A day to remember

June 9, 2009

By coincidence rather than design, my wife and I visited Chartwell in Kent on Saturday, which marked the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The house, which was the family home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 to his death in 1965, is maintained by the National Trust, largely as it would have been in his lifetime. His favourite walking sticks are in a stand near the front door, paint brushes are scattered next to an unfinished canvas and a glass of whisky rests half-empty on a side table in his study. These small touches as much as the main museum rooms are very evocative and contribute to the feeling that the man has been called out of the room just briefly to take an important phone call or to attend to government business.

Among the volunteers answering visitors’ questions were a number of veterans clearly proud to be playing their part in keeping memories of the wartime leader alive. Seeing the veterans standing erect, medals pinned to their chests, it seemed a fitting place to be on that day of all days.

The visit all served to remind one of Churchill’s great eloquence and mastery of the spoken word which he used to steady and inspire a nation threatened by invasion from the sea, bombed from the skies and demoralised by daily privations. The US wartime correspondent in London said of his rhetoric: “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

Of course, the speeches and oratory were carefully crafted and rehearsed to have the required impact. And despite being voted greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll, Churchill has become fair game for revisionist historians who challenge the widely held hagiographical view of him. But if you have any doubts about Churchill’s contribution to the victory against the Nazis, you might start by addressing your question to those men proudly wearing their medals and directing visitors at Chartwell.


Sorry no longer seems the hardest word

May 27, 2009

An epidemic of contrition has broken out. Politicians, Oxford poets, the press and big businesses are now queuing up to admit mea culpa for wrongdoings and previous behaviour.

In the past few weeks, high-street retailer M&S apologised to its customers for charging more for larger bra sizes, while the Evening Standard ran an advertising campaign expressing regret for printing too many negative stories and for failing to act as a cheerleader for the capital. (This campaign is particularly perplexing. As someone who has worked in local and daily newspapers, I know it is almost a point of honour among editors not to go public with a paper’s mistakes. Apologies, when they prised from a newspaper, are usually hidden on a left-hand page and well away from the front). And you cannot turn on the television at night without seeing a penitent MP admit a shameful error in judgment for buying a duck island or scatter cushions out of the public purse.

What’s going on? Do these expressions of sorrow herald the emergence of a new relationship between government and citizens, businesses and consumers; a relationship based on greater openness and responsiveness? Or is it a stratagem – at a time when sales are poor and share prices are tumbling – aimed at differentiating the brand from those impersonal institutions that have got us in the brown stuff and make things worse by refusing to admit their mistakes?

According to Darren Briggs from Flametree Communication, a firm with expertise in leadership communication, the power of the internet is forcing companies to face up to their responsibilities.

“The role of public journalists and the ability of people to mobilise into communities of interest make it impossible for companies not to admit when they have made a mistake or let their customers down. If companies did not show humility, customers can vote with their feet.”

Darren said he saw first hand the power of the consumer while working at Nike when a boycott movement spread across US campuses among students angry at reports of worker exploitation in the Far East. And he draws a distinction between those companies, such as M&S, which have a reputation for good customer service and wrongdoers for whom sorry is just lip service.

“Actions speak louder than words and people can tell the difference between a genuine apology and someone like an MP who is only saying because they have been caught.”

And, at the end of the day, it’s our choice whether we choose to accept such apologies.