Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Planes, trains & automobiles on the West Coast

Just a quick post to champion the west coast of the United States as a fabulous holiday destination. We flew into Los Angeles around a year ago after staying in the city a few days in the sumptous surroundings of Rodeo Drive, Beverley Hills, we drove up the coast enjoying incredible views of the Pacific. As we made our way north, we stayed in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Carmel before heading inland towards the vineries of the Napa Valley. A highlight of our time there was travelling on the wine train, eating a four-course meal and sampling some of the excellent wines from the region. Next it was off to San Francisco, entering the city on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. This really is a fantastic city with stunning views across the bay area. Some of the hills can be taxing but there are always the trolleybus trams and a host of attractions like the Fisherman's Wharf shopping area, Alcatraz and Union Square. The final leg of our holiday took us north to Seattle via the splendour of an overnight ride on an Amtrak train. We can recommend taking a cabin which is small but more relaxing than a standard seat for the 24-hour journey. You get some really great views of natural landscape as the trip takes you past lakes, ravines and mountains en route to Washington State. Seattle has a European feel with moderate temperatures and regular rainfall but it has some fascinating places to visit. We took a trip up the Space Needle and ate in the revolving restaurant on the top floor, visited the first ever Starbucks coffee shop - and took a trip below the city to explore what it used to look like in centuries past. We enjoyed our holiday in the region so much we are going back later this year - this time taking in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and San Diego. Can't wait!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

My tips to improve the World Cup

So we will have a new World Cup winner on Sunday night – Spain or Holland – probably the best two nations never to have lifted the trophy.
There have been some real surprises in South Africa – Germany’s amazing goalscoring performances, rank outsiders New Zealand remaining unbeaten and Uruguay reaching the semi-finals. England were rubbish (no surprise there though), Brazil imploded in shocking fashion against the Dutch and world champions Italy looked like a pub team.
The tournament was not a classic however and I believe FIFA has to make some changes to the game if we are to see an improvement in Brazil 2014. These are my tips for Sepp Blatter:
1 SCRAP PENALTY SHOOT-OUTS – it is not a fair way of deciding a crucial match. It is a lottery which examines the psychological make-up of a player rather than his skill. Instead the referee should count the number of corners each team wins and if that is level it should be down to the number of shots on target. We must reward the team which attacks more.
2 AWARD A GOAL IF A DEFENDER HANDLES THE BALL ON THE GOAL LINE – this would prevent any repetition of Uruguay profiting from stopping a certain winning goal with a hand ball on the line against Ghana. A penalty was given and the offending player red-carded but the spot kick was missed and Uruguay went on to win on penalties. Referees should give the goal and yellow card the offender.
3 RETROSPECTIVE YELLOW CARDS FOR PLAYERS WHO FEIGN INJURY – FIFA should examine video footage of matches afterwards and look for players collapsing to the ground as though they have been shot before miraculously getting to their feet and playing on seconds later. It is pathetic, cowardly behaviour and is a worse offence, in my mind, than diving to win a penalty.
4 AWARD AN EXTRA POINT IN THE GROUP STAGES FOR TEAMS WINNING BY MORE THAN ONE GOAL – this would punish ultra-defensive teams from strangling matches once they have taken the lead. It should lead to more attacking play and reward the more offensive nations.
5 USE GOAL LINE TECHNOLOGY TO HELP REFEREES DECIDE IF A GOAL HAS BEEN SCORED – the old chestnut! There is no reason why FIFA should not set up cameras in the goal because it is almost impossible for referees and linesmen to clearly see if the ball is over the line. The argument that it would slow the game down is nonsense. The fourth official could have a small TV screen and signal to the referee seconds after it has happened. Millions of people around the world knew Frank Lampard had scored against Germany. The only people who didn’t were the officials. Fortunately Germany went on to score twice more to win 4-1 but if they hadn’t there would have been outrage.
So there you have it. My recipe for making the world’s greatest game even more enjoyable. I welcome your comments!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The First Social Media World Cup

With the excitement building for the 2010 World Cup, it has dawned on me just how much I rely on social media for news and information about the tournament.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a child thrilled by the skills of Pele, Cruyff and Kempes, the satellite pictures from Mexico and Argentina seemed like a technological miracle.
Not every game was covered live on television, though, and the only other information came via the newspapers or potted profiles in my Panini sticker album.
How different it is today. My Blackberry mobile phone is constantly signalling Twitter and Facebook messages about every aspect of the world’s biggest sporting event outside the Olympic Games.
The Football Association (@thefadotcom) send Twitter links to England press conferences and photographs of facilities in the team hotel.
A Facebook friend sends me a You Tube video of the spectacular new Nike World Cup advert featuring Ronaldo, Rooney and Drogba – an astounding 14 million people have now seen it on the video-sharing site.
Telegraph football writer Henry Winter (@henrywinter) tweets match updates from England’s last warm-up match while broadcaster Gabby Logan (@Gabby_Logan) says she is nervous before interviewing Fabio Capello for the first time.
There are all kinds of insights and titbits you can glean from a multitude of sources. Football magazine @FourFourTwo tweets about the Dutch squad being banned from using Twitter and they report regular disparaging comments from players about the quality of the new World Cup ball.
On his Facebook page, USA star man Landon Donovan counts down to his team’s opening match against England as American supporters urge him to ‘kick some English ass’ in their comments.
This truly is the first ever social media World Cup and what a wonderful thing it is.
Of course there are some football fans who still live in the dark ages – as befits the world’s most secret society North Korea apparently has not allowed any journalists to cover their own nation at the tournament!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Writing for PR and writing for the media

Writing stories as a PR professional should be a doddle for an experienced journalist like me. Or so I thought, as I prepared for a short internship in the communications office at Cambridge University.
Having completed three weeks promoting and publicising the goings on at this 800-year-old centre of educational excellence I have a very different idea of what goes into the perfect press release and corporate web story.
While many of the traditional journalistic ideals hold true – news releases have to be accurate, free from libel or defamation and basically tell us something new and interesting – there are some key differences:

1 The angle of the story
I wrote a web piece at Cambridge about a professor who was given a science and technology award by a women’s lifestyle publication called Glamour Magazine.
It was a straight report about the woman being honoured with background about her academic achievements and the work of her university department. In short, a promotional piece highlighting the impressive research at Cambridge.
Now had I been writing for, say, the Cambridge Evening News, I might have angled the story more on the absurdity of this highly intellectual professor being given an award by a magazine which is mainly concerned with Cheryl Cole’s fashion sense and the latest scandal involving a Hollywood starlet.
The professor also told me she was unhappy the magazine had not directly contacted her because she would have liked to have used the award to help inspire more young women to study science at higher education level. Another great newspaper angle.

2 Allegiances
The journalist is supposed to be neutral. Whatever political, environmental or cultural views and opinions they might harbour they must not be introduced into stories.
They have a professional duty to write or broadcast the most interesting story.
Because PR professionals are concerned with portraying a company or organisation in the best possible light they can never be neutral.
There are obviously ethical considerations in terms of behaving legally and honestly but the basic aim is to protect and enhance reputation.
While I worked at Cambridge there was enormous media interest in unusual plans by the university to raise money for capital projects with a bond issue.
Dealings with journalists were limited to a straight press release containing basic details and quotes from the director of finance.
Newspapers and broadcasters were all looking for a different angle – to re-frame the story. In the end most outlets cited the current financial climate as the reason for considering a bond issue when in the past the university might have taken out a bank loan. The limiting of information from the communication office clearly helped frame the story the way Cambridge wanted.

3 Editorial control
A free press is essential in any democracy. And newspapers thrive on retaining editorial control. Occasionally a company or organisation which advertises in a newspaper might object to a news story which portrays it in a negative light. They may threaten to withdraw their adverts. But editors will always stand their ground and insist on retaining control of content.
Journalists will only be concerned that their story is accurate, that it does not offend the sensitivity of readers and that is not legally suspect.
In contrast, the communications officer has only limited editorial control. He or she must satisfy a number of other people before uploading it to the company website.
At Cambridge I wrote a piece about the Arts Society at the all-female Newnham College holding a special night to mark the 80th anniversary of a visit by acclaimed novelist Virginia Woolf.
I had to run my story past representatives of the Arts Society, who were keen to raise seemingly unnewsworthy items higher up the story and who insisted I use capital letters for job titles and nouns. I was essentially writing for them, however, so I had to forget the journalistic principles I used to live my life by in favour of following their wishes.

4 Balanced argument
All trainee newspaper reporters have it drummed into them that they must represent both sides of an argument.
If an old lady has tripped over a loose paving stone and injured herself, you must include quotes from the council as well as the unfortunate pensioner.
It is all part of appearing neutral – someone with no bias who can be trusted to report the news as it happens.
In public relations you cannot be neutral. As a result website stories and press releases will be distinctly one-sided.
When 30 employees are made redundant by a factory the corporate release will state that the company is being streamlined, as though those losing their jobs were surplus to requirements. Newspapers, of course, will focus on the fact that the business is struggling and the human cost of those people who are now unemployed.
My web stories and press releases for Cambridge University were all skewed in favour of the university’s interests. As they should have been. The institution has a strong brand throughout the world and the PR professionals I worked with are doing an important job to ensure it stays that way.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Taking the drama out of a crisis

The PR disaster surrounding Eurostar this week has left people amazed the company did not appear to have a crisis plan in place.
Thousands of passengers were stranded for hours and hours on broken down trains in the Channel Tunnel after the operator seemed to be caught out by the cold snap.
Travellers were left angry that so little information was filtered down to them by staff about what had happened and when they would get to their destination.
Of course, the whole world soon found out what a huge mess it all was as people began to send text messages and Tweets complaining about their ordeal.
It reminded me of flights I have taken, coincidentally (or not) both with Ryanair. We were stranded in Rome for eight hours and on another occasion I was waiting for nine hours at Shannon Airport in Ireland.
In these two instances the only information given by the airline was the occasional change in the flight time on the departures board.
Not a single member of staff came out to explain why our flights were delayed - if they had then maybe most passengers would have understood and calmed down.
As strangers chatted about their plight the overwhelming theme was along the lines of 'I'm not flying with this lot ever again'.
That must have also been the overrding feeling for Eurostar passengers last week. 'They obviously don't care about us so I won't bother travelling with them again' would have been in most people's minds.
Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown admitted as much in an interview with the Financial Times when he said the company faced a big battle to rebuild public confidence in it.
It all goes to show that crisis management is an increasingly important role for public relations professionals.
The ability to deal firmly with a potentially damaging incident or development and take the drama out of a crisis.
Martin Langford's chapter in Exploring Public Relations, Crisis Public Relations Management, cites the key ingredients as knowledge, preparation, calmness, control and communication.
Eurostar has since converted accountants and administrators from its corporate offices into temporary customer service reps at its St Pancras terminus.
But the horses had already bolted, as the saying goes. The damage has been done but at least the company knows that if the incident is replicated again they must be prepared and, above all, communicate from the start.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Christmas Number One decided by Facebook

So the power of social media has spectacularly destroyed the X-Factor’s vice-like traditional grip on the Christmas Number One spot.
Geordie teenager Joe McElderry, who won the top rating television music talent show earlier this month, would normally have been a certainty to have the Yuletide best seller on the back of his success.
But a Facebook campaign propelled American band Rage Against the Machine (RATM) to the top of the charts in an act of defiance against the influence Simon Cowell’s multi-million pound X-Factor empire has wielded over the music industry.
An astonishing 500,000 people bought the RATM single, Killing in the Name, to topple McElderry’s The Climb by 50,000 copies.
The Facebook page for the RATM campaign had almost one million members the last time I looked, many of them attracted there via discussions on online social networking sites like Twitter and interactive chatrooms.
What this demonstrates is the remarkable ability of the internet to bring people together to fight against something they disagree with.
And it has major implications for public relations professionals. It used to take time for action groups to organise themselves in opposition to new developments or environmental transgressors. Public meetings had to be arranged and householders visited to rally support and get people together.
Now it is easy to set up a website and send online messages to people regionally, nationally and even internationally to build backing for a campaign.
Supermarket chain Tesco have to battle a nationwide action group aiming to prevent it setting up yet more stores around the country to the detriment, the campaigners believe, of local businesses.
Unhappy passengers have banded together on websites to lampoon airlines and football supporters chatter away in cyberspace whenever they are unhappy about the way their club is being run.
PR people need to monitor these messages so they can counter what is being said in the never-ending quest to protect an organisation’s reputation.
But how do they tackle something like the monster created by RATM fans on Facebook?
Cowell was initially scathing of the campaign, leading to widespread condemnation of his perceived arrogance. Interestingly, he has since changed his stance and praised the initiative, even going so far as to personally congratulate the main organisers.
A clever PR move maybe but it remains to be seen whether the X-Factor winner will ever grab the Christmas Number One spot again to follow Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson and Alexandra Burke between 2005 and last year.
It makes you wonder what else can be influenced by the power of Facebook. Could the electorate band together to get a political party in power at the next General Election. Maybe dissenting voices on the social networking site could get together online to oust a Prime Minister.
A final thought. In 10 years’ time we might be talking about campaigns being started to break the hold of Facebook on popular opinion.

How best to regain a damaged reputation

I have been pondering the concept of reputation and how public relations professionals can best deal with situations where the image of their client has taken an almighty hammering.
Every day, it seems, the media is alive with the latest scandal involving a high profile personality. This was particularly the case in the world of sport in 2009.
We witnessed the remarkable fall from grace of golf legend Tiger Woods, whose acknowledged status as one of the greatest ever sportsmen has been soiled by his alleged infidelity with a succession of women.
His marriage is reportedly on the rocks and fellow golfers, as well as newspaper columnists, bloggers and comedians, have rushed to condemn and lampoon his behaviour.
We have heard very little from Woods himself, save for the occasional brief rambling comment on his official website. He is taking a break from the sport but has not fully explained the reasons why.
His silence led to widespread speculation through social media forums like Twitter where his reputation was attacked and ridiculed across cyberspace.
This has all blown up at the same time that another sporting hero – former tennis champion Andre Agassi – told the world he had taken the highly addictive drug crystal meth during his playing days. He writes graphically about the issue in his autobiography and explains why he did it.
Yet another sports icon, Great Britain sprinter Dwayne Chambers, has spent all year trying to repair the considerable damage done to his reputation after he was banned for taking performance-enhancing stimulants.
I got the chance to interview Chambers for a local newspaper last year as he visited a school to warn its students about the perils of taking drugs in sport.
It was part of a tour of the country where the athlete was seeking to garner public sympathy as he explained why he had resorted to cheating and how sorry he was.
The sprinter told me how warmly he had been received around the country and he was eventually welcomed back into the British team after qualifying for championships as a clean athlete.
Telling the truth and opening up to the public has certainly benefited Chambers, as it has clearly done for Agassi. The ex-tennis player’s book is selling impressively and he has enjoyed adulation wherever he has gone to promote it in book shops and on television and radio chat shows.
This is surely a lesson for Tiger Woods and his PR team. In an age when issues can be publically debated across the globe seconds after they are publicised it is not a smart move to lay low and hope the problem goes away. Telling the truth and showing genuine remorse is essential.
If you open up to the public they will take you to their hearts again. Exuding a sense of vulnerability is not a bad thing for a high profile individual because it shows they are human, like the rest of us.