Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The "S word"

Perhaps it’s why we have one of the most adversarial fourth estates in the world: politicians of all persuasions just won’t say in crystal clear terms that they’re wrong when they’re wrong. There’s always some nuance in the language, some exit clause. It’s immensely frustrating to reporters, no doubt, and no less so to listeners and readers. A clear acceptance of error, an explanation – however codified - and a description of the route-map to fixing the problem has always been an effective way of moving on and taking the wind out of the sails of the critics.

The argument runs that you don’t want to give your opponents political capital or ammunition – but does it? Apologies are mostly bracketed with a solution – and create a context in which a listener is far more likely to take account of the context, the apologiser’s track record, etc - and form views about his or her integrity.

I remember apologising on national radio on behalf of a business I was working with, explaining the root cause, accepting responsibility and outlining what we were doing to put it right. What was set to be a five minute chargrilling turned in to a two minute confessional, concluding with the interviewer complimenting the organisation on its refreshing honesty and evident commitment to putting things right for its customers.

I spent time with a leading technology venture capitalist last week – and he was talking passionately about the attractiveness of entrepreneurs who have failed, especially those who have accepted their failures, learned from them and have moved on to try again. Even those that have failed serially, but have the capacity to accept it and the determination to try again are attractive prospects – perhaps even more so.

I regularly advise clients who find themselves attracting criticism to accept it, assuming of course that it is reasonable. It is disarming, heartening and honest. I fail to understand why politics is really that different. Why shy away from evident truths? A fa├žade of implausible invincibility serves no purpose as far as I can see – and simply serves to erode credibility.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The tectonics of news

A recent article in the New York Times, “Start Writing the Eulogies for Encyclopedias”, reminded me of the time that my dad momentarily abandoned his prescient insistence that there was no place for the encyclopaedia in the modern home because it was so prone to date. That was in the early seventies, and in caving in to our demands he allowed in to our home the 28 or so volumes of the World Book Encyclopaedia.

The encyclopaedia salesman was my 5th grade teacher, a lanky gnarled silver-topped Australian gent called Mr Deards, who routinely boasted that he was a mere 16 due to a birthday on February 29th. I expect that the small fortune that my dad paid for the books went some way to supporting Mr Deards’ imminent retirement at the ripe old age of 17.

I can still remember the detail of the books, the gold page trim, the smell of the ink, and the way that the inner pages remained chilled even on a forty degree summer’s day – the balming character of knowledge.

The books served their purpose decently, forming, shall we say, a detailed template for numerous history, science and geography essays during my remaining school years.

The reason I raise this is that I was reminded again of my dad’s foresight this week - though the catalyst this time was the unfolding and deeply depressing news of the tragic events in China.

The first word of the earthquake was from Twitter, the next from my news stalwart, the BBC. There was nothing terribly remarkable in the way in which the information was received, nor that the story evolved and grew as news filtered through. What did feel remarkable, though, was the speed with which the information changed and morphed - and the precision with which it did so - progressively for the worst it must be said, as the toll expressed as casualties and estimates of the missing mounted.

At one point during the day, I refreshed the home page on the BBC, I think twice in relatively short succession, and the total leapt appallingly each time. So too did the contextual news - eyewitness accounts, photographs of damaged buildings, individual tragedies - many no doubt delivered by citizen journalists.

Now I know that the encyclopaedia is, or rather was, a compendium of news from a distance, given time for scholars and editors to apply perspective and wider social an cultural interpretation, but I was suddenly struck by how antiquated the concept felt – even, for that matter, the shiny Encarta discs that I bought for my children as recently as five or six years ago.

In its place we have the factual termite mound that is Wikipedia (which, it must be said, handles its reference to its ancestors with detached, if somewhat barbed, decorum - “the opinions and world views of a particular generation can be observed in the encyclopedic writing of the time. For these reasons, old encyclopedias are a useful source of historical information, especially for a record of changes in science and technology.”- like a polite child passing judgement on its parent).

The reality today is that information will no longer accept stasis, news – even history - will never be pinned down. Any position at any time is merely a snapshot, prone to events and shifts in perception in moments, rather than weeks, months or years.

For communicators it is worth reflecting on this massive change - especially in the wake of blogging, social networking, twittering and more - and remembering that in cyberspace, the ink never dries and it constantly smudges. The days of Mr Deards and World Book belong to the fossil record.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Twelve Thirty Eight TV

This is the first of what will be a series of short films that examine the changing shape of the British media.

We intend to cover many perspectives, and I’m delighted that our first interviewee is Harry Wallop, the consumer affairs correspondent at the Daily Telegraph.

Harry has packed a lot into what is still a relatively short career, having been a business reporter at both the Telegraph and the Investors’ Chronicle. He recently won a prestigious industry award for his reporting and is rapidly building a reputation as one Britain’s leading consumer affairs journalists.

Turning the tables and doing the interviewing reveals to me how difficult the job is, so please forgive the decidedly low production values and somewhat stilted questioning.

All of those caveats aside, I hope you find it interesting and useful. Feedback welcomed!