Thursday, 23 September 2010

A whiff of news management in the air!

Just a quick word on the table thumping of the last few weeks. With the Autumn Spending Review less than four weeks away all hell is threatening to break loose as all wings of the political spectrum from the trade unions, through to the normally mild-mannered LibDems get themselves in a huff about the potential carnage in public services.

As a client of mine said recently, “they’re running it [Government] like a business, saying you’ve got to take 25 per cent out of your departmental budgets, but what would you do if you had to take 40 per cent?” Clever, in that it identifies other areas of potential cutting, but it also gets the bigger figure out there, which of course the media and those opposed to balancing the budget latch onto.

Of course the unions have bought wholeheartedly into this. I heard Mark Serwotka of the Public & Commercial Services Union last week say that actually the debt wasn’t that bad and that we spent most of the last century with a borrowing requirement much greater than the one we have know.

Well yes, technically that’s true Mark, but the last century also played host to two world wars which all but bankrupted this country, and the Great Depression. That’s not to mention such trifles as oil shocks, IMF crises etc.

My gut feeling is that we are being news managed (it takes a PR man to spot it!). Yes there will be cuts but I would put money on the lower end of the spectrum with us all breathing a huge sigh of relief on October 21st.

Friday, 17 September 2010

What has happened to the party of Lincoln?

I have at times bemoaned the duality of British party politics (I think it is looking every day even more of a duality despite a third ‘force’ arriving in the shape of the LibDems) and have wondered whether a primary system to elect party candidates for general elections would help bring fresh thinking and new blood into parliament.

Then I look at the American system and conclude we are much better off with what we’ve got. Tuesday’s primary election results demonstrate what can happen when a major political party is hijacked by one of its wings, in this case the American Tea Party movement, spearheaded by Sarah Palin.

Christine O’Donnell who beat the establishment Republican candidate in Delaware is the new poster girl for ‘Tea Party-ists’. She is a product of the Christian Right who believes the Bible should be interpreted literally and is anti-masturbation, pro-guns and pro-torture (I’m not kidding!). She is widely regarded as being unelectable in the general election when she will face a Democrat on the first Tuesday in November.

Personally, I can’t wait to read her manifesto. Presumably the American public will be told that they can sell their youngest daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7) and put to death any shop workers who defy the Sabbath and turn in for work (Exodus 35:2).

I’m being facetious, but there is a wider point here. Moderate Republicans, who are willing to reach ‘across the aisle’ and look for bi-partisan agreement in Congress on key legislation which could help lift the US economy out of recession and put people back into work, fear being branded collaborators or even worse ‘liberal’ by the Tea Party Movement who have no qualms about putting up one of their own candidates in a primary to face them.

How long will this go on for? There have been ‘movements’ in American politics before, notably the Bull Moose Party, the Progressives, the Populists and even Ross Perot. All have shone brightly for a time and then flamed out. It is likely that the Tea Party Movement will go the same way, but it could cause unbelievable damage in the meantime. It is difficult to believe at times that this Republican Party is the same party that Abraham Lincoln belonged to.

For Obama, the Tea Party movement is good news. He was looking at a whitewash in November but can now brand the Republicans as extremist. There is every chance now that the Democrats can hang onto the Senate even if they lose the House.

However, the Democrats have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory or in this case catastrophe from the jaws of a setback. As British comedian John Oliver said last night on the satirical news programme The Daily Show, he fully expects a leading Democrat to be photographed battering to death the American Eagle with a copy of the Koran any day now.

Friday, 10 September 2010

A taxing problem for the Revenue (and the rest of us)

The current problems of HM Revenue & Customs in relation to the circa six million people who have had their tax bills incorrectly calculated highlights two truths about the UK’s current taxation system. Firstly, that the current PAYE (Pay As You Earn) method of payment is failing to cope and, secondly, our tax system is unbelievably complex.

PAYE dates back sixty years to a far simpler time when people stayed in one job their whole working lives. The only calculation involved taking a percentage of yearly salary which didn’t change very much. Contrast that with current transient working habits with the average stay in a job somewhere around three years, contract working, part-time working and an employment benefits system, which includes company cars, healthcare and bonuses, all of which must be included in the calculation.

Now factor in more recent changes to the taxation system like child tax credits, which involves taking a calculation of a combined household’s income. The result is failure of the kind we are witnessing now.

The advice from the Institute of Taxation earlier this week was that anyone receiving a letter should check their new tax calculation very carefully. That’s all well and good but I remember talking to the tax office about company car taxation many years ago and coming away more than a little confused and with a blinding headache.

The truth of the matter is we now have the worst of both worlds, a failing PAYE system that is struggling to cope which is part of a wider taxation system which is so complex the average man in the street has little hope of being able to spot any mistakes.

Our current Chancellor has already initiated a review of the current taxation system to make it much simpler. It can’t report a moment too soon.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Have I Got News for You? No, actually.

Is it just me or is the news just not, well, news at the moment?

Last week, we had some particularly curious headlines like “PM Used to Enjoy Wine with Dinner” and then “Man Shared Twin Bedroom with Colleague” and today I turned on the lunch time news to discover that a story about Rooney allegedly, reportedly, supposedly etc, sleeping with a(nother) prostitute was number two in the running order.

Did it put me off my lunch? Yes. Did it surprise me? No. Shame these footballers aren’t as energetic with their tackles as they are with their tackle, really.

If you go along with the “Man Bites Dog” theory then “Footballer Doesn’t Cheat on Attractive but Stupid Wife” is much more of a story than” Footballer Pays Granny for Sex”. I am beginning to think they need their big fat wage packets just to keep their libido at bay.

More worrying than all this though, is some peoples' reaction to all this terrible news. And I don’t mean terrible as in tragic – I mean terrible as in utterly rubbish.

I had the pleasure of spending some seven hours in my car on the day that Blair’s book came out and I was completely gripped by the total complete fools calling into 5 Live. One lady actually, genuinely, I kid you not - said that Blair had no idea what stress really was as he had never tried to bring a family up on a strict budget.

Now, I’m not saying that dragging a pair of screaming kids round Iceland on a wet Tuesday is a barrel of laughs (look what it did to Kerry Katona) but it has got to beat deciding who to wage war on next.

Quite frankly, if I was Blair I would have had gin fed to me by intravenous drip.

Another caller said she was shocked that Blair found evenings “long” when he had four children to look after. Apparently, it didn’t even cross her mind that he was perhaps referring to long, late night political engagements - as opposed to hours spent paring the kids’ socks.

And as for the story about Hague – I just don’t get it at all. I too have shared hotel bedrooms over the years with a variety of people – my husband, my best friend, my colleague, my sister and my mum. I can categorically state that I am not adulterous, incestuous or homosexual. I just refuse to spend more than I absolutely have to lying awake in an overheated room, listening to a footballer paying for sex in the room next door.

I like silly season when it means that I get my PR stories picked up more easily - and I like silly season when stories about dogs that can bark Ava Maria get prime time coverage but when we obsess over the ridiculous (Hague) and the revolting (Rooney), I am not so keen. So, some words I never thought I would utter – come back politicians. We miss you.

Fans left wondering what next for Villa

Sorry girls, there’s not a single mention of weddings, Sex and the City or Christina Hendricks in this one. But it’s a frustrating time for Villa fans.

Ever since Martin O’Neill walked away from Aston Villa on August 9th, I, like many Villa fans, have been left wondering ‘what next?’ As a fan living and working in Birmingham , it seems to me that O’Neill’s departure (and that of his coaching staff) ripped the heart out of the club. Only once he left did we see the extent to which he “ran the ship”.

By the time he left, Martin O’Neill had split opinions on the Holte End. For me, despite some obvious misgivings on and off the pitch, he brought a buzz back to Villa Park. For the Moscow debacle, he gave us those wins Anfield and Old Trafford. For not playing a right back for two years, he gave us two trips to Wembley. And for Emile Heskey, he made us a top six club again. But what next?

For four years our American owners have been lauded for taking a back seat and doing things ‘the right way’. But it felt as though they spent the first few weeks frantically struggling to fill holes they didn’t know they had once the boss walked. Maybe it wasn’t helped by Randy’s back-seat ethos, but for the first time there have been some rumbles of discontent with Mr Lerner and co.

For whatever reason it’s led to a long search for the new manager and this one has gripped me more than any other. I’ve found myself reading more rumour sites and forums than ever before. We’ve seen every possible name mentioned, from the famous (Eriksson) to the unknown (Rangnick), from the nearby (McLeish) to the far-away (Bradley) and from young (Southgate) to the old (Hiddink).

And, of course, this is the Twitter generation. For the first time as a Villa fan I’ve been privileged to enjoy some fascinating insights from journalists. Thanks to @Neil_Moxley_DM, @Villa_Insider and @BrumRoadRunner for keeping me sane when the Gareth Southgate/Phil Brown/*Insert uninspiring manager here* rumours got too much.

So what IS next? It seems today as though Gerard Houllier is close to being appointed and for what it’s worth I think he could do a good job if his health is up to it. But if reports are true, he’s bringing (God help us) Phil Thompson with him. I’m not sure I can comment on that one without swearing. Let’s just hope they find room for Kevin MacDonald somewhere in the set-up.

We’ll never know if O’Neill could have taken Villa any further but it’s time for Houllier to try something new. Good luck Gerard, you’ll need it. I’m off to put a tenner on O’Neill to be the next England manager.

Businesses Can Only Exploit Graduates Lacking Initiative

I thought it was a shame to read that graduates feel they are being 'exploited' in PRWeek last week. Just two and a half years ago I was in the same position many graduates find themselves in today - out of work and wondering what to do next.

Having completed two work experience placements throughout my years at university I was fairly sure I wanted a career in PR. But, before I planned how my career would span within the communications industry, I thought it best to call (yes pick up the phone) a few of the top local agencies and find out where the opportunities were.

After some tactical Googling, I was presented with an index of all PR agencies in Birmingham. I went through the list over a course of two hours, checking out the company website and creds until I had narrowed the list from around 45 to 10. I then began to call around and have a chat with the appropriate person at each agency and it wasn't long before Willoughby PR asked me to come in.

After a short chat over coffee (which is an occasion where you never know what to wear!) I was invited for a four week work placement. There was no talk of wage and, to be honest, I didn't feel I was in a position to ask for one. This to me, wasn't 'exploitation' but an agency offering me the chance to go behind the scenes at their workplace and begin to build up the skillset required for the job.

Having said that, I understand certain companies may be taking advantage of the graduates and their hunger to get onto the career ladder. Alex Try for instance, who worked for three months at a national newspaper and two months at a Westminster think tank was left frustrated when, both unpaid instances, left him jobless and in debt. He then went on to set up a website to see who else had suffered similar experiences and was shocked when hundreds of people began to log on and share their work experience horror stories.

The site now aims to connect those on the hunt for a job by sharing news and opportunities - it's certainly worth a look.

And I have found there are some other great places where those looking for a job can go for support:

Moving back to PR specifically, Ben Cotton a recent graduate working as part of Edelman's digital team is a great advocate for those looking for their first break in the industry spreading the word about intern opportunities and jobs for new starters as well as offering some invaluable advice.

Being region specific for a moment, in Birmingham we have BHive a network that aims to connect creative professionals with interns and, as part of a competition mechanic, offers several paid internships at some of the best agencies in the Midlands. A few weeks ago we enjoyed the presence of a paid work placement of a girl who had won a regional competition.

Ao I would say that whilst exploitation is going on, I don't necessarily believe it is happening (on a widespread level anyway) in PR and certainly not in PR in Birmingham (all of you out there may be able to give me a better idea of other regions).

Are graduates sick of busting their guts at an unpaid never-ending work placement that turns out to be fruitless? Yes.

But all we can do as a business is reward those getting involved with competitive work placement schemes (such as BHive) or be ready and willing to accept that call with a difference or CV that leaves us blown away.

Our MD recently blogged about graduates today (to great success) criticising the way in which some of the graduates go about their job hunt. I am inclined to agree.

It was reported that up to 40,000 graduates would join the jobless role from the class of 2009 and a number of my own classmates (from 2008) remain jobless today.

I think more than ever you have to be sure about the career you want to work in and be able to justify it until you're blue in the face - sending out one pleading email filled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors to an undisclosed number of industry heads just won't cut it.

And I believe (and please disagree if you do) that in the long term we will be thankful that such a hard search has forced us to pick an option we can really rally for. Where we have to live and breathe it until we can go in and show our prospective employers initiative which, if you as me, is the core most important quality when you are looking to employ someone new.

So rather than scale the job sites and continue the fruitless hunt, why not take a moment and remember what you love?

Then, from that, find your calling and use your head to make yourself stand out.

The jobs are out there - you just need to ignore the path that everyone is travelling down and try a different tact.

Friday, 3 September 2010

New York Times puts Met PR in the dock

That it has taken the ‘Paper of Record’ to bring to light not only more evidence of continued News of the World phone-hacking, but also the lackadaisical approach of the Metropolitan Police towards investigating illegal phone-tapping operations, is only one extraordinary part of this unfolding story.

The entire New York Times article can be read HERE (it’s eight pages long so one for lunchtime probably!) but for those who have better things to do the facts are these. Firstly, unnamed sources within News International are now saying that Andy Coulson, then editor of NOTW and now David Cameron’s director or communications, knew full well what was going on and actively encouraged it.

There’s no surprise there, but what is extraordinary is the role of the Metropolitan police. Apparently, the Met’ has chosen not to investigate evidence of industrial-scale phone hacking of celebrities, MPs, members of the security services, football administrators because they were too busy, choosing to limit its investigations to hacking of Prince Harry’s phone.

What’s more, the Met’ has chosen not to inform those hacked by the NOTW that they had been targeted, which means that the targets can’t launch civil lawsuits against News International which could cost the organisation hundreds of millions. Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association, has already taken them for £700,000 for one hack.

The article infers that the cosy relationship between the Met’ and the NOTW, encouraged and defended by police communications people (subsequently denied), has got in the way of the legal system. In other words, neither party wanted to disturb the flow of tip-offs about arrests in return for positve police-friendly headlines.

There are a number of concerns here, not least that hacking, according to the article, continues at the NOTW to this day and also the role of Coulson as special adviser to the Prime Minister.

However, I believe there is also a wider issue, namely the precise role of civilian PR representatives within the police service and, critically, how proactive they should be in publicising the work of the police.

I have no problem with the publicising of CSR related ‘good works’or arrest rates. However, working in PR, I know that the natural inclination of the PR person is to justify our existence with news headlines and 'good coverage'. I worry that this tendency has potentially led to television cameras and the press pack outside football manager Harry Redknapp’s house at four o’clock in the morning when the police knocked on his door. What were they doing there? How did they know?

If, and it remains an if, civilian PR people are responsible for these tip-offs then many would argue that they exceeding the boundaries of their job and encouraging the sort of cosy relationships which could potentially hinder the proper investigation of criminal activity.

The Met' is under pressure now and may well have to re-open its investigation, but the New York Times has also highlighted a wider issue which deserves debate in the PR community and beyond.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Blair’s Journey: We need thirty years and an independent biographer

Apparently, the major revelations from the release of Tony Blair’s biography yesterday are that Gordon was difficult to work with (quelle surprise!) and that sometimes the only way he could unwind at the end of another head-banging session with his Chancellor was a large glass of wine or a gin and tonic (I know the feeling!)

I am being facetious, but there is a wider point here. This is the settling of old scores, the wider history of New Labour is yet to be written. What we need now is not Blair book or a Mandelson memoir, but thirty years and an independent biographer.

Why thirty years? Because the passage of time provides perspective. Even Nixon, the most disgraced of modern Presidents, became am elder statesman by the time of his death. Although criticised at the time, much of his foreign policy, rapprochement with China, d├ętente with Russia, now looks positively enlightened compared to Bush 2.

Secondly, time provides the opportunity for the individuals themselves to think again. Robert McNamara in his book, In Retrospect published in 1995, took responsibility for the grave errors of the Vietnam War admitting, “we were wrong, terribly wrong”.

Time also loosens tongues. Robert A Caro, during the course of his research for his mammoth four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, was desperate to speak to George Brown, co-founder with his brother Herman of Brown & Root Engineering Company, who did so much to bankroll Johnson’s political career. Brown refused, until almost his dying breath when he agreed to meet with Caro, giving him much dynamite information, including what Johnson aides like John Connelly actually did with the “brown paper bags stuffed with money” during the disputed 1948 Senate Primary.

Finally, it is often the case that the lesser-lights rather than the ‘big beasts’ cast the most interesting light on the inner workings of Government. Richard Crossman’s diaries, for example, are rightly regarded as the definitive insider’s account of the Wilson Government and, crucially, the workings of the Civil Service. I, for one, would be very interested to hear what Jack Straw has to say about his role in trying to get the second Iraqi resolution through the United Nations Security Council and his removal as Foreign Secretary, but only once he is well out of Government and in his dotage.

I think there is a great book to be written about New Labour, but I very much doubt whether it has been written yet.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Port of Dover sale could be Cable’s first big test

It is difficult to get involved in the debate over the future of the Port of Dover without sounding like a rabid Europhobe, but I’ll try.

The issue is this. The Port, currently owned by the Government, is to be voluntarily privatised in the near future, with the full support of the current management team. A number of bidders are rumoured, including UK-based Forth Ports, a French Consortium (sacre bleu!) along with a plan for it to be bought by the people of Dover.

Inevitably, much of the media has gone to town on this, ignoring the strategic business implications and instead focusing on the trivia, such as 5 Live insisting on interviewing Dame Vera Lynn yesterday with a certain song in the background (“There’ll be bluebirds over . . . blah , blah, blah” you get the drift).

From a business perspective there are two key issues. Firstly (and this is where I potentially sound like a Europhobe) I can’t help but ask whether the French would agree to us buying Boulogne. I suspect not and it is worth remembering that the Chirac Government declared Danone yoghurt a strategic national asset to block a hostile bid from Nestle many years ago. Yes yoghurt!

Secondly, what if a listed British company buys Dover but is then bid for itself by a foreign company? Does the Government just throw up its hands and declare, “nothing we can do, it’s the market!”.

Post-Kraft, Vince Cable, our Business Secretary, has talked about tightening the takeover rules by lifting the threshold for shareholder approval and potentially even introducing a public interest test. Much of this is controversial and the Institute of Directors in its submission to the Takeover Panel, which is investigating a change in the rules, opposed such a measure.

However, again, it must be remembered that other countries have no qualms in ring-fencing companies from foreign takeover citing the public interest, witness the furor in the US when Dubai Ports tried to take over six port management operations four years ago.

There is one other option, namely that the Government holds a strategic percentage blocking stake post-privatisation. This is of course the route that the French Government has taken with the partial privatisation of EDF Energy.