Monday, March 31, 2008

I can take the horses to water.....

After weeks of work being on top of me, I think I'm finally getting on top of all the projects currently staring at me from my white board.
One magazine has just gone to bed; I've finished two case studies; the video project appears on track; the other regular magazine is manageable and the other irregulars are behaving....mostly.
But what's abundantly clear is that corporate communication remains a low priority for those not working directly in it. Getting people to contribute to my most recent publication was, at times. excruciating. And pretty much across all my projects, getting people to agree to an interview; be on the end of a phone when they say they will - and especially, sign-off copy when it's written, has become a hugely time and energy consuming business.
My job, very often, is to make other people look good through the words I use. I'll pull out all the stops to make that happen - but it's a two-way relationship.
I can take the horses to water, but at the moment, it's getting harder to get them to walk on it!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Schadenfreude: a guilty pleasure

Is it always terrible to bask in someone else's misfortune?

A few weeks ago I was dispatched to one of Britain's iconic brand names to construct a case study around their biggest change programme. I spent 90 minutes on site with the programme manager, who was fine, and a PR who turned up late and spent the whole session looking at his watch or texting.

At the end, I was instructed to get the piece to them as soon as possible for sign-off as they were terribly, terribly busy. Fair enough, I responded, I'll send you the first draft - it may have a typo or three, but if you can check it for accuracy I'd be really grateful.

I kept my end of the bargain, but my deadline came and went with no response. Three days after the deadline, I sent my standard 'haven't heard anything back so I assume it's ok to publish' note - and got a tirade in return that it was certainly not ok to publish; that the PR had bypassed me and gone straight back to my client and that he'd finally deign to sign it off that evening. Of course he didn't....and I got comments next morning basically telling me how to do my job and that he'd had to rewrite the piece substantially - again, this was sent direct to my client.

My comment to her on him was 'pompous arse'.

The substantial changes amounted to one error in how long the programme manager had been on board (mea culpa, but isn't that the whole point of sending the copy over to be checked?) and a number of changes the PR had made to what was actually said on the day. Fair enough - as my client said, it was still a good read.

However, the attitude of the PR stank, and he seemed to have forgotten that his role was to help journalists, not belittle them.

Anyway, the change launched yesterday.....and went tits up. Tits up to the extent that it has become a media issue, and I have to say I relished the sight of this guy on TV last night with his bottom lip scraping along the floor as he shoved a door shut between his director and the baying media.

If his attitude towards me has been replicated across the media, I'll be interested to see how much support he gets from journalists over the next few days.

.......Now, I'm just waiting for the client call to ask me to replace some of the article's hyperbole with something better reflecting the reality of the situation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is it right to blog about a slog?

Work is a right old slog at the moment. It's not that it's not enjoyable, but the last few weeks have been long days with back to back interviewing/writing, broken up by meetings (sometimes about meetings) often on the phone and quite often drawing people from across a wide range of time zones. I'm tired, the weather's grim and I'm generally feeling off colour.

A number of projects have been dragging beyond their planned timeframe - it's not a problem when it happens with one, but when three or four collide, it certainly adds an edge to the juggling!

Thank god the clocks go forward at the weekend, adding light to the evenings - now all we need is a bit of warmth to the days!

We've just got through Easter weekend, but it was odd being dislocated from the kids' spring holidays. I took Rory and his mate to football on Monday and the first half was played in a snowstorm - although Stockport had the aptly named Dominic Blizzard at the heart of their midfield!

It's spring now and I want to start playing tennis and cricket - but the garden's a muddy morass and the park's not much better, while the tennis courts are slick and greasy.

I also want a few days R&R but am in that typical freelance position of being invoice and work rich, but payment poor. It seems the bigger the client, the more difficult it is to get paid these days - and I've been working for some very big-name operators recently. So, in theory, I could splash out on a few days in the sun, but the reality is in these credit-crunched times that I'll still be chasing my tail chasing payments during April rather than padding across a warm sandy beach.

Ah, dream on!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Petty grievances

I need a holiday!

The golden rule of freelancing is never to complain when the work pipeline's good - my problem at the moment is that it's overflowing and I'm currently working 11 hour days every day just to keep up.

Juggling five projects and keeping up with the admin is a bit of a logistical nightmare - and hampering my swan-like progress at the moment are:

  • clients who demand the work - and then don't even issue a purchase order for months
  • big clients that sit on invoices (367 days and counting!)
  • clients who promise their internal clients impossible deadlines
  • control freaks
  • interviewees who set a time to be called....and then aren't there.
  • people who offer themselves for interview - and then can't be bothered
  • clients who sign stuff off....and then change their minds
  • arrogant PRs who've forgotten that they exist because of journalists' needs.

Just the average whinge....I love my clients really.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In the great scheme of things.....

My second term at Brunel finished last Friday, which will undoubtedly usher in a change of pace over the next few months, when I can lean more towards paid work with less emphasis on studies until September. It was a good term work-wise, and my last four essays have produced three A grades - not bad for someone old enough to have fathered more than half the class!

What the academic work - especially a term taking a close interest in 20th century European history - has taught me most though is the peripheral impact of so much of the work I'm involved in that pays the bills.

At the moment, only about a third of my work is internal communications but I'm coming ever more to the sense that in the great scheme of things, it's a 'nice to have', not a 'must have'.

Would the credit crunch have been averted if we'd had better internal comms? I doubt it. Would China's human rights be better or Darfur a nicer place if corporations engaged their staff more closely? Somehow, I think not. Would the forecast 10,000 job losses set to hit London be avoidable if our CEOs tapped into the business potential of employee comms. Well, a few certainly....but I expect quite a few who'll go are from the so-called back-office functions.

Jaundiced as I am after 20 years in corporate comms, I firmly believe that 75% + of what internal communicators do could disappear from the business and no-one would feel the difference.

The very best of what's done: the stuff that targets the right audiences in the right way and gives them something personal that directly affects the way they do their job is worthwhile. That's the stuff that's directly business-linked; that builds people's belief and understanding in their business and that directly, tangibly and measurably drives results.

The rest? Nice to have, but non-essential and in an increasingly tight market, undoubtedly under threat.

But business needs to be smart. To cull internal communication indiscriminately will hurt the business more than keeping it as it is. Business leaders must reflect on where the real value lies: trim off the excess by all means, but focus on business objectives and the human agenda collides.

We could be achieving far more with less if we focused on what really mattered.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Freelancers' Guide to Man Flu

For the past four days, my throat has been home to a bed of nettles, my voice sounds like Mutley, I've been deaf in one ear, and my nose has been dripping at the rate of approximately five hankies an hour. Not any common or garden cold for me - this is definitely MAN FLU!

Sod's law dictated that the lurgy struck on Friday afternoon. It was bad enough that my weekend went to rack and ruin - not helped by both Ireland and England losing in the rugby and West Ham getting stuffed once again - but worse still, I was actually fractionally closer to death's door yesterday morning when clients were expecting me to be hale, hearty and positively sparky. All I wanted to do was to crawl into bed with a nice bottle of Daynurse and the delights of daytime TV, but I couldn't. Even man flu isn't enough to deal with the freelancer's peril - don't work: don't get paid. Actually, that peril is worse still - don't work....and the job's still there when you crawl out of your pit. It still has to be done alongside whatever else is on the slate that day or week.

So, of course, yesterday I sat at the desk, shivering and hacking away in a most germ laden manner and tried to bring the spark and energy necessary to the task. The result? I feel worse today and now I'm grumpy too!

Last week I read how Britain's employees see the occasional 'duvet day' as a right. Our long hours working culture is building a mindset among workers that it's their right to take a day or three every few months to recharge and recover on top of their normal holiday allowance. There's a sense that there are always other people around to pick up the slack - and anyway, the contribution an individual makes to an organisation isn't generally so time sensitive that a day here and there makes much of a difference.

Certainly, among the corporates I work with, most people really do work long hours, and there's a tacit acknowledgement that they 'earn' the odd day's unofficial R&R - even if they're rather a long way from death's door. I know that I definitely used to operate like that back in my own corporate days when it was quite easy to turn a man flu sniffle into a good reason not to make the daily commute.

Of course, running a micro-business, it's totally different. My health probably isn't hugely better than it was a decade ago, and I still am prone to picking up every cough and cold the kids carry back from school, but now I'm working for me, and every extra day of income make a very real and direct difference to my business. If I don't respond to client needs, they'll look elsewhere. So, had today been 1998 when I was still employed by Barclays I think I would have been phoning in sick. Instead, I'm using this blog as a warm up to a day of solid interviewing and writing, with a goal of producing six pages of a magazine by close of play, as well as getting visuals for a new performance management system signed off, a video script for the same project advanced, and interviews for a procurement recognition magazine set up and in the diary.

My Kleenex box is strategically poised....maybe I'll just wrap my duvet round my office chair.