Monday, 30 January 2012

Coalition Splits: fact or media strategy?

I listened to Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, speak at a lunchtime meeting at KPMG in Birmingham on Friday on the state of the British economy (she thinks George, as you would expect, needs a Plan B).

Anyway, amidst some interesting perspectives on the economy and the UK’s relationships with the rest of Europe, she made a very interesting point about the current travails of the Labour Party. “It is” she said “very difficult to get your case heard when all the media talks about is potential splits in the Coalition.”

This got me thinking, because there appears, at the moment, to be very little downside for the Coalition when a split story appears. Firstly, split stories highlight the separate identity of the Liberal Democrats. What’s more these stories play into the hands of the Tory leadership who are able to say to their more radical parliamentary colleagues “look, we’d like to be more radical but the LibDems won’t let us!”

Furthermore, the Westminster lobby loves a good story about rows and tantrum throwing, much more than a story about policy (yawn!). Finally, and most importantly, from a Coalition point of view, talk of potential splits drowns out what the Opposition has to say on any given issue. Why go looking for a contrarian view when a good row is served up to you on a plate!

So, I ask the question, are these splits factual or are they part of an overall media strategy? I’m beginning to err on the side of the latter. Last week the Deputy Prime Minister basked in good headlines for his championing of the abolition of the £10,000 tax band, which provoked much ‘analysis’ from Westminster commentators suggesting that the Chancellor would not be best pleased. By Friday, it turned out that the Treasury had approved the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech in advance.

I’ll let you decide for yourself!

PS: a quick take on Stephen Hester’s bonus. The big political issue here is not whether Stephen deserves it or whether he feels sufficiently incentivised by his £1.2 million base salary. No, the big issue is that the Prime Minister talked of ‘moral markets’ and giving power back to shareholders over remuneration whilst allowing Stephen to pocket a £963,000 bonus whilst in charge of a nationalised bank. That is a credibility gap!

Another day another Facebook privacy issue, but this time have they gone too far?

Until now, Facebook’s Timeline has been voluntary, but Mark Zuckerberg has announced that in the next seven days the feature will become compulsory and users will have seven days to delete any unwanted content before it’s laid bare for all to see. 

 The social media giant’s Timeline was first rolled out last year , and users have been given the chance to have a play with the new features before committing, but recent movements have sparked concern about privacy on the network, with many users unhappy that their every move is being put in a virtual museum.
Zuckerberg announced the changes during last September’s f8 Conference and insisted that people wanted to ‘share their entire lives’ and have ‘total control’ over how users’ content appeared.  His argument was that people are now documenting their entire lives on Facebook, but once the information falls off the current profile page, memories are getting lost; hence the invention of Timeline.

It can’t be denied that people are investing an awful lot in Facebook in terms of conversations, photos, videos, etc, (which is one of the reasons I think Facebook will be around for a long time to come) but is part of that appeal the fact everyone is exposed to your movements? Or is it simply because you and a chosen few can access it, on the occasions you need to? Some comments being bandied around are very black and white – if you want privacy, don’t have a Facebook account. But now that people do have this sentimental investment in the platform, it’s not that easy to just deactivate your account. I’m sure most of the 800 million users enjoy their Facebook account, but they don’t necessarily want to share every single element of their lives with the world.

I jumped on the Timeline bandwagon fairly early (and I admit it took me a while to get used to) but none of my Facebook friends seemed to follow suit, and still now there are only a handful that have embraced the new look, which suggest most remain cautious.

Privacy issues aside, my fear is that some users will try and ignore the imminent change and in seven days time will have a profile full of information they’d rather have kept hidden. Another concern is that the Timeline feature is radically different to the existing layout - previous changes have riled many users, but they haven’t actually forced huge changes. I’m not sure every Facebook user is going to fancy getting to grips with something so different.

For me the jury is still out, and only time will tell if this latest move will be a success, or whether this time Facebook has gone a step too far.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Jordan and Snickers UK Twitter stunt – a PR success or #Fail?

As celebrities fearlessly spout forth from the digital roundtable of life, it is expected that amongst the publicity-vetted blandness of the regular tweet, there will be on occasion, a 140 character gem.

If you are one of @MissKatiePrice’s, aka Jordan’s, 1.5m followers, this will no doubt have been the case on Sunday. I don’t believe I was alone in dropping my cup of tea as @MissKatiePrice informed me that “Large scale quantitative easing in 2012 could distort liquidity of Govt. bond market. #justsaying.” The economic aphorisms and astute comments continued throughout the day, making for an altogether rather refreshing break from the usual inane musings on horse-riding, celebrity big brother, sugar, spice and all things nice (…or pink!).

By the time Jordan had commented on the Chinese GDP I think most people had presumed some sort of twitter-jacking or account hacking had occurred – but who knew it was actually a PR stunt by Mars owned chocolate bar, Snickers.

@MissKatiePrice then tweeted the following:

“You’re not you when you’re hungry @SnickersUK #hungry #spon

So far, big brands only seem to be pouring investments into promoted tweets to generate ‘buzz,’ so I for one found the whole thing quite refreshing and imaginative. Clearly, based on the consequent reverberations across the social web, the success of the stunt on the whole (which apparently also includes @AmirKingKhan, @BeefyBotham, @RioFerdy5 and @Cherlloyd) is still up for debate, if not already deemed a #fail.

According to most interpretations, the stunt suggests that not only does a Snickers bar restore you to normality; it also relieves you of serious, worthwhile opinions, inducing somewhat more vacuous cultural observations – i.e. underwear and celebs. It's also worth noting that fellow celebrity tweeter @Cherlloyd had her fans 'Snickers in a twist' by tweeting her discovery of Russian Literature but was post Snicker consumption, restored to her regular 'swagger jagger' like antics ...

Yes, @SnickersUK have now become the bête noir for many a disapproving tweeter – the brand insulted Katie Price’s intelligence (hmmmm) and further insinuated that eating a Snickers bar makes you unintelligent and inane (a bit harsh, @MissKatiePrice does have 1.5m followers who quite enjoy her regular micro-blogging activity and as far as I see it, she is quite commercially savvy in her own right).

I say kudos to Miss Price for her good humour in all of this and well done to Snickers UK for getting everyone talking – including a piece in The Sun. The message may be up for debate but I have a sneaky feeling Snickers UK don’t mind that at all. But, what do you think?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

2012 – The year of the Tweeting Twit

Let’s all be honest, when celebrities first got on Twitter, fearlessly spouting forth from the round table of life, it was quite satisfying to see the occasional fall from grace in the form of an all too honest tweet. Twitter, quite expertly liberalised us from the age of publicity-vetted blandness - note @RupertMurdoch’s most recent tirade against Obama and Google recently blogged about here. However, it would appear that politicians too are falling victim to stupidity’s tendency to go viral! 

Yes, it’s been a bit of a false start to the Olympic year for some of Britain’s more politically motivated Twitterati! There’s been a triple entente of 140 character social media faux pas’ already, ending in nationwide trending hash tags - effectively a mass digital sniggering from the online populace.

So strike one: Diane Abbot (@HackneyAbbott) tweets, “'White people love playing 'divide & rule. We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.” With racial tension resurfacing amidst the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, it’s safe to say @HackneyAbbott was justifiably the first tweeting twit of the year.

Strike two: You’d think the calls for Abbott to resign after her 140 character fail would have resulted in slightly more diligent proofreading. At the very least the party leader would make sure the messages he pushed through the channel were fitting. Well, no. Ed Miliband (or someone in his digital team) let loose a rather inconvenient Freudian slip in a tweeted tribute to Bob Holness. Safe to say, Bob won’t be fondly remembered for ‘Blackbusters.’ Tweeting twit number two.

Strike three: MP Tom Harris, the Labour party’s ‘social media guru’ or ‘Twitter tsar’ (these titles are already open to debate after strike’s one and two) tweets a Downfall parody of SNP leader Alex Salmond and is forced to resign. If there is a no go area in UK politics it is Mein Führer. You’d think a social guru would have been aware of the parameters within which to operate such digital prowess. At least we found the source of the problem - tweeting wit number three.

Fact of the matter is, these are all fairly regular, minor gaffes (bar the Hitler one from MP Tom Harris, that was plain idiotic), but with quite large repercussions online. Quite simply, when you’re something of a someone on social media the key is to remember that age old adage and ‘think before you tweet.’

Rupert doesn’t get the internet, but it doesn’t stop him hating it!

Good to see Rupert Murdoch in the news again, tweeting away with a careless abandon that must be giving News Corporation’s communications people a nervous tic every time another little missive pops up.

Rupert’s latest 140 character musing involves his current bête noir, namely Google, who have previously been described by Rupert and his lieutenants as "leeches", "pirates", “bloodsuckers”, you get the drift!

A few days ago Rupert tweeted the following, “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying.”

Now Rupert is a little bit confused here as Google obviously does not pirate or serve pirated content and certainly doesn't sell advertising on it. All Google does is help you find the content, pirated or not.

However, never one to let facts get in the way of a good story (a little Leveson allusion there readers!) Rupert ploughs on. “Just been to Google search for mission impossible. Wow, several sites offering free links. I rest my case.”

Oh dear, memo to Wendi: You really do need to wrestle that keyboard off him!

Now I’m not in the habit of making fun of octogenarians but there is a wider point here. Currently going through the US Congress is a Piracy Bill which is going to attempt to put all sorts of restrictions on the web and filesharing (you may have noticed Wikipedia and other sites blacked out yesterday in protest). The main drivers of this bill are big business, namely News Corporation, the music industry etal who are being hammered by “free” information on the web.

The suspicion is that these corporations however are trying to protect increasingly bankrupt business models, such as buying a CD or reading a newspaper, when new models are being called for. In the same way that the flying shuttle tore up the rules and ushered in the Industrial Revolution, the internet is creating a new era of information sharing.

Rupert however, clings to the past and a world where the only source of information is News Corporation. His ideal customer is someone who reads The Times, watches Sky News and 20th Century Fox movies, listens to a Murdoch radio station and reads a book published by Harper Collins - possibly not even aware that these media are all owned by the same company. And, crucially, Rupert uses all these different media to cross-reference and link to each other.

The internet is breaking up this cosy little world and one suspects there is no going back unless Congress cannot see through the motives of big business.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Masterchef returns: Did you spot the brands?

Last night was eagerly anticipated in my house for the return of Masterchef – and thank goodness they’ve ditched that awful X-Factor style audition process!

Aside from looking wide-eyed at the sheer culinary talent on show (maybe not so much in the early stages, especially the poor girl that thought her sole was plaice!), Masterchef gives me a chance to look out for some fascinating food and drink product placement.

Working in Food and Drink PR and with a genuine interest in brands and logos, I’m probably more aware than most of product placement. And although Masterchef may be less commercial than some programmes in its brand promotion, there were still some top names on show. Did you spot them?

Those who take note of packaging might have noticed the Waitrose ingredients or Colman’s Mustard – the show’s producers may have covered the name up but you still can’t fail to recognise that British classic! Even more subtle was the careful placement of Olive and Cook Vegetarian magazines in the waiting room.

On the equipment side, Pyrex jugs, Circulon pans and Salter weighing scales were all evident in the first episode, not to mention the unmistakable KitchenAid Artisan Mixer lurking mysteriously on the back shelf – as it does so often on TV cookery shows.

So how many did you get? You’ve got another chance to play tonight...

Friday, 13 January 2012


As wordsmiths, if there’s one topic that’s sure to get a PR team debating it’s the rights and wrongs of words and grammar.

So, when yesterday’s news that Waterstone’s is to drop the apostrophe in its trading name and logo, I knew the WPR office was in for a spot of banter.

Instant mumblings referred to ‘another nail in the coffin for the death of the English language’ as well as ‘the grammatically incorrectness’ of the new name. All valid points and all rather ironic really given that as a bookshop, you wouldn’t expect Waterstone’s, sorry Waterstones, to be so ‘slapdash’ with their English.

It is exciting to see words constantly been simplified and adapted. Every year the Collins dictionary gets bigger and bigger with more and more slang words making an is all about moving with the times after all! But surely when it comes to grammar there is only a right and a wrong way?

With the new MD claiming that the apostrophe drop was to make the spelling more practical and versatile in a digital world, I did have to smile reading the catty comments being posted by the world’s twitterati, presumably for who this name change was intended.

One scathing post said: ‘Waterstone’s are acting like the middle-aged classical music fan, who pretends to like a bit of hip hop’.

I really couldn’t have put it better myself.

Tough times in retail and the rag trade is only starting to put its numbers in!

It’s been a fascinating few days for retail watchers as the high street puts out its Christmas numbers and we are assaulted by a flurry of like-for-like statistics with clear winners and losers already becoming apparent.

Various reasons have been put forward by the losers for poor performances, including savage discounting by competitors and shoppers using coupons for food purchases. The one excuse we haven’t heard much of yet is the impact of online shopping, but we got a glimpse of what could be carnage next week when a flurry of clothing retailers get their numbers out.

The Halfords numbers, which came out yesterday, include a 10.8 per cent dip in like-for-likes in its car enhancement sector. For those of us who are not fluent in ‘Halfords-speak’ this apparently means that the company has seen “satnav sales fall off a cliff”, according to the Guardian.

Well, I’m not surprised. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I went into Halfords before Christmas to buy a satnav for my better half and was quoted circa £120 for a Garmin model with no Continental European mapping (that was another £55!). I got a slightly smaller Garmin model on Amazon with full Continental European mapping for £69. Ouch!

My guess is that the retail sector is bracing itself for more clothing numbers which are due soon. Certainly, the JD Sports numbers were not great yesterday and that is a bad sign for a company who are normally very on the ball when it comes to anticipating high street trends and maintaining gross margins through the Christmas period (although I notice Ted Baker are up 15 per cent!).

It should be an interesting few days!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

What Liverpool FC should have done!

Two things have concerned me about the Luis Suarez / Patrice Evra racial abuse case which has been all over the sports pages.

The first can be dealt with quickly. Liverpool’s responses have been abysmal. Both statements released by the club, one in the immediate aftermath of the verdict and the other yesterday following the decision not to appeal, have been knee-jerk, ill-thought through and bad tempered.

Either senior management at the club have no faith in their PR people and are drafting statements themselves or PR people at the club are not being listened to. My suspicion is that the club needs a communication function with the gravitas to stand up to some very big personalities and move communication beyond keeping the Liverpool Echo happy. Best advice in both cases would have been for short, carefully-worded statements, not the haranguing diatribes that were released.

I vividly remember being involved in a hostile bid situation about 10 years ago. Our client hurriedly called his team of advisers together in order to draft a response to another initiative by the activist shareholder. The CEO, totally fed up by this point, started dictating a stinging response for issue to the London Stock Exchange, egged on by his lawyers and stockbrokers. My colleague and I, increasingly uncomfortable with all of this (we were mentally writing the next day’s headlines) managed to drag out the drafting until 6.30pm by which time it was too late to issue the response that day. By the next morning, calmer heads had prevailed and a three line statement was issued.

This is what should have happened. In an ideal world, PR people, particularly those in-house, should be acting as the company’s policemen, anticipating events and pouring oil on stormy waters. It is one very good reason why PR should never come wholly under the control of marketing, but that’s another blog!

My second issue involves procedure. Everyone in this case admits it has been horrendously difficult, involving language barriers, cultural issues, race and tribal loyalties. For the Football Association to throw a Queens Counsel into this mix, in the form of Paul Goulding QC, whose every instinct is to prosecute by any means within the law, was like adding petrol onto a fire.

What this case needed was dispute resolution, in the form of arbitration and conciliation, to move two parties with entrenched positions to some sort of agreement about what happened and crucially what was, and was not meant, during the exchanges, which were in pigeon Spanish, between the two players.

The FA may well be patting itself on the back this morning, but nobody, least of all my football club, comes out of this episode well.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

No hacking required - Rupert Murdoch is on Twitter

Yes, the Billionaire CEO of News Corporation has joined the twitterati, amassing more than 80,000 followers in the process! Considering the humble pie that was served to Murdoch this year during the course of hackgate and with the mogul being a much-maligned public figure in the UK as a consequence, this could be quite an interesting venture! 

So, what does a press veteran say in 140 characters? Well, the majority of tweets so far come littered with slightly awkward punctuation akin only to when your grandmother battles with predictive text, covering culture, politics and day to day antics; already Murdoch is displaying his distaste for the Brits – a feeling no doubt reinforced throughout 2011. 

Many will suspect an agenda behind the old timers move in to social media that is more than just a pensioner’s curiosity, however, whose idea it was I’m not sure. Perhaps the most telling comment so far comes from Murdoch himself with one of his first tweets reading - “I’m getting killed for fooling around on here and friends frightened what I may really say!” 

I’m sure they are. Wife Wendi certainly wasn’t approving! I also can’t help but think of the awkward looks James was giving his old man during the Select Committee interviews back in July – no doubt he now feels like most teenagers do when their parents add them on Facebook.

Image can be a delicate thing, especially in the realm of social media. I’d therefore hazard a guess that News Corp’s PR are also wincing at the thought of the boss tweeting – particularly if we are to see more of the above!

Furthermore, whilst my sympathy for the man could fit in a Japanese thimble, I am also cringing at the thought of the avalanche of abusive tweets that will now be directed straight at the octogenarian - just yesterday the hashtag #Murdochsdeletedtweets was trending (after deleting the above tweet at the request of Wendi). Then again, perhaps right now all concerned are more pre-occupied on the possible attempts to hack his password? Oh, the irony.  

Whilst Twitter could make a mockery of Mr Murdoch, one thing is clear - as Jack Dorsey said, “With his own voice, in his own way, Rupert Murdoch is now on Twitter.” Certainly, as Piers Morgan also commented, “This will be fascinating…”

I wonder if he’ll follow @tom_watson?