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.