Can PR Teams and their consultancies be too quick to look for glory?

I’ve just read an article in the PR trade media that has genuinely amazed me.

“Ω agency on behalf of megacorp ¥ managed to persuade $% of a consumer sample to change their mind about the behaviour of megacorp ¥ because they’re all extremely clever” There was a lot of attractive visual content to set the story off well, but you get the basic picture. “We’re all awesome”

“But what’s the problem?” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this what PR is meant to do?”

Of course, PR firms have to market themselves. Without context, this might be a perfectly normal “PR firm does good stuff” article in the PR trade media. in this case, I’m not sure the benefit overcomes the potential risks, particularly to their client.

Organisations have to be careful how much they brag about communications success. As part of the same issue, organisations have to be careful how much they allow their PR consultants to leverage the client’s powerful brand for their own marcomms. “We work for megacorp so we must be great”

There are a few potential downsides to consider. The first is prosaic. It’s a little like a magician showing how a trick works. Brag about the smart ways you can control public opinion and they will be less effective.

The second is more specific to this issue (about which I’m being deliberately coy). When there is a significant, influential and passionate opposition looking to exploit any mistake you make, don’t give them ammunition to fire at you.

In this case, it could be argued that the communications campaign that is being lauded by the PR trade media is actually a strategic own goal. It allows the opposition to demonstrate that megacorp ¥ is acting in bad faith. Instead of genuinely reforming its operations, it’s spending $m of shareholder funds on a PR consultancy to change the perception that it’s being more activist on an issue than is actually the case.

Or more simply, “You can’t trust what they say. Again.”

This is the message I’d be pushing were I advising the opposition. Make no doubt about it, this is an existential struggle to influence the publics that can have a real effect on megacorp ¥ continued hegemony.

Maybe I’m being horribly cynical. Maybe I’ve got this one entirely wrong. However, as you can see, it has got me thinking. So I’d like to throw this open to the audience; when is it a good time to PR your PR, and when should you just be internally pleased with the good results?

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Boxpark’s a quickie when Croydon needs something more meaningful

This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen https://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/boxpark-quickie-more-meaningful/

 

The Croydon Citizen recently published my not-entirely-complimentary review of Meat Liquor in Boxpark. As the review states, I was conscious that I was being harsher on the place than I would have been had it been a stand-alone venture somewhere else in Croydon. Away from Boxpark, I’d probably have scored it with three or four stars. I gave some thought to my reasons for this, and found myself reflecting more generally on Boxpark and what it brings to Croydon.

Before I continue, I should state that I’m a small investor in the Street Feast group. As well as a vested interest, though, this gives me some awareness of what street markets offer and the reasons that they can work so well. The key to a great street market is that its individual outlets are not meant to be considered simply in and of themselves, but as part of a wider leisure experience. So you go to Meat Liquor Croydon not just to experience Meat Liquor, but to ‘do Boxpark’: to #eatdrinkplay, as the hashtag goes. It’s all about context: grab some wings from one place, then have a beer. Wander over and have a pizza with a glass of wine. Make your own smorgasbord with your mates so that everyone gets a taste. This is how the venue gets repeat custom: people want to go back to try new things, because the venue works as a leisure venue.

And the problem for me with Croydon’s Boxpark is that I just don’t want to stay (let alone play) after wolfing down a burger, wings or whatever. Boxpark Shoreditch does make me want to hang around: it has places to just drink, which are better insulated against the cold and have a much better variety of drinks than those that are available in Croydon.

The layout of Croydon’s Boxpark is draughty. More importantly still, it doesn’t facilitate, let alone encourage, easy moving about the site, or standing and chatting with mates over a variety of drinks, as the Street Feast portfolio does. Doing so can end up as quite an expensive experience but it’s inherently social: you feel inclined to spend time. It’s rather like a night out in Soho; get some food then drink four cocktails over a few hours chatting to mates.

In Boxpark Croydon, the booze-only options are not particularly impressive in their line-up and/or are badly placed. My beloved Cronx Bar is on the outside so that it might as well be a separate boozer, and can’t be accessed from inside Boxpark at all. And don’t get me started on how it’s clearly not designed with either child or disabled access in mind. I have two active young kids and due to sports injuries I’m on crutches for a few weeks of the year. The floors are slippery, the tables too close together, the seats are uncomfortable and the doors very heavy.

There are those draughts to contend with, and the sound of a crowd bounces off all the hard surfaces, meaning that you have to shout to be heard… and that’s before the music plays, as it continuously does. It’s like being at a stadium, but a stadium without the major attraction. Palace doesn’t play here and the gigs are irregular. Boxpark therefore is not particularly well designed for me.

Maybe it will be better in the summer when outdoor drinking on the upper deck seems appealing, but the multiple delays in opening mean that I’ve only seen it on wet, dark, cold autumn and winter evenings.

If Boxpark reminds me of anything, it’s a high quality shopping mall food court of the sort you find in the US. This isn’t a standard British dining experience. There’s lots of choice, and much of the food is high quality. But it’s been plonked on the edge of a building site, which, when combined with brand attributes such as shipping containers/steel/exposed materials that are clearly designed to make it feel ‘edgy’, create the impression of a place designed as a twenty minute wolfed-down pitstop, rather than as a 21st century leisure destination.

I’m happy to admit that I’m not its target demographic, since I both live in Sutton and have been overexposed to the brand after six years of working in Shoreditch. Still, I’ve been disappointed on my four visits since it opened. I also don’t buy into the idea that it will help to create a positive reputation for Croydon as a tourist destination, due to the core nature of the product. If I travel into Croydon, it’s for meeting mates from different parts of London and the south east: finding something not available in Sutton, or because I can’t be bothered to go (back, as I’m a city boy) to zones 1 and 2. Comfort and longevity are important. If I’m investing a fair whack of cash I want to be able to hear my mates and feel like I can sit and chat for a few hours in comfort. Boxpark doesn’t tick these boxes.

If I might end with a crude analogy; Boxpark is full of outlets that offer hot, sticky, salty fun and provide a short term high. It’s fine in short, ahem, spurts, but it’s a naughty thrill that fades from the memory. I loved that sort of thing in my twenties, but now that I’ve settled down, have kids and have moved away from Croydon, I don’t need to make long journeys for a dirty food booty call.

This is probably why everyone else in the joint was ten years younger than me and having fun. Good for them.

Vinoteca Italiana

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen https://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/vinoteca-italiana/

Imagine the perfect trattoria. It would be fairly run and owned, with friendly Italian staff who care about your experience. You’d start with a selection of Italian breads and a grassy olive oil with a sweet and sour vinegar to have with a first drink. The place would have great al dente pasta with rich and punchy sauces that are lick the plate tasty, if not Michelin refined. There’s a wood-fire baked pizza you can eat in or out. Also ‘British-Italian’ classics such as saltimboca, stuffed courgette flowers, and outstanding produce led dishes with an emphasis on fresh veg and seafood.

There might be an outside area and children are there to be indulged and developed as mini food lovers, a valuable and essential member of each party. All the adults in the restaurant are entirely relaxed about the kids.

The wine list would be strictly Italian. Why range internationally when you can drink a bottle of Gavi and some Barolo to add some oomph. Maybe even an earthy montepulciano to go with the best pizza you’ve ever eaten. The desserts would be great ice cream, tiramisu, cantuccini and vin santo. Great coffee would be complemented by a limoncello or, if you want hairs on your chest, a grappa that is far more refined than many you might find.

Finally there’s a lovey hum to the place. Big and small groups are equally happy. They all combine to create quite a noisy restaurant that is a very happy place to be and is busy pretty much every evening. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not describing an imaginary restaurant. I’m reviewing a place that has enriched my family’s life in the twenty odd months that we’ve lived about a ten minutes walk away.

We get takeaway pizza 45-50 weeks of the year. My wife and I go there on date nights, and we’ve been there with a group of eight. The food really is exceptional and delivers a big punch of flavour. It starts with the rustic power of a punchy, spicy, vaguely Sardinian tomato and prawn pasta dish into perfectly cooked simple fish dishes. Pearly white sea bass is simply roasted with olive oil, garlic, herbs and lemon. Then onto classic meat dishes like the yummy saltimbocca.

The specials are genuinely special and change fairly regularly. The key to this place is the combination of the quality of the food and the genuinely welcoming and unobtrusive service. The husband and wife team that runs the place is complemented by genuine Italians who are happy to chat if you would like, but will leave you space if that’s what you would like.

I think Vinoteca is better than its equivalents in Croydon’s food quarter. You can spend only £20 per person and be happy, or you can eat and drink a lot and do some damage to your bank balance if it’s a special occasion and you want to play with the wine list. I know that it’s not technically in Croydon, but it is less than ten minutes away from West Croydon station, which is about twenty metres from the Carshalton Beeches station. The 154 from West Croydon or Waddon is about twenty minutes and it stops right outside.

I can’t recommend this restaurant enough to anyone that is within thirty minutes. If there’s a hefty bearded guy sitting on his own at the bar with a glass of red, wearing a rugby shirt, reading the sports pages and waiting for a takeaway pizza, it’s probably me. Say hello! I’m friendlier than I look.

Opinion: How to demonstrate the value of PR in the energy sector

I was interviewed – no, really – by leading PR and Communications Media Intelligence firm, Cision Gorkana. The interview coincided with the launch of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ new think tank, the Energy Leadership Platform, which I am co Chair.

Strange being on the other side of the fence, but an enjoyable experience, the result of which is below……

 

Paddy Blewer, co-chair of the CIPR’s new Energy Leadership Platform, explores how the group will demonstrate the value of public relations during a period of near unprecedented change for the entire energy industry.

We may have recently passed a major inflection point for the global energy industry. For many years, there was an acceptance of the standard corporate, operational and financial models. This is no longer the case.

One could argue that for much of the past fifty years, there was minimal difference between either international oil companies, or between large power generation and power/gas retail companies.

One could argue that for much of the past fifty years, there was minimal difference between either international oil companies, or between large power generation and power/gas retail companies.

This is not to deny that they all had different histories, assets and geographical specialities. Perhaps the greatest difference was in their very different corporate cultures but, at the same time, investors analysing their organisational charts, portfolio structures and long term income drivers would see that they had far more in common than not. Then:

  • Our understanding of environmental issues and their importance to the future of the planet and human existence grew exponentially – certainly across my lifetime. There has been an acceptance across the global industrial community that there has to be real and lasting change. The Paris Agreement was, in some ways, a culmination of this decades long trend, but also the start of a new journey. There won’t be a fundamentally strategic reverse to the way things used to be.
  • Technology has advanced at an incredible rate across the energy vertical. From the ability to squeeze more hydrocarbons from the rocks upstream that had previously been presumed uneconomic, down to the non-subsidised profitable generation of power from truly renewable sources, we have entered a fundamentally new paradigm, both operationally and financially.
  • These trends have lead us to what is termed the “Energy Transition” – whereby major energy players have restructured their operations and the capital base that funds them to align themselves with these prevailing trends.

It is the same across the vertical. Refiners and retailers have new regulatory challenges that effect both their businesses directly and, just as importantly, those of their customers.

Gas, heat and power retailers have to take both regulatory and consumer perception into account in a way that was not the case when utilities were far more a commoditised product that we all had to have and we didn’t care where it came from.

The CIPR Energy Leadership Platform (ELP) has therefore emerged at an opportune time. We want to engage with the issues inherent in the energy transition to demonstrate the value of PR and the strategic communication function; both grasping strategic opportunities and managing existential non-engineering risks.

To make it clear, the ELP is a thinktank designed to contribute to the wide ranging international debates on energy issues. It is not (just) a community to share best practice and help train our junior colleagues.

Our combined experience gives us the ability to analyse issues such as geopolitics, capital requirements, regulatory challenges, access to energy and the interaction between organisations and the societies in which they operate – and how PR and strategic comms can be used in such imperative and vital dynamics.

The ELP is designed to further the CIPR’s work in demonstrating that PR is a strategic management function, and that we can add value at the highest levels of corporate and government decision making – “permission to advise” just as many energy organisations require “permission to operate”.

This means reaffirming the request I’ve heard from many fellow PRs (both in-house and consultancy): “Let us help you develop the strategy, not just rationalise what you have decided”.

The ELP Advisory Board has centuries of relevant industry (PR) and sectoral (energy) experience across the globe. The ELP is the first initiative of its kind in the world in terms of both membership organisations and industry at large.

We are not aware of a reputation-led thinktank that focuses on energy issues in such breadth. Whilst we are aware of the potential downside of being the first (there’s no one to learn from directly), we are confident that we can and will make a positive difference both for the national and international PR industry but, more importantly, for the energy industry worldwide.

How the Bell Pottinger scandal made me think about Public Relations as a force for good and the inherent challenge of moral relativism

The Bell Pottinger row got me thinking about wider issues 

I’d imagine most people involved in the UK PR industry and many more around the world are aware of the situation around Bell Pottinger and their involvement in the deeply complex post Apartheid political dynamic in South Africa.

This is not an article about the Bell Pottinger scandal. I don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a lot of covering going on. I’m not a South African expert in any way shape or form.

The reaction to the situation has driven a bout of self reflection by a lot of highly respected comms consultants. The commentary all comes down to a few apparently simple questions that the PR and comms industry has been asking themselves for some time. How does PR create value? How do we best interact with a range of “publics”? What is acceptable corporate behaviour? Do we have responsibilities to our industry and publics?

As someone who fell into the communications industry following the realisation that I didn’t have what it took to make it in investment banking or diplomacy; I still feel like an outsider, especially on the occasions I put my thoughts on paper. I haven’t studied PR as an academic subject and my professional experience is through a series of specialised roles that demand either capital markets and / or geopolitical understanding. I therefore don’t necessarily know the rules of the wider game and can no doubt appear somewhat naïve or ill informed to wide sections of the PR / communications industry.

My reactions are based on personal experience of similar work, including a stint at B-P and reading the thoughts of more experienced industry practitioners, such as the links at the bottom of this article.

Something went very wrong on a well remunerated strategic communications project of the sort that is far more common in our industry than many PR practitioners might realise. It has given the industry pause for thought and has driven a lot of us to examine the way we look at PR as an industrial discipline. What conclusions can we draw?

 

PR’s reputational challenges whilst operating in a globalised economy

One of the reactions to the B-P situation has been to reassert a common aspiration within the PR & communications community that PR can be a force for good. That we can be the soul and conscience for an organisation and that PR & communications can help mould organisations into better citizens.

This is an entirely legitimate point of view and I agree with much of the aspiration behind it. An effective grasp of the potential of communications can make an organisation more focussed and effective in reaching its goals. An understanding of the wider needs of its publics and hardwiring them into its operations can have significant benefits for the organisation, its people and the balance sheet.

However, who defines what is moral and a force for good? How far along the value chain should PR advisors go to work out if they are genuinely on the right side, or whether they are part of what could be considered a reputational laundering structure?

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Old certainties that we understood who we were doing business with and why are gone. Industrial supply chains have diversified, capital moves around the world at the speed of light and our socioeconomic and cultural certainties have also changed, as we now operate within a far more diverse community than was the case 20 years ago. To be a successful global business you have to have high standards but you also have to be able to work with a multitude of diverse communities whose sociological / philosophical background might not match your own.

There are numerous tools and cut outs that allow international communications consultancies to feel more comfortable about certain sorts of work. Generally it’s about putting space between the consultancy and the ultimate beneficiary of the work. It could be a foundation; a stock market listing; a trade association; or a seemingly strictly delineated brief – all of these cut outs avoid the contentious stuff and appear to focus on apolitical, non contentious themes such as investment or diversity or competition.

Step back a bit however and this sort of projects can be seen as part of a wider pattern by a sovereign state, multi national corporation or ultra high net worth individual to project an alternate, more positive narrative, or to distract attention from some local unpleasantness.

The system therefore benefits three parties: the cut out itself that will benefit from the communications consultancy; the comms provider that will be paid handsomely and finally the “beneficial owner” whose wider reputation will be enhanced by the service, if only tangentially. In fact for the cut out to be a truly successful communications platform, it has to be seen to be successful in its own right, otherwise it’s transparency as a PR platform undermines its original purpose.

 

The challenges of moral relativism

This system allows international consultancies to operate within a globalised commercial system. The system both acknowledges the challenges that are inherent to cross cultural commerce and finds a legitimate solution that meets the needs of the majority of parties and stakeholders.

Once you start on the road of moral judgement, the endpoint is difficult to discern. Where do we draw the line? Why should PR providers be singled out for such a challenge? Lawyers, accountants, bankers and other service providers that offer a combination of C-suite strategic counsel and a commoditised suite of tactical operations do not appear to be going through similar existential angst.

A few examples of entirely legitimate and legally approvable work that might be challenged by the need to follow a more moralistic approach:

• Should we refuse ANY mandate from certain sovereign states or their paratstals (another sort of cut out) because of their involvement in (to us) morally challenging issues such as military conflicts, or their internal policies that us appear discriminatory but to them follows the teaching of their religion?

• Should we as PRs, refuse work from companies that generate power through burning coal, despite the multitude of evidence to show that it both damages the environment and kills people through higher levels of pollution derived respiratory disease?

• Armaments is a morally challenging industry, given what they are for and more specifically who buys them. When fuel air, cluster munitions or urban pacification tools are put in the hands of certain regimes, bad things can happen. It could be argued that the arms industry runs PR programmes to help clean some of that dirt off and ensure that they are not regulated to the point of significant damage to their balance sheet.

• Tobacco has been a constant challenge for the PR industry since the linkage between smoking and cancer became accepted. It’s not just a moral issue though. You probably can’t work for Philip Morris and Glaxo. You have to choose.

When it comes down to it, we all have our own “sniff test”. Some people have a sensitive nose and cannot stand the smell. For others it’s got to be really bad before they back out.
Speaking to a range of my peers and senior PR practitioners whilst preparing this piece, what is clear is that there are very few moral absolutes. Some would work for tobacco but not arms. Some would work for X country but not Y.

As mentioned, this bout of soul searching in PR is not necessarily shared in other industries. Much of the work I used to do as a communications consultant is increasingly becoming part of the management consultancy offering – in part because it dovetails neatly with their risk / corporate structure / fundraising / HR offerings and can be done by small teams for significant fees. It’s as likely that the same advice will be given by Mckinsey, or Deloitte as Bell Pottinger or Ketchum (two of my previous employers).

Perhaps this shows the direction of travel for the industry? Either willingly or due to a lack of care, this sort of business could be lost to a different industry.

I’m going to conclude with an example from a BBC comedy sketch show that makes my point and exaggerates for comic effect. It’s a discussion between two Waffen SS officers who are trying to work out whether they “are the baddies” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU

 

Some more reading on the subject:

https://2tribesgotojaw.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/2-tribes-in-pr-an-honest-trade-in-changing-minds/amp/

https://themediaonline.co.za/2017/07/in-the-wake-of-the-bell-pottinger-fallout-what-price-reputation/?platform=hootsuite

http://paulseaman.eu/2017/07/bell-pottinger-south-africa-a-reality-check/?platform=hootsuite

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ethics-where-do-we-draw-line-ella-minty-foundchartpr-mcipr-miod

http://www.prweek.com/article/1440687/4-lessons-agencies-learn-bell-pottinger-scandal

 

 

I’ve tried cynicism, but I still love the Lions

I’ve written before, at significant length about my love affair with the British & Irish Lions rugby team.

Something I’ve found new and interesting about the current tour has been driven by my addiction to social media. Since the last tour I’ve well and truly engaged with various social media portals, one of which almost got me fired, but that’s another story.

I follow and engage with a lot of Irish rugby fans on Twitter, given my love of Munster Rugby. I was initially surprised at their hostility to the Lions, both the concept and reality. From the rugby point of view, I can understand a certain amount of cynicism. Stepping back, it’s perhaps not so surprising.

The sport has become infinitely more complex since the turn to professionalism. It is nigh on impossible for a scratch team, no matter how good the players are, to play flowing, attractive, attacking rugby and win a test series against the best team in the world. The Lions therefore have to play a somewhat limited game if they want to be successful. This can lead to a certain level of cynicism about the enterprise and its ability to entertain,

However this tends to be a secondary argument from my fellow Munster / Irish loving tweeps. At the heart of the issue, is a feeling that the Lions is a colonial jaunt that wants to bring Ireland back into the British fold and pretend that 1917 never happened.

Or something like that. I may be simplifying for reasons of space, time and comedic effect.

This then leads to he argument that there’s no room for the Lions in modern rugby due to both this issue and the scratch team point mentioned above – and the fact that it weakens Irish rugby as the best players come back injured and knackered. Also, in years past there was an argument that Irish players might have learned new techniques from the process; however given the improvement in Irish provincial and national teams, this argument has far less weight, especially when balanced against the other negatives, especially the injury one. Munster can’t afford to loose any of its Lions.

At its heart however, I think that the general complaint against the Lions from my Munster / Irish following friends is that

1. This team does represent me

2. The aggressive marketing being shoved down my throats emphasises the fact that this team does not represent me

3. The British, but particularly English media coverage of past tours has emphasised the British nature of the Lions and has quickly turned on some Irish players. Ronan O’Gara is often cited as a player who got far more stick than he deserve by British media that opened historical wounds.

As an ethnically British / Irish onetime historian and COIN analyst I get all this. It’s entirely understandable. Of course there’s the complication that the Irish rugby team isn’t the team of the Republic; it’s an all island team. Some of the team will consider God Save the Queen as their anthem, not the Soldiers Song. Then there’s the point that proud Irishmen such as ROG, Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the Wallace brothers are entirely committed to the Lions concept, despite the pretty horrible treatment he got whilst wearing the shirt.

As a rugby fan, I’m not optimistic about the Lions’s chances in NZ. It’s statistically the hardest place to go for anyone, let alone a scratch team. The Lions shouldn’t have a chance. They should really lose every test and most of the provincial matches.

In fact, at the start of this tour, I might have shared some of these feelings, especially the naked commercialisation and money making drive that is a little bit too obvious for my liking. I don’t like sporting financial juggernauts. Of course everyone needs to make a living and the tour has to be paid for, but in he same way that Munster in combination with a willing media might have created something of a myth about the team as brand, the mythos of the Lions feels more and more artificial. I don’t like being sold to, and this is very aggressive selling.

Then there was the first few games where the Lions looked poor and I became more pessimistic and cynical. I was mentally preparing myself for the same disappointment I’d had last time the Lions toured NZ and trying not to care.

And then

I decided to stop being a cynic, around the time the Lions started looking like they might have become a team.

I revelled in some of the old stories being told about 89 and 97. I loved the fact that Munster scrum half Connor Murray was playing really well. Then there’s the story of Peter O Mahony. He’s gone from being on the bench for Ireland to the Lions test captain via a heart wrenching year for Munster. There’s a scriptwriter sitting down at his desks now to write the incredible conclusion.

The three provincial / Maori wins have given the Lions a sense of purpose and a roadmap of how they might be successful. A sickeningly suffocating and powerful pack will tie up opponents and put the All Blacks on the back foot, where their dazzling back line will not be as effective. Behind the pack, moves are beginning to work, passes are sticking and tries are being scored.

They probably won’t win but their odds are shifting every day they spend together.

Also, all that stuff I wrote about loving the Lions concept remains true. I treasure my memories of watching games with my Dad and now my wife. This will be the first series that Aidan knows what’s going on. For a committed romantic like me, lost causes like a rugby tour to NZ are perfect.

Then there’s my own identity. I’m a half English, half Irish rugby nut that has never felt entirely at home at Twickenham and the Barbour Brigade in the West Car Park. I own numerous rugby shirts. Two London Irish, one Munster, three Lions, one Team GB Olympics, one Biarritz. Note the one missing? I love the idea that centuries of bad shit can be put aside in an impossible dream of taking on the best in the world and making something better out of the best of four countries.

I’ve given up on cynicism until the tour is over. Come on lads, shove the blacks around the park and shoe the shit out of them if they lie over the ball.

“Lions, Lions, Lions, Lions”

The Camberwell Arms

Sometimes you need to go back and try again.

The Camberwell Arms has become the Blewer family (Camberwell branch) HQ for birthday food and drink for about 2 years now. We’ve enjoyed probably five or more great afternoons there, but this story starts with me swearing I’d never go back.

Over the years, we did a bit of circling around, with numerous visits to the Anchor & Hope on the Cut, Pizarro in Bermondsey and Franklins in East Dulwich. All have their significant charms and have been reviewed here. However due in part to logistics (most of us live in Sutton), cost and the need to find a child friendly option, we tried the Camberwell Arms.

The first time we went, on the longish (if you have a toddler and a baby with you) walk back to Denmark Hill station I was pretty much set that I wasn’t going back, or if I did it would be adults only. Aidan & Hannah had both decided that day that they didn’t want to stay seated, didn’t really want any of the food and didn’t want to be there. The numerous adults took turns in distracting them so we could all eat but it remains my most stressful restaurant experience (apart from a night in Moscow that is best not mentioned in polite company).

We were in the secondary room with a very large party adjacent and there was a lot of coming and going, which meant the kids had to stay at the table. The large party meant the the waitress upstairs was hard to get hold of and the kitchen was under pressure and our food took a long time. Neither Kirsty or I had had much sleep for months, what with Hannah being so young and our patience was as thin as a spider’s thread. It snapped on the walk and then quite long journey home.

This has been pretty much the issue for all of the restaurants mentioned, due to where my part of the family lives (Sutton), a civilised lunch in SE1 or SE5 is pretty much in the middle of nap time. Driving sort of managed this but it meant no drink for one of us, which we’d agreed to knock on the head. Kirsty and I knew this, and knew what happened if the kids didn’t nap. No sleep for us that night.

I know all of this sounds like a spoiled middle class #firstworldproblem, but sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation. Any parents reading this will understand the challenge. You want to spend time with your family and have a nice time, but you’re so effing tired and stressed that the smallest things set you off.

Anyway, I wasn’t going back. Then it was booked again and Dad and my Uncle Mark were both really looking forward to it and I couldn’t suggest somewhere else. The best I could do was ask for as late a start as possible so that Hannah could sleep.

You’ve probably guessed now that it worked. Hannah fell asleep on the walk down from the Station. They serve passable Guinness and always have a local pale ale in hand pump. We all looked at the menus and as I now feel every time I walk in, I thought “yum”.

For many years the CA was part of the Anchor & Hope stable which had an an effective formula. Find a grotty boozer in a previously rough but now up and coming part of S London. Add a lick of paint & mismatching furniture. Decent if slightly odd wine list. The kitchen serves rustic, trencherman type food that is WAY above usual pub standards as what looks simple requires very high level sourcing and serious technique in the kitchen. All of the group were sort of hybrid pubs where you could just go for a beer but the reality is they made their names as places to eat in the shell of a former pub that retained the ambience of a London boozer without really being one.

Service is friendly and professional. These guys know their job, put you at ease and serve the food with no fuss whatsoever. They’re enthusiastic about the product without trying to be evangelists or your best mate. They’re very understanding of our needs with two small kids, for which we are always grateful.

The Camberwell Arms has recently exited the group but at the moment the style remains and I really hope this continues. Exceptional silky, porky home made charcuterie, including really lovely rich rillettes and home pickled cornichons is a statement of intent matched by the scotch bonnet and pork fat on sourdough toast. Big meaty flavour served by a kitchen at knows what it’s doing.

Starters tend to be rustically presented but actually are quite delicate at least compared to the mains. The house cured smoked salmon and crisp bead is sweet, salty, fatty and serious, with thick slices, noseclearing horseraddish and again house pickles complementing it well. Babaganouj that is the equal of anywhere I’ve had in Levant, Gulf or Maghreb is served with griddled bread that’s like a bbqued pillow. I could eat about two kilos of this stuff.

Main courses tend to be big lumps of protein cooked perfectly with a sauce that demands good staff in the kitchen. Take my most recent main. A massive roast pork chop that had a big strip of crackling. Served on wilted greens with he best roast potato / chip type spuds you can find in London and a sauce based that was romanescoish that I want to buy in pots. I’ve had a similar but lighter dish with whole roast quail.

They do bigger dishes to share; a rabbit pie sticks in my mind from the first visit as a reason to come back. Spit roasted roast chicken and trimmings to be shared by groups of 2-4 depending on the size of bird. The fish always looks perfectly cooked, because this is an excellent kitchen that wouldn’t dream of serving anything other. Pearly flakes of white meaty fish, often with a buttery accompaniment are a staple of the menu. I’m a carnivore so tend to avoid but my mum regularly leaves a Top Cat style skeleton on an empty plate.

By the time you get to desert, you’re full, but they don’t let the side down. A short list of puds that are all made on site are always tempting and tasty. Home made ice creams normally do for me, often a tart and refreshing flavour, last time it was cherry and was great. They have calvados behind the bar that is young and apple-ey and pretty fiery. It’s calva not Somerset cider brandy so there’s enough velvet to dampen the fire but it delivers the big boozy hit that you want at the end of a great meal.

That’s what we’ve had every time. A great meal. Our kids have got older and we box clever on timings which has made the whole experience easier but at the heart of things this is a brilliant local restaurant that is more gastro than pub. I’d say I wished I lived closer but actually I quite like the fact we only go a few times a year as it gives the place a sense of occasion and makes it feel special.

The Camberwell Arms deserves this because that’s what it is, special.

I’m pleased we went back.