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.