Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of Hillsborough.

Like so many people I’ve thought about it every day since. I’ve written about it. I’ve talked about it. I've cried about it.

Each time I try to write something about Hillsborough I want to find something fitting to say. Something that captures the feelings of devastation. Something that adequately captures the respect and admiration I have for those incredible families. Something that would make them proud. But every time the pen approaches the paper I know I will never quite be able to do it.

This year there is so much I would like to write as the new inquests have developed and things have been said in the witness box - but that is not a good idea. It is right to wait until the legal process has concluded before commenting. That time will come.

So for the moment, I fall back on my memories. Memories of that sunny day 26 years ago. Memories of being a 10 year old boy, playing football in the back garden in my Liverpool kit with the radio for company, listening to the match. Memories of my Mum and Dad coming home early from their wedding anniversary weekend away - we gave our tickets away for the game (Upper Tier, Leppings Lane) - and seeing them cry, and cry and cry.

Watching the simple commemorations on TV last night at Anfield brought those memories flooding back. Hearing George’s voice before the minute’s silence was wonderfully warming but desperately sad. Tomorrow I will think about myself and my Dad and once again feel lucky that we were not there. But like every other day I will think mostly about our 96 brothers and sisters, their loved ones and their memories.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Election campaigns are about the people not the politicans

Hillary Clinton showed us how it’s done. The response from GOP heavyweights to her announcement; not so much. The UK election campaign so far; nowhere near.

Secretary Clinton started her 19 month job interview (with apologies to 'The Apprentice’) by placing the most important person at the heart of her campaign; the American people. Despite the horrid logo (looks like a cross between a re-run of Dad’s Army and something you’d buy at the chemist) and questionable music, her announcement video was perfect. It reminds us that elections and election campaigns are about the people, not the politicians. Or at least, they should be.

It’s as old as time. Elections are about two messages. Things are going really well, don’t let the other lot in to spoil it; or, it’s going really badly, it’s time for a change. The way these messages are delivered and packaged is what decides the outcome. It need to be something positive. That inspires and motivates not divides. That gets people to the polls on a day when there are always 10 more important or pressing things to do.

Yes, fear has played a role in elections down the years. But elections are very, very rarely won in fear. There are lots and lots of examples of were fear has failed. Tony Blair’s three elections were won by optimism and hope in the face of fear: ‘new Labour, new danger’; demon eyes; save the pound; are you thinking what I’m thinking, etc etc. Please don’t make me go on!

The electorate need to know what’s in it for them; why voting should matter to them and their family; why the vision they are presented with will improve their country, community and lives. They need to know that the person asking for their vote gets it. Gets them. Is in touch with them.

Governors Romney and Bush immediately sent their own message to the electorate yesterday. Their “stop Hillary” message missed the point - the electorate do not want to hear this (apart from a small group whose minds have already been made up and will never be changed). Of course, this is part of a fundraising effort to compete with the oft-quoted $2.5bn Clinton archest (that phrase will be used a lot over the coming months) and there is time for them (the GOP) to get positive and sell a vision for America. But what a depressing way to start a conversation with the electorate.

The current UK election campaign is faring no better. It has so far been a series of statistical exchanges on whose figures are more believable, more robust etc……ZZZZZZZZZ. Sooner or later - please, please - someone needs to offer a positive reason for voting for them. A vision. A message beyond don’t vote for them, they’re rubbish. We need to hear about how our country will be better for ourselves, our families and those who will follow us. There is still time for this but the danger is that by the time we get there (if we ever do) the electorate is so fed up of hearing about the politicians, they won’t listen when the story turns to them.

It is always a balance between leading and listening on the campaign trail and it’s a long, long game, especially in the US. But Secretary Clinton has made a great start. She has shown others the way. It’s is only the top of the first innings - but at least she has started on the right foot.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Internal and external communications…….lost labels.

We love labels. We love giving things a name. We love defining stuff. It makes us feel comfortable. It makes us feel that we know where we stand.

That’s right wing. That’s left wing.
That’s posh. That’s rough.
That’s typical of them. Etc. Etc.

We love labelling people even more. When we meet people for the first time we like to find out which school they went to, the jobs they have, where they live, what they drive, and so on to work out what social class people are from so we can label them. It often makes us feel more comfortable we are at the right party - or in worse cases (be honest) it can make us feel superior.

These labels may help us feel comfortable but do they actually help our understanding of the world? Are they relevant? Do they still stand true?

Two labels that are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful are those which group communications within your organisation or outside it. Internal and external communications. I would argue that - like wearing a tie in the workplace - these labels are dying and have passed away in most places. Why do I say that?

To answer that question we have to first ask why the labels existed in the first place. The wonderful San Fransico-born but New England-adopted poet, Robert Frost, once said; "Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

The labels were used when organisations wanted to be clear what stuff could be said, written, shared etc within their organisation; was confidential; for their eyes only; private. And what stuff was for wider consumption; was open; public. Maintaining this simple demarkation was, well, simple. People were told stuff and even if they wanted to it wasn't easy to share. The way private stuff became public then was down the pub, in the street, or at home when chatting to friends or relatives. The means to share this information with the company across the street was hard enough, let alone the wider world. That has all changed.

Technology - and by that I mean email, the internet and social media - has not only provided us all with the means of sharing information but given us two other incredible things; the knowledge that others do want to to know about stuff we know and the feeling of empowerment to know how it feels to make the decision ourselves to share it. The power over information has shifted from organisations to individuals. Not all company Boards see this as a good thing but it has happened. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

How has that manifested itself? What has happened?

People share stuff now they shouldn’t or wouldn’t have done before. They send emails to colleagues and friends, they tweet about work (pay, conditions, the latest restriction on use of the internet, blocked websites, removal of free tea and coffee in the staff canteen etc), they comment on stuff on Facebook; use comparison sites and forums to talk about their job (not always positively!); share insights about their organisation on LinkdIn; or comment on articles on news websites and others. They now have extraordinary reach. In the past, their reach/their impact, was limited to the people they actually knew. Now they can reach the whole world with one click of a mouse or one press of their iPhone screen.

We share more now because we can. We have seen staff snap photos of backlogs of applications at the Passport Office and post them on social media creating a major news story; emails sent to a small group of people exposing some sexist or otherwise inappropriate comment or behaviour shared with the world and gone viral. There are many, many high profile cases where information - internal communications - is shared with a small group of people and within seconds it has hit the news. This sharing brings with it risks but I would argue the sort of openness which makes communicators lives easier and everyone else's lives clearer. Say what you mean, how you mean it to everyone. You don’t need to create two versions of every message.

In discussion with any colleagues or clients, I always say, whatever you write, whatever your put in an email, letter or anything involving pen and paper (a increasing metaphor for typing stuff), expect people outside the organisation to see it or expect it on the front page of the Daily Mail. Nothing should be shared within your organisation now without expecting it to be shared outside.

The fence has come down. We now live in an era of openness - whether we all like it or not. We live in a world where people feel they can share whatever is shared with them. We used to hear lots of talk of us building a knowledge economy - we now truly live in a sharing economy where people share stuff thought out of bounds years ago- from personal details of their love life, selfies from their holidays, their views on everything from the Middle East to The Voice, or stuff they have seen at work.

I would suggest we think less about internal and external communications and think instead about communications and be prepared as an old colleague of mine used to say to show the world whatever we are writing. Even if we are not prepared, it will probably happen any way.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Broadcast or receive

The Greek philophser, Epictetus, said ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Perhaps it is being of Irish/Scouse origin but I hardly ever meet and spend time with people who live by this ratio rule. That number gets even smaller when it comes to considering leaders in organisations.

Often their approach to communication is one-way. Broadcast. It smacks of a world we hoped to have long since left behind, when the big boss spoke with his (it was mostly his!) staff and told them what they needed to know. The idea of a dialogue, something two-way, never crossed their minds.

We like to think we live in more enlightened times. I fear we do not. My 15 years of working in organisations across the UK and beyond, across industries and of different shapes and sizes, tell me that leaders still spend most of their time talking at their organisations.

In the last year, I heard of a CEO who wanted to connect with their employees. They started a blog. They started to share their personal reflections of the week gone and their views on what was ahead. It was a big success. Lots of people read it and they started to respond, posting comments and questions. This was not in the CEO’s plan. He was perplexed. He thought he had found a new and interesting way of telling people stuff. He didn’t have time (or frankly the interest) to read what they thought and least of all to respond. He was too busy for that. The blog soon died and the employees who had hope they had been given a new and interesting way to be part of a conversation were left disappointed.

I once encountered a CEO whose idea of engaging with their organisation when developing its’ organisational values was to write them himself one Sunday morning and then to want to email them to everyone telling that these are your values. Not necessarily the best way to secure buy-in!

There is undoubtedly pressure on CEOs and other leaders to provide answers, to inspire, to inform. There is also the pressure of time and other priorities. But there should be pressure on them to engage - to create meaningful interaction. To listen. To build a relationship.

The best broadcasting makes the receiver feel it was written or spoken just for them, to them. It feels personal. It is tailored. Success in communicating (derived from the Latin to share) and in engaging is about hearing from others as well as them hearing from you.

Five years ago I was running for Parliament. I was taking part in hustings in the constituency at schools, local church halls and businesses. The best advice I got was from an MP who told me that the audience were attending to ask their questions as much as to hear my answers. Ask them what they think he said. Don’t talk too much. Allow time for listening. Not something that politicians are renowned for!

So to broadcast or receive that is the question? As with all things in life a healthy balance is needed. The leader who doesn’t listen, doesn’t learn. That leader doesn’t hear the great idea that could save their business money or help them get ahead of the competition. That leader doesn’t get buy-in for their strategy as they have not involved their colleagues enough. That leader doesn't inspire. They don't truly value their colleagues.

Next time you are standing in front of a group of colleagues or about to write an all staff email perhaps take time to ask for their views or ask them to reply with their feedback or ideas. You may be pleasantly surprised and so may they.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

"Contempt for the reader; you are showing contempt for the reader......."

A former colleague of my wife would brandish this phrase at his team when they wrote something that wasn’t tailored to their reader’s needs; it was too long, too hard to follow, too clever for its own good.

This is a harsh (but fair) way of saying, that they did not think about their audience (mostly the reader because we are now addicted as a business community to email, eBulletins, monthly updates, think pieces, presentations, and increasingly blogs) when deciding what to tell them. In fact, tragically it so often feels like an endless stream of consciousness without any thinking being done about the start, middle and end. 

There is pressure on senior people to show leadership, set direction, provide updates and so on, but - perhaps because they are in senior roles and therefore under constant diary pressure - they do not take the time to think about the purpose of what they are saying or writing. They fail to ask themselves the ‘so what’ question. They just write. And write. And write. 

It is the oldest and most important rule of any form of communication - be clear who your audience is, what they want and need to know and what you want them to do as a result. Only having done this can you finalise your message and how you will deliver it.

As the purpose of the communication is often unclear so too the presentation of the material suffers; it becomes dense, muddled, and long. Often it is so long and hard to penetrate that the reader doesn’t even bother. So many important update emails from senior people get filed to be read at a later time but that later time never comes as each time the email appears in the preview pane of the reader’s inbox, its treacle-like awfulness becomes overwhelming and it is found a more permanent home in another folder left to gather email dust!

So often even some basic signposting is missing that would help. We do not see enough people saying this is for information, you do not need to do anything, or this is a must read for these reasons. It is all about the writer and not about the reader. Or worse, they say “FYI” and then hide an action for you in the bottom of the email! 

So much stuff is simply that, stuff. No real purpose (except to be seen to communicate). No real focus, just a lot of words that feel important to them. 

So here are three things to think about before the metaphorical pen hits the virtual paper;
Do I need to send this communication at all?
If I do, is this the right way of doing it?
If you do and it is, what is the shortest, clearest, most interesting way I can do it?

The oft-quoted (and mis-attributed) aside of Blaise Pascal in 1656 is still relevant today; "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It can be hard to write a shorter email than a longer email, update or presentation as it takes time to collect your thoughts and edit out the information that is not required. But it is so, so helpful to the reader.

It is hard too because we all feel - especially in large corporate organisations - a pressure to prove how clever, informed or expert we are in our field- so we include technical detail, jargon (agghhhh!) and more information than the brain is capable of absorbing at one sitting. And then we commit the other sin in communicating; we just throw it down on the page and expect the reader to make their way through it with linguistic farm implements to cut away at the dense undergrowth of words and dead wood of text. It doesn't hurt to break up the text with some subheadings, bold some key words, use bullets, numbers, anything to help the reader actually read the text without having to squint or take a short lie down before finishing reading. 

Overall the trick that is missed is to forget that communicating is about relationships. It is about connecting with someone else - and ideally often many, many people, perhaps in many different parts of the world with different values, concerns and ideas. The best communicators make the receiver feel like the message was meant just for them - it is delivered with them in mind. It makes it easy for them to receive it, understand it and respond to it. 

Perhaps next time you have to write your latest update to your team, blog post for the corporate blog or contribution to your staff magazine, you will have more concern for your reader and avoid that drift into contempt. Think about them and how you can make their experience of reading your words as easy and enjoyable as possible. And if you do, you will be standing out from the crowd because most people around you will not.

Over the coming weeks......

......I'll be using my blog to share some of things I've seen and learnt over the last 15 years in consulting. It feels like a good time to take stock as my time as PwC comes to an end and I look for my next challenge.

I am very proud of what I have achieved with my fantastic team at PwC, leading the development of a new client-facing communications business - a comms agency within PwC - but decided to leave as I was just not enjoying it enough. I look forward to taking what I have learnt at PwC and throughout my career to my next challenge.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Some stuff I wrote for PwC blogs in 2014.................

Digital communications; are you the problem?


Getting engaged or heading for a break-up?


Delivering good jobs: focus on mental health


Employee engagement: mind the gap!


Monday, 12 May 2014

The British disease

With my new wi-fi Sky HD box (get me!) I watched When Corden Met Barlow over the weekend in glorious technicolour. As well as being a very entertaining and revealing hour's worth of TV charting the rise, fall and rise again of Gary Barlow's career, it also highlighted that much talked about 'British disease'. The one where we build folk up and then knock them down mercilessly.

If ever a career episiotomies this condition perfectly it is Mr Barlow's. The cruelty and personal unpleasantness of the attacks upon him as he fell from top of the celebrity pops to an uncool, unfashionable and unwanted has-been was astonishing. It had a deeply offensive bullying, pack-mentality quality about it which left me cold.

The fact that he has now risen to status of national treasure- I'm not getting involved in the current debate over his alleged tax arrangements- is remarkable and even more impressive. His story teaches us three things.

Firstly, the line between confidence and perceived arrogance is very fine and when the media and rivals want to show it has been crossed they do- and how!

Secondly, having a place of comfort and support you can fall back on in difficult times is vital. Gary Barlow had his family and his music which kept him going. That oasis (no musical pun intended) of support and peace is something we all need regardless of what we are trying to achieve. I write that today sitting in a park looking at my gorgeous twelve-week old daughter- we're having a daddy-daughter day, which as well as being great fun is a reminder- if it were needed- as to what is important in life.

Thirdly, class and talent is permanent. What eventually put Gary Barlow back on top wasn't that media and celebrity fashions changed, although they did, and that people were prepared to hear from him again, it as that he is a remarkably talented musician and a decent man.

His story also teaches us that if want something badly enough, and are prepared to work for it and stick at it, anything is possible.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Something I've written for PwC's People Agenda blog; 'Digital communications; are you the problem?'


Thursday, 6 March 2014

Imperfect peace is better than war

The political "crisis' or the wile handlin' in political circles in Northern Ireland last week was unedifying.

Anyone who has followed closely the process that has taken us from the dark days of 'The Troubles', through the Downing Street Declaration and Good Friday Agreement to today knows that the OTRs (on the runs) have been part of story and Republicans' list of issues for all that time. If I was Peter Robinson or anyone in the DUP I wouldn't have made the fuss they made last week as it exposes two things; they weren't paying proper attention over the last few years- they cannot credibly say they didn't know about the OTR deal as it is a matter of public record- and they weren't as effective as Sinn Fein at negotiating similar arrangements for loyalists or those soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday. The hand wringing last week did them no credit at all.

We must however separate two issues. The scheme itself- right or wrong- which has been around for some time, and the calamitous, incompetent decision to send a letter as part of this scheme to John Downey. The latter was a disgrace. The former an unpalatable but probably necessary part of negotiating a settlement to end a war.

Making peace is about compromise. Sometimes inelegant, ugly compromise. But compromise for a bigger purpose. Compromise for peace. The peace we have in Northern Ireland is imperfect but it is a million times better than the awful spectre that stood over that great island for so many years.