Passion or cold hearted calculation in communications?*

As a PR, I hear a lot about “passion”. “He/she really demonstrated their passion for this project” is a classic PR phrase. I hear my colleagues say they’re passionate about their brands and clients and working environments.

Then I listen to the stories colleagues and peers tell about great campaigns they’ve run or been a part of and see they way their eyes light up, and are a window onto their souls. They really are passionate, animated. They care. There’s no way that they could put in the hours, gain the coverage they have, without really believing in what they do. Believe me, it’s not the money as most PR people are not well paid compared to other graduate trades. You’ve got to want to do this.

Whether its shifting make up to 15 year olds or selling stock to fund managers, that inner belief, passion, commitment, whatever you want to call it, can really make the difference.

And yet…

When you’re the most excited, when you really care, when things are seriously on the line, human beings screw up. Not just a little bit either. Passion can be the catalyst for the mother of all cock ups, either professionally or personally speaking. Just look at the debate over shale gas in the UK. Passion has turned into shrill hectoring.

It might be my nasty British / Irish cynical soul but I find the constantly positive, passionate communicator deeply tiresome. What’s that? This is the worlds greatest doll, food, restaurant, investment, company, pop star, again? For the 10th time this year? Do me a favour and chill out.

So what’s the other side of the coin? Ruthless pragmatism? Steely, cold eyed objectivity? Fearless client counsel that is given no matter the personal cost? “TCUP” so beloved of Clive Woodward, “thinking clearly under pressure”?

Some of the most famous and successful men and women the world over have demonstrated the poise, what a certain sort of (almost certainly) man would have referred to as “grace under fire”. The ability to make cold decisions under pressure no matter what the cost, and certainly not bringing anything so subjective as “passion” to bear.

If we’re talking real fire, Guy Gibson VC is a good example. On the Dambusters raid, his VC was far from ceremonial. By repeatedly flying decoy runs over the dams, he drew the enemy’s fire, thereby allowing his subordinates an easier run than would have been the case. This decision was made under incredible physical and mental pressure, was cold hard logic; “If they’re shooting at me, they can’t shoot at my comrades”. It was the right decision as 2 damns were successfully destroyed, as would almost certainly not have happened if Gibson had not drawn fire. I doubt his crew were overjoyed however.

Business men and women and politicians face similar challenges. Firing long term colleagues that no longer cut it. Taking balanced risks to drive new revenues. Entering new markets. John Brown was thought of as mad to go back to Russia, and whilst there were squeaky moments, the TNK deal made more money than Han Solo could possibly imagine. The Tories got rid of Thatcher, their most successful post war leader, because they correctly analysed that she was unelectable. Major won the next election.

So is cold, hard pragmatism the way forwards?

Nay, nay and thrice nay.

Just as unbridled passion will eventually consume you, so will constant pragmatism lead to a bitter and twisted end. I’ll leave you to think of whom I might be thinking of.

To be an effective communicator, i do believe you’ve got to give a sh#t. You need to care about the subject in hand to be an effective advocate for your client. Our main targets can smell insincerity. However, unless you’re some sort of mind bender that can convince the most devout Sunni to eat bacon sandwiches on an ongoing basis, you need to introduce an element of realism.

There’s always the point where a great creative idea just goes too far. What was a brilliant idea is ruined by a puppyish enthusiasm to take every bit of value from it. What was an intelligent and thoughtful strategy failed to gain break through because of a lack of tactical enthusiasm.

Guy Gibson cared passionately about the mission being a success. Major believed equally passionately (unlike any Blewer) that the UK was better off with a Conservative government. They then took the painful decisions that required guts, intelligence, resilience that were driven by, dare I say it, passion and they were successful.

So where does this leave the debate?

As ever in life it’s a compromise. Personally, as is now clear, I distrust professional passion as it can so often turn into insincerity. Being seen to try too hard ruins the argument. (hello shale gas) However I understand passion is a vital weapon in the communicator’s armoury, as long as it is tempered by a colleague that knows when enough is enough and that the velvet glove should be slipped over an iron fist.

So what’s the conclusion?

You need to understand your personality. Either you work as part of a team where your skills dovetail with a near polar opposite, or you develop a near schizophrenic capability to be different people at different times; one minute cold, dispassionate, calculating and the next, a tiggerish, wide eyed ingenue, who believes in their cause, no matter what it is.

It will get results, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when non communications people don’t understand us.

* I should note I’ve spent all my post grad and professional life around capital markets, energy commodities and geopolitics. Not much idealism here.

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Sport on the wireless – a timeless pleasure

Ok, so it’s not strictly a timeless pleasure, but listening to sport on the radio creates an historical connection to some of the great sporting events of the 20th century. Louis v Schmelling; Bradman and Miller; cricket tours on the other side of the world, Olympics and World Cups of multiple sports.

Boxing and cricket work very well on the radio because there’s only so much movement to describe. Boxing is two individuals in a small ring and cricket is essentially individual confrontation in a team context. Tennis is similar, as is golf. Tension and atmosphere can be built on radio that TV doesn’t quite manage because the commentators define what we understand. The roar of the crowd needs a commentator to provide context, as Mike Costello does so well with boxing and also athletics. I sat in the car listening to his mesmerising commentary on Mo Farrah’s 5k win in the London Olympics, smacking the steering wheel with excitement. Then there’s the silence before a put followed by a roar at the Ryder cup. It’s even better if its late at night, broadcast from America.

The rapid movement of 22 footballers can be impossible to accurately describe without pictures, although I’ve listened to great matches and often watch a game with radio commentary on. Rugby is the same; a game defined by the ref’s interpretation demands pictures, but Iain Robertson is one of my favourite sports commentators and his description of England’s World Cup win was vastly superior to ITVs.

Then there’s the monster. Test Match Special. It’s been the background to my summers for about 30 years. You realise you’re getting older when you’ve been through a number of generations of commentators. Johnners, Bearders and the Major are probably commentating on Larwood bowling to Bradman somewhere. The current crop do a great job, and for all the wider stuff about cake, its very much about cricket. It’s ball by ball commentary. Unlike a day at the test, you won’t miss anything. It also saved my sanity, trying to comfort my little son at 0400, listening to tms.

I’m looking forward to the game starting in 10 mins. I’m feeling shattered because I stayed up listening to the Froch v Kessler fight. Sport on the radio has been a constant all my life, a burble in the background that I occasionally get turn up and properly listen to. I inherited this from my dad and Kirsty from her mum. I see no reason Aidan won’t take it on as well.

As a one time history student, i find this historical progression pleasing. Not as joyful as the excitement of the Froch fight last night, more the quiet happiness of doing what I’ve just done; flicking the dial to BBC 5 Live Sports Extra and hearing a muted round of applause, with Jonathan Agnew’s Leicester inflected RP accent; “flicked away by Swann to fine leg, that’s his first run of the day”.

The Carpenters Arms, Shoreditch

http://www.carpentersarmsfreehouse.com/index.htm

This place is awesome. Its my favourite pub in the City Fringe – East London – Shoreditch area. About 2 mins walk east off Brick Lane. They have an exceptional beer range, with three on hand pump, some interesting “new” ales on keg and about 20 bottles, including the KING OF BEERS, Orval. There’s lots of wine which looks keenly priced and a very good spirits list. DuPont Calvados. In a pub. This is not a normal pub.

They really care about the beer here, with crystal clear beer, poured carefully. It’s very different to some beer pubs of the traditional Camra sort, or the self consciously trendy brewdoggish place just up the road. I’ve got time for both, but these guys find a glorious middle way.

Light woods and a high ceiling give a small front room an airy feel that it might not otherwise have. There’s another small back room, and also an attractive back yard for smokers and sun bathers.

Basically it’s an attractive little backstreet London boozer that’s been slightly modernised, but is fundamentally true to itself. This is very much a pub, not a bar. It’s open to anyone, and I suspect that whilst there’s a fair few local trendies in there all day, I’ve never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome wearing either pinstripes or baggy jeans and rugby shirt. Come one come all.

There’s some decent food; ham and meat platters, home made scotch eggs, roast beef sandwiches and the like. Apparently their Sunday lunches are good. All of these are great accompaniments to the beer.

Theres not much more to add. It’s just a bit too far away from the office for me to have a comfortable lunch, as i’m looking at my watch all the time, but if you’ve got time, this is a pub that invites you to linger.

And to go back.

As many times as you can

Test cricket: an enduring love affair

I’ve loved a few things in life. A very short list of women, and now no more. My son and my wider family. A frankly stupid boat. A few drinks, and then a few drinks more. The crackle of a Marlboro light in a silent room at 3 in the morning. The noise and smell of a pub with a coal fire at Christmas time. The sound of a merlin engine. Cinema; westerns, noir, Indy and Star Wars. Detective novels, Hammett, Chandler & Parker. Branford Marsalis and Jeff Tain Watts.

But enough of these things, its time to talk about something really important.

Cricket

I’ve always loved watching the game. From Botham and Lamb sometimes holding things together in the 80s to Robin Smith for a little while being the best batsman in the world in the 90s. There was nothing to match the excitement of Smith vs a battery of real pace bowlers. Ok so Warne did him, but that’s no shame. Then there’s the wider hinterland of county cricket. Going to the Oval with dad and seeing the fearsome Sylvester Clark, Monte Lynch catching flies and a great surrey team develop with Stewart, Thorpe, the Bicknells and the Hollioaks.

My first game was Surrey v Lancashire at the oval in 1988. Sylvester Clark ran through lancs like a knife through butter, or Tweety through rum punch. It convinced me of something that remains a solid truth. World class pace bowling wins more games than anything. http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1980S/1988/ENG_LOCAL/CC/SURREY_LANCS_CC_25-27AUG1988.html

I played a bit at school and after and was ok, but never anything special. I knew what should be done but lacked the talent to do it. I’ve given a lot to cricket; broken fingers, torn rotator cuff, shot knees, but have taken so much more from it; playing, watching, chatting with mates. My lack of playing skill increased my awe at what Malcolm Marshall or Waqar Younis could do with a ball, or how Viv or Tendulkar could take any attack apart.

This brings me to another point. Cricket is tribal but inclusive. Cricketers and supporters appreciate the game no matter who plays it. This is different to football or rugby where tribalism is sort of the point. Asked for my favourite ever players, there’s more foreigners than Brits.

In team order – and this is my favourite team, not a world xi

Greenidge
Gooch
Viv
Robin Smith
Monte Lynch
Graeme Thorpe
Alec Stewart
Malcolm Marshall
Curtley
Waqar
Sylvester Clark

You see what I mean? 5 England qualified, but 2 of those were foreign, and they’re all there because I saw this team do things that made me laugh with joy.

Then there’s the stories and the history. Each series fits into a sporting historical narrative that i can understand through cricinfo or my collection of wisdens from 1989 onwards. There’s heavier stuff as well. Sometimes sport is heightened by political / economic / historical and contemporary trends.

Colonialism, post imperial decline, the rise of India and the political power of sport are all part of the tapestry, which has created some incredible sports writing. Cricket has been blessed with a literary canon unmatched by other sports – possibly because the game invites contemplation through its inherent time scale. There are some wonderful cricket writers at work now, many but not all ex pros; Selvey, Marks, Atherton, Haigh, Premachandran. Note again the international nature.

I can mark a lot of my life by cricket. England were playing India when Dad and I climbed Ben Nevis, it was Gooch’s 333 series. I toured Barbados as I left school. I moved from Bell Pottinger to College Hill during the epic 2005 Ashes, and then to Ketchum during the 2009 Ashes, both of which I attended. One of the reasons I knew I’d picked a winner was when Kirsty told me she was a tms fan, when we were getting to know each other and falling in love (she also loves football, rugby and boxing, but supports the wrong teams in Liverpool and Northampton). Of course it’s just one piece of the jigsaw but an important one. We were both at (separately) Matt Prior’s debut test v the windies at Lords. We’re getting married in Barbados and it just so happens to be their cricket season.

I started this post because even though the first two days of the current test v NZ didn’t light too many fires, I loved them because its the first test of the summer. Quiet sessions allow chat, contemplation and beer. They provide a relaxed sound track whilst working in an office listening to Test Match Special. A few quiet sessions or days merely set the scene for the drama that kicked off this morning with Anderson taking a great pfeiffer (five wickets) and Finn chipping in with four despite not bowling that well. I think it will be a tough series and a great appetiser to the Ashes double header.

I know I’m rambling a bit, but that’s the cricket way isn’t it? Like a tms session, there’s a thread running through this post, with a lot of tangential asides. I’ll blog about more specific things at another time. I suspect these will be on fast bowling, test v 20:20, and the ashes. But for now I’ll leave you with this thought.

Cricket is a sport planned around meals. Sport & food. No wonder I love this game.

What BP and Shell can’t tell you; yet another oil crisis has nothing to do with the man in the street

Another week, another crisis for big oil. You might all have noticed that BP, Shell and other supermajors are in the news for “fixing the price of petrol”.

As someone that has spent a lot of my life advising natural resources firms I find this fascinating. i found the initial media coverage particularly strange as it appears to betray pretty much total lack of sophistication shown by a number of commenting parties. Which is strange as I deal with these people all the time, and I wouldn’t have expected them to drop the ball like this.

This first thing I’d like to suggest is that is very much not about fixing petrol prices. Whilst there clearly is a correlation between the price of Brent crude and the unleaded that we put in our cars, the price differentials under investigation are of such small value, and of a frequency that should not be influential on the “petrol” price we pay which is based on long term predicted averages.

This is about oil traders making a few more million in profit at the institutional level across capital and energy markets. They are trading a product that has to go through a transformational process, both industrial and monetary before it turns into petrol.

So why all the noise and why, if I’ve read all this right, have the media taken this line and why have the oil companies let them?

Well what’s actually happened is that the European Commission has indeed raided a number of big oil firms and a price reporting agency due to “concerns that the companies may have colluded in reporting distorted prices to a Price Reporting Agency to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products”. This is the official line from the Competition Commission website and its the specific institution that will have scared the bejesus out of various comms people.

The competition commission is the organisation that successfully went after Boeing and Microsoft and is also hunting for a Russian bear. They don’t go public till they think they have a very good case.

This means that the best communications practice is to keep your head down, make a generic “helping with enquiries” statements and say “no comment” an awful lot.

It was pretty much the same on the EC side. They did distribute a generic press release about the raids, and Brussels can be a bit leaky, but what normally happens in these situations went on as usual. All sides make official factual statements and then get in their bunkers, for risk of prejudicing either the investigation on the EC side, or any legal process on the other side.

This leaves an awful lot of space for conjecture and opinion to develop, and this is where the misconceptions have developed. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Normally, if there’s an issue or crisis (say an industrial accident) or a secret corporate action (acquisition or find raising) people like me are used by our clients to have “off the record” conversations at arms length with the media, investors, and wider stakeholders such as political figures. The whole thing is deniable and done at arms length, but generally these lines are intellectually acceptable and help the target come to a balanced conclusion on the situation.

This perception management approach is of course very much down to institutional and personal style. One of these firms is very well known to be deeply conservative in its comms and legal approach and has been out communicated on a number of confrontational situations in the past, but another is as aggressive as it gets when it comes to multi billion international corporations.

It would however appear that any briefing has been pretty ineffectual, as the worst thing that can happen for an oil firm is for a corporate issue to become consumer. As ever, it’s the connection to the “man in the street” that can really kick off the pressure on a corporation and its comms team. The media cares more, as do the politicians and regulators that you don’t want to annoy.

As I say, I think the commentariat has got this entirely wrong. It has taken what could be a very significant issue for the European and global crude oil markets and its major participants, with potential billion dollar repercussions for some of Europe’s largest firms, which is in of itself a very important business story and it has tried to make it a consumer story. This is because in some cases, it provides “relevance” to readers / watchers / listeners that aren’t interested in trading regulation. In part however, its because general commentators don’t know any better and are following the pack. If BBC Today says its about petrol prices, who are we to argue?

So what’s the solution?

Well as an ex very junior forex trader, I’d say “don’t get caught”. All markets are manipulated in criminal ways. This is wrong, buts its the way of cap markets life. It’s the regulators’ jobs to catch and stop criminal activity and if criminals get caught, they deserve to have to book thrown at them.

As a fairly experienced comms advisor however, I’d get someone deniable to have a quiet word with the external contacts that matter. They should do their level best to make sure that when the EC comes back to this issue, all the vital external contacts see this as a matter of “regulatory governance of a small number of commodity traders.”

Communications should work hard to make the issue dull, take it away from the consumers and demonstrate a long term commitment to corporate governance.

There you go, you’ve already forgotten then is potentially a multi billion dollar fraud hadn’t you?

The inherent dangers of democracy

I’ve spent quite a lot of my professional life working around what are referred to as “emerging markets”, often attempting to portray specific sovereign states in as positive a way as possible, primarily to capital markets.

Whether its Russia, Saudi, Kazakhstan, India or the UAE, I suspect all of them would be amazed at what is happening in the UK as regards ongoing membership of the European Union.

My point is not whether the UK should or should not be part of the EU. Whilst I do have quite strong views on this matter, the thing that genuinely shocks me is not the debate itself but the reason we are having it now, and the terms of the debate itself.

As a PR person that advises the Boards of listed companies or government officials on their interaction within capital and industrial markets, I’m amazed at the entirely short term reference of this debate. If it was me I would be making a long term argument either for or against which was based around the dynamic that involves (geo)politics, fiscal and monetary issues, employment, balance of payments and national (self) image. This is pretty much what I do in a daily basis.

But this isn’t what’s going on over here, and this is why I am deeply unimpressed with the situation. Sovereignty is a complicated thing. Issues of sovereignty should be considered with deliberation and decisions should be taken in the long term national interest.

Instead of strategic thought what appears to be going on is based on short term, straightforwardly individualistic self interest. Tories worried about losing their jobs due to the rise of UKIP are driving this argument towards the ideal conclusion that the UK pulls out of Europe. Some might even think that this is a good idea, but even if this is the case, why aren’t we hearing detailed plans for a post EU foreign and economic policy?

As i say, I hear and read a lot of argument about how “bad” Europe is. Much of the argument is well made. What I don’t hear or read is what I would advise my client on; strategic planning, and the benefits for the UK of independence. Basically pulling out is only a good idea of plan b is viable. I don’t even know if there is a plan b.

This leads me to conclude that we are being dragged towards a monumental decision on the basis that the Tories are worried about losing power to a new constituency and are reacting tactically to this new threat, without thinking of the long gem consequences.

Whether its individual fear of losing a seat in a marginal or a more institutional loss of Conservative Power (hence unelected Tory grandees like lawson and portillo), the situation to me seems entirely amoral. MPs are meant to serve the interests of their constituents and the government is meant to serve the interests of the UK.

They might even be making the right decision, but everything in the language and approach of this campaign convinces me that this is all about the Conservative party and its position in British democracy as it is about Europe and the UK’s political and economic position in the world.

And that’s the danger with democracy. We have to trust those we elect to act in our interest and not our own.

And how likely is that to actually happen?

The great UK shale gas debate

As those of you unfortunate enough to follow my twitter feed will know that I comment on a lot of energy issues, that have so far not made it onto this blog.

Well here goes….

Today there was a big conference on shale gas in the UK, attended by lots of movers and shakers in the industry, with relevant stakeholders from the media, government, regulators and NGOs.

I didn’t go, but following all the tweets coming out of it, it looks like there are still two entrenched sides. Those that would suggest that shale gas will transform all our lives for the better and those that would suggest the opposite.

It sometimes feels like I’m dealing with religious fanatics. As a rather lapsed catholic, I’m aware of the concepts of catholic orthodoxy, the Eucharist, dogma and heracy. They’d fit quite well in the shale gas debate.

I’m not going to stretch this metaphor too far, but Jesus Christ guys, lighten up.

The first thing I’d like to remind everyone is that there’s no difference at the well head from “shale gas” and the gas that is produced in the North Sea. It’s just held in tighter packed rock.

Far too many people seem to think there’s a fundamental difference. Be aware that if you attack one, you attack both and who’s the winner there? That’s right, everyone’s favourite renewable fuel. Coal.

The second thing is fraccing and emissions. There’s a hell of a lot of conjecture about both. At the moment, I can’t make my mind up on both sides of this debate, but one thing I can say is I’ve advised a lot of oil companies that frac oil wells and there’s never been a problem.

The above point is surely about regulation. This is not new technology. This is a tried and tested technique that is known to work and is scientifically understood. It’s not witchcraft and wizardry. It should fraccing on tight or shale gas should be safely executable as long as there is a strong regulatory system in place and all instances are fully approved.

There are financial questions that no one has answered to my satisfaction. This will have to be a commercial enterprise. Shale gas projects are very expensive due to the very high capex and opex inherent to the industry. Whilst there are firms that have the cash, their road to profit is, for me, a little fuzzy. Small cap oil explorers I can understand the equation. With, say, Caudrilla, I’m yet to see the long term cash flow projections and how they can make long term profits. How long before they become profitable? How will the new liquidity source effect the UK energy and gas industry? These are questions I want to see detailed answers on, not just an airy wave of the hand, a patronising smile and a “we’ll sort it out”.

There’s been a lot of suggestions that shale gas will bring a massive economic boom to the UK, similar to that enjoyed by the US. From local employment up to GDP, apparently shale gas will unlock wealth heretofore unknown. Actually I think they may have a point. Thatcher got away with what she did thanks to UKCS oil revenues. Why shouldn’t there be a second energy boom in the UK?

On this subject, we should consider the issues faced by local communities. Trucks driving up and down roads not designed for HGVs is not something to be sniffed at. I live with a local consultation specialist, and I remember her phone going off in the middle of the night to complain about plant works waking up children. How do power companies and real estate firms get around this sort of challenge? simple, they redistribute profits to local communities and councils. Want to make fraccing more attractive to local communities? Get building that playground etc.

Finally there’s the simple issue. Energy security. This is far more open and shut. Until renewable tech really works more effectively, native gas reserves are the cleanest, safest way to ensure UK energy security. This is not to say we can’t trust Qatar, Russia, Norway, Algeria etc but isn’t it better to know you can do it yourself as well?

So basically, I’m yet to be entirely convinced, because of the lack of detail, the patronising attitude of all sides, and also my concerns over the lack of a detailed enough regulatory system.

I just wish the sides could focus more on empirical argument as opposed to hot air. This would help us all work out what we think.