Posted by & filed under Uncategorized.

The Mercury Theatre Colchester’s latest in-house production is now in rehearsal. It’s the UK premiere of a comedy of songs and stories all about the heroes of any family – the grandparents!

As ever it was a joy to work with Swainson Productions on the video trailer for You Can Always Hand Them Back, and Kate and Paul did a cracking job allowing the cameras in on day 3 of rehearsals. There’s lovely music in the show from Peter Skellern.

The RIBA Terrace

Posted by & filed under Communications.

Sitting on the terrace of the RIBA restaurant (above) on a warm summer day a few years ago, I was asked “who are your professional role models?”. I was floored, not least because I have only two – and one of them was asking the question.

I first thought of writing this blog on International Women’s day, as both of my mentors, coaches, role models – call them what you will – happen to be women who have achieved great success in their chosen fields.

Janice Maiman is Senior Vice President of Communications, Media, News & Professional Pathways at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Dr Mairi Mclean is a former chief executive of Waveney District Council and Northampton Borough Council respectively, and is now a full-time management development consultant – it was Mairi who asked me to ‘out’ my role models. I fear I dodged the question at the time!

Janice was a senior manager on a joint venture I worked on, and Mairi was employed as a management coach by a previous employer. It’s true to say that Janice and Mairi are both North Stars – a guide or reference point by which I try to navigate my own career.

If you don’t have challenging moments in a management career, you’re not doing it right. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time, and as a pleaser, that displeases me no end. Both Mairi and Janice have supported me through challenging moments – some experiences they passed on intentionally, sometimes they coached me to reach important conclusions alone, and frequently they instructed me on how to be a better manager just by being themselves.

Mairi is unparalleled in understanding how a business functions holistically. Janice has an amazing knack for building a shared vision and keeping everyone striving towards it. Both deliver insights by valuing people, truly understanding their nuances, and managing with complete integrity. Through this they achieve respect and great loyalty.

So here’s to mentors. The Americans have a  Thank Your Mentor Day – a marvellous idea which the UK should adopt. And to Janice and Mairi, a huge thank you!

Posted by & filed under Communications, Online, theatre.

As of 1st May I’m taking up the role of Director of Communications and Audience Services at one of our most vibrant regional theatres, the Mercury Theatre in Colchester. My time there could not have got off to a more exciting start.

Last night was opening night for The Hired Man, and the Colchester debut of the theatre’s new Artistic Director, Daniel Buckroyd. The show was received with a rapturous standing ovation – richly deserved. There was a real buzz on Twitter after the performance, which is thrilling to see. I’ve captured some of the highlights here, plus a short video introduction to the show.

If you can, come and see it! Well worth traveling to see.

Posted by & filed under Communications, Online.

Vine, the new six-second video service promoted by Twitter, is causing a buzz across the socialmediasphere. What has it got that its predecessors lacked?

vine_logo_lrg

Bear with me here. There have been many attempts to update Jerome McCarthy’s ‘Four Ps’ of marketing – product, price, promotion and place.  The Seven C’s compass model is a particular favourite, and not just because it was ‘born’ the same year I was – 1981 – but because it is focused on the consumer rather than the product.

Vine has been making a big splash in the last 48 hours. Using the Vine app you can record a video of up to six seconds in length, which is then published in an instagram-style app timeline, and/or to Facebook and Twitter. It looks set to be a runaway success.

When examining that success, the seventh C is really key – circumstances. These are the uncontrollable external factors which can decide whether or not a product launch is a success.

Using the four points on a compass there are:

  • National and international circumstances
  • Social and cultural circumstances
  • Economic circumstances
  • Weather

It’s only because the compass is pointing due south – to a change in social and cultural circumstances in recent years – that Vine can succeed.

I can say that with some certainty because the idea behind Vine isn’t new, and it isn’t original. There have been at least two services which look and work an awful lot like Vine which have launched and disappeared since 2008.

Seesmic

Launched in 2008, it was billed as the “Twitter of video” – it quickly faded into obscurity after amassing about 20,000 users. Which just goes to show in the world of digital, how quickly a ship with 20,000 passengers can sink.

Perhaps the biggest single lesson of Seesmic is that there was no point being the “Twitter of video”, the only successful strategy was to be the “video in Twitter” – that’s certainly what Vine is banking on.

12seconds.tv

12seconds.tv launched in 2008 and was billed as – you guessed it – “Twitter for video”. As you’ve probably guessed, it was a video sharing service for videos up to 12 seconds in length.

12seconds.tv was a haven for geeks. It saw little growth in the two years of its existence. Interestingly – they tried to break into the twitter ecosystem, but were rebuffed. At the time it folded, its founder said:

“I don’t really see the growth in Twitter that we were seeing. I don’t see it as an explosive growth opportunity right now for a third-party application builder. In any ecosystem, eventually there are going to be winners and losers. I think that’s going to shake out more and more as time goes by”
Read more at http://venturebeat.com/2010/10/04/12seconds-tv-shuts-down-with-tightening-twitter-ecosystem/#Ieod1hie3Hm1bjuL.99

Due south

Coming back to the compass, neither Seesmic nor 12seconds.tv had the right social and cultural circumstances in which to launch.

  • Self-shoot video was the preserve of geeks – few people were using the video on their smartphone, if it had one. If, indeed they had a smartphone.
  • Social sharing and content creation was still in its infancy. Facebook, with its ever more complex privacy controls, was extremely well established but it was something of a walled garden and heavily biased towards written status updates and photos.
  • The explosion of twitter, with its alien 140-character limit, was only just beginning. Truncated communication was a novelty, not a norm.
  • Twitter postcards – media embedded in tweets viewable without the need to install any viewer software – hadn’t been invented.

Riding on Twitter’s coattails has already done a lot for Vine, with mainstream media paying immediate attention. The Guardian are already soliciting six-second album reviews. So one of the other C’s will be critical to the success of Vine – convenience. The barrier to entry for viewing is non-existant, so long as you have the latest Twitter app installed or are viewing via the Twitter website. The barrier for creating videos is relatively low, but Vine functionality needs to be integrated directly into the Twitter mobile apps to guarantee uptake.

Once that happens, the age of six-second story-telling will be well and truly upon us.

Posted by & filed under Communications.

If membership of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations isn’t compulsory for PR professionals, does the Institute serve any purpose at all? Some think not. In this post I’m going to stand up for the CIPR.

Not for the first time I had a lively conversation with Brent Martin, an acquaintance and London-based criminal lawyer, on the subject of Public Relations. Brent is never short of an informed opinion, and he is well worth following on Twitter.

These tweets caught my eye:

Im sick to death of PR bullshit in corporate coms. Plus they call themselves "a profession" & have a "Chartered Institute of PR" #delusional
@zeitgeistlondon
Brent A. Martin
Its an utter lie to suggest you belong to a "profession" if membership of your "professional body" is entirely optional. More PR bullshit.
@zeitgeistlondon
Brent A. Martin

Headlines are the stock trade of PR professionals, and I was initially inclined to file those tweets under the headline ‘LAWYER: WORLD WOULD BE BETTER PLACE IF MORE PEOPLE WERE LIKE LAWYERS’, but alas that is a terrible headline and so I must write a blog post instead.

Brent’s beef in this case may not even be with a PR professional. His complaint was that a price hike of something he buys or uses had been misrepresented as a ‘simplification’ in price.  Pricing is more often the realm of sales and marketing, but let’s not kick the can down the corridor to marketing just yet.

There are good PRs and there are bad PRs just as there are good and bad lawyers. A good PR would argue that in a social world, where a savvy and price-sensitive audience are connected directly to each other as well as to your business,  trying to obscure or spin a price hike through the use of a lazy euphemism is at the very least bad PR, and as such bad for business.

Whether it is sensible business practice and good PR or not Brent would argue, I think, that any attempt to communicate a price rise as something positive is immoral.

Brent, and many others, believe that PR people should be held accountable to a professional code of practice and ethics which precludes them from wilfully misguiding an audience.Indeed, I know Brent isn’t alone:

@ @ re: Damn those compsulory "professional bodies", I could not agree more.
@AlarmBell
Luca Alessandra

I’ve got good news – the CIPR holds its members accountable to just such a code of conduct.The first two clauses of the first principle are that members must:

a) maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct;

b) deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public;

The code of conduct for CIPR members is well aligned with the times – it binds members to the sort of behaviours Brent, and society at large, wants to see from the PR profession. So it’s perhaps a little short-termist to attack an organisation which shares your goals and exists to bring about the kind of professional standards you want to see.

Is a non-compulsory professional body worth anything?

 

The sticking point is compulsion. As a lawyer, Brent is required to be a member of the Law Society, which brings with it a hefty annual membership fee. Brent believes that as membership of CIPR isn’t compulsory for PR professionals, it’s a ‘bullshit’ institution. I couldn’t disagree more.

The CIPR Code of Conduct has power without statutory underpinning.

  • Personal loss. If I break the CIPR code of conduct, and a CIPR-facilitated attempt at conciliation fails, I can be stripped of my membership, directed to refund my client’s fees, and to refund the institute its costs.
  • Employer backing. Many employers specify that CIPR Membership is a requirement to be employed in a senior PR role. Loss of the membership could have serious consequences.

    Other professional bodies have attracted de facto compulsory status through widespread employer recognition – CIPR is heading in the right direction in this regard.

  • Market forces and reputation. As a CIPR member, I stand out as an experienced professional in my field – this is invaluable.   Being disciplined by the CIPR would make me less employable.
  • SEO. Hardly trivial in a digital economy. A disciplinary case against me would result in negative search engine results associated with my name, which for any PR is a killer.

There are also practical problems with compulsion – not least the population to which compulsion would apply. A doctor practices in a surgery. A barrister practices in a court of law. A PR person can practice anywhere. PR could even be said to be a fundamental part of human nature.  Brent was doing some indirect PR for the Law Association, by attacking CIPR. Does that make him a PR practitioner? Clearly not. But where do you draw the line? Agencies only? Agencies plus full-time in house? Agencies plus in-house including digital? Excluding digital? Including or excluding social media? And what do you mean by social media? If you post to a Linkedin group once a week does that make you a digital PR?

The CIPR is a force for good. It’s shining a spotlight on good PR practice, and holding its members to the highest professional standards. Would it like to be a compulsory body? Perhaps it would. Should it pack up and go home until it is compulsory? Absolutely not. The CIPR is changing the communications industry for the better. That’s something we should all celebrate – even lawyers.

Posted by & filed under Politics.

Be it the hacking scandal, the expenses debacle, or the furore surrounding botched police investigations, a relentless tide of trust-destroying stories is washing from Westminster to Wapping sweeping away reputations and careers, and leaving bloggers like me increasingly devoid of new synonyms for “almighty fuck-up”.

As it stands in the three-way battle between politics, the tabloid press, and the police, MPs are standing tall once more. They should be careful not to stand so tall that they end up falling from a great height

When asked what remains in our parliamentary system which would fail to withstand the full force of the public scrutiny felt in recent weeks, it’s hard to know where to begin – but the All Party Parliamentary Group has to be near the top of the list.

appg-secretariat

All Party Parliamentary Groups, or APPGs, exist to allow parliamentarians of all parties and both Houses to come together to discuss and form consensus on big issues. As a vehicle for discussion and debate, they have been comprehensively invaded by vested interests seeking to buy access to our legislators.

The barriers to setting up an APPG are relatively low, which is perhaps why a total of five hundred and thirty-four are currently to be found on the active register- including everything from the All Party Group on Mobile Homes, to the APPG on Brass Bands.

APPGs are entitled to a Secretariat. Set aside any images you have of a sensibly dressed person of a certain age mildly taking dictation, the provision of an APPG Secretariat is one of the main routes used by public affairs agencies, charities, and businesses to cosey up to MPs and Peers. These “secretaries” often came up with the idea of setting up the group in the first place, to advance the interests of a client or cause.

According to my analysis of the Register of All-Party Groups (the existence of which is perhaps the only redeeming feature of an otherwise disastrously opaque system), two hundred and seventy-nine of the APPGs use an externally provided secretariat. Seventy-seven of the APPGs are openly administered by twenty-nine different public affairs agencies. A further ninety-eight are run by charities with agendas to promote.

The system for registering secretarial groups is hopelessly open to abuse, and so it is not always possible to easily establish who is running the show. Take the APPG on the Aluminium Industry, the secretarial services of which are provided by Aluminium Federation Ltd which is “a not-for-profit organisation.” That sounds suitably reassuring – if the organisation is not-for-profit what chance can there be of big business buying favoured access? It’s only when you look at the Federation’s website, and examine each of its nine sub-associations in turn, that it becomes clear that this not-for-profit organisation is a membership umbrella for private business. This is above board, within the rules, published, and transparent. Transparent if you’re prepared to invest the time to look, of course.

Some APPGs are run by big business – the Athletics group is provided with secretarial support from Aviva who, according to the register, also provide “tickets to athletics events”. Of course, those whose buttocks are used to sinking comfortably in to the leather of a parliamentary bench cannot be expected to really understand athletics until they have had a chance to look at all those perky muscles up close. Aviva have done the responsible thing by publicly declaring these perks for members of the APPG. I wish I could be confident that everyone else is as diligent.

One agency which is listed in the register has published materials which casually sum up just how open to external influence APPGs are. In its “Guide to the Structure and Operation of All-Party Parliamentary Groups” it states that “APPGs are essentially interest groups” and in a presentation it encourages APPGs to run inquiries, the conclusions of which should be sent “to all MPs, particularly if report ties in with local lobbying strategy on behalf of members.”

The presentation also hints at the pernicious practice of vested interests supplying MPs and Peers with pre-written Parliamentary Questions which they then sign and submit in their own name. The presentation says that APPG inquiries should be followed by a “Raft of Parliamentary Questions focusing on the recommendations of the Report.” You may not need reminding that, according to Parliament, “Oral question[s] costs £425 on average. Written question[s] cost £154 on average” – so an agency writes a question for a government department, and the taxpayer picks up the bill for answering it.

Extraordinarily, there is no code of conduct for PR and PA firms wishing to run APPGs. In fact, there is only one explicit rule – that “the consultancy must either publish its full client list on its website or else agree to provide such a list on request, otherwise the consultancy is not permitted to act as the group’s secretariat.” Picking just one example completely at random, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs provide secretariat services to the APPG on Equitable Life Policy Holders, but do not publish their full client list online. I am sure that a responsible agency like Bell Pottinger is operating within the rules, and have shared their client list with the House privately. The public should have the ability to establish when this last happened, and we should also know how often the list is checked for changes.  Let’s be fair to agencies here too – they  should know why this inspection takes place, and whether the appearance of any particular clients could cause them to be deemed unsuitable secretaries.

I could go on, and on, and on about the failings of the APPG system, but let’s end with that old favourite – the junket. Members of the APPGs for Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan have all received free trips to those countries. In the APPG register you will not find the names of the specific members, or any information on how long they travelled, in what level of luxury they were accommodated, how much personal sightseeing time they were afforded, or indeed any other information about what they did during their visits. Sometimes information about these trips is volunteered by the participants, and a basic level of information disclosure is required in the parliamentarians’ own registers of interests. Full disclosure should be mandatory, and much easier to find.

I have no evidence to suggest that there has been any actual wrongdoing. The examples in this blog post were selected at random, because they pose questions about the system. Recent evidence suggests that any parliamentary system found open to abuse does not stay unabused for long.

I hope those parliamentarians who feel personally aggrieved by recent events enjoy their moment of schadenfreude as we come to the final pages of this, the first chapter of the hacking scandal. They had better hope that the next chapter isn’t entitled “Of parliamentarians and PRs” – it could be a deeply uncomfortable read.

Posted by & filed under Communications, Online, Politics.

One of the truly great things about British politics is the depth and breadth of raw talent which can be found at every level of every party and no party. Unfortunately, tired conventions of political discourse are preventing some of that talent from shining through.

One symptom of that fact is that political debate is, perversely, becoming ever less authentic at a time when distrust of political spin has never been greater.

During my eight years of lowly support of the Liberal Democrats, I often saw the party try to use its own campaigning tactics on itself. Candidates for internal elections would get off to a “flying start” as bar charts intoned that it was a “two horse race.”  Fundraisers would assure campaigners that the candidate of the day had “asked me to call you.” A blue-ink, blue paper envelope would flop on to the mat and transpire not to be a hand-written missive lovingly etched on Basildon Bond, but a mass-produced, low cost, begging note.

This tendency of all the parties to recycle their external tactics in their internal machinations is no more clearly evident than on the party ‘home’ sites (one of which I used to run) where ghost writing is rife. Take three examples:

If any one of those pieces was written by its supposed author, I will eat a copy of Who’s Who?

Ghost writing debases these sites which are intended for authentic public debate as well as party communications.

It’s understandable why the sites allow it – to a shallow degree it gives them credibility. You’ve probably seen at least one local newspaper culpably splash “PM WRITES EXCLUSIVELY FOR CHIPPING GAZETTE” around election time, on receipt of an article ghost-written by the regional press officer.  Yes it’s a bit seedy, yes they know the PM has never been near it, but sales are sales and this puts Chipping’s own rag right up there with the Daily Telegraph. Yawn.

It is almost possible to explain away this practice in mass media platforms, where it is deeply ingrained, but on sites written by party supporters for party supporters ghost writing is  simply wrong. Here are three of the big problems:

In an age of direct, authentic communication – where seemingly every journalist, politico, or even footballer is on Twitter – this audience know when they are being fed bullshit, and most simply disengage when it happens. Political ghost writing is a practice which is often transparently false, and thus inherently pointless.

It’s a missed opportunity to promote talent. The people writing these articles are often the researchers, aides, and wonks who have great influence but little profile. They are the future leaders of their parties, living in the shadows of today’s top brass. Their contributions would be no less valid if they were given an honest byline, and most party supporters would welcome the authenticity.

Far from lending the sites credibility, often ghost writing cheapens the subsequent debate. If they bother to respond at all, party hacks and politicos argue their case in a comments thread which is rarely graced by the supposed author, who often receives only the condensed gist of the replies third-hand, if indeed they receive anything at all.

It is impossible to transform political debate overnight, but that shouldn’t prevent a small step in the right direction.  The sites can find a way forward which is right for them individually – perhaps they could keep their big name bylines, but credit the true author with ‘additional reporting’ in the footer. Is it too radical to hope they could simply refuse to accept another ghost written piece ever again?

For the sake of everyone who could be engaged in politics, but who is turned off by blatantly phoney and incredible articles, I can only hope someone decides to change their approach soon.