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.