Revolutionary Measures

The offline election

With less than a year to go until the 2015 General Election, manoeuvrings and PR campaigns are already in full swing. Since before the party conferences David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have been trying to set out their agendas for the future – all with one eye on the rise of UKIP. In the case of the Tories this means pandering to the anti-EU lobby, for the Liberal Democrats claiming that things would be much worse if they hadn’t been a restraining hand on Conservative policy, and for Labour it means their leader forgetting a crucial part of his party conference speech.
Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7Z2aa6

One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.

So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.

Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.

What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.

Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?

As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.

October 22, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end to rural notspots?

Amidst all the hype about the rollout of 4G and the excitement around fibre optic deployments (note to BT – I’m still waiting, and you said I’d have it in June), the UK has a hidden issue when it comes to communications. Too many rural areas still don’t have a decent, basic mobile phone signal.

Cwm Rheidol Telephone Kiosk - geograph.org.uk ...

In my village, in the middle of Suffolk, only one provider has any reception – and that is just 2G, not even 3G. When the local mast went down for a month last year it paralysed rural businesses, as well as impacting on the lives of local residents. And this is not the Outer Hebrides – I’m less than an hour from Cambridge and Norwich, and 20 minutes from several major towns.

Given my experiences, the news that the Government is considering forcing mobile phone operators to share their networks (so called national roaming), to widen choice, looks like a positive move. Putting aside the fact that the starting point for the new rules was apparently David Cameron being unable to get a signal while on holiday in Norfolk, it should benefit anyone living in the countryside. It will help stem the growing gulf between rural communication ‘have nots’ and urban dwellers with 4G and superfast broadband. A similar system operates in the US, which has a lot more challenging terrain than over here.

Obviously the mobile phone operators are crying foul, pointing out that they have spent heavily on masts in rural areas, and being forced to share their infrastructure will jeopardise future investment. Frankly, I just don’t buy this. Everywhere else they have competition and somehow survive – after all, most people pick a network operator on price/what you get for your money, rather than “do I actually get a signal?” At the moment they have captive markets that they have carved up amongst themselves, forcing people to choose by postcode, not package. Sharing infrastructure makes it more cost-effective and opens up new markets. Additionally the government has promised £150m to improve areas where there is no coverage at all.

The government claims it has big plans to turn the UK into a skills-based, technologically literate society. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged (albeit focused heavily on the media-centric Silicon Roundabout), coding is being re-introduced into schools and infrastructure projects promise faster links between major cities. So far rural areas have been left behind – with high speed broadband projects running late and a lack of skilled jobs hitting local economies. It is time for the government to address these issues or risk creating a two speed economy that deprives those of us in the countryside of the same opportunities open to the rest of the United Kingdom.

June 25, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The wages of spin

Houses of Parliament 1 db

When I tell people I work in PR I tend to be put in one of two groups – either seen as a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle or as a slick spinmeister changing government policy. Obviously I do neither of these – for a start I wouldn’t recognise most celebrities and my influence on government is limited to voting at elections. There’s no way I could compete with the likes of Malcolm Tucker when it comes to either Machiavellian behaviour or inventive swearing.

But government spin is currently back in the news, thanks to the involvement of lobbyist Lynton Crosby with Tory election strategy. At the same Crosby’s company works with tobacco firms and fingers have been pointed at the postponement of the switch to plain cigarette packets since he joined David Cameron’s team. Both sides deny any wrongdoing, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt (remember his denials over Murdoch?) saying that he has not been lobbied by Crosby.

At the same time parliament is discussing a new lobbying bill that aims to create a register of third party lobbyists and compel them to publish a full list of their clients. This seems a little delayed given that David Cameron suggested in the run up to the last election that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.

I’ve got nothing against lobbying per se. If government is making critical decisions of national importance it is vital that they have as much information as possible and specialist experience and knowledge is vital to deliver this. Equally, constituents need to be able to raise their concerns with their local MP, whether they are businesses or individuals.

Where it gets complex and unclear is when things are not open and transparent. For example, MPs that are engaged in consultancy work for shadowy organisations and then introduce helpful amendments to bills that benefit these clients or lobbyists that have dual roles as special advisers at the same time as representing specific business interests.

This isn’t just about PR or spin, but I think we need draconian change in three areas:

  • Not just a register of lobbyists but a blanket ban on advisers working for government and companies at the same time.
  • Given their well above inflation pay rise, MPs should be banned from taking on paid consultancy work with any organisations.
  • There should be a register of lobbyists and their clients, and this needs to be comprehensive and detailed. It needs to be clear who the ultimate beneficiary is of any lobbying, so companies can’t hide behind shell organisations and the length of time and budget involved should be published.

As a PR person who focuses on technology and start-ups I’m tired of being tarred with the same brush as parliamentary spin doctors who probably earn ten times my salary. And this isn’t sour grapes, more that if PR is going to be seen as a vital part of (above board) business, it needs to clear up its act in all areas. Time for trade body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to do some lobbying of its own to benefit the entire industry – unless we want to be pigeonholed as Malcolm Tuckers or Matthew Freuds for the foreseeable future.

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Million pound dropped

English: Harrison's chronometer on display at ...

On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.

All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.

But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.

Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.

Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).

Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.

I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taxing times for tech companies

English: Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector) oi...

Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.

Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.

Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.

Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.

Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is this an irrelevant blog?

Newspaper vendor, Paddington, London, February...

Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.

But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.

Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.

My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.

Enhanced by Zemanta

March 20, 2013 Posted by | Creative, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radio Clegg

Nick Clegg addresses the Conference Rally in B...

I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.

Currently with the lowest poll ratings of the leaders of all three major parties (which is saying something), Clegg’s strategy is to appeal directly to voters by appearing on LBC. After all, his spin doctors must have mused, it was his appearance on the first televised party leaders debate before the last election that pushed the Liberal Democrats up the polls and ultimately helped them into power. So, let’s simply repeat the exercise and people will forget the last couple of years of government, and any policy changes, and just connect to Clegg the man.

Unfortunately, I think they’ve got the right idea but the wrong media for turning round Clegg’s image before the next election. Here’s three reasons that come to mind:

Lack of control
Obviously the whole point of a phone-in is that you have no idea what you are going to be asked. The plus point is that you can get the chance to talk about a wider range of subjects, but normally people on phone-ins aren’t giving up their time to call in and praise you. Hence Clegg suffering a verbal kicking in his first week on the radio. This may improve as he builds a rapport with the audience, but the randomness of live radio was shown by the headline news picked up by the press – Nick Clegg has a onesie, but hasn’t worn it yet.

LBC doesn’t reach a national audience
Having a senior politician on every week is a no-brainer for LBC – it boosts ratings, increases profile and, by broadcasting via the web, means it can reach a wider audience. However, whichever way you look at it, Clegg is not reaching the right voters – hundreds of miles from his constituency and not on a national platform. He’d do better (and show a keener grasp of new technology) by hosting a web chat or using social media to increase his credibility.

Other politicians make you look good
One of the basic reasons that Clegg impressed in the televised debates was that he was a relatively fresh face against the well-known Cameron and Brown. He hadn’t got the baggage they had and so looked good by association. The combination of years of government and being the only politician on show is always going to weaken credibility.

However it is a brave move from the Liberal Democrats who realise that from a communications point of view they need to do something to differentiate themselves and rebuild their fortunes. What next – sending him into the Big Brother house or chairing Have I Got News for You?

Enhanced by Zemanta

January 16, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of the analogue world

This week sees a momentous step in the march to an all-digital world, with the final switch off of the analogue TV signal in the UK. Retro lovers are already mourning the end of Ceefax’s blocky graphics and the need to replace portable TV aerials with coat hangers when they went walkabout.

However for me the fact that everyone now has access to a huge array of digital TV channels is more interesting in what it does to society. In a pre-satellite/cable era there were a very limited number of channels (three when I was a boy, rising to the dizzy heights of five with the launch of the imaginatively named Channel 5). Essentially this means that when you went into work, school or the pub the next day there was a good chance that you’d have watched the same programmes as your mates/colleagues the night before. So you had a plentiful source of conversation, aside from the weather and football, to bind you together into a community. ‘Must watch TV’ was exactly that, otherwise you’d be left out of the water cooler banter.

Nowadays this simply doesn’t happen. We’ve all got potentially hundreds of TV channels to be watching – and that’s before you add in catchup services, YouTube, cable and satellite. So the chances of bonding with someone due to a shared experience of watching an obscure German documentary on BBC2 are incredibly slight – in fact nowadays you probably didn’t even know it was on.

However after tearing us apart, technology is now providing the ability to bring us back together. We still have ‘must see’ TV but now we’re discussing it in real time through social media on our iPads while we watch. Disagree with the judges on Strictly or bemused by the choice of topics covered on Have I Got News for You, then you can comment as it happens. In many cases the Twitter commentary is better than the programme itself. This is great, as far as it goes, but it is an instant reaction as things happen. And as behavioural economics show, it is likely to help us form our opinions before we’ve actually had chance to think them through independently. Which can’t be good if we go into work the next day parroting other people’s thoughts.

And in case people think this is trivial, just replace Strictly Come Dancing with a Prime Ministerial Election Debate and see what I mean. So what we need is a way of mixing the instant and the reasoned, otherwise we’ll make snap judgements with potentially calamitous results (and I don’t mean voting for the wrong person on The X Factor). Time to encourage more longer term, analogue thinking rather than instant digital responses.

October 24, 2012 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , | 1 Comment

ARM about Face?

At the launch of Tech City in 2010 David Cameron stressed that he wanted the initiative to help encourage UK ideas and entrepreneurs and pointed to Facebook as the perfect example of the type of business the area could create. Unsurprisingly given Facebook’s share price issues it isn’t a name that he’s been bandying about recently but the message was clear – content, and web-based businesses are the future for UK technology.

Unfortunately that message is wrong on a whole stack of levels. There is a place for content/web-based businesses (unless it is yet another social network)

ARM Breakout Boards

ARM Breakout Boards (Photo credit: Randomskk)

but as part of a varied ecosystem that spans different technologies rather than as the figurehead of UK Plc. Content-based businesses tend to be lean (so not many high powered jobs), use resources across the world (so not a huge investment in the UK) and can be run from anywhere, making them ultra-portable. Therefore you need a lot of them to create critical mass and actually deliver measurable benefits to the economy, rather than providing appealing photo opportunities.

In contrast, national politicians are a lot less effusive about companies like ARM that provide the technology that underpins real, physical products. In many ways ARM is essentially a software company – it doesn’t make its own chips, licensing its intellectual property to others around the world. And doing so very successfully – with over 20 billion ARM-based chips shipped to date it dominates particular sectors, such as smartphones and tablets.

Comparing ARM and Facebook throws up some interesting statistics:

  • The US social network has more employees (nearly 4,000 compared to ARM’s 2,000)
  • At current share prices Facebook is valued (even now) at $41 billion; in contrast ARM is worth a paltry $12 billion.
  • 2011 turnover for ARM was $781m, dwarfed by $3,711m for Facebook
  • Profits for the same period were $2,851m for Facebook, $350m (£221.7m) for ARM
  • But taking a closer look Facebook’s gross margin in 2011 was 76% compared to ARM’s 94.4%

Clearly Facebook is bigger, richer and earning more money – even if it isn’t necessarily paying full tax on its UK earnings. But once you add in the ecosystem of companies developing applications/chips around each company then the picture changes. ARM is at the heart of an enormous global community of chip companies, design houses and embedded engineers, all developing using its products – and paying royalties on everything they create. It has spawned a number of spin-offs, in Cambridge and beyond, and essentially created a business model that is now widely copied by other fabless semiconductor companies.

So looking beyond the hype, I firmly believe that ARM has delivered much greater benefits to the UK economy than companies like Facebook. It has built up our skills and innovation base, contributed to the formation of the Cambridge technology hub and created opportunities for highly paid, sought after jobs. Now’s the time for politicians to recognise ARM’s success and use it as an example of what UK tech should be about, rather than solely focusing on the latest trendy web-based businesses.

Enhanced by Zemanta

August 29, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Farcebook and internet bubbles

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve found it difficult to watch the recent Facebook flotation, subsequent drop in share price and clamour of litigation without shouting “I TOLD YOU SO” at the top of my voice. Way before the flotation many analysts queried Facebook’s $100bn+ valuation given its relative lack of revenues but their voices were drowned in the hype. Just look at the number – with 1 billion users that’s a hefty premium per subscriber.

Obviously the growth statistics behind Facebook are impressive and there is still potential for it to grow in different areas around the world and by offering new services. But this is all potential rather than actual. A good comparison is Google – when it IPO’d in 2004 it had a valuation of $23 billion. Most of the services we now know Google for simply hadn’t been introduced, and the stock was priced according. Google has since increased its share value six-fold, giving it a market value of  $196 billion, helped by annual revenue of $39 billion.

There’s a decent chance that Facebook can ‘do a Google’ and monetise its users, probably through services that Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t even thought of yet. But equally it could languish in limbo in the same way as LinkedIn post-IPO without really demonstrating a vision for charging customers without losing them.

The bigger worry for me is that Facebook is continually held up by the likes of David Cameron as a posterboy for what British tech businesses should aspire to. And consequently we have a move to create frothy, social media driven businesses without clear business models, inevitably HQ’d in Tech City. It reminds me a lot of first generation dotcoms and the bandwagon that became. While some of these businesses may succeed, we need to look at what will create real value in the UK tech scene (the likes of ARM, CSR and Sage all spring to mind) and focus the best minds on solving real business problems rather than simply another cute network without any revenues.

So if the Farcebook float can change people’s perceptions that user numbers are good, revenues are not essential, then I think that’s a price that the gullible should have to pay. As the old saying goes, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

Enhanced by Zemanta

May 24, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers