Sunday, December 31, 2006

End of Year

So I suppose this is my end of year review part two....and it's funny to think that in parts of the world it's already 2007, while we still have six and a half hours of the old year to fritter away.

And that's exactly what we're doing chez Shanahan. It's a dark and stormy night here - so no prospect of first footing it around Risborough. The rabbits are safely tucked up for the night and there's a bottle of wine open and I'm merely doodling while my elder two children cook us an end of year supper.

This is the year when I became father to a teenager. L-B's currently making her own breadcrumbs while my 11 year old, Rory, is squeezing the living daylights out of several cloves of garlic. We're promised home-made chicken kievs with a side dish of risotto bianco con pesto in the next hour or two. I hope this is the start of things to come and I'm impressed and delighted that both the elder two like cooking.

Sophie has disappeared to the other end of the house - she's up to something....I'm just not sure what!

So goodbye to 2006 and all that. it has been a year when I've got far more involved in CiB and also the BBC's public accountability setup. I've stuck with rugby coaching after a couple of wobbles ....and even managed to win the Weakest Link and get selected for Mastermind in 2007.

Work has, frankly, been a bit of a coast and I've got to up the game in '07 - and really push into travel and history writing which both proved fun but ultimately not very productive this year.

With glass of Chablis in hand I wish good cheer to:

everyone who put some work Leapfrog's way in '06;
the guys who have restorted my faith in internal comms with some excellent entries to the awards I've been judging this last week;
Tom Jones for being a very gracious astronaut and encouraging in his review of my first effort in space programme writing;
the BBC Weakest Link crew;
two very kind Mastermind researchers;
a great family (who should, always, be first);
Oxford RFC;
Walt Cunningham for being the only Apollo astronaut I'm on emailing terms with;
Chuck Yeager for being gracious - if suspicious; and
Wycombe Wanderers for an amazing football adventure.

And I'll leave the dregs to:

Those wankers using Leapfrog's email address to spam in vain;
The double wanker who reversed into my front fence;
communicators who enter poor work into awards schemes;
communication dinosaurs who still believe the medium is all that matters;
Blair and Bush......great foreign policy guys.

Good luck, God bless, and may your feet go with you.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The write spirit

Today's the first quiet day after a week of frantic festive (and working) activity - but I'm rubbish at sitting around, so spent the last couple of hours judging entries for a business writing competition.

The winning entry is great - a serious subject tackled with a light touch and obvious flair. The result was a lot of practical information communicated very effectively - and supported by a strong and relevantly-humorous design.

There were several other strong entries in the category - and some complete and utter dross - all the more embarrassing as I know at least a couple of the writers.

I'm a workaday writer, but crikey, maybe I should be entering some of these competitions. I was judging entries on content, style, spelling and grammar, relevance to their audience and overall impact. 25 per cent of the entries in the category failed even to get half marks - who on earth thought these tired and cliche-ridden pieces were worth an accolade?

Perhaps we need a new category for the worst business features of the year?

Bah humbug....!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The magic of christmas

It's dark here, it has been foggy for a week apart from today - when it was merely gloomy.

While it has been foggy, the temperature has also been below freezing which has created some amazing spiders' webs on the trees in the garden.

I've been up on Bledlow Ridge where the fog and ice has created a really etherial atmosphere. Today ice was fallling like snow from the trees turning the road white beneath them on an otherwise dank day.

So, all in all, not very Christmassy - apart from Sophie. She's wandering the house today with sleigh bells tied in her hair and is excited as only a six year old can be at the thought of Santa visiting Princes Risborough.

This morning she wa giving her take on a few favourite Christmas Carols - including the new lyric: 'Ding dong merrily on high, the ding dong birds are singing gloooooooooooria, Susanah is a country'. Not quite the words I remember....

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A collective voice for internal communication in the UK

Tomorrow I'll be attending the last CiB Council meeting of the year, and it's set to be an important one as we discuss the direction the organisation must take if it's to break out of its circling pattern and emerge as the voice of internal communication in the UK.

Last month I chaired a meeting to look at membership and what the organisation must do to move from 1100 members (or thereabouts) to being a truly attractive proposition to anyone working in or around organisational communication who has a foothold in IC.

At the moment there are a number of organisations operating in the UK with a finger in the IC pie. They range from the commercial end - the likes of Melcrum, ASPIC and Simply Communicate, to IABC which operates in a very similar space to CiB and to everyone from CiM, through CiPR, the Work Foundation and IVCA who all want to own a little bit of the space.

Through its heritage, geographical reach in the UK and Ireland and through aspiration, CiB is well placed to take the IC high ground. Yet it has barriers to overcome to get there. The perception is that it's an agency organisation focused on craft skills. There's certainly not enough substance in the organisation to attract - and more so, to retain - senior communicators, and it's still too close to its roots in catering solely to those who have come into IC from external journalism.

CiB is still best known for its awards at regional and national level, and the majority of these still recognise excellence in media rather than in the enabling of organisational success.

But things are changing. At my meeting we focused on some 'must haves' for CiB to be credible as the IC expert organisation. First, we need to formalise accreditation. IABC has its 'ABC' accreditation - but it's a small organisation in the UK and lacks focus as to its clear purpose. CiB needs to build on its former certificate and diploma accreditation to offer an industry-supported qualification recognising proficiency (capability based) and then excellence in internal communication.

We need to recognise that the IC world has moved on - being able to write and edit does not necessarily make you a good internal communicator. Any accreditation will have to embrace the strategic end of communication - focusing on the 'why' before even considering the 'how'. We also need to be more savvy towards the impact of social media and recognise that communicating organisations are those where everyone is empowered as a communicator - not just those wearing the IC hat. We need to recognise too that IC has stepped out of its 'message manager' box too and that to be effective, it has to be wound through the organisation's people agenda and be a full player in financial and operational success.

We also saw a great need to build up a research base in IC. At present, CiB talks a good game, but too little is formally evidenced - that must change.

Third, we saw great value in creating new and powerful networks of communicators across communities of interest.

Our strength in this is that CiB is a 'not for profit'. The likes of Melcrum, Ragan and similar organisations do an excellent job in creating opportunities for communicators to come together - but their motive is profit. Fair play to them, but there's always the feeling that when you respond to a Melcrum e-mail, they see it as an opportunity to gain revenue. As a not for profit member organisation, CiB can be different - more independent; no axes to grind and no shareholders to please.

Turning round many decades of being an organisation for 'industrial editors' isn't easy - the perception battle is the biggest one to win. And doing it on volunteer goodwill and tiny budgets doesn't help. But the aspiration is there and momentum is building. Tomorrow's could be a very interesting meeting.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fractured thoughts

It has been a fractured start to the week - quite literally - following on from something of a broken end to last week.

Chez Leapfrog looks none too festive at the moment, largely down to the fact that most of our Christmas decorations were caught up in the leak that has ruined several crates of my stuff in a storage depot.

We've been asked to leave the soggy, damp or water damaged goods in the lock-up until an insurance assessor has taken a look. Unfortunately that means I can't root through our stuff and see what's salvageable.

I know I've lost a ton of CDs, loads of copies of work from the last 12 years, hundreds of magazines that I've contributed to over the years and what could prove to be some important business records such as bank statements and financial records. But the only stuff that really matters to me are some family photos and the flippin' Christmas decorations - I guess just about everything else is replaceable, apart from the memories of 20 years' of family life.

Anyway, family life took a little lurch to the left yesterday as Rory attempted to stop a marauding Witney U11 forward with his collar bone. Unfortunately said forward was head down and driving through a ruck and unsurprisingly Rory came off worst.

So, instead of spending yesterday afternoon listening to Sophie singing at St. Mary's Christingle service, Rory and I were admiring the walls of A&E at the JR in Oxford for two and a half hours. Then it was back to the fracture clinic for another visit this morning.

A fractured clavicle is one of those really annoying injuries: painful, but little they can do other than stick one's arm in a sling.

It's, in every sense, a tough break at this time of year....but as I reminded Rory, a fracture's for Christmas, not for life.....!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev

40 years ago, the key player in the Soviet Union's race into space died. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev - the Chief Designer - was brought back from the gulag to mastermind the Soviets' mastery of transcontinental and, ultimately, space rocketry. Working in conditions far more primitive than Von Braun and his German/American counterparts in the US, Korolev achieved massive success, launching Sputnik and following with Yuri Gagarin's first-ever earth orbit.

Balancing his desire to reach out to the moon and the planets with the expediency required to create rockets that could deliver the Soviet nuclear arsenal, Korolev also continually had to pull rabbits out of a hat for Khruschev to ensure the perception that the USSR led the space race.

Little was known of him until after his death. There's still not a huge amount written about him and his achievements in English. I'm no rocket scientist, and I haven't got an 'ology' to my name - but I need to learn as much as I can about Korolev (Koralyev) and his achievements over the next five weeks. I'm relishing the challenge - and if anyone can suggest good source material, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tidal flow

Reviewing my business across 2006, it's clear that this year has been 'tidal'. Work has come in waves, sometimes making it hard to stay on my feet, and occasionally requiring a supporting hand from my associates to ensure Leapfrog rode a few of the bigger and more energetic waves.

But for every wave, there was also a period of backwash where we were able to keep paddling, but were very reliant on another wave coming over the horizon.

At the moment there's a wave building. Last week I was just about packing up for Christmas, but two projects have emerged this week, starting small, but with prospects of something bigger to fall out of them, and another has refused to die - needing some additional, and well reimbursed, work before finally heading from front of mind to top of archive.

The start of 2007 will be about filling those periods between the waves, and to that end, I've had two great meetings with complementary businesses in the last five days. Each does something different from what I offer, but both cross into Leapfrog's area - and both are looking for the kind of support I offer. So, fingers crossed for calmer water in the coming months.

Friday, December 08, 2006

History ends up in a watery grave

I've just been up to my storage unit to pull out some old work from my 'archive' (ok stack of crates of old client work).

When I arrived, I unlocked the door, swung it open and was greeted by a strong small of mould.

At first, nothing appeared out of the ordinary - I haven't visited the unit for months, and the crates seemed much as they'd always been.....until I got halfway down the stack. The outsdide of the crates were wet.

I unstacked them, and found that the last four each had about four inches of water sitting in them - all my stored examples of work, years of bank statements, some of my company records - never mind hundreds of CDs and all our Christmas decorations were either sitting in water, or heavily water damaged.

Our unit is on the corner of the storage centre, and it appears that water has been dripping in through a gutter seam and has slowly filled my crates - which are now awash with mouldy foul-smelling water!

How does one quantify lost work? And how can a loss adjustor assess it?

I guess I'll find out all these things over the next week or so.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What goes around comes around

Something over a decade ago, a large industrial client approached me to produce a guide to writing newsletters. The European end of this global business was made up of many constituent businesses and each was spawning its own communications - at that time, paper newsletters of all hues, all styles and vastly variable quality. The European corporate centre didn't want to stymie communication, but wanted to bring some coherance and consistency....and most of all wanted to demonstrate that there was much more to communication than the latest 'tick the box' project newsletter. So, what emerged a few weeks later was not a guide to writing newsletters, but a guide looking at needs, audiences and outcomes first - and then moving on to the 'how' later.

When I first set up my business website, an 'essay' version of the guide became one of my toolkit offerings. The emphasis had moved a little towards change communications, but the essential message remained the same.

This morning, another client contacted me asking if I still had a copy of the original guide (one of her colleagues had moved from client A to client B and they'd got talking etc. etc....) as she's facing that same proliferation of newsletters from all parts of her organisation. Some are electronic and others on paper - but it sounds like it's more 'tick the box' stuff.

I'm about five computers on from writing the original guide, and am not sure if I even have a copy. If I do, it's in a lock-up with the rest of the Leapfrog archive. But I was able to point her to what's on my website. If you're interested, but too lazy to hit the link, it's reproduced below. It probably needs updating now, but the sentiment remains.

So you want a new newsletter?

You’ve been given the job of communicating a major change, and your boss has suggested producing a newsletter. So what do you do next? Leapfrog’s advice?...........................

Now, let’s start again. You’ve been given the job of communicating major change. So what are the essentials you need to consider before you even reach a point where you decide on your communication mechanisms?

First of all, consider Why you are communicating What’s the need for the work you’ve been asked to do? Write down a few paragraphs of background to articulate this need and to provide the communication context.

Okay, you’ve got a general need, and the next thing to consider is who you are communicating with. Who are your stakeholders – and what’s the impact of what you want to say going to be on them?

Right from the start it’s important to realise that communication is successful only if it creates the right impact on your audiences, prompting them into the action you want them to take.
And what are those actions? Well, they’ll be based on your objectives. What do you want to achieve as a specific result of this communication?

Again, write them down – and try to limit them to three or four things that are achievable – world peace is a bit ambitious for the average communication campaign. The key is to link them directly to your organisation’s stated business objectives.

Objectives lead directly into success factors. What will success look and feel like if you get this communication right? To drag communication kicking and screaming away from accusations of being nebulous and distant from the business perspective, these factors much be quantifiable – and thus measurable.

So we know who we’re talking to and why – and what it will look and feel like if our communication is a success. Now it’s time to look at what needs to be communicated – your key messages. Step into your audiences’ shoes to focus on what they need to know – not necessarily what your boss wants to say - to achieve your objectives.

Look at prioritisation so that you focus your maximum effort on winning the awareness, understanding, buy-in and commitment from your prime influencers. Don’t waste your time on those who are easy to reach but do little to forward your cause.

It’s only at this point that you consider how you might reach your audience.

Make sure you’re aware of their preferences for receiving information and how they choose to share it.

Look at what already exists within your organisation and look for opportunities to tie into existing channels and mechanisms and share the load with other communication colleagues.

Define clearly the role of management through the line and, indeed of employees in any communication exercise. You may manage the communication channels, but your role is primarily to facilitate communication, not to own every piece of the jigsaw.

Normally at Leapfrog, we draw up a matrix with you at this stage, mapping kinds of messages against potential mechanisms to draw out what’s most effective for each.

You never know, the answer may even include a newsletter – though this is most likely to be a supporting rather than a primary communication tool.

The bottom line is that your communication will be far more effective if you’re prepared to invest time in planning it properly first. Then it’s a case of learning from what you do, and applying what you’ve learned next time round to ensure you get ever closer to your audiences’ needs – while directly supporting your business’ strategy.

copyright Mark Shanahan 2006

Monday, December 04, 2006


Most hits to this blog come from the UK and the US. I've got some regular Canadian visitors, and pick up the usual smattering from Russia, India, most of Western Europe and the far East.

There's a clear language barrier between English-centric blogs and Spanish-centric ones. I've had hardly any hits from Spain or Latin America - we seem to be operating in two parallel blogospheres, with fewer cross-overs than we should have.

I'm intrigued to know how organisational communication is managed in the Hispanic world - is it broadly similar to the Anglo Saxon models or is it more personal, more 'family' and more about individual relationships - the characteristics I've come across most in doing business in Southern Europe?

I'm intrigued too by my quiet visitors. Someone on a science park in Sittingbourne, Kent has become a regular and lengthy visitor. Thank you for your interest, and I hope you've found something useful.

I'm a quiet lurker on a number of other blogs too - perhaps I should be a bit more vocal on them, encouraging greater di- tri- and more-alogues across our screens and keyboards.

Keeping momentum

There are just two apples left on our tree; the skies are grey and though it's not cold, winter's finally beginning to bite. That generally means a slow-down workwise for a few weeks as our clients turn their attention to Christmas. That didn't happen last year when we had to get a proposal in on December 23rd - and I'd rather like it to stay a bit busy through to the festive period this year to ensure we finish in the black - dispelling the last memories of Leapfrog's awful 2005.

2006 has definitely been a recovery year, and it's finishing with some interesting projects. This morning I've been working on core communication documentation for a new start-up. They're all experienced people with time spent working in some top names and the job now is to make their new-start consultancy stand out from the crowd. It's challenging because there are ever more consultancies looking to support almost every area of the business cycle. All offer similar services and, in the end, it comes down to the client/consultant chemistry as to whether business relationships will be built.

That chemistry is so hard to get across on paper. I can play up their services; what they've done before and what they claim is different from the rest. But until you try it, you never know if it's for real - or merely words on a page. So, in effect, I've been crafting some elaborate calling cards today: whether they're substantial will be proven only once the 'callers' are invited in by their prospective clients.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What a hoot!

I'm going to be on the next series of the BBC quiz show Mastermind - recording either at the end of January or the end of March - specialist subjects so far being a football club and a soviet rocket scientist......third one to be selected, but I somehow doubt I'll get that far. Nice to know that I'm good enough to get on - but I doubt I'll get very far. Still, it's worth seeing how far knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep can get a person - even a serial wannabe!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Note to self: year in review, part one

Okay, it's not even the end of November yet, but it's time to start thinking about what kind of year 2006 has been for Leapfrog. So let's start with the pure work.

On the plus side, Jac has excelled in a large contract that has run right through the year and will continue for a good while yet. I've had one successful piece of a significant change project, picked up one excellent new client on the research/writing front, and have seen my core clients come back again and again through the year.

On the minus side, we've only really had the one significant new client. That's partly because the regulars pay the bills and so I haven't done too much to tout for new business, but it's also because there are also an awful lot of small businesses just like ours looking for a slice of the pie. So, an early resolution for next year its to get out there more and be a bit more vocal in talking my business up.

The balance of work has changed too - less in the way of major change projects, and more incremental stuff and pure tactical implementation. Frankly, I'm happy for the diversion and it has more than made up for the annus horibilis that was 2005 with its succession of stop/start change work. By this time last year, I was thoroughly bored of change management. A year on, the fact that more time is spent on reports and presentations than actually doing anything still rankles, but my appetite for involvement - albeit selectively - has definitely returned.

So what does 2007 look like? There's a bit of a pipeline of work, but we need more - but hey, what small business doesn't? One option I'm keen to look at is merging Leapfrog with a complementary organisation so that each side can benefit from the strengths of the other. There are a few businesses I'd like to work closer with - but nothing's been formally explored yet.

Anyway, watch this space.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Diversity - the new Stalinism?

Having a pop at diversity is like spitting at the Queen Mother. It's a taboo. In this pc age diversity is the new creed - bring me your black, brown, yellow, gay, disabled, old, young, female and unwashed and I will bring you success. Except it doesn't work like that......

I've worked with three organisations recently who claimed to embrace diversity. For one, it was understated and the organisation was truly becoming blind to the gender, colour and sexual orientation of their people. For another, there's a stong whiff of tokenism in their approach, and for the third - part of the UK's wonderful public services, the whole issue has been politicised to the extent that people blatantly unsuited to the roles they're filling have been hired to ensure the working population is proportionate to wider society.

Now I'm beginning to sound like a right wing, racist homophobic bigot which is not the intention here. Actually, I'm the usual mix of liberal-thinking with a dash of small-c conservatism that marks my generation. However, I'm a believer in two things - meritocracy and keeping politics as far from the workplace as possible. No, I'm a bleiever in three things, as I'm a believer in diversity too.

Company number one is a publicly listed company. It has a diversity policy focused of recognising and building on the strengths that a diverse working community brings to an organisation. It doesn't hire on the basis of colour or belief - and now that age discrimination has come into place, it's not exclusively targetting the 20-30 somethings either. It's by no means a perfect organisation, but it works because diversity is simply part of the fabric rather than being an 'issue'.

Organisation three, working in local government is at the other end of the scale. Here there's a posse of 'diversity officers' each seemingly with their own agenda. It makes hiring on the basis of merit more difficult than it needs to be, and ridding the organisation of under-performers is almost impossible. There are some fantastic staff members of all ages, orientations and ethnicity across the organisation - and some really dreadful people too, but isn't that the same everywhere?

The difference with company number 1 is that organisation 3 isn't colour blind, nor does it treat gay people, older people, disabled people or anyone else who stands out from the crowd as part of the 'crowd'. Somehow, by seeking to be inclusive, the organisation has radicalised diversity. It has become a barrier to success rather than an enabler. Rather than building a culture of 'one team working together', the diversity team has become divisive and often ruthless in championing its cause - no matter what the greater good of the organisation is. Somehow, in its zeal to stamp out prejudice, it's creating new prejudice.

Diversity is one of the most valuable principles we must operate by - but why is it handled so badly by so many organisations?

Navel gazing in media la la land

It staggers me how the BBC can lose sight totally of the real news agenda when their top man defects to the other side.

Yesterday evening and this morning civil war raged in Iraq; thousands more died in Darfur; a Russian dissident lies on a morgue slab in London as the places he visited prior to his death continue to show signs of radiation. Yet the number one item on every news bulletin, followed by the drone of media luvvies endlessly analysing was the news that BBC Chairman Michael Grade is resigning to move to ITV as Executive Chairman - didn't see that coming BBC news chaps, did you, as you gleefully reported on ITV's decline through Charles Allen's tenure and resignation.

Grade's defection is a serious business story and of great import to the media village. But do the general public give a toss? Is it really the most important thing happening on the news agenda?

When Britain's venerable broadcasting corporation gets so thoroughly caught up in its own sense of importance, it's a clear sign all is far from well at Auntie Beeb. And when its top political player cuts and runs to a failing rival, you may get more than a little feeling that the BBC has lost its way.

Monday, November 27, 2006

It's murky out there

Funny: since getting the MaxJet press release on Friday, I've been trying to find a little more on ex-CEO Gary Rogliano's departure.....but the press has been very quiet. There's been a little bit of talk on one of the airline insiders' discussion boards here, but very little else out there.

And it's one of those PR dilemmas. Speculation suggests that Rogliano quit - but there's no reason given why. So the void has developed and into it pours more speculation. So how do you fill the void? Does Rogliano give his side of the story and jeopardize any exit package he may have negotiated, or does the new CEO explain the reasons for his predecessors' departure, and risk alienating current and future investors?

It took a wee while for Rogliano's customer message to disappear from the Maxjet website - and when it did, MaxJet boobed again by not posting the press release on the new chairman and chief exec - something they've finally rectified.

But it still makes one think. Rogliano was a founder of the business. This was his baby and a baby that - outwardly at least - looked successful. But clearly there was turbulence in the Boardroom - if not at 38,000 feet.

MaxJet was hardly on my radar before Friday - I'd tried to blag a flight to Washington in the summer when I was writing a travel piece, but my media outlet didn't warrant them offering me even a discounted ticket. So ever since, they've been just another press release issuer as far as I've been concerned. But now, inadvertently they've pricked my interest and I look forward to following their fortunes......especially if, in time, Rogliano's reason for quitting - if that was the case - emerges.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Stating the bleedin' obvious

Health and Safety has officially gone mad - try telling me I don't live in a nanny state.

We got a box of eggs from ASDA (part of wonderful Wal Mart) which carried the following script on the packaging: "Allergy advice. Warning: may contain eggs"

WTF is it supposed to contain?

Honesty - not the PR strong point

I got a press release from Maxjet - the low cost transatlantic business airline this morning telling me they'd appointed a new CEO and Chairman - I looked at their website and was greeted by a message from Gary Rogliano who has, apparently, 'left the company to pursue other interests'.

Well, he must have left suddenly, since as of five minutes ago, his face was still smiling out of the welcoming message on the site.

So, was he pushed or did he jump?

I emailed the PR at BGP in London and asked her.

She replied word for word with what the press release said.

Now, it doesn't take a genius to work out that there's something wrong in the airline for them to suddenly change leaders. Either he has quit or he's been given the push.

By saying neither, Maxjet is merely fuelling the speculation about what's going wrong in their operation. Are they struggling to get numbers onto their flights? Is their route expansion failing? Are they about to be taken over? Is the business about to fold? Is the new competition driving them out of the market?

All of these questions come to mind for me - and I'm not a specialist airline journalist.

So, what have we got here? An airline that doesn't take advice from its PR company, or a PR company giving bad advice.

When there's a change at the top - even if it's a sudden coup, give the industry, journalists and the public some respect for our intelligence and don't fob us off with useless euphemisms. They tend only to create a vacuum into which people will pour all sorts of rumour that's far more difficult to deal with than being proactive around the truth.

Maxjet may well have great reasons for acting as it has done. But being elusive with the facts and leaving the PR agency to hold that line is an own goal and may very well turn a corporate molehill into Vesuvius.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Still a wannabe

Ok - one TV show appearance hasn't sated my lust for wannabe-ism. I'm still the 'never was who wants to be.....'

Yesterday I auditioned for Mastermind's 2007 series. I met with two BBC researchers in a small meeting room in a hotel in Kensington; did reasonably well, though not brilliantly in their 20-question general knowledge quiz (pitched at Mastermind semi final level), and chatted about the subjects I'd like to answer questions on if selected to take my place in the black leather chair.

It may well be that my 'audition' won't go any further than yesterday's very interesting half hour - I'm certainly a lot less confident of making the televised heats than I was of making it onto Weakest Link. But there's something inheritantly satisfying about Mastermind. There's no money to be won, but, I reckon, immense satisfaction to be gained in knowing that you can research and regurgitate your knowledge of three or four pet subjects and match that with a good grasp of general knowledge.

It's probably a total pipe dream, but I'd love to face John Humphrey's questioning next year.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

One Bank, one plank, one corporate wank

There's a saying in rugby that 'what goes on tour stays on tour' - and it used to be the same in terms of corporate events. All those embarrassing presentations got no further than the four walls of the team meeting. However coruscatingly awful the message, the messenger or the delivery, it could be contained.

Of course, the video age - and more pertinently social media has all changed that.

The guys from Bank of America in Manhattan probably thought their pastiche of U2 would be uplifting to a bunch of corporate colleagues; the event organizers probably thought it would provide a good change of pace in a packed business agenda; the business leaders probably thought win:win - give some recognition to some hard-working middle managers, and find a new way to reinforce their 'One Bank' message.

But, thanks to You Tube, the Bank is fast heading for the two fingers down the throat award for the best use of corporate sycophancy in a built up area. All those warm feelings of one big team of banking buddies has pretty much gone out the window as the B0A take on U2's 'One Love' has gained a viral life of its own, opening up a pretty good singer and guitarist to ridicule as they transmogrified U2's passionate paean into a limp anthem for the wonders of a right old bunch of bankers.

The problem is that the BoA 'manthem' is now only seen totally outside the context of the Town Hall event where it debuted. We don't know what led up to it or what followed - all you have here is something as embarrassing as your dad's drunken duet at a wedding - magnified to a corporate scale.

And what a song to sing - Bono's out to save the world, lobbying hard against the excesses of corporate America - God only knows what he makes of an operation that takes your money and then charges you to use it replacing his wistful lyrics with the worst of corporate jingoism.

So, remember all you corporate event professionals - what goes on stage is now open to the world........Choose your words carefully.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Noises off

The communicators' law states that there's no time to blog when you're busy - hence nothing posted here for nearly a week.

In that time I've diligently been beavering away at a couple of projects and managed to go to Belgium...for an afternoon. I've even had a trip back to Pinewood to see the recording of a documentary about the Weakest Link, now that it has passed 1,000 shows.

Show 1,000 will be aired on December 18 and will be swiftly followed by a documentary detailing how WL came about, and recalling its hits and highlights over the past eight years. Listen out for the laughter and clapping as Annie Robinson tells the tale of the show - that'll be me in my pomp - heard, but not seen.

The trip to Belgium took me to the world's biggest beer company, in touching distance of the Stella Artois brewery, but far from any of its products. It was one of those rare face-to-face interviews where email and the phone simply wouldn't do.......but where a £10 + tax plane fare made it possible. Frankly, there's still no substitute for seeing the whites the of the subject's eyes when you ask the difficult questions.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sweetest distraction

A 12 hankie an hour cold - plus the distraction of the current buns - Millie and Billie has made this a not-very-hard-working Monday.

In part this is down to client intertia - I'm up to date on my work, and waiting for sign-offs/interview set-ups and the green light to proceed on work - which left me more time to blow my nose, moan about 'man flu'......and feed vast amounts of cabbage to the rabbits.

Actually, I can see them out of the office window and it's rather nice to watch them hopping about while I'm contemplating new ways to get leaders to engage with staff.

Anyway, a change of scene tomorrow as I head off to Belgium for an afternoon - for not much more than a a return train journey into London. Mad!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lloyds TSB - lousy business service

My bank likes to totally disregard the individual needs of my business - and treat me simply as an account number. The fact that I operate as a limited company seems to make them think that I can afford to pay the same level of charges as businesses 10 or 100 times the size of Leapfrog.

Today I received a letter charging me £100 for continuing my overdraft facility at the same level as it has been for the past six years. here's my response - I'll keep you posted on anything that comes back from Lloyds TSB......surely there's a better way...?!

Business Manager
Lloyds TSB Bank Plc.

Dear Mr J
I received your letter regarding Leapfrog’s overdraft facility this morning and was both dismayed and incensed to see your charge of £100 for setting up the facility.

I’d like to put a number of points to you:

The facility has remained unchanged for the total length of the account. So why is it necessary to make an additional charge year on year when the circumstances of the business haven't changed?

What does the bank actually do to justify making this charge? Neither you nor your colleague JU were not even around to take my call when I phoned to discuss the overdraft facility, and nor did anyone return my call.

When a cash flow issue meant I exceeded the overdraft for a week earlier this year, the bank was very helpful in extending my overdraft, and the work your team did was actually visible to me. The charge at the time was £25 – quite high for a business with a turnover of around £XXXX, but acceptable in the circumstances. Why should the charge you are applying now be four times as much?

Why is the charge also double what was charged for the same ‘service’ last year?

Why was the charge taken from my account before I even received the letter informing that it would be made?

What seems apparent to me is that I have received a standard letter and a standard charge for the facility that take absolutely no account of my individual business or its circumstances.

I’m a freelance writer/communications consultant operating as a limited company because that’s the only operating interface that large companies (my target market) recognise.

It would appear that Lloyds TSB also sees only the ‘Ltd’ after my business name and just makes the assumption that my business is just another part of the amorphous mass that gets the same bog-standard service meted out to all those others that fall into the SME tier.

That is simply not acceptable. You are now loading significant cost onto my business without me seeing any consequent improvement in service or additional benefit – the only time I hear from you is when it comes to getting this annual overdraft facility bill out! That hardly smacks of good customer service at a time when the likes of Abbey, and Alliance and Leicester are pushing hard for my business – at lower cost than what’s on offer from Lloyds TSB. Indeed all I see is another way for the bank to make easy money at the expense of its customers on the assumption that inertia will keep my account in place.

Is it not time that the bank developed a policy and fair range of costs for dealing with micro-businesses such as mine – or at least a means of segmenting my business from other, larger entities?

The approach of ‘one size fits all’ is complacent, and I look to you to provide a personalised and satisfactory response to my needs.

I would ask you to respond to the points I’ve raised overleaf and, just as importantly, to review the charge made and replace it with one rather more appropriate. I would suggest £xx.

I look forward to your response as soon as possible.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reducing the risk - when's it right to charge for a pitch?

I've pitched for four pieces of work in the last few days. They say you have to speculate to accumulate, but increasingly, I've had to make it clear that I very rarely do unpaid pitch work.

But let me qualify that. The first piece of work was a request direct to me. It meant driving up to the wilds of Shropshire and spending a couple of hours with an HR director shaping his own pitch to his EMEA president for restructuring his company's approach to internal communication. The potential for the work is huge. I know the guy and know that if he can convince his boss of the merits of the programme that it will be a significant earner for me and for a few other people under the Leapfrog umbrella.

I could have charged for my time spent with him - and probably for the travel too. But as far as I'm concerned, it was a good day's business development. If it leads to something over the next few months, fantastic. If it doesn't, then at least I've left a potential client with a good impression of me.

The next two proposals have come my way through consultancies I've worked with in the past, and are a wholly different kettle of fish. Both have sales teams who spend their lives sourcing opportunities and writing proposals, and both inevitably draw in the potential service deliverers to add substance to the proposal document. Equally inevitably, these proposals are competitive and the chances for success vary from pretty good to very slim - especially when the consultancies are pushing at the margins of their skill sets.

Now until recently, their approach has been to expect people like me - 'associates' - to contribute for free - sharing the risk in putting together the proposal with the knowledge that I'll reap part of the reward if they win the work. But then I cottoned on the fact that the in-house people get paid whether they win the work or not. So why should I be giving them free time for their business development? Frankly, I've been a bit of a mug.

Now these two pieces of work combined have taken just over a day. But I've agreed special business development rates with each of the consultancies, so my time is well spent......and it may just encourage me to invest a bit more time and energy into drafting the proposal documents.

I still do the odd freebie though. I got a frantic call from a consultancy at the end of last week to put together a one pager for a third party on methodology, measurement and cost within a communications strategy to support change triggered by some of the UK radio industry's M&A activity. I explained to my contact that I was actually with another client at the time, and what I could get over to him would be real top of head stuff as I munched my lunch time sandwich. Coralling my thoughts took maybe an hour - and the guy got his one pager. That really didn't justify me putting in a bill - but given the delivery plan is mine, I hope to be putting it into practice should that consultancy win the business.

Finally, I got a call this evening from a brand new contact - referred to me by an agency I often work with. It's nice to get the call and I'll happily get involved in the project. However, much of the work appears to be up front, putting together a proposal. This is where being a 'freelance-with-associates' really bites. This may be the most fantastic opportunity, but it's five days - and five days when I could be filling my time with other paid work. So, I've had to make it crystal clear that any time I spend on the proposal will have to be paid-for. I'm happy to charge my most basic rate, but it's one occasion where I simply can't afford to speculate.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Slowly into the week

Mondays should be banned: I am so achy after pretending yesterday that my level of fitness is equal to the bunch of 11 year olds at Oxford RFC where I run around each Sunday morning attempting to instill skills, responsibility, sportsmanship and flair........But actually spend most of my time in a pastime not far removed from herding cats.

Anyway, not only did I spend two hours looking foolish on a rugby pitch yesterday, but followed it up with another session over the park helping Rory get ready for his inter-school football tournament this afternoon.

I must remember that I'm 42, have a sedentary working life, and that six days of nil sporting activity followed by one of over-exertion is bound to lead to Monday morning aches and pains.

At least it has been quiet this morning: what I notice most about working here on my own is that the phone almost never rings on a Monday morning...... corporate folk take a little while to get up to speed in the working week, and there are a lot of 'team meetings' taking place - which I often think just postpone the real work for another hour or so rather than enable it.

Anyway, it has given me the opportunity to get ahead on a couple of writing jobs including one on customer service in professional firms (lawyers, accountants etc).

It's clear that such companies have sold themselves for too long on technical excellence alone. These days, all the evidence - not least surveys like the recent one in Legal Week on added value - point towards firms needing to round out their offering beyond simple technical excellence. That's now the start point in building a relationship - the end point (if there is one) has to include everything around transparency, communication, knowledge and respect that has been the hallmark of b2b relationships for a generation now.

Professional service providers have been slow on the uptake. Too many are still seen as arrogant inflexible dinosaurs. And we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tools of engagement

If you'd care to leave a comment on the blog, click on the orange 'comments' under each entry.

If you'd like to forward an entry to someone else, click on the little envelope.

I don't think these are the clearest tools I've ever seen - but they're what's on offer in the toolbox here at the moment.


Mark S

As I see it....

Flicking around the Melcrum site the other day (and it's nice to see the recent rash of hits to this blog from Melcrum staff - I hope you found something useful) and I think I found this on the Source part of the site, there was a piece covering what ouput tools communicators measure most - unsurprisingly newsletters came out top, but social media appeared to be heavily-measured too....which sounded good, until it also became clear that they were the least used tools in the box.

And, despite all the buzz, that's still what I'm seeing day to day on the UK organisational communication scene.

Now I've got a very small window on the corporate world over here - my clients, and other companies I've worked with before that I'm still in touch with. All still have a magazine in some form - often several; nearly all have an intranet - though some have become unruly monsters and exist for form rather than substance.

Two have customer blogs, but both seem faddy rather than essential. None has formal internal blogs - though one, has a growing informal blogging culture which at the moment, is a problem rather than an opportunity for the communicators within that organisation.

One company working across Europe is a heavy user of wikis - not as a new comms tool, but - as I think it should be - using wikis simply for collaborative working. They're now part of 'the way we do things round here'.

I'm seeing some customer podcasts, but only occasional pod and webcasts internally within companies who use me.

I think it's still a generational thing. Culturally younger companies where the 20-somethings are already occupying influential positions in marketing, comms and HR naturally gravitate to the new technologies and for them it's a natural rather than learned experience to blog, podcast or whatever. But they're still in the minority and my mainstram clients where my peers are in the mid 30s to mid 50s are still happy in the comfort zone of communication that has its genesis in the world of putting words on a page - whether that page is print or electronic. If it's easier for us to stick in our comfort zone, how much easier again must it be for managers and execs to duck the new comms opportunities that might be just a bit 'difficult'?

At the age of 42, I read the paper, listen to the radio, watch TV and use my mobile for phone calls. My 19 year old neice downloads music and video to I-Pod and PC, gets her news from the net and communicates largely by text and instant message. We can both adopt the other's habits - but it comes less naturally. But she unconsciously uses social media as an everyday part of her life. In five years time, when she has graduated and is working, such media will be the norm for her - and a newsletter in her in-tray will belong to her parents' generation.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My 'lurker's' a nice person really!

Apologies to the nice lady in British Columbia whom I've offended on two fronts: first, for describing her as a lurker, and second for linking her lurking to the fact that my leapfrog email seems to have become fair game for bulk mailing scammers in the last few weeks.

On the second front - mea culpa. It clearly is merely a coincidence that her interest in this blog happened to coincide with the spam business. But I'm a tad surprised she took offence to the term 'lurker'.

For me, it just means someone who reads blogs but doesn't contribute to them by leaving comments etc. It's not pejorative, and given that hardly anyone feedsback on this blog, there's a whole lot of lurking going on.

So, happy lurking everyone!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Right....just a few things

1. Is this blog simply too boring to comment on? Loads of people visit it; some stay a surprisingly long time - or return quite frequently - yet I hardly ever get any comments. Am I flogging a dead horse?

2. Why does someone in a medical lab in Burnaby, British Columbia feel the need to lurk on here on a daily basis......and why have I had loads of spam sent to my account since you started lurking?

3. I've been flicking through the latest issue of Communicators which seems to be doing a fairly blatant job of pushing CiB's communication awards by highlighting the benefits of communication awards for comms outputs.

Now, I've been known to be a curmudgeon when it comes to the CiB awards in the past - but actually, I have nothing against people gaining recognition for a job well done - in fact, I urge you all to enter the awards, at least several times over. However, I would like to raise two points: first, CiB is far too reliant on the income the awards provide to be in any way objective on the true value they have within the internal communications (nay, communications) industry. And, second, I urge the judges to only award glittering prizes where the entry provides context beyond the shiny output. Magazines, intranets and the like can look wonderful, be beautifully written and appear the peak of professionalism. But unless they achieve a clear purpose, and that purpose is directly a part of driving an organisation's success, they're mere print on paper or words on a screen. Prettiness, great writing or the best use of a comma in a built up area bear no relation to business success - and isn't that what business communication should be all about?

4. I know my entries are full of typos - but I'm not a proof reader!

The Missing Link

I was congratualted last week for winning 'The Missing Link' - which more than a few people may think is about right! But if, as directed in the latest issue of Communicators, you want to read about my exploits on the BBC's 'Weakest Link', you'll need to scroll down the blog a fair bit, or look in the arhive at June 2006.

And by the way, the tortoise referred to at the end of the show has actually become two rather sweet rabbits - Billy Buns and Milly Buns..........the Shanahan family's current buns..... (I'll get my coat).

Office imitating art?

The Turner Prize: is it art? Discuss.

Okay, it sounds like one of those questions for getting into Oxbridge (not quite 'how much of the world's water is contained in a cow?'), but every year, the contest-cum-exhibition held at Tate Britain manages to raise the hackles both of those who see art as a Turner hung on the wall - and those who see just as much 'art' in an unmade bed.

Now I've often thought that communication is more art than science and this year, Phil Collins (no, not him) has made that concept flesh in the form of Shady Lane Productions.

In short, Collins has built a fully functioning office in one of the Tate's galleries in London and has staffed it with researchers. Their job is to find subjects for Collins' next artwork - a video piece looking at the impact of reality TV on people who feel the medium has ruined their life.

The 'office' has windows opening into the gallery so the gawping public can check out what's going on inside and listen in as the researchers (all being paid for their time) go about their daily work of tracking down potential sdubjects for the forthcoming video installation. Joe and Jessica public can also interact with those inside the office by knocking at a hatch and having a chat - though largely the visitors have been a tad too timid to make that connection - maybe we just like looking at our art, rather than engaging it in dialogue.

But surely that's where the art comes in? After a few weeks, the office staff have settled into the roles, patterns and relationships we see in any office. The novelty's worn off, and, supposedly, they're no longer acting up for their audience. A functioning office - no matter where it's situated - is not art in itself - and the artifice here can only be in the dialogue with the viewing public that lifts the uber-reality into something beyond realism.

Undoubtedly this is a very clever installation. Is it art - or a massive piss take? I'm undecided, but impressed that Collins has not only come up with the concept, but has got away with it too.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Off to fly my own kite instead of somebody else's

I'm not usually a great fan of Melcrum and its tactic of making you think you're part of a community when you're just buying their heavily hyped and nut-squeezingly expensive product. But I do tap into the free stuff - and this made me chuckle.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vainer than Vayner?

Hurrah for UBS - or at least for the company mole who pricked the pomposity of possibly the most narcissistic of the Generation Y currently hitting the job market.

Yep, we all know about Aleksey - the media is almost as full of him as he is of himself.

But doesn't his gargantuan self-love and lack of self-awareness not reflect many of the youth we see coming through our doors - not looking for a job - but expecting one to land in their lap?

I interviewed some graduates recently for a graduate trainee post. All had amazing CVs with achievement certificates scrolling from ceiling to floor and tales of internship with the bluest of blue chips and pinnacles of media professionalism......yet they were applying for a ground floor job in a PR agency in Buckinghamshire.

On paper, they all looked great - shame we don't work that way. One guy ranted at me because I cut his interview short. He hadn't prepped for it, knew nothing about the company or what it did, and seemed to think his life was going to be one long round of parties (not 'til you make AD matey!). Another girl with staight As at A level and a predicted 2.1 for her degree couldn't string a sentence together - not great in a people business. One, who claimed a spell on the Guardian may well have been telling the truth - she certainly couldn't spell; had a vocab less than my 12 year old; and had read deeply and chick lit.

We struggled to get a final four - none of the candidates could write a decent basic news release and none had much of a clue about face-to-face or even phone to phone communication technique. What was more worrying was we didn't sense they had much energy or appetite to learn.

When the final four came in for a day of testing and interacting with this client's team, we reached a place of clarity - none of our four would get the job. The reason? They couldn't take criticism, however useful or constructive it was. These precious pearls had emerged into the job market wrapped in the cotton wool of continuous praise and reward. I see the same thing happening at school with my kids - certificates for walking to school, for handing in hoework on time and for doing work of the expected standard. What was the expected minimum a generation ago is now cause for celebration. So, when these 20-somethings were pulled up on their poor performance for a final interview, they had no coping strategy. It was alien territory. No-one was saying either 'well done' or 'there, there, don't worry....and enjoy your lower attainment achievement'. Far from it, the boss I was helping recruit with said: 'that's not good enough - how can you make it better?'. Stars on paper fell swiftly from the sky.

Maybe we were particularly unlucky. I don't know. I do know that the particular company concerned has turned to the other end of the spectrum and has recruited two PRs heading into silver surfdom. They know they have to be nimble and learn a few new tricks to keep up with the Generation X-Zs, but they've got the humility and a bit of life history to draw on to make it happen.

Monday, October 16, 2006

AOL Saga - part the nth

Ok, so it was the usual AOL Help failure situation today.

I went to log on this morning and there was no connection to the internet via my router. So I went through the routine of closing everything down, unplugging everything - even blowing on the leads - and then starting up again. Result? Nada!

So, as this is a fairly regular recurrence, I've got a stash of AOL help pages offering differing options to reboot the router; reset my AOL connection; restore factory settings; purge my PC of demons etc - the usual kind of stuff. I tried tham all. resyukt? Still an ominous red light on the router, and no connection to the world.

This called for desperate measures......a call to AOL Technical support.

The first guy was Irish - after 10 minutes of getting to the point I'd already reached myself....the phone call cut off. Now, I didn't break the who did?

So, it was on to call number 2. This time I hit an Indian call centre and got 'Keith' - why the hell don't these guys just use their own names - you're fooling no-one peeps!

Keith had a strong acent, which didn't help matters, and also seemed to fail to grasp the fact that I'd already done everything he suggested. After about 20 minutes, and complete failure to reset the router, the phone mysteriously went dead again. Hmmmm.

So, one final call. By this time, I was convinced that the fault lay with the line, not the pc or router. So, after hanging on for another five minutes listening to dodgy Pink Floyd, I got through to an Irish guy again. I poured out my tale of frustration - and he let me ramble on - only to tell me that my call had been wrongly routed to billing.....and that he'd have to transfer me to one of his technical support colleagues.

After five minutes hanging on, I gave up in disgust and went out to a client.

Funny enough, I switched on the machine when I returned a couple of hours later - it worked perfectly first time, seemingly desopite, rather than inspite of any AOL intervention.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

A new career?

Right, I saw this cartoon and it made me now I'm off to reinvent myself and make £££millions!!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Czech please!

If you see one thing at the theatre this year (and that's about all I'll see), you could do far worse than Tom Stoppard's excellent 'RocknRoll' at London's Duke of York's theatre.

I saw the play on Saturday evening and, despite having possibly the worst seat in the house (far stage right in the second row of the Royal Circle), I sat mesmerised by the content, performances and atmosphere that conjured up both Czechoslovakia and the Cambridge University set from 1968 to the early '90s.

The play is high on intellectual content and it takes stamina to stay the course as Jan's life unfolds against the panorama of increasingly repressive Prague on one hand, and the slow diminishment of Cambridge Don Max Morrow's hard line commitment to communism.

Max demonstrates how easy it is to be an intellectual communist in Cambridge, while Jan's slide from philosophy lecturer to prison and parasite balances Max's idealism with the reality of being the square peg in the totalitarian round holes.

David Calder is superb as Max and operates in high falutin' company, as Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewall, as Morrow's wife Eleanor (and then daughter, Esme) and her Czech mate Jan, deliver performances of supreme quality.

Stoppard's handling of the complexities of communist idealism v reality coupled with intellectual versus cultural dissidence is incredibly adept - bolstered no doubt by Trevor Nunn's deft production. And it's a production literally underscored by the music of the title.

At one level, the play's something of an homage to Syd Barrett and the music of the Floyd, Stones and Grateful Dead - as well as Prague's own Plastic People - drives the action relentlessly to its life-affirming denouement.

The coruscating riffs are well timed to provide a change of pace from a dense script - but frankly the play flew by and I left the theatre entirely sated.....and ready for a late supper washed down with a large beer - Czech of course.

Consigned to history

So, that's an episode of my life that I can now consign to history.

For four months I had to sit on the knowledge that I'd won the Weakest Link and stew horribly about the how the edited version of my efforts would emerge.

Then, last Friday, the show was finally aired and I watched it with Jac and the kids, with the DVD recording dowstairs and a back-up VHS whirring away upstairs.

Overall, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I looked balder and jowlier than I'd hoped - but that's a result of being 42 not 22. I had a cold when the programme was recorded back in June, and I sounded quite hoarse which, seeing as I really don't like my voice anyway - hardly helped.

I also pulled weird facial expressions when I answered questions - so it's definitely a career as a keyboard warrior not a TV personality for me in the future.

But....I won.

I've been a media wannabe for ever, and here I actually surpassed expectations and landed a prize. Okay, so it's a daytime TV quiz where the prize fund is definitely secondary to the banter with Anne Robinson. But I did it, and came away with a cheque.

Now there's absolutely no mystique or chance to rest on one's laurels after the event. The show's finance administrator wrote out my cheque while dispensing everyone's travel expenses. There's no trophy to take away or celebratory drink with Anne and the crew. It's a quick wrap, and I found myself on my own in the Pinewood film studios' car park.

It was a beautiful sunny evening. I rang home and my heart absolutely soared as I told Jac my good news and she relayed it to the kids. Rory's squeal of delight down the phone made it all so worthwhile.

Last Friday evening was nice: big hugs from Laura-Beth and Sophie; a couple of congratulatory texts, a few emails and phone calls - and a very nice bottle of Dom Perignon Vintage 1996 that we'd been saving for a while.

So, I've had my Warhol 15 minutes and now it's back to grim reality.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Funny old week. Stress levels have been quite high with work deadlines flying around and the dreaded 11+ finally coming around. Rory was calm, which is great, far calmer than his parents! Part two is next week - thankfully after Wednesday it can all be forgotten.

Yesterday was a huge flurry of calls and emails as projects came to completion.....which has left a quiet day today...too quiet.

There's stuff I should be doing around book keeping, around research for CiB and around subbing a long and complicated magazine article. But I can't get down to things. The reason? My appearance on the Weakest Link this evening.

Four months after filming the show, transmission has finally come round. I know how the show pans out and how far I get in it - but I'm still nervous. The crew filmed us for the best part of three hours - plenty of time to hang myself even when the show's edited to a shade under 45 minutes.

The filming's a bit of a blur now - but I'm sure I made a bit of a prat of myself (but isn't that the essence of the show?). I'm intrigued to see how all our contributions will be edited and am sufficiently vain to be curious as to how I'll look on telly - not great, I expect.

As a young journalist, I had a news editor who tripped out the cliche: "You've a great face for radio" ......... and followed it up with the barbed "and a great voice for print!".

Okay, so over the last couple of decades I've had a few forays into radio, but my screen presence is limited to one Granada regional documentary made in 1985! These days, I'm very happy to hide behind my keyboard - which makes tonight's Warhol moment feel rather excruciating at the moment.

Anyway, just under six hours to go....and counting.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Shrinking world

Just how much electronic communication has become the norm - and has totally revolutionaised the way we work - struck home on Friday.

I was working on two projects during a slightly elongated working day, both of which had originated in London.

With the movement of the key players involved, one guy was responding to questions via Blackberry from Prague. We worked just as swiftly as if he'd been in his London office, despite the fact he spent most of his day travelling.

When the other project started, both key players were also in London, but now the content provider's on the east coast of the US and the project co-ordinator is in Australia. The 15 hour timespan between us is a bit of a stretch but we can link up by phone or internet chat - and can collaborate on the documentation in real time. E-mail is now just so accepted as a working communication currency that none of us thinks twice about shooting messages around the world - and we work far more efficiently than losing thousands of hours each year stuck outside radio contact on planes travelling to meetings.

I started in communication 20 years ago - it truly was a different world.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Who will draw a crowd?

CiB is currently planning its 2007 annual conference. It will be held at a great venue in a buzzing city. That city's Newcastle - and the problem is that it's 250 miles away from CiB's London heartland - and not quite the coastal draw of a Brighton or Bournemouth.

So far, the conference looks solid enough - but it lacks sparkle. It hasn't as yet got the 'wow' speaker that will either make our largely southern-based membership hop on the train to the frozen north east, or make those communication (plus HR, change and general leadership) folk based in the north think that this is a conference they can't afford to miss.

We need a headline speaker: someone different from the normal run of case studies and consultants who will both attract new blood to the conference, and make those who do attend really sit up and learn something. The problem is that CiB is firmly focused on internal communication - and there are very few, if any, widely known and respected IC gurus out there. It may be worth looking to the US, Australia or Canada and coaxing someone in from over there - but cost remains an issue. Otherwise, it's a case of taking a new angle and attracting perhaps a leadership speaker from the UK and beefing up other parts of the agenda. But either way, we need to do something to make the most of the opportunity Newcastle offers.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Conundrum within an enigma

Later this week I'll take part in the latest Council meeting of Communicators in Business - the largest organisation representing business communicators in the UK and Ireland. Then, in a couple of week's time, I'll chair a meeting on membership: how we can attract communicators to, and retain communicators within an organisation where membership has remained in the very low four figures for as long as I can remember.

CiB has a perception problem: too many people within the organisational communications world see the organisation as being run by publications agency folk for publication agency folk. It's a perception that's frankly not helped by the fact that the current President, immediate past president and vice president are all....publications agency folk. But there lies the conundrum.

I'm getting to know all these people reasonably well and thery're both darned good at what they do and forward-thinking in terms of CiB. They're also the ones with the energy to take a front seat in managing CiB. They've already firmed up the organisation's niche by asserting that it's an organisation focused on internal communication. Additionally, they've launched development work built around providing an offering that will attract communicators at all levels - from new entries to the boardroom.

But there's the danger of Catch 22 setting in: at present, the vast bulk of CiB's membership is at the newbie-through-junior-to-craft level. There's still a backbone of journalists and designers who've come through the traditional print route to work in employee comms. How these people can make the step change to creating an organisation that can become a thought-leader across the wider realms of internal communications is quite a challenge.

Allied to this, too few corporate people or new thinkers are prepared to get involved in the active side of CiB. Unless people who've come to internal comms from a different background are prepared to step up to the plate and make an active difference within CiB, it'll stay the same. And if it stays the same, those very people it needs will never be attracted.

Third, the organisational comms world is changing - perhaps faster than CiB's thinking. The barriers between internal and external communication are breaking down rapidly - more and more organisations I work with have one communications team working on issues first, and segmenting the audiences later. Grabbing the high ground on internal comms is absolutely right now - but it's not an end point, and CiB will have to find a way to ensure its thinking will evolve as organisational comms changes.

I'm not sure how far we'll move on Wednesday - my experience is that these large Council sessions rarely bring searing light to any issue. However, I'm more hopeful of what will emerge from the Membership group - slightly younger than the CiB average, with more corporate experience and largely working across external and internal comms.

However, what's abundantly clear to me is that CiB must change - thankfully it's clear to those running the organisation too. But, I've a nagging doubt about whether the right change will happen with sufficient speed to make a difference.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Weakest Link

My episode of the Weakest Link will finally air on BBC2 at 5.15pm on Friday October 6th. So, if you want to see me fail to outwit Annie in the banter stakes and be rude to a priest in a wheelchair, do tune in!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


This is not a blog that gets thousands of hits every day - for that, I suppose, I'd have to be writing about sex or celebrity....or probably both. But I'm always intrigued by where the people who do land on the site each day come from - and why.

Sometimes it's quite easy to use the stats provided by my tracker to unearth who's surfed in from where and why.

Recently I've been researching and writing material on the Apollo 1 fire - I've been talking to a few astronauts and others involved around the Cape and Houston at the time and, by looking at both the location of those viewing the blog, and also where they've been referred from, it's clear to see they were checking out the writer who, in turn, was checking out their opinions and memories. So, a nice circle completed there.

I've just started on a project now about Chuck Yeager as next year's the 60th anniversary of his flight in the X-1 rocket plane that first broke through the sound barrier in level flight (actually he was climbing at the time, making the feat even more memorable). I'm starting to contact people involved in the X-plane project, and hope they'll stop by to check out progress via this blog.

As for other visitors, some get referred from where I appear in other people's blogs - I've noticed quite a few people jumping over from Ron Shewchuck's pages and from one or two of the other PR blogs. And, for a brief moment when I was picked up by Shel Holz and Neville Hobson, a few people came in on the back of their podcast. Well, I hope I can reciprocate as there's little value in any kind of social media community where contributors merely drone along alone.

By far the biggest category of visitor is those who surf in off a google search or something similar, spend a few seconds realising that this is very much a niche site, and move right along. Well, thank you for visiting, and I'm sorry this isn't your cup of tea!

But those that really intrigue me are the lurkers, who arrive in from points unknown; spend a long time working through the pages - and sometimes even email links on to other people. Who are you guys from the Philippines, Slovakia and the US - or even who was it from London who spent almost an hour on the site a couple of days ago? Did you find what you were looking for and was it any use?

I'm curiously curious about you silent types!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Intranets killing the art of corporate communication

When you've built the monster, you've got to feed it. Nothing going on today? Tough, the intranet needs feeding.

More than any other electronic communication tool, intranets are becoming the Frankenstein's Monsters of corporate communication.

We spend £ thousands building the darned things - too often as apanaceaa for every communication woe. We employ specialist editorial and technical staff to make the things run and we measure our success on how many hits each page gains.

Yet they take away our ability to managecorporatee communication as they all too often become the consuming black hole, sucking in far too much communication resource and delivering too little in return. Intranets are just one tool in our communication kit - but how many organisations are making them the sole employee communication tool (or worse still, consider the fact that they have an intranet to equate with them being a communicating organisation).

There's an interesting debate going on over at the IABC's communication commons on this.
Check out I've had my say of course.

I'm sufficiently old-school to see corporate communication as an art. Played delicately and with panache, it involves and engages - and enables the right business outcomes. The professional communicator is the coach and motivator as well as deliverer of a mix of media.

We've spent 30 years stating that one size does not fit all - but isn't that what creeping intranetism delivers?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Changing the nature....

I'm just back from a break in Ireland - the same great people, green hills, heather covered moors and long deserted beaches that have kept me captivated since I was a kid.

But there's a subtle change about Ireland, and one that's not totally for the good.

The Celtic tiger's on the charge: the country has never been more wealthy or more confident. Instead of old vans and clapped out volvos, the roads around Dublin and Co. Wicklow (where we stayed) were full of new 4x4s and sleek sports cars. Village high streets now boast Italian brasseries, designer boutiques and trendy dellies. Clearly the new Ireland's a great place to live if you can capitalise on the boom.

What's most apparent is the new class of service workers brought in to fill the breach as Ireland's upwardly mobile have moved....upwards.

From the airport car hire desk to the hotel reception and dining room, in every restaurant and nearly every shop we met the new grafters of the Irish economy - largeely young, probably very well educated....and eastern European to a man and woman.

As young Irish folk have taken the new jobs in management and the burdgeoning finance, insurance and other high-powered service industries that are feeding the tiger, their places in the slightly less well paid service sectors are being taken by a wave of new immigrants from the Baltic Republics, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After centuries of net emigration, Ireland's seeing its first wave of net immigration and the impact is startling. The eager new imigrants are bringing great efficiency to most roles they touch. But what's not there - at least not yet - is the special Irish warmth that has characterised the nation for so long.

I'll give you an example. A while ago, Jac and I flew into Shannon and made our way to the Dromoland Castle hotel. We were met at the door by Michael, a young lad who took our bags, told us about the hotel, showed us into the lounge and chatted away as if we were old friends. Within five minutes of arriving, we felt at home. Over the next few days we were probably 'upsold' on more than a few occasions, buying the extra round of sandwiches, being nudged up the wine list and ordering that extra pint of Guinness - but it never felt like upselling because everyone in the service chain took an interest, and had a natural way with the people they were serving.

Last Friday night we got back to Dublin airport after a week in a hotel in Co. Wicklow where everyone was efficient, but where there had been no warmth to the service - a disappointment as we'd stayed in the same hotel several times in the past.

We checked in our bags and headed to the food hall to find half of it closed off, and two of the food service area unmanned - and this at peak time on a Friday evening. People were milling around looking for tables while others snaked through the service area in the queue to the one staffed food service outlet.

Jac and I had the three kids with us and it was infuriating to see so many tables with chairs staked on them at a really busy time for travelling. Jac asked the one person clearing tables if she could sit at one of the tables with stacked chairs. 'No' was the curt and eastern-European accented reply. 'Hang on,' Jac replied. 'You've closed off more than half the seating area and have people queuing out the door. There are five of us, and no free tables in the area you have open.' 'Not my problem' came the reply.

Now, was she having a bad day? Did she hate her job? Was she hugely overqualified and underpaid for the task she was being paid to do? I don't know and I don't care. However, she was the sole representative of the food court at Dublin Airport out on the floor dealing with customers. So it was her problem.

But it sums up Ireland's current teething problems. It's easy for the likes of me to be won over by charm and the feeling that someone's genuinely out to help me. But when I'm faced with an army of indifference and a distancing from the old culture of natural good service, it gets my back up - big time.

It's high time that Ireland became less insular and I truly welcome the influx of bright young people from other countries. But it's smug, complacent and potentially dangerous for the Irish to put new immigrants into key customer service roles without engaging those incomers into the culture of warmth, friendliness and genuine helpfulness that previously was a byword for Ireland.

For the first time, I found Ireland losing its Irishness.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Silver linings

For every job that gets me down, I'm delighted to say there are two or three that really make my working life worthwhile.

I switched on the PC this morning to find e-mails from a technician who worked on the launch pads through the Apollo programme, and from
Walt Cunningham who orbited the earth in Apollo 7.

Probably only 10 per cent of my time is spent writing for profit beyond business/corporate communications - but the enjoyment I gain from it is a great deal higher.

I'm just finishing up a piece on the early days of Apollo, and its exciting to get direct input from 'primary sources' - the people who were there and who took part. It's gratifying that they can take the time to help my research, and I hope I can do a little to keep a rather more hopeful and heroic period in our recent history (albeit set in a context of war/cold war) alive for generations for whom space exploration doesn't even chart on their radar.

The devil's in the detail

I've had one project ongoing alongside all the others through the summer - and it's driving me to distraction.

Essentially, I'm writing and editing copy for a new web application that takes marketers through a tool kit to produce their annual marketing plans. The benefits are obvious: consistency, efficiency and no need to reinvent the wheel. The devil, of course, is in the detail.

I've been briefed twice on the project - and very differently. On the one hand, a number of people on the client side have been providing input - all slightly different in style and form and differing widely in tone. There's a contact on the client side who's extremely nice - but quite junior and more a conduit for information than an authority. Yet she put me through the hoops in the first place to win the work, and it's through her that my bills get paid.

I've also been briefed by the design company - a business I've worked with well for years. They have a particular vision for this site that's based on it looking good and being functionally effective. Unfortunately, the client doesn't seem to have quite the same vision.

I've been drafting copy, sending it to the client who, unbeknown to me, have then sent it straight on to the design agency without any quality checks or editing or any 'add value' from the client side. I've had no feedback on whether what I was doing was right or wrong, so have just ploughed on, clocking up about 70-80 hours' work.

Deadlines have been regularly missed by the client. On several occasions I've blocked out time to get on with the work only to sit around twiddling my thumbs. So, I've become slightly jaundiced about the project - more so when I've had calls from the designers bemoaning the fact that the client hasn't followed the design and has got me to write sections that appear nowhere in the functional spec - a spec no-one has kept me up to date on!

So, I'm a bit cheesed off stuck in the middle. I just want to get the project out of the way - but sod's law sees it growing like topsy and coming back time and again, gobbling up more of my words. At the moment I'm stuck writing flash scripts for how to use the site and I'm struggling. Not enough detail for the client, way too much copy for the designers. We will reach compromise and the site will work - I just wish there'd been a clear brief throughout. I hate producing work that I'm not satisfied with - but that's how I feel about this project - it has just been too messy from the start, and I don't think I'm doing a very good job.

But, I've got to produce a good end result, so it's back to the scripts and keep bashing away. In the end, I'm only as good as my last job, so I can't afford to piss off the client.