Thursday, May 29, 2008

Some days are better than others

So, at the outset, yesterday didn't look too promising. I'd arranged to take Rory and one of his mates...also called Rory to Lord's to see Middlesex play Essex. It was 'kid for a quid' which was a real plus, but the weather forecast was pretty dreadful - a definite minus, especially after our visit to cricket nirvana for the New Zealand test.
Anyway, the rain stayed away for most of the day: we enjoyed the privileges of the Members' stand, thanks to my student membership (just about the only time I've exploited my student status since returning to the arms of academe last September), and the boys had a terrific day.
Praise to Middlesex CCC for laying on some half term-ish activities that kept the lads in good spirits even though rain blew out the end of the match - they were particularly taken by the free binoculars for turning up in their club shirts, and the player autograph session at the end. Actually, as we wanted to avoid the England football hoards at Marylebone, heading for 'wemb-ber-ley....wemberley', we hung on around the pavilion and the two Rorys not only collected all the Middlesex signatures (that's Rory S getting his book signed by Middlesex, Ireland and England's Ed Joyce, above), but all the vanquished Essex players too......except the grumpy skipper Mark Pettini who'd been LBW'd for a big fat zero earlier in the day!
But my highlight of the day was noticing a new message on my phone, calling it and hearing an unmistakable voice: "Hello, this is James Burke......."
For anyone under 40, it probably means nothing, but for me, James Burke was the BBC's voice of science, technology and the Apollo missions. My mission for my Masters dissertation this week has been to track him down...and I landed a big step in the the mission yesterday!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sport: it's a funny old game

Today I ache: it's 48 hours since a guy eight inches taller, twenty years younger and two stone lighter than me made my face, nay my whole head, turn puce.

These days, aside from creaky tennis and playing cricket with Rory, my main exercise comes from squash. Normally it's reasonably sedate, 40 somethings playing canny shots to the corner and no-one running very much. But there's one bloke in my league who lollops around like a greyhound puppy; whacks the ball with ballistic force...and also has the tendency to lob the ball over me right to that crack between the back wall and the floor. Suffice to say I lost.

Even though I don't play much, I still love sport. I'm really looking forward to seeing Wasps in the Guinness Premiership final on Saturday at Twickenham; I'm mourning the fact that my football team - Wycombe Wanderers - lost out in the promotion play-offs, and I'm looking forward to a day out at Lord's tomorrow, despite the fact that my beloved Middlesex County Cricket Club are possibly the worst first class county side in England at the moment - probably the decider on who's the absolute worst will start at the end of the week when Middlesex take on Derbyshire.

Over my decades of following sport, I've nearly always gone for the underdog - there's something uplifting to me about watching sport in adversity (though I have enjoyed Wasps' many successes).

Perhaps that's why I was drawn to watching and following the Tampa Bay Rays. Now, for more than a decade, as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Florida expansion franchise struggled to make any impact on US baseball's American League. Perennial strugglers, the Rays' chase for the World Series would inevitably be over as May rolled over into June - never mind as the dog days of September rolled in. Post-regular season was another country.....but not any longer.

New owners, plans for a new stadium, home-grown talent coming through and some astute trades have seen the Rays (and yep, they've dropped the 'Devil' too) storm to the top of the American East with a winning percentage of .608 - outstandingly top across the Leagues.

I'm not used to these heights, in fact if they don't stop pulling away from the Red Sox, the Orioles and the New York Yankees (who are rubbish this season), I'll probably get a nosebleed - or have to start supporting the Washington Nationals.

I'm used to the adversity of sport - not all this winning. Still, it's a funny old game.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Only connect

Which would you prefer - intellect but no appeal, or charisma on an empty coat?

It's interesting comparing the political scenes in the UK and the US at the moment where Gordon Brown is struggling and failing to walk in the PM's shoes, while Barack Obama looks ever closer to becoming the Democrat candidate for the Presidential election.

Last week an American described Obama to me as an 'empty coat'. Okay, so said American described himself to me as 'socially and fiscally conservative' and therefore I guess he's never going to vote for Obama. But my contact was someone who has met Presidents in the past and has taken quite an interest in the primaries this time round.
His take on Obama is that he speaks a lot and says nothing. That he's all front and no substance. That has to be a worry.

Gordon Brown, texture like sun, on the other hand seemed to be a very full coat, possibly over a stuffed shirt when he ascended, unopposed and without popular mandate to become Prime Minister.

After 10 years of carefully-managed stage presence, Tony Blair was supposedly giving way to the real intellectual powerhouse. We'd been waiting a while for the great brain of Brown to fill the policy void: to bring his massed array of talents to the thorny problems of a society without optimism and an economy without confidence.
So what did we get? Well not a lot. The lack of showmanship would be forgiven if it was matched by a decisive air, nimble politicking and the essence of statesmanship.
But there's none of that. Brown had built an air of expectation and has disappointed on every front. He seems cowed by the responsibility of power and quite unable to handle more than one issue at a time. The result? Paralysis in Number 10 with the party hawks circling.

Now would David Cameron be any better, or is he just another empty coat? The jury's still out.

Today, we have many politicians relentlessly schooled in the arts of communication or the black arts of party politics. We have few, if any, statesmen expert in both and with the humanity to make a positive difference.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Crossing paths

I've been waiting for the new Charlatans CD to come out for weeks. Of course it came out on Monday, but I've been too busy to go and get it. So I'm about to remedy that now.

Anyway, in the meantime I've had to content myself with the video for the latest single.

if I was a downloader, rather than a hoarder of precious vinyl and less precious CDs, I s'pose I could just download the album from XFM - it's in there somewhere!

Anyway, off to the shops now....

Testing the business temperature

I'm researching an article at the moment asking economists if they believe we're heading for recession in the UK. So far, the view is rocky times, but probably not a recession which is a specific economic term meaning two consecutive quarters of negative growth. However the sample is pretty small at the moment.
It has made me think about how recession-proof my business is, since comms is often an easy target when companies look to cut back on costs.

So far, the signs for Leapfrog aren't bad. Financially, this is set to be our best year since 2004/2005 and the core client base is holding up. It actually seems that comms teams are taking the brunt in-house - teams are contracting, and those within them are being asked to do more. The result so far is that I'm actually being asked to do more too, to pick up the inevitable overload, although it's more day-to-day practical stuff with less high-powered (but high value) consultancy.

My take is that there are fewer big coms and change projects starting, but core communications within most organisations and with their external stakeholders have largely remained unaffected. That means more being asked of over-stretched in-house teams, with the result being more pickings for micro-businesses like mine who can come in, get the job done without fuss and get out without affecting the headcount or denting the budget too much.
What is happening is more haggling over costs, and longer gaps from invoice to payment - and neither's great when you're at the end of the food chain.

However, I've decided to stop taking on third-party generated consultancy work. That's the stuff where I go out to the end client as a representative or associate of another comms business. It's something I've done from time to time over the last eight years for three or four consultancies, but my experience is that while the pay may be good, the work is often less satisfactory, and there's an additional level of stress involved in being beholden not just to the end client, but to the consultancy too.

I simply operate better on a direct basis, and while I might well regret the loss of the occasional injection of cash that such projects bring, I'm slowly trying to change the way I work - and this is a necessary step.

By contrast, I'm actively pushing for more tactical work via agencies - a piece came in this morning, and I'm talking to a publisher about another. It's the kind of work that can be done relatively easily, with strict deadlines and something tangible at the end.

As economic times get tougher, there's likely to be little security in the kind of work I do, but I'm banking on being able to continue the tangibles of writing, whether it be scripts, magazines or whatever, rather than relying on the intangibles of consultancy - which has a habit of getting pulled at short notice when the going gets tough.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Social media and brand impact

Never underestimate the impact of social media on brands - particularly among Generation Y - our most voracious social media-jockeys.

I was recently sent this from a social media ezine - it's worth checking out:

More than 80 million YouTube videos are watched every day. In fact you could argue that YouTube is the single most influential form of media available today. Which makes the corporate world's mostly blinkered attitude to its value and sometimes its potential threat to a company's reputation all the more surprising.. .http://www.socialme diainfluence. com/2008/ 04/the-youtube- top.html

Friday, May 09, 2008

Causing a stir in space

I checked my emails late last night and the hairs raised on the back of my neck when I saw a note from Sy Liebergot.

To anyone unfamiliar with the space race, the name will almost certainly mean nothing. To anyone interested in the Apollo missions, and most especially the explosion that crippled Apollo 13, Sy's name stands right up there with Jim Lovell, Gene Kranz and the crack NASA team that turned a near disaster into a triumph of ingenuity and fortitude.

Sy was EECOM at Mission Control for the Apollo 13 mission monitoring the electrical, environmental and communications system for the spacecraft, and indeed was in the trenches as a Flight Controller from Apollo 8 right through to Apollo 15, as well as for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz link-up.

He has agreed to be interviewed for my Masters Dissertation and it will be fascinating the get the views and impressions of a man who saw NASA through its finest hours and was still at the heart of the agency as it sought to find a new purpose and new goals once the Stars and Stripes were flying on the lunar surface.

Sy's put together a lively and comprehensive website, and I'm now adding his book to the disso bibliography.

I went to bed smiling last night, and I'm still grinning this morning.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Bedstead crashes - and history might have been different

Forty years ago today, just a few miles south east of Houston at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas, Neil Armstrong fell out of bed.

Well, that's oversimplifying things probably too much. Armstrong was testing the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle when he lost control and had to eject out. he landed by parachute suffering only minor injuries - but the LLRV was a $1.5 million wrote-off.

This strange flying bedstead contraption - seen flying here - was just about the only way that NASA could reasonably accurately simulate the control needed to approach the moon's surface in 1/6th earth gravity.

It's said that Armstrong was coolness personified, hanging on and trying to regain control for as long as possible before baling, showing the kind of split-second hard-nosed decision making that earned him the prime shot for being the first man on the moon.

Four decades ago today, Armstrong came within seconds of death. Had that happened, we'd never have heard that famous line: "This is one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

The irony is that Armstrong's back-up was Jim Lovell - the ill-fated commander of Apollo 13....who never actually got to walk on the moon at all.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Only gay in the village? Nah, it's David Brent

It's about this time each year that I realise that I'm hooked on The Apprentice. I try and fight off being lured into that cosy format with grumpy and not terrifically articulate Alan Sugar berating the latest batch of arrogant business never-weres.
But then, once again, I realise that this isn't about business; it's not about finding the next great entrepreneurial manager. No, it's a very clever editing job that pricks the pomposity of a bunch of wannabes whose high opinion of themselves seems to be in direct inverse proportion to their actual abilities to be a business leader.
Latest to be fired - and it's worth catching on the BBC I-player - was Kevin - a bank manager whose arrogance was matched only by his incompetence. Maybe the credit crunch is all his fault?

I suspect Kevin must have very indulgent parents....and possibly no real friends. I've rarely seen a bloke so deluded.

Now the papers over here have picked on his likeness to Matt Lucas' character - Daffyd, the only gay in the village from Little Britain. and while Kevin's got a whiff of the look and a lot of the walk, vocally and in management style he's purely from the David Brent school.

In some ways, it's a shame he's gone, since he has been a much-needed figure of fun for the past six weeks. But on the task and in the Boardroom, he proved to be as thick as custard and as effective a corporate wheeler-dealer as Brent on a very bad day.