Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The British press – from zeroes to heroes in one week!

What a difference a week makes! This time last week we were wallowing in reports of an unnamed footballers antics which left many quietly despairing of the British media. Today, however, showcases what is best about a free press and investigative journalism.

It is a fact that 90 per cent of the journalists who attended yesterday’s twin farces at FIFA HQ in Zurich, namely the Ethics Committee findings into bribery and Sepp Blatter’s press conference, were British. Does the rest of the footballing world not care? Well apparently not, because FIFA’s “difficulties”, to quote Sepp, only make page 11 of L’Equipe in France and page 15 of Gazetto Della Sport in Italy.

To those who weren’t following yesterday’s events I can offer a quick recap. We now know (we even have photographic evidence) that bribes of $40,000 each were handed out to members of FIFA to try and get them to vote for the chap who was going to run against Sepp for the FIFA Presidency.

We also now know that Sepp himself was handing out money, computers and other IT equipment to Caribbean football projects only a few weeks ago. Of course this wasn’t in order to get their votes. Oh no, nice Uncle Sepp wouldn’t do a naughty thing like that, they were gifts!

We have also had it confirmed that Qatar’s winning World Cup bid was also probably oiled by bribes to FIFA ExCo members, 11 of whom out of a total of 24 are now tainted by corruption.

Actually that one isn’t much of a surprise. Nobody in their right minds would award a World Cup to a country with no football infrastructure and temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade in July! For crying out loud not even the Arabs stay in Qatar in July!

There are a number of points here. Firstly, it is now clear that the Prime Minister, heir to the throne and the entire FA had no business dealing with this organisation in December of last year. I’m no monarchist but I sincerely hope that was the last time any heir to the throne is asked to prostrate themselves in front of FIFA.

Secondly, many will argue that these revelations are clear evidence that the media must be allowed to investigate whoever and wherever it wants. I’m afraid I still don’t buy that. There is in my mind a clear difference between institutional corruption and personal, private issues.

Finally, I would like to know when we can expect the fulsome public apologies from those politicians, ex-footballers and journalists (I’m looking at you David Cameron, Ian Wright and Henry Winter) who poured scorn on the timing of the Panorama and Sunday Times revelations of bribery and corruption (I specifically remember the term unpatriotic being used) which were made only two days before the FIFA ExCo vote in December last year?

Gentlemen, we are all waiting!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

How not to handle the media!

Can people change? I’ve always taken a charitable view of human nature and have chosen to believe that individuals can turn their lives around, learn a little humility and begin to act a little differently towards their fellow humans. But, I have to say, Tiger Woods is sorely testing this theory!

His post-round interview at the US Masters in April was a monument to stonewalling. It went like this:

Q1: Do you feel you played well enough to win? Answer: “One stroke back. We’ll see.”

Q2. Do you feel you are back in the swing now? Answer: “One stroke back. We’ll see.”

Q3. (Interviewer clearly getting flustered) What are your plans now, are you going to the driving range? Answer: “Gonna eat. I’m starved.”

Thank you Tiger for that in-depth analysis. OK, maybe he was deeply disappointed in his performance (if he’d have made a few more of the putts he used to make he’d have won at a canter) but a little civility towards the poor interviewer and some information for the viewers would not have gone amiss.

Anyway, all of this almost pales into insignificance compared to tweets from Mr Woods and entourage this week.

Firstly, Greg McLaughlin, head of the Tiger Woods Foundation. “Tiger Woods arrives in Philly for AT&T National media day tomorrow. Puts the % of media questions re injury & US Open at greater than 50%”. Ha ha ha!

This was followed by Mr Woods himself a day later with: “Almost press conference time. I’ll donate $1 million to the TW Foundation if no one asks about the leg” and “Press Conference time. Off to visit with my best friends”.

There are several points here. Firstly, Woods is still clearly very angry at the media and seems unable to distinguish between golf writers who bizarrely want to write about golf and The National Enquirer who want to write about his ‘indiscretions’. As any decent PR person will tell you, never ever put an angry person in front of the media and don't give them access to a Twitter account.

Secondly, Geoff Shackelford, the American golf blogger, made this point on Tuesday: “It really is remarkable that at this point they call a press conference after everything that happened - namely the lies - and hope to get nothing but fawning softballs.” Well yes exactly Geoff, the idea that professional golf journalists are going to go to a press conference and not ask about the #1 subject in golf at the moment, namely Woods’ leg, is extraordinary!

One final point. There was much discussion at the time of Woods’ car accident about his need for professional PR support. Personally I was doubtful and the train wreck of the stage managed press conference in Florida confirmed my instincts that he doesn’t listen to anybody.

Now I’m not so sure. Somebody, somewhere has to try and get through to him because we are watching a career, an image, a brand and, most importantly, a life go from very bad to even worse!

Monday, 23 May 2011

I knew Fred the Shred was playing away two months ago!

The news that Fred the Shred Goodwin, Britain’s most hated former banker, was playing away from home (to use the family-friendly metaphor) whilst in charge of one of the biggest banks in the world was not news to me.

Why? Because I had read the Daily Telegraph story from the 10th March which reported Liberal MP John Hemming’s ‘outing’ of the injunction in the House of Commons under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege.

Why, I asked myself at the time, would the Telegraph refer to two other cases of ‘celebrities’ taking out super injunctions to protect extra-marital affairs in paragraphs 9 and 10 of the story unless Freddie had been up to much the same? The clincher was that the paper-based version of the story also carried a photo of Fred with his ‘loyal’ wife.

Friday’s Daily Mail twisted itself into knots defending its right to publish the story on the grounds of public interest, by telling us all that Fred’s bedroom antics had caused him to take his eye off the ball leading to the collapse of the bank.

That’s strange, I thought the collapse of RBS was due to its acquisition of the Dutch investment bank ABN Amro for an inflated price and finding itself massively exposed to the American mortgage credit market, but what do I know.

However, in one respect both Fred and Imogen Thomas of Big Brother fame have done us a great favour in recent weeks.

The absurdity of the current situation is now clear for all to see, from Twitter users unmasking the Premiership footballer in question, through to the Daily Telegraph’s Fred the Shred seed trail and yesterday’s Sunday Herald front page.

The national newspapers would have us believe this is a clear demonstration that privacy laws cannot work in the social media age. That is convenient for them as it leaves them free to continue their campaign to overturn the use of gagging orders and super-injunctions, in order to return to the age of anything goes reporting when the media alone decided what is and what isn’t in the public interest.

I’m not so sure. One of the interesting points to come out of last week’s High Court hearings was that News International did not even bother to use the public interest defence when supporting Imogen’s attempt to overturn the gagging order. I can only assume they were advised that this line of argument would not work with a footballer who has never appeared in the pages of Hello or OK magazine, has never publicly portrayed himself as a ‘family man’ in order to win endorsements and has scrupulously protected his private life for the best part of twenty years. What’s more, the case would never have come to light if it had not been for Imogen’s attempt, in the words of the judge, to blackmail the footballer in question.

I am not for a moment defending either Fred or the footballer. However, it is clear we are now caught between a rock and a hard place, namely the right to privacy, enshrined in the Human Rights Act, and a free press which, at its best, has done much to uncover the dodgy dealings of those in power, such as the MP's expenses scandal, but at its worst is using the public interest defence to invade personal privacy in order to sell more newspapers.

What we need is for somebody, be it Parliament or a beefed up Press Complaints Commission to define what the public interest actually is. Good luck with that one.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Railway lines run South as well as North

I am no expert in transport and its effects on economic development, but I can’t help posing one question about the proposed High Speed Rail Link (HSR) from the Midlands down to London.

What if HSR doesn’t bring economic prosperity from the South East to the Midlands, in the form of corporate locational decisions or productivity benefits and instead funnels economic wealth down South? I’m just asking, after all railway lines, to my recollection, tend to run both ways.

So I did a little research yesterday evening. I asked myself where in the world there is a high speed rail system designed to link major connurbations? There are of course hundreds if not thousands of examples, but I have personal experience of one very good one, namely the Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California.

BART, as it is known, links major towns and cities including San Francisco and Oakland in a space-age like transportation system which was designed to negate the need for a car.

However, in a BART impact study conducted by the academics Grefe and MacDonald the impact on business and economic wealth was found to be negligible. In particular, their findings demonstrated that:

There were no instances were BART could be cited as a significant or causal reason for a locational decision from outside the Bay Area.

There were no instances cited where BART provided a significant efficiency of operation for an existing business.

No case was identified in which the availability of a BART service would have a measurable effect on productivity or operating profit.

There was no evidence that BART in any way affected demand for the products from the San Francisco Bay Area’s export-base industries, including the tourism industry.

In conclusion BART did not and does not increase regional economic growth.

The BART analogy is not a perfect one and I intend to keep an open mind about HSR, as I say I’m no transport expert. Whilst I could see the need for a new runway extension at Birmingham Airport in order to improve the region’s links to North America and Asia, I am not, as yet, convinced by the arguments put forward for rail. Quick Google searches on the internet can find plenty of research (I’m told Barcelona is another example) which demonstrate that the promised economic benefits of new transportation systems never materialise. Birmingham and the wider West Midlands conurbation need to be very careful.

Keeping it local

It was at IFE2011 that I first heard the phrase “local is the new organic.” And isn’t it funny how once you’re made aware of something, it seems to follow you around?

I must declare here that I’m not exactly target market for organic products. According to research, the typical organic buyer is concerned about food safety (either their own or that of their family), aware about health and fitness (they exercise, look out for healthy foods), concerned about the environment (they recycle, worry about animal welfare) but they are ready to pay more for convenience (internet shopping, home delivery). I can comfortably tick one of those boxes, two at a push. But even I get the sense the appeal of organic produce is fading.

A report published by the Soil Association this month says sales of organic products fell by 5.9% to £1.73billiion in 2010. Not a huge decline, but perhaps a sign of things to come? Maybe it’s because people have less money to spend on organic produce, but more and more brands seem to pushing messages of provenance and homegrown above organic values.

Even our own client, craft brewer Freedom Brewery, seems to have the same view. Freedom’s range of four hand-crafted lagers includes Freedom Organic and Freedom Organic Dark, both approved by the Soil Association. But despite this it’s the English provenance of their drinks which holds most resonance with customers.

I’m by no means saying that organic is a fad which will be left in the naughties with the likes of Big Brother and the Crazy Frog but if the current trends continue, is there a future for organic produce? I’m here to be proven wrong.

BBC Shows Joined-Up Thinking

Thank you to the Young Directors of the IOD West Midlands for inviting me as a guest at a breakfast at the BBC this week to hear about their current news policy.

While I stretch the boundaries of “ young” there were others there that did the same and it was good to be included.

With so many changes across media and the growth of on-line news channels, keeping up with what is going on is essential in communications.

I wasn’t surprised to hear how the BBC’s digital service is an outstanding success ( I am addicted to my BBC app), but it was interesting to hear that, as a result, the BBC was reducing its format and team to give other media channels a chance to compete .

I was taken back to hear that a pilot that successfully reached all its objectives to cover on-line news with videos across local Midland areas was not taken further as it would potentially dominate and prohibit other local on –line news initiatives.

You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to realise that the strength of the BBC brand would create a strong local following – so it seems strange they even decided to test the pilot in the first place.

Back to commonsense. The journalists across BBC Radio WM, BBC TV Midlands Today and on-line are now sitting together and joining resources and sharing stories . A good move.

You wonder why this hasn’t happened earlier but with the BBC such a historic institution these things do take time to filter through. Economic pressure to ensure operations are running as cost effectively as they can deliver positive results although , like other businesses, this inevitably results in some staff reductions.

And just when you think everything changes, it is reassuring to hear that the managing news editor for the BBC, Keith Birch, believes building relationships and dropping a personal note with a short summary on the story works best….along, of course, with a great story in the first place.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The real story from the local elections

Today’s Big news is not the LibDems getting kicked in the local elections or what it means for the future of the coalition or what it means for Nick Clegg’s future as Deputy Prime Minister. Neither is it the large numbers of new Labour councillors that have been elected in what appears like a half decent night for Ed Milliband.

The big story today is in Scotland and what it may mean for the future of the United Kingdom. For Alex Salmond to pull off a second term at Holyrood despite the electoral system up there being stacked against him (they use a form of AV, oh the irony!) is an achievement. For him to be in sight of an overall majority which could allow him to have a referendum on independence is earth-shattering.

If you consider that a mere two years ago Salmond was on the rocks having hung his hat on creating a banking “Arc of Prosperity” along with Iceland - only for Royal Bank of Scotland to pull the entire UK almost singlehandedly into penury – his comeback is astonishing. During the General Election campaign last year I met James Cook of the BBC and asked him whether Salmond was still in ‘Father of the Nation’ mode North of the Border. James was succinct in his answer. “Don’t underestimate him,” he told me “of all the party leaders he is the most skilled.” How right James was and you can bet your hat that Salmond is confident now that he can hold a referendum on his long-cherished dream of independence.

There will be many English today who take the view “let them see if they can survive without us”. It would certainly be interesting with the majority of the Scottish population employed in public sector and not wealth creating jobs. What’s more we must ask the question whether the Scots would want to go it on their own without the benefit of the Barnett Formula which currently allocates more than £1,500 of public money per person more for Scotland than England.

But, there are issues for the English as well. What would happen to our place on the United Nations Security Council? Would there still be a British Army, bearing in mind that a large proportion of our manpower is taken from North of the Border? What would happen to our renewable energy policy, bearing in mind that some of our biggest wind farms are situated off the coast of Scotland and tidal power is almost completely based up there?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but if anyone thinks that Salmond’s gains are purely a matter for the Scots then think again.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

You Heard it Here First. News of Bin Laden Breaks on Twitter

If rumours are to be believed, not only did Twitter see the highest sustained level of activity EVER on Monday – news of his not so sad demise also broke on the social network. How times change.

Now, this blog isn’t about whether I think the American should / should not have pinged the man. No, it’s my round up of the top ten tweets that stood out on the network’s busiest day in history -for right or wrong. I will say this though – Osama Bin Laden fans might find certain content offensive. Everyone else should find the list a useful overview of Monday’s Twittersphere. And what a busy day it was...

1. First up @rob_zooter for bringing me the news so perfectly:
“Twitter changing the way modern news is reported. Never expected Phil Neville to be the 1st person to tell me Bin Laden’s dead.”
2. Next up @jedhallam for making a brilliant point, and justifying my near allergy of pre-scheduled tweets:
“So people that set up autotweets will be feeling pretty daft today”
3. For highlighting the above so perfectly @Ginner
“Guys. They just got Bin Laden! RT @planetjedward. When you wear a hat any type of hat [SIC] it always makes your hear soft.”
NB. Young people actually look up to these people. How. Very. Very. Depressing.
4. For summing up all that is wrong with Daybreak / why no one watches it in less than 140 characters (not all that hard when you think about it)@richardbbacon:
“Lorraine rolling with all the latest Kate and William kissed three days ago developments. They’re hoping to slip in the OBL news on Thursday.”
And no one watches this programme? Really?
5. For making me properly chuckle on the way to the gym (A time of day when I never, ever chuckle – believe me) @Vimto_C:
“How did they finally find Bin Laden? Clearly through his Sony Playstation account details.”
I wish I shared this wit.
6. For brilliant journalistic commentary @alunthorne:
“Clear what was on Obama’s mind when referring to silliness. Absolutely beautiful”.
7. For putting it all in perspective @WillHeaven:
“Suspect Prince William and Kate Middleton would have had a quiet honeymoon after all.”
(Though know which story Daybreak would have followed and it wouldn’t have seen anyone going to a small town in Pakistan unless a Windsor was spotted on a sunlounger)
8. For saying what I was thinking, only putting it much better @Herring1967:
“Isn’t the real story that Bin Laden was actually alive?”
Was very pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who bought the propaganda that the Al Jazeera videos were fronted by a particularly good look-a-like come impressionist.
9. For being the first person to share the Bank Holiday bin joke which, I admit, quickly became painfully bad @peterfirman:
“I didn’t think there was a Bin collection on a bank holiday.”
I know, groan.
10. For making my feel a little bid bad for laughing at the twitter stream of jokes (which were funny, come on) @laurenceb
Waizer says it “9/11 survivor best: But I just can’t find it in me to be glad that one more person is dead, even if it is Osama Bin Laden.”

Makes it all too real, doesn’t it?