Friday, 20 April 2012

What will the Olympics ever do for us?

Time for a slight rant.

Earlier this week, BBC Radio 5 Live published the results of a Comres survey that the station had commissioned, testing the public's views about the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. One of the headline figures from the survey was that 68% of the population don't believe that the games will benefit their local area. Cue reporters up and down the country filing pieces on local opinions from wherever they were sent or based.

The survey led the news on the station for much of the day on which it was published. It's a valid story angle to pursue and I'm not a naive, blinkered apologist for everything related to London 2012 (more of that later in another rant). However, I found myself getting more and more annoyed by the succession of talking heads that the Beeb was apparently very easily able to line up, who offered their negative views about the Olympics being hosted in London this year.

Well this year, for a little while at least, I am going to put my cynicism away and simply embrace the good ‘stuff’ that the Olympics brings with it to our shores. And, for me, at the heart of that is the potential that London 2012 has to be a catalyst, inspiring young people to get involved in sport. If all that is achieved as a legacy is that loads more kids take up a sporting activity or two, then in my opinion, it will have been a great success (and worth every penny)

The evidence is already out there that local communities are using London 2012 as inspiration to do something special. On my own patch in Sedgefield, we are organising the Sedgefield Village Games ( and, which will run from 17th June (when the Olympic Torch passes through the village) until 11th July. We have our own logo (designed by a Sedgefield schoolgirl) and many clubs and societies in the village are contributing to what will be a full and varied programme of activities, offering free taster sessions for anyone who wants to try out a new sport or three. Although people of all ages will be involved, there is a big focus on youth and every child in Sedgefield will be given a free memento of the Village Games.

Our challenge will be to sustain the interest that the Sedgefield Village Games garners, to fundamentally inspire a generation and instil in them a lifelong love of sport. Knowing the people who are behind Sedgefield’s plans, I am certain that we will succeed, and if that kind of approach and attitude is being employed in communities all over the country, then the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games genuinely will leave a legacy of which the whole country can be proud (and which does, in one way or another, benefit every location in the UK).

Slight rant over.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

FIFA poppycock

I’ve never been a fan of a phenomenon that has emerged in recent years – the collective baring of the soul or mourning by society. The first time I remember being particularly uncomfortable with it was back in 1997, when Diana (no surname needed) died. Of course, it was a tragic event, but the prolonged national reaction seemed to me to be well, frankly, a bit over the top. In fact, I found aspects of it as obscene as the hounding of Diana by sections of the national media when she was alive. As is often the case in current affairs, Private Eye summed matters up best with a front cover that earned the magazine harsh criticism and high praise in equal measure.

Since then, like lemmings, the public has fixated on a succession of tragedies involving famous people, in a way that I think is out of proportion with the incidents (awful though they clearly are for the individuals and families directly involved). I wonder why this is the case and although I’m sure that there is no definitive answer, theories spring to mind. Maybe it’s because, in an increasingly secular society, the lack of genuine faith in God has to be replaced by some sort of congregation. Or perhaps the proliferation of media channels, social networks and the ever increasing availability of enormous amounts of content about famous people, means that Joe and Joanne Public now (mistakenly) believe that they actually have a real connection to celebrities. Whatever the cause, I don’t like the effect.

This group behaviour extends beyond moments of grief and mourning. Like lynch mobs, we the public fixate on emotive issues and vent our collective spleen with great virtual force. It’s so easy to do these days – the technology at our disposal almost demands it. So we respond to an incident or call to action and a wave of fury and indignation spreads across the web like an inelegant take on a murmuration of starlings. No-one quite knows why, but we feel compelled do it anyway, on a range of disparate topics. It’s really quite bizarre and can be very unpleasant.

It’s for the reasons above that I started questioning myself earlier this week, when I found that I was in a rage about FIFA’s response to the English FA’s request for players to be allowed to wear poppies on their shirts during this weekend’s friendly match against Spain. I buy and wear a poppy every year, yet I frown on those who display them too early and I wholly disapprove of the recent trend that has seen publicity hungry celebrities pinning ever more elaborate red tributes to themselves (most obviously displayed during the last couple of years on the drivel that is X Factor).

I certainly don’t object to people donating a fortune to the cause, but using the poppy as a charity fashion statement is not very clever. At the same time, if people choose not to wear poppies, I respect their right to make that decision (even if I don’t agree with it), and I do get annoyed when people aggressively preach about the subject on social networks. In short, I think my views and behaviour are balanced, respectful and suitably restrained.

Yet, despite that, there I was ranting about FIFA to family, friends and colleagues, and expressing my disgust and disdain for the organisation on Twitter and Facebook. I have just about calmed down now. In truth, the reason for my anger was not so much rooted in the basic decision by FIFA (crass and misguided though I think that was), it was more due to the way in which football’s world governing body articulated it. I read FIFA’s various official pronouncements on the matter with increasing fury. To me, two aspects were evident.

First, FIFA demonstrated absolutely no sensitivity to the history of the poppy and showed no awareness of what the symbol means to so many millions of people. The poppy is not pinned to our metaphorical hearts to nail our political colours to any mast (yes, English Defence League, please go away), it simply represents our gratitude to those men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country. The poppy makes no judgement on whether a conflict was just or not – it says ‘thank you’ and ‘we will remember you’, and the money raised by the Royal British Legion by selling poppies is channelled to the right places. FIFA’s bland, corporate statements on the subject made no mention of this crucial point. Surely, even in refusing the FA’s request, the individuals who run the game could have found a way to acknowledge that.

The second aspect that I detected in FIFA’s handling of this matter was that the organisation relished being able to tell the FA where to go. Someone, somewhere up the ample food chain at FIFA was taking great delight in refusing the request. I say ‘someone’, but suspect there were several people revelling in their moment.

Perhaps I should relax. After all, this incident has given the poppy extra oxygen that has fuelled even more publicity than usual and every camera will make a point of picking out those black armbands with poppies at the weekend. They will appear in every newspaper and on every TV channel. That’s great – maybe it will even help us to educate a new generation about what the wearing of the poppy is all about. As the two world wars recede further into the past and there are now very few people who can directly pass on their rich memories to young people, we need to take every opportunity to remind them of the debt we still owe today.

So, yes, some good can come out of this fiasco. Nevertheless, FIFA has still plunged further down in my estimation than ever before, which is something that I didn’t think was possible.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll take a deep breath, clear my mind of that annoying organisation and fill it with appropriate thoughts of remembrance. I’ll do it quietly and the only visible sign will be one modest red poppy.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Raffle in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation

Right, now for a bit of blatant self promotion!

I am currently running a raffle to raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation in memory of my mum, Margaret Lines. By the time we draw this raffle, it will be two years since we lost mum - everyone in the family misses her enormously and thinks about her every day. We know that far too many people are affected by this awful disease and through this, I really hope that we can raise a lot of money for a charity that does fantastic work on the early detection and treatment of cancer, and the trialing of the new drugs that will eventually beat it.

I am fortunate that the kind of work I do means I have some very useful contacts for this kind of thing and I am hugely grateful for the amazing prize donations that I have received. I think it’s safe to say that some of them would normally be reserved for an auction and go to the highest bidder, but I really wanted to give everyone at least a chance to win something. The main prizes are:
- An England football shirt, dedicated to the winner and signed by David Beckham
- A signed and framed photograph of Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett in action at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
- A tennis racket signed by Andy Murray
- A signed copy of the book ‘Mountaineer’ by Sir Chris Bonington
- A box for 10 people for a race meeting at Newcastle Racecourse
- A £50 voucher for Marks & Spencer
- A selection of the latest Berghaus clothing and equipment
- A bottle of House of Lords whisky
- Tickets for next season’s Twenty20 matches at Durham County Cricket Club
- A bottle of 12 years aged single malt Glenlivet whisky.

If you're interested, the raffle tickets are £5 for a book (or £1 each) and available from me; I can be reached on 07971 868329 or The raffle will be drawn at a special charity fundraising event at Sedgefield Racecourse on 29th October (details from me), which will feature leading North East band the Emerald Thieves. Prize-winners who are not there on the night will be notified afterwards by telephone or post.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Pizza, beer, constipation and a one way mirror - a cautionary PR story

I managed to secure a small bit of editorial for Press Ahead in this week’s PR Week. Admittedly, the story in question isn’t about the most glamorous of topics!

I responded to a tweet from PR Week's deputy editor, asking for stories about working on potentially embarrassing accounts. That took me right back to my first job in PR and my time in London.

PR Week condensed my contribution into one paragraph (about which I have no gripe), so I thought I would share the full story here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

My first job in PR was at Lynne Franks PR back in the 90s. I started as a trainee, moving from department to department. The first team I worked in (health) looked after the Reckitt & Colman account and I was given the glamorous task of handling PR for digestion related products, including Gaviscon, Fybogel and Senokot. Most of the work involved dealing with trade press and seemed to consist of supplying fairly basic product information and approving colour separation charges (those were the days!) for the printing of photographs to accompany articles.

However, one cold winter evening my account manager packed me off to a women’s consumer focus group in Sunbury on Thames. My brief was to get a better insight into the Fybogel/Senokot consumer – how they felt, what digestive issues they faced, what words and phrases would resonate with them in relation to products etc. I duly rocked up to the venue, where I was ushered into a room with a one way mirror. In my room, to my joy I discovered that I was a) on my own, and b) surrounded by pizza, chips, pasta, burgers and a fridge full of beer. To join Lynne Franks PR, I had taken a significant pay cut (from my challenging, but not lucrative, role as a money lender and debt collector – I kid you not) and more than doubled my rent. So, to be in the presence of so many fine and free vittles was at that time like receiving a Christmas bonus. I didn’t hold back.

On the other side of the mirror was a comfortable looking sitting room around which were seated about 10 women of various ages and sizes. Everything that they said was captured on microphone and piped into my room. Over the next few hours, I was presented with detailed and sometimes graphic accounts of said ladies’ digestive problems. This was illuminating. Every now and again, one of the consumers would leave the room and head to the bathroom. She would return several minutes later. As everyone else in the room turned to her, she would shake her head sadly (“No, I couldn’t do a poo” was what that shake of the head meant). Appallingly, I suspect that I found much of this quite amusing at the time.

At the end of the night, under instruction, I waited until all the ladies had departed and then quietly left (clearly, they either didn’t know I was there or at least assumed that whoever was on the other side of the mirror wasn’t a young bloke). I was new to Lynne Franks and keen to prove myself, so I had made quite a few notes during the session, while scoffing as much stodge as I could, washed down with beer after beer. However, when I re-read my notes in the office the next morning, I think it’s accurate to say that they weren’t as insightful as they could have been.

To be fair, I do believe that I acquired a better understanding of our target consumer as a result of my evening in Sunbury and that was reflected in ongoing PR outputs. Nevertheless, it occurred to me then - and I haven't changed my opinion - that I might not have been exactly the right person for that particular task (notwithstanding the free food and drink that I couldn’t resist!) and that the PR activity would have benefited more if someone else had been volunteered. After my stint in the health team, I soon moved on to ‘mentertainment’, working on accounts such as Puma, Timberland, BT Mobile and Timex. A much better fit, I reckon (and beer was also occasionally involved in that phase of my fledgling career). But I still recall my evening in Sunbury on Thames with great fondness.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

London and the regions

There's a lot of rubbish said and written about London PR companies versus regional PR companies (much of it by London PR companies). I think it's fair to say that a decade and more ago, the prevailing view was that the best agencies and people were almost all based in London. Whether this view could be backed up by evidence is a moot point, but perception is essentially reality, and reality bites.

Towards the end of the 1990s, I worked in a London agency and I had some great, extremely talented colleagues (you know who you are). At that time, there were also some practical reasons why a London location was useful. This was particularly the case in the world of consumer PR.

Back then, as well as faxing or even posting press releases, we still supplied images in the form of transparencies (or 'dupes'). So, naturally, being able to send an image (or VHS tape) to a national magazine, newspaper or TV studio by bike was an important part of the job that agencies based in Manchester, Leeds or Sunderland couldn't really fulfil. We could also send client product samples from our on site showroom (or from under our desks!).

In most parts, how times have changed! I can't remember the last time I faxed a press release or even saw a transparency. I can email large image files in a matter of seconds (even when I'm on the move) and ftp sites make it easy to supply footage to media outlets far and wide. Sure, I can't bike a Berghaus jacket from my office to a photoshoot in London on the same day, but the brand's flagship store in Covent Garden can help me out with that. And, through all sorts of contemporary, socially and professionally accepted, methods of communication I can have an ongoing, effective dialogue with media contacts around the world.

Having said all of that, London is still really important to me in my role (and by the way, I acknowledge that some of the best PR agencies in the world, let alone UK, are based there). There's nothing quite like face to face contact to help develop a good rapport with someone (it worked with my wife, I think). So, I like to get down to London village fairly regularly to meet up with journalists and other individuals and companies with whom/which I deal. I really don't believe I need to be based in the capital, but it will always be an important part of my working life.

I was in London this week, as the city of Sunderland took its new Economic Masterplan to Westminster. During a series of events, Sunderland outlined its bold, but realistic vision for the city, for the next 15 years. I was really impressed by the turnout (quantity and quality) at the various seminars, workshops and receptions, and the whole process seems to have gone very well, and been very well received.

During a break between meetings, I had a brief opportunity to stand in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament and soak up the atmosphere. What a buzz and what a setting. And during those moments, as I observed what was happening around me, I was reminded that in the UK political sphere at least, advances in technology matter not a jot, in the absence of a presence in Westminster. That makes it ever more important, especially in the current climate, for the North East to work hard to sustain a voice in the vicinity of Big Ben. Individual locations such as Sunderland, and certain special interest groups, are doing their bit, but I still fervently believe that this should be done in the context of a regional voice.

One North East used to hold regular Westminster events that maintained a momentum and propogated important messages. In the fracturing situation we have now, this region faces a greater challenge than ever to exert any influence. The efforts of cities, local authorities and other organisations is laudable, but I fear that individually, they have little chance of making themselves heard in the hubbub of Westminster. More than ever, North East England needs to find a way to define and exercise its voice. And quickly.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

From William Shakespeare to Sarah Palin

One of my instinctive objections to Twitter is that it will destroy the English language as we know it - just a minor gripe then. Distilling thoughts into a mere 140 characters offers very little scope for beautiful prose or wonderful soliloquies that help the imagination and the soul to soar.

Actually, I'm not sure whether all of that really matters in the greater scheme of things. Twitter is a fact of life - I use it very frequently, yet I still seem to be capable of writing proper sentences, that linked together create real paragraphs, that one by one deliver a narrative thread, that when read in sequence make some degree of sense and tell a story. At least, I think that I'm still capable of all of that - others can judge for themselves.

In fact, much more likely to destroy the English language as we know it are people who don't know how to use it properly. I'm by no means making a bid to be the next Lynne Truss. Although I think that I just about get by (and get away with getting by), for now I defer to the inestimably excellent Mr Stephen Fry, who is to front a new BBC series about language.

In sharp contrast, there are some people in the public eye who do a very good job of persistently persuading us all of their ignorance. They bite into the English language, masticate a bit and then spit out their own mangled version of it. Step forward Sarah Palin. In the grand style of George Bush Jnr, whom I must say I never misunderestimated, Mrs Palin appears to have invented a new word. I'm sure that she will repudiate that claim, or maybe she will refute it. In truth, she is more likely to 'refudiate' it, while at the same time pointing out that English is a living language and that Shakespeare invented new words.

That comparison of herself with the Bard of Avon is impressive and as modest as we've come to expect from Mrs Palin. She does seem to be impervious to the approbrium that she brings down upon herself. Clearly, she is well prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, though I'm not convinced that she has the conscience that does make cowards of us all.

This whole amusing development seems to have 'gone global' thanks to a tweet by Sarah Palin. So, perhaps Twitter can actually help us defend and preserve the English language by highlighting its abuse. My fears were unfounded. I can relax. To sleep, perchance to dream.

Friday, 23 April 2010

With Cleggmania we're one step closer to the extinction of traditional media dinosaurs

Are you still enjoying the election ride? I know I am, but like many people I was appalled by some of attacks made on Nick Clegg in national newspapers yesterday. I am a supporter of the Lib Dems, but my dismay isn't actually party politically motivated - I simply thought that such an arrogant attempt to 'herd' the public was a disgrace.

The Mail managed to get Mr Clegg and the word 'Nazi' into the same headline - quite deliberate (obviously!) and reprehensible. Meanwhile, although the Telegraph's front page story did indeed raise some questions that needed answering (and those answers have already been given), if you analyse the detail it doesn't appear that anything wrong has been done (no homes 'flipped', no moats cleaned at the taxpayers' expense etc).

Of course, every major party's policies need to be scrutinised, especially if they have genuine ambitions to govern or play a role in a hung parliament. And yes, let's have more of that. But yesterday's attacks were something else entirely and I don't think they'll work. In fact, they just seem to have on one hand highlighted how out of touch with society some of the traditional media are, and on the other, further motivated people to get behind Mr Clegg and express themselves through social media.

Apparently, yesterday saw the highest volume of donations through the Lib Dem website, and I made a point of monitoring how many people were members of the
'we can get the Lib Dems into office' Facebook group. At the start of the day, the number stood at 132,000 - by the end of the day, there was a net increase in members of 7,000 (in contrast, there's been a more modest increase of 2,000 so far today, so I think the rapid rise on Thursday can fairly be called a reaction to the press).

There was also the tongue in cheek trending topic on Twitter - #nickcleggsfault. By tea-time yesterday tens of tweets being made with that hashtag every second (again, this isn't second hand information - I was monitoring it myself). On the surface that hashtag appears to be clearly anti-Clegg, but it is really nothing of the sort. In the UK's irony/satire rich culture, use of #nickcleggsfault is a way of putting two fingers up to the Mail, Telegraph and the establishment and was enthusiastically embraced by people from all backgrounds and political persuasions, including hoards of Lib Dems. That latter group were very happy to see #nickcleggsfault leap into the global top ten of trending topics yesterday, keeping him and the Lib Dems front of mind and driving the agenda (again). And then there was the website with the
Daily Mail Nick Clegg headline generator, mocking the Mail and churning out more Clegg content far and wide. All of this is an interesting variation on the online Barack Obama surge during the USA election - there are strong parallels, though I don't think the ironic/satirical elements could have played out this way over there!

On their own, the above developments (and many others) may be fairly minor, but put them all together and that partly explains why the Lib Dem bubble has definitely not burst. Yesterday morning's attacks at a national level have seriously backfired in several ways and could have major long term repercussions for those organs that made them. In a day and age in which social media platforms in particular allow people to react, engage, debate and express their opinions so instantly, through their ignorant actions, the traditional media dinosaurs may well be the architects of their own downfall.

Incidentally, from what I have seen so far, coverage of the election in the regional and local press has been much more palatable and balanced and perhaps highlights why the general public still have great affection for, and fundamentally trust, their local newspaper. I just hope that the bad behaviour of the nationals doesn’t start to tar all press with the same brush in the court of public opinion.