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.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My name is @chrisjlines and I'm a tweetaholic

My name is @chrisjlines and I’m a tweetaholic. There, I’ve admitted it and I’m dealing with it. For a good while now I have been a frequent user of Twitter. I tweet under my own name, on behalf of clients and with some thematic usernames – in fact, I tweet using about 16 usernames. Before anyone starts wondering how I find time to do anything else, I don’t use all of the usernames all of the time and even when I tweet using several I can do so with several accounts at once on my Tweetdeck. That’s my justification and I’m sticking to it.

Why do I do this and what does it achieve? Good question. The answer is I’m still finding that out. And that is one of the most fascinating aspects of Twitter. The continued rapid growth of the service and all that is associated with it sometimes masks the fact that many people and organisations are still simply trying to get to grips with how it all works, or could work, for them.

The escalation of Twitter gives it undoubted potency, for good and bad. It can be incredibly effective in spreading news and generating a collective voice on a wide range of topics, but that can be just as malevolent as positive. I could start listing some of the best examples here, but they already feel like really old news, which is another of the good/bad points about Twitter. The rapid churn of content means that a hot topic one day can be completely forgotten the next. I’m sure that the team at Paperchase remember the storm that recently centred on their brand (as will the designer and design agency involved in the story), but do many other people recall it and has the negative publicity really harmed the company?

Paperchase attempted to use Twitter to engage with customers after the incident, under the @FromPaperchase username. At the time I write this, they have tweeted a grand total of four times (their last tweet was on 16 February) and each tweet now links to the same landing page on their website. So, a) they still don't understand or take social media seriously (actually their attitude is somewhat disdainful based on this evidence) and b) the furore hasn't had a lasting impact on their business. Unless they've gone bust and there's no-one left to update the Twitter page!

Only the really major Twitter trending topics seem to make any sort of longer lasting imprint on the collective consciousness (#trafigura, #welovethenhs etc). Almost everything else on the service is like the life in a day of a mayfly – ‘born, eat, procreate, die’. Sure, there is a significant number of Twitter heavyweights who command millions of followers and can, with 140 characters or fewer, transform the Twitter fortunes of others. It’s like the ‘Delia effect’ all over again. But there’s also a staggering volume of tweets and links and comment and ranting and comedy and filth and solicitation and the rest that’s read by almost no-one (other than the author).

So does Twitter really help people connect with the rest of the world and become part of a big, sharing community? Or is it actually isolating us a little bit more from real contact and real relationships? Some people are deluding themselves that it's the former. Reading all those tweets by celebrities and other opinion leaders that they follow doesn't really mean that they are connected - the communication is, 99.9% of the time, still one way. If that sounds a bit grouchy, it's not really meant to - I actually think Twitter is fantastic for all sorts of reasons, but we do need to be honest about what it is and what it isn't.
Sometimes, reading content on Twitter makes me think of radio ’phone in shows, which I passionately dislike. Because there are, on the surface, no real consequences resulting from ‘mouthing off’ in tweets, Twitter is like a very big halogen lamp to a huge swarm of extremist moths.

People express some very strident views and make outrageous statements with apparent impunity, which can lead to some very entertaining/alarming ‘twitterfeuds’. I managed to get dragged into one myself recently. It was quite fun for a while, but then became very tedious. Safe to say, in the Rentokil related discussions between @paul_a_smith and @LINGsCARS, I remain firmly positioned on Paul’s side of the debate and the relatively mild insults that were aimed at me by Ling made no impact, other than to reinforce my existing views. So, no harm done there then.

However, we’re now moving into a General Election campaign and I am already seriously disappointed by the level of dialogue emerging from many activists on Twitter. ‘Activists’ is an important distinction as there are many commentators and candidates who contribute plenty of excellent, relatively balanced content. As for much of the rest, it’s all so blinkered and insulting to the intelligence.

I started following @BevaniteEllie using one of my accounts and while Ellie deserves ten out of ten for passion, persistence, conviction and being prolific, I find her propagandist approach to tweeting both annoying and alarming. I only single out @BevaniteEllie because I’ve been monitoring her output – I know that there are similarly single minded tweeters among the ranks of all parties. And of course, there’s an easy solution to this – I should stop following her.

But my point is that the attitude of Ellie and others like her adds nothing to the political debate – it just accentuates and, if anything widens, the divisions. It either preaches to the converted or winds up the opposition – that’s all. And if the UK is heading towards a hung parliament, as many pundits predict, then come May, these wildly flapping and fulminating moths are going to have to find a way to work to work together. Now that should be interesting.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Winter waffle from climate change deniers and a scandal in Scotland

“Welcome to 2010,” said the presenter on the telly. And what a wintry welcome it’s been. I have a young family (along with my own still youthful delight in all things snow), so we’ve enjoyed the start to the year with plenty of sledging (highly professional video here ;-)), snowman (and snowwoman and snowchildren) making, and the occasional icicle attack.

During all that frivolity, it’s easy to forget the negative impact that sustained snow and ice can have on all sorts of sections of society, from the old and infirm to loads of small businesses that grind to a halt even though they simply can’t afford to. In short, it has been a challenging few weeks for many people and organisations and most will be keeping their fingers crossed that the current thaw continues. Even the outdoor sector, which has seen a boost in sales thanks to the cold weather (Berghaus down jackets and hats and gloves have been flying out of stores), will be welcoming the improved weather as it will now be easier for people to get to the shops to buy warm kit in anticipation of more seasonal weather.

Of course, there are people with a particular agenda who have tried to use the ‘big freeze’ to propagate their message. Yes, predictably, the “global warming, what global warming?” lobby is working overtime. Oh dear. Well, I’m no climate change expert, so I’ll leave it to the more qualified and articulate (as far as I can tell) to put them in their place, such as the LeftOutside blog.

I found my way to LeftOutside thanks to Graham Linehan, a prolific, thoughtful and entertaining/informative tweeter under his username @glinner. If you use Twitter, he’s well worth following and was behind the successful ‘#IlovetheNHS’ Twitter trending topic last year. And his pithy take on Richard Littlejohn's attitude to climate change made me smile.

On the general subject of climate change denial, this is worth watching too.
32,000 leading scientists – really?

Meanwhile, it seems that some of the UK’s most beautiful landscape is going to be sacrificed on the altar of green energy. Or is that the altar of small-minded corporate gods? The proposed Beauly-Denny power line in the Scottish Highlands is, according to Cameron McNeish (outdoors man, campaigner and editor of Scotland based outdoor magazine TGO), “like taking a razor blade to a Rembrandt”. Those words make for a very quotable comment, but also offer an insight into the massive furore caused by the Scottish Government’s approval of the plans. Muriel Gray, writing in The Herald, hits the nail on the head with her exploration of the hypocrisy at the heart of this whole issue. Money talks. And I am clearly not alone in being somewhat perplexed by the stance of Friends of the Earth.

I’m sure that the Beauly-Denny area looks absolutely stunning at the moment. It seems to me that the financial savings of choosing the pylon option are nothing compared to the subsequent real and fundamental cost to the landscape and all those who currently enjoy it. I notice that, at the same time, the “Live it” visitScotland commercial has started appearing on television again. I wonder how long it will be before someone comes up with a spoof version featuring the pylons and a “Vandalise it” strapline. If only I was remotely competent with a video camera and editing suite...