Friday, 29 January 2010

The Inconvenient Truth About PR

Thursday is generally a good day. With the office buzzing and plenty of things to tackle before you can scramble out of the door, it’s a pretty good feeling.

But yesterday morning we were awoken with the news that there was something dirty, lurking under the surface. They called it “An Inconvenient PR Truth,” we called it a bit of a downer.

Now ever since Kevin Braddock ( posted a list of PR’s names on his blogroll in a “name and shame” naughty step kind of way, the age old PR-Journo relations debate has taken centre stage.

Say what you will about ‘Our Kev’ (misguided would be my lexical choice,) but he did have a point. Yes. Targeting of journalists could be better, reading their publications? Undeniably a good call. But let’s face it, people make mistakes and I think a bit of PR-PR support would be good here.

I appreciate this new campaign is to ‘benefit’ the PR industry, but I worry it’s just worsening our reputation. How many times have journalists made mistakes on your copy, caption information or called you incessantly about competitions? It’s just how it works, and you accept it. There are some amazing journalists out there and some fantastic PRs and sometimes a follow up call here and there is exactly what is needed to make sure you both get the most out of that relationship.

Let’s not forget how great it can be to work in PR and how much fun it can be when you have a great client story in your mitts. One that even ‘Our Kev’ might want to shout about.

Now then, let’s all be friends and go to the pub.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Trust Me. I'm In PR....

Good news for everyone working in PR. We're the least most distrusted profession in the UK, or the most least distrusted, whichever way you want to look at it really. Confused? I am - and I'm the one writing this. Best have a look at the poll I am talking about here.

Now, I’m not usually one to come out staunchly defending my job. I don’t feed the starving, save the children or even help grannies cross the road. Whilst doctors are busy putting pigs’ hearts into the infirm (they can do that now can’t they?), I am roving the Warwickshire countryside desperately seeking the tallest Christmas tree in Europe, or listing “Castle for Sale on Ebay” or posting Stilton to journalists.

No, PR isn’t going to bring about world peace – but to compare us to bankers? Please. These people brought the country to its knees, got the tax payers to bail them out and then paid themselves walloping great bonuses to commend their ingenuity.

And it doesn’t stop there. Some people actually think PROs are less trustworthy than politicians. Now that really hurts. I rarely remember to claim back my expenses and even when I do remember, I’ve already lost the receipts. Of course, politicians don’t need receipts for their expenses and until recently managed to get things like duck ponds past their finance team. I, on the other hand, have to have a pretty good reason for claiming back a glass of Blue Nun from the “Duck in the Pond”. You see, we’re a world apart.

Recently, for reasons I won’t go into here, I found myself in a Wetherspoons at 1030 am. I expected to find the place deserted but instead, the place was packed to the rafters with people without teeth, drinking bitter for breakfast. I got all shirty that I was working my little socks off whilst they sat around getting tanked-up at the tax payers’ expense. I quickly realised that I had come over all Daily Mail and gave myself a good middle-class talking to. After all, it costs me far more to keep bankers in Bollinger.

Like I say, I’m not one to usually defend my career. I accept that there are more virtuous professions out there – but this poll was a step too far, even for me. You see, a PRO can’t make a profession out of lying as we have to get our stories past the most cynical of all professionals – the press. But wait, journalists are even less trustworthy than me according to this particular poll.

Of course, they do naughty things like expose politicians for expense swindling and bankers for big fat bonuses. Who’d want to trust them?

I tell you who I don’t trust – the people that voted in this poll!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Bank Reform: Obama plays the populist card, Dave follows!

No Drama Obama is not living up to his name. Yesterday's announcement on banking reform was as unexpected as it was brutal in its detail. Limits on further banking consolidation in a bid to limit 'Too Big To Fail'; limits on interaction with hedge funds which rely on market volatility to make big profits (or losses) and limits on proprietary trading (using the bank's own money to invest in high risk investments) when they should be building their capital base.

Sounding more than a little bit peeved (presumably at the size of the combined investment banking bonus pot) Obama labelled much of what the investment banks do as "reckless" and sent this message "work with us, not against us," continuing "If these folks want a fight, it's a fight I am ready to have."

The reaction from the financial markets was expected with banking stocks on both sides of the Atlantic being hit (although it was interesting to note that HSBC, which has always been far more conservative and was never heavily exposed to the mortgage CDO market, only took a minor knock on the London Exchange).

However, some perspective is necessary. Obama faces what is increasingly looking like a difficult set of mid-term elections in early November. There is unquestionably a political calculation here as Main Steet America remains furious with its banks. Over here the Tory party's quick reaction last night welcoming the Obama initiative was equally as populist, with one eye on the General Election, while the Labour Government remains leaden-footed and cautious.

It is a strange world when the Tory party is aligned with the Guardian (today's editorial "At last, action") and the Financial Times (today's editorial "A dangerous populist flirtation with Glass Steagall") is more closely aligned with the Labour Party.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Warren Declines Chocolate Buffett

Suddenly Cadbury gets interesting. News overnight from the states is that Kraft's biggest shareholder has come out against the deal. That's relatively serious for the Kraft management team in any situation, but when that shareholder is none other than the great Warren Buffett, CEO of investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, then it's potentially catastrophic.

Buffett told CNBC. “I think it’s a bad deal. I have a lot of doubts." He continued: "“Irene [Rosenfeld CEO of Kraft] has done a good job in operations, I like Irene. She has been very straightforward with me, we just disagree. She thinks it’s a good deal, and I think it’s a bad deal.”

When Buffett talks the markets listen, probably more so than to any other individual, including the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Although Buffett may still live humbly (in a three-bedroom house in Omaha Nebraska apparently) the man known as the 'Oracle of Omaha' is ranked second only to Bill Gates in terms of wealth (he gave most of it away to Bill and Melinda's charitable foundation a few years ago). Berkshire Hathaway now holds significant or controlling interests in some of America's biggest companies, including the Washington Post Company, American Express, Gillette, Coca Cola, Wells Fargo and Moody's.

And, crucially, he is not afraid to wield his influence. Ten years ago he scuttled Coca Cola's bid for Quaker Oats because of the soft drink maker’s proposal to fund the deal with stock, much in the same way that Kraft proposes to fund Cadbury.

Effectively the Kraft management team now has the world's most successful investor wielding a sword of damacles over its head. Buffett's problem, as I suspected yesterday, is price. Delivering value at 850p per share is a tough task no matter how talented the management team.

One to watch.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Cream egg on our faces

I have hesitated to blog about Cadbury because, frankly, I haven't been able to think of anything original to say.

When I first heard of the Kraft bid my view was that this was a done deal as long as Kraft came up with the right number. For the City, sentimentality about saving a great British institution was never, ever likely to come into it. The stumbling block has been Kraft's initial part shares, part cash bid which was spurned by institutional investors and the Cadbury management.

The institutions are not fools, they know that most M&A actually destroys shareholder value. Also they would be investing in a US-listed company at at time when the US economy is, at best, in recovery. The message, loud and clear, was "if you want this company you are going to have pay cash, we want no part of the future."

Have Kraft paid too much? I'm not close enough to the business plans of either company to make that judgement but it is interesting that neither Hershey nor Nestle have come in as a White Knight to rescue Cadbury. What is certain is that Kraft will now have to extract some serious 'synergies' from this deal (for synergies read cost-cutting) in order to make it work.

There is another wider issue here. As I reflected on this last night I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if the boot was on the other foot, if Cadbury had bid for Kraft or Hershey? When Dubai Ports tried to take over six port management operations in the US four years ago an unholy alliance of Conservative Republicans screaming "threat to national security" and trade union Democrats screaming "threat to jobs" defeated the deal in Congress. American legislators may not have been able to make the national security argument over chocolate, but you can bet they would have come up with some reason why it was in American interests to keep these companies in the homeland.

For that matter what would the French response have been if BPB had attempted to take over St Gobain instead of the other way round? The French have long taken a very protectionist view of foreign corporate raiders, famously declaring that yoghurt was a "strategic national asset" when a bid came in for Danone.

Contrast this with the UK where all of our listed companies have giant 'For Sale' signs hanging over them. It is precisely this situation which has led to many of our major energy generators, such as British Energy, being owned by the French or Germans. If that is not a threat to (energy) security then I don't know what is.

The question we now have to ask ourselves in this country is, how much longer are we willing to let major British companies be sold off because the City loves a deal?

Friday, 15 January 2010

What A Load of Twoddle...

I am ashamed to admit it, but last night I watched one of those “I like to talk on Telly Programmes” – you know the sort. Richard Bacon doing the voice over and Z-list celebrities criticising A-listers for doing terrible things like adopting too many children.

I am not too sure what this one was about as I only caught numbers 9 – 3 in the list being discussed but I think it was something to do with people that annoyed Richard Bacon last year.

Somewhere in the 9 – 3 list was “anyone that uses Twitter”. That’ll be me then. It’s good to know that a cocaine sniffing, disgraced (former) Blue Peter presenter finds me annoying as I feel less guilty for wanting to slap him now.

There was much laughter about tweet being two letters away from a naughty swear word with people like Big Cook Ben and Little Cook Small (from questionable C Beebies fame) agreeing that tweeters were twits or [insert naughty swear word here].

Stephen Fry got it in the neck in particular for tweeting about what he had for lunch one day. Now, nearly 1.25 million people follow Stephen Fry on Twitter – that’s a lot of people by anyone’s standard. If he was annoying, they would drop him like a hot potato. Instead, the nation went into semi mourning when he announced a Tweeting break to finish his book on 1 January last year. (Though, of course, he is still tweeting as Mrs Fry so you can all come out of mourning now).

I follow him because he’s witty, intelligent and inspiring – that man can do more with 140 characters than most people could do with a novel.

And I’m on Twitter because it’s good. I can see what the world is talking about, monitor headline news, keep up to date with trends in social media, watch out for press opportunities and “Twitches” and find the right people to do me a lovely Facebook app. Of course, I can also be one of the first people to find out that Kerry Katona is pregnant again - and watching her life unfold in 140 characters always makes me feel good about myself – even when I am having an especially fat day. (In fact, even if I was in prison for stealing haemorrhoid cream from Superdrug – Kerry would make me feel better about myself. It’s a unique quality she has).

Where else could I get all that information, brought to me, wherever I am in the world? Nowhere. Which is why Twitter is good and probably why Mr Bacon himself is on it -

Presumably, therefore, Richard Bacon finds himself annoying? Well, at least he knows how the rest of us are feeling then. The twit!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Seven Deadly Marketing Sins

Yesterday, I foolishly let my guard down and got (briefly) sucked in by a promo man offering me a shiny black paper bag with the name of a cosmetics firm emblazoned across the front. He shouted; “Take one, take one” but it turned out that the bag was empty and it was all a big con possibly designed to make me feel silly – but presumably to make me more inclined to purchase their wares.

Instead, the whole episode got me so cross that I swore there and then that I would rather leave the house with a giant boil on my nose than attempt to disguise it with said company’s concealer, no matter which celebrity tells me how good it is and whatever freebies come with it.

The event reminded me of a trip to the cricket some years back when I was accosted by the Brand Police who stole the crisps out of my picnic because they weren’t Walkers and Walkers were the match sponsors - so all other crisps were as illegal as cocaine and could therefore be justifiably confiscated, even though I had paid good money for them. I can only just about stomach Salt and Linekers now – and it was five years ago that they cruelly stole my Mini Cheddars.

Anyway, yesterday got me thinking and over the years, I have created a black list of companies that – based entirely on their marketing efforts – I have banned from my house. So, here’s the list – “My Seven Deadly Marketing Sins”. More additions very welcome.

· Companies whose adverts, quite frankly, make me feel physically sick – like the boy who will only poo at Pauls’ house. Poor Paul. Hope no one ever comes to my house just to do that.
· Businesses who persuade celebrities to sell out – like Iggy Pop and Swift or John Lydon and butter - but top of the list by a country mile is Carol Vorderman, a mathematical genius who will happily sell subprime loans to the unemployed. Yes, thanks to Carol you too can convert all your niggling debts into one life crushing loan.
· Brands who are so determined to make money out of Brits that they can’t even be bothered to reshoot ads for their target audience. Stick a British voice over the top. Job done. Just for Men and “The Man Who Now Needs More Ties” currently at the top of this particular hate list.
· Companies who think I am stupid. Very stupid. So stupid , in fact, that they think I will actually believe they interviewed a family of five about their love of low fat rice pudding and how they couldn’t get enough of it. You know the one - mum shocked that teen boy has sometimes stolen it out of the fridge. (Two main issues with that – 1. men can’t find anything in the fridge and 2. only thing teen boy would actually want from the fridge is lager.)
· Businesses who tell porkie pies. Remember Rick Mayall and Virgin? Remember his colleagues relaxing at a table of four planning for a key business meet. Where was the fat sweaty man, eating the cheese and onion pasty? Where was the guy with the iPod at max and where were all the people with standing room only?
· Businesses that get carried away, like BT. Don’t care about that couple (her from Spooks and him from My Family) – they strike me as ill-matched anyway.
· Anyone who stops me on the street when I clearly have two unhappy children, a crotchety husband and a hangover. There’s a time and place to sell and Touchwood at 1300 on a wet Saturday is not it.

I could go on but I have made my point and have ruined my PR chances with enough firms for one day. Unless they want to repent their sins and are after an agency who can rectify those wrongs? Well, you can but try...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Beyond silo marketing

How many times have you phoned an organisation as a customer only to be told "that's another division, you'll have to phone another number" or "we can't do that, they're a separate company".

A classic example of this is the UK financial services sector, multiple product companies which organise themselves by silo (mortgages, savings, current accounts, insurance etc) all with separate contact centres and customer contact details.

Let me give you an example. At the moment I have a current account, a mortgage, two ISAs and a long term savings product with the Nationwide Building Society. I am a good customer and they want more, regularly bombarding me with information about other products. I was in the Bromsgrove branch on a Saturday a few months ago and one of cashiers tried to sell me yet another savings product.

"What's in it for me?" I asked.

"Well it's a good rate of interest" was the reply.

"Yes, but its no better than what I could get by going online" I countered. "Perhaps if you offered me an incentive, an eighth of a percentage point off my mortgage for example."

I know it was never going to happen, I was just feeling difficult, but you can imagine the reply.

"We can't do that, they're separate divisions."

I was therefore intrigued to read a profile of the Santander Bank in this week's Time Magazine. Buried deep in the profile is one of the secrets of Santander's success, namely a computer programme, called Parthenon, which does nothing more impressive than group information by customer rather than product. That's right, all of an individual's interactions with the bank grouped in one place, no silos or separate divisions.

Parthenon has enabled Santander to strip out millions in costs from its acquisition of Abbey National, it has aided cross-selling opportunities and, crucially, enables Abbey to offer incentives in the form of highly competitive interest rates, to good customers.

Apparently, this is revolutionary for the banking sector, but there is a lesson for all business here. You may think you are being customer focussed by being terribly polite and attentive, but if you are forcing customers to navigate your own internal organisation then you are not and ultimately you will pay for it.

Monday, 11 January 2010

You're making it up!

According to the Federation of Small Businesses the heavy snowfall of Wednesday last week and the resulting transport chaos which encouraged about half of the population, on the advice of the major motoring organisations, to not even attempt to go into work, will cost the UK economy approximately £1.2 billion (apparently that is a cautious estimate and the actual cost could be higher).

This is a staggering amount of money, but how did they come up with that figure? For that matter when we have a bank holiday how does the CBI come up with its traditional astronomical sum for how much it costs UK plc. No basis for these calculations is ever given, the numbers just seem to appear out of thin air and are greedily gobbled up by a media which loves nothing more than to wallow in negativity. We're all doomed!

It is tempting to go along with this until you hear actual stories from the frontline. Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury's reported on BBC Breakfast News last week that all his delivery trucks made their drops on Wednesday despite the snow and all his stores were open. Every client I called had either made it into work or was dilligently working from home, quite capable of carrying on with their home computers and mobile phones.

Of course some businesses will have suffered, many retailers have had a difficult time with the cold weather and leisure attractions have also been hit hard. But, I can't help feeling that the publication of these apocalyptic numbers is reaching its sell-by date, not least because it does nothing for business confidence.

As a New Year's resolution I choose to close my ears to this rubbish from now on.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Why Round Robins Should Go the Way of the Dodo

24 hours into my new life as a tidy, teetotal, organised, working mother supremo, I feel smug enough to make a dig at those that aren’t, quite frankly, as brilliant as me.

Let me, therefore, draw your attention to a number of emails I have received in recent days. Emails remember.

The first was from a market leading telesales company specialising in lead generation for creative industries asking me to consider using their services this year; another from a training company wanting to sell me courses in “communication skills” and the third, and arguably best, from a telesales / unnamed lead generation company I actually used once upon a time. In said email, they made no reference to our former working relationship and even began the email, “Dear Jane Ainsworth”. No one has referred to me by my full name since the days of the school register, and I was Jane Flower then anyway.

So, is this (in my view) over reliance of email down to incompetence or laziness? Laziness – surely. With the click of a button you can flog your business to a thousand contacts. You don’t have to pick up the phone once so no one can be rude to you and make you feel all sad, rejected unloved and lonely.

Now, I love emails more than most. My husband is lost for words when I quickly check the iPhone when one (or both) of the children wake us at 2am. But “round robins” and “mail merges” have me reaching for the bin icon quicker than a three year old can unwrap a present at Christmas.

At a seminar I attended recently, the trainer asked how many people intended to increase their e-marketing efforts in 2010. Everyone put their hands up. God help us all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want my phone ringing off the hook either – but I do think it’s about time that certain businesses realised there is more to e-marketing than whacking out a mass email. Like there is more to digital marketing than just being on Facebook. You have to make an effort when you get there.

Nothing new here. We’ve been tailoring press releases to suit the media for which they are intended since the dawn of time. And we don’t do mass emails to journalists. That would be rude.

So, you mass emailers (and you know who you are), if you want me to part with my profits to increase yours – invest 59 seconds into typing my proper name and a nice note to make me feel special. If I can send my children to school with newly polished shoes every morning, cross off everything on my things to do list by lunch time, complete timesheets before 1700, cook fresh food for the family every evening and do 30 minutes of exercise every night – it is surely the very least you can do for me?

PD and the DG of the BBC

I suspect the Director General (DG) of the BBC was expecting a cosy post-Christmas chat when he agreed to appear on the Today programme guest edited by the crime writer PD James on 31st December.

I didn’t listen to it myself (being laid up in hospital with a broken ankle I only had access to Radio Warrington General which was only marginally more bearable than the quality of food on offer) but I have since read an account kindly provided by the Daily Mail.

Instead of a cosy chat PD launched into a forensic examination of the current state of the BBC. A mere blog is not enough space to cover all her areas of probing (needless to say she was unimpressed with the quality of programming on BBC3, in particular ‘Help me Anthea, I’m Infested’) but there was one area of interrogation which will be of interest to all those in PR.

PD questioned the number of senior communications people the BBC has on its staff and their seemingly overlapping spheres of influence. The current count is that the BBC has four senior executives with responsibly for communications, audience interaction or brand. In fact there is currently a ‘Director of Marketing and Communications and Audiences’ and a ‘Director of Communications’ both in post.

Even more staggering is the size of salaries being paid. The Director of Marketing Communications and Audiences is currently paid £310,000 a year. The Director of Communications nearly £250,000.

The usual excuses were rolled out by the DG, ‘market forces’, fear of losing high quality people to commercial rivals, in line with the private sector etc.

I suspect most PR people reading this, even those in the heady echelons of financial PR in London, will be delighted to hear that they can expect to earn up to £310k at some point in their career. This by the way is exactly the same amount earned last year by the UK Managing Director of Northgate PLC, a FTSE 250, including bonus. Of course the difference is that Phil Moorhouse of Northgate is answerable to his shareholders, has forecasts and budgets to hit. The Director of Marketing Communications and Audiences at the BBC is answerable to er ... well good question!

The DG is of course talking complete tosh and gives the impression he is completely out of touch with reality, which is not good as the Beeb is under pressure as never before.

I have documented recent BBC failings in a previous blog, but you can be sure that David Cameron has not let this one slip past him. Dave is a former Head of Communications for BskyB (you can bet Murdoch didn’t pay him £310k a year) and will be under pressure from his former employer to break up what News Corporation regards as a state-sponsored monopolist. The Beeb cannot afford this sort of public relations disaster, particularly at a time when scrutiny of public sector spending has never been more stark.

However, even in this debacle, you can see still why the BBC is a national treasure which needs preserving, but reforming urgently. PD conducted her examination of the Director General on the BBC Today Programme without fear of censorship or the heavy hand of interference from either shareholders or senior management. In the world of News Corporation this was akin to the The Times conducting an investigation into The Sun. How likely is that?