Posted tagged ‘communication’

How to say NO to the boss!


It is a dilemma that everybody faces whether you are a consultant advising senior clients or an employee facing up to your boss. I’m talking about how to say ‘no’ or even ‘don’t do it’.

Reading today about the latest scandal to face a big brand – Nokia’s decision to run a fake advertisement (see, one can’t help thinking that somebody in Nokia or at their advertising agency should have spoken out: challenging the decision to fake an advert. But the question is why didn’t they voice an opinion and stop it happening.

You see, such advice can often be career or contract limiting.  The problem here is not necessarily confined to large-scale issues or even those that are ethically questionable or even those that have dubious intent – it can even involve the smallest of issues.

A few years ago I was faced with such a dilemma – for many years now senior managers have always latched onto the latest buzzwords or theories and in the private sector some of you will be familiar with the book ‘from good to great’ and the phrase about all being on the bus.  Fine – this all is but, it was somewhat a surprise that many years after the book publication that a senior public sector client declared to me that he was to launch a newsletter called ‘from good to great’ and that he wanted a picture of a great big red bus on the front of it.

In itself that wasn’t a problem. What I had difficulty with was that he intended this magazine, not for his employees, but for the general public. And his message was clear that if they didn’t like the changes he was proposing in terms of his organisation, they could, to use a phrase, get off the bus!

For me as a consultant it was also made clear that this was in the category of ‘just do it’. So what would you do in this situation? You have a contract to deliver, you need to earn a living and was this such a big deal?  You may have heard the old saying that the customer is always right.

The trouble is, this dilemma is not new or unique and you may relate to it yourself and it is also the reason so many brands end up in trouble.  You see the easiest way is to comply and saying ‘no’ is hard.  If one could be a ‘fly on the wall’ at Nokia – you can bet that investigations, enquiries, ‘witch hunts’ will all be underway – I suspect that somewhere along the line someone would have had that opportunity to question the decision to fake the advert, but the real question we have to ask is why they didn’t.  I think most of us know the answer but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has been brave enough to stand up and be counted and what consequences or outcome they faced.

2010 – a year in reputation


“…Everybody knew that whenever the thaw came that there was going to be big problems with water, so I think that there was a lack of preparation by NI Water, particularly in the issue of communication…”

Northern Ireland Environment Minister Edwin Poots

It’s that time of the year again when the television schedules are packed with the top 100 countdowns and the printed media publish endless top 10s recording everything from the best comedy to the worse gaffes.  December is truly the month of lists.

So it has prompted me to think of 2010 and who are the winners and losers in terms of promoting and protecting reputation.

In the UK, the year was punctuated by two weather related events as temperatures plummeted to record levels and snow and ice deluged our lives.  Virtually every organisation and person was tested and it is interesting how many 365 day 24 hour services really became fine words rather than effective actions.  The first rule of reputation is that ‘actions speak louder than words’.  However it is often the words (communications) or lack of them that really matter when the reputational chips are down.

The organisation that book-ended the year is Eurostar, the high-speed train operator running services between London Pancras and the continent.  The first problems came when their state of the art trains hit a major engineering ‘wall’ grinding to a halt in the channel tunnel in December 2009 and stranding passengers in very difficult circumstances drawing criticism from media, the public, politicians and even the French President.  In January a further failure followed by a three day suspension of service heaped criticism on the company.  And then came December 2010 with pictures of people standing in a line stretching a mile or more into freezing conditions with Police intervention to control the crowds.

Looking back, there is a common theme between the two incidents, a constant complaint of ‘lack of communication and lack of information.’  The operator of state of the art trains and stations unable to communicate basic information.  It’s patently obvious that building the best station in the world is great but when a queue forms the fact passengers have to sprawl onto the streets in minus temperatures is a reputational disaster.

Transport and infrastructure operators are easy reputational targets.  Whilst Eurostar is highlighted here it could well be the British Airports Authority (BAA) at Heathrow or any number of transport operators.  The eruption of a volcano in Iceland was enough to throw our whole infrastructure into turmoil.  And on that point in terms of reputations it isn’t just people and organisations that have a reputation to maintain:  Iceland, Ireland and Greece became economically a reputational disaster.

Utilities came in for a particular panning.  Many of us became aware of the frailties of the ‘combi-boiler’ and its incredible design flaw – the condensation pipe.  Which brilliant engineer and numerous installers had thought that the new energy efficient boiler was to fail on an unprecedented scale.

At the time of writing this blog there is a crisis in Northern Ireland as water has become a scarcity through the thaw and burst pipes.  In the capital city, Belfast, shops are out of bottled water and the council is making emergency supplies available.  Again, the main complaint is the lack of information and communication from Northern Ireland Water – I tried to log onto their website which just can’t cope and is actually displaying HTML source code as it has obviously ‘burst’ its capacity as well.

The biggest loser of the year from an economic, environmental and reputation aspect was BP when its deepwater rig blew up spilling vast amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  The response was astoundingly inept from the clean up to the communication and top managers feted by their shareholders showed that they had no skill whatsoever in dealing with crisis, risk and stakeholders.

In fact inept and incompetent bosses are often those most in the reputational headlights during 2010.  Take Sepp Blatter of FIFA, an organisation that seems to be beyond any form of normal corporate governance.  Football, by far one of the biggest sports in the world is so badly ruled and managed that is it almost a standing joke.  Take the completely ludicrous attitude to the use of technology to assist officials and then compound it by a perception of corruption that permeates the very core of the sport.  The awarding of the World Cup, a shambolic bidding exercise in public procurement that ended up with FIFA near humiliating the future King of our country and its Prime Minister.

And then there is the ‘deficit’ in truth.  Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats has experienced a year when he was seen as the new hope through his X Factor style TV debate appearances that failed to materialise into a credible result at the ballot box yet gave him a mandate for power which has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of his reputation.  A recent local election result swung against his party by 31% and the throwing out of election promises and manifesto pledges has led to a major outcry.

So at its heart reputation is often attributed to individuals, inadequate communications but also how organisations manage their integrity and their risk profile particularly at a time of crisis.  Why are all these organisations that make so much of their performance all seemingly acting like lumbering dinosaurs in terms of their ability to communicate.  Why are top companies unable to talk to customers and listen to them?

Social networking certainly outfoxed most organisations; they are just woefully unable and sometimes unwilling to deal with the Twitter and Facebook generation.  In the Heathrow snow closures ‘critical’ tweets were being sent from stranded customers at a rate of four per second.  During the student protests the might of our Police force were outwitted by such applications and ‘citizen journalists’ recorded every aspect of every notable event.

Of course there were some winners.  Apple Inc faced a real crisis when its normally state of the art products hit a problem.  The technical difficulties faced by the iPhone4 at first led the company into a state of disbelief.  However, as the social networks began to rumble the company acted fast and the CEO was up in front of the cameras taking rapid action to rectify the issue.

Other companies like Caffe Nero just have it right in terms of customer service.  Their recognition scheme, Nero stars, is a great way to recognise good service and reward customers again with clear communication from the CEO.

There is a theme developing here but one that seems hard to learn – that is those organisations who put their reputation as high as their performance and growth strategies are those that perform best.  It is a lesson that hopefully more organisations will learn in 2011.

For more information about Bodyproject and our Advanced Stakeholder Management methodology that helps organisations promote and protect reputation call 0151 709 2288 or e-mail

What price good customer service?


“…One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing -
is what we do for others…

Lewis Carol

It is a fact that good customer service seems to be getting very difficult to achieve.  In an average week we are subjected to customer service that stretches from the woefully inadequate to the quite frankly appalling.

Take my week.  I visited the Post Office in Liverpool to join a line of fifty people waiting to be served by four people who were sullen and fed-up.  They moved around slowly with shoulders slumped and everything was depressing.  No eye contact – they just looked beaten and dejected.   The up-sell at the end of the transaction for travel insurance and mobile top ups was so unconvincing.

Then there is transport, as an example, waiting for a late Easyjet and hearing monotone announcements about late inbound aircraft and apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.  Northern Rail also used the same bland statement when my train was delayed.  Then, standing in a Tesco store, about to close, seeing the duty manager frantically searching for the script to use on the public address system.

In contrast take my milkman who always has a smile and chats freely as he collects the money, a difficult task as he has to be up in the early hours to do a hard job against stiff competition from the supermarkets.  Then he has to spend an evening door knocking.  Of course we can now pay the dairy by direct debit and manage our account online, but interestingly, He tells me few are taking up the option as they like to chat to him!

Take my local charity arts centre (,uk) managing a full house of rock fans and people mobbing the bar and yet five people serving multi-tasking pouring multiple drinks, taking money, engaging numerous customers.

Take Café Nerro employees in my local store who never fail to smile, engage and ride out their company dictated barista up-selling to talk to customers and keep the line moving servicing lots of customers at once.

So what is the difference?

Well it comes down to natural communication, no scripts, no standardised wordings just plain courtesy, common sense and engagement.  Of course there are added complexities like having a good employer and job that is fulfilling.  But the difference is stark and I am now making my choices based on this service.  Bodyproject believes organisations are all about people and that people offer the best service when the organisation treats them as adults and allows them the freedom to express themselves.  I hope that, sooner rather than later, all organisations will take a deep long look at themselves and get their customer service sorted out.  If my local art centre and local milkman can do it then surely the likes of the Post Office, Tesco and rail companies can sort it – or can they?

What can professional communicators learn from a tragic crisis?


“…I want to stress we have the resources and resilience to deal with this situation and my officers are out in large numbers to provide reassurance and protection…”

Sue Sim Acting Chief Constable Northumbria Police

The shots that rang out in the middle of the night brought to an end the crisis phase of a very unique manhunt that has been at the forefront of the news throughout the week.

Now the reviews and investigations will take place but there is one aspect that I think can be commented on immediately and that is the handling of the various stakeholders by Northumbria Police.  I think they have done an exemplary job in very difficult circumstances.

Not only have they had to conduct a massive, complex and highly dangerous operation but they have had to work with multiple organisations, manage the international media and reassure politicians and citizens alike often having to take tough decisions.  It has been stakeholder crisis management at its most intense

Bodyproject believes their actions have demonstrated stakeholder management at its best and the learning points for us as professional communicators is not only how they handled the events as they unfolded but in the way they prepared for such an eventuality.  The processes and procedures and then training and knowledge have been clearly in evidence.  All of the statements made from senior leaders to the people on the teams have been absolutely defined and delivered with care and targeted.  The public meetings, media briefings, deployment of multiple agency resources highly effective.

It is a pity that global super brands such as BP and Toyota could not learn and adopt similar ways to deal with crisis and stakeholder management.  Public servants are often lambasted, not least by the new coalition Government, and in some cases rightly so.  But in some circumstances they are leading the way for all to follow including business.

Of course, the death of Raoul Moat and the many other victims of this tragic episode will throw up all sorts of review points from could it have been avoided in the first place to single events that could have been handled better.  Ultimately the loss of two lives and the injuries to others is tragic and whether it can be used as a case study for organisations to learn from is difficult given the sensitivity and emotion.

Having said that I believe that Northumbria Police have used exemplary communication and stakeholder management throughout and should be commended for their efforts and we can all learn from such events.

Advertising – times they are a changin’


“…What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself…”

Abraham Lincoln – former US President

Robert Green’s error will no doubt become the domain of advertisers as the inevitable ‘Danny Bakers 101 goal keeping bloopers’ and numerous other World Cup tosh makes its way onto DVDs and books destined for every boy’s Christmas stocking.  But the biggest advertising blooper ‘ever’ was committed by ITV who managed to switch in an advert for Hyundai cars at the very moment England scored their goal.

ITV have apologised blaming a transmission error.  What on earth does that mean?  Of course there was a transmission error as watching choreographed Hyundai cars pretending to play football with a giant ball, at the very moment Steve G scored, was not what the nation had switched to high definition (HD) TV for.

For Bodyproject. as a communications pundit, there are numerous points to discuss following this match.  First of all, how does commercial broadcasting stand up to licensed broadcasts from the BBC.  Second, whilst HD is technically and visually superior, it does have a significant transmission problem and third, the woeful excuse from yet another major corporate entity, intent on ‘spinning’ rather than explaining honestly why it happened and what it is doing to prevent a reoccurrence.

The fact is commercial broadcast remains a pain.  Watching any sport on channels such as Eurosport and Sky Sports is challenging.  Try tennis when the same idents and woefully painful adverts are shown again and again between every set or between every round in say boxing.  It is almost brain washing and, if anything,serves to put you off the product.

The World Cup of course is ‘big bucks’ advertising and the super brands are in town.  But it doesn’t matter how clever Adidas is combining a classic film with cameos from Beckham, Noel Gallagher and Ian Brown; it is still an intrusion when played just before the teams walk out, just after the national anthems and for ITV, in error,  as the key goal is scored.  For me, there needs to be a balance, and at the moment it isn’t being struck, as most comment I am picking up is that people much prefer the BBC for its uninterrupted coverage – which is not great for the brands sinking all this money into promoting their product!

Equally ITV’s HD switch on has all been to coincide with this world showpiece event, so for them last night was as big a disaster as that of Robert Green’s faux-pas.  Their explanation is woeful and to my communication colleagues at the broadcaster I say wake up and hold your hand like Green and apologise properly.  You are not Toyota or BP shying away from reality – face up to it.

HD is suffering teething problems namely in that it cannot regionalise so I sometimes am sat in Liverpool having to watch London’s weather (yes we are still south east centric in the world of TV transmission).  It also shares channel feeds and so watching Rafa Nadal playing at Queens is suddenly interrupted for fifteen minutes to allow BBC2 to join in, credits and punditry an all, leaving me frustrated at losing the match I was enjoying.   At the moment it is all over the place.

I can say that at this time, I and the rest of England, cannot wait for the Algeria match.  Mainly as it may still be at risk from transmission interruption but it will be certainly free of Hyundai interruption.

Communicators…stay strong


“…That was a disaster. Should never have put me with that woman … whose idea was that?…”

Gordon Brown Leader of the Labour Party

If you are a communications professional, the behaviour of Gordon Brown towards his advisers will come as no surprise.  Many of us have direct experience of the different faces of the leaders we work with.  Every day, we see Chief Executives, Chairs and Managing Directors in ‘victim’ mode seeking to blame and ‘hunt’ for who is responsible.

I remember about ten years ago at an event for a hundred managers, a then Managing Director asking them to be frank, open and honest with him as he welcomed their feedback.  One of the managers took him up on his offer and in the room he thanked her for her ‘challenge’ and promised to respond.  I was then ‘in the car’ with him after the event heading to a meeting with politicians and received the full force of his rant seeking to know who she thought she was, where she worked and how dare she do that to him in public.  But, worse was to follow as within a day or two he called her aside for a ‘quiet word’ and then she moved jobs!  This action was noted by everyone and reverberated around the business resulting in stasis and silence.

The problem comes down to behavioural types and the fact that many ‘in power’ are from more analytical and command control backgrounds.  You will notice that senior leaders are often time served in their profession (ex footballers tend to become managers, nurses become NHS CEOS, engineers run utilities, accountants become FDs/CFOs before jumping into CEO positions).  Many of them hold dearly this ‘status’ track record alongside distinctive qualifications such as engineering degrees or accountancy qualifications.   There are very few who may have made it from a PR or marketing background and the reason is simple in that communication professionals tend to be more supporting and often perceived as ‘soft’.  But in our profession you have to be tough and strong and challenge these behaviours.

I once had a disagreement with a major American consultancy teaching that people can ‘flex’ their behavioural types.  I disagree as a ‘leopard can’t change its spots.’  Of course you can always pretend to flex as Gordon Brown demonstrated yesterday but to use another predatory animal comparator – when in a room with a Brown it will feel to many like being a Gazelle in the presence of a tiger.  Our instincts will tell us what to do – flee!!!

The MD in the story I tell above tried to describe to me that he didn’t mind a push back but hated a challenge.  A stupid statement as what is the difference.  Only he could judge that as I found out to my cost many times.  Of course he surrounded himself with like types and sycophants and branded me a ‘rebel’ and a ‘leftie’ and needless to say eventually we parted company or rather he was shown the door.

Unfortunately for Brown that same door looms large and it is HIS fault and nobody else.  He can’t change.  He can’t flex.  He is what he is.  He is one of the greatest chancellors there ever was, he knows the numbers, he would make a great FD, he is a policy guru but he is not a natural leader and even less a communicator.  The contrast will become even starker when Tony Blair joins the campaign as a consummate communicator who actually, although many people would dispute this, is very honest to what he is both on camera and off.

The message from Bodyproject to all communication professionals is stay strong to your values whichever leader you work with.  Never be afraid to challenge them and above all you can ‘only lead the horse to water’ – beyond that there is only so much you can do.

This post is dedicated to Sue and Justin who will be no doubt receiving the wrath (maybe silent this time) of Gordon.

A risky business


2010 so far has been punctuated by two huge and prominent events of nature that effectively brought parts of our society to a standstill.

The severe snows that turned Britain white plunged our infrastructure into chaos.  Major supermarket supply chains fell apart, roads, trains and planes ground to a halt and mostly we spent our time worrying about salt.

And now a distant volcano has bestowed a cloud of despondent doom and resulted in hundreds and thousands of people being stranded in abject misery let alone counting the cost to business and the supply chain.

The problem to me is we just can’t cope with such events.  We appear to be a society blighted by inaction:  diplomacy, risk aversion, bureaucracy, litigious considerations, lack of pace and urgency all seem to combine resulting in stasis.  Both of these events showed no sign of any crisis management and only days after they unfolded did activity start to happen.  The lack of information, communication and leadership was woeful.

I for one feel worried about what these events have taught us and how modern society seems to be perched on a precarious ledge teetering on the brink of uncertainty and inability to act.  In business, many of us have had to learn about crisis management and I spend my days helping my clients help themselves in promoting and, importantly, protecting their reputation.  But, I am left in no doubt that the signs are there that we need to build the capability and capacity to deal with such huge natural occurrences that impact our rather not so natural existence on this earth.  What we need most is Government to provide the credibility and leadership so we can all be reassured.