David Cameron shoots from the lip

July 30, 2009

David Cameron has been forced to make a swift apology for his choice of gynaecological language while talking about the social networking service Twitter during a live radio interview.

Asked by the Absolute Radio presenter Christian O’Connell whether he used Twitter, the Tory leader said politicians that used the service risked appearing like (look away now if you are of a delicate disposition) “twats”.

“The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it — too many twits might make a twat,” he said.

Cameron was attempting to explain why the immediacy of the service, which uses regular bulletins or ‘tweets’ of 140 characters, fails to allow enough time or space for profound thought.

He went on to say the soundbite culture was, however, still relevant. “In the media age, you have to work at communicating something complicated in a simple way, otherwise you are not going to take people with you,” he said.

For communicators, be they politicians, company bosses, football managers or anyone else trying to get their message across, this is an important skill and one that, indeed, needs to be worked at.

The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal understood the importance of reflection and deliberation when communicating. He wrote in preface to one of his letters: “I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one.”

Cameron may not yet be a member of the Twitterati, but I’m sure his media handlers will be advising him to take more time when saying less.


Smile like you mean it

July 28, 2009

Customer service is an essential part of the modern consumer experience. A helpful manner and welcoming smile can transform a routine trip to the supermarket or call to a service provider’s contact centre.

But how do you get employees to provide service with a smile?

A friend of mine who worked for an estate agent would stick fluorescent yellow smile stickers to office phones as a prompt for employees when calling clients. Now a train operator in Japan has gone one better by installing cameras into the workplace to see whether employees pass the smile test.

Before heading out for the day to meet the public, staff are invited to sit in front of a computerised scanner to check that they are disporting an appropriately sunny expression.

Employee Mitsue Endo speaking to the BBC said the computerised smile scanner helped her develop “a natural smile”. The pictures suggested otherwise, but anyone asked to maintain a rictus grin for a significant period of time while simultaneously helping commuters negotiate the busy Japanese rail system deserves our understanding.

You have to admire Japanese ingenuity. This after all was the country that saw Tama the tortoiseshell cat appointed ‘super station master’ to turn around the fortunes of a loss-making rail company.

And while I leave you to consider whether a grin checker could be transferred across to other professions (funeral directors and business receivers? No. Dentists? Yes), I am contacting my local train operator, First Capital Connect, to enquire whether or not its lachrymose members of staff would benefit from a happy ‘cam’. I’ve even thought of a snappy slogan: Travel with us, it’s smiles better!


Think global, shop local

July 14, 2009

The economic boom was, if you were living in one of the developed economies, a fairground ride we all wanted to jump on. It was also a ride that we thought would probably never end. Gordon Brown had, he assured us, flattened out the bumps of boom and bust and we hit the malls with our plastic. But end it did, in thudding, juddering style. Look around your local town centre and you will see the consequences: boarded shops, liquidation sales and here-today-gone-next-week discounts outlets.

In a new book Real England: Battle Against the Bland, Paul Kingsnorth suggests that the recession may actually give us [citizens] the opportunity to step back, clear our heads and consider the negative impacts that the rush for growth had upon the world. The downside of boom, he contends, has been the emergence of a “homogenised” high street, the disappearance of independent retailers and “the relentless march of the identikit landscape”.

There is nothing new in this critique. But while researching his book, the author met people in different parts of the country who are campaigning to reverse the tide of corporate blandness. He witnessed communities rallying together to save local shops and businesses, and groups engaged in protests at the plans of ‘big business’ to build developments which are unsympathetic to the local community.

In St Albans, where I live, there is a campaign by local residents concerned by Tesco’s plans to develop a site in the town centre. While the standoff between Tesco and the city’s town planners goes on, the earmarked site remains empty, shops in the vicinity are either abandoned or taken on short-term leases by fast food joints, and nearby streets begin to look shabby and deprived. It is a pitiable and dispiriting sight.

So is it possible to reconcile these two forces: the spread of high street brands and the maintenance of local needs? How do you reconnect the global and the local? The answer may exist in Dorchester where following the collapse of Woolworths, the former manager, Claire Robertson, reopened the store as Wellworths, or “Wellies”, as the locals prefer to call it. Three months on, the new store has served more than 100,000 customers and there are plans to open a second store in the autumn.

According to Claire, the problem with Woolworths was that all stores had to look the same, stock the same things and failed to meet local needs. Claire isn’t making the same mistake. “We know what is going to do well and people are starting to realise that we are listening to them,” she says. One only hopes that the big brand stores that survive the recession are listening too.


Keep your enemies close, but your family closer

July 9, 2009

“Good name in man and woman is the immediate jewel of their souls.” Shakespeare’s archetypal schemer Iago recognised that a person’s good reputation was a precious commodity, that it was hard earned and needed to be protected.

In today’s corporate environment, we refer to the concept of ‘reputational risk’ or ‘reputational equity’, and sophisticated methodologies have grown up to identify risk and put in place actions to mitigate against them.

In Othello, it is the protagonists themselves (with some side stage whispering from Iago) that conspire to destroy their own reputations: Cassio gets drunk and attacks Montano and Othello kills Desdemona believing he has been cuckolded. But what happens when the damage is not self-authored but is inflicted by a member of one’s family?

At the weekend the new head of MI6 Sir John Sawers had his cover blown after his wife posted personal details about the family and photos of Sir John in his swimming trunks on Facebook. The incident quickly blew up into ‘Speedosgate’ with the Foreign Secretary David Miliband harrumphing that the media was getting its own underwear in a twist about nothing.

A couple of months ago the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith became the object of ridicule after it emerged her husband had charged for two adult films. She said that subsequent press intrusion into her family life was one of the reasons for her standing down from the job.

And while it would appear that no amount of scandal could drive Silvio Berlusconi from office, even the perma-tanned Italian Prime Minister was forced to backtrack when his wife put the boot in over his plans to field a number of female TV presenters and a former beauty queen at the European elections. She described their candidacy as “shameless rubbish to entertain the Emperor”.

Othello chose to view himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well” and it’s tempting to think that Jacqui Smith, for instance, will have, albeit momentarily, questioned her own wisdom in exchanging vows with a man with a taste for risqué movies. But perhaps the salutary lesson here is that when you are in public office and likely to attract the media glare, it’s always best to get the other half on message. Those that fail to do so may be required to take the Tessa Jowell option which is to keep their job so that you can spend less time with their family.


The language of crisis

July 5, 2009

Every crisis seems to throw up new words and expressions that fill our consciousness for a few days or weeks and then fade as quickly as they appeared.

During the 2007 UK floods, we learned about the water ‘bowser’, a tank used to distribute clean water to flood-affected neighbourhoods. The recent MPs’ expenses controversy produced expressions such as house ‘flipping’ and ‘redaction’ of expenses forms.

According to Professor David Crystal, a linguistics expert at Bangor University, the growth of blogging and online message boards has enabled words to enter popular usage more easily. And when they are used outside of their original context, for example when people other than MPs talk of ‘flipping’ their main and second homes, they can become part of our everyday language.

One wonders about words used to describe the current financial crisis. It’s a fair bet that ‘credit crunch’ will be adopted to describe any time we are hard up, but what about, for example, ‘quantitative easing’? Is it possible we will talk about ‘QE’ when we are injecting some liquid into our personal money supply?

I remember a time when the expression ‘moral hazard’ was all the rage in the pages of financial newspapers to describe how the big banks would be allowed to fail if they acted recklessly and got into trouble. That phrase, along with the threat, has seemingly had its day and has been replaced by the expression ‘macroprudential legislation’. It is a policy now in favour with the UK government to minimise systemic risks rather than prevent problems in individual banks. It may help in creating the necessary checks and balances for the banking industry, but I can’t see it catching on down at the Dog and Duck.