Walls Ice Cream

Being called Wall is a bit irritating.

You’d be amazed how many people mishear it: “sorry?  War? Wool?” I often have to spell it out, or find myself tapping the brickwork behind me.

School nicknames wrote themselves; “wally”, or references to China were common (“you’re not that great, wall”). My own favourite was Max – chosen by those who saw “M.Wall” on the class list and couldn’t resist uncorking their new marker.  (Younger readers might need to google Max Wall at this point).

But there are benefits.  When the Australian cricket team were at another highpoint 20 years back I often heard phrases like “Another great shot from Mark Waugh”.  This allowed a momentary daydream of hitting a boundary straight from the sweet spot through the diving cover fielders and humbly raising my bat, taking the applause from the crowd (younger readers might need to be reminded that sports events used to have crowds.)

This week brought another moment of pride for us Walls as YouGov announced their long awaited survey into the nation’s favourite ice creams.

When asked “What is your favourite ice lolly?” 28% said a Magnum, with Fab, Solero, Twister and Feast way behind.  Setting aside the unsavoury thought that the last four sound like activities at a risqué suburban party, this brought me a real sense of happiness.

Why?  Four of the top five are Wall’s ice creams.  Although I have nothing to do with the firm, it seems my namesakes are still at the top of the tree when it comes to milk and cream based frozen produce.

It gives me hope that although this summer has been a new and not un-challenging experience, we can still rely on some things.  A liking for Walls perhaps?

So I could be wrong; maybe it’s my first name that needs revising instead: Magnum Wall anyone?

The story of a one legged escalator tester

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When escalators were introduced on the London Underground, they were not an instant success. If you think about it this is not a surprise. Up to that point, everyone had been used to a fixed staircase; a series of gentle steps to descend or ascend on. No real risk, all quite safe.

Then suddenly the bloody things are moving. Pushing you into the bowels of London town, nearer the screeching and hissing of the tube; disappearing from under you as they reach the bottom (or top); sprinting away with you at about 145 feet per second.

You can understand why people were nervous.

This created a problem for London Underground. They had spent significant sums on these new-fangled things in an attempt to speed up transport to the platforms and so create more capacity, and so revenue. But not enough people were using them, preferring instead to head for the old fashioned, dull but safe fixed stairways.

So a bright spark at the firm came up with a great idea.

They employed a one legged man to show the escalators were safe. His job was to spend his days going up and down the escalators at different stations. This would show everyone that they were safe. After all, the thinking would surely go, if a one legged man can use these things, then I can too.

Except…

Except people don’t always think what we expect them to think. The behaviour we hope for is not guaranteed. And in this case rather than be reassured by the one legged man, quite a few people started wondering how he lost his leg in the first place. Was it the 145 feet a second descending monster? The juxtaposition of one legged man and escalator introduced an unpleasant thought in the minds of many commuters and focussed attention on having the requisite number of limbs. And the escalators stayed – for a while at least – under used.

The trouble with communications is that they are not always heard in the way they are intended to be heard. We try to influence one behaviour and in fact we create unintended consequences.

Let me give you an example: many people now are avoiding A&E departments. They do this with the best of intentions; leaving space for Covid-19 patients, or strictly self-enforcing the lockdown.

But of course people die of all sorts of things, not just corona virus. People die of heart attacks, strokes, falls and all sorts of other afflictions. We don’t have the data yet to say whether this has happened, but I wonder whether deaths from non-corona conditions will have gone up when we look back on this in a few months’ time.

Or we send a message saying that waiting lists at hospitals must be reduced. And to do this we pay busy surgeons extra cash to do additional sessions and get the lists down. I have heard it said that the result could well be to give mortgage and private school laden surgeons a perverse incentive to make sure they have long lists that require overtime to fix. We put a communication in place to achieve a good end; we sometimes actually bring about the very opposite.

The answer? Well to misquote the WHO; test, test, and test. We have to test our communications, our marketing ideas, to see if the target audience will hear them as we intend and to see if they will act as we want. Asking people what they hear or read when we talk or write. It is very often a completely different result to the one we expected.

We don’t always have the luxury of an extensive test phase, but something is better than nothing. Just ask your partner, or kids.

It adds a bit of delay, sure, but it could be the difference of our messages surfacing well or simply going underground.

Lack of Communication

Lack of Communication

Governments are not always the best at communicating.  This is odd when you consider they have to be good at telling people who they are and what they will do if elected.  If they were rubbish at this they’d never get elected.

But strangely once they get into power, the desire to communicate seems to dissipate.  More likely they spend more time and money on communication when they campaign than they do when they are actually governing.

So it’s nice to see an example that bucks the trend.

The advice to wash your hands to reduce the risk of contracting corona virus is important and helpful.  But explaining the science of disabling viruses is tricky.  Most of us failed biology GCSE (is it even biology that matters here? Or chemistry?) so talk of “microscopic parasites that lack the capacity to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body” (thank you Live Science .com) or “small infectious agent that replicate only inside the living cells of an organism… (they) can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea” (bless you Wikipedia) is probably not helpful.

But, when we are told to wash our hands for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday twice – we all get it.  We instinctively know what this means without thinking about it.  It makes the task obvious and easy.  You don’t think of the means, the metaphor or the mechanics.  You just do it.  Good communication work best when you don’t realise you are being communicated with.  It’s like a good PA system.

What can we learn from this about our communication?  Three things:

Be basic – don’t be over clever.  Don’t use words or concept that you don’t really need to.  Ask if every word and phrase you are using actually take your argument or narrative forward.

Be naff – clichés works, as long as they are not overused.  People like naff. They may mock you or take the mickey but they will remember and understand and that is what matters.   Clichés became clichés because lots of people used them and repeated them.

Be consistent – one government minister this week tried to raise the tone by saying we should wash our hands while singing the national anthem.  This just confuses things!  It is true that lots of radio stations are now trying to find alternatives to Happy Birthday.  But this is fine as they are all dancing around the basic theme of happy birthday.  So even as they find alternatives they are re-emphasising the original.  But for a government minister to suggest a different way doesn’t help.  Source credibility and consistency matter.

So stay safe, wash your hands and rejoice in the rare experience of effective government comms.

Now, pass the alcohol gel.

Personal PR

Personal PR

Apparently who you know is far more influential in your career than what you know.

A report by the Harrison Centre for Social Mobility studied the careers of over 2000 people and asked them to identify the biggest factor in getting promoted.  “Who you know” came out on top with 37%, with “Work Ethic” and “Talent” floundering on 26% and 21%. “Making decent tea” and “flirting at the Christmas do” were nowhere to be seen.  Which is a shame as I make a quality brew.

The former Education Secretary Justine Greening said that the results were “shocking”.  Really?  I doubt many people would have been surprised.  Networks are the thing these days; I’m not sure cold calling works any more.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as opposed to nepotism as the next person (my dad told me to say that…).  People should, of course, get promoted because they can do the job well and deliver what’s needed.  But there are probably loads of people who can do the job well and deliver what’s needed – the trick for an employer is to find them.

And for those of us looking for work, being known is one of the most important skills.  No one will employ us if they don’t know who we are or that we even exist; whereas if they are aware of what we have done, then when an opportunity arises we might just float to the front of their minds.

PR is not just a corporate necessity, it matters to us individually.  We all need to make sure that our audiences know our key messages and the benefits we can bring.

How do we do this?  Well, there is no secret; it’s all about keeping in touch with people who matter.  Not harassing them with weekly emails but the occasional (every six months is my rule) note asking their advice on something or drawing their attention to something you have done.  I never ask people to meet up so they can give me work – they will feel pressurised and used and will make excuses.  But if I ask to meet up so I can pick their brains about what’s going on in their sector, then nine times out of ten they’re happy to drink my coffee.  This doesn’t lead to immediate work but it does mean that I am in their minds when work does need commissioning.

Not a fool proof method, and certainly not a detailed CRM, but the best I have managed to come up with, and its kept me going for the last 8 years in business.

So don’t rely on advertising or whizzy websites alone; make sure you keep in touch and do the personal PR.

Coffee?

Always on duty?

Always on duty

I read a report this morning about the dangers of poor mental health for PR professionals. The Wellbeing Guide from Charity Comms is an excellent piece of work and a timely warning. I recommend it, and them.(https://www.charitycomms.org.uk/wellbeing-guide)

But I won’t be worrying.

The tricky thing for me is that one of my proud boasts is that I am always on duty; I always answer the phone; I never hide away or cause delay. I know that my clients, and journalists I need to work with, don’t want an answerphone message or an out of office, they get too much of that already. They pay me because I’m there when they need me, and they don’t have to pay me when I’m not. Rather than having someone in the office with the pay clock ticking, I’m available to be used as and when; like a flexible PR tap. But a tap that communicates really well and has both a strategically sound mind and a tactical understanding of media cycles. So not really like a tap at all.

So how is my mental health? I feel fine. The kids keep me sane, the dog keeps me active, Netflix keeps me relaxed. I would prefer to be available rather than have strict hours.

The bonus of course is that I am not always busy. So I did watch far more of the Ashes than many of my industry colleagues and me and Daisy have the time to pound the canal path in search of fitness and fresh air. (The “c” in that last sentence is fairly important.)

It is hardly a radical view to say that we all need balance. It might be slightly more radical to say that there are not any rules that everyone needs to follow. Loads of people tell me to turn my phone off at weekend or leave the laptop at home when I go on holiday. But I enjoy my weekends more and throw myself into holidays with greater abandon (Olu Deniz this year as you ask) because I know I am in contact and can sort things out. Otherwise I’d worry about hundreds of emails and lost contracts.

So look at the Charity Comms piece, take their advice if it works for you and look after yourself. But don’t follow any rules that you don’t want to.

Must go, the phone’s ringing….

You don’t have to do valentines

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I’ve never been a fan of Valentine’s Day.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to think of myself as romantic. I love flowers; I like the little gesture that means a lot; I am not averse to candlelight and good food.

But the trouble with Valentine’s Day is the pressure. You simply must be paired up, happy and “loved up” or somehow you are a failure. This one day out of 365 it is essential to be in some kind of idyllic relationship. And the pressure is significant. Cards everywhere, red hearts in every shop, roses and soppy music wherever you turn.

This has two effects

Firstly, for those people in relationships it creates yet more stress to be the perfect partner. It is almost impossible to live up to the hype and be a wonderful valentine. And relationships in the modern world are tricky enough without this added pressure.

And for single people it can be a difficult day. Whether they want to be in a relationship or not, it seems as if the world and the media are shouting at them for being alone.

Why does this matter? Surely it is just a way for the card manufacturers, the flower sellers and the restaurants to drum up business. Well, yes and no.

Researchers in the US recently reviewed over 200 studies into loneliness that looked at 4 million individuals. What they concluded was quite shocking. They found that loneliness and social isolation pose a greater risk to public health than obesity.

Dr Holt-Lunstad of the Brigham Young University of Utah said: “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’.”

To be blunt, loneliness kills.

So maybe the huge and over dramatic emphasis on Valentine’s Day is not helpful, simply exacerbating the loneliness that many people feel.

At Healthwatch Bristol we are launching a campaign “You don’t have to do Valentines!” Feel free to celebrate it if you want, but don’t feel that you have to. There is nothing wrong with being on your own, or being with a partner but ignoring the whole thing.

So keep an eye on our twitter feed that will celebrate lots of great things that happened on 14th Feb throughout the years, and use #youdonthavetodovalentines to tell us what you are doing this year.

And me? Well, me and daisy will be sitting on the sofa, cuddled up, watching telly.

 

Why elephants make for good politicians.

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I am reading – about a year after everyone else – the George Lakoff book about framing: “Don’t think of an Elephant”.

His opening point is that if you tell a group of people not to think of an elephant, the first thing they do is…think of an elephant.  It is almost impossible not to.  The very mention of the word conjures up an image that we are stuck with for the rest of the conversation.  This is called framing.

Political campaigners understand how powerful this is.  Why does Theresa May keep going on about “strong and stable”?  She knows she will be mocked, but even when people are mocking her they are saying the very words, the very issues, that she wants the election to be fought on.  So we take the mickey out of her for saying “strong and stable” and allow the framing of the whole debate to be led by her.  Clever.

It would be even better if the words had a visual resonance.  If she said “strong as a (insert very strong thing here” and “stable as a (insert very stable thing here)” then the pictures are planted in our brains and are even harder to get out.  A sober ox perhaps?  No perhaps not.

This is why the republicans always talked about “ObamaCare” and not the real name “Affordable Health Care”.  Same bill; very different image.

So when we communicate, whether it’s to advertise a product or promote a campaign, we need to think about framing.  If we are talking to a staff group about the need for economies we need to emphasise the opportunities this will bring and the competitive edge it will give us.  So we talk about becoming lean and fit; fighting above our weight; getting back to our core values.  We don’t talk about cuts, or closures or losses.

The actual policy still needs to be right of course.  Much as it pains me to say it, the greatest PR in the world cannot cover up a rubbish plan.  But a good plan can be enhanced and a weak one mitigated if we get the communications right.

So the next time you plan a communication, think about how you want to frame the debate.  Do that before you say anything.  Afterwards, it may be too late.

Admit it, you still have an elephant in your mind.

Family Friendly Stand Up – tougher than you’d think…

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I am hardly the most experienced of stand ups. Before last Saturday I had done three gigs – a total of about 24 minutes standing up in front of strangers trying to make them laugh. Admittedly this is 24 minutes more than most people, but still not really a career.

But I knew the basics.

First, start with a couple of bankers; a couple of lines almost certain to get at least a giggle. This calms everyone down, reassures the audience that they are not going to have to worry about you, and then you can drift off into the more bizarre and log winded stories.

Second, even if inside you are shaking like a new and over enthusiastic belly dancer, make sure you exude confidence and calmness. Otherwise your audience will sense your fear. Like animals, they can smell it.

Thirdly, mock the place you are in, or better still, the place nearby that they will all mock. Doesn’t need to be funny; does need to be geographically accurate.

But last week was different. Bridgwater’s Got Talent. A talent contest which I’d been invited to enter. The only comic on the bill, I was surrounded by ludicrously talented young people. I was, literally (and I am using literally literally here) more than twice the age of anyone else on stage. Including the compere.

And being a family gig I couldn’t use my tried and tested material about bodily fluids and the negative consequences of maleness. I also could not swear. To add to the challenge I was on at 745 in the evening with an audience that wasn’t really drinking.

So judge for yourselves, but given the circumstances I was grateful for the polite laughter and not disappointed that I didn’t get the much sought after wave after wave of laughter as one gag segues beautifully into the next and the crescendo of guffaws gradually hits a high point at exactly the right moment. The nirvana for comics; the moment that banishes the self doubt for at least half an hour, or until the valium and vodka kicks in

So thank you Bridgwater; a fun evening and good lesson for me. But I doubt you’ll be devastated to hear that I probably won’t be back! Or if I do return, it’ll be as a belly dancer.

The joy of lex (icography)

words

This blog post first appeared in Somerset magazine in 2015.

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I like words. First; last; in-between: in my mind they’re all good.

I have my favourites: “onomatopoeia” just sounds right and “edgy” appears, well, edgy. “Somnambulant” makes me feel drowsy even saying it, whereas “vibrant” is a little disturbing if said too loudly. I spent most of my university years describing things “ontologically” or arguments as “ontologically sound”. Somehow I managed to achieve a theology degree without ever really understanding what ontology actually was. But it seems to fit anywhere. Whatever it is, it’s great.

But even though English is a rich, resonant and colourful language, you have to go to the continent to get the true richness of words. Some foreign words are just so packed full of meaning that they are very difficult to translate, even though we will all recognise the feeling or concept they try to convey.

Take Spanish for example. “Sombremesa” means the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with. Perfect. And we have all been there.
Or Italian. “Culaccino” is the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Nice. Just writing it makes me thirsty, and longing to book a holiday.

Russian is a little more edgy (see what I did there?). “Pochemuchka” sounds a little harsh, and when you realise that it refers to someone who asks a lot of questions, in fact probably too many questions, the harshness takes on a sinister feel. Polonium anyone?

But my absolute favourite, probably because it seems to happen to me a lot, is far closer to home. In Scots there is wonderful word: “tartle”. It describes beautifully that panicky hesitation we all experience just before you have to introduce someone whose name you should remember but can’t. Social oblivion and worse looms.

So the next time you relax somnambulantly into a sombremesa with your friends having experienced the joy of a culaccino filled lunch without a pochemuchka in sight, just remember that you have the joy of words to thank. Ontologically anyway.

A creative mess

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This blog post first appeared in Society magazine in February 2016.

February 14th is, of course, a very special day in the calendar. It is a day many of us look forward to with anticipation. It celebrates the greatness of life; the triumph of hope over pain; the possibility of happiness and the ending of misery.

On 14th February 1929 it is said that Penicillin was discovered.

Penicillin is a drug that we now take for granted, but it has saved literally millions of lives. Before its introduction there was no effective treatment for infection. Hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning contracted from a cut or a scratch, and doctors could do little for them but wait and hope.

As with many truly revolutionary discoveries, this one was by accident. Alexander Fleming worked at St Marys in Paddington. He returned from the First World War very aware that infection and bacteria were as great a killer as artillery. He was determined to find a chemical that could stop the rot.

Fleming was very disorganised. His lab and office were a mess. One day late in 1928 he was trying to clear up a pile of petri dishes that had been left about. He noted that on one dish a mould had formed, and around the mould, the bacteria had been killed. This was a breakthrough. The next year, on Valentine’s Day, he announced his findings and a few months later published a paper and wrote a report with his findings. Unfortunately, no one took much notice.

It was another ten years before a team at Oxford picked up Fleming’s work and started more development and testing. By the end of the Second World War, 650 billion units of penicillin were being manufactured every month. Infections were being treated effectively, and lives were being saved.

So, this February 14th, if you are tempted to tell your partner that they need to clean up more often, or put things away, or perhaps wipe clean all the surfaces. just pause and think. If it wasn’t for a disorganised, war weary scientist, many of us would not live past 50

Happy Penicillin Day!