Saturday, July 28, 2007

I can see my house from here!

It has been a VERY good week for ticking off those things I'd planned to so before I die.....

First, I found out that I've been accepted on an MA course to study International Relations at Brunel University. It's going to be very odd going back to college 23 years after completing my first degree - but I'm really looking forward to it.

I first found out about the course when flicking through the ads in the back of BBC History Magazine a few months ago. It's a mag I've enjoyed reading for a couple of years and have always fancied writing for. Having had one space-related piece knocked back, I'm rather delighted to be published on page 83 in the August issue. Ok, it's a review piece, and it's just half a page, but it's a start to my history writing career which should, most definitely, be spurred by my MA studies.

The piece reviews the new AirSpace gallery at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford - a place that my love of all things aircraft related has brought me back to several times in the last few years. Now AirSpace brings much of Britain and the Commonwealth's greatest achievement in aircraft design and manufacture under one roof. If you want to get up close to a Vulcan, Spitfire, Lancaster and Concorde, it's well worth a trip out to Cambridgeshire.

Anyway, speaking of aircraft, I finally got to pilot one today: a long, long-held ambition, finally brought to reality thanks to Jac and a brilliantly thoughtful anniversary present.

Taking flying lessons has been at the back of my mind for quite a few years - but the cost has always seemed prohibitive. Still, I've always wanted to dip my toe in that particular pond, and got the chance today with a trial lesson on a Cessna 152.

Now climbing on board the Cessna at Wycombe Air Park was a bit like getting into my dad's old Ford Corsair. The little Cessna was far from new, far from shiny - and a pretty snug fit. With the Captain in the right seat, pretty much touching knees and shoulders, there's not a lot of leg or elbow room. This little plane, single engined and a basic trainer does exactly what it says on the tin - it gets you in the air and is pretty good at keeping you there!

Having wanted to learn to fly in theory for years, I was actually quite tempted to bottle out yesterday, but reasoned that even if I was totally awful, this was a dual-control aircraft, and my instructor would just take over.

I wasn't totally awful, but was very tense when first taking the controls 2,000 feet over the Chilterns. We turned out of Wycombe over Frieth and just beyond Lane End. I took control and headed north up the M40 a little before turning towards Thame. A further roll right took me over Chinnor and onwards to my home town, Princes Risborough.

I could see my house coming up at about 120 knots, and the chance of a picture was too good an opportunity to miss. So my instructor took control again and took us down to 1,000 feet for two circles of the house......Jac and the kids knew I'd most likely head over Risborough, and were all out in the garden waving........I think the instructor thought we were all a bit daft.

Anyway, after taking back control and flying out over the Chilterns, it was time to turn the nose back towards Wycombe. Just a few minutes later I had to cede 'control' once again, and suddenly the aircraft was reacting rather more smoothly and confidently as my instructor took us back into final approach and an extremely short landing.

The Cessna was a completely different experience to flying in a commercial jet. Bumpy from the ground to 500 feet, it rolled over the inevitable turbulence as I rather stiffly pulled back on the elevator when I should have been flying level and stepped a little too hard on the rudder when yawing left and right.

We landed with a bump, and with a jolt I realised that 30 minutes had passed in seconds - and that there's a grave danger of me being hooked on flying! £6,150 for the next 45 hours has cooled my enthusiasm a little..........but not a lot!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

When the media becomes the story

I'm a member of the Regional Audience Council for the BBC in the South of England. It's an interesting forum to be involved with: we get together six times a year and discuss programmes - generally regionally-produced output - and issues facing the BBC such as on-demand broadcasting, the Licence and Charter, the analogue to digital switchover and the like.

Being on the Council also means I get a copy of Ariel each week. It's the BBC's in-house newspaper, often referred to as 'Pravda' by Corporation insiders, and it's always interesting to get another perspective on the nation's 'state' broadcaster.

Unsurprisingly, the publication's full of the BBC's response to the dodgily-edited 'Queen' programme trailer, and the revelations that Beeb employees have covered up for a lack of viewer or listener involvement by getting members of the production team or their mates to pose as callers to live (or in some cases recorded but played-out-as-live) shows.

As shown in how it has been the leading item on most BBC news bulletins - at least until the Godsend to news that was the floods - the BBC has indulged in some mightily meritorious hand-wringing and has turned itself from a corporation caught out at some minor dubious practice into a rather self-righteous driver for zero tolerance in anything that might mislead the licence-paying public.

The BBC has gone too far in banning all competitions from TV and radio - who does that help? Certainly not the viewers or listeners who now have less reason or opportunity to engage with the Corporation.

The reaction I've had from people I've talked to about the BBC's over-reaction to some poor editorial judgement has generally been along the lines of my friend Claire's reaction: 'For God's sake, they should just get over themselves and move on.'

I'm with Nick Webb from BBC Wales Sport who wrote to Ariel saying: "Any other major organisation would have dealt with these problems quietly and internally. Surely the (Director General's) own handling of the issues has done more damage than the original mistakes. Has Mark Thompson been taking publicity lessons from Gerald Ratner?'

I definitely think that Thompson should have taken on board that old adage: when you're in a hole, the last thing to do is keep digging.

My perception of his actions has been to pass the buck from the BBC to RDF - when surely the BBC as commissioners of RDF's work holds the ultimate responsibility - and to blame junior staff in an environment where there's clearly insufficient governance in place and insufficient honesty in the culture to either prevent poor editorial judgement or deal with the consequences of audience indifference in an adult way.

In bending over backwards to 'engage' with its audiences in an interactive and PC-manner, Auntie Beeb appears to have shoved its management head squarely up its own behind.

A not so subtle way to access revenue-making talent

So VMA are raising their profile and looking for a means to access potential revenue-earning talent by sponsoring the new and some would say spurious Corp Comms Top 100 Club .

Coming out of CorpComms Magazine, the blurb states: The Corp Comms Top 100 club creates a network of the most influential and inspiring individuals within the communications marketplace; Members will range from individuals responsible for revitalising an internal employees’ messaging scheme to those who have been principle in determining a major CSR policy or to others who have successfully rebranded a FTSE 100 company.

A number of things strike me as worrying about this new club of corporate communicators. The first is that it's exclusive to those working in-house. Yes, there are many great communicators in-house, but there are just as many - if not more working in agencies and as independents. it's often these people who are the creative powerhouses, while their internal colleagues get on with managing their teams and trading in corporate politics. Surely a real 'Top 100' would blend the best of in-house and consultant talent?

Second, I worry about any organisation that still regards IC as 'revitalising an internal employees' messaging scheme'. So, the magazine still regards IC as being postman come publisher? Sounds like they're still very externally focused and behind the times on organisational comms.

Finally, a concern that could also be an opportunity: this new 'club' covers a hugely wide area - from IC to Public Affairs to PR to CSR - often areas that report into different heads in the organisations I work with. Their skills, concerns and outlook are often quite different and the so-called powerhouse that the magazine is looking to create may turn out to be no more than a collection of disparate strands.

Of course, as we move to issues-based communication, organisations should be knitting together all the strands of their communication - so actually there could be a great opportunity here to create and mobilise best practice.

It's just a shame that this new network is under the auspices of a magazine looking to make money by selling subscriptions to big corporates, and sponsored by a recruitment consultancy with a need to get the top talent on their books. Of course, it's the way the world works, but I wonder at the independence in selecting the cream of our industry's cream.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

My generation...not

I'm working on a survey which will be issued in September covering two issues: who are today's internal communication practitioners, and what they think of their CEOs as communicators.

I did a bit of pre-work on this at a conference in Newcastle the other month, and that small sample showed a growing divergence between the old guard and new breed of comms pros.

I'm towards the younger end of the old guard, but started my professional life on a magazine, and have mixed in-house comms jobs with a few years at a PR agency and, latterly, seven years as an independent. My basic toolbox is words - I trained as a journalist and have spent my career either using words or getting others to use them. I gained management experience through seniority and probably age and have gained business experience as the comms guy brought into business projects.

Not so my younger business acquaintances. Very few have come through the journalism route. Their tool kit is their ability to bring in the right people to craft, deliver and measure the messages they manage. They've been trained for management and many have degrees in business studies - giving them a great head start in understanding the drivers within organisations. Many have come from HR or marketing or are stepping through comms as part of a graduate programme. Their perspective on what's important in comms can be very different from mine.

Neither the old guard nor the new young guns have the monopoly on what's right in comms today and there's much we can learn from each other. However, i suspect the survey will show that we're heading to a tipping point where the business skill that is IC will diverge forever from external straightforward journalism. When that divergence finally happens, the trick will be to ensure that communicators never dump the core craft skills of great writing and editing. They're definitely not an end in themselves in IC - but they still make by far the best start point for great careers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Certain synergies

I'm forever scribbling down date trivia - often linked to my interest in space exploration, though not always. Today, I've turned up the slightly linked facts that it's John Glenn's birthday, and the 41st anniversary of the launch of Gemini 10.

Now John Glenn's something of a hero of mine: the first American to orbit the earth in his 'Friendship 7' Mercury craft and then the oldest astronaut when he flew on the Shuttle some 36 years later.

John Young was Gemini 10's commander and unlike Glenn who left after Mercury and entered politics, Young hung around at NASA long enough to fly two Apollo mission and the first and ninth Shuttle missions.

Glenn is 86 today while Young only finally retired from NASA in 2004.

Of course, both space events today are far overshadowed by the 89th birthday of another of my heroes - salutations Nelson Mandela!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Variety is the spice of life

Very little blogging going on here recently as I've been too damn busy working - with occasional bouts of family pride in between.

Work currently involves two days a week - which could easily expand to five - on my big change project; a related sub project developing and communicating quality standards; the development of communication competencies for manufacturing line management and a consultancy website. I also spent a chunk of yesterday with the CiB membership team looking at ways to encourage members to stay and for us to reduce churn. I now need to sit down and turn a lot of great ideas generated by the team into action.

Beyond work, we're heading to the end of term for the three kids. Rory has been hard at it on the sports front, with a winning cricket debut and also his first tennis tournament. He also read one of his own poems at the Risborough Festival - something that scares him rigid, but that he carried off really well - I'm very proud of him. And I'm just as proud of the girls: L-B performed in High School Musical last week, and then last Friday collected two achievement prizes at school - one a national prize for maths. She's quietly amazing. Sophie sang a solo at the Festival and appeared in her drama production on Sunday. She's not quiet, but she's equally amazing.

The kids will all be off from Friday which adds extra complexities to the working day. It looks like we'll be flat out to mid-August - very profitable and very busy - so two weeks in France are looking ever more appealing.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Keep on running

My working life could get very complicated at the moment. Having spent a year and a half rebuilding from an horrendous run in 2005, I'd reached the position a couple of months ago where I had two regular income streams and enough irregular project work to keep Leapfrog swimming with my head above water.

But of course I wanted a little jam on my bread, and used some quiet time to put out feelers for some extra work to fill in the gaps. The result? No gaps for the last two months, weekend and evening work - and I even had to knock back an interesting project from a consultancy I've worked with several times before.

Things are evening out a bit now, but for the first time in three years it looks as though I'll be flat our through the summer. It's strange how things come good - and generally in this business it's about being in the right place when someone in a client's team moves on, or when a client or acquaintance gets overloaded.

One client said on Friday 'You're name's popping up on everything at the moment' - and it really feels like that. That client works for a multi-headed corporate: I'm running comms on one of their change projects, am doing tactical comms for two other parts of the business and have been approached to look at another piece of work that builds on something I did for them more than a year ago.

But I can't get too reliant on them. This month I'm in favour: a few month's down the line it'll be someone else's turn. So, tomorrow I'm off to see the slowest burning client I've ever worked with. I think I first went to see them over two years ago. Three or four meetings later, I still haven't earned a penny - but it's a company worth persevering with. I'm told that tomorrow's meeting is around some real work - not just talking about future possibilities. I just hope I now have enough time to fulfil it!