Revolutionary Measures

Will the Eastern Powerhouse be a damp squib?

Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.

Flag of East Anglia. Made with parts from: 30p...

The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.

In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.

In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.

As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:

1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.

The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.

So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.

2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.

3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.

4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.

If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.

April 20, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is PR changing at last?

Last week’s Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) East Anglia conference reminded me of much of the good – and the bad – about the profession. For a start the half day event brought together a really diverse group of PR practitioners, all enthusiastic about their profession and what it could achieve for businesses. And the overall theme of the conference – why PR needs to step up, embrace new skills and demonstrate the value it creates – is immensely important in a world where digital is transforming the marketing, and business, landscape

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But – and it is a big but – I can remember going to events debating these issues five or possibly ten years ago. And even some of the presenters admitted that they still find it hard to persuade clients that measurement needs to go beyond counting the number of clippings or the advertising value equivalent of coverage. Perhaps most damning of all there is still a huge gender pay gap, of an average of over £8,000 between women and men doing comparable jobs, and a relative shortage of females in the higher echelons of the PR profession. In a sector where 70% of the workforce is female, this is nothing short of a disgrace. Essentially much of this comes down to PR not being taken seriously – we’re expected to either be Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. While I’d relish the chance to drink as much as the former while working or swear as much as the latter without attracting disciplinary action, it is far from the truth.

So PR needs to change, and the first step, like Patsy attending Alcoholics Anonymous, is recognising the need to do things differently. While there was a lot of repetition in the different presentations, there was also a lot to pick up and learn from. I’d distil it into four points:

1. This is a great time to work in PR
Corporate reputation matters: to sales, to the share price, to recruitment, and to overall business success. Customer relationships are vital to build loyalty and revenues. Given its background, PR is the profession best placed to manage both of these, but to do so it needs to change, digitise and talk the language of business. As Sarah Pinch, the current CIPR president, pointed out, “Strategic counsel can’t be provided by a robot.” Only by upping its game will PR avoid being automated.

2. PR needs to integrate
While it is best placed to help companies improve their reputation and relationships, PR can’t do it alone. It has to work with every other department of the business, from finance and sales to customer service and IT, to create a cohesive approach that focuses on the overall reputation of the organisation. It needs to adopt a team of teams approach, working with colleagues with different skills to achieve results.

3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
There was a lot of talk about the need for measurement and why it was important, but fewer examples of how PR could be measured in a way that linked directly to business KPIs. As I’ve said the industry has been talking for years about the need to move from outputs (the number of clips or readers) to outcomes (changes to perception or behaviour that can be directly credited to PR). There are plenty of apocryphal stories of how reading that one article led effortlessly to a sale, or a campaign enabled a company to shift its market positioning, but one of the major issues is measuring this on a consistent, reliable basis. One of the key issues, particularly for smaller agencies and businesses, is that measurement costs money – and often clients are unwilling to pay for it or don’t see its value. That means it has to come out of budget that would otherwise be spent on PR programmes, lessening what can be done, and meaning agencies may well lose out in beauty parades to rivals that promise more.

4. Think like the board
As Denise Kaufmann of Ketchum said, quoting W. Edward Deming, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” PR needs to understand what senior management is looking for and ensure it is talking the same language. And that means ensuring PR targets directly map to corporate objectives, and are presented in a clear, business language. Think like an MBA and speak data, rather than discussing size and number of clips. This requires a change of mindset, but the potential rewards are enormous in terms of prestige, preserving/growing budgets and being recognised as crucial to the business. Hugh Davies, until recently the corporate affairs director of 3, gave his advice on advancing your PR career: be a team player, be confident, build business understanding, and create a body of evidence to support your ideas if you want to be taken seriously.

And by building trust with the board, the job of PR could also become slightly easier. We’ve all seen PR wonderful campaigns that are quickly undermined by a corporate scandal or cock-up that no-one thought to tell the communications department about until it became a crisis. I’d hate to be a PR person for VW at the moment for example. By stepping up to senior management, PR will at the very least have earlier warning of such issues, rather than having to deal with the aftermath.

It is easy to see PR as a profession that just provides window dressing to an organisation – and in the past PRs have not helped themselves with their behaviour or attitude. But the CIPR East Anglia Conference showed that attitudes are changing, and finally we may be solving our own reputational problems.

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hubs, bridges and the discovery of America

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There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.

Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.

There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.

Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.

What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.

So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Networking in Norfolk

Judging by the turnout and discussions at yesterday’s Norfolk Startup Masterclass, the county has the potential to cast aside rural stereotypes and foster a new generation of innovation-based businesses.

The Startup Masterclass programme aims to equip entrepreneurs and early stage businesses with the skills and advice they need to turn their ideas into successful companies. Backed by ideaSpace, as well as number of local partners the programme runs across East Anglia, combining events, mentoring and online resources. In Norfolk local partners include Norfolk County Council’s Enterprise Hubs, the Norwich Research Park and Norfolk Network.

Monday’s event was the first event in Norfolk as well as the official launch of the programme and an audience of over 50 startups and business leaders gathered in the space age surroundings of the Hethel Engineering Centre to share their experiences and learn from a panel of four entrepreneurs.

Under the imposing shadow of a locally built, race-winning Lotus F1 car, which provided a reminder of the county’s engineering heritage, the evening focused on Stories from the Startup Jungle. Ian Doughty of StructureFlex, Andy Fisher of iPatter, Thomas Haizel from Anglia DNA Services and Tom Wood from Foolproof discussed what they’d learnt building their own businesses and shared advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Have a vision, be flexible and build the right team were just some of the points they highlighted.

What impressed me most (apart from the F1 car) was the breadth of attendees, which really demonstrated the range of sectors operating in Norfolk. From biotech through engineering to creative, internet and gaming businesses there was a real spread of ideas and companies.

On a day that saw the government announce My New Business, an online-only resource for startups, the event reinforced the need for face to face networking as participants shared their experiences and learnt from each other. Following the launch the programme moves into providing advice and mentoring in specific areas, such as valuing your business, protecting intellectual property and sales and marketing – to sign up to the next event simply click here to learn more.

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November 15, 2011 Posted by | Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment