Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Perfect day...almost

My work ethic is based on rewarding myself - but only when the job's done. So today, with the kids off on half-term and a deliberately light work schedule, I bashed out what I needed to do by 10.30am. I'll do some more after 3pm when Jac's back, but have just come back from spending an hour and a half on top of Whiteleaf Hill overlooking Risborough.

Last night we went to football at Wycombe Wanderers, but the game was called off after just 22 minutes due to heavy snow. It was an icy and dicey drive back home (I miss my 4 wheel drive Subaru!) but we awoke this morning to a good two inch blanket of snow.

Sophie and I headed up into the Chilterns mid-morning and found a lot of timber down across the minor roads, collapsed under the weight of snow. While it's melting off now, I can't remember having this heavy a snowfall in October.

Up on the Chiltern escarpment the snow was deep, powdery and crisp, the sky blue and cloudless and the scene was beautiful. Frankly there's no-one better to spend an hour and half in the snow with than an eight year old.

Taking a bit of time off is one of the great perks of freelancedom.........I just wish I'd remembered to bring my camera......!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two things....

.....have really made me smile today.

It's half term and the three kids are all at home. I decided to work early before they got up and lively and get my main bits and pieces out of the way before the kitchen (which backs on to the office extension) became a seething mass of radios, computers, shouting and the odd squabble (Jac's away at the moment at an exhibition, so the last 36 hours has been me + 3).

Anyway, around 10am, I wandered through to get a coffee to be confronted by eight year old Sophie dancing round the kitchen singing 'Love will tear us apart' along with the radio.

Then, I nipped off for a quick bath having done the freelance thing of working in a t-shirt and underpants for three hours. When I came out, L-B, my soon-to-be-fifteen-year-old met with the words: "Some random Spanish bloke rang about work. He asked for your mobile but I said you were out. He said he'd ring back."

Did she take a name? No. A number? No. Has he rung back? No. So that's probably my million ££ contract down the drain....
Ah, the joys of children!!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

CMS Success

I was conducting an interview at CMS Cameron McKenna in the City on Friday afternoon at the end of a long and busy week and it was great to pick up the FT Innovative Lawyers publication and see the firm featuring so heavily.

I'd been involved in helping to compile some of the award entries so it was great to see the firm getting recognised at the other end of the process, but it was particularly satisfying for me to see the client magazine - Solve - commended.

I've been working on Solve since issue two, and the last issue I wrote directly for the firm, won significant praise in the FT Awards.
It was bitter-sweet to say the least that when the design team for the magazine changed, I lost the writing gig. But having missed out on one issue, the new agency has asked me to come on board again writing features. I won't be doing as much of the writing as before, but that's no bad thing as more voices bring in more expertise and will help the publication evolve further. The baby's growing up and hopefully is on its way to delivering even more business benefit for the client.

Still, even though I'm a very very small external cog in CMS's corporate wheel, it's nice to get a bit of recognition every now and again, and I came out of their corporate HQ on Friday evening feeling rather chuffed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It pays for Rays to mix up the brand

For the past decade, I've supported the team that's been pretty much the worst in baseball. But no more. Yep, I'm still a Tampa fan, but after 10 losing seasons, the Rays have come up trumps. Against all the odds, they're off to the World Series to face the Phillies.

Over the last few weeks I've stayed up late into the night watching Crawford, Longoria, Garza and co first reach the playoffs, then dispose of the White Sox and finally, very early this morning win 3-1 over the Red Sox to win the American League series 4-3 and stretch credulity once more by getting to the final two in MLB.

Now, it always makes me laugh that the World Series in played for only by US sides - with the Blue Jays waving the flag for the rest of humanity. But baseball's all-American and this is the quintessential heart of what's good about the world's last Superpower.
Hopefully we're in a post-drugs era for the sport (though I wouldn't bank on it), and it's far more of a spectacle that gridiron or ice hockey. With the nosediving of the Yankees this year, it was obvious that there was an opportunity for an aspiring team to put themselves forward, but no-one expected it to be the Rays.

But the St.Petersburg franchise, for so long the Devil Rays, have ditched their devils. New owners have overhauled the organisation from top to bottom, inside to out. From rebranding as simply the Rays, to new coloured kit, to a refresh for the unlovely Tropicana Field (and the prospect of a new waterfront home on the horizon), the club has an entirely new outlook on baseball.

For so long, home fans for matches against the likes of the Sox and Yankees have been in the minority as relocated northerners have stuck to their traditional allegiances. But an off-field outreach programme to get local baseball fans to support the local team, backed by astute signings in both management and on field talent have turned things round for the Rays.
The likes of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, BJ Upton and Scott Kazmir remain from the bad old days, but they've been reinforced by seasoned veterans and exciting new talent to produce the Bay's first winning season - and what a season. Aybar, Bartlett, Longoria, Pena and the rest will probably never have to buy a drink again in any Floridian Gulf Coast bar. If they can overcome the Phillies, they're made for life.
Even from across the Atlantic in what's less than a hotbed of baseball interest, I can see that Brand Tampa Bay Rays is strong, coherent and successful - yet still operating on a budget a fraction of many of their rivals. It's amazing what can be achieved with a clear vision, and great execution by one team, all across the organisation, pulling together. The job's not done yet. But already it's feeling pretty good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

To work with the leaders, be seen as a leader

It's easy for internal communicators - however senior we are - to tag along for the ride as second class citizens in leading our organisations. In too many, we're valued for our skill in turning the ideas of others into neat communication packages.

While the going's good, it's easy to breeze along and pick up communication awards without really trying. Yet the best communicators will come into their own now, not for their ability to craft clever messages, but by being an essential part of the leadership team, prompting, challenging and directing to help steer the organisation through to safer waters.

This week's Melcrum Source newsletter points to some of the characteristics communicators need to show if they're to be valued rather than tolerated at Board level. They're all good, and I don't question any of the points Geri Rhoades puts forward.

She opines:

  • Be courageous.
  • Be curious.
  • Point out the possibilities.
  • Be knowledgeable.
  • Listen.

I'd add a few more:

  • Be challenging - no-one in your organisation will know more about internal/organisational communication than you. Show your expertise (as long as you can justify it.). Challenge the status quo and be an effective contributor to business debates, not a scribe or a doormat.
  • Be a leader - run your own team in an exemplary way and take that leadership into the boardroom. Even if you don't have board status, act as though you do (without being arrogant). Demonstrate you've a right to be there by virtue of your skills and input - and of course back them with excellent execution. Act as an equal among function managers - they may have more resource, but are no more expert than you.
  • Be different - most boardrooms are stuffed with lawyers and accountants who 'get' the balance sheets and operate by them. Then there'll be HR people who understand the policies and the impacts...but perhaps aren't the most creative tools in the box. Sales will be figures-led, and marketing will be interested only in customer impact. Comms, in whatever form comes from a different angle. You absolutely need to know what makes the business tick and what drives its success, but you'll be best placed to talk about what drives those within the business. The tools of communication are merely a start point now. You need to have a very high level of political business knowledge and awareness of the impact of each of the drivers. But you'll earn more than grudging respect if you have mastery of what engages people to deliver those drivers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Common sense - not in the nanny state

Just weeks after a whopper of a cold, I've managed to pick up another one - not surprising with three kids at different schools all bringing their own germs home and having spent six hours in the company of my cold-ridden Brunel tutor in an airless, overheated lecture room last week.

Anyway, this cold's not so bad, just your average head cold. So this morning I headed down to Lloyds Pharmacy as I normally do when the lurgy strikes to stock up on Day Nurse and Night Nurse. As a freelancer, only five minutes of man flu wallowing is allowed, and then it's on with the job.

So, I trotted into Lloyds and the lady behind the counter duly got the two bottles of syrupy liquid for me - as pharmacy staff have done for as long as I can remember. But this time as she checked them with the pharmacist he said: "No - we can't sell both, it has to be one or the other."

I asked why, since they'd been selling them to me perfectly happily once or twice a year for about the last 25 years. He replied: "It's a head office directive. The amount of ephedrine in the day and night versions exceeds the prescribed limits, so we can't sell them together. People have been abusing them."

Now, unless they've increased the amounts involved, which I don't think they have, I struggle to see why the pharmacist has to nanny the average cold victim by not selling the products together. Surely it would make sense just to give an advisory and perhaps say don't take so many does of the Day Nurse if you're going to take Night Nurse as well?

Now from what I can tell, the pseudoephedrene in this cold remedy is a decongestant, but ephedrine is an anabolic steroid, and is taken in large doses by bodybuilders and can indeed be abused. However, this is where common sense is called for from the pharmacist - not nannying. Today I've got a red nose and red eyes from copious nose blowing and a poor night's sleep - but I look about as far from a body builder as it's possible to be, and at 44, fairly clean and reasonably dressed, hardly look like the average druggie.

Surely the pharmacist should have the discretion to sell me the products but with a verbal advisory on their use? That would be fulfilling his obligation as a health carer and also treating me as an adult. Instead, I left the store with my Day Nurse but also feeling slightly insulted. There are two other pharmacies on the High Street - I suspect I'll be popping into one later to get some Night Nurse - which I'll use with the same care that I've taken for the past couple of decades.

Apollo 7 - it's over there

Just tracking visits to this site, and there are a fair few clicking through from the New Scientist's Short Sharp Science blog which references my piece on the Apollo 1 fire from January last year.

I've actually copied that piece onto my race to the moon blog which also features my recent interview with the last surviving Apollo 7 crew member, Walt Cunningham.

I'll be using 'race to the moon' as the home of my space writing and space-linked MA research material from now on.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sign of the times

After a couple of weeks when I had plenty of immediate stuff to be getting on with but, despite several enquiries and pitches, nothing new coming in, the phone started ringing today. Typically I was in a three hour university session on the National Security State in the interwar years so couldn't answer it!

But having got back here about an hour ago, I've agreed to take on one piece of work and have been asked to price for two others. Nothing big, but enough to keep the accountant happy.

I'm not sure there's any more confidence in the financial or real economies than there was a couple of weeks ago. Instead, I think that clients have realised that they can't hold their collective breath for ever, and have started to get on with the doing - perhaps realising that their businesses:

a) aren't investment banks
b) haven't got their money tied up in Iceland; and
c) still have to do all that's necessary to make money.

So, while cash-flow (more likely cash collection) may be a bit iffy in the next couple of months, the underlying trend is that the work's still out there and needs to be done.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Neyroud - a good outside bet?

I'm certainly not known for my betting tips, but if I was to stake a few quid on the next Head of the Metropolitan Police Force, I'd probably put a few bob on Peter Neyroud.

Now the Anglo-Swiss Neyroud is hardly a 'coppers' copper', but in these political days, he could well fit the bill for the Met.

He's an Oxford graduate and currently leads the National Policing Improvement Agency, having spent four years as Chief Constable at Thames Valley Police.

I was writing the force's paper at the time that Peter joined TVP, succeeding my near neighbour at the time in Oxfordshire, Sir Charles Pollard.

It was always 'Sir Charles' with Pollard, while Neyroud introduced himself to me with a 'Call me Peter'.

I'm not sure he ever really won over the force's footsloggers at TVP, but I really liked him. He had a very open communication style, was sharp of thought and welcomed new ideas.....not always the most apparent features of senior police officers.

Boris Johnson, now London's Mayor and Chair of the Police Authority, was a local MP in the Thames Valley when Neyroud was based at Kidlington. I'm sure they met quite often, and it wouldn't surprise me, in the way these things work, if Neyroud were to get the nod to succeed Sir Ian Blair.

There again, the last horse I backed fell at the first fence in the Grand National!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Spot on Ron

Lunch today was spent reading other people's blogs - I think Ron Shewchuck was pretty well spot on here on the when it pays to say no debate.....

It's all about belief

The current economic situation has to be a worry to anyone with a small business. We're the small fry who are easy to forget, to drop and to ignore when the going gets tough further up the food chain.

I've spent most of the past few weeks interviewing lawyers, bankers and senior business people on how the credit crunch is affecting them and what they see as the short, mid and long term prospects for recovery.

The bankers and financial services professionals are in the darkest place. Some I spoke to had already lost their jobs or were expecting to get laid off soon from the likes of Lehmans, UBS and a couple of the more boutique establishments.

The HR guys from the big funds and retail banks were looking at refocusing for a smaller, better regulated City. And the lawyers weren't talking about deals so much as restructuring and insolvency.

None saw the picture brightening particularly in the next 12 months, and many were talking about recovery taking three to five years, with a rather different financial community emerging at the end. Yet all saw this as part of the natural cycle of business. Confidence may be low now, but no-one really believed that this is the end of capitalism as we know it.

But the lack of confidence in the City is now affecting all parts of the economy, and those of us who service other industries rather than create from scratch are vulnerable, and it would be easy to get very down, very worried and start on a downward spiral. But worry sows worry, fear sows fear. A lack of belief is immediately evident and it causes confidence to fall further.

This is the time for the small and unsung to show that what we do is actually very good, very necessary and unaffected by an economic crisis we didn't create and are pretty powerless to resolve.

Nothing I do now is any different to what I was doing three months or even three years ago - so as far as I'm concerned, there's no need for me to worry. True, there are fewer opportunities in the market at the moment, and as more comms professionals get laid off and turn to freelancing, there may be more competition. However, I first went freelance in a recession some 16 years ago. For three years my business grew and grew until it was too big for me to handle alone and I folded it into someone else's organisation.

Now is the time for those of us who've been there and done that to be using our experience to help clients who've only done business in good times; to be a voice of reason against the panic I'm already seeing in some businesses and to be the cost-effective innovators who use communication skills to help clients navigate the choppy business waters.

It's easy to do well in strong economic times. But only the strongest will survive in this steep a downturn.