10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT …

As a rule, I have an allergy to rules. I’m ok with guiding principles and I have three that I try to apply to work and to life generally.

The first is to try to do it properly the first time because ultimately, it’s more satisfying and less time consuming. The second is to listen at least as much as I talk.  The third is to never argue with someone who knows less about the topic under debate than I do because I’ll learn nothing from the exchange.  Stupidly, I may have disobeyed the third of these principles in an argument in the pub last night.

In the days of analogue journalism, we had things we called ‘sidebars’.  The sidebar sat alongside the main story in a newspaper or magazine and presented additional, related information.  This information was usually secondary facts, figures and tips that couldn’t be smuggled into the main story. Sidebars also had a secondary purpose, which was to fill what would otherwise be white space on the page and help the overworked reporter achieve the editor’s required word count.

If someone sends me another list to read, I might just …

The Internet has made sidebars a primary medium of ‘citizen-journalistic’ endeavour.  I call it ‘list journalism’. Today, we’re inundated with all kinds of lists, such as “10 top tips …”, or “nine easy ways …”, or “eight simple steps …” or “seven important lessons … “ or “six key reasons …”  Blogposts and marketing emails are full of them. Even social media carries, spreads (sorry, shares) and promotes them.

You may have figured out by now that I’m not a big fan of list journalism, which brings me back to the discussion in the pub.  The person I was debating with has never bought a newspaper in his life.  His news is served up daily online and he believes that list journalism is an excellent way to pass on information, to educate and inform people quickly and easily.  That was the nub of our disagreement.  IN truth, we were really debating the concept of people expecting to consume quality journalism without ever having to pay for it, but that’s another discussion for another day.

I described the growing trend of lists as ‘Knowledge for Dummies’. This, I suspect, was a cultural reference that went over his internet-addled head.  I used terms like ‘dumbing down’, ‘the quality of free’ and other such concepts.  As we were leaving the pub, he offered a wager that I couldn’t come up with 10 good reasons why I hate list journalism.  So, here are ten things I hate about “list journalism”.

10.This is lazy journalism produced by lazy writers for lazy readers.

9. List journalism is mostly context free and therefore insight light.

8. The points made are often duplicated or repeated on the list.

7. Lists are produced to generate online clicks rather than knowledge.

6. Usually, two or three of the points are the same, just written differently (see!).

5. Most of these lists are too earnest, lacking any charm or humour.

4. They’re like a McDonalds Happy Meal: ok at the time but you’ll feel unsatisfied afterwards.

3. The people that write them are seldom true experts.

2. Lists have become the stable collateral for social media ‘marketers’.

1.  You feel cheap and dirty after reading more than one.

I look forward claiming the forfeit, which I seem to remember is three pints of the finest lager the landlady at the Cheery Tree public house can serve up.

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A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, things are so badly broken that it’s easier to replace or rebuild them than to attempt a repair. This, I think, is where the reputations or brands of many of our major institutions are today.  From banking and big business, to government and the media, the public’s trust in many key institutions has been stretched beyond breaking point.

A new dawn for institutional reputations?

Of course we’ve had all kinds of shenanigans in high office before.  But when the culprits were caught, as they inevitably were, the main actors needed only to lay low, keep their heads down and wait for memories to fade.  But I think it’s different this time.

Our faith in banking was in terminal decline before LIBOR became a topic of pub conversations.  Some of our politicians struggled to understand why they couldn’t enjoy private ‘country suppers’ with media executives that had corporate agendas to pursue.

The leaders of many of the country’s largest corporations, meanwhile, showed themselves happy to accept inflation-exploding pay awards while preaching pay restraint and cost control to their suppliers and employees.  Even some of our most senior policemen, those we trusted to enforce the rules, deemed it acceptable to swap information for a journalist’s cash.

The various parliamentary and judicial inquiries underway or planned, such as the work of Lord Leveson, will eventually report and propose new ways of doing things.  They’ll aim to deliver greater transparency and better governance. To get to that point, they attempt to define where and how they think things went so far off the rails.

I suspect that most of the bad decisions that now take pride of place as front-page headlines were borne not of greed or arrogance but from disengagement – a genuine failure by the few to appreciate that what they considered acceptable was not always shared by the many.

But before the rebuilding of trust can begin, the ‘few’ will have to accept that bad decisions were made – both by them and in their names.  This means, for example, that Barclays, a bank with tens of thousands of red-blooded, coin-operated bankers already on its payroll, would recognise the benefit of appointing a non-banker as its next chief executive and present such an appointment as a clear signal that it wants the future to be different from the past.

But I think there’s a stronger role for the communications team too.

The best communications strategy for dealing with bad decisions is to not make bad decisions in the first place.  Good communications people are generally in tune with the outside world.

With this perspective, and the encouragement to do so, the parties; comms departments can help directors better understand how the decisions made and actions taken in the rarefied atmosphere of the boardroom will be judged in the court of public opinion. But because prevention is preferable to crisis management, the team needs to be part of the decision making process, not subject to it as has been the case so often in the past.

As these institutions look to rebuild their brand credibility and trust with their stakeholders, maybe we’ll finally see more senior communications professionals given seats at the decision-making tables; maybe we’re see more people with backgrounds in PR or journalism given non-executive positions on company boards.

It would be like an insurance policy for corporate and personal reputations, only cheaper.

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THE SERVICE ECONOMY

The writing was on the wall for British manufacturing by the early 1970s. It had acquired an unhealthy reputation for poor quality and compared unfavourably with emerging competitors in developing countries.  By the time Margaret Thatcher moved into Downing Street, the country had started swapping dirty fingernails and overalls for air-conditioned offices and shirt/tie combinations from Next. The de-industrial revolution was underway; the service economy was born.

Rumour has it that bad things happen in threes.  True enough.  My house was burgled, the coffee machine stopped making coffee and the oven revolted, all in the same week.  On the upside, misfortune presented an opportunity to experience how well the service economy has developed in the intervening decades.

How many companies does it take to service a coffee machine?

After waving goodbye to the nice police lady, I called my insurance broker. The broker helpfully gave me the claim line number at the insurance company.  After 38 minutes of being reminded how important my call was, a claims advisor answered.  She advised me that a loss adjustor would be in touch.

The next day, the loss adjustor called and then popped round.  Having taken my list of what had been stolen, he commissioned a ‘jewellery replacement advisor’ (a separate firm) and an ‘electricals replacement advisor’ (another separate firm) to value what we’d lost.  Weeks have passed.  Advisors are advising but we’re no closer to a settlement with the insurer and my wife’s now been late twice; they stole her watches.

Then the coffee machine went on strike.  Gaggia, the company that made it, went bust and was bought out by Phillips.  I called the Phillips service department. There, a customer service advisor asked me all kinds of questions before transferring me to another company that would arrange the repair.  I was then asked the same questions again until, eventually, I was advised that someone else would call to arrange collection. All I had to do was pay in advance.  I did.  Eventually, someone phoned.  She was from the company whose job it is to arrange collection.

What her company actually does is manage another firm of couriers that will collect the item, then take it somewhere where it will be repaired and then bring it back.  They won’t return it until the lady calls in advance to arrange.

The oven was a different story.  I found the card for a local engineer in my local café. He fixes ovens and other domestic white goods. He lives a mile from me.  Today, he drove over with his toolbox and some spare parts in his van.  He repaired the oven and I paid him. Then he went to fix someone’s faulty tumble dryer in a nearby road.  His charge was modest, but then he’s only supporting himself and his family, not a chain of other businesses with their hands out looking for their cut.

How many businesses does it take to settle an insurance claim or repair a coffee machine?  The cost and the trouble can be debilitating and hugely expensive.  Service has allowed itself to become too complicated, too complex.  It’s no wonder we’re tempted to throw away and buy new.

Despite the growth of the service economy, we’ve all but lost sight of local tradesmen.  The outsourcing chains that have sprung up have grown much too long to be efficient. There are too many businesses and too many people in the way.  Very few are adding any read value, yet each person in the chain needs to get paid and each business has a cost base to offset and a profit to turn.

This means that my insurance premium, and most likely yours, is employing more people than we ever thought possible.  Like the society it supports, the UK service industry has an obesity crisis on its hands.  It’s no wonder that large parts of the service chain have begun to make their way to lower cost economies overseas.  Maybe it’s time for the UK economy to think about what it might do next?

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