The wailing and gnashing of teeth following this week’s revelations that the US government has been spying on people reminded me of that scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault blows his whistle and orders everyone to leave Rick’s café.  “Clear the room at once,” Renault orders.  Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s character, asks: “How can you close me up, on what grounds?”

“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” Renault replies, before being handed his illicit winnings.

Some believe that Barack Obama’s second term presidency may not (or should not) survive the leaks by Ed Snowden, the ex CIA cyber-security expert turned National Security Agency (NSA) consultant turned whistle-blower on the PRISM project. Social media is exploding with debates on whether Snowdon, currently believed to be hiding out in Hong Kong, is a national hero or a traitor for leaking the covert details.

Were people really oblivious to the fact that national governments engage in cyber-sleuthery? I doubt it’s as glamorous a profession as Hollywood would have us believe but aren’t we in danger of getting the good guys and the bad guys mixed up here?

The Internet and digital technologies didn’t invent bad people but bad people use digital tools to plan and do bad things. It’s difficult to understand how we can expect our governments to protect our national and personal safety and security without taking the fight to the digital battlefield in the 21st century.

Unpalatable as it is, people on the side of good need to accept and resign some of our personal privacy to defend and protect the lives we all want to enjoy. It was always thus. Soldiers have sacrificed their lives for thousands of years to protect the freedoms of others.  We have to be prepared to make different sacrifices in the digital age.

That is not to suggest that governments can act with maverick abandon and do what they want. But sometimes, we just have to trust those working on the inside to make the right decisions based on knowledge and insight the rest of us don’t and can never have.  Do they screw it up from time to time? They do, but I’m prepared to accept they get it right at least as often as the rest of us get our jobs right.

It’s unrealistic to expect security services, even in a democracy, to double-check with the rest of us before their every move and action.  To do so would render their armoury flaccid and the bad guys would carry on, unrestrained and emboldened.

I don’t relish living in a world where my phone calls may be monitored or my emails, Facebook status updates or blog posts supervised by bored, pale-faced civil servants staring at computer screens in dark basements in Fort Meade, Cheltenham or anywhere else.  But I equally don’t want a world where bad people can steal money from my bank account or stalk my children online. I don’t want a world where terrorists hijack aeroplanes and point them at buildings or where children die at the finishing line of a marathon because they wanted to celebrate their dad’s completion of an athletic achievement.

I can’t answer the question whether Snowdon is a national hero or a traitor because I don’t have all the information, the insight or the crystal ball I would need to help me make that decision. But I live in the hope that someone else does. Bad people exist and they do bad things. Generally good people try to stop them.

As Rick Blaine almost said: “Maybe it won’t matter today. Maybe not tomorrow, but maybe soon and for the rest of our lives.”



Toby Parkin is an entrepreneur in St Agnes, a coastal village in Cornwall. His company, Headforwards, develops software for businesses. Cornwall’s rural location makes for great holidays and surfing in the sea (tried it, loved it … twice) but it was a less invigorating experience surfing the Internet. The reason – its an awkward business case for anyone investing in broadband infrastructure, particularly when they expect to make a return.  So in 2010, the European Union, Cornwall Council and BT clubbed together to bring the digital economy to what at the time was a digitally disadvantaged region of the UK. The programme is called Superfast Cornwall.

Once connected over a very high-speed fibre connection, Toby and his team connected with businesses around the world, including NTT, Japan’s largest telecoms company. This connection led to an important contract to develop specialist software to support NTT’s business. For me, this story illustrates the power of the digital economy to transform lives and businesses.

'The Internet of Everything' not yet available to everyone ...

‘The Internet of Everything’ not yet available to everyone …

650 million people worldwide, more than twice the population of the United States, will get a broadband connection and become new members of the digital economy this year. Two thirds of these will be on a mobile network connection. This is impressive growth but, even if it can be sustained, it will still take a decade or more – given population growth – for everyone to get access to the Internet of Everything, something many of us take for granted.

87% of the world’s population owned a mobile phone at the end of 2011. That’s four times more than owned a personal computer. It’s also more people than have flushing toilets or own a toothbrush.  But being able to make phone calls is not as much fun or as valuable as being able to freely access the Internet. The encouraging news is that 85% of the world’s population will have access to 3G or 4G mobile services by 2016.

But two thirds of the world’s population (that’s 4.5 billion people) remain digitally excluded today. There are many reasons for this. For some, it’s poverty:  40% of the world’s population live on less than $2 per day, putting a broadband connection beyond reach. A broadband subscription in an emerging country can be 25 times that in developed markets (based on relative gross national income). A lack of education, age and social background are also factors.  It’s a tragedy that access to the digital economy could provide millions of people with a shot at escaping poverty, but poverty is getting in the way.

It’s easy to define the digital divide as an emerging world problem. While there is certainly an emerging nation challenge, regions of the developed world as Cornwall was before intervention, face digital challenges too.

Worth thinking about the next time you get upset because your connection is running ‘a bit slow’.



Consensus holds that the PR consultancy ’industry’ needs to change; what’s less clear is what it needs to become.  But the prevailing agency or consultancy model, changed little in two decades, is no longer compatible with brands that build and maintain relationships with the public without the exclusive mediation of traditional mass media.

Paul Holmes, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Holmes Report, recently published a thought-provoking piece entitled “10 ways to design the PR agency of the future”.  Paul adds stagnation in the global economic crisis and the growth in emerging economies as key drivers for the need for agencies to change.

I don’t disagree with any of Paul’s proposals. However, I think he’s missed a key point. Nowhere on the list of 10 is any suggestion that agencies sit down and consult their clients on the type of PR agency or agency model clients might need for the future.  And if agencies need to change, surely their clients do too?  It’s a shared challenge, after all.

Thinking about it this week, I couldn’t recall any consultancy that actively sought a view from its clients on the type of agency they think they need for the future. As a curious sample of one, I consulted (an admittedly limited and unscientific) sample of in-house colleagues from various sectors and geographies. The survey said: “PR agencies aren’t great at seeking advice from clients.”

Sure, some of us have been asked for career advice, such as “As a consultant, what skills would I need to acquire to make the successful transition to an in-house role?”  but none recalled being consulted by their consultancy (or someone else’s consultancy) on the type of future agencies we might need.

What does the future look like is a shared question

What does the future look like is a shared question

Why is this?  Do agencies think their clients have no vested interest in the topic? Perhaps they think we have nothing to add to the debate?  Maybe they just think it unwise as professional advisors to seek client advice?

Here’s the rub. The changes that Paul suggests, such as the adoption of big data and insight to drive relevance and creativity, the need to embrace new and different skills and the need to become what he calls ‘real brand journalists’ apply equally to members of the comms dept as they do to those in the agency world.  It’s a two-sided business conundrum.  If we don’t address the issue in a way that suits both parties, we’re only creating a different problem.

Clients can’t expect the consultants to disappear into a dark room, put a wet towel over their heads and emerge some time later with the right answer. Maybe more of us should raise the discussion at our next comms dept team meeting, or the next monthly agency review. We need to talk together about the future of what we do as a profession Whatever the future needs, it has to work for both sides of the client and consultancy partnership.

If you’re a consultant, have a chat with your clients (or even someone else’s clients) and ask what they think. If you’re a client, ask your agency what they believe you need to do to be relevant in the future. It may take a little time to reach the right answer but two heads are better than one and it’s the least that’s required for the health, wealth and happiness of our future partnerships.