Thursday, 4 October 2012

Has Nigella bitten off more than she can chew?

Nigella Lawson - the seductive chef who turns baking a cake into an altogether suggestive affair - has hit the headlines this week following her new show and the high calorie contents of the desserts featured. 

Many people (the Daily Mail included, naturally) have jumped on the bandwagon to criticise the once curvacious-but-now-not-so-much cook for her calorie laden recipes, branding her as trying to make the nation fat.

But can we really blame Nigella for our waistline woes?

True, one of her new recipes on this week's programme featured a cheesecake which contained a whopping 7,000 calories (but then again, it is almost made of 100% fat) and another saw Nigella sandwich ice cream in brioche. 

However, I fail to understand just why there has been such a negative response - after all, isn't indulgence and 'a little bit of what you fancy' the brand that Nigella has always promoted? With her recent weight loss aside, Nigella has been one of very few chefs who truly eats what she cooks, therefore winning female fans for her honesty and male fans for her evocative use of food.

A little escapism is what this nation needs, particularly when we are constantly being told what we can't eat because of any number of reasons. As long as you don't indulge in her recipes every day, I say find another bandwagon to jump on.

After all, if it's good enough for Nigella...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What if the Eurozone just keeps applying sticking plasters?

A thought occurred to me watching Channel 4 News last night.  We are all it seems waiting for some anarchic / cathartic moment with the Eurozone crisis.  A cataclysmic earthquake which causes the entire structure to fall apart and countries forced to start printing their own money.  We are all expecting to see massive capital flight to safe havens, terror stricken faces on central bankers, horrified Germans, delighted Tory MPs and various economists trying to tell us that they predicted this all along.
But what if this doesn’t happen?  What if the Eurozone leaders keep on applying sticking plasters just big enough to stem the bleeding but not big enough to finally cure the patient?
I suspect we have been conditioned to expect the anarchic resolution scenario in this country in part due to our ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.  That day all hell broke loose with massive currency trades, emergency interest rates of 15 per cent, a Chancellor of the Exchequer caught in the headlights and screaming currency arbitrage traders bellowing at each other across London trading floors.  Oh and George Soros looking very happy because he made billions that day and Peter Jay of the BBC seemingly the only person who knew what the hell was going on!
Ultimately, however, the experience was cathartic.  The UK economy, released from the stranglehold of the ERM blossomed, which is what many predict will happen if the likes of Greece and Spain are cut adrift or leave the Eurozone of their own accord, devalue their currencies and use inflationary pressure to reduce debt.  Then again, nobody is really sure.
Personally, I am beginning to believe that the key date is not when Greece or Spain’s next government bond repayment is due but the German elections when Angela Merkel has to face the electorate next year.  Once Merkel herself is released from trying to get re-elected then we might see some progress on a growth strategy for the Eurozone. 
As I write I note that Angela is talking at the G20 about getting the “big bazooka” out to finally deal with this.  We’ll see, I’m increasingly of the belief that European leaders are not up to the task and that we are condemned to one sticking plaster after another with European, not just Eurozone, economies bumping along the bottom for a good while yet!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Forty years ago today journalism started on the road towards its finest hour!

40 years ago today the Washington Post carried a small story at the bottom of page one with the headline “Five held in plot to bug Democratic offices”.  This was the start of what is probably the greatest journalistic triumph of all time.

At the time nobody much cared, but within two years the dogged pursuit of the story by the Post, in particular journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had caused the story to be renamed, creating a suffix which has become synonymous with political scandal ever since.

Watergate, as it became known, is the mother of all ‘gates.  In simple terms it was, in Nixon’s words, a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex perpetrated by White House henchmen and designed to uncover embarrassing information about candidates for the Presidency. 

In reality, it is the story of how journalists on the Post, in the face of unprecedented political and peer pressure (for months no other newspaper would touch the story) uncovered a political scandal which brought down a President.

In many ways this was the high water mark for the profession.  With a series of brilliant scoops, often using unnamed sources, the Post linked campaign contributions to the Committee to re-elect the President, or CREEP as it was known (you couldn’t make it up!), to the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars and then linked the White House to the burglars in the person of Charles Colson, Special Adviser to the President who was effectively in charge of campaign dirty tricks. 

When Nixon embarked on a cover-up, the Post continued its pursuit alleging that the White House had instructed the CIA to illegally block the FBI investigation and that documents had been shredded at the Justice Department.

As Nixon wriggled on the hook the Post linked Presidential advisers of increasing importance with either the original break-in or the cover-up, eventually forcing Nixon to sack his most senior advisers, namely Chief of Staff HR ‘Bob’ Haldemann and policy adviser John Ehrlichman.   When the Senate started investigating, and the Oval Office "tapes' became public knowledge, Nixon's fate was sealed.  In all 43 people went to prison for Watergate related crimes, although of course not Nixon himself.

Forty years on the media landscape looks very different.  The web is making traditional print news look, at best sluggish and, at worst, positively outdated.  Newspapers across the country are closing, merging or going down one edition per week.  Social media is making us all into 'Citizen Journalists' armed with our iPhones to record events to post ourselves on YouTube.  Twitter and trending allow instant sharing of information. 

Most importantly, journalism itself is now in the dock.  Parallels between phone hacking and Watergate have been made before, but it is startling that the key lesson, that the cover-up is at least as bad as the original crime, appears not to have been learnt.  For the White House substitute News International with all of its alleged shredding, obstruction of justice and non-denial denials.

However, it would be wrong to paint journalism as an outdated and dying profession.  The Telegraph’s investigation of MPs expenses proved that investigative journalism can perform a public duty in the 21st Century.  The challenge for Leveson is to bring the press into line without strangling the opportunity for the sort of investigation which holds our public officials up to scrutiny and can bring down a President.

Friday, 8 June 2012

You can’t have your cookie and eat it…

Now before you ask, I’m not talking about the tasty baked treat loved by a sesame street character with a voracious appetite, but rather the less appetising internet variety. You can have your chocolate chip cookie and eat it you’ll be glad to know, but for the other type of cookie it is a different matter. 

The cookies I’m talking about are the ones that have been central to online privacy debates since the dotcom boom and more recently EU legislation governing how they are to be gathered by websites (not the Cookie Monster… nom nom nom). For those of you in the marketing world this is an important piece of internet legislation to be aware of.

In the UK, the law has recently changed to make sites more open about how they track their users, requiring sites to give consumers notification that their site uses tracking files, and a chance to opt in or out of such measures, or else face penalties.

Now, this all seems fairly straight up and not something you could really pick a bone with – who wants to be followed unknowingly? It ain’t nice in a dark alley and it ain’t nice online.

However, if websites that track users now have to allow people to opt out (presuming a good chunk will) the advertising model that is central to the online revenue stream for many sites is under threat. Naturally, the majority of the UK’s largest websites have made no signs of compliance with the new laws so there’s no immediate danger but it is still worth considering the implications.

You see, web advertising is far cheaper than alternative media and therefore trying to increase its value is vital to the strategy of many sites. User tracking helps this in two ways: firstly, it fixes the basic mechanics of tracking which adverts get clicked, and how often. The second method, though, is the key: cookies track your internet activity – your searches, the sites you’ve visited, what you’ve downloaded etc. So, when you search for flights to Spain, the next time you go online an ad might pop up on a website with the latest hotel and flight packages for the Costa del Sol! Quite smart really, even if sometimes it can be a tad hit and miss.
Ultimately, better use of data and tracking means better advertising and a better user experience. The information economy needs it to survive – Google and Facebook included.

If online consumers now decide to opt out of these tracking files in their masses then the implications are quite simple, the advertising model will collapse, leaving two alternatives: paying for the services a site offers, or letting it shut; a case of your money or your (online) life.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Is Regeneration In Need Of Some Retail Therapy?

The news that Ikea is building a new town, Strand East, complete with 1,200 homes, bars, restaurants, hotel and Piazza but no Ikea is fascinating.

I’m not as excited about the pedestrianized streets and the sustainability aspects, but the fact the major retailer is using the talents of its development team to diversify into wider initiatives.

The trend for the big retailers developing larger mixed use schemes has been growing in recent years. Take a look at Spenhill, the regeneration division of Tesco and you will see some impressive investment, like the New Square in West Bromwich, which is transforming the retail fortunes of the town with an imaginative new retail and leisure quarter.

With retail development now being seriously scrutinised, the opportunity to use the experience of the development teams to unlock the potential of sites seems a natural and positive progression. If you drive round the centre of cities and towns (like I did round Wolverhampton last week), you will see significant sites crying out for development.

This is putting pressure on councils to attract investment and be seen to inject vitality to the core centres. As a result, I believe there is a new wave of willingness to look at proposals and, where perhaps these didn’t stack up commercially previously, some lateral thinking could unlock potential.

Going a stage further, I believe it is not just councils receptive to offers but housing associations too. The larger ones are under pressure to hit social housing targets, are being encouraged to think outside the box and partner with the private sector. For sure the public sector funds will not stretch to meet the aspirations of most social housing group plans.

So may be the time is right for the development teams of the major retailers to put down their retail carrier bags and go shop for bigger, all- encompassing schemes and really show their brilliant skills in other sectors.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Online Social Signals essential to PR…

It seems that page 1 of Google is becoming just as much the bread and butter of good PR as coverage in top print titles these days…

This was my thinking, at least, when I read about the recent survey from Branded3 which found that URLs receive a significant boost in Google rankings when they are shared on Twitter, with those receiving over 7,500 tweets almost always ranking inside the top five results on search engines.

Naturally, being a generally savvy bunch many in the PR industry have already capitalised on digital opportunities and we’ve been blessed with an array of much celebrated integrated campaigns for brands over the past couple of years. However, whilst there’s been plenty of speculation with regards to social media’s SEO impact, I have to say that this is the first piece of research that has provided tangible results that I can relay back to clients when recommending online PR.

The correlation between tweets and search engine rankings is big news for PR professionals. Social media is PR in its most organic form – direct dialogue. If this direct dialogue can now impact the hotly coveted page 1 of Google then surely that’s good news! Particularly if you need to, ahem, push down some of the less attractive search results that appear for some brands when searched. It’s my firm belief that good PR is now essential to all parts of digital marketing – getting people talking about your brand is essential to SEO.

Now what this means for Twitter and its rather fledgling business plan, I’m not sure. I remember thinking earlier in the year than the likes of Snoop Dog tweeting about Toyota’s ‘Swagger Wagons,’ and a host of celebs tweeting about Snickers UK was an opportunity missed for Twitter as third party ad agencies had capitalised on the talent pool and reach that the social network has at its disposal. Perhaps the news from Branded3 will convince more brands to part with the huge budgets required to set up promoted accounts and tweets on Twitter?

Either way, this is big news and confirms what many have been thinking for some time. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Phone hacking: despite appearances the centre of gravity has moved West

With the Murdoch’s due to appear at Leveson this week and Labour MP Tom Watson publishing his new book, Dial M for Murdoch, you could be forgiven for thinking that the UK remains at the centre of the phone hacking crisis engulfing the Murdoch media empire.

You’d be wrong.  Almost out of sight is a development which threatens News Corporation in the US, as opposed to News International in the UK and that is very, very significant.  The Dowler family lawyer, Mark Lewis, now claims that he is representing four individuals whose phones were hacked on US soil.  At least one is a US citizen.  Others are, apparently, coming out of the woodwork daily.

According to a Guardian report last week, there is evidence that Fox News, Murdoch’s US cable TV operation is now implicated.  For News Corporation, the holding company, this is a nightmare come true. 

If phone hacking has crossed the Atlantic then senior management at News Corporation could find themselves in the dock.  Federal law states that an individual who violates telecommunications privacy for commercial purposes can face five years in prison with a 10 year tariff for a subsequent offence.   What’s more, civil courts can also offer damages in relation to the profits gained by the violators with punitive damages possible thereafter.

How big a deal is this?  Let’s put it this way.  In the US, News Corporation's cable properties constitute over 60 per cent of operating income for the company.  With News Corporation making circa $1.06bn (£888m) net profit in their last quarterly filing to the SEC it is clear that any implication that Fox has been up to dirty tricks has massive implications.

However, it doesn’t stop there.  The Met Police’s investigation of bribery of public officials also has the potential to cross the Atlantic if it hasn’t already.  The Foreign Corrupt Practises Act offers the opportunity for the SEC to investigate the operations of News International in the UK but prosecute senior officials of News Corporation in the US.

The big question is, where does all this end?  My own view is that a number of very high profile people, some of whom have had access to the very highest levels of UK government (you know who I mean!)  are going to prison.  Probably for perjury, possibly for bribery and possibly for perverting the court of justice. 

Unfortunately James Murdoch, who was recently spirited out of the country to a new position in the US, in an attempt to distance him from phone hacking, may find that New York is uncomfortably close to the SEC headquarters in Washington DC.