Trumpageddon may be some way off; a few thoughts on CI and financial crime investigations

A lot of people on my social media streams are getting rather excited about #Trumpageddon and whether we are closing in on an endgame. Are we reaching the point where evidence can build to a point where the political commentary gives way to legal process?

Social and 24/7 media emphasises everything that might be wrong with the Trump Administration (I really want to call it a regime). Global media orgs are busting a gut to proclaim the next exclusive and get as many eyeballs on their variety of portals. It’s becoming something of an arms race; which media org has the hottest of takes?

The story is self nourishing due to the remarkable series of events and the way Trump and his team have attempted to manage the situation. It must be great fun for the journalists covering it, but the way media organisations are jumping on the issue, you’d think that something is going to happen NOW and we have to keep our eyes on their portal to get the news. It’s becoming a commercial driver for them – clicks = $. In my experience $ can effect objectivity.

It’s the same on social media. If you’re of a generally liberal bent, your social media echo chamber is probably full of “this is another nail in the coffin” post. Trump must go. Putin is pulling the strings. etc etc.

However, something that grabs me as a onetime student of intelligence and then spending a career advising post soviet related corporate and financial affairs, is that whilst the dénouement to situations appears to suddenly happen, there’s often a very long gestation period.

This situation could almost be designed as a perfect storm for investigators and prosecutors.

Both CI investigations and international financial corruption are infamous for the time necessary to compile a case that has a good chance meeting the requirements of due process to even get into court, let alone win the case.

It’s worth remembering that we’re not dealing with an average criminal audience. In some of the classic cases (Kim Philby, Aldrich Aymes, BCCI, Enron) the authorities were dealing with an exceptionally sophisticated opposition who were aware of both the minutiae of the relevant law, and how to find loopholes necessary to do what they wanted. They had planned a strategic operation. They considered not only how to make the operation secret and successful, but how to protect themselves in case of hostile penetration (stop sniggering at the back), incompetence or betrayal.

On the financial side, even when investigators / regulators etc are sure that something morally or even legally compromising has happened, it can be very hard to prove in court. International and domestic corporate law allows for multiple layers of entirely legal corporate vehicles and beneficial ownership structures, which consequently make it exceptionally complicated to demonstrate the flow of assets from Mr X to Mr Y. I’ve seen this numerous times in the post soviet space with acquisition of energy or resource assets. Everyone knows that Mr Y is acquiring an asset, but you’d never know from reading the prospectus.

Then there’s the issue of protecting intelligence sources. The WW2 Allies made a conscious decision not to attack certain targets (eg Concentration Camps) to protect the integrity of the crown jewel of Allied Intelligence, “Ultra”; the ability to read German signals traffic in real time. Many CI investigations will get to a point where a decision has to be made about the cost / benefit of going ahead with a case that may risk an intel asset or capability.

So my point is this. Yes, there’s a hell of a lot of circumstantial evidence flying around that makes the Trump Administration look at least incompetent, or a willing fool, or even knowing tool of a hostile foreign actor.

None of this however necessarily means that we are particularly close to a legal / regulatory / political endgame. In a novel or film, corners are cut. People are disappeared in dramatic twists. However, in what appears to be a situation without precedent, the importance of due process cannot be ignored. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

I don’t know whether we’re at the end of the beginning or the start of the middle. Unless things are far more advanced that would appear (and if so, Chapeau to FBI and wider US IC) we are nowhere near the end yet.

Imagine Brand Was Worthless….

This is going to be a fairly brief blog that might turn into something longer that involves proper research depending on feedback from peers and (ex)colleagues.

3 months after leaving agency for a new role in house, I’ve had a few offers of support from my communications advisors. I’m always happy to meet and chat, although as I’ve told everyone, I’m not looking for external support at the moment. My initial role as an inaugural Head of Comms is to properly define the value proposition of communications to my new employer. They’ve shelled out on me and the associated costs of hiring, I’m not in a position to justify further investment at the moment.

Anyway, a few people I’ve met commented something along the lines of “if I had any spare budget that had to be used by the end of the year, they’d be happy to take it off my hands”

I know it was a joke, sort of, but that line has combined with some long standing misgivings about our industry and associated trades (marketing / advertising etc) and has led to the title of this blog.

I wonder how much communications / PR / marketing / advertising work carried out in London has virtually no value – or at least nowhere near the value of the services that are actually paid for?

Take a fundamentally commoditised product sold wholesale to cost conscious clients. There is no difference between this product and that sold by rivals. They both create the same outcome. Often they are created in the same place and traded multiple times. They are entirely interchangeable. Let’s say this product might be quite close to my heart and professional experience.

Does brand really matter in this case? Is there truly a justifiable benefit for the $millions spent on any number of communications services designed to help drive sales of this and many similar products?

I’m honestly unsure of the answer. I have deep respect for senior ex colleagues & peers who have had very successful careers doing exactly this sort of work. I also respect a number of the companies that have committed both philosophically and financially to this approach. Obviously it gets more complicated if one is dealing with a consumer product, however I still have this little nagging voice at the back of my mind.

This isn’t about agency or in house. It’s not about big or small agencies. I’ve now worked for a small agency, one of the world’s largest and I’ve just gone in house. It’s about communications as an industry and whether we can be accused of maintaining a loop of self justification for what can be extremely expensive products that have limited discernible benefit?

Of course evaluation methodology is improving but equally this could be included in the self justification argument; as to be truly objective, we should consider what the commercial outcome would be without a communications solution, or at least a more limited baseline. Think about that for a second. Would products still be sold if our work didn’t exist? AMEC’s “Barcelona Principles” are a strong step in the right direction here, but I’m not sure they answer that nagging question in the back of my mind.

This isn’t a Jerry Maguire moment. I’ve seen people fall out of love with PR and say, “It’s all a load of BS; I don’t believe in what I’m doing and certainly don’t believe what my clients are selling” – this isn’t the case for me. I love working in the communications industry and I’m committed to doing the best job possible for myself, my employer, and more so now than earlier in my career, for the wider industry.

I would however welcome thoughts and feedback from peers or all levels, as this is the sort of thing we need to work together on. We’re naïve if we don’t recognise that communications can have a negative perception with those outside the industry – some of whom we need to persuade to sign off on budgets and / or hire us.

All thoughts welcome, thanks in advance

Chez Bruce: 21 years of making me feel like I’m at home

I noted a few days ago that it was the 21st anniversary of Chez Bruce’s opening. For those not in the know (eg those not of a foodie disposition living in London), CB started as a small local brasserie when Wandsworth Common wasn’t quite as leafy or as well-heeled as it is now. Now it’s bigger and grander, as many of us get as we get older and put on weight. Like CB however, I hope I manage to retain a lightness of touch.

CB has been given all sorts of accolades that it wears fairly lightly. It’s also been the place the various different Blewers have chosen to mark important dates, or celebrate something. The food is worthy of a great celebration. Outstanding old fashioned technique and an understanding of gastronomic history are combined with some surprisingly modern consideration.

CB lunch

First and foremost, the food is outstanding. Given all those accolades, such as a Michelin star, it should be; but I’ve been over 20 times and have never, ever, thought anything other than “wow” when contemplating the food. The familiar (my favourite chicken  / fois gras starter) is mixed with experimental, but it all delivers on flavour, finesse, but above all, comfort.

This thing for me about CB. It is deeply comfortable. So many “destination” restaurants feel like being in church. I once made a loud and frankly filthy joke in a Ramsay place because I couldn’t stand the hushed silence. There’s no need in CB, as there’s always a nice hum of happy chatter.

Given it’s antecedents and the local punters, this is perhaps not surprising, but take the standard of the food, then consider the sort of food that it is (rich / flavoured / filling), and then add genuinely warm and personable service; it’s not surprising we all seem ever so slightly smug to be there.

It doesn’t have to be this good. There are hundreds of restaurants in well heeled parts of London that have good food and smart staff that haven’t made it. Racine was a kindred spirit to CB. Whisper it, the food might have been just a fraction better on occasion. But Knightsbridge changed and it went the way of the dodo. So what is it about CB that has helped it last the test of time?

Location is always important. You don’t have to drive to get there as its right on a good train line. It’s also benefited from the gentrification of what was already quite a nice area in the first place. However for me, the main thing is that it is comitted to making every single person that comes into CB feel great.

There’s the top quality content that is almost unrivalled at the price point. Lovely bread etc. Interesting beer. Outstanding food. A wine list that should have evangelists it’s so long (but don’t worry, the team are imaginative and sensitive). Then there’s the people. CB has always had brilliant, engaging, friendly staff that give advice if asked and don’t push if they don’t.

I think my point is that CB is run and staffed by people that understand the concept behind the industry: “hospitality”. Treat guests as you would wish to be treated: with humour and grace and intelligence, and make sure they are fed well.

Frankly I wish I could get this at home, but with 2 small kids and both my wife and I working full time, this is a fantasy. CB therefore is the fantasy of being at home, and for that, and for 20 years of genuine pleasure, I thank  all involved.

Saudi Aramco: when IPO communications is about more than just $

The recent announcement in the Economist of the potential for a Saudi Aramco IPO got the energy, capital markets and communications community in a bit of a flutter. After waiting for the dust to settle, and a bit more information to come out of the Kingdom (eg this won’t be a full IPO of the holding company), I’ve attempted to put my thoughts on the matter into some sort of cogent order.

As you might know, I’ve advised 4 national oil companies, a number of energy ministries and some sovereign state; so I have a certain amount of experience around this subject, but cannot claim any sort of inside knowledge and understanding. I could be as wrong or right as the next commentator.

An unusual announcement:

The recently announced intention by Saudi Armaco to consider some sort of IPO is, as has been noted by an anonymous banker in the FT, rather against usual practice. (behind paywall) https://next.ft.com/content/5b6ac53c-b875-11e5-bf7e-8a339b6f2164
Bankers would have us believe that it’s in the reputational interest of the client to keep quiet until a transaction is all but guaranteed. Whilst I remain agnostic on this, as the reputational risk is far greater for the investment banks than it is for the corporate; the greater control exerted by the primary advisor to IPO over the last decade or so means that corporate actors and their communications advisors today rarely get the luxury gauging market reaction through a bit of strategic communications. The news about Saudi Aramco considering an IPO is therefore very rare.

 

Consider the motivation:

This discussion is derived from an exclusive interview in the Economist (paywall) http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21685475-possible-ipo-saudi-aramco-could-mark-end-post-war-oil-order-sale , not with Saudi Aramco, but with Kingdom’s deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. We must therefore consider this news through a wider prism than a normal IPO. Corporate and financial considerations will be central to the campaign, but the needs of Saudi Arabia itself are interlinked.

Consider the current reputational challenges that KSA faces. Geopolitical conflict in Yemen and beyond; low oil prices and their consequent internal financial challenges; a lack of consensus within OPEC to Saudi production targets and finally the fundamentally cultural perception challenges when Saudi politics and society are viewed in Europe or North America.

The Kingdom took the brave decision to go on the front foot and tell their story directly. I’m sure there will be been long negotiations between the Economist and the Kingdom as to what areas were “fair game”, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was both a serious coup for the Economist and a brave and rare decision by the Saudi leadership to make a balanced on the record statement of belief and positive intent. The long interview with Prince Salman shows that there is another way to look at the myriad of dynamics in which the Kingdom is involved. Whether you agree or not, the article is persuasive that the Saudi point of view is worth considering.

 

The Sovereign / parastatal reputational connection

Sovereign states have every right to use their operational and financial assets as communications exemplars to enhance their reputation. Even Aramco’s harshest critics admit that it’s incredible that such a massive, complex corporation manages to run as effectively as it does. It is very much a potential jewel in the crown of Saudi global communications; an example of the way Saudi Arabia has developed both in corporate but also technological and financial terms.

This status would only be enhanced by the transparency and corporate rigour necessary to list equity on any stock market, including the Tadawul (Saudi Stock Exchange). In fact a listing on the Tadawul would be perfect, as it would enhance global interest and liquidity in the Saudi Stock exchange – raising the global profile of another Saudi institution, and demonstrating the continuing development of the modern Saudi state.

 

A PR Stunt or combined value narrative?

Matching the needs of the Saudi Arabia, the NOC and wider stakeholders = Great PR
So the big question here is whether this all a “PR stunt” designed for short term gain? In general terms, it depends on the commitment of the State in question (in this case Saudi Arabia). Good PR demands true operational commitment. For a narrative to resonate, there has to objectivity. For Saudi Arabia to truly enhance its reputation through an IPO of one of the most important companies in the world, it has to be genuinely committed to the success of the IPO and provide ongoing growth to the stock – or at least guarantee yield.

If this is part of a reputation enhancement campaign for Saudi Arabia – and Aramco probably doesn’t need new capital – investors have no reason to be concerned. Their interests and those of the Kingdom are in fact intertwined.

By choosing to IPO Saudi Aramco, the Saudi political leadership may well have created a positive ongoing narrative that will allow it to continually present a successful, modern, innovative face to the world. Assuming the listed vehicle is commercially successful, everyone’s a winner.

Farewell to Waddon

Sometimes numbers don’t tell the true story.

Says the man paid the make a narrative out of numbers; who is supposed to find human interest in pounds, dollars and roubles.

So perhaps I’m trained to see the romance in the spaces between the numbers. I’m sure anyone reading this wouldn’t find anything interesting in the following numerical sequence: 2, 2, 2, 4, 13

Indulge me for a second as I wind my way through a very personal blog, filling in the gaps between the numbers, and finding my own story in these numbers.

13 / 2

I’ve lived in Waddon for 13 years in two flats. It was always a marriage of convenience. Both flats, 50 odd yards apart were never where I particularly wanted to live. I never really knew where I wanted to live, but I didn’t think it was going to be here, stuck on the dirty, unloved arse end of Croydon, cheek by jowl with the A23 and the railway line. Next to a well known rough boozer, an annoying schlep into Croydon, with buses I knew were crap because I’d relied on the same busses most of my adolescent and nascent adult life.

Ready for the but? The railway gets me into London Bridge, Victoria or Shoreditch very quickly. It runs early and late. Croydon is but a snap of the fingers away, with good shopping and better food that has improved over the years. The A23 is a useful artery to have close by, and Waddon itself is straightforward suburbia, no better or worse than anywhere else. We’ve got a great new Arab restaurant that I reviewed here (link) the famous and excellent wing yip Chinese / Far Eastern centre and a very good new leisure centre where my son Aidan is learning how to play rugby.

Waddon has been a base of operations, a bunker where I’ve been safe from the slings and arrows of the outside world. It has given certainty, something that for quite a lot of the 13 years I didn’t have.

4

I’ve had 4 jobs in my time in Waddon. Waddon and its certainty has helped provide the psychological base to build a career, of which on a sunny day I think I can be proud. From nervous steps into IR and silly City drinking to post soviet capital markets, nasty oligarchs and “cheeky pints” to straightforward British old school financial comms, long lunches and a Kazakh sojourn and now a very different grown up job at one of the world’s largest PR firms; the constant has been my base. “Where are you going back to?” Has always been answered with “Waddon… It’s a small place just outside Croydon before you get to Wallington”. Waddon has been safety. Waddon has been a constant. It’s been home.

2

It’s also been home to 2 children. Aidan and Hannah will be known to most readers of this as they’ll have seen photos in my social media streams. Waddon will always be the place Kirsty and I started our family. A safe, nurturing environment with 2 great parks within walking distance, where we both felt rooted enough to take a life changing step and change each others’ lives for good. They won’t remember it, but it was in Waddon where they had their first swings, their fast play in parks, their first smiles and giggles. We will remember it and it will always make us happy.

2

As most of you will know, I’m on my second marriage. 2 major relationships in 13 years in the same place (although the first predated the move to Waddon) has seen an awful lot of change. Ups and downs, genuine bliss combined with embarrassing drunken self obsessed post relationship behaviour. I’m not going to linger here other than to say that I don’t regret anything and I’m happy to say everyone is now where they should be in life, and that the experience has again cemented Waddon into my soul.

************

There’s more. “But of course there is” I hear you say with a smirk. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of meals cooked in a couple of kitchens. Hundreds of chicken thighs, roasted in a tray with lemon, herbs, seasoning and served with anything, but I’m a fan of carrots, spuds and cabbage. Curries so hot I’ve paid for it later. Roast dinners that are never quite cooked at the right time. Risotto   with crab, mushroom, chicken or just herbs and lemon. I’ve become a big fan of Sichuan food and I’ve made my first goes at it in my little Waddon kitchen.

Then there’s the booze, either in company or alone. Craft beer. Real ale. Crap lager. Red wine from the Rhone, Italy, Lebanon and not many other places. Vodka in martinis or just out of the freezer with a twist. Champagne, mostly good but some bad. Booze has always been a passion, and a constant of my life in Waddon. Mostly controlled. Never regretted.

*******

Finally sometimes you only know you love something if you lose it. I’ve lived part time on a boat and travelled a lot to some strange parts of the world, which can on occasion be stressful. Waddon welcomed me back and offered me a blissful norm to balance life as a corporate nomad.

And now I’m leaving. We pack tomorrow, and leave Friday. I’m looking forward to the next step but that doesn’t mean I’m not a little sad. Waddon has given me a lot and I’ll always look back fondly.

Thanks Waddon.

Is anyone else bored of the election campaign yet?

The new year has brought us a political communications onslaught. Someone probably let of one of the cannons at Edinburgh Castle or the Belfast fired a salvo to mark what will be 4 months of being blasted with a constant, 24/7 diet of political campaigning.

I’m sure the political junkies amongst you are really excited. Wow, more politics! Brilliant, there’s Cameron, May, Miliband, Clegg, Farrage etc on Question Time, Today, PM, Andrew Marr etc. Oh look, a hectoring piece about how the NHS will go down the can with the Tories in power in the Guardian. What about this hard hitting column in the Mail on Sunday bemoaning the “scrounging culture” engendered by Blair and Brown’s governments.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a combination of politically apathetic and professional communications advisor that I despair of much of the content and tone. There’s a dearth of subtlety and nuance. There’s little sophisticated oration. Speeches are designed to be split up and showed on TV, so they can often appear to be a collection of policy derived soundbites, rather than spelling out a narrative about why I should trust some independently educated 40 something that has only ever worked in politics with the future of our country.

Perhaps it’s because I’m related it immigrants, and wasn’t even born in the UK, but I despair of the UKIP led agenda around both the EU and our demographics. Of course the EU needs reform; it’s a political institution that blends the sovereignty of dozens of States. It’s complicated, which doesn’t help if you’ve got 200 words to grab the attention of a busy commuter in their morning paper.

It’s the same when matters of ethnicity are discussed. I’d be far more willing to engage with someone about ethnicity if I didn’t feel that their starting point was racially motivated negativity. “Bongo Bongo” and the like. Again, I don’t suggest that totally open borders are the answer, but after chatting to a few ‘Kippers, I came away with the impression is that they’d be happier with a far less ethnically diverse UK because “that’s the way it should be”. There are rather than more nuanced arguments than could be made around the economic challenges driven by a growing population dependent on low wage insecure employment / social security dynamic that makes like miserable if your called John Smith and you’re from Upminster or Piotr Pavlevsky from East Prussia.

I’m so dispirited by the main parties. How they don’t have anything new to offer. How it all feels so negative. They’re not selling hope, they’re selling fear. The whole process all feels so tired. The Lib Dems put themselves in an impossible position going into a coalition rather than a more elastic deal. I just don’t believe them. I work in the energy industry, so I’m never going to vote Green. My words above show you my feelings on UKIP.

Add this to the fact that my MP is in the safest seat in the country, as is the opposite party next door, and it all feels such a charade. You could take the same pig, swap the rosettes on its collar and it could win both seats.

It seems so fundamentally against everything I’ve been taught in different sorts of communications, where positivity and dynamism are valued. What your team can offer a myriad of constituencies. Don’t get me wrong, I love working out the political considerations for clients and considering messages that will chime with regional stakeholders. This however seems a world away from what political parties do to reach voters.

I don’t know whether these issues are all intractable. Perhaps there will be a revolution in political communications back to a more positive agenda.

Given the Scottish independence process, I wouldn’t bet on it.

A Return To Blogging

Hi to all

I’ve had a rather busy time since my last blog. Both professionally and personally it was a full on Q4 2014. As most people reading this will know, Kirsty gave birth to Hannah in November. She’s turned all of our lives upside down.

In a good way

Anyway, I’ve had a few ideas about blogs that I put on the back burner as I was too stretched. Now I think I’m sort of back in a regular groove I can get back to writing I hope that my one regular reader is happy

Cheers all

Paddy