Category Archives: Work

Red boxes and digital government

Budget 2012I’m looking at the digitisation of government quite a lot at the moment for work and red an amusing piece a colleague flagged to us and was amused (but not surprised) to read:

“Nick Herbert, Tory minister for policing and justice until last summer, claimed that he had been better supported in Opposition; indeed, he said, the “sheer clunkiness” of the Whitehall system was revealing. Officials sent him proposals by email, but then printed them off to put in his ministerial red boxes. These should have followed him by car, so he could work on them overnight, but “there weren’t any cars”. He decided to use his iPad – but was told this was banned “because the Chinese might be listening in”. He found it hard to believe that China was terribly interested in our policing policy.”

I’d looked into buying a friend a red box for his birthday and in the course of Googling it I found this post from 2007:

The astonishing figure of £50,000 has been spent by the government on ministerial red boxes in the last few years, as has been revealed by answers to questions asked by Lib Dem MP John Hemming.
Some red boxes cost up to £750, although others costs less than half this.

The Government Digital Service has its work cut out for it – surely even an iPad with extra encryption / management software wouldn’t cost that much money! I don’t know how much has moved on in the last 7 years but if they had rolled out iPads I’m sure we’d have heard about it, and there’d be more ministerial red boxes on eBay!

My workspace

Here’s a photo of my workspace. I’m trying to take multi-tasking to new heights…


Too many screens? People ask what I use them for, and whilst there’s no hard and fast rule, generally speaking I have email open on one screen, Google Chrome open on another and whatever productivity app I’m using at any given time on the third. The Macbook is usually open with Evernote or Sparrow up front.

I’m lucky to have a brain that can cope with parallel processing at work, but I don’t think I could cope with any more than I have here…

Live music and inspiration

warmleadsA few colleagues have got together and formed a band, the Warm Leads (fantastic choice of name you might have a better understanding of if you work in the PR industry), which performed to much joy and delight after a company offsite last week. They’re all v talented and chose a well-crafted mix of current rock/pop tunes and classic rock to get the audience jumping.

I naturally went slightly nuts on the dance floor. I love live music, and small intimate gigs are *fantastic* when the band has the technical proficiency, talent and presence to make it all rock together.

What it absolutely invariably does, however, is make me want to pick up my guitar and rush onstage. I didn’t; and in point of fact probably wouldn’t have been able to do much. My "talent", such as it is, never extended much beyond the opening riff or catchy chorus of any number of songs.

But I’ve been tabspired; I’m going to look up some of my favourite songs and restart my guitar tablature folder, practice, and try to at least be able to entertain my daughter, if not jump on stage the next time the Warm Leads are gigging…

Company offsite with Thrive


We had a rather marvellous time on Friday with a slightly different flavour of corporate offsite; a few people around the agency researched and identified a CSR activity that would see us all contribute to something worthwhile – in this case the charity Thrive, which helps people recover or cope with debilitating psychological disorders, recover from extended illness or contend with dementia through the joy of gardening.

As someone that’s been spending a fair amount of time digging around in the dirt at home, it was a pretty enjoyable task. We were gloved up and treated to the standard health & safety disclaimer before being loaded up with strimmers, garden forks, shovels, wheelbarrows, hammers, hacksaws and the like and set to clearing a slightly overgrown orchard. We uprooted dead trees, disassembled disused raised beds, levelled out the soil and cut back the grass, digging up mountains of weeds along the way. The 60 or so of us on the ground made fairly short work of it all, getting through the clearing process in a few short hours.

After a lunch break we returned for the ‘main event’ – we’d been promised a wall to build and build a wall we did. Most of my time went into helping with the digging and levelling off a ditch so the wall would remain flat – which was a fairly frustrating process – but our architect-turned-CFO has a real talent for both project management and spirit levelling so we made good in the end.

In addition to the work teams building the two walls, my colleagues made fair progress in building a set of composters from packing crates, and others cleared a number of other raised beds of weeds. It was a pretty satisfying transformation to look back on as we left the Reading countryside and headed back to London for a performance by the Warm Leads… but more on that later

I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for a different kind of corporate day out, or if you live in range of one of Thrive’s gardens (one near Reading and t’other in Battersea Park), volunteer.

Embracing change – the impact of innovation

The essence of the Lifehacker blog that I’m so fond of is that – for any given action or process, there must be a better way. One of my emerging passions as I watch one service, process or product of the other emerge that has an impact on the way I do things is to evangelise it to others.

After all, if we do five things that save a minute of our day each, in a week we’ve got the best part of half an hour back to other things. And a lot of the productivity-enhancing things I’ve seen emerge in products, services and OS tweaks – purely from a technological point of view – have the potential to save much more time than that.

A non-techie example – the Fiskars weed puller I bought a few weeks back. A simple technological innovation saving me hours of tedious weeding, easily worth the £30 it cost in time and effort saved.

So I’m pushing on with my mission of discovery. I want to learn, try, experiment with and potentially buy products, services and training that will help me and my teams at work save time, work ‘smarter’ (horrible, but precise), and dig our way out from under the growing mound of pointless information and legacy process endemic to the knowledge worker. I speak of email, non-collaborative workflows and the like.

And my personal mission – to do the same thing for life more generally – endures, as ever. If you know about it, I want to hear about it!

Quora for research

I’ve been checking out how useful Quora is to new business research recently and it really is a wonderful network for getting under the skin of a company. You find questions from marketers, strategists, analysts, customers and beyond, answers from the same and from the companies themselves.

I’m a bit of a leech on this social network  – as with Twitter I find it hard to stay close enough to the topics I’m interested in or qualified to respond to to contribute meaningfully. But many good questions have been asked and answered (even one of mine). Definitely recommended – don’t think Facebook has manage to build the same cult of users for this particular service of theirs as yet, and its unlikely to be useful for professional insight (for me, anyway) just yet.

The European Digital Journalism Survey 2011

Updated: to include my boss’ take on the survey and its findings, via Vimeo embed, below.

The EDJS 2011 – “Clicks, Communities and Conversations” – was launched today by my agency, Brands2Life, in coordination with the Oriella PR Network – our partner network of independent agencies around the world.  It examines the views of 478 journalists polled over the last few months.

Fronted by my esteemed colleague and Head of International @mistergrainger and our co-founder, @gilesfraser, we were joined by a panel made up of @kieranalger, @tphallett and @reutermarkjones to comment on the key findings of the study.

The headline trends:

The slump in advertising revenues is slowing. This year, barely 20 percent of the journalists surveyed expected their publications to see a fall in revenue. In 2010, however, 62 percent said this was the case, and in 2009 the figure was 66 per cent.

Those polled say that the popularity of online media is gradually eclipsing that of ‘offline’ publications. This year, the proportion of respondents who agreed their offline print or broadcast outlet had the biggest audience fell to 50 percent for the first time.

Social media are permeating the newsroom. Increasingly journalists are using digital channels such as blogs and Twitter to source and verify story leads.

You can read the study in full here and read SamKano’s take on the findings over on the Oriella blog, but I took a few notes and thought I’d share perspectives here too.

One of the things I found most interesting about the presentation and discussion was a conversation about the value of social media to newsrooms.

Reuters’ Mark Jones said: “I don’t think any serious professional journalist could do their job any more, without being on Twitter.” Talking about the Osama story (which Chris played his part in), Mark said: “One of the things that came out of this was that expert views came into the conversation very quickly. You didn’t have to wait for the TV broadcast or full form stories to get the analyst view. You could see the story being formed in front of your eyes on Twitter. That’s where news is going – and it has profound implications for what journalists and communicators do.”

By the same token, disintermediation in social media is an important development for journalists in sourcing expert views and validating stories.  Mark continued: “When people are looking for comments from experts or company representatives, time is of the essence. Twitter supercharges this. In a straw poll of my colleagues – [the delays are] their number one complaint. The answer is in the media.” The challenge to PR execs is to do what’s necessary to research and be hyperconnected with their media contacts.

The flip side to that question came up in discussion – does disintermediation threaten media, as it allows consumers direct access to news from the people making it, at the scene, et al? The panel didn’t come to a conclusion – though I have my views here – in that the role of the media needs to shift – less churnalism and more investigative reporting, less simple narrative and more dynamic storytelling, less straight reportage and more insightful analysis. Some of this relates to the Public Business agenda, in my view: ‘The People’ need to demand this sort of journalism, and allow publishers to fund it.

T3’s Kieran Alger made some interesting comments building on this – as a publication – T3 is working with brands on reciprocal promotion: “Today we have 20,000 followers on Twitter and 17,000 on Facebook. On any day they’ll deliver about 10,000 unique users or 20% of our overall traffic. We increasingly look to people running brands, Twitter feeds and so on to help out with that – asking PRs to help promote our stories to their followers. Big brands like Samsung, for example, have massive numbers of fans.”

Talking about the plethora of social media venues and communities that media outlets run – and the fact that survey showed a reduction in the number of reporters whose media outlets run their own communities – there was an interesting discussion as to what the different public social media outlets do for media publications. Talking about the rise of Facebook, CBS Interactive’s Tony Hallett said: “It’s horses for courses – some forms of content work on different platforms. Facebook works well for a particular type of very loyal users. Traffic that media gets from social outlets is still small compared to Google, for example, but you do get a certain type of super-user – people that interact with you in a big way. [These users] make for a very fun environment.”

Tony had given us another example of a passionate audience earlier in the discussion (making an entirely separate point): “On ZDNet, we have a subset of users that go crazy for photos of data centres – data centre porn… These are extremely secure, secretive environments, so we will take photography and video supplied to us – and are transparent about sourced material.” Which, whilst it makes the serious point that publishers are keen for more interactive comment, is amusing for the fact that it underlines the adage – that it takes all kinds.

For me, the overall takeaway is that the platforms and mechanics for engaging with media continue to shift, and professional communicators need to evolve their comms infrastructure – from the content they create to the way we pitch the media – to suit.

Also, spend more time on Twitter.

I’ll add my thanks to those of my colleagues for the fantastic discussion and encourage you to head over to the Oriella blog to join the digital debate.


Oriella Digital Journalism Study 2011 from Brands2Life on Vimeo.

Six skills today’s PR professional needs to have

One in a sporadic series of work-related posts. I’ve been thinking about some of these for a while, and a couple of them in particular sparked the idea for a post. What do you think? These are in no particular order…

1. Polymath tendencies. I think a good consultant is able to shift with the winds, being as interested in mechanical engineering one day as social anthropology or fiscal policy the next. Being able to understand the drivers behind major political, social, economic and technological trend is a key skill in helping clients meet the media agenda and too many people come into careers without even the curiosity to help them evolve to a state of general interestedness in the world. If you can step into the shoes of a psychologist, information architect, one of your client’s customers – whatever it may be – it will provide an additional lens through which you can see campaign ideas, and provide another basis of insight on which you can build your ideas.

2. Hyperconnectivity. By this I mean that you are able to connect yourself into different information and social streams with deft facility – coping with dialogues on multiple channels, and absorbing information at a quick pace. It’ll help you cope with the burgeoning requirement of enterprise to keep tabs and engage with social media conversation, it’ll support your ability to engage with hyperconnected media contacts, it’ll let you be on the edge of what’s happening.

3. Numeracy (and visual thinking). I’ve talked about data before, and the ridiculous accessibility of it – more than most people can understand or make use of. A PR’s job, in its simplest sense, is in crafting and communicating stories for and with its clients. Telling these stories increasingly requires a ludicrous amount of context and capturing this context in visual representations is a vital part of contemporary journalism and blogging. Everyone loves a good infographic – can you tell a story in pictures as readily as you can in words? Note that I don’t mean that you need to be a statistician, or a designer – just equipped enough to do some basic number crunching so that you can build the story – and think visually enough to brief a graphic designer to create what you want.

4. Literacy. I’ve met in equal number over the years – of PRs who treat the English language like an bat, crushing messages into as short a space as possible – and those that throw flowery turns of phrase into every other sentence. Good PR writing is jargon free, to the point, well-referenced, in context and over all else – concise.

5. Confidence. Whilst it may be possible to be a mild-mannered Clark Kent in the world of media (and I’m doubtful about that), PR calls for a strong temperament – you have to be able to consult (either into the business or to clients) which by definition may require taking a contrary view, you have to be able to deal with investigative journalists, you’ll probably have to deal with a crisis or two – all of this requires a steady hand and an occasionally loud voice. Not to mention confidence goes hand-in-hand with having no fear of the phone.

6. Ethics. It may be out of fashion for some, but at our agency – and in my own moral framework – it’s important to maintain certain boundaries. I’m not going to mention the obvious example here – if you’re in the industry you’ll know the current showcase example of dubious professional practice.

Have I missed any? Tell me in the comments.

Thoughts on consultancy

Been talking to my Dad a bit about the nature of consultancy – principally round the difference between consultants that tell you what you want to hear, and those that tell you what you need to hear. My Dad has always fallen into the latter camp – rarely sugarcoating difficult news, that’s his style, through well over 30 years of corporate lawyering – and I think I do too (although PR consultancy tends to require a bit more… tact).

One of the things that’s really satisfying is when a client takes on a piece of advice, acts on it and changes the way their company operates.

In the context of social media communications as part of corporate communications, I’ve had a considerable amount of experience of this lately. One client in particular took on the advice we gave and has been doing a great job of it – and the feeling you get when this happens is what makes the job worthwhile, and it’s when you know you have a client you’ve got the potential to do great things with.

Great fun. A nice perspective for me to take as I lean back and look at things from the comfortable distance of a sabbatical.

Readying for a broadband future

The study I trailed yesterday has been published and reported on today. The full Broadband Quality Study from Cisco (my client) and the Oxford University Said Business School is available here.

The reason I care so much about this topic is that I truly believe that for societal and economic development, quality broadband connectivity is essential. The things you can do – from the simple act of being more connected to friends and family on Twitter and Facebook, to high-resolution video calling, photo & video uploads, & (in the future) interactive engagement in virtual environments (I still don’t quite believe in Second Life, but I do believe in what it and services like it will become) – dramatically change relationships, the way you learn, the way you interact, the way public services are delivered and much more.

I’m pleased that there’s so much development globally in terms of policy and infrastructure investment, particularly in the UK obviously. Keen to see wireless infrastructure development move on apace so we can bridge the urban/rural divide and get fibre-like broadband quality out to more people, more cost effectively (and get to a point with pervasive broadband connectivity across devices). I’d love to see more fibre too, but can’t help but feel that the days of multi-billion pound massively government subsidized infrastructure investment might be behind us for the time being… but we’ll see!

Cisco’s study looks at how broadband quality varies internationally – quality rather than pure speed as latency, the other factor weighted in when considering quality, effects the usefulness of a broadband connection in delivering certain services – e.g. realtime video communications, as opposed to video downloads, the former of which requires low latency (delay), the latter of which is a little more tolerant. The UK ranks in at number 25, which isn’t too bad when you consider that most of our telecommunications infrastructure was built out in the middle of the 20th century and we have aggressive targets for improvement in the future thanks to the recent Digital Britain commitments. We also do well for broadband penetration thanks to our universal service mandate, which bodes well for my eventual move to the countryside…

Have a read, let me know what you think.

Crossposted at Chivalry House.