony Hayward soaked up a large part of the criticism for the gulf oil spill and by the time he was dispatched BP had already taken decisive concrete steps to get the recovery programme underway. Similarly, NI is now couching its communications in the past tense. “We have already done x, y and z” is now part of the narrative. I’m not saying that the worst is over – who knows? – but the timing, in my view, is all part of the reputational fightback.

Thursday, 23 June 2011


It’s always so easy to critique the handling of announcements when you’re not in the midst of the maelstrom of preparation, but (without naming names) there have been a couple of real clangers this week. These bring to mind a couple of rules:

If your brand is under pressure and your performance is poor, it is loose talk to say that you are “flattered” at the idea that a competitor might be considering acquiring you. It is, in the same breath, both an acceptance that you are the weaker party and a betrayal of your lack of faith in your own brand.

If you are a worldwide superstar announcing an initiative that has been teased in the most spectacular fashion you need to be damn sure that the thing that you are announcing is genuinely newsworthy and groundbreaking. It doesn’t matter how big you are – if the initiative doesn’t warrant much attention you’ll get a critical pummeling.

If you’re a CEO or President of an organization and you have a Twitter account, be very careful what you tweet, especially in response to a tweeted complaint. Even if you feel you’re mildly in the right, take pains to diffuse the situation and be personal and reflective in your responses. Reflect back (assuming questions of legal liability don’t apply) the way that the complainant feels so that he/she gets a sense that you are really listening. If you find yourself in trouble, with the complainant’s fellow twitterers on the case and spreading the word, take the time to deal with the issue, quickly, professionally and politely. The consequences, otherwise, could be huge.

If your CFO is leaving the business, announce it immediately. If you are a PLC, you have a disclosure obligation. If you think that by hanging on for a bit and slipping it out as part of your results announcement you’re going to get a better press, you’re mistaken, especially if the CFO is setting sail for a relatively unknown business and your numbers are under pressure. You might think that he’ll in part take the heat for poor performance, if that’s a current issue, but it doesn’t work that way.

Right, that’s that off my chest.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

E is for entertain

It's easy to forget that one of the fastest routes to media coverage - and as importantly, creating a conversation about your story - is injecting a bit of humour into whatever it is you're writing about. Now clearly if you're in crisis management mode you don't want to be joking, but if you're in the throes of promoting something and it seems a bit dry, a bit of humour can really help.

One of my daily disciplines is to look at what the subs at the Sun make of the news of the day. Their ability to find a pun or a neologism that gets to the heart of the subject, often with a bit of humour, is unrivalled.

Write your release, or your email, or your blog post or your tweet and before you send it pause and ask yourself, what would the Sun do?

D is for delete

When I did B, I should have said that it stood for brevity, but I didn't, so rather than go on and on and on and on [That's enough ons - Ed] about it, I'll talk about delete.

I have seen stacks of press releases, briefing notes, case studies, blah, blah, that are much too long. If you're writing a press release and it goes on for more than a page and a half in 1.5 spacing, then you're saying too much.


Once you've finished a draft, do something else to take your mind off it so that you partially forget - and then flip back to your draft quickly. If, as you read it, it feels baggy, or if, more importantly, you don't get the gist of the story in the first two or three sentences, hover your hand over the delete key and don't hesitate to press.

If there's a superfluous quote, kill it. If there's a piece of jargon that you know that the recipient(s) will hate, get rid of it. Moreover, if it's all rubbish, delete the lot and start again.

There are a couple of books that I recommend: Strunk and White: "The Elements of Style" and William Zinsser: "On Writing Well". They're short, profound and proof that "less is more." Buy them.

C is for "CC"

Oh, it's so tempting. You're in a rush and you need to get your story out to as many correspondents, newsdesks, bloggers, wires as possible. So why not just CC them all? Or better still BCC them all? Try tapping CC on your keyboard now. Then try tapping your backspace button or delete button twice. Notice the similarity in the noise? I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that Einstein or some other brainiac came up with a theory that said that every action had an equal and opposite or some such thing. The point I'm making, if it isn't achingly clear, is that correspondents like to be treated as individuals and if they aren't.....well.

When I started out in PR it was the days before email. PRs these days will not recognise the sensation of thin paper cuts and envelope glue on tongues. Nor will they recognise the hand ache that went with individualised, legible, handwritten notes. It was an occupational hazard. Or more accurately, an occupational opportunity. Back then, everything was personalised - and if you want something to work today it should still be personalised. You want a correspondent to respect you? Treat them with respect. Get to know what they want, get to know what they're like, amuse them, entertain them and never treat them like a commodity. "CC" is a no-no.

B is for brand mentions

A little obvious, this one, but over-use of brand mentions in press releases, tweets, interviews, etc, is never a good thing. Far better to make your brand the essence of the story. A few thoughts on this:

The survey industry that has grown up over the last decade (spurious stories based on research) is a direct result of a frantic chase to get a brand mention in papers on on the TV. The trouble is (a) that this is really an irrelevance for big brands (which don't need the mentions as much) and (b) the tortuous lengths that some agencies go to to get a brand mention take the storytelling miles away for anything approaching strategic relevance for the client.

For example, I saw a story a few years ago along the lines of "76% of us see Terry Wogan as the nation's favourite uncle says XYZ building society". How this advances the cause of XYZ building society defies belief, unless it catalyses an agency review.

Another big mistake with brand mentions comes when an inexperienced interviewee goes on the radio or TV to plug something. One contextual mention is OK, or maybe two, but I have heard people use their brand as a verb, rattling it off three times in a sentence. This is a bad thing. The viewer / listener hates it, the interviewer gets frustrated and the interviewee enters the "never again" database of the broadcaster.

No, the best approach with brand mentions is to construct a strong story which has your brand at the heart of it. By doing so, you make it impossible for journalists to avoid referencing your brand and you create a real sense of depth and relevance to the storytelling. It isn't that hard to do - it just takes a bit of imagination.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


I've been watching the coverage of World Book Night. As I was watching it, I was thinking about (and using) Twitter - mostly to pick on Sue Perkins' rather annoying take on contemporary literature.

Twitter condenses thought. What we tend to do with Twitter is look at it with a sense of its immediacy - not thinking about how the accumulation of words might feel over time.

No pretence here (honest), but I cut and pasted a bunch of my tweets over the last six or so months and made this. If nothing else, it's a nice diary, but it did make me think that Twitter in the hands of good writers might actually create a very rich and worthwhile pool of literature over time. A new literary medium that we'll read and absorb in a very different way........

It rained little green apples last night

They sound like paint names. Telegraph birth column: Ezra, a brother for Dolly, Albertine, and Lilac

The pigeons are doing their fat hang glider thing

Glorious morning. The sky looks enameled

Tennyson's last words were: "I have opened it."

The cat is watching telly, aka, staring in through the kitchen door

Now the cat is demanding pellets cooked four ways

The night has a melancholy the cat is anxious to embrace

Fionn Regan and Beirut on Friday night in a drizzly Welsh field

Memo to cat: You will get a jelly toupee each time until you learn to let me put it in the bowl first

Never trust a landlady with coffee icing eye shadow

What this cottage lacks is a few decent naff ornaments

14:11:02 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with guest books that are palimpsests

14:11:54 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with sofas that put you permanently in brace position

14:12:42 Holiday tip - avoid cottages with owner s who repeatedly say "I can only apologise"

Who let Autumn in?

A golden blue sky, which makes no sense, but it is

Cat has arrived. With attachments.

Grumpy old men. Followed by, er, Newsnight.

Am I alone in zoning out after the first sentence of Thought for the Day?

Across the land kids are getting an early night ahead of the morning march of misery.

Guy in full spiderman regalia in the dentist. I hope he isn't staff.

Right, $6 million tooth ordered.

Ice cream van in the driving rain. The pathos.

Potatoes. Recommended by 89% of Glamour readers.

And now I have bathroom puddle sock

The breeze feels like warm milk

Top top: interior designers - create the post-apocalypse look by letting your 18 yo daughter have"a gathering for a few friends"

Aftermath: "Which one was Demi?" "Oh, she's the one whose hair's in the garden."

Byzantine sky is back

Second spring? Fifth season? Some plants in the garden seem to be finding their second wind.

Today has been sponsored by Velcro and treacle

These SEO types - they buy followers from somewhere, right?

Hi @TopSeoPosition , what are your hobbies and interests?

Spiders have their nets out, fishing for stupid late season flies

Several fences away, Bobby, the world's most told off dog

There's a new Poundworld on the High Street. Loads of people in Sherpa mode.

Passing the new Hairdresser, Hair on the Heath. Sounds a bit forensic.

I've been out. How did Nick Clegg do?

Grilagem is Portuguese for "Putting a live cricket into a box of faked documents until the excrement makes them look convincingly old."

Inbound cat bird back door conundrum

Existential celebration. Facebook places can't locate me.

Dentist seems to have picked me out something from the sabre tooth range

In the shop of a zillion words.

I love the random names of wifi networks on the train as it slips by houses. Sumatran ladies bingo. Fussy shoes. Ping and Pong.

Vince, who has a face better suited to avuncular critique, finds himself in Reality Ave

On the tele: the slightly black and white sometimeago effect

There is now a book called 4 ingredients recipes. Some of the recipes have two ingredients.

I'm going to do a 1 ingredient recipe cookbook

Autumn Sunday plus point: "aagh, it's already 4.15" is replaced by "ah, it's only 4.15"

Achieve a trendy sedum effect by neglecting your roof for years

It's the season for those mini sci-fi bugs - all wings and legs and no coordination

Out in the Atlantic, the giant is playing with his spirograph set

Unsettling image earlier today. Fleeting glimpse of a guide dog in full regalia wandering without


Dew shoe

Must be time for Avoid the Question Time

21:35:44 In Chile, synchronised praying/preying

08:59:01 What do you call it when you give birth to 33 people?

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Big Gamble

Here’s why the Big Society won’t work:

(1) It’s too conceptual. Nobody understands what it means, not least its champion-in-chief who is having a very difficult time taking it from concept to specifics. At face value, he appears to be willfully confusing the public sector and the public – or maybe he’s not. That he seems to be is bad enough.

(2) In the public’s mind it is already sitting on the same shelf as “back to basics” and the “cones hotline” to name a few. Once you’re on that shelf, you’re not coming off.

(3) It’s a terrible name. It sounds a bit like a political funfair ride, which patronises many and perplexes just as many. You can’t trivialize community spirit in a time of austerity, nor can you dress it up. It comes from the same stable as Royal It’s A Knockout - and reeks in this case of an attempt to couch a piece of pernicious policy-dressing in a language that an elite believe will be appreciated by the hoi polloi. It doesn’t help matters that an upper middle class pronunciation of the word “society” rather sets the dividing lines between the haves and the have nots.

(4) It comes from the wrong quarter. Wealthy people who have never known debt have no credible locus in these matters. Asking people to invest their time to look after their communities is no bad thing. With everything else that voters have on their minds these days, though, it risks sounding a lot like “Operation Sort It Out You Lot” rather than “Operation We’re All In This Together”.

The PM is a former director of communications. He is supposed to have a decent appreciation of the way that announcements and initiatives will be received. On this occasion he appears to have a cloth ear, or to have been poorly advised, or both.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Journalists who "get" Twitter

Here's a list of several journalists who do an outstanding job at conversing on Twitter. There are plenty who see it as a broadcast channel, but these are the people who really understand how it works and how it creates a useful connection with the audience.

Harry Wallop - Telegraph - @hwallop

Caitlin Moran - Times - @caitlinmoran
Dr Ben Goldacre - Guardian/Blogger - @bengoldacre
Emma Barnett - Telegraph - @EmmaBarnett
Sophy Ridge - Sky News - @sophyridge
Hilary Osborne - Guardian - @hilaryosborne
Jack Schofield - Freelance - @jackschofield
Johann Hari - Indy - @johannhari101
Rory Cellan Jones - BBC - @ruskin147
Sally Whittle - Freelance - @swhittle
India Knight - Sunday Times - @indiaknight
Tim Weber - BBC - @tim_weber

Robert Peston on blogging

Friday, 24 December 2010

Twitter – my electronic Dog and Duck

It is hard to think of a more enlivening part of my year than the Twitter community.

Twitter has become my newswire, my multi-headed devil’s advocate, a field of diamonds for the magpie in me, a source of support, humour, virtual friendship, an electronic Dog and Duck.

Over the year, I’ve been struck by the genius, the humour, the generosity, the temper and the humanity of many more than 140 characters. Some I chat to regularly, some I happen on occasionally, some reciprocally follow me, some I just read and admire. Here are just a few of the people that made my Twitter year (doubtless I’ll add to this over the day).

@ruskin147 The BBC’s tech correspondent and all-round good egg, Rory Cellan-Jones, whose on-going social media story arc takes in a compelling combination of the professional and the personal. Rory and his long-suffering dog Cabbage have the venetian blinds set to illuminate just enough of the life of a 21st century journalist.

@hwallop Harry Wallop, the Telegraph’s Consumer Affairs Editor. A man whose impeccable manners are manifest, and yet he manages to lace his musings with well-placed astringency. Harry understands modern journalism better than most – and is living proof that reciprocity yields more than curmudgeonliness.

@daintyballerina Polymath historian, wit and much, much more. A poet’s eye. Her heart belongs to Mr Lavazza.

@dom_asdapr Dom is living proof that the personal and the professional can be intertwined on Twitter. He works for one of the World’s biggest retailers and yet he manages to tweet both professionally and privately with grace, courtesy, humour and honesty. A role model for businesses that want to work out how to use social media.

@katiefforde Kind hearted witty writer. Katie judged our “Love Amongst the Concrete Cows” romantic short story competition.

@judyastley Judy is ace for all sorts of reasons. Talented, funny, kind and liver of the most interesting life. My number one Scrabble opponent.

@trishaashley Kind-hearted, generous, best-selling author who lives with her mysterious muse in North Wales. Trisha is probably the most community-spirited Twitterer I have come across and does a good line in wry asides.

@clarehr A brilliant eye for the absurd, Clare is very, very funny.

@iamjamesward James is difficult to describe. He’s the sort of person who gets an idea in his head and sees it through to the glorious end. The London Twirls Project and Boring 2010 are just two of James’s creations. If James had lived in mediaeval times he would accelerated the invention of something groundbreaking or he would have been stoned to death.

@rhodri Rhodri is a description-defying polymath. A man cursed or blessed with so many strings to his bow that he can be tugged productively in pretty much any direction. If you want to get to the heart of what’s being said, thought, laughed about, fretted about at any time, Rhodri’s your man. Rhodri is as good at creating stuff as he is at collecting stuff. I’ve never seen Rhodri’s desk, but I can see it.

@buzzin_fly Ben Watt I have never met. His music has been part of the sound track to my life since the early Eighties. He’s a wry tweeter, a twitcher and has been very generous with his time for me this year, contributing an interview to our website. It has been great to get to know him a bit from afar.

@penelopeoverton Well, in my opinion, a damn fine writer and overdue for making her mark on the literary firmament. Only a matter of time.

@sarahsalway A writer and writer’s friend. Generous, good-natured, funny, industrious and appears to have tapped in to some sort of endless energy source.

@katevwilliams Kate is a great writer, too, and a campaigner, and very funny and I like her politics.

@themanwhofell Greg Stekelman defies description. He’s a brilliantly talented artist, writer, critic, poet and he’s been something of a Twitter phenomenon this year. Much of his Twitter output is NSFW, but he has very keen eye and an ability to find the poetry in the mundane and in Masterchef. Try and friend him on Facebook and you’ll see what a great artist he is.

@belgianwaffling I really don’t know much about Belgian, but her tweets at the intersection of humour and pathos are invariably works of art. She writes a very moving blog.

@indiaknight I’m an India watcher. I met her briefly (as you do) at 10 Downing Street last year. Caught up in the exuberance of the occasion, I made, shall we say, a rather paltry impression. She is, though, a Twitter colossus (in the nicest possible way) and is a benchmark (for want of a more poetic term) for how people with strong opinions and influence should navigate social media. The key, I think (and the bit she does well, where so many don’t), is that she sees it as a conversational medium rather than a broadcast medium.

@sarahbrownuk Sarah has had more than most people’s share of change this year. She remains one of the most committed and generous people I have come across, championing on her own or alongside her husband a whole range of incredibly worthwhile causes.

@oldmotherriley Wins the award for the best foursquare updates of the year (“has checked in at the pile of trees” was one, I think). She runs a great antique musical instrument business. I almost bought a ukulele from her (which a colleague strummed at me over the phone) and I have no doubt I’ll flash the plastic at some point soon.

@lucyinglis Georgian historian. Very funny. Long-suffering (at the hands of tourists, City spivs, etc) urban Londoner (I think).

There are many more. This is a work in progress. Happy Christmas everyone.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A is for....

Here's the first in a rambling A to Z of my craft. I'll wander off topic regularly, but hopefully there'll be something in here of use to PR and communications practitioners. Feedback and disagreement welcomed.....

A is for "Assertions"

If you’re making an announcement with an assertion, make sure that you’re using data to support claims that are both credible and well-sourced. This might include finding, checking and referencing external sources – recent supportive announcements that contain verified facts or official government statistics, for example.

As a rule of thumb, nothing short of 1,000 responses is adequate for a national story. One thousand responses nationally really isn’t enough to break down into regional numbers.

A recent international story (pan-European) based on a sample of 500 made the PRs laughing stocks when they attempted to use small national figures (12 or so) to assert a national trend.

Resist at all times the temptation to make sweeping generalizations on the basis of very small samples. Journalists consider it a badge of honour to check sources and the veracity of data.

The only exception to this rule can be cases where the story is light-hearted, harmless whimsy in which case declared smaller sample sizes or straw polls can be acceptable.

Never lie. Accentuate the positive, of course, but don’t deliberately obscure the negative.

Balance wins credibility. There may be times due to rules and regulations that you are unable to answer a question and that is fine, but don’t ever attempt to promote anything other than the truth.

A quote from an executive can, of course, introduce a degree of hype. The role of the spokesperson is to excite people about the ramifications of an announcement.

Claiming that an announcement represents a “turning point” or something similar is absolutely fine on the assumption that announcement does genuinely reflect a significant change. If not, avoid such claims.

On the other hand, when the first draft is on paper, look at it again and ask whether the dial could be turned up a little. News works best when the contrast knob is turned to maximum and when the most interesting aspects are brought to the fore. Of fundamental importance are two questions: What’s genuinely interesting about the announcement and what does it mean for people like you and me. Make sure you answer that. Revelance is the foundation of any assertion.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Oil be seeing you….

There’s an American TV programme called Fringe in which the action flips between two parallel universes. Both are broadly the same, but there are visible differences. Let’s step into the parallel universe for a few minutes….

There’s a global oil company called Big Oil. Let’s call them BO.

BO has a major crisis on its hands. A deep water well has sprung a leak and oil is gushing into the sea off one of the world’s richest nations and beaches are blackened.

An ocean of vitriol is poured on the business, its share price plummets, the oil continues to gush and there is seemingly no answer.

Mr Machiavelli from communications has a plan…

The CEO of BO is hauled before a congressional committee and is asked to account for his actions. He performs dismally, failing to answer questions and attracts almost universal media and political criticism.

The CEO visits the blackened shores and complains about the impact of the crisis on his personal life.

The CEO takes time out from the crisis to sail in the relatively clean sea around his home nation. Cue more vitriol.

Suddenly the public and politicians are more interested in the CEO than they are in the business.

In tandem, furious efforts are made to repair the leak. Eventually there is a seemingly successful outcome.

The company makes provision for reparations and issues a trading statement declaring the impact on profits.

A day before the announcement, news is leaked that the CEO is leaving the business. No clarification is issued, leaving the media a full day to write history / blame pieces and declare that the CEO has finally succumbed to pressure and will be leaving the business.

The news is confirmed the following day and there is a fuss about the CEO’s severance package. Company spokespeople point to his long-term history with the company and the fact that his pension pot has been accumulated over decades of exemplary senior service.

Returning to Mr Machiavelli, it is worth pointing out that the CEO’s departure, his missteps and PR gaffes were all carefully choreographed on about day 3 of the crisis with the CEO’s full consent. The plan was to personalise the crisis, shift blame from company to individual then sever the link and move on.

Now, back to the real world.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

In conversation with Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell, former director of communications and strategy to Tony Blair and now a writer, broadcaster and strategist, took time out from launching the first volume of his diaries to talk to me recently at his North London home.

He shared his thoughts on a range of issues – amongst them the changing media landscape, the role of social media in the recent election campaign, Twitter's ability to neutralise the impact of political advertising, the rise of the citizen journalist and his own social media habits as a creator and consumer of content.

In the introduction to the first volume of his diaries he writes:

“This volume…focuses a good deal on my and our dealings with the press and the broadcasters at a time when the media age was becoming a reality….My obsession was ensuring that the British people heard from us on our terms, and not on the terms of a media that was changing more quickly than any of us fully realised…”

The pace of change in the media, if anything, has accelerated since the period covered by the diaries (1994-1997) and it is interesting to get a sense of how one of the most accomplished communications strategists of our times views these changes and is adapting his own approach to reach and engage with a constantly connected audience.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Sometimes you get it right by apparently getting it wrong

When, a few years ago, I was director of media relations at the parent company of Dixons, I wrote a two-page press release announcing that we were going to stop selling video recorders.

I remember issuing the press release under embargo on the Friday afternoon and having that feeling that the tide might be with this announcement. About ten minutes later I had my first call from the press association and in the course of the call I was handed messages to call a broadcaster urgently as well as a national newspaper.

Fast forward to the Monday and the first call that I received when I got to my desk at around 6.30am was from the buyer responsible for video recorders. It was pretty obvious that he was concerned, responsible as he was for shifting the 200,000 video recorders that he had in stock. It was a pretty challenging conversation and I think to begin with that he was probably alternating between the two colours of the Dixons logo.

The announcement had of course been carefully orchestrated. The business had taken the decision to remove video recorders from the range and the senior marketeers and the MD of Dixons had sanctioned the announcement.

So, why take such a seemingly reckless decision, given that there was something like £2 million worth of stock in the business and we were effectively consigning video recorders to the dustbin of history? It was what happened next that bore out our hunch and made sense of the decision. The story was a worldwide hit, making front pages, leader columns, all UK and many international broadcast outlets. It was the one and only time in my career that I have done an interview for Khazakhstan Radio. The story reached a global audience of 3.25 billion and the media value was estimated at £2.45 million.

So much for the exposure – what was the impact on the brand?

The underlying purpose of the story was not to talk about video recorders but to signal the importance of a new technology, the DVD player. It was also to position Dixons as a business less associated with the old and more associated with the new. In the wake of the story, two significant things happened. DVD player sales boomed and video recorders sold out. The “get them while they last” message on the latter smoked out customers concerned that they wouldn’t have equipment to play their videos on when their existing equipment wore out. The story turned out to be a major commercial success and was the precedent for a series of announcements that for their time changed perceptions of the brand.

Today, as an advisor to many national retail brands, the central logic of this story is something I return to frequently. Not so much the demise of a product, but the idea of doing something apparently counter-intuitive. Last year, for instance, we proposed to John Lewis that they work with their 28,000 partners to rewrite the wartime classic “Make Do and Mend”. A booklet was published and we created a Twitter account, feeding top tips about how to make the most of what you have and how to economise. The booklet was a huge success, selling out three times over, raising money for charity and generating huge amounts of online, pres and broadcast coverage.

To most retailers, the idea of offering advice to customers that might cause them to think twice about a purchase – especially in the teeth of recession - might sound like anathema, but the tactic paid off. The book and the advice was consistent with the John Lewis ethos of exceptional service. In the months that followed, the department store chain was rewarded with all-time record sales, an incredible achievement in one of the most savage recessions for decades.

The common denominator in these two anecdotes is that they’re about the authentic and honest voice of business. On many occasions, both in-house and as an advisor to businesses, I have seen executives back away from an announcement because they are worried about the outcome. Sometimes these worries are legitimate, but there are many times when an announcement ought to be made, even if the precise outcome is a little unpredictable. Businesses owe it to themselves to think the apparently unthinkable from time to time and at least pressure-test ingrained assumptions. Acting on an educated hunch or counter-intuition can create real opportunities for a business that simply don’t exist if you take the well-worn path of least resistance.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Is your mum one in a million?

I had the great fortune to be the guest of Sarah Brown at Downing Street on Friday night for a Christmas party in aid of the Million Mums campaign by the White Ribbon Alliance of which she is the Global Patron.

Among the attendees were patrons of various other charities, campaigners, political bloggers, people connected with Million Mums, celebrities and a clutch of obsessive twitterers (my category).

Every minute of every day, a woman dies of pregnancy related complications, which makes more than half a million women each year.

The White Ribbon Alliance is an international coalition bound together by a common goal: to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are safe for all women and newborns in every country around the world.

How many times have we written cards to our mothers with the inscription “you’re one in a million, mum.” Consider that, and then reflect for a moment on the loss, every minute of every day, of a mother somewhere in the world.

The idea that so many women die in pregnancy or childbirth TODAY defies comprehension. It is the sort of statistic that you would expect to find in a history book about mediaeval times. Million Mums and White Ribbon Alliance are working hard to assign these levels of unthinkable mortality to history.

The situation is at its worst in the developing world, which accounts for nearly all pregnancy-related deaths, and there the White Ribbon Alliance works to hold governments and institutions to account for the tragedy of maternal mortality.

The Downing Street reception was an affirmation of the vitally important work that the White Ribbon Alliance does every day to improve conditions and reduce risk.

Against such overwhelming statistics it’s easy to think that little can be done by individuals, but the reality is these days that it is the knitting together of small individual actions that makes arguably the biggest difference to movements for change. Think for example of the impact that we will all have to make on climate change by flicking switches, choosing to walk instead of drive, choosing to insulate...

Social networking is now an incredibly potent force in disseminating information about causes, issues, concerns, joys and opportunities. Think back on the year we’ve just had and think about how the sharing and shaping of news and opinion has been influenced by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. News has broken via Twitter, ahead of the largest media organisations in the world. Twitter, especially, with its “without walls” ability to converse with many, has taken issues from obscurity to prominence, sometimes in minutes, and has shone a torch on many of the darker aspects of our world that we might well have been ignorant of.

There isn’t an excuse any more for compassion fatigue or for thinking that there’s nothing we can do. Sharing information can be enough. If you’re unable to help materially but you’re able to pass a message on, then you’re capable of affecting the success of this important global campaign.

Sign up for Million Mums learn more about its work and about the actions that you can help take to make the world a safer place for mothers today and in the future.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Winners, Outstanding Small PR Consultancy of the Year Award for the 2nd year in a row

Great news. At an industry dinner on Friday night we received the Outstanding Small PR Consultancy of the Year Award for the second year in a row. It's a great honour and we've taken the opportunity to update the front page of our website with a slideshow of some of the campaigns that we're proudest of.

It has been a difficult year for British business and we're hopeful that the new year will be better for all of us. As businesses look at their objectives for the year ahead, I'm reminded of an equation that I learned from a wise former colleague: "Perception minus reality equals value." The case for investing in building the perceptions of a brand was never more succinctly expressed.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Good news for broadcasters, business and the PR industry: Government to lift ban on product placement on commercial television

Good news for independent broadcasters, businesses and the advertising and PR industries today: the government is likely to overturn the ban on product placement on television programmes, perhaps as early as this week. The Telegraph reports that the move “could lead to celebrity chefs promoting supermarket products in their cooking programmes and soft drinks manufacturers placing their beverages in television talent shows”.

The news will be welcomed by independent broadcasters who will see a rise in revenues through paid-for product placements in their programmes. It ought also to have a positive impact on the PR industry.

Whilst product placement will almost certainly not be allowed in news or current affairs programming, it is worth noting that under the current regulations editorial staff at commercial news outlets have had a tread a very careful line when covering consumer announcements from retailers, manufacturers and others. In our experience, the existing regulations have created a climate in which news editors and producers have been nervous of being accused of offering back-door product endorsements masquerading as news. This, in our view, has often led to the counter-intuitive spectre of stories of legitimate consumer interest finding a home on the BBC and not on commercial television. The decision ought to lead to a reduced level of editorial nervousness when covering announcements which are of real public interest from commercial organisations.

The expected change in the rules this week will only apply to commercial broadcasters, with the BBC still restricted from promoting products, even in programmes made by independent production companies.

Advertisers, broadcasters and the PR industry have long argued that the rules are unnecessarily draconian and that increasingly sophisticated consumers are unlikely to be swayed by brands that are placed in programmes, however overtly.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Shortlisted for Outstanding Small PR Consultancy 2009 (the second year in a row)

We're delighted to have been shortlisted for the Outstanding Small Consultancy of the Year Award again this year in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations PRIDE Awards. We won the award last year in what was our first year of trading.

The news follows a notable success for us last week with the launch of a new version of "Make Do and Mend" for John Lewis. All 28,000 John Lewis Partners collaborated on the creation of an entirely new version of the famous wartime publication, updated to reflect the needs of 21st century homes. The launch attracted extensive media coverage, including BBC Breakfast, BBC News Channel, the Today Programme, The Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express as well as massive amount of online coverage. We have thoroughly enjoyed working on the project with the John Lewis team.

Here are some other highlights from the year:

1. Creating the Reevoo Customer Choice Awards publishes authentic customer reviews on the web. We proposed a national awards concept based (uniquely) on feedback from genuine owners of products.

We led the announcement on news that a £16.49 Tesco hi-fi had won the customer choice award in the audio category, beating competition from rival products costing several hundred pounds.

This attracted widespread coverage, including page leads in most tabloids and an appearance on BBC Breakfast for Reevoo’s CEO. We followed up with sector-specific announcements and placed an exclusive in News of the World.

The results:
More than 40 million opportunities to see/hear.
Page leads in the Sun, Mirror, Daily Mail and News of the World.
Hundreds of online reports.
Manufacturer announcements generating more coverage.
The Tesco hi-fi sold out immediately, with further stocks on order.

2. Campaigning to reclaim and rename the Hot Cross Bun

For St Albans Cathedral we took on an assignment:

To raise the profile of the Cathedral among tourists
To identify a commercial opportunity for the Cathedral

We discovered that the Cathedral was the source of the modern Hot Cross Bun. The original “Alban Bun” was baked and offered to the poor by Father Thomas Rockliffe, a monk, in 1361. We advised the cathedral to run a campaign to reclaim and rename the Hot Cross Bun. We negotiated a partnership with Sainsbury's to bake the buns for the Cathedral, which would keep the proceeds.

The campaign was covered by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, BBC radio stations, ITV lunchtime news, London Tonight, in regional press and online.

The buns sold out within hours. The Cathedral saw a flood of visitors and both parties are negotiating an agreement on national sales of the bun in 2010.

3. Scoring a PR goal for Screwfix with a tongue-in-cheek lookalike competition

Screwfix sponsor the Masters Football tournament on Sky Sports. Screwfix customers are tradesmen. Our task was to engage them with the sponsorship of the tournament.

We launched a tongue-in-cheek search for tradesmen who look like famous footballers to play in a charity football match at the National Masters Final. We announced the search with photos of early entrants alongside actual footballers for comparison. We filmed the match, along with pre and post-match interviews and uploaded the video to YouTube.

Highlights included full-page coverage in the Metro and the Daily Star and a half-page in the Daily Sport, all strong tradesmen’s papers, and 15 regional radio interviews. Hits to the Screwfix website soared and the story generated a huge volume of entries.

The story generated more than £150,000 of publicity, a return on investment of around 25:1.

Outstanding achievements

There are two areas in particular in which we have exceeded expectations:

1. Attracting a disproportionately large number of national, market leading clients for an agency our size.

2. Generating high impact media coverage. Nine in ten announcements this year achieved national press coverage, up from 8 in ten last year, and 1 in 2 were page leads, up from just over 3 in ten last year. One quarter of announcement received national broadcast coverage.

All in all, it has been a great year, despite the challenging economic environment and we're more confident than ever that our approach is the right one to build on our successes to date.