Friday, 27 May 2011

Why injunctions are an outdated solution

I doubt many people in the country are really that interested in the love life of Ryan Giggs particularly if you consider the the personal issues faced by many of his team mates and peers in the premier league.

The Daily Mash parodied the fact that it is hardly an earth shattering news story.

Yet the story has been played out for weeks. Even before the discussion about injunctions rose, the rumour mill had been churning out suggestions over the Manchester United player.

Like cats, curiosity is something most people have as a nagging urge in the back of their mind. Who was it and why keep it secret? Why an injunction? It’s this that has driven the media frenzy. My cat certainly hates a closed door.

The world has been changing subtly over the last ten or so years. With the information age has come a democratisation of facts, statistics and documentation. With the world opening up, the old tried and trusted tactics of the crisis manager have changed.

Many companies have learnt that clamming up is costly and it’s not the first time that an injunction or super injunction has caused this type of furore. A similar thing happened with Trafigura, one of the world’s biggest oil traders who put an injunction in place over claims made by The Guardian that waterways were being polluted in the Ivory Coast.

The barring of comment brought anger, recrimination and a serious vault face by Trafigura and their law firm Carter Ruck. This damage of reputation was worse than the investigation itself. Not only was there a slur on their names, but there was a concerted effort to cover it up.

That’s basically what an injunction is and an individual or organisation has to think really hard about why they are using an injunction and what it will achieve. In a blackmail case it would be justified, particularly if someone was being set up. Equally there might be genuine privacy issues at heart.

Playing away, in my mind, isn’t a privacy issue. It is a choice that individuals have made and normally the actions caused are made in public buildings like hotels rather than in the home. Equally, if you do something wrong, you face the prospect of being found out. Trying to obscure and hide your identity from your wife and children is a choice unavailable to most and hardly a just cause.

The easiest way to prevent a crisis situation is not to get yourself buried in one voluntarily. If a situation arises, you have two options. Silence or honesty.
In the older days it was easier to assess the situation. Who knew what, what evidence there is and how would a situation arise? A journalist asking uncomfortable questions would be trying to find a fact he can’t prove by bluffing and bravado. Ignoring journalists and carrying on regardless used to be the best way.

Nowadays with more information, it is easier to request information and search documents which may or not prove guilt. It is far more practicable to be honest and open. It not only makes businesses think more about the decisions they make but it also impacts on their social responsibilities in the community.

Corporate Social Responsibility has been seen as a smoke screen for business decisions. BP still has the oil tankers which claim to be carbon neutral. But true Corporate Social Responsibility goes to the heart of a business, its values and its brand. Footballers, too, have a brand image linked to countless sponsors desperate for their endorsement. Brand Giggs is/was a wholesome family man, active with charities and a vital part of a big team.

So he, and possibly his advisors, tried the closed door approach to crisis management to protect the reputation of the Giggs brand. At the point the information was to come out, Giggs instead should have taken a different course of action. He needed to tell those closest to him the situation and what was to happen. He needed to manage the information flow, possibly getting an “exclusive” with a tabloid. The reaction would be "oh dear, another footballer in trouble, now where’s the news."

Being honest, open and holding up your hands is more of a virtue than running for cover at the first sign of trouble. What has made it worse is the litigious second half of this situation – the legal disclosure request from Twitter and the potential contempt of court. Telling people who believe in free speech to shut up and stop mentioning his name isn’t going to do anything other than infuriate that group. It is against the public interest to prosecute en masse thousands of people for a widely circulated rumour.

There have been similar issues over graffiti before social media, proving knowledge outside court injunctions. If one person is selected, it is then seen as a malicious prosecution: “why only me?”. If the originator of the rumour is ever found, how can you prove their knowledge of the injunction and that they hadn’t found out another way. Looking at the twitter account mentioned in the media, it looks like a list of guesswork, parody and speculation rather than someone with any real knowledge.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Is West Yorkshire the Centre of the art world?

The opening of The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield is set to place West Yorkshire as a must see destination for anyone serious about twentieth century art. The new collection will bring some of Barbara Hepworth’s finest works to the former mining town, just a few miles away from another major sculpture gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Add in the David Hockney exhibition at Salts Mill and the Leeds Art Gallery and it makes it a compelling region for modern and abstract art from Francis Bacon to Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer to Anthony Gormley.

The project creates a home for Barbara Hepworth’s work in her home town. Many of the works have been in storage at other museums like the Tate or which could not be displayed at the other Hepworth property in St Ives.

The involvement of David Chipperfield in the project also demonstrates the importance of the facility. One of the world’s leading architects has built a bespoke gallery allowing fine views and buckets of natural light to show off the works to their best.

Having visited the building before the installation of the works, I can safely say the interior is simply stunning for art works and is breathe taking. The exterior is more up for debate. The building does connect with the industrial landscape both on land and the canalised river.

Locally it is seen as a drab concrete building in amongst other drab, concrete buildings. The Hepworth sees it as a sculptural design which changes with the light. I’m somewhere in the middle. The design of the building is an interesting jumble of shapes, however it gets lost in the 1970s concrete flats and industrial buildings. A cream Mediterranean colour would make it otherworldly and improve the environment – but maybe I’m missing the point.

The Hepworth also has the advantage of being a stone’s throw from the mainline from London King’s Cross. It makes it an easy day trip, or even weekend escape, from the capital. Those used to the London galleries will get an opportunity to see a different environment. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a world away from the Tate Modern in display space and more in harmony with the type of environment Hepworth and Moore’s work were often placed – the civic parks of the British Isles and beyond. Salts Mill is another distinctive gallery.

But what makes Hepworth and Moore special. They brought modernism into sculpture, creating works that were based on natural curves and form. The works increasingly became more abstract but still gave the impression of figures, life and vibrancy. They are appealing to the eye and the touch, using a range of materials from wood to bronze to plaster. There is also a bringing together of classic art and the sort of work Picasso might do, but in three dimensions.

Hopefully the opening will bring a focus on the region’s art and its national importance. With free entry this can only help to inspire the region’s new breed of artists. It will also be interesting to see how it can inspire the young children taken along, with no preconceptions of art. In an area with high youth unemployment and low aspiration, may be it will inspire Wakefield’s children to see what education can do for you.

It will also bring economic benefits to the region. Wakefield is particularly in need of a boost to make it a worthy centre of modern art studies.

The Hepworth Wakefield
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Leeds Art Gallery
Salts Mill

A fascinating video from The Guardian (If a little over edited).

Images: The Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery, The interior of The Hepworth Wakefield and Juame Plensa's work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Why the Liberal Democrats need to rebrand and communicate a new message

Communication should be at the heart of all politics. Communication isn’t a one way broadcast to the people. It’s a two way process where information flowing to the politicians should actually take precedent. They are the people’s representatives and are meant to represent their constituents.

At a local level, the Liberal Democrats have had a fine pedigree of taking on local issues, listening to the people and delivering a policy that won favour from the people. The local councillors probably paved the way for Lib Dem success at a general election level, particularly in by-elections.

It seems odd, then, that the party has been dogged by the national party and personality issues rather than the local fight on the doorsteps. In fact, it’s this variable message which has seen the party criticised over the years. The party is different in its grass roots policy making and it is this disconnection with the traditional Lib Dem members and the group of MPs that is making this worse.

In the weeks preceding the elections, the Lib Dem MPs were parading the party line as if there was no problem. People like Norman Baker and Sarah Tether were suggesting that the reports that grass roots supporters were unhappy with reforms to the NHS, tuition fees and the depth of cuts were untrue. Surely this tack was just sticking in the craw of potential voters and the results bear this out.

Norman Baker used to be the attack dog holding Governments to account through a ruthless search for factual evidence to undermine unfairness.

But why hasn’t this affected the Tory vote? Well, basically, their supporters are quite happy with the small government approach. There aren’t the issues which clash with the manifesto which the Lib Dem’s have. Equally, the party is not supposed to divert its attentions too much from the straight and narrow.

In areas like Chesterfield, a majority of 26 has turned into a Labour majority of 20 seats. In Barnsley, the Liberal Democrats had a lower share of the popular vote than the BNP. At the time of writing, the Party were approaching losses of some 500 councils. In Scotland the Liberal Democrats have a quarter of the seats they had last time.

So what are the issues which could have improved the situation?

Before the government was formed there were problems. The deal struck entwined the Liberal Democrats into the government inextricably. The coalition was a whipped single front with little room for dissent, disagreement or a clear division of responsibility.

Since then, the Liberal Democrats have been paraded when there’s bad news, the Conservatives when it’s good irrespective of who came up with the ideas to resolve the situation. The confusion has caused much negative press, often going against the impression voters had of their aims and objectives.

Had the Liberal Democrats taken a different approach, they could have followed the Northern Irish example. There, the coalition partners could not be more diverse and it works because departments are run by one party or the other, coming together as a cabinet. This means there is autonomy and clear accountability. It wasn’t us - the other lot run that department.

Second, the party has barely mentioned that they cannot influence the government fully. They have made some positive contributions to “toning down” the Conservative policy, but they also have less mandate and less people to push the points. If the Conservatives want to do something, they will. Rather than stand up and say this is a Tory policy we are supporting purely to get other policy through, they pretend to support the initiative.

Thirdly, they are not used to mudslinging. They put forward positive stories that have been swamped by negative focus on Nick Clegg by the Conservative supporting allies.

And finally, what makes the Lib Dem’s distinctive from the Conservatives? Because they are so entwined, the public don’t know what they stand for any more. Before the coalition, you might have felt the Liberal Democrats stood for Education and supporting the student. That group has been lost and there is no direct approach to win them back. Standing on a platform of no tuition fees and ending up trebling them, even if there are advantages to the system, could only lead to disillusionment.

So what should they do?

Listen – What are members and former members wanting.
Engage – Rather than blindly follow opinion, discuss the situation with key groups in, for example, the argument over the NHS reforms and make strategic alliances to force reform.

Differentiate – Put forward a policy document that shows voters what Liberal Democracy stands for in the coalition. It needs to be distinctive from the Tory view and show the divisions in policy making. It can’t be woolly and needs to be substantive, based on real action.

Claim Ownership – Take sovereignty over issues in the government or at least argue to be given power that makes it clear what difference they are making.

Ditch Clegg – It might not happen straight away, and it might not all be his fault, but it was he who agreed to a raft of policies that go against their own manifesto. He is the scapegoat who can hold his hands up, say mia culpa, and refresh the ‘old’ party vision.

And if they don't? Well the Greens are making some strong gains....

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

How telling stories can improve your reputation

Stories are as old as the hills and such a simple way of communication. A good yarn can create a positive narrative that reaches across audiences, let alone across generations. Some of the oldest tales have lived on thanks to their ability to capture emotion and imagination despite the lack of written records.

The Bible, the Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, many of the Roman histories all record stories that existed many centuries prior to their publication. Although details may have changed like Chinese whispers, central themes remain the same.

Everyone has a story or two to tell, and while my mother’s tales might get taller with every retelling, there’s a value to repeating them for entertainment, information and education. Even the most simple story can have a learning point as I mentioned in my blog before

So at the Harrogate 4N meeting, I decided to tell a story about myself to illustrate how stories say a great deal more than you may at first think.

How I saved the life of a celebrity donkey

As a sixteen year old, I delivered the newspapers around my village. Being a rural community, some of the homes were farms a mile or so from the next nearest house. The final house on my route was a fair old walk or cycle from the rest of my route.

At the top of the long winding drive, a donkey stood in the middle of the main road; quite motionless. Being on the brow of a hill and a blind bend, I feared this donkey was soon to cause one almighty accident. Assuming the beast had escaped the paddock of the house down the drive, I struggled to haul the donkey off the road.

Donkey’s aren’t called stubborn for nothing. After Struggling for ten minutes I had barely got the animal off the busy main road, and a further quarter of an hour later I was at the front door of the owner’s house.

A knock on the door early on a Sunday morning was not greeted warmly by the home’s owner, a dress maker to the Queen, who opened his bedroom and telling me to buzz off and stop waking him up. When I explained I’d returned his ass safely, he was even less enamoured with my Sunday morning alarm call.

I had drawn his attention to the noble stead now merrily munching on his best border plants whilst I was at the door. I quickly found out the donkey was not his property. A long haul back up the drive, and a similar stubborn journey down the next led me to discover this, too, was not the animal’s home. At least this was a proper farmer and he agreed to take the donkey and ring the police’s “Missing Donkey” department.

I thought nothing more about the incident until I looked at the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following Thursday. A large chunk was devoted to the sad tale of a Donkey, used in the filming of Tots TV, a programme from the same stable as Tellytubbies and In the Night Garden. The programme originally had a pony and donkey in it, but the pony had died. Mourning the loss, the donkey escaped its paddock and was found several miles away. The newspaper credited the discovery of the TV donkey by a local farmer, quoting his thoughts on the discovery.

So what does this actually teach us about Stories?

- One learning point is there are different versions of the same story. My story was the stubborn beast refusing to move, and the struggle to make the animal safe. The newspaper focussed on the sad tale of loss and reconciliation.

- If you don’t tell your side a story first, you might find someone else distorts the story, getting in first. This could be a corporate competitor.

- Stories are based on emotion and emotive issues. Even a big business story is about creating jobs and communities, and not about how many noughts are written on the contract.

- Stories tend to have a hook early on – in my case you want to find out more about why the donkey is a celebrity and what happened. Normally the first line or headline encapsulates the whole story.

- Stories have a halo effect on an individual or organisation. How do I come out the story? Caring, determined, struggling against the odds, sympathetic.

- If you have a message, make sure your stories reflect any relevant key messages you are trying to enlighten people about.

Public relations is about managing reputations and stories can help develop and build a reputation. The best stories are based on real life and true experience. Describing untruths as reality are also damaging to reputations. What I’ve discovered talking to people in business is how mangy good stories there are, and how little mileage businesses make of them. The times they’ve saved another person’s bacon, gone way past the extra mile yet failed to tell their customers and potential customers.

The image is taken from The Donkey Sanctuary, a worthwhile charity helping to protect the animals from abuse around the world.