AN ALTERNATIVE BUDGET POST

I had intended to write a review of Gideon’s budget today.  However, having listened to the Chancellor’s performance on the radio with edited highlights simulcast on Twitter, I now think I’d prefer to watch old people eat.  But the occasion got me thinking – is announcing a budget the ultimate communications challenge, particularly as it’s the law that budgets aren’t allowed to meet with universal appreciation?

First of all, a budget worth the label is going to have an impact on everyone in the country – whether they’re rich or poor, young or old, working, unemployed or retired, married or single, sociable or teetotal. When you simmer it down, a budget either puts money into your pocket or it takes money out.  If you smoke, drink and drive a car, a budget is always going to declare war on your wallet.

A budget, in other words, has to create winners and losers – every chancellor knows that if they take money out of everybody’s pockets equally, there will be little to please the team on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers.

The party of government will welcome the detail with enthusiasm and occasional cheers, while the opposition will disagree on principle, even if privately they’re impressed with some of the decisions.  Furthermore, as soon as the Chancellor has finished delivering the budget, it’s traditional for the Leader of the Opposition to stand up to pick holes in it.  This theatrical staging helps liven up what could otherwise be a dry event and helps create storylines for the press.

The media go large on budget day.  Not only is the only day in the year when the non business reporters need calculators to write their stories, but it’s mandatory to discover a number of ‘typical’ families by income bracket to illustrate the impact the budget will have on various social groups.

Business leaders will also take a view on whether the terms are good or bad, while city analysts and brokers have to get busy modelling the impact so as to advise their clients on what to think and how to react.

Budgets are complex. With so many diverging hopes and fears, trying to craft messages that have a snowball’s chance in hell of satisfying the various audiences is a vain hope.  That, in case you were wondering, is why we have seen so many leaks of the details over the last few days – it’s otherwise too much for anyone to absorb sensibly on a single day.

So hats off to the comms teams behind the budgets, whoever and wherever they are. Whether they win, lose or draw, they take on a huge challenge each and every time.  Not everyone would have the stamina or the stomach for it.

And what a shame that it will all be forgotten come the weekend.

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9MM SHORT OF A PRIORITY

OK. Let’s start at the beginning.

The Houses of Parliament are home to Big Ben and the 650 Members of Parliament that make up Her Majesty’s Government.  These MPs, ably supported by an army of civil servants, do very important work – both when working at Head Office (the House of Commons) or working from home (their constituencies).  In return for this important work, MPs are paid a handsome salary. Any expenses reasonably incurred in the execution of their duties are fully reimbursed.  OK, a MP’s salary, at £65,738, isn’t that handsome but then public service is its own reward.

Each MP undergoes a quadrennial performance review, known to some as a general election.  Those MPs that have done well get a gold star; those that fail to meet minimum expected standards get a performance improvement plan, more commonly known as a spell on the opposition backbenches. Why am I telling you all this?  To remind you, so that you in turn can remind your local MP, that they work for us – not for themselves, not for the Prime Minister and not for their party.  They work for us, on our behalf and to manage the issues that are important to us.  Isn’t parliamentary democracy a beautiful thing?

There’s a lot the MPs have to be getting on with at the moment. There’s the ugly economy and the hunt for elusive growth. Unemployment, at 2.8 million, is at a generational record high. Government debt, at around £1000 billion (or over £16000 for every man, woman and child in the country), is a significant drain and a worry. It’s causing the credit rating agencies heartburn too.

The Scottish nationalists, meanwhile, are revolting. They’re threatening to leave the Union.  Then there’s ‘proper’ foreign policy, NHS reforms, policing, education, neglected national infrastructure …

With so many big hairy issues to address, I was delighted to learn that John Hemming, a former heavy metal drummer and now Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, is focused on the biggest priorities.

As evidence, I give you ‘Early Day Motion 2893’. Mr Hemming is sponsor.  It reads:

That this House notes the reports in the BBC and other media outlets of the intention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come down like a tonne of bricks on wealthy people who sell properties through offshore companies to avoid stamp duty; recognises that this is part of a trend of metrication of traditional British phrases; believes that, given that a ton is greater in weight than a tonne, this understates the Chancellor’s commitment to action; accepts that there is merit in using some metric units for measurement, but regrets the unnecessary metrication of traditional British phrases; and calls on the BBC and other media to cease the metrication of traditional phrases forthwith before people end up being exhorted not to give another 24.5 millimetres rather than not giving another inch.”

I’d like to ignore that an inch is 25.4mm, not 24.5mm as Mr Hemming, a Physics graduate from Magdalen College Oxford, suggests because that would detract from the importance of the motion and I would hate that to affect the outcome of Mr Hemming’s next quadrennial performance review.

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SHOOT FIRST, FORGET THE QUESTIONS

Would Jennifer Aniston be the ultimate girlfriend? Was Led Zeppelin the best live band ever?  Is Jeremy Clarkson funny? The answers to these questions are, of course, highly subjective and likely to cause debate.  Just like journalism.

A journalist’s copy is usually fact-checked and verified, sometimes by a lawyer, but that won’t make the story objective.  The communications department has long been comfortable with this arrangement, understanding the rules and working within them.  In fact a good press officer can often turn a journalist’s subjectivity to their benefit.

But the growing army of citizen journalists – bloggers, facebookers and tweeters – seldom apply the same levels of validation and veracity to their news and views.  This, together with the speed at which a digital story can circumnavigate the world, gathering pace and readers as it crosses time zones, is creating new challenges for any comms department more familiar with managing ‘mainstream’ media.

When news of Whitney Houston’s untimely death broke recently, some celebrated the fact that the story broke on Twitter 27 minutes before any mainstream media outlet.  It wasn’t that the Twitterverse was more awake or more aware.  The mainstream press have processes to follow before announcing the death of a personality.  The Associated Press couldn’t publish until the story was validated – 27 minutes later – by Houston’s publicist.  Bloggers and Twitterers seldom trouble the comms dept before posting a view, informed or otherwise.

Kony 2012 is a powerful piece of film making from an organisation called invisiblechildren.com. It has already enjoyed over 100 million views on Youtube and Vimeo in less than a week, making it the most viral video of all time. Now, the accuracy of some of the film’s content is being challenged.  But perception is reality with a time lag and many of the film’s viewers won’t get to see or consider those subsequent objections.

And just this weekend, many of us were waiting for news of the wellbeing of Fabrice Muamba, the 23 year old premiership footballer rushed to hospital after collapsing on the field of play. The mainstream media stayed with the story but provided no substantial updates until a formal statement was released by the hospital.  Long before the hospital statement, we learned via Twitter that Muamba was ‘stable’. This was just the news the country wanted to hear and it spread across cyberspace with enthusiasm.  Except it wasn’t true.  Muamba was, and remains at the time of writing, in a critical condition fighting for his life.

And my point is?  Well, the rules of the comms game changed some time ago but there are still people in the comms department who don’t accept this yet. “There has always been gossip and tittle tattle,” they say.  “This will pass.”  I’m not so sure.

And worryingly, Journalists are becoming increasingly vexed when consistently beaten to the tape by ‘amateurs’ and many would prefer shortcuts to the checks and balances that handicap them in the race.

If I was an investor, the first question I would ask of the CEO is whether the company has a social media strategy and team.  If the answer is ‘Yes’, I’d ask who around the board table has accountability for it.  If the answer is IT or customer service (which is more frequent than many believe), I’d ask the CEO to imagine a scenario where their brand could come seriously unstuck from a single tweet with only a loose familiarity with the truth.  If they couldn’t imagine such a scenario, I’d sell the shares.  Why?

Because things go wrong.  Because disgruntled former employees, misguided but aggressive competitors and Internet trolls have fervent imaginations and they can spell trouble in less than 140 characters.

That, of course is a subjective answer.  But who isn’t subjective when the topic is money?

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