AN ADVENTURE IN CHINA

The pace of modern life affords limited time to stop and reflect on where we’re going.  Yet things continually change and develop around us.  This is no less true in corporate communications as it is anywhere else.

With the growing corporate acceptance of digital and social media and the (often over-called) demise of traditional media, the communicator’s role is changing, yet buzzwords like ‘engagement’ and ‘’digital influence’ don’t begin to answer the key question: what does the future look like and what do we need to do, as communications professionals, to prepare for it?

With work diaries dominated by the seemingly incessant ritual of quarterly results announcements, kick off events, daily, weekly and monthly deadlines, staff management, budget reviews and the litany of often unnecessary meetings, it can be hard to find the space to think.

So we get busy being busy, prioritising and filtering the information that comes at us from every angle. We concentrate on the information we need for today’s tasks; everything else gets ignored or filed away for unlikely future consumption.  Our minds begin to narrow and we lose some of the objectivity and perspective that is a key part of our value.

Earlier this year, I decided it was time to stop for a while, to take stock and to consider where our industry is going and what the future might mean for people who, like me, call this industry home.   This blog was a key element in helping me think things through.

I’ve spoken to lots of senior people, some working in-house and some in consultancy.  There appears to be little or no consensus on what our future looks like.

What is clear is that there’s a battle for dominance developing between the communications and advertising departments as mass markets become markets of individuals.  The comms department is generally seen to be better equipped to take advantage.  The rise of what some call corporate journalism (or brand journalism) presents an opportunity to expand our remit (or agency billing) if only we can get better at managing and analysing the data to justify the shift in emphasis and investment.

Most agree too that the PR agency business model needs to change.  Again, there is little consensus on how and to what.  If agency leaders do have answer, they’re reluctant to share them.

Geographically, things are different too.  The west remains constipated by economic uncertainty and a lack of growth.  Asia, meanwhile, is powering ahead with optimism fuelled by economic growth.

After due consideration, I decided to choose optimism over austerity. That decision has taken me to Asia, to a global role for a global leader in technology headquartered in Southern China.  Being a Chinese company seems, in many ways, to be the role’s biggest communications challenge.  People seldom trust what they don’t understand.

Consciously taking time out to consider the future and choose the next step is a luxury that few have the opportunity to enjoy and one I’ve been very grateful for.  I’m more conscious of the luxury of time now than I was when I decided stop to consider the future and the next challenge.

I plan to share my thoughts as I (hopefully) make sense of what I see and learn here under a new category – the ‘Asian adventure’.

Share

LESS TALKTALK, MORE ACTION

Just because large, often slow-moving, targets are easiest to hit doesn’t necessarily make them fair targets.

Dido Harding, chief executive of X-Factor sponsor TalkTalk, this week took aim at what she described as a ‘talented and lovely monopolist’.  She was referring to BT and, more specifically, to her fears that BT could be building a monopoly in the market for fibre-based, superfast broadband services in the UK.

More investments in fibre, less of a monopoly

Harding’s beef is that she doesn’t know whether BT’s pricing of fibre-based services is competitive as “… there is no alternative [to BT].”  There’s Virgin Media, but it chooses not to open its broadband services as a wholesale proposition to alternative carriers like TalkTalk.

BT, meanwhile, is actively investing £2.5billion to bring fibre broadband to two thirds of UK homes and businesses. This week the incumbent operator announced plans to accelerate its existing fibre rollout plans to deliver superfast broadband to areas of the country where the underlying economics provide a reasonable possibility of a return on that investment over the long term.  Already, around 12 million premises can choose the higher speed, fibre service.

There is consumer choice too.  BT makes its superfast broadband product available on wholesale terms to any provider that wants to deliver high-speed services using BT’s infrastructure. Among the many that does is TalkTalk.

In the remaining, mostly rural, third of the country where the economics are less compelling, the UK Government provides a subsidy.  This subsidy is designed to help improve the odds of an investor ever seeing a return on investment and to avoid what some fear will otherwise become a digital divide between urban and more rural regions of the country.

To date, BT has been awarded the lion’s share of these government subsidies. It’s not free money. It’s designed to bridge the cost gap to encourage commercial interests to invest in fibre-based services where commercial logic would otherwise walk away.  This government funding, issued through a body called BDUK, has helped deliver superfast broadband in areas including Northern Ireland, Cornwall and rural parts of Wales.

Fibre-based broadband is not yet a regulated service.  It’s still too early for that. Traditional copper broadband services, meanwhile, are regulated by Ofcom in more rural areas to ensure the operators play fair, to protect the interests of consumers and to ensure competitive services and keen pricing. As its popularity increases, fibre-based broadband in remote areas will invariably attract regulatory supervision too.

For too long, too many providers of telecoms services in the UK have viewed regulation as a crutch.  Scoring regulatory points is seen as a form of competitive advantage.  While it is important that regulation exists to inhibit and eradicate market abuse, any market that relies too much on regulatory intervention risks diluting innovation and entrepreneurialism and strengthens its aversion to risk.

Here’s a radical suggestion for any telco that fears a monopoly.  Dip into your capital budget and invest in rolling out your own fibre-based services.  That would help create the competitive market for fibre-based services more effectively than cheap shots at the big guy who, today, is shouldering all the risk.

Talk is cheap, you see, but money talks.

Share

REBUILDING HADRIAN’S WALL?

In just two years from now, the fine and upstanding citizens of Scotland aged 16 years and older will be invited to cast their votes. They’ll face a simple choice: to remain loyal subjects of the United Kingdom or rebuild Hadrian’s Wall. The battle lines of PR combat, of spin and counter spin, have been drawn.  The stakes are high.

The prospect of divorce after 300 years?

For Alex Salmond, the Wallacesque proposer of the motion, failure would most likely end his political career.  Of course, should he win, he’d surely be odds-on favourite to become the next King of Scotland.

For David Cameron, who wants to preserve the union, failure could lead not only to him being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom but to an awkward chat with QEII if she loses Balmoral in the asset trading that would invariably follow a vote for separation.  It’s enough to send a chill wind around the sporran regions of all Scottish loyalists.

Salmond’s big idea is that Scotland would regain control over its own destiny and social services after 300 years of direct rule from London.  In return for a yes vote, he promises better pensions, free education, free healthcare and freedom from the decision-making and austerity measures distilling through the Palace of Westminster and 10 Downing Street.  For Cameron, he’s offering the Scots … well, exactly what they have today.

Despite the generous nature of what Mr Salmond and his colleagues in the SNP are putting on the table, never more than 33% of Scots have expressed favour with cutting ties with the south.  That’s where the PR battle for Scottish hearts and minds come in.  Salmond needs a majority vote.

But given Cameron’s success in fighting PR battles to date, I’d be in favour of agreeing in advance, a few consolations, just in case. Should Scotland choose to go it alone, for example, we’d get to keep Kirsty Wark, Sharleen Spiteri and Billy Connelly.

I’d also propose that should Salmond get his way, a non-exchangeable, non-refundable commitment clause is reached that would repatriate, without delay, the Proclaimers, George Galloway and Marti Pellow.  The Scots would also get to keep the deep-fried Mars Bar.

The problem with Salmond’s commitments of social largesse, of course, is that he has no idea what might be affordable for an independent Scotland.  The revenue from Scotch whisky and tins of shortbread only take an economy so far.  Until someone figures out what proportion of North Sea oil revenue Scotland gets to keep and what portion of the UK national debt, including the cost of bailing out Scotland’s Royal Bank, Scotland gets, Mr Salmond he has no idea what kind of balance sheet he has to play with.  In fact, the answers to these questions today are needed to understand whether Scotland is a net contributor to the UK economy or a drain.

On a more serious note, talk of nationalism and separation doesn’t always proceed with the good cheer and neighbourly cheerfulness the Scottish National Party suggested this week.

If Scotland goes it alone, how long will the Welsh wait before suggesting that they, too, should be independent?  And take it from someone who has lived more than half his life living on the Irish border.

It can all turn ugly.

Share