Archive for July, 2010

Brooke gets to the heart of the paywall question

Posted in Media with tags , , on July 30, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I deliberately haven’t commented on the Times’ paywall numbers (readership down 90 per cent) which were issued earlier this week as I think it is important that this experiment is given a fair shout without too much sniping from the sidelines, especially from a PR man!

However, I can’t help but comment on an interesting little aside from journalist Heather Brooke on her website in which she defends her decision to go and work for the Times behind their paywall. She had this to say on her blog: “I actually believe journalism must improve if the Times is asking people to pay for it, as readers are not going to pay for inaccurate rumour or propaganda. They can get that anywhere – for free.”

If what Brooke is saying is that paywalls will mean an end to ‘churnalism’ (the running of news stories cribbed from other sources without any fact checking or further information being provided), more original content, more investigative reporting, better and more incisive comment, then she could be onto something.

Of course, the issue is that all of the above has a cost attributed, mainly in the form of actually having more journalists, which destroys margins. After a decade of ever-shrinking editorial departments this would be a considerable volte face for the industry and most importantly its proprietors.

Are some things just unspinnable?

Posted in business, PR with tags , on July 27, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Article first published as Are some things just unspinnable? on Technorati.

The resignation, or removal, of Tony Hayward from the top job at BP prompts me to ask the question, are some things just unspinnable?

This is a difficult one for a PR man to answer. Those of us in PR tend to think that communication is the answer to everything, just as lawyers think that the legal system provides all the answers and accountants think that close perusal of the balance sheet, P&L and cash statement will tell you all you need to know.

In Hayward’s case there were PR gaffes which undoubtedly made the situation worse. Sailing in the Isle of Wight Round Island Race during the early days of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster and declaring that “I want my life back” were pretty crass things to do and say.

However, if you look at the circumstances that he was being forced to communicate in, I am not sure that anybody, regardless of nationality, demeanor or ability to deliver a sound-bite could have dealt with the media crisis that engulfed him.

Hayward was faced with an almost perfect storm. On top of an appalling environmental disaster, he was faced with communicating the facts of BP’s shocking safety record (if anyone deserves opprobrium heaped upon him it is Hayward’s predecessor Lord Browne, King of Cost Cutting to deliver shareholder value); a US President desperate to avoid comparisons with the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina; mid-term elections due in November which offered Senate investigating committees the opportunity to grandstand in front of the cameras, whilst all the time real-time TV footage showed oil spewing out of the well at an alarming rate.

Are any of us in PR saying we could have done any more than apply a slightly more effective sticking plaster to this gaping wound?

PS: One other point. I’m struggling to agree with those who are criticising BP for not “getting out in front of the story” when it came to announcing Hayward’s departure. Rules is rules. Publicly quoted companies cannot just bring forward ‘announcements’ that Chief Executives are leaving because the media has got a sniff of something. The very earliest this announcement could have been made was 0700 Monday morning. Leaving it for another 24 hours might look a bit lackadaisical but let’s face it, as corporate reputation goes, there is not much further down to go for BP.

Could the media talk us into a double dip?

Posted in business, economics, Media with tags , , on July 26, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

What is the biggest worry for business at the moment?  Lack of bank lending?  Austerity measures?  Public sector cost-cutting?  Well the answer is none of the above, at least amongst senior management at a number of firms I have talked to over the last few weeks.

Apparently, the biggest fear at the moment is the media.  How so?  Well there are concerns that media negativity about the state of the economy will hit consumer and business confidence, sending us into an economic tailspin when things for many are actually going quite well at the moment.  The word from two UK manufacturers I have spoken to recently is of strong sales, good pipeline and increasing confidence.  The feeling is that the both business and the public in general have held back investing for long enough and are now dipping into their pockets once again.  Of course this isn’t true of all sectors (the cuts to the school building programme were another knife in the back of the construction sector) but it is clear that consumer and business confidence are in reasonable health, which is good in the circumstances.

However, confidence is fragile.  I vividly remember having dinner with David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times a few years ago (namedropper, moi?) and he readily admitted that there is a bad news bias which can easily affect both business and consumers.  Therefore, at times like this I think we should all use our own judgment rather than just rely on the headlines.  Smith famously has his skip test to gauge economic activity (ie. consumer confidence is directly related to the number of skips in his road from people undergoing house renovations) while I look out for new cars on driveways, and ‘sold’ signs in front of houses.  At present both of these indicators are positive, at least where I live.

My gut feeling is that we will weather this (Friday’s GDP figures were another welcome boost) as most businesses are now very lean and we have stored-up demand due to the fact that nobody has spent anything over the last few years.  Barring major shocks, this should be enough to see the private sector through. 

The public sector is another matter entirely.  As one client put it to me a few weeks ago, “I think they are going to feel some of the pain the private sector felt 12 months ago.”

Stay at home? Now that’s what I call a transport policy!

Posted in business, Politics with tags , , on July 12, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The news that our new Coalition Government is looking at ways to encourage flexible working as a means of easing road congestion is a glint of light at the end of a very long transport tunnel. 

The Government is floating the idea that employers will allow staff to work from home one day in every ten, which will ease congestion on the roads during rush hour, reduce carbon emissions and help our work/life balances. 

However, there are other reasons why this is an idea whose time has come.  Frankly, we can’t afford as a nation to upgrade the road and rail network when we are already in hoc to the tune of circa £360 billion.  And, for that matter, why should we when technology nowadays allows access to information and networking capabilities which were not around as little as ten years ago.

My view for some time has been that our typical office-based working arrangements are unsustainable, with large numbers of the population trying to get to the same place on the same roads or rail services at the same time.  In future, I suspect  that the office will become more of a hub with meeting rooms and hot-desking facilities where individuals come for internal meetings, planning sessions and client liaison before disappearing back to their own homes to get on with the work.

How will the Government encourage this sort of working arrangement?  My guess is via some sort of tax break for companies that encourage home working, but your guess is as good as mine as to how this can be policed.  Of course, this won’t work for every sector, but there are plenty of industries where a more flexible attitude could be encouraged and I suspect the naysayers can be brought round by the offer a tax cut .  

The key point is that a combination of austerity measures, environmental targets and a creaking road and rail network has led our new Government to look seriously at what many think-tanks and interest groups have been saying for some time.  For those of us who despaired at the last Government’s failure to come up with an integrated transport policy (one suspects it was filed under “too difficult”) this is a welcome step in the right direction.

CNN Twitter sacking raises difficult corporate questions

Posted in Media with tags , , on July 9, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The sacking of CNN journalist Octavia Nasr, the editor responsible for the network’s Middle East coverage, over a Twitter post on her own page, in which she expressed her sadness over the death of a Lebanese cleric she described as a ‘Hezbollah giant’, raises some difficult questions for all companies whose staff like to communicate via social networking sites.

Now if there is one place in the world where a journalist (or for that matter any of us) needs to tread carefully it is the Middle East, rife as it is with claim and counter-claim. It is often exceptionally difficult to get the bottom of what is going on or who started what – witness the recent boarding of the aid ship which attempted to breach the Gaza blockade. Journalist impartiality is therefore a vital currency.

It was unquestionably an error of judgement on Nasr’s part to post what she did, in the process compromising her journalistic integrity and almost certainly terminating any possibility that she can be regarded as impartial on Middle Eastern issues. However, sacking her, after 20 years service, seems a draconian measure when a more thought-through response would possibly have been to move her to another region or assign her to other duties.

As one of my colleagues has just pointed out to me, it is often corporate policy, at Sky News for example, for journalists to have Twitter pages and encourage them to air their instantaneous views on the breaking news. For that matter, many of us working in PR now have our own Twitter and blog pages upon which we regularly give vent to our own thoughts and opinions.

There are certainly people far more qualified than me to comment on corporate best practice in this area, but I can’t help thinking that organisations are asking their employees to try and walk an increasingly difficult line between the personal and professional.

Pickles follows Sarkozy down the drain

Posted in Politics with tags , , on July 8, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

It certainly seems that Eric Pickles, our new Communities Secretary, is making his voice heard in the corridors of local councils up and down the country.  Apparently, barely a day goes by without another missive coming out of the Department of Communities and Local Government (the DCLG) ordering a cut to something or urging a ‘hurry up’ with something else.  Last week it was Council newsletters which were branded ‘like Pravda’, the old Communist Party newspaper in Russia.  This week it is council job advertisements which now have to be carried online to cut newspaper advertising costs.

Reassuringly however, it is not only in the UK where national politicians feel free to meddle in local issues.  Whilst on holiday in France last month I heard a wonderful story which proves that even the most powerful cannot resist getting involved in areas which should be beneath them.

Apparently, in Southern France at the moment there is much debate in various rural towns, villages and communes about the merits of converting local communities from septic tank drainage to the municipal drainage system.  The cost is quite steep and many towns and villages do not want to make the switch due, in large part, to the fact that individual households have to make a contribution of their own.

In one such region, the Var on the borders of Italy, many homeowners have refused to convert which has infuriated the local Bruni-Tedeschi family who are apparently positively desperate to get rid of their ‘fosse septique’ (close observers of French politics or the European music scene will probably be able to work out where this is going!).

Anyway, in order to try and find some sort of consensus the local Prefect, Jacques Laisné, convened a town meeting only to find himself being harangued by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who accompanied his wife, former model and current singer, Carla Bruni, and his in-laws, the previously mentioned Bruni-Tedeschi family, to the meeting.  The President’s message was fairly simple, along the lines of “get it sorted”.

Hasn’t the President of France anything better to do than get involved in local sewage issues, like sorting out the traffic on the periphique for example?  It seems not.

Alas, it appears that the new drainage was not installed in time for the President’s next holiday and the unfortunate Mr Laisné has been relieved of his duties.  A sobering lesson for all Council leaders who attempt to ignore Mr Pickles.

Er … define ‘quality journalism’ for me Mr Murdoch?

Posted in Media with tags , , on July 5, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

If you are going to lecture the UK population about product quality it is best if your own wares are pretty damn fireproof.

It was with some interest therefore that I read Roy Greenslade’s always superb blog in today’s Guardian which can be viewed HERE.  For those that are short of time it appears that the Sunday Times, complete with its own brand new paywall, has lifted, unattributably, a story from a free website called Gentlemen Ranters for use in its own paper.  In other words, the Sunday Times has taken a free story and then tried to charge people for reading it!

My own view has always been that the bullish comments made by News International senior executives prior to the launch of paywalls for The Times and The Sunday Times were a hostage to fortune.  To be blunt, if you are going to tell people that they are going to have to pay for a quality product, then by definition you have to provide a quality product, namely credible, well written, informative news that I can’t find elsewhere for free. 

In previous blogs I’ve questioned whether The Times has the quality of columnists it once had since the departures and disappearances of Peter Riddell, Alice Miles etal to merit a paywall, but I am well aware that the issue of journalism quality is a murky pond for a PR man to wade into.  Suffice to say that with today’s little scoop, Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, has given the next generation of journalists a glimpse of what a good, well researched story is all about.

I suspect that somebody at the Sunday Times has had their knuckles rapped today but it would be wrong to single out individuals.  The whole paper is going to have to do better than this.