Revolutionary Measures

Has Twitter spawned Jeremy Corbyn?

Amidst all the column inches written about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, there are a couple of factors that people seem to be forgetting. True, he is probably now the most famous Jeremy in the country (according to an unscientific Google search I just carried out, links to stories about him outrank Clarkson and Kyle), but he is actually part of a wider protest movement across the Western world. Far left Greek party Syriza has just been re-elected, despite backtracking on its promises to free Greece from onerous bail-out terms. Spanish left wingers Podemos have also shown well in opinion polls while Catalan nationalists won a majority, albeit a slim one, in this week’s regional elections. Going back to the UK, look at the success of the Scottish Nationalists at the election and the continued high profile of Nigel Farage.

Jeremy Corbyn

Across the pond, non-politicians such as Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have been leading polls amongst Republicans, while Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as “the only elected socialist in Congress”, is keeping Hillary Clinton honest in the Democratic contest.

So why are voters across Europe and the United States supporting mavericks on the right and left, even if in many cases there is little chance that they will be able to carry out their policies?

No dead pig bounce
The easy answer is that they are sick of career politicians who seem keener on hanging onto power than actually connecting with voters. Many people think politics itself is broken. Even David Cameron’s alleged assignation with a dead pig just makes us shrug and doesn’t really impact his ratings either way. At the same time many people still don’t see the good times coming back after the recession – real wages in the UK are still below those of before the crash for many people, hurting confidence. Globalisation and the rise of ever-more intelligent computers is eating into traditional middle class occupations, causing uncertainty for those with skills that can be potentially automated or offshored.

Obviously, any alternative to this combination of depression and drabness has a chance to stand out from the crowd. And challenger politicians can get away with half-baked policies or even, as in the case of Donald Trump, a promise that he’ll come up with some “really good ideas” when he is elected.

But I think there is a more fundamental force at work – the internet and social media has completely changed how we consume our news and form our opinions. We live in Andy Warhol’s era of everyone being famous for 15 minutes, from a man captured on camera abusing a motorcyclist to celebrities reciting music lyrics with a Shakespearean twist.

What the likes of Corbyn and Trump share, despite their radically different views, share is a combination of solidity, outsider status and an ability to come up with inspiring (or eyecatching) soundbites that suit social media. They don’t appear stage managed but at the same time are reassuring while not being part of the establishment.

Politics 2.0
In many ways they are the start-ups of the political world, promising radical change to shake up a traditional market, in the same way that the likes of Google, Amazon and Uber have changed the industries they operate in. Perhaps voters believe that politics can be re-invented, just like retail and telecoms.

What will be interesting to see is how traditional politicians respond – will they continue to operate as before, like many of the companies that digital start-ups displaced, or can they re-invent themselves successfully and build a brand that fits with the internet electorate? Or will we see a new generation of less radical, but more social media savvy, politicians come through to replace the likes of Corbyn and Trump? One thing is for certain, in politics as in every other sector, those that cope best with today’s social, mobile world will be those that engage with voters and ultimately win their loyalty and power.

September 30, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

War moves online

Most people know that the funding for the prototype of the internet (Arpanet) came from an agency within the US Department of Defense, and that one of the reasons for the decentralised nature of the network was to make it more robust in case of physical attack during wartime.

Therefore it is ironic that the underlying internet infrastructure is used as a platform for new kinds of attack, from cyber warfare by individual states and as a way of disseminating propaganda by terrorist organisations such as IS.

Of course, governments and terrorists have always aimed to use communication channels to get their messages across. Hence censorship in times of war, and even reporting restrictions during peacetime – I remember the ban on members of Sinn Fein (and other Irish republican and loyalist groups) from speaking on TV in the 1980s and 1990s.


Photo David Shankbone via Flickr

The internet, and more particularly social media, has opened up completely new ways of reaching audiences, and groups such as IS have been particularly strong at using these sort of channels. One study claimed that IS and its sympathisers controlled 90,000 Twitter accounts for example. Governments have tried to fight back, but the combination of the size and global spread of the internet and the difficulty of pinpointing specific individuals has made their job more difficult. The latest measures, recently announced by David Cameron, include ensuring that ISPs do more to remove extremist material and identify those that post it. However in a fast-moving world, the concern is that it is impossible for governments to move fast enough – as well as worries about the impact on free speech.

Some people are therefore taking action independently. Hacktivist group Anonymous is targeting alleged IS supporters online, recently publishing a list of over 750 Twitter accounts that it claims are spreading IS propaganda. It is also trying to take down Facebook pages, blogs and websites used by supposed supporters of the group. To try and influence search engine results it is flooding some Twitter accounts with images of Japanese anime character ISIS-Chan, making it more difficult for those looking for information from IS to find it.

I must admit that the attacks by Anonymous leave me in two minds. On one hand, anything that reduces the online footprint of a group that advocates cold-blooded killing of those that it disagrees with, can only be a good thing. But at the same time Anonymous is setting itself up as judge and jury – there is no right of appeal if someone innocent is targeted in error. It feels very much like the justice of the Wild West, perhaps because that is what many parts of the internet have become. For example, other groups linked to Anonymous recently took down the website of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, after one of its officers shot and killed a protester, an action that could have hampered the ability of the public to find out information or potentially report incidents.

I’m sure Anonymous is confident in the information it is working with, and when it comes to IS its mission is laudable in many ways, and seems to be getting some results. But surely it is something that a combination of social networks and the authorities should be leading on? The real issue is that the majority of those with the technical skills to hack perceived wrongdoers don’t want to play by the rules – they’d much rather operate outside the law, rather than as part of it. The challenge for governments is therefore not only to persuade the online population of the dangers of IS, but to enlist the help of hackers to work with them more officially if they want to use their skills for good. That won’t be easy, but is vital if there is going to be a united front when it comes to the online War on Terror.

July 22, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 lessons marketers can learn from the UK general election

Essentially a general election campaign is an exercise in marketing. Parties are trying to reach distinct audiences with their key messages and convince them to put a cross in the box next to their candidate’s name. To confuse matters slightly you have both national and local campaigns, potentially with different issues that have to be addressed. For example in some constituencies it is simply a matter of defending a majority by making sure people go out to vote, while in the marginals where the election will be won or lost it is about securing every vote possible.

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

It is also a pressure cooker environment. General election marketing is carried out in an intense campaigning period, with the eyes of the media permanently trained on everything that the parties do. So, for normal marketers what lessons can we learn – both positive and negative? I’d pick out five key ones:

1. Show passion
One of the criticisms levelled against David Cameron is that he doesn’t seem to care about the election and potentially winning a second term in office. Whether this is true or not, his perceived insouciance stands in stark contrast to the firebrand rhetoric of the challenger parties such as UKIP and the SNP. If you want to connect with your audience, show that you really are engaged with them and demonstrate you understand their concerns.

2. Don’t take your audience for granted
The days of a two party system appear to be consigned to history, with some of the safest Tory and Labour seats under attack from challenger parties. This is part of a wider dissatisfaction with professional politicians, which the electorate feel is out of touch with their lives and concerns. The lesson for marketers is that challengers can pop up in any industry, no matter how high the barriers to entry, if you fail to deliver what your audience wants.

3. Check, check and check again
I’ve had an election leaflet that says “insert local message here” at the bottom, while Tory MP Matthew Hancock has been embarrassed by an unfortunate fold of a campaign flyer that removes the first three letters from his name. The message is clear – no matter how pressured you are, it is vital to check everything that goes out if you are to avoid slip-ups.

4. Innovate
There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in how the main parties have campaigned during this election. Speeches, battle buses, visits, kissing babies and celebrity endorsements have been the norm. Ed Miliband visited Russell Brand, but given that Brand had earlier told his followers not to bother voting it remains to be seen what the impact of his chat actually will be. The TV debates that helped Nick Clegg to power last time did happen, but in a variety of formats that meant they lost their overall potency – exactly as David Cameron had hoped. Perhaps what is really needed is innovation within the whole process. You can register online to vote, but you can’t yet vote online or via text. Surely it is time to change this to encourage greater participation?

5. Embrace all channels
One of the key differences between most marketing and a general election is that each party is aiming to appeal to a wide age range. So you have to have specific messages for older audiences and the millennials who could be voting for the first time. That’s one of the reasons that this was predicted to be an election that embraced social media, particularly to reach younger voters, who traditionally have been less likely to vote. I’m not convinced that any party really nailed social media – or even if that is possible – but think that most of them could have done more to build engagement on the channel. Still, Twitter saw some interesting memes, with #milifandom making Ed Miliband an unlikely sex symbol.

As I write this on the morning of polling day the expected result is a hung parliament, with no party having a sufficient majority to govern alone. So on that score the major parties’ marketing will have failed. However if you look at the campaign as a whole, there are plenty of lessons to learn about what to do – and probably most importantly, what not to.

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Would we Like a social media election?

We’re now well into the General Election campaign and commentators are examining which media politicians are going to use with engage with voters. I’ve already talked about the debacle around the televised debates, which David Cameron is doing his best to scupper, but what of social media?

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party leader, during his visit to Oxfam headquarters in Oxford. Full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predictions that the last election would revolve around social media were wide of the mark, proving less like Obama’s #Yeswecan campaign and more akin to a series of embarrassing mistakes perpetrated by politicians and their aides who’d obviously never used Twitter before. This has continued with further gaffes, such as ex-shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s patronising tweet during the Rochester and Strood by-election that cost the Labour frontbencher her job.

However, there are already signs that social media will pay a bigger role in this election. For a start, social media is a good way of reaching the core 18-24 demographic that is currently disengaged from politics. 56% of this age group didn’t vote at the last election, so winning their support could be crucial in a contest that is currently too close to call.

We are also in an election where the core support of the traditional big two parties is being swayed by the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. So, rather than just appealing to floating voters in a certain number of swing seats, the Conservatives and Labour both need to demonstrate to their supporters that they understand their concerns and have policies to win them over. This means that they are likely to be more aggressive than in the past, judging that alienating the middle ground is a price worth paying for retaining traditional voters.

How this plays out generally will be fascinating, but what can social media provide? Early indications suggest there are six areas where it will be most used:

1. Attacking the opposition
Unlike offline or TV advertising, social media is largely unregulated. Which means you can get away with more online – for example, the Tory party is financing 30 second pre-roll “attack” ads on YouTube the content of which would be banned on TV. Given the desire to reassure core voters, expect tactics like this to be used even more as the campaign unfolds.

2. Managing the real-time news cycle
CNN brought about the 24 hour a day news cycle. Twitter has changed that to give minute-by-minute, real-time news. Stories can gain traction incredibly quickly, and fade with the same speed. Parties will therefore look to try and control (or at the very least manage) social media during the campaign, monitoring for trends that they can piggyback and starting stories of their own. And given that the media will also be monitoring what politicians are saying, expect a rash of stories with a shelf life of minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks.

3. Reaching voters
One of the most powerful parts of social media is the demographic profiling it provides advertisers with. This means that spending on advertising can be extremely targeted towards potential supporters, with little wastage. Figures obtained by the BBC show that the Tories are on course to spend over a million pounds on Facebook during the course of the election, based on current activities. Of course, reaching voters is one thing, the next step is to actively engage with them, starting conversations, listening and responding to their concerns. That takes time and skill, so expect a lot of effort to be thrown at content and conversations.

4. Monitoring voting patterns
There’s a lot of excitement about Big Data, and in particular how you can draw insights from the conversations happening on social media. Party strategists will be able to monitor what is trending on networks, and then use this feedback to evolve or change their strategies to focus on areas that are resonating with particular groups. However this sort of monitoring is still in its infancy, so results will need to be cross-checked before parties decide to do a U-turn on key policies.

5. Amplifying success
Third party endorsement is always welcome, so politicians will look to share and publicise content, such as news stories, that position them in a good light, and also encourage their supporters to do the same. This has already happened with celebrity interviews with the likes of Ant and Dec and Myleene Klass. However, as journalist Sean Hargrave points out, the Tories have a problem here – much of the right leaning media (The Sun, The Times and Daily Telegraph) are behind full or partial paywalls, making sharing difficult. In contrast the likes of The Guardian, Mirror and Independent are completely free and design content to be as shareable as possible. That just leaves the Tories with the Daily Mail……..

6. Making it bitesize
Like any modern digital campaign, the election will run on content. And to appeal to time-poor voters it will need to be carved up into bitesize chunks, such as blogs, Vines, Tweets and Facebook posts. Politicians are meant to be masters of the soundbite, so this should be just a question of transferring their offline skills to the digital world.

Social media will definitely be more of a battleground at this election, if only because more people are on Twitter, Facebook and other networks compared to 2010. Parties and politicians will look to adopt the tactics above, but with varying degrees of success. Some, such as those that have been engaging with voters for years, will do it well, but expect more gaffes from those that don’t understand the difference between a public tweet and a private direct message and decide to show the world pictures of their underwear…………or worse.

February 18, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are we a Tech Nation?

According to a new report, more and more of us are working in digital technology companies. Research led by Tech Nation has found that 1.46 million people (or 7% of the workforce) are employed by more than 47,000 digital companies across the UK – and of these just 250,000 are working in inner London. 74% of digital companies are located outside London.technation

To put that in perspective, according to other government figures, agriculture employs 535,000 workers, construction 2.2 million and manufacturing 2.6 million. So nearly three times as many people tend computers instead of animals. Heartening stuff, and a welcome antidote to some of the more extreme London-oriented digital stories seen in the media.

The highest density clusters in the report are Brighton & Hove, Inner London, Berkshire (including Reading), Edinburgh and Cambridge, while the highest rates of digital employment are in London, Bristol and Bath, Greater Manchester, Berkshire and Leeds.

It is easy to be cynical about the timing of the government-backed report, with an election coming up fast. I’d also query the definition of ‘digital’ – my PR business makes it in, which seems to show a wide classification range (not that I’m complaining). The headline findings that certain sectors have more digital companies than the national average (Brighton 3.3x, Cambridge 1.5x, for example), is interesting, but needs to be put into context. Brighton employs 7,458 people in digital, out of a population of 155,000 – under 5% compared to other clusters that potentially have a greater proportion of digital workers.

But what is more interesting is how the research reinforces the importance of clusters. Statistics include:

  • 77% of respondents have a network of entrepreneurs with whom they share experiences and ideas. This rises to 90% in Cambridge.
  • 54% believe their clusters help attract talent (65% in Cambridge).
  • 40% believe their cluster gets them access to affordable property (such as science parks or co-working spaces).
  • 33% believe their cluster helps attract inward investment
  • For Cambridge, access to advice and mentorship was seen as twice as important to growth than nationally (scoring +100%), and the positive perception of the Cambridge brand (+62%), was also a key driver for expansion.
  • Issues highlighted in Cambridge include poor transport infrastructure (scoring -111% compared to the UK average) and lack of available property (-31%).

This clearly demonstrates that to succeed and grow, tech businesses need to be part of an ecosystem that provides support, the right conditions to start (and grow) and that more and more of these are springing up across the UK. Nurturing a cluster takes time, so everyone involved, from local government to academia and investors have to think long term if they want to develop a tech ecosystem in their area.

What I’d like to see is companies and regions use this report as a starting point to build closer ties. Firstly, any businesses that feel they’ve missed out need to get on board and be given the chance to be added to the report. This is vital to keep it as a living, interactive document that maps changes over time.

Secondly, local government and organisations need to take a look and make sure that they are reaching the companies in their area, and providing them with the conditions for growth. At the very least local networks (or in their absence, local councils) should be making digital companies aware of their existence, and what they can do to help them. That way more sub clusters will form and grow, strengthening the overall picture.

I don’t think we’re yet the full Tech Nation that the report and research promises, but we’re definitely on the way – we therefore need continued focus and investment if we’re going to move forward, across the country.

February 11, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Polling station by Paul Albertella/Flickr

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 - ...

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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


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