Friday, 29 July 2011

Ford to take away music choice in new models

Ford to take away music choice in new models

With the announcement that Ford has become the first mainstream car manufacturer to do away with CD Players in all of its future models, instantly I can’t help but think about the dollar signs appearing in Steve Jobs’ eyes as the older generation of Ford drivers realise they have to do away with their Rock n Roll, Blues, Jazz, Classical or (more modern music genre) CD collection and invest in an ipod (or other generic mp3 player).

Of course for many drivers, a USB connection is almost a must-have feature nowadays, but is Ford risking alienating those who haven’t embraced the newest form of portable music player just yet? Surely they ought to get the choice when spending £10,000 plus on a new car? Perhaps the next Ford sales promotion will include a free ipod for anyone who buys a new model (again more $ signs for Steve) and a crash course in how to use one.

Working in the digital realm myself, of course I think that developments in digital technology are exceptional and of course nowadays ‘young people’ are generally very switched on to the latest trends, but I’m also sure a fair number of traditional Ford drivers are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. And although many people in these age brackets are tech savvy and have an ipod, there will be plenty that won’t. What’s right for one Ford driver won’t be right for another. Everyone moves at their own pace and I can’t help but think that this approach is a little risky for such a mainstream manufacturer.

I do agree with Sheryl Connelly, global trends and futuring manager at Ford, when she says: “The in-car CD player – much like pay telephones – is destined to fade away in the face of exciting new technology." But just because CD sales are plummeting, doesn’t mean everyone is ready to throw away their huge collections of compact discs just yet. The prospect of a sync system which will allow wireless connection to the internet and in turn allows the car's occupants to connect to their music if it is held on a 'cloud', such as Apple iCloud, Spotify or Google Music is an exciting one, but for many people this will all sound like gibberish at the moment.

I’m all for advancements in technology and cool new gadgets, but in this day and age where, thanks to the internet and social media, consumers hold all the power, choice is the most important thing you can offer and not everyone is ready to lose their car CD player just yet. My view is that all car manufacturers incorporate DAB radio’s as standard in all future models before they scrap the CD player – that way they show they’re up to speed on digital technology, but also provide their customers with a far more varied choice of listening options when they’re on the road. Not only that but it would serve as a much needed boost to the world of digital radio. In fairness to Ford, they now offer DAB radios as standard on the new Focus, and as an option in the Mondeo, S Max and Galaxy models, which I applaud.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Improving Not Moving

It’s a well used term by the home interest magazines but it seems to be truer than ever – people are improving their homes rather than moving, and they are using the web to do their research.

With the recent demise of far too many high street home retailers to mention, and the property market still stuck in the mud, homeowners are sending a clear message; they can’t afford to move house and can’t afford big ticket items for their home.

The home magazines have known this for some time, emphasising ‘quick fix’ and ‘maximise your space’ interior solutions and looking to real readers homes for inspiration on a shoestring. You may wonder who is still buying said magazines in light of this consumer hesitancy but circulations are still up and new titles such as Style At Home, from IPC Media, are appearing on the newsagent’s shelves.

It seems that home magazines give us the best of both worlds; we can indulge our nosy natures and see how other people live whilst maintaining our mental mood boards of what we would like to do to our own homes, one small update at a time.

What’s also great to see is how our favourite reads are really making the most of online, communicating with eager homemakers via their websites, blogs and on Twitter and Facebook. Whilst this might not seem out of the ordinary, it has been a long time coming as just a couple of years ago, it seemed the magazines saw online content as their enemy, resorting to only the most basic of websites.

Times have changed and rather than competing against themselves for readership, the key home interest magazines have their own online plan for engaging their followers and providing them with daily inspiration.

One obvious yet shining example of this is the housetohome network. Bringing together content from the IPC Media stable, including Ideal Home, Homes and Gardens, Country Homes and Interiors, Livingetc, Beautiful Kitchens and 25 Beautiful Homes, this online resource is invaluable to the window shopping homeowner who dreams of a new kitchen but will probably settle for some new cutlery for now. Real Homes and Your Home also offer lots of ideas for home improvement to enjoy over your lunch hour.

With consumer confidence in online shopping at an all time high, the home interest magazines had to evolve if they wanted to compete but there’s no doubt in my mind that our favourite interiors tomes will be around for a long time yet. After all, what else is a coffee table for other than displaying our lifestyle aspirations?

UK Economy: these numbers are bad!

Well, there is no hiding from this. Today's numbers just released by the Office of National Statistics for the UK economy in the second quarter of 2011 are dire.

I’m all for being optimistic, but there is no escaping that the economy is flatlining. Economic activity increased by 0.2 per cent in the second quarter of 2011, following an increase of 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2011. In other words, it’s going backwards.

Total services output increased by 0.5 per cent in the second quarter compared with an increase of 0.9 per cent in the previous quarter (again backwards). The largest contribution to the growth in this quarter was from business services and finance with 0.7 per cent growth.

Transport, storage and communication increased by 1.1 per cent, compared with an increase of 2.5 per cent previously. The story is the same with distribution, hotels and restaurants which increased by 0.3 per cent, compared with an increase of 0.9 per cent.

The one bit of light is construction output which increased by 0.5 per cent in the second quarter, compared with a decrease of 3.4 per cent in the previous quarter.

From a personal point of view (in fact anybody involved in manufacturing PR or engineering PR should be worried) the bullish manufacturing statistics of the last few months appear to have stalled. Manufacturing decreased by 0.3 per cent compared with an increase of 0.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

Where do we go from here? The Chancellor is adamant that there is no Plan B but as one client said to me recently, “as soon as he admits there is a Plan B then Plan A is dead.” What is clear is that the increase in VAT, petrol prices and fear over hefty increases in domestic gas and electricity prices have all given the UK consumer a fright and we are reigning in our spending. In my opinion, there has also been too much talk of austerity measures and comparisons with Greece etal (yes our debt is of a similar size but our economy is six times bigger!).

The Chancellor has taken a gamble. The lesson of the Great Depression was that stagnant economies need to be inflated, which in turn brings more receipts back into the Treasury. Instead he has chosen to take money out of the economy at a critical time.

On such decisions careers are made and lost.

PS: there is a political angle to all of this as well. Today’s numbers play right into Ed Balls’ rhetoric that the Chancellor is in ‘growth denial’. Expect to see Ed all over the news today as he hammers home this point which, on the basis of these numbers, is likely to gain some traction.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Cool Britannia

Britain’s homes are having a love affair with everything British it seems. The trend has been on the rise since the likes of Cath Kidston tap into our love for all things quaint and pretty for the home and the popularity of 'Keep Calm and Carry On' homewares has well and truly gone off the charts in recent months.

I thought that perhaps the royal wedding might have had something to do with it, as the nation banded together to enjoy some care-free patriotism, flag-waving and all. But it hasn’t come to an end now that Wills and Kate are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Open any home magazine and you’ll see red, white and blue, Union Jacks and bunting galore.

A certain Mr Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen once said to us that it was because “there’s a huge groundswell of emotion coming through in our homes right now and we want to incorporate things in our homes that connect us to memories of times when we felt more secure.”

Whatever the reason, homeowners of every age seem to be in love with Britishness and I confess, I am one of them. For example, I simple adore this London montage wall art from M&S. A straw poll in the office proved that I’m not the only one.

There’s no end to inspiration in the home press and it really does seem that Cool Britannia is here to stay. God save the high street queen!

It’s a goddam impossible way of life

What a horrendous weekend of news. Famine, mass murder and Amy Winehouse.

Coverage of the Norwegian massacre was impersonal but then it had to be. Pixilated screens where presumably dead bodies lay kept us a discreet distance from the horror. Watching the coverage on BBC News 24 I was reminded of Stalin’s famous quote, “one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

The Amy Winehouse story was sensitively covered by the BBC and at least here the Corporation could use archive footage of performances. I couldn’t help feeling that we’ve been down this road before though. Cobain, Morrison, Billie Holliday, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Richard Manuel to name but a few.

As I watched the interview obituaries though you couldn’t help but ask yourself the question, why do so many rock stars die in similar circumstances? Are these troubled souls attracted to this world or is the use of hard drugs a necessary part of the creative process?

I recall an interview with Robbie Robertson (anybody under 40 will now say, "who?") on the Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s brilliant film of the very last performance by The Band. In the interview, recorded sometime after the performance, Robertson explains why The Band had to stop. “The road,” he said, in other words the pressures of the album, tour, album, tour treadmill, “has claimed a lot of the greats, Janis, Jimi,” before giving what should probably be the final verdict on the rock star lifestyle, “it’s a goddam impossible way of life.”

Robertson was young enough and smart enough to get off the treadmill. Unfortunately, Winehouse won’t have the chance.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Smoking Ban: Four Years On

You may not know it but this month marks four years since the introduction of a ban on smoking in public places in England. The original arguments of 2007 may have died down, but as a major campaign to amend the smoking ban gains momentum, the same issues continue to rumble on.

Thinking back four years, opinions couldn’t have been more divided. I was a 23 year old beginning a career in public relations and with a list of food and drink PR clients supplying the foodservice industry, I kept a close eye on developments.

While non-smokers cheered, smokers stubbed out their cigarettes in anger. Tobacco companies ran scared and suppliers of outdoor garden furniture, including shelters and patio heaters, rubbed their hands with glee. Many licensees were understandably up in arms about a law which they argued would kill their livelihood. So, four years on, what has been the impact?

One thing is for sure, pubs are in decline. They were in decline long before 2007 though and how much of that is down to the smoking ban needs expert analysis from someone far better positioned than me. While it has clearly had an impact, there is no doubt that supermarket pricing, the rise of social media and of course the recession, have all had their own input to this continued decline over the last four years. According to the campaign to Amend the Smoking Ban, “it is reasonable to predicate” that as many as 20 pub closures per week are due, in part, to the smoking ban.

The ban did signal a shift in attitudes by licensees and many venues looking to recover trade turned to a strong food offer. Pub dining has improved drastically and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that there are more Michelin starred pubs in the UK than ever before. That must be a good thing?

And what about health? This one’s more difficult. One year after the ban, a survey claimed as many as 400,000 people quit as a result of not being able to smoke in public places but others disagree, including Amend the Smoking Ban - which claims there is no evidence to suggest that the ban has reduced the overall smoking rate.

So what next? Retain, amend or repeal? I get the impression this one will drag on.

Phone Hacking: The waves lap around the Prime Minister’s ankles

Sir Paul Stephenson’s extraordinary resignation statement last night has brought the earthquake that is phone hacking to the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police’s long and mostly self-justificatory statement contained, approximately half way through, a knifing in the back of the Prime Minister. Referring to his hiring of former News of the World journalist Neil Wallis, who was last week arrested in relation to phone hacking, Sir Paul made the following comments:

“Once Mr Wallis's name did become associated with Operation Weeting [into phone hacking], I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson."

Sir Paul is in effect saying: “I couldn’t tell you about Wallis because you are close mates with Coulson who would have gone running back to News International to tell them all about our investigation.”

In his statement last night Sir Paul went on to say: "Unlike Mr Coulson, Mr Wallis had not resigned from the News of the World or, to the best of my knowledge been in any way associated with the original phone hacking investigation."

In other words: “I’ve got a good excuse for hiring an ex-News of the World staffer because he hadn’t been forced to resign from his previous job over phone hacking. What’s yours for hiring Coulson after he was forced to resign the editorship of the NOTW?”

There are two key issues now for the Prime Minister. Firstly, to use another Watergate analogy, is there a ‘Smoking Gun’ which points to the fact that he was asked to appoint Coulson by News International or worse forced to appoint him.

The other key issue is how the Tory press will react. Nearly two weeks ago Peter Oborne in the paper turned on the Prime Minster questioning his judgement over appointing Coulson. One veteran reader of the Daily Telegraph said to me it was “the most scathing indictment of a Conservative Prime Minister in the Telegraph since the paper turned on Anthony Eden over the Suez Crisis”.

Many Tory supporters are worried. Last night Tory blogger Iain Dale questioned whether the Prime Minister, indeed the Government, could survive this.

If the Prime Minister is not careful the waves currently lapping around his ankles will be up to his neck.

We live in extraordinary times.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Good Day for Democracy

Yesterday was (another) bad day for Rupert Murdoch and News International but it was a good one for democracy.

Speaker John Bercow (who is rapidly becoming a serious contender for my Man of the Year) has played a blinder in the last few days. In agreeing to an emergency debate on phone-hacking he has placed the House of Commons at the centre of the phone-hacking crisis, which is exactly where it should be.

The previous speaker (Gorbals Mick) would never have dared get on the wrong side of the previous Labour Government in agreeing to a debate, but Bercow has proved he is his own man (one suspects Cameron and the Whips Office are privately furious with him).

I was fortunate enough to be in the car on the way back from a client meeting and able to listen to a packed House during one of its finest hours for many a year. Tom Watson (who for me had the line of the day “News International had entered the criminal underworld”), John Whittingdale, Bob Stewart, Alan Johnson, Nicholas Soames, Yvette Cooper, Simon Hughes and Menzies Campbell all spoke well, eloquently and without shrillness. For the Government, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, made a series of telling points.

For me the big loser was Cameron (it was a good day as well for Ed Miliband at PMQs which even the Daily Telegraph conceded!). Yes the Prime Minister agreed to a Public Inquiry (perhaps even two) but I think he is still behind the curve on this one (and Peter Oborne explains why in today's Telegraph). My concern when he announced an Inquiry was the potential for it to be very narrow in its terms of reference and without teeth. Lo and behold this morning the Independent reports that the PM and Clegg are at loggerheads over whether a judge should take charge of one or both - Clegg wants the judiciary involved, the PM doesn’t.

Frankly, any Inquiry needs teeth and that means a Judge in charge of it who is able to sanction those who refuse to attend (a tried and tested News International tactic) and then cross-examine under oath with all the consequences that entails.

This whole saga now looks as if it could be the high watermark for Rupert Murdoch’s influence on British public life, just as MPs expenses proved a catalyst for the House of Commons. The crucial issue now is how the Government will wriggle out of its commitment to let News International buy BskyB (and it’s going to have to however much it protests!).

Keep watching!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Full disclosure is the only route now for Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch must have thought he was going to have a good summer. The phone-hacking scandal was dying down, Sienna Miller had been paid off and the Culture Secretary had kindly waved through his takeover of BskyB.

And then we find out that the News of the World (NOTW) had been hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone! There are multiple reasons why this is a horrendous story for News International.

Firstly, from a journalistic ethics point of view, it is hard to scrape any lower than this. Regardless of the potential effect on the family of hacking and, crucially deleting, messages it is highly likely that, at best, the NOTW’s actions diverted police resources and, at worst, de-railed an entire investigation at a crucial time.

Secondly, these disclosures widen the dates of the phone hacking back to 2002. We now have a four-year window when we know, categorically, that phone-hacking was taking place, namely 2002 to 2006 not the two-year window (2004-2006) that News International has claimed all along.

Thirdly, Rebekah Brooks, for the first time, can be said to have been in a position, namely editor where, even if she didn’t know, then she should have known what was going on. Previously, under the two-year 2004 to 2006 window she could claim to have been out of the loop.

Finally, this story now has all the potential to gain a foothold in the public consciousness. Previously, exposure of the NOTW’s antics has been almost exclusively the territory of The Guardian and, latterly, The Telegraph, but with the Prime Minister wading in the whole media corps will stoke a strong sense of revulsion on the part of the public.

What does Rupert Murdoch do now? My own view, and it’s long overdue, is that only full disclosure of all the facts, regardless of how painful it will be, will stem the tide now for News International. That means a full cleansing of the augean stables, sackings, full compliance with the police investigation, attendance and an end to stonewalling at Parliamentary Select Committee enquiries and full co-operation with what is looking increasingly like a full Public Inquiry.

PR statements and front page apologies are not going to cut it anymore. What’s more Rupert is probably going to have to cut Brooks free at some point. This will be painful as she is his direct line into Downing Street, but even Nixon eventually sacked his Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.

The Watergate analogy is not cheap. What started out as a “third rate burglary” in the words of the 37th President, eventually brought him down. Murdoch is probably insulated from that fate but he will be keen to ensure that his family are bomb-proof on this one which probably explains why James Murdoch has recently been moved to New York.

Rebekah though is still in London!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Not so positive about Google+

So Google has now revealed its latest hand in the social media battle and once again they’ve upped the ante with Google+. Mind you, it wasn’t too difficult to come back with something better than the much maligned Buzz and Wave. With Facebook rampant and seemingly having the ability to destroy anyone in their path, I can’t help but think, is it really worth the effort and expense?

Announcements this week have unveiled a set of 4 unique features, that do things Facebook doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t do yet. Although some of these features sound appealing on paper, is it really enough to convince 600million Facebook fans to switch allegiance?

My professional stance is that if Google are trying this hard and investing this much cash into getting the social network right, they must have a clever money making strategy in place for how Google+ can generate huge revenues. Therefore I expect that they may make it easier for brands to find fans or likes or +1s or whatever the Google+ equivalent term will be for those that follow a brand and in some way they will charge for this. Immediately I’m drawn to the ‘Sparks’ tool, which will allow users to find people talking about things that interest them and join in the conversation. I can already imagine certain brands salivating about having access to this tool, but I’m sure they will need to cross Google’s palm with silver.

So what else has Google+ got in its locker? The ‘Circles’ element will allow people to group their friends and family, effectively creating a list of mini-communities within their entire group of friends. The idea behind this feature is to cut out some of the noise that Facebook creates, so rather than seeing everything that all of your friends post, you can strip this down so that certain friends are alerted to only content relevant to them. A sensible idea in principle, but one I think will split opinion amongst Facebook users. There is an argument that a lot of people quite like seeing everything that everyone’s up to. I’m also wondering if there is any risk of upsetting people who don’t make it into your ‘best mates circle’?

The other two big tools Google has promised are ‘Hangouts’ and ‘Instant Uploads’. Hangouts look like an enhancement of the instant messenger feature of Facebook crossed with Skype. They allow you to see which friends are online, and then start conversations with them. The difference being that you’ll be able to have group conversations together and will be able to use your webcam and microphone to see and hear your friends and imagine that they’re all with you in the same room. A nice idea but nothing you can’t do already with Skype.

Instant Uploads seems like the best new feature to me. It will sync any picture or video taken on your smartphone with your Google+ account, sending it all to a private storage area automatically with no need to upload anything. You can then instantly access these files and share them straight away with any Circles that you wish to see them. This is a useful piece of kit which will save time and effort for users but is it enough?

Facebook is to social networking, what Google is to search engines, and my personal view is that after having two already botched attempts at social networks, maybe Google should stick to what they do best. Can I really be bothered to set up another ‘profile’ to effectively add the same friends and do the same things I can already do on Facebook? Not really, but I will for two reasons, one because as a digital PR person I’m obliged too, and two, I’m curious. But if I had to place a bet on whether Google+ was really going to compete with Facebook, I’d say no, no matter what the odds were.

UK Manufacturing: Suddenly it’s sexy again!

Take a look at the advertisement on the right. Now look again. No, your eyes are not deceiving you, this is actually an advertisement taken out by a financial institution to boast about supporting an SME manufacturing business based in the North of England!

What’s more it’s a true story, will wonders never cease? I wasn’t aware that most banks knew where Rochdale is let alone would actually support a business based there!

Fair play to GE Capital on this one, where most banks fear to tread they’ve gone in and backed a British manufacturer when far too many doors in our big UK banks are at best barely ajar and at worst are slammed in manager’s faces, despite the assurances given with Project Merlin.

What’s more GE Capital are telling the world about it with a series of advertisements. In fact this one is running across national newspapers including the FT, business publications and regional newspapers. It is next due to run in the Birmingham Post on 7th July.

If anything proves the extraordinary performance, resilience and all round “just get on with it” spirit of British manufacturers surely this it. As John Hanson, son of the managing director quoted in the advertisement, told me yesterday: “People want to know us [manufacturers] again. We’re hot.” Yes, even the banks!