Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It ain't what you say....

....it's the way that you say it. And I'll bet Royal Bank of Scotland , one of Europe's biggest banks are rueing the letter sent to employees threatening disciplinary action if they don't have their salary paid into an RBS account.

Here's how the story was handled in the UK:

The Royal Bank of Scotland has warned its employees that they must have a current account with the company or face disciplinary procedures.

In a letter to staff whose salaries are paid into accounts held by other banks, RBS chief executive of retail markets Gordon Pell gives them a deadline to change their account provider. Trade union Amicus, which originally obtained the letter after receiving thousands of complaints from aggrieved employees, has accused RBS of being "heavy-handed" in its approach.

Many banks in Britain tell their employees to take out accounts with the company, a line that RBS has taken in its defence this morning.But Amicus spokesperson Alison Maclean told the Today programme that this view was "not something that the union would view as essential"."We believe that the employer's approach in this has been heavy-handed and certainly not conducive to good employee relations," she explained."Where the problem has arisen is with employees [who] have chosen to have their salary paid into another bank account.

"And there're also employees that have joined the group from other constituent organisations such as Direct Line or Churchill Insurance.

"It wasn't a problem a year ago, two years ago, and now all of a sudden it is a problem," Ms Maclean went on to say."And what we're talking about here is employees who have been loyal to the bank, dedicated, have never had any kind of issue in terms of proposed disciplinary action and they now find themselves in a situation where potentially they could face disciplinary action for failure to have their salary paid into a group bank account."

RBS, which also owns NatWest along with Direct Line and Churchill Insurance, has insisted that all employees were already aware of this aspect of company policy. A spokesperson for the bank said: "In common with industry practice, our terms and conditions require staff to open a current account with us for the payment of their salary."This is made clear to all staff during the interview process and forms part of the overall reward package we offer which includes a wide range of very generous benefits including financial deals. "Our staff are at complete liberty to run accounts with other providers if they wish," the representative added.

So where does such communication stop being a reminder of the rules and start being bullying? And how arrogant is it of Gordon Pell impinge in this way on people's lives beyond the job - especially those who have been merged or acquired into the business?

I worked for Barclays bank for a couple of years but kept my prevous bank account with another provider and insisted my salary was paid there. No-one made a fuss and as far as I was concerned, it kept my personal and work lives separate.

It never stopped me being an ambassador for the Barclays brand - and I'd probably have been less inclined to be positive about my employer if I'd felt they'd coerced me into doing anything I didn't want to with my money.

It's noticeable that by the end of the press story that RBS is back-tracking. But did pell go to HR or his communicators before issuing the letter? Did they challenge him and point out the likely impact of poorly-thought-through communication. I bet they didn't - because he's the big boss.

Well, today he's the big boss with his foot in his mouth.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Blog 2: the rest of my life

Right, this blog has enjoyed a bit of a schizophrenic existence in the nearly-two-years since I started pontificating.

More than the odd rant about customer service, family, TV-wannabe tendencies and other non-comms stuff has cropped up from time to time - possibly devaluing some of the good comms stuff.

So now it's time for the rest of my life to split off from here; to go its own way; to be free; to wander down whatever cerebral cul de sac the my excesses of coffee and lack of alcohol (still Lent, still no wine or beer) induce.

So, if you're vaguely interested in my 'other self', take a look over here....though there's nothing much there yet.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Would you like fries with that?

Today I've been flat out on three client projects all paying a reasonable rate. I've now been in front of the PC for nine hours, and look set to rack up another three or four before another three or four days of much keyboard whacking heading up to deadlines.

While the emails have been pinging and ponging around, I've also been asked to get involved in a communication project for a large professional services company. A new client, all good.

This afternoon, an agency also got in touch asking if I was free to do some phone interviewing and then write up the interviews for a publication. Well, if you want something done, ask a busy man. So I said that I could probably help with at least a couple of the interviews on Friday/Monday. I then enquired about what they were paying.

They said they were planning on an hourly rate of £20. i suggested they revise their thinking or look elsewhere.

In 1991 I was charging and getting £35 per hour. These days I generally work on double that and upwards, but will come down if the job or the client merits it. But £20 per hour.......

What value does that put on the work we do. It's not simply stringing together random sentences. Surely understanding a client company, their needs and what they expect from the particular communication exercise is worth more than £20? Surely asking the right questions to elicit the right responses and following that initial questioning with incisive follow-up is worth more than £20? Surely packaging the results of your research in a compelling interview that delivers on the business expectation is worth more than £20?

The only thing I'm sure of is that the client is paying the agency a lot more than £20 per hour.

But it would seem that this agency just sees the people paid to be creative with words as a low-price transactional commodity - one step up from the burger flippers.

Frankly, I wasn't impressed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Eight days, and counting

In eight days time I'll be facing John Humphrys across a darkened Mastermind studio and spouting my knowledge - or lack of it - about Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

It's getting close now and the gaps in my knowledge appear to be widening not shrinking.

I operate best as a storyteller and can spin the yarn of the Chief Designer's life and achievements until the cows have probably circled the earth many more times than Yuri Gagarin (...well ok, he only went round once, and didn't actually complete a full orbit). Where it all goes hazy is on two fronts: dates and science...a bit of a handicap methinks.

If I'm asked questions about the key facts and personalities around SP's life, about Sputnik, Vostok, the R7, Voskhod and the N1, fine. If it's stuff around the chemical formula in the mix of Gluschko's rocket engines, or the precise apogee of Sputnik 5, there'll be a fair few passes.

I'm under no illusions about my Mastermind appearance: my delight (and slight terror) is just making it to the show. When I did the Weakest Link, I felt I could win and most certainly wanted to. I will be VERY VERY fortunate to get beyond my Mastermind heat, and could very easily finish a distant fourth.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Writer, journalist or what?

I was interviewing a communications director for a publication last Thursday and she asked me: 'How would you describe yourself: a journalist or a writer?'

Weirdly I hadn't really considered the difference before, and we talked a little about the space between each term. For her, the journalist is the scribe who packages other people's thoughts, while the writer has freer rein to be creative and empiric in their thought. I don't actually think the distinction is as clear - I know a lot of journalists whose writing is original and innovative, while I know people who purport to be writers without an original thought in their head.

As for me? Well, it depends who's employing me and for what purpose. My toolbox is full of words and my badge of employment ranges from wordsmith to consultant depending on the nature of the job - I even take a few pictures along the way to balance the light and shade. In essence, I'm a gatherer of ideas and shaper of messages to create the outcome my clients want.....but that's an awful lot to put on a badge.

So, writer or journalist? A little bit of both and the space in between, I think.

A tad underwhelmed

My passion for 20th century history can occasionally turn a profit, so I was looking forward to a trip to the National Cold War Exhibition at RAF Cosford in Shropshire to put together a piece for an American web publication.
The 8000 square metre 21st century take on an aircraft hangar looks impressive from the outside, and certainly shows up the rest of the museum, which is now looking rather tired. But I'm not sure the designers and curators have grabbed the opportunity presented to them - I certainly came away underwhelmed, and am going to have to pick my words very carefully when writing up the site review.
First impressions? The planes don't add enough to the story. Is this a Cold War exhibition or is it a new way to store historic aircraft? At the moment, it seems to fall between two stools, and falls short of the standards set by the likes of the American Air Museum at Duxford or the Air & Space museum in Washington DC.
Clearly it's early days for the RAF Museum's newest exhibit, but I think it needs more content, more interactivity (all the touch screens lead to the same content!) and more human linkage between the aircraft and the history to really bring it to life.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Would you still want to clean your teeth afterwards?

I get sent all sorts of press releases - most without any relevance to what I do. This one here caught my eye....while turning my stomach slightly.

I don't think I'd want to clean my teeth afterwards.....and what happens when you floss?

Clearly, innovation happens in the most unusual places......

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tips for the new corporate editor

A couple of weeks ago I asked through this blog, through the IABC's MemberSpeak and through CiB's freelance forum for tips for newbie editors that I could use in hand-outs for one of the bespoke courses I run.

Nothing came back via the blog! The IABC forum produced one response, but these were the tips that came in from my CiB colleagues:

Set clear objectives

Be absolutely clear about your objective (or the message originator's objective) for writing any article or message. What do you want people to do, think or feel in response? Then focus clearly and concisely on that when you write. Too often in big companies, the real message is hidden two paras from the bottom of a page of waffle - and beyond the point where many people have stopped reading.
Brian Johnson, Communications Contractor

Think impact – and not just in the words

Involve your the designer at an early stage. You must present an holistic approach for a communication to be effective. Designers think visually and will bring a new dimension to your work.
Phil Steed.......not surprisingly, a designer

Two for the price of one

Don't try and be too clever. Too many of us think that we are being witty, urbane and ironic, when we are not. Keep it simple. And ignore anyone who tells you that you cannot ever start a sentence with And or But. This is something that too many people dimly remember from their long lost schooldays as not acceptable. If it's good enough for The Economist or The New Yorker, it's good enough for your newsletter.

Mike Thompson, communications specialist

Set deadlines – and stick to them

Set your deadline a day or two before the point where you really need to be ready in order to give yourself enough time/some flexibility. Ensure everyone in the approvals loop understand that it is up to them to come back to you by the deadline, not up to you to endlessly keep chasing all of them. Warn them clearly of the deadline and tell them that if they do not come back by the deadline, you will assume they are happy for the articles to appear unchanged.

Tell them that the deadline given really is the real deadline, not just an initial one that can be ignored for a few days pending the final one. Say at the outset that it will be respected. It is not a movable feast. f someone in the approval loop will be on leave they must make alternative arrangements for someone to sign-off on their behalf.
Lilian El-Doufani, writer & PR consultant

Check your facts

The three most important attributes of a story are: 1) Accuracy. 2) Accuracy. 3) Accuracy. If you get someone's name wrong it's the only thing about your beautifully written story anyone will remember.
Louise Birkett, Consultant, Leapfrog Associate........and law specialist

It’s all about meaning.........so when you’ve drafted some copy:

Get another person to read your copy aloud to back to you. The difference between what you think you've communicated, and what others perceive can be amazing.
Carol Harris, writer and pig breeder

Stamp of approval

When the newsletter goes on the approvals round, state up front that those approving it can only make changes where there are factual inaccuracies. It stops everyone putting their stamp and personal style on the text for the sake of it.
Carole Seawert, Copywriter

Be prepared

Make sure you have some stories and features in reserve for the times when somebody pulls a story or feature at the last minute.
Sue Williams, Editor and co-ordinator

All of these are freely shared....especially with the person who felt I was taking people's good ideas for my personal gain.......!

Monday, March 05, 2007

And a good time was had by all.......

Lazy language and boring imagery. Both drive me to distraction and both came up in the training I ran last Thursday.

The language issue came up around a series of people appointment announcements in a business newsletter which all began: "I am delighted to announce......" Frankly, these guys must have been in a state of constant delight - and that can be very painful - since one chap was delighted on three occasions in the same bulletin, and another had about forty reasons to put a rictus grin on his face.

The point is, the announcements were formulaic. They were exactly the same every week and most people switched off even before they got to the end of the first sentence. The editors involved were worried that if they changed anything, it would slow down the process. The people wording the announcements were senior, and the newbie editors didn't want the hassle of ruffling feathers.

But that hassle's the job. In the end it's not about treading on the toes of the great and the good, it's about connecting with your audience - giving them something they want to read; providing information they can't find elsewhere.

Shake the top team out of their complacency. Give them the evidence that no-one's sharing the delight in their lazy words. Show them a better way to get the message across.

The same goes for pictures. As an editor I've been sent umpteen giant cheque presentation pictures, but I never use them. They're boring - a dull cliche that so often masks a great story.

Not so long ago I was guest editing a publication and heard a story about a guy who was terrified of flying yet had gone up in a small prop plane and buddy jumped thousands of feet on a parachute to raise money for a cancer charity because his partner had died of the disease. It was a good story and needed a strong image - something from the jump, the look on his face when he landed or even when he was climbing into the plane. He was surrounded by supporters, surely someone had shot a few frames? Nope. I got sent a picture of a man in a grey suit holding a cheque......BORING!

If we're lazy and boring we won't be read. We're in the business of storytelling and well chosen words driven home with great imagery is the way to convey meaning. Yet too often, we get reactive and cliche-bound.

My course went very well last week.......in fact, you could say that a 'good time was had by all'....But I'd rather you didn't.