Monday, April 30, 2007

Let's not get hung up on strategy

Every now and again I get accused, in the most vehement terms, of being a 'strategist' or worse still, a 'strategic consultant'.

It's odd that, since I don't actually believe in communication strategies.

Somehow, a communications strategy aggrandises organisational communication. As far as I'm concerned, successful organisations will have a clear, tangible, measurable and deliverable business strategy, and communication will be one of the tools - I'd say one of the top three tools - to deliver that strategy.

To have a separate communication strategy is to immediately put space between the business strategy and communication - when the latter should be at the heart of the former. All our communication objectives should be to deliver the business strategy and if our work is not enabling that delivery, then we probably shouldn't be doing it.

What gets me too is how often strategy gets bandied around when people are actually talking about the tactics they'll use - the channels, media and messages - to deliver a business objective.

So let's tread warily around strategies - especially one that are not 100% in line with business objectives, the whole area can get communications a bad name.

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's a balancing act

I met with a headhunter this week - always flattering when it happens, and I've got a lot of time for this company as they placed me in roles twice earlier in my career.

I'm now seven years into running a 'micro-business' and frankly, it'd take a lot of money, a great degree of autonomy and probably a saint-like boss to get me back into a corporate role.......but never say never.

Anyway, it was 90 minutes to talk about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses in the context of a couple of big-brand role possibilities. I know I thrive when I'm given the freedom to use my expertise and experience, and equally, I wither when I'm stuck within a command and control environment.

Through several bitter experiences over the past few years, I know now never to touch projects in businesses where communication is run by a calendar or where there's even a hint of bosses looking only to manage upwards rather than for the good of their teams and the business around them.

Instead, I find my most satisfying work comes from organisations looking to use communication instinctively as a means to move their business forward. These tend to be the ones who've built a lot of experience in knowing what really engages their teams, their suppliers and their customers, and who then bring in a small team of 'regular' outsiders to work with closely and often. I've got three of four clients I go back to again and again and always strive to surprise even myself in delivering my very best for them.

It's tough therefore to meet with someone - as also happened this week - who seems quite intent with doing away with all the good within the comms department they've inherited.

Over the last couple of years I've got used to being briefed on a job by someone a clear decade and more younger than me. While I'm a long way from my pension, I am a 40-something, and many managers with a lot of responsibility and a budget to match are in their late 20s/early 30s.

The person I pitched to is around 30, an MBA, fast-tracked through their business and now heading communication having never worked in comms before. They clearly see their HR background as sufficient grounding to be expert in internal communication and engagement. This week I was asked to pitch for a project that will manage all communications as two businesses within the group are merged into one. It's the kind of stuff I've done since Nationwide days in the very late 80s. I've worked through such change both in-house and as a consultant for more than 15 years, yet my 'brief' seemed merely to write down what this manager wanted at the most tactical level, and then present back her 'solution' to her on a costed basis.

That could be great, and a really easy pitch...except her ideas are terribly flawed.

Now my role has to be a balancing act. Client-consultant relationships can be fantastic when both sides are prepared to learn from each other and flex according to the needs of the project. Presented with just the outline brief for the prospective 'change' project, my questions were around how this manager's team would be involved; how we'd bring line management in and what was happening to bring in influencers and key players on each side of the merger together to take the project forward.

But I got an hour's spiel on how the change was being managed centrally; how one of the big management consultancies had already modelled a solution and would be implementing this for the client. Communicatons looked to be a series of newsletters following a key town hall meeting where the assembled mergees would be adressed by the group's top team. the people who normally managed the local IC would be kept on business as usual whilke I - or whoever got the project - would be parachuted in to deliver comms at the behest of the management consultants.

Frankly, that's a recipe for disaster. Yet as a supplier looking for good and interesting work, i couldn't just come out and say that. It was a case of listening, biting my tongue, gently probing around how some issues might be dealt with, and trying to polan a response that would deliver a good job and not offend the client.

Yesterday, I spent many hours on a costed comms plan outline detailing my rather more involving approach. I was polite, provided evidence of why such an approach should work and outlined counter-arguments to the consultant-led, fairly reactive approach....mostly around how change fails when it's imposed on people.

I was less than surprised to get a 30 second call at the end of the day from the particular manager stating that I was no longer being considered for the project as my 'interpretation of her needs was not in keeping with her requirements' (who speaks like that??).

I was equally unsurprised when a former colleague of mine, a comms executive working for the new uber-manager, and my initial lead-in to the project prospect e-mailed me earlier today to say she'd tendered her notice.

Some people seem to think the only way to make a mark on their business is to chuck out everything that has gone before.

Perhaps if they listened a little more and were sufficiently secure to learn from their peers and long-standing team members, they'd make just as strong a mark.....but a positive and lasting one.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Another one ticked off the list....

Having to stay over in a city away from home on a Friday night is normally a pain, but I have to say that there are a lot worse places to be stuck than Vienna. Last week it worked out that it would cost me - and ultimately my client - over £500 to fly to Vienna, conduct an in-depth interview, and fly back on the same day. Yet it would cost little more than half of that sum for me to stay over and come back Saturday - and that smaller cost included my hotel and breakfast. A no brainer really.

However, last Friday was a long day, but one of those really good ones that make this job worthwhile. A 4.45am alarm call for a 7.35am flight to Vienna is not my favourite way to start the day, but the sun was shining on the heart of the Hapsburg empire, and my visit to IBM on the banks of the Donnau Canal was fruitful.

By 4pm my work for the day was done and I could pack up the laptop and go out exploring. Baroque and Biedermeier architecture shone out all around me, the weather was warm and the cafes inviting - if expensive. I knew I was going to be on my own for the evening, and I speak next to no German, so wanted to find something to do that needed no language skills.

I knew the Vienna Philharmonic had one of their subscription concerts arranged, and wondered if that was an option. My knowledge of classical music is pretty much on a par with the German language, but luckily, the VP has a website in English. I checked it out. It stated that the Subscription season has a waiting list of 13 years for weekend concerts! But it also stated that there may be a few commission tickets available.

So, I wandered out of my hotel behind the wonderfully-named RatHaus, and wandered around the Ring to the VP's offices. I managed to snaffle the very last ticket available, for a mere 66 Euro.

Now that seemed a tad expensive to me, but there again I've never been to a top-notch classical concert in Vienna. I didn't realise that tickets are a little more prized than gold dust, and that Vienna takes its concert going very seriously indeed.

I stopped into a cafe for a beer and a platter to while away the time - and managed to end up with a beef sandwich having conspicuously fallen down on my restaurant German and vague waving at what the guys on the next table were enjoying... Still, it filled a gap, and I sauntered back to the concert hall in my nice Camel Active jacket, open necked shirt and jeans.

The Musikverein is a fantastic building, and the main 'Golden Hall' pictured above is stunning. I first got a taste for going to prestigious music venues when I had a solo writing trip to Berlin a few years ago, but this was something else.
I was the scruffiest person in the room. When Viennese society goes to town, they do it in style. Hair was teased within an inch of poodlehood; Prada mixed with Lagerfeld with Armani. I was definitely one of the younger members of the audience, most of whom appeared to have a close connection with the Hapsburg Court.
Wealth and standing were the order of the day. Little ostentation, but a definite feeling that the old wealth of the City, wealth that had survived and thrived through Vienna's turbulent mid 20th century flirtation with Nazism and subsequent Allied occupation, was out to have a good a refined and understated way.
Somehow it was ironic that the soloist for a first half of Beethoven was Yefim Bronfman, an acclaimed Jewish, Russian/Israeli soloist. I'm told the older generation of Viennese burghers still have little time for the Jews, but any anti semitism was swept aside for a while as this knowledgeable audience relaxed to the sweeps and swirls of a top orchestra supporting an artist on top of his game.
But the truest support of this audience was for the VP's conductor, the eminent and venerable Sir Charles Mackerras. While I'd vaguely heard of him, I knew almost nothing about this octogenarian. What I do know is that he still wields a mean baton, and even sitting down to conduct coaxes stellar performances from his players.
The second half of the performance moved a little further east with music from the Hungarian composer Kodaly and some of Mackerras' beloved Czech music, this time from Janacek.
Clearly the conductor felt on home ground here and the audience rose to his subtle treatment of the score.
Seven times they called him back at the end of the night - not bad for a bloke of 80-odd. It was only after getting back home that I realised how lucky I was to see a great orchestra in a superb venue led by one of the world's leading conductors. It's definitely another significant event to tick off my life list. More than that, I've been out and bought a couple of CDs as an evening in Vienna has opened up new composers for me to get to know.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Note to self

I've lost two notebooks, and am more than a little lost without them.

In the seven years of Leapfrog's business life I've lived and died by filling note books with interviews, with research, with people's numbers and with random jottings. Now, two of my current aide memoires have gone missing.

I'm sure they're here somewhere, and I'm sure they'll turn up....eventually. I just really could have done with one of them today to recheck some comments from an interviewee on an article I'm writing for BBC History magazine, while the other had some prep notes for an interview I'm doing in Vienna on Friday.

Neither book is vital, but to be without them is galling. My Sony IC digital recorder's in front of me, and my trusty old Sony voicer recorder's in the draw - but there's nothing quite like a pad and a pen.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Orbiting close to power

Some days just turn out unexpectedly.

About a week ago I took a call from someone in Development at the BBC asking me if I'd help them walk through a couple of quiz show concepts. It was to be a lunchtime's work, playing the games and feeding back in my role as an interested former quiz contender and 'critical friend' of the BBC.

So I turned up at Television Centre yesterday to be met by a researcher. We spent the next hour walking through two prime-time concepts, both of which seemed to be in their final stages of development. There was another 'critical friend' with me, a couple of BBC people, and a guy who'd previously pitched quiz ideas to the Beeb. We were told we were going to have a run through of both shows for real, and that some people from the Development team would be looking on and taking notes.

So, as we hit 1pm I was a tad gobsmacked when BBC Creative Director, Alan Yentob, BBC1 Controller Peter Fncham and TV Entertainment Controller Elaine Bedell strolled into the room, accompanied by several other recognisable faces from the Corporation's top management team.

I know we were only playing for fun - and a small fee for our services - but it certainly added an edge to the play!

I can't say anything much about the proposed shows - one's better than the other, or at least closer to a final product. One could slot into Saturday night quite easily, while I'd see the other filling a Weakest Link/Egg Heads slot.

It was interesting to see the top BBC people at work - even if it was only out of the corner of my eye, and frustrating to be ushered out quite quickly after the run-throughs were finished as I'd have loved to be a part of that particular post-match discussion.

In fact, I think that was the only weakness of the session. While we had a chance to chat about the shows with the research team, the management missed the opportunity to take our input on board as bog-standard BBC viewers and, indeed as players of the games.

So, for an hour and a quarter, my orbit intersected with the BBC's decision makers. But then, as is ever the case, we continued on our own quite separate paths.

It does make me want to come up with my own concept though - much better than being a contestant!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Whatever it is, it isn't English

It takes a true celebrity at the stellar end of the fame spectrum to demonstrate just how out of touch with the real world some people can get.

Naomi Campbell is one of the best-known and most highly-paid clothes horses on earth. Tall, slim and attractive in a large-featured model kind of way, she has inhabited the upper echelons of the fashion world for the best part of two decades.

But she has also inhabited a little bubble of Naomi world where she's surrounded by sycophants and toadies who allow her to regularly display a petulance i wouldn't take from my six year old. It's amazing what people will put up with when they're paid a fat salary to leech of someone else's fame.

But some people aren't quite paid the same - I doubt the maid who was on the receiving end of the diamond-studded phone thrown at her by Campbell was a higher rate tax payer, yet the model clearly felt justified in flinging the electronic brick at her and causing her an injury. In Campbell's mind, she clearly has the authority vested on her by fame to act like an absolute pig.

Thankfully a judge didn't see it that way and ordered the uber-model to get her hands dirty, spending five days working in NYC's sanitation department. However, Campbell's publicity team even managed to turn that into a modelling assignment, as Naomi arrived every day dolled up to the nines in a full media glare.

Would it not have been more crushing to her to insist she caught public transport each day and arrived without an entourage?

Anyway, Campbell was interviewed last night on ITV news, and spouted the most complete load of psycho-bullshit I've heard for quite a while. Whatever she was saying, it wasn't in intelligible English. Was she repentant? Well, she didn't seem so. Was she a calmer person?

Well, she seemed rather in denial about that - much as she had been about an alleged drug problem in her past. "I'm in an honest place now," she told a slightly bemused interviewer.

'An honest place'? What does that mean? Does it mean anything or is it just one of those nice therapy handles celebrities seem to grab when the world has stopped revolving around them?

Does it mean that Naomi Campbell now recognises that she's a total bitch? Great if that's true, but being honest doesn't excuse or change behaviour.

Funny enough, Campbell could face further assault charges in the UK following another incident when she through more than her weight around. I hope the English law system finds a means of dealing with her that challenges her more on her behaviour and is able to break through the closed ranks of sycophants around her.

She's a spoilt bully, but bullies ultimately are brought down.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New course date - June 19

I have a new course date for Output to Outcome, which is being delivered through CiB and will take place on June 19 in London.

This one day course is aimed at comms managers with at least three years' experience and focuses on assessing where your communications strategy is now, and how you can refocus communication on delivering real business objectives.

I'm also now taking bookings for two half-day courses that I will be offering later in the year through Leapfrog. The open courses will be delivered in London and Oxford in September, and can also be offered as bespoke in-house sessions to suit client needs.

The new courses are:

Effective writing for organisational communication; and
The new Comms Manager - putting communication on the front foot

The writing course is aimed at those new to organisational communication who may find themselves asked to write for an internal audience for the first time; while the second is aimed at the many managers who come to the comms function from elsewhere in business.

If you're interested in booking a place, please contact me at