Suspended by Twitter

A frustrating 15 hours without Twitter following a seemingly random suspension.

As I am on most working weekdays, I was up and at my desk bright and early yesterday morning, filing a few daily photos to my Blipfoto photographic blog, before dealing with some emails and heading out to an event at the Institution of Civil Engineers. In my inbox was an ominous email from Twitter – “Your Twitter account has been suspended“:

Twitter suspension

SuspendedAs I had never even been suspended, being suspended for apparently trying to evade permanent suspension seemed more than a bit excessive – in fact, it was sheer nonsense. Twitter’s email was sent at 07:18am, one minute after Blipfoto had shared my photo of a bakery shop in Blackheath – hardly something warranting suspension, but suddenly I had no Twitter voice. When I logged on to Twitter, my home page confirmed I had been suspended – I shared a photo via Instagram (not a platform I use that often, but in the absence of Twitter, it helped get word out to a few friends) and it appeared on my personal Facebook page.

In the meantime, I had to go through the process of lodging an appeal, but it meant I spent a frustrating day without Twitter (a tool I use often when attending events – yesterday morning, for example, I was at a Construction Industry Council economics and policy briefing, which had lots of tweetable soundbites from the Construction Products Association’s Noble Francis, Sarah McMonagle of the Federation of Master Builders and Jonathan Spruce from Transport for the North).

Last night just after 10pm, I checked Twitter again and – after a 15-hour suspension – my account was finally working again. I tweeted a tentative “test”. It worked! Although it initially looked as though my followers and accounts followed had been decimated, by this morning, a full 24 hours later, my account was seemingly back to its former health (though it appears I lost around 20 followers).

But, so far, I have heard nothing from Twitter about why my account was suspended. Perhaps an overactive bot took offence at being shown a Blackheath baker…. Anyone else ever had a similar experience?

Platinum guides PRs on Wikipedia

Last week saw the launch of ‘Platinum’, a book celebrating 70 years of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

The book includes 45 essays providing an insight into contemporary PR practice, alongside the history of the formation and development of the CIPR. Written by a diverse group of practitioners, working in a broad range of organisations, the book is divided into five sections:

  • Performance: The impact of practicing public relations as a management discipline on modern organisations
  • Perspective: Reflections on the CIPR’s history and its communities
  • Potential: Exploring the future of the profession such as automation, artificial intelligence, and tools
  • Practice: A discussion of modern areas of public relations
  • Provocation: Exploring issues related to the future of the profession

wikipedia-logoI have provided a chapter of the book in the Practice section, having pitched the idea for a chapter on Wikipedia to editor Stephen Waddington a year ago. I have covered some of the issues relating to PRs’ conflicts of interest in editing Wikipedia articles about their employers or clients in previous blog posts (here, for example; I briefly repeat the same cautions and point to the same CIPR advice), but I also try to explain other ways in which PR people can constructively engage with Wiki projects and the Wiki community in general:


  • “For the individual practitioner, it can help hone the rapid production of clear, accurate and concise prose, backed by verifiable sources (useful in debunking ‘fake news’); and it can improve knowledge of people, places, organisations and other notable subjects (and of what constitutes notability) relating to other parts of industry or society.
  • “For campaigns, Wikipedia ‘editathons’ and a ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ can be used to expand the breadth and depth of coverage regarding an institution and its activities – the BBC, for example, has run events to increase the number of articles about notable women, countering a historical bias towards white males, while the Wellcome Trust employed a Wikipedian to improve content relating to the history of medicine.
  • “Moreover, the wider Wiki projects movement is also helping to democratise ‘open knowledge’ – Wikimedia Commons provides a library of over 47 million media files that are free to use, for example. Organisations can contribute to the Commons by releasing images and other content for free reuse; for example, the UK Parliament distributes images under a Creative Commons licence allowing their reuse including publication on Wikipedia. Such approaches allow organisations to influence how pages about them or their people look without directly editing them. …”

You can order the book on Kindle or paperback.

Other authors have been, or will be, blogging about their participation. Search #CIPR70 on social media to find out more, or visit the CIPR newsroom.

PR: proud, practical, not propagandists

CIPR CAPSIG research regarding women in construction PR and marketing showed considerable pride in working in the sector, and recommended some changes to help develop a better, more diverse industry. Colleges and others are also taking practical steps – not turning into propagandists with another ‘lipstick on a pig’ campaign.

CAPSIGlogo-2014The image of construction has been on my mind again lately. On Tuesday 11 September 2018, it was my last task as chair* of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsConstruction and Property Special Interest Group to invite my committee colleague Jo Field to introduce CAPSIG’s report on research into the experiences and attitudes of women who work in construction and property PR and marketing.

Survey fieldwork began in February 2018 and JFG communications gathered 163 responses from women working in communication and marketing roles across the construction and property sectors. The questionnaire responses were then augmented by a series of in-depth interviews with a subset of the research sample.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive …

The survey report – launched at Bentley Systems’ offices in the City of London – found women overwhelmingly reported felt proud to work in the construction sector. Almost 90% of those who took part agreed the construction sector offers a wide range of interesting projects to work on. However, the industry needs to ‘shout’ more about the great things it is doing and the exciting projects it offers, according to those questioned. Field said:

Jo Field“This is the first time research has been carried out with the niche group of women who work in construction PR.

“The level of pride women feel at working in the sector despite is fantastic. The women who took part were especially proud to be involved in an industry that shapes the world around us. The more women thought there are a wide range of interesting projects to work on, the more proud they felt working in the sector.

Those who took part also felt the industry is changing for the better and said they were proud to be part of making a positive change.”

Eliminate the negative …

CIPR women in construction PR infographicHowever, women’s perceptions of construction industry culture were slightly more negative, with over three-quarters (76%) believing the sector is ‘macho’. Less than two in five (38%) believe the sector is an attractive place for women to work and only 14% of those questioned believe women and men are treated equally.

When asked about gender issues in construction, a large proportion of women (61%) reported experiencing unconscious bias. ‘Conscious’ bias was also reported, where women were subjected to jokes about ‘making the coffee’ or ‘making the sandwiches’.

According to those questioned, the construction sector has been slow to adapt to flexible working, even though over four-fifths (88%) of those who took part thought more flexible working would attract women into the industry.

The survey findings also revealed a lack of mentors and sponsors for women in construction PR. Four-fifths of those questioned did not have a mentor or a sponsor but over half (54%) would like one. The CAPSIG report recommended five areas where support could be improved:

  1. Promote and encourage flexible working
  2. Support the sector to promote and provide women’s staff network groups
  3. Support the sector to promote a positive image
  4. Launch a mentoring scheme
  5. Provide a service to help members address challenges

Discussion at the research launch event included numerous anecdotes from female PR and marketing practitioners about their experiences of working in a male-dominated industry – from being called “the PR girl” to being expected to make the tea. Other examples included the January 2018 Presidents Club furore, the low representation of women in industry award shortlists, unfortunate award event ‘entertainment’, use of scantily clad women at construction trade shows (eg: UK Construction Week in October 2017 – Dezeen news report), and a recent Jark construction recruitment campaign featuring a bikini-clad woman asking “Want to see my white bits? … Oops sorry, I meant white collar candidates” (EDP news report).

I mentioned campaigns to reduce skills shortages and improve the diversity of construction, including Alison Watson’s Design-Engineer-Construct programme. Many construction colleges are also trying to encourage young women to consider careers in the sector – I got news of one last month.

Latch on to the affirmative …

In southeast England, MidKent College has seen the number of females opting to learn about the industry rise from 141 in 2014/15 to 216 in 2018/19. However, to raise the numbers still further, the college believes it has to challenge gender stereotypes.

Kim Howes, programme director for building services design engineering, said:

“The construction industry is still very male dominated…. All the trade magazines and publications have a big focus on men in the industry whereas women are either hidden or shown in supportive roles, like HR. Not all construction paths are grimy and dirty – the design and management fields can be office-based.

“The breadth of career options is just not realised or communicated. Construction is a fulfilling career that could take people around the world. Women are very creative and the construction industry has a need for those with a creative and design talent. We need to pique young women’s interest when they’re at primary school and encourage them to get hands-on, and messy.”

Able students can certainly thrive. One of the college’s students, Lindsey Todd, currently a contract manager for Orbit Homes, recently won a CIOB award for outstanding achievement. She said:

Lindsey Todd“I would definitely recommend other women take up a course in construction – there are just not enough of us on site. There’s a few more in the employer’s agent type roles, but in hands-on subcontractor roles there’s very few. I think I’ve seen one painter and decorator, and one tiler. It’s a very male-dominated arena.”

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum …

Bing Crosby sang about the need to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” and I’ve had it on my mind over the past week. Yet another campaign (and another one using ‘Love Construction’) has been launched to, as Bing might croon, “spread joy up to the maximum“.

I have talked repeatedly (herehereherehere and here, for example) about how permanently improving ‘The Image of Construction’ cannot be achieved simply by running a campaign. Construction News, the CITB, and Build UK (among others) have all encouraged us to promote the industry’s achievements and highlight how much we love working in the industry, but such campaigns just gloss over some of the underlying systemic issues that give construction a poor reputation (I rehashed my arguments yet again in January 2018 after the collapse of Carillion reinforced how precarious many construction businesses are). Briefly, to change the reputation of the industry currently known as UK construction, you have to change the attitudes, behaviours and outdated realities of UK construction – and this will require sustained pan-industry action to address the many deep-rooted challenges.

CCS loves constructionThe latest organisation seeking to change people’s view of the construction sector is the Considerate Constructors Scheme. It is running a well-intended Promoting Construction campaign calling for everyone involved in the industry to promote a positive image of construction on social media using the hashtag #loveconstruction (almost exactly five years after Construction News asked much the same). It enthuses:

“Inspirational images, such as amazing buildings, technology, craftsmanship and innovation, a fabulous diverse workforce and an industry which looks after the environment and its workforce are all ways in which we can promote construction.”

… bring gloom down to the minimum ….

I heard considerable scepticism about some of these messages when talking to industry friends last week, and it is clear I am not the only one with a somewhat jaundiced view. For example, coverage of the CCS campaign in industry online publication The Construction Index said the CCS had “expanded its remit from good neighbourliness to industry cheerleader and propagandist in chief” and finished by wryly noting:

“The realities of industry life – such as blacklisting, combustible cladding, structural failures, productivity problems, price fixing and shafting suppliers – are not to intrude.”

The writer clearly felt – as I do – that we need resolve some substantial underlying issues inside the industry if we are to change how it is regarded outside the industry. CIPR CAPSIG has identified some small steps organisations can take in respect of its female PR practitioners – but there’s clearly a huge lot more to be done.

[* I stepped down as chair of CAPSIG at an EGM held just prior to the research report’s launch. However, I remain involved – I am now the group’s secretary.]

Epson targets freelancers’ print costs

Epson’s central London pop-up shop gives visitors a space to co-work and to test their new EcoTank printers – which offers the UK’s growing population of freelances and SMEs a cost-effective alternative to ink cartridge machines.

Three times (so far) in 2018 I have had to dash out to a nearby supermarket and buy expensive printer cartridges to top up my (Epson) inkjet printer. This printer isn’t just used by me in my freelance PR and technology consultancy business – it is also the workhorse for the rest of my family, printing out coursework assignments for two students (one at university, the other in 6th form), and various things for my other half, and I would also like to use it to print out some of the photographs I take. But – as my budding economist son constantly reminds me – drop for drop, cartridged printer ink is more expensive than vintage champagne or blood….

Maybe I will find salvation in Epson’s new range of EcoTank printers …. but more about them later

EcoTankPopUpEarlier this week, I attended Epson’s UK launch of its EcoTank range (at a pop-up shop at 21 Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden – which will be open until the end of October 2018). The event was targeting bloggers interested in home working, freelancing, and start-ups. Having successfully agitated within the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to get an independent PR practitioners’ network established (the launch event is on 26 September by the way), I thought I would find out what was being offered.

The EcoTank Pop-up is a combination of retail experience and co-working space. Visitors to the pop-up, which will remain open throughout September and October, will be able to try (and buy) printers from Epson’s ground-breaking EcoTank range (Epson normally sells its products through other retailers, rarely dealing direct with the public). As a co-working space for freelancers, bloggers and other remote workers, visitors can expect a collaborative and creative working space with free secure Wi-Fi, access to a kitchen for refreshments and, naturally, unlimited printing.

Vicki PsariasEpson is also be running a series of daily, expert-led workshops at the pop-up, specifically for freelancers, bloggers, self-employed people, small and medium sized businesses, students and families. These will cover a wide range of useful subjects, from invoicing and branding to GDPR (for a full list of the pop-up’s workshops and to book your place, click here). On Tuesday, invited guests were treated to a lunchtime talk by Vicki Psarias, aka @HonestMum blogger, talking about her freelancing experience and about Epson’s research into independent working.

One can be the loneliest number

The solo self-employed contributed around £271 billion to the UK government’s coffers in 2017, of which around £125–140 billion came from freelancers, and there are predictions that by 2020, half of the workforce will be freelancing.

Epson’s research (Meeting the challenges of freelance life), which surveyed 1000 UK freelancers, found that most (91%) worked from home at least some of the time. When asked why they had chosen to freelance or work remotely, respondents said that a better work/life balance (53%) and greater flexibility (62%) were among their reasons; some said they wanted to avoid working in an office, which they found stressful (47%).

There are, however, disadvantages to solo working. While 54% of respondents to Epson’s study declared freelance life ‘liberating’, a striking 48% admitted to finding it ‘lonely’ and 46% said it was ‘isolating’. The absence of an office social life is felt keenly by some; 32% of respondents said they missed office banter and 29% missed being part of a team.

More worryingly, a quarter (25%) of respondents had experienced frequent periods of depression, and around a fifth (21%) claimed that the loneliness of remote working had caused them to have suicidal thoughts. According to the national mental health charity, Mind, at least one in six workers is experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression – but there are small, simple steps you can take to look after yourself, including:

  • meeting people – former colleagues, friends, business contacts or fellow freelancers (Epson established its EcoTank Pop-up to help this process – for PR practitioners, of course, the CIPR’s new network might help).
  • joining local networking groups – many towns and regions have business networking groups (some CIPR regional groups also have freelance communities – I’ve mentioned Wessex’s PR and a Pint before).
  • getting mobile – with the right technologies and apps, you can work more or less anywhere, including areas where people congregate such as cafés and libraries – or Pop-up co-working spaces!

EcoTank: ink subscription service

Cartridge-freeFor anyone running a small home-based business – or even a small office-based business – the EcoTank message sounds pretty compelling. These printers have an ultra-high-capacity ink tank system, which completely removes the need for cartridges and provides hassle-free, low cost printing. EcoTank printers can hold the equivalent of 94 cartridges worth of ink, saving users up to 90% on their ink costs (figures based on an average print volume of 140 pages per month).

Basically, you can buy a printer and then pay a subscription of £9.99 a month for unlimited ink. Looking back over the past couple of years, I have been buying new ink cartridges (a pack of four is usually around £40) about once a quarter, so am spending around £160 a year. If I’d got an EcoTank printer, I would cut my consumables expenses by over £40 per annum.

If you’re quick, visitors to the London pop-up  can be in with a chance of winning an EcoTank. Until 5.00pm on Sunday 9th September, Epson will be giving away one EcoTank printer every hour to visitors to the EcoTank Pop-Up. To be in with a chance of winning, visitors need to share a photo that they’ve taken in the Epson EcoTank Pop-up to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #EcoTankPopup, tagging @EpsonUK. One winner will be selected at random every hour.

Epson printer boxedUpdate (12 September 2018– Delighted to say that, after publishing the above post and tweeting about the launch event, etc, I received an email from Epson UK telling me I’d won a printer – and it was delivered this afternoon! After carefully unpackaging it, loading it with ink and then doing the software set-up, etc, I now have a fully functioning ET-2650 sitting on my desk. Not only does it print stuff sent from my laptop (and scan and copy), but I can also print documents and photographs direct from my smartphone – my wife was delighted with a photograph taken at a wedding last Saturday – and I’m in the process of setting it up to print remotely. And the silver lining for my university student daughter is that she can have my other Epson printer for use in her shared student house.

Don’t just digitise. Rethink construction

Modernising construction is not something that will be achieved just by the adoption of new technologies. “The current business model of the construction sector is not sustainable.”

Specifi logoI spoke at two Specifi events in July 2018, the first in Manchester on 4 July, and the second two weeks later in London on 17 July. In both cases, my theme was digital transformation, illustrated in part by my own construction career journey.

In July 1987, I joined a firm of consulting civil engineers and architects and began to learn about the industry’s reliance on paper-based processes. Watching the transition from manual drawing production on drawing boards, I saw the early days of the CAD revolution, and I played my own part in that firm’s adoption of word processing and email.

In my view, these first steps barely count as digital transformation. The firm, its counterparts in other businesses and its customers had simply accelerated the production and distribution of paper-based deliverables. In many cases, electronically generated documents and drawings were simply printed out and people continued to work off hard copies as they previously did. Even into the early years of the 21st century, handover documentation provided to the client upon project completion remained largely paper-based, perhaps augmented by a few CDs of archived electronic information.

However, the last 15 years have seen the pace of digitisation gradually increase. As the relative costs of ICT hardware and software has dropped, sophisticated tools have become more affordable to the businesses in a cost-conscious industry which previously had under-invested in ICT. Cloud-based software reduced reliance on in-house data centres and internal ICT expertise. Consumer-grade mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have gradually became more ubiquitous, while the explosion in social media adoption has changed our perceptions about the creation and consumption of user-generated content.

In the built environment sector, the government’s push of building information modelling (BIM) has also been a significant factor in promoting digital transformation since 2009. But it would be wrong to think the industry simply needs to invest in new technologies. (As the diagram – from McKinsey – below suggests, technology is just one of seven areas where construction needs to catch up.)

McKinsey - seven areas for change

It’s modernise or die

Modernise or DieIn my talks I emphasise that the government and other forward-looking client businesses are demanding wider changes to how the industry works. As I’ve previously written, the January 2018 collapse of Carillion is just one sign of a deeper malaise within the UK construction sector – and a succession of government and industry-driven reports (McKinsey’s 2017 Productivity report is just one) are highlighting that the sector must, to reuse the title of Mark Farmer’s October 2016 report, “Modernise or Die”.

Short-term adversarial business models are being rejected in favour of longer-term business relationships founded on collaborative processes and behaviours; government is shifting from lowest price tendering to demanding best whole life value; and, rather than seeking bespoke project solutions, industry clients are looking at greater standardisation and increased use of offsite manufacturing techniques.

My presentations include extracts from successive government construction industry strategies (2011, 2016), and from “Construction 2025” which set stretch targets to lower project costs, shorten programmes, improve carbon performance, and improve the competitiveness of the UK industry currently known as construction. And recent budget statements have committed to supporting these strategies.

In Manchester, I was asked which document should be required reading. I said the potentially most important document had yet to be published: the Construction Sector Deal.

‘The current construction business model is not sustainable’

Within 24 hours, on 5 July, this had been published by the government (and I happily updated my presentation for the 17 July event to reflect its key themes). It bluntly warns “the current business model of the construction sector is not sustainable,” and stresses three strategic areas for change:

  1. Digital techniques to deliver better, more certain results during the construction and operation of buildings, including optimal performance during the life of the building.
  2. Offsite manufacturing to minimise wastage, inefficiencies and delays, speeding up construction and reducing disruption.
  3. Whole life asset performance to shift focus from the costs of construction to the costs of a building across its life cycle, particularly its use of energy.

Offsite manufacture for constructionAnd within days, two further notable documents appeared. First, the House of Lords science and technology select committee published a report recommending wider adoption of offsite manufacture for construction. Second, the Construction Leadership Council published its “Procuring for Value” report, advocating procurement based on delivery of best whole-life value and performance, with a strong focus on measuring and rewarding good asset and supplier performance.

It will take time for these and related initiatives (eg: Digital Built Britain, Project 13) to bear fruit, and there undoubtedly will be some inertia and resistance to change. But some of the UK construction industry’s largest customers are increasingly looking for suppliers who can work digitally.

I quote Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee’s remark “if the past was document sharing, the future is data sharing”. As an industry we have to move beyond document and file-based thinking and make data the new normal. It will not just be about digital thinking but about rethinking construction as a whole.

(This is a longer version of a post – It’s Modernise or Die – first published on the Specifi blog.)

New Homes Ombudsman could help restore consumer confidence in housebuilders

A cross-party Parliamentary group has set out proposals for a New Homes Ombudsman to help provide better redress for dissatisfied home buyers. Poor experiences with housebuilders are common factor in many people’s perception of the construction industry; promoting better behaviours in the housebuilding sector would therefore contribute to improving the image of construction.

New Homes Ombudsman

Better redress for homebuyersIn its report, published today, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment calls on the government to make it mandatory for all housebuilders to belong to an independent ombudsman scheme.

The report, Better redress for homebuyers, says that a New Homes Ombudsman should be independent, free to consumers and provide a quick resolution to disputes.  The report also recommends that government, warranty providers, housebuilders and consumer group’s work together to draw up a code of practice which would be used by the New Homes Ombudsman to adjudicate on disputes.

The report is the result of the Group’s latest Inquiry which investigated how an ombudsman scheme could operate following its earlier report in July 2016 on the quality and workmanship of new housing in England. That report More homes, fewer complaints, called for a New Homes Ombudsman after the Inquiry revealed a high level of frustration and disappointment from buyers of new homes, both in terms of the number of defects that new homes often had on handover, and also the problems they encountered in getting them fixed.

A Housing Ombudsman already exists, covering the rental sector, while The Property Ombudsman covers consumer disputes with estate/property agents. To reduce consumer confusion and help ensure consumer complaints are dealt with efficiently, the report is recommending that there is a single portal – or entry point – for ombudsman services spanning the entire residential sector, which would cover the conduct of estate agents through to social housing. Within this overarching service, there would be either a number of specialist ombudsmen or specialist divisions – one of which would cover new homes.

“The image of construction”

As I have previously written several times (in April 2016, for example, and in January 2018 in relation to Carillion’s collapse), the “image of construction” is a symptom of a more deep-rooted reputation issue. Bluntly, the industry’s reputation is not just the result of what it says and what others say about it, but – importantly – the result of what it does and how it behaves.

The housebuilding sector penetrates just about every community, and yet parts of it personify many of the dysfunctional characteristics of the wider construction industry:

  • overly-complex, fragmented and price-fixated in its procurement approaches
  • adversarial in its supply chain relations
  • poor in its payment practices
  • wasteful in its project execution (often late and over-budget)
  • poor in the quality of its finished products (and then there’s the Grenfell disaster, of course….)
  • dangerous (construction killed 30 people in 2016-17, and reported 64,000 non-fatal injuries – only the agriculture, forestry and fisheries performs worse)
  • conservative in its adoption of new technologies (in Europe, construction ranks bottom in terms of digitisation, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, and my perception is that housebuilders lag behind other construction businesses in their use of tools to streamline information sharing and improve productivity)
  • short-termist and reactive in its approach to human skills development and R&D, and
  • lacking diversity (and too often, ‘macho’ workplace cultures breed sexism, racism and homophobia)

On housebuilding in particular, the sub-sector has been criticised (sometimes, it says, unfairly) for:

  • not building enough homes
  • not building enough affordable homes
  • not building the homes well enough (the APPG has previously noted that 93% of buyers had problems with their builders – 14 % of buyers in 2015 expressed customer dissatisfaction with housebuilders; in December 2017, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, Bovis Homes, faced a potential class-action lawsuit from buyers who accused it of selling houses riddled with defects)
  • land-banking, and
  • financial trickery such as spiralling ground rent schemes

Personal experiences of such issues will obviously colour people’s perceptions of the industry. My friend (and vice-chair of the CIPR’s Construction and Property Group) Daniel Gerrella recently attended a Constructing Excellence Generation for Change (G4C) event which debated the image of construction, and highlighted several areas the industry needed to address to improve its reputation (read his post).

However, the sector has generally been resistant to change unless forced by economic circumstances (and even then, once the good times return, many companies revert to type) or by legislation. Strengthening the regulatory framework post-Grenfell may help deliver better, safer buildings, but strengthening and extending the Ombudsman system so that it provides consumers with tools to highlight under-performing or unethical housebuilders could also help deliver sector-wide improvements.

Update (2 October 2018) – The UK Government minister for housing James Brokenshire has announced that a New Homes Ombudsman is to be appointed (news).

Carillion, PR and corporate resilience

The inquiry into the collapse of Carillion has highlighted the pivotal roles played by company directors. By focusing on short-term financial goals rather than the long-term interests of the company’s stakeholders, Carillion’s board fatally undermined the business’s resilience, ruined their own reputations, and reinforced popular stereotypes of the construction and services sectors as outdated and dysfunctional.

Carillion logoCorporate or organisational resilience has been much discussed in the UK construction industry in 2018 – mainly due to the repercussions of the January collapse of construction and services giant Carillion (The demise of Carillion won’t detoxify construction).

After the Wolverhampton-based firm went into compulsory liquidation with debts of around £7 billion, thousands of stakeholders immediately faced major difficulties. The group employed over 40,000 people (around 18,000 of them in the UK), relied on a 30,000-strong network of suppliers, and had 450 contracts with the UK government alone – many of them for delivery of vital public services.

Construction of two English hospitals and six Irish schools was put on hold. Shareholders and lenders saw their investments and loans evaporating. Joint venture partners took on millions in new liabilities. Supply chain businesses went bust, and – with an estimated £2 billion still owed – many more may follow.  Over 2,300 UK workers have lost their jobs so far. And some 28,000 members of the group’s pension schemes are facing lower future incomes, partly because Carillion directors favoured dividend payments instead of addressing a growing shortfall in its pension funds.

‘Delusional fantasists chasing a pot of gold’

Carillion - select committee report May 2018 coverA Parliamentary inquiry by two select committees published a hard-hitting 100-page report on 16 May 2018 and was scathing about the role of Carillion’s leaders. It was “a story of recklessness, hubris and greed,” MPs said, describing the company’s “relentless dash for cash”, its exploitation of suppliers, its misrepresentation of its finances, its contempt for its pension schemes, and its misguided focus on maintaining dividends and on increasing and protecting executive bonuses.

The role of the government, the complicity of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms (a “cosy club”), and the feebleness and chronic passivity of financial regulators were also laid bare. However, the pivotal role of Carillion’s board is clear. Its directors were described by MPs as “fantasists” chasing “a pot of gold”.

Chairman Philip Green was “delusional” and an “unquestioning optimist”; ex-CEO Richard Howson displayed “misguided self-assurance” and “was part of the problem rather than part of the solution”; and, as “the architect of Carillion’s aggressive accounting policies,” ex-FD Richard Adam was practising “accounting tricks.” (Adam disputed parts of the committees’ findings, but they rejected his protestations, citing “the Carillion board’s short-termist, cash-chasing, dividend-plumping approach.”)

As an organisation representing private sector companies (including many construction firms and all of the ‘Big Four’), the Confederation of British Industry protested about the language used in the select committees’ report, suggesting it gave a “wholly inaccurate” impression that Britain’s businesses are all greedy and reckless. However, the Institute of Directors begged to differ, insisting MPs were “right to criticise the failures” at Carillion. The company’s problems were not unique – they have been a regrettably persistent feature of UK construction for decades.

Modernise or DieIn PR Week in January, I explained many construction projects are delivered late, over budget and with quality issues. Mark Farmer’s 2016 “Modernise or Die” report on the construction labour model identified low margins, adversarial pricing models and financial fragility, plus poor industry image, among ten symptoms of the industry’s poor performance; construction productivity has broadly flatlined for decades, and it lags all other sectors in digital transformation. These symptoms persist because the industry and its clients have a deep-seated cultural resistance to change; the leaders of many construction firms remain fixated on short-term financial goals rather than delivering long-term corporate resilience.

Organisational resilience

OR report coverThe select committee’s report into Carillion’s collapse was published on the same day that members of industry reform body Constructing Excellence debated a March 2018 report on the organisational resilience of the UK construction industry (based on research undertaken in late 2017 – before Carillion’s liquidation – by management consultancy, Project Five Consulting, replicating a 2015 survey undertaken for BSI by the Economist Intelligence Unit).  Organisational resilience is defined as:

“the ability of an organisation to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”

The report cited insolvency statistics suggesting construction firms are more likely to fail than businesses in other sectors. Only a third (32%) of construction firms surveyed said organisational resilience was embedded in the business and a clear factor in success/improvement in performance. The biggest sources of risk were seen as disruptive competitors, macroeconomic uncertainty/events, and political instability. After long-term viability of the business (56%), the second most frequently selected benefit of investing in organisational resilience was protecting the company’s reputation (42%).

organisational resilience - short-termismYet despite awareness of the risks and benefits, the most frequently mentioned obstacle to incorporating organisational resilience into companies’ strategies and practices was that “immediate financial goals are more urgent” (selected by 43% of respondents) – underlining the short-termist view of many of the sector’s businesses and their leaders.

Not surprisingly, the report recommends learning lessons from Carillion’s collapse. It also identifies a need to “develop approaches to support leaders in construction to upskill them and enable them to provide the strategic leadership required to drive organisational resilience.”

Trust and communication

Such strategic leadership should embrace a strong understanding of the power of public relations. As I said in January, public relations brings the outside world in to organisations. It enables responsible engagement with all of a company’s stakeholders so that they challenge practices that might threaten organisational resilience and, in so doing, undermine the company’s reputation.

Trust and communication are vital to effective stakeholder relationships. Leaders need to demonstrate their integrity, empathy, knowledge and judgement. Effective leaders monitor, listen and respond, and can clearly articulate a long-term strategic vision for the organisation and all of its stakeholders. They understand that their organisation also has wider obligations to civil society and the economy, and they ensure their business is able to identify, and is resilient enough to adapt to, both gradual and sudden changes.

While disastrous for many thousands of stakeholders, Carillion’s collapse has highlighted, once again, the need for construction to modernise. Responsible business leaders in the sector (and beyond) will, I hope, learn lessons from the company’s failure, and from the leadership failures of its directors, and look to make their own companies more forward-looking and resilient. This cannot be achieved in isolation, nor can it be achieved without effective communication.

(This is an edited version of a post first published on the CIPR’s “Influence” blog.)



Crewe dismisses ‘the correct way forward’

Maintaining support for Crewe Alexandra during the last 18 months has been a trying experience. Under manager David Artell (a low-cost internal promotion after Steve Davies was sacked in January 2017), the performances on the pitch have been depressing enough (Crewe have lost more games from winning positions than any other Football League team). But if you listen to pub conversations about the club at the moment they are as likely to be about off-the-pitch matters as about action on the pitch.

There are ongoing legal wrangles about financial matters, with a former Crewe director, Norman Hassall, appearing to have taken money out of the club at a time when it could have done with an injection of funds to bolster the first team and to continue the support for Crewe’s Academy.

However, the more difficult and public issue has been Crewe’s involvement in the United Kingdom football sexual abuse scandal. It was a former Crewe player, Andy Woodward, who first went public with allegations against one-time Crewe coach Barry Bennell in November 2016. At the time I was dismayed at Crewe’s handling of the crisis, suggesting a ‘no comment’ policy did more harm than good. I welcomed the club’s promise to conduct an independent investigation by external legal counsel into its handling of the sexual abuse allegations, though – in the Blunder of Crewe – it then relapsed into ‘no comment’ mode: a strategy that inflamed media criticisms rather than countering them, and which has prompted an ‘us and them’ anti-media siege mentality among some Alex supporters.

Some 15 months later and Barry Bennell has been tried, convicted and jailed after being found guilty of 50 offences of sexual assaults against young players. The trial at Liverpool Crown Court thrust Crewe into the limelight once again for historical off-the-pitch matters. Once the trial ended, the club was initially quick to express its sympathies to Bennell’s victims, but it still did not apologise to them (something that continues to frustrate Andy Woodward and other abused players). And we have seen further accusations from a prominent former prosecutor that Crewe engaged in a cover-up of its failings.

This might have been refuted, but – most disappointing of all – Crewe issued a statement shelving its independent enquiry. My one ray of hope was extinguished in a second! The club claimed that as the police had conducted an exhaustive investigation, Crewe’s own enquiry would only have replicated it. It also sought to undermine allegations made by a former Crewe director, Hamilton Smith (by some accounts, his accusations led to former Crewe chairman Norman Rowlinson being advised by the police to ‘move Bennell on’), and it expressed ‘sincere regret’ and ‘deepest sympathies’. But while other clubs (Manchester City, Chelsea) have welcomed external scrutiny in addition to police investigations, Crewe has decided that the appointment of external legal counsel is no longer ‘the correct way forward’.

On 27 February, Adam Breeze, a friend and fellow Crewe fanatic (he and I were regular contributors to the Alex fanzine, Super Dario Land, in the 1990s), publicly divorced the club in the pages of The Guardian. Deeply disenchanted at the club’s management, I am sorely tempted to follow suit. The club I have followed since the 1970s has never had deep pockets, but dropping the independent enquiry looks like the conveniently cheap way out rather than the best way out.

(An edited version of this article entitled ‘No Comment, No Apology’ was first published in issue 21 of “The Blue & White“, Chester F.C.’s fanzine, at the invitation of editor Neil Bellis.)

Research on women in construction/property PR and marketing

The CIPR’s Construction and Property Special Interest Group (CAPSIG) is researching the views of women working in PR and marketing in UK construction and property.

Sexism and gender inequality have been a sadly familiar aspect of working in the UK construction and property sectors for years – just as they have been in many other industries. The recent furore about the Presidents Club charity dinner – see Guardian report – was a grim reminder of past controversies about UK construction awards dinners (see my November 2015 post, “The (sexist) ‘image of construction’“, and Su Butcher’s “Sexism in Construction Awards – Not just a Joke”), for example.

CAPSIGlogo-2014While public relations and marketing tend to be more inclusive, there are still issues. The gender pay gap between male and female workers in the PR industry remains a cause for concern, for example, and has been the subject of a prolonged campaign by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations since 2013. In 2017 the CIPR’s annual State of the Profession survey revealed that the influence of gender amounts to a £5,784 disadvantage for women (results from the 2018 SoP survey will be out shortly).

The CIPR’s Construction and Property Special Interest Group (CAPSIG; I am chair of this group) is now looking at drawing both these threads together, conducting research focused on the experiences and perspectives of women working in PR for the UK’s construction and property-related sectors.

The project is being led by JFG Communications‘ Jo Field, who says:

Jo FieldThe aim is to complement existing CIPR gender research, and the many studies on women in construction and property.
We wish to explore whether women in construction and property PR and marketing have similar or different experiences to women in the wider construction and property industry. Our survey will examine how these experiences compare with the PR industry as a whole. And look at whether there are additional challenges for women in construction and property PR, given the complex challenges the sector already has regarding gender diversity.
We wish to hear from women in all types of PR and marketing roles in any sector of the property / construction / built environment industry (including women in PR agencies serving these sectors). For more information and to complete the survey, click here.

Carillion’s liquidation: another PR disaster for UK construction

Carillion logoAs news of Carillion’s liquidation exploded yesterday (see previous post), I provided a short comment for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, in my role as chair of CIPR CAPSIG, and was subsequently asked to provide a longer opinion piece for PR Week, which was published earlier today. Below is my original draft (a little bit longer than the version published by PR Week).

Carillion’s liquidation is another public relations disaster for the construction industry which, to quote the title of an October 2016 report, must ‘Modernise or Die’, both in its behaviours and in its communications.

Modernise or DieMany construction projects are delivered late, over budget and with quality issues. Mark Farmer’s report on the construction labour model identified low margins, adversarial pricing models and financial fragility, plus poor industry image, among ten symptoms of the industry’s poor performance.*

Such symptoms have been repeatedly identified. During the 1990s, for example, I was head of PR for Tarmac Professional Services (shortly before it became part of Carillion in 1999) when two earlier reports – Latham in 1994 and Egan in 1998 – sought to reform construction’s structures and procurement and contractual processes. But the reports were barely acted upon. Farmer says this is partly because the industry and its clients have a deep-seated cultural resistance to change.

As a result, contractors like Carillion still work on thin margins, even engaging in ‘suicide bidding’ to win work and maintain cash flows; late payment of suppliers is common; they are conservative in adopting new technologies, and are short-termist and reactive in their approaches to training, to R&D, and to PR and other communications.

Indeed, communication is often regarded mainly as a tactical or reactive discipline (I have heard construction marketing described as “the colouring-in department” while PR is often equated to ‘promotion’ or ‘spin’) rather than as a strategic advisory role.

Public relations brings the outside world in to organisations. It should create a dialogue that challenges entrenched practices – like excessive bonus payments amid failing contracts – to change potential outcomes before they become something that an organisation’s stakeholders may instinctively disagree with.

Adopting a more professional approach to communication will be difficult. The construction sector’s poor image is a logical consequence of all its other symptomatic failures, of its ‘macho’ culture, attitudes and behaviours (as I wrote in April 2016, To change the image, first change construction).

Carillion’s reputation had already been coloured by the Consulting Association blacklisting scandal (Wikipedia article) and 120-day payment terms for subcontractors and suppliers. Criticisms grew as its debts and pension deficit increased, and as its contract failings multiplied. It was pilloried for continuing dividend payments to shareholders, and awarding and protecting bonus payments to key executives. And HM Government has been denounced for awarding contracts despite Carillion’s profit warnings.

This is not unusual in an industry where contractors take on ‘loss leader’ work as a way of keeping cash flowing and hoping bottom line losses are offset by a future upturn. In short, Carillion’s Micawber-like business culture is typical of many construction contractors, and is indulged by many of its clients

Small wonder construction is stereotypically portrayed as dirty and dangerous, dysfunctional and outdated. Carillion’s disappearance won’t detoxify an industry where many businesses exemplify the same behaviours and attitudes. Changing this industry’s image requires an overhaul of its structure and culture – as Andrew Wolstenholme says in the foreword to ‘Modernise or Die’: “this is a challenge for all – the industry, its clients, and government”.

* I was a contributor to discussions with Mark Farmer in the development of Modernise or Die, and remain active in Constructing Excellence (Mark is now a CE co-chair), the main industry organisation agitating for industry change. Thanks also to Phil Morgan, CIPR’s deputy CEO, for helpful comments on the PR Week submission. 

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