Monday, 13 September 2010

A to Z in an instant!

Trying out the new Google instant service, I decided to check out the difference between the US and the UK service.

If you aren’t aware, Google instant is a service that updates the search list with every keystroke. There already was a predictive text box, but this takes it one stage further anticipating the most searched for content.

That said, after looking at the results I have become a little sceptical about them. I’ve compiled a UK and US A-Z and 0-9 and hopefully this will demonstrate why. There is certainly some censoring going on but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I was surprised about many of the top searches but whereas the US list had a broader range of returns but both lists were very commercial.

This begs two questions. Does this mean that UK internet users are looking for commercial sites and internet shopping has taken off? Does this mean that retailers are paying for these slots? I’d like some transparency as it looks like we are an unadventurous nation looking for high street retailers and not exciting and dynamic content.

Judge for yourself (UK first, US second):

A is for Argos in the UK and Amazon in the US
B is for the BBC or retailer BestBuy
C is for Currys or Craigslist (a US classified ads service)
D is for Debenhams or
E is for Ebay
F is for Facebook
G is for Google maps or Gmail
H is for Hotmail
I is for ITV or Ikea
J is for John Lewis or Jetblue (a US airline)
K is for KLM or Kohls (an online retail site)
L is for Lotto or Lowe’s (a home improvement retailer)
M is for MSN or Mapquest (interestingly M (space) brings up M&S)
N is for Next or Netflix (DVD rental site)
O is for O2 or Orbitz (a travel firm)
P is for Paypal or Pandora Jewellery
Q is for QVC or Brainy Quotes
R is for Rightmove or REI outdoor gear
S is for Sky or Sears tools
T is for Tesco or (online retailer)
U is for Youtube or US Postal Service
V is for Virgin or Verizon (mobile phones)
W is for BBC Weather or
X is for Xbox
Y is for Youtube or Yahoo
Z is for ZARA or Zillow (real estate)
0 is for O2 or
1 is for 192 or 14th Amendment on Wikipedia
2 is for 24 (TV) on Wikipedia
3 is for 3 mobile phones or 3 DS from Nintendo
4 is for 4 on demand or 4Chan
5 is for BBC 5 day weather or 50 Cent
6 is for 6Music or 60 minutes (CBS)
7 is for 7Zip file service
8 is for 8Ball T-shirts or 84 Lumbar (professional contractors)
9 is for 90210

So out of 36 UK sites, the BBC has 4 hits, Youtube and O2 twice. There are 10 retail sites, 9 TV related sites, 7 technology or web service sites, 5 phone related sites, 3 social media sites and two others. It doesn’t reflect my searches, but does it yours?
I’d have expected say Ancestry to out-place Argos – or Amazon. There’s little media or sites like digital spy, drudge report or The Onion.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The 11th of September

This date affected virtually everyone in some way and the images which are so familiar were being seen for the very first time. It’s so shocking that we can’t comprehend the magnitude of what was happening in front of our eyes. This is a personal recollection of my small part in that day, not even a footnote in history – yet it is one of my proudest days and one which will affect me and my career everyday.

I remember watching the news before coming into work for my shift at Ananova, Orange’s recently acquired internet news syndication service. It was in the Guinness book of records for having created the first avatar news reader, Ananova. There wasn’t anything major happening, but I like to keep up with current affairs. I switched on the radio in my car but changed my mind and listened to a CD instead.

Taking the lift up the five flights of stairs, I walked into the office with a smile on my face around 12:50pm. “Hi everyone” I said to the video team – my team – in charge of animating the Ananova character. The mood was odd and Natasha said to me “Have you not heard the news – a plane’s crashed in New York”. This in itself wasn’t shocking, planes’ crash. I lifted my eyes up to the TV screen above the desk to see a burning skyscraper. I’d missed the reporting by minutes but the story had gathered apace.

At that moment little was clear apart from the fact that a plane had hit the world trade centre. The wires were already going crazy. The Subs desk was filtering AFP, AP, PA and all manner of news sources. The reporters had a channel each, transcribing and checking the information coming through to them. Another team was filtering the filtered wire stories and creating copy for the web, text message alerts. We were creating a special bulletin for Ananova to read out. I put the copy together while Natasha and Nicky gathered the pictures and raw information for me to use.

Then I looked up – I’m not sure whether I did it myself or somebody said something. There was a plane circling the twin towers and I watched as the second plane ploughed through the building and flames leapt out of the far side of the building. The story had changed. Reports were coming in of further hijackings and the grounding of all flights worldwide.

The job was all consuming. The information was out of date before it was published. You’d have 20-30 facts that would make a front page story, and room for ten. It only intensified during the day. The pictures were unbelievable. Witnessing jumpers. Trying to work out what was fluttering in the air. Trying to comprehend what else was happening. It was chaos yet we were managing to make sense of it all. And little time to worry about my brother working that day in Canary Wharf.

What I wasn’t aware of was the technical staff’s role. They were working hard just to ensure the servers could cope with the traffic loads being put on them. Every available space for a new user was being created getting the most from our IT infrastructure. Even the IT support desk helped in a small way providing water and refreshments.
The story changed again. The pentagon had been hit; another plane confirms a hijacking shortly before crashing. A car bomb in Washington. Nothing would have surprised us at that point. It was actually feeling scary to be 5 flights up under a flight path despite nothing happening in the UK.

Then Natasha said: “look the building’s collapsed.... it’s just gone”. I looked up. The camera was focussed on where the building was. All there was to be seen was dust. It cleared a little, and I saw the other tower and suggested it hadn’t collapsed – how could it just go? I didn’t know about the twin towers before that day, and I just couldn’t believe there was just one all of a sudden. If I’d have know the view, it would have been obvious.

More mountains of copy, more images, more to write. Yet we were ploughing a furrow for others to see, updating the story as concisely as we could. Our secondary sources went. CNN, BBC we started to lose sight of the opposition. The sites weren’t working and error pages were up. Ananova kept afloat. We didn’t realise the important of what we were doing. The whole world was on the internet and the old media was being swamped to the point of breaking point. Somehow, Ananova coped with millions of visitors to the site – most logging on to Ananova for the first time.

I changed jobs some way through, it needed a fresh focus and we needed to act as a team. Ananova was running perfectly despite the crisis. Everyone had a job and just did it. No one wanted to leave. Besides, we had the best seat in the house – a world of wires, a bank of TV screens and the most amazing and compelling story – a horror story – unfolding. And to repeat, the technical team did as much if not more to deliver the service.

I don‘t remember how long I stayed that day, but even over the next few days, the story developed and changed we all worked longer than our shift to catch the latest develop,ments. We’d always been concerned about the escalation procedure if the Queen mother died, but that seemed straight forward after 9/11 coming some 6 months later.

Equally the ease in which we all found a role should not be taken for granted. I was working as a press officer at the time of the bombings in London. It was chaotic in that business and it took leadership to assign people roles and tasks. It was trying to put in place a structure that should have been in place before.

I feel I part of history and I’m proud I was able to keep millions of people informed about what was happening, trying to bring some clarity to a muggy and confusing picture. I wasn’t a senior manager nor anyone who would be called upon as an expert – but every one of those members of the Ananova team should feel as proud as I do.

One final note. Having worked on the day and seen the con fusion, I have no time for the sceptics view of 9/11. Pulling single misreports out of hundreds of thousands of reports isn’t a conspiracy, its just statistics. No one knew what was happening and the reports were sometimes best guesses. The reports changed all the time one way then another and back again as people struggled to find the facts and work out what facts were important.

My time with TEDx (Part 2)

The second half kicked off with Alex Graham from the BBC, discussing his five blocks to creativity:

• It can’t be done
• It’s been done
• Let’s think outside the box
• What does the boss think
• Listen to your Customers

The ones to note are the third and fifth. The ‘let’s think outside the box’ argument is that being totally free is limiting. This Paradox applies to the supermarket. They could stock a whole isle of instant noodles to offer a limitless choice – but that only confuses the customer and limits what other products are on offer.

It may be useful to think differently but there needs to be guidance and rules. Rules, of course, can be broken, but it establishes a direction and framework to create a solution. His example was going for a walk. You can be free to go to your local shop anyway, because you know where you are. You could go via the park, the cinema or even just go straight down the road. Go to Borneo and try the same thing. You’ve never been there before and you’ve not seen a shop. A map might help, but you may also need a guide and a translator. This aides the exploration of new territory, not hinders it.

The last point is controversial and deliberately so, but it is more a devil’s advocate point of view. It ties in with the theory of second best, and the view that democracy may be a good solution but it is imperfect. Ask 1000 people what TV shows they want to watch, and create one show to fulfil it. I bet it will be absolutely rubbish, pandering to everyone and no one at the same time.

While it is important to listen to people, it is also important to have your own mind and use the advice to improve an idea, not to drive the idea forward. While a cafe might benefit from someone suggesting serviettes are available from the counter, the same person telling to the chef how to cook the food without any specialist knowledge could be a disaster.

Tom Scott’s presentation speaks for itself and can be seen here - very thought provoking and worth a watch.

Andy Hessleman, a management consultant, said a lot – most of it was interesting but amaountedf to reviewing your business. How can you not only be better than your opposition, but be demonstrably better in a way that’s hard to copy. Part of it is about having a culture, and the other part is how you do your own job better. He had a thought that marketing is a tax on the uninspiring company links in with Cennydd’s comment that only one company can be the cheapest, the others need design. Equally it shows why PR is being increasingly seen as important. Not only do people have to create a compelling product or service, but people need to be aware it exists.

The final presentation was from former Dragon’s Den’s Doug Richard. I wasn’t expecting a rich economic argument about the sate of this nation and a criticism of the current government. It was refreshing to see a view that I hold being held up when we only get half the argument from the politicians. They say the timing of cuts is critical and the two sides bicker over how miuch and how fast to cut. But like a mortgage, you could pay it off quickly or spread it over a longer period of time. There is a cost to spreading it over time, but it might make repayments easier.

Now Doug’s main argument is that cuts are all good and well, but there has to be investment, innovation and growth as well. Just like the earlier ‘happiness’ measurement presentation, the discussion misses the value in the economy and the way we make it stronger. Growth can only come by using the same resources better, not by working harder or using more.

There has to be an investment in people, in infrastructure and freeing up the capital resources of people who create wealth. These aren’t the big companies, but the SMEs who need help to take on apprentices, develop new products and create the new industries of the future. He hailed back to Schumpeter, his ideas of creative destruction. Vinyl wasn’t ‘improved’, it was destroyed by the arrival of a new and better format, the CD, which in turn was eroded by digital technology. In between you get tape, MiniDiscs, Digital tape and the like.

Equally we can’t support everyone in trouble. He was a bit too Friedman in his approach, but I like the way the Liberals put it in 1911 “What we have done is to strap a lifebelt around him, whose buoyancy, aiding his own strenuous exertions, ought to enable him reach the shore”. It’s a good starting point for a successful British government. Hopefully Mr Cameron will listen to the advice.

My time with TED (Part 1)

When I go to conferences and events, I’m always trying to find a learning point from what I’m listening to. The following are the learning points I picked up from TEDxSheffield. This is not a regurgitation of what I heard, but the elements I drew out from the talks – possibly reinterpreting them or linking them with my own thoughts and opinions.

TEDxSheffield started with Cennydd Bowles, a user experience specialist discussing beauty, design and how this hadn’t translated onto the web. He suggested there were no ‘design classics’ on the web to compare with the London tube map, or even the applemac. Webdesign was either highly functional or highly designed but rarely both.

I’d disagree with this stance for a couple of reasons. I think Google is a design classic but I think it is too commonplace to understand why. It was launched in a time when web pages were getting ever more complex because “they could”, losing usability by being clever. Along with usability comes accessibility.

Google was a white page with a single text box and a couple of buttons and remains largely the same, although, like Tate and Lyle golden syrup, you can see subtle variations over time making a big difference.

The other thought was that web design should be something linked to emotion. The experience of a website is a journey. Sometimes we want a quick solution, other times we may want to wander. But to make a journey memorable, it needs to be linked to emotion. The best designs and art summon up emotion and create an attachment, a loyalty and a desire to return.

Now I think there are deeper elements in web design than visual stimuli and that architecture plays a part and I also think the journey is important in making it personal to the user.

We shared a TEDx video from Chip Connley on measurement and defining what is important to a business.

To the world of business and accounting, his words might seem a bolt from the blue, but from an economists point of view its actually something they’ve been trying to grapple with for a long time. As I have a degree in the subject, I’d like to count myself as an economist. I understand the concept of ‘utility’ a cold word which actually describes your hopes, aspirations, dreams, enjoyment, love and passion.

Chip’s message is that all this stuff is ephemeral, but not immeasurable. You have to make assumptions and it’s not perfect, but you can survey to find out if people are secure or insecure, worried about certain things or looking forward to particular events. Just because TEDx is free it doesn’t make the event have no value – quite the opposite. He used Einstein’s quote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

So why does this strike a chord with me? It is because I’ve seen blinkered business decisions throughout my career based on accounting practice and with very limited vision of what is important to a company. Hard times tends to mean fewer people and more graft for no or little extra reward. The problem is that this view is dictated by looking at figures and ignores how people spend their time. Especially in a customer focussed business, making people do more admin and less time actually helping customers and solving their issues can have a negative effect. As you lose contact you can lose the ability to change to new circumstances, lose your mission statement and end up in a downward spiral of de-motivated staff producing less.

Newsrooms are prime examples. You can run a newsroom in August with a skeleton staff as there’s not much happening and as long as the story flow is OK, it can look after itself. In an accountant’s, mind, this suggests that the newsroom could cope like this at any time. It ignores the fact that the best stories, the ones that create the buzz with the audience of a media group, are created through hard work and digging and not from making the odd change to a press release. Equally, when a major incident happens, that’s when the strength of a news organisation can be tested. Without the manpower, you can’t cover the events. This is why the scaling down of so many newsrooms is so sad to see as an industry makes itself moribund by the greed of a few shareholders.

So in the downturn, create the conditions for happiness in your business. It’s more important than ever to have a mission that people buy in to, that’s genuine and that you can all strive to achieve. Cutting corners reduces your costs, but it doesn’t add value to your business and its important any savings don’t affect the ability of your staff to deliver the value your customers strive for. That’s why in a recession, high value products often do well – because there is a genuine quality and value in them.

The first half ended with a slick presentation on success from Richard St John. What I valued most was the slick production and visually strong presentation. This was a good example of how to present with the caveat that it was too visual.

The substance of the message would generally be common sense. To be successful you need to work hard, have a focus and a genuine passion for what you are doing, distinguishing workaholics from ‘workafrolics’ – people who work hard because they love what they are doing.

According to the presentation I’ll never be a success as I’m intelligent and have eclectic interests. I’m also keen to ensure my children see me occasionally. While I’ll never be Bill Gates, I hope most will still see me successful in my own way.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Tiddler, Tiddler, Tiddler’s Late

Reading a bed time story to my three year old son doesn’t normally make me think about public relations and brand management. Thinking about one story made me realise that perhaps there are some lesson’s in Julia Donaldson’s Tiddler.
This is just a bit of fun, but hopefully it will get you all thinking.

Some of you may be aware of the story, but if you are not here’s a synopsis. Tiddler is a small fish who is always late. He’s not big, doesn’t have any attractive colouring and not the best swimmer. Because Tiddler is always late, he spends his time dreaming up imaginative stories of why he was late that day.

One day he’s so busy daydreaming about his latest excuse that he’s caught in a fishing net and taken far from home. Being just a tiddler, he gets thrown back to the sea not knowing his way home. Then he hears a story, a story that he’s heard before – one of his stories – and he follows the trail of sea creatures who’ve told the tale back home.

So what are the lessons? Surely making excuses all the time and being late isn’t good PR? Well, firstly there’s brand management. Tiddler is unprepossessing, yet the other fish remember him. His imagination is his USP and he plays to its strengths. Had he be a bright, colourful fish, the real heart of the story might be confused and they might remember him for a different reason.

Secondly Tiddler has an audience. Some of the other fish dismiss his stories, but Tiddler stays true to who he is and his strengths. One fish in particular, Johnny Dory, loves his stories showing that Tiddler knows his audience and delivers what that audience wants. You don’t have to be relevant to everyone, as long as you understand the niche, market you are involved in.

The third lesson is the power of word of mouth and viral marketing. Tiddler told his stories to his friends. He made them creative, genuine and compelling. His initial audience was just his class and his expectation went no further, but his friend told his granny who told a starfish, seal, lobster then eel – multiplying the audience and extending far further than he dare dream. It only works because it was a good yarn that people and fish wanted to hear meaning genuine content is at the heart of a successful viral campaign.

The fourth lesson is engagement. When Tiddler was in new waters and far from home he listened to the conversations around him and chose to engage with the one that was relevant to him. Even though that fish didn’t know the answer to the question of how he got home, it was six degrees of separation which allowed him to return safely. Equally, Tiddler asked the right questions to find the information he needed, engaging with new creatures he’d never met before and discovering his wider audience.
It’s amazing what you can learn from a bedtime story ;).

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Should you open your doors to honesty?

A siege mentality is an easy position to take when the media bangs on your front door demanding a press statement as it investigates the very heart of your business, or even your own personal life. Some of these events are a storm in a tea cup, whilst others are a full scale crisis. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference until the moment is past and you can see it from a different perspective.

Two very different ways of handling crisis management have been in the press recently and both have got me thinking on whether the strategy was effective. One is William Hague’s recent personal statement; the other is the British government and the Catholic Church’s decision to cover up the involvement of a priest in an IRA bombing.

Not only are the two cases quite different – but the way the allegations are dealt with are also at polar opposites. However, neither is totally without fault.

Let’s start with the 1972 Claudy Bombings which saw nine people killed and 30 injured as a result of three car bombs. Relatives of the victims and the walking wounded have had to wait 38 years for a report into the investigation to get some idea of who was to blame.

The report is baffled by the fact the British Police failed to interview Father James Chesney, an alibi witness for one suspect and a suspect in his own right, despite British intelligence keeping close tabs on the staunch republican priest. The conclusion that seems unchallenged is that a political deal was struck between the British government and the Catholic Church to hush up the situation. The Catholic Church was anti-violence and was keen to remain at arms length from the IRA.

It is highly likely that Chesney knew significant information that was never brought out purely because he wasn’t questioned. Even if a deal was struck, surely some sort of discussion should have taken place. That aside, the main crisis management of the situation was to cover up and protect the Catholic Church.

I understand the situation was volatile and complex, but I don’t feel that this was the right course of action. We know from other scandals, that the Catholic Church liked to cover things up. A siege mentality is a natural position when things are uncertain – but again, it doesn’t mean it is right.
Equally, the decision to move a man less than an hour away from his home to avoid police investigation looks cowardly.

Rumour took over from fact and hundreds believed they knew who carried out the attacks and also knew of the cover-up by association. This can hardly have left those in the community with any faith in the church, the government or the police. We will never know Father Chesney’s true involvement (he died in 1980), but there is more than enough evidence pointing towards the republican sympathiser’s involvement at some level.
Equally, the Catholic Church’s reputation has been tarnished by those who perceived they knew the truth and lost faith in the church on both sides of the divide.

Almost forty years later there’s a second problem when the truth, as it often does, comes out. The Catholic Church is wrapped in scandal for the second time within a year as it shows its backhanded way of dealing with priests involved in murderous activities.
In my opinion, the Catholic Church should have made an example of Chesney. Decisive action to out, rather than protect Chesney, would have sent a sharp warning to the rest of the Church. Putting pressure on other republican sympathisers to strongly denounce the IRA, Chesney and the ‘shame’ brought by the un-Christian actions of Claudy would have made it more difficult for other clergy to stray down the same path.

Embarrassing, yes, but at the end of the day the actions were understandably outside their control. Justice could then have been served and fact replaces rumour. More importantly this ticking time-bomb wasn’t going to explode.
The opposite could be said of William Hague. A smirk, a nudge, an offhand and baseless joke about all the Tories being gay has turned into front page headlines. It is a calculated risk and may work, but Mr Hague has legitimised a rumour by directly referring to the story.

He could have made exactly the same statement avoiding the ‘gay’ slur altogether. It’s a strong story to openly discuss the heartache of not being able to have children. Mourning the death of an unborn baby isn’t easy. Yes the rumours might have still floated about, but it would never be front page news.

From what I gather, it is based on the fact that two men have shared a hotel room in the 21st Century and they look ‘chummy’ despite a big age gap. May be I should feel upset that when I interviewed the then Tory leader, soaked to the skin after a downpour in Halifax, he didn’t wink at me and show me to his room to warm up. Or may be it is just bunkum – this certainly isn’t another Mark Oaten.

I’ve roomed with – not just one other man- but several. I even shared a bed with a Frenchman ahead of a rowing race in London as there were no single beds available. Does this make me gay? No it doesn’t. I could still be proved wrong about Hague, but I think it a ridiculous story created by the sleazier end of political journalism. There is a difference between being open and replying honestly, and fanning the flames of a storm in the tea cup story.