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. 

The demise of Carillion won’t detoxify construction

Carillion logoAt about 7am this morning, UK construction and services business Carillion plc said it would be going into liquidation – less than six months after a July 2017 profits warning more than halved its share price, heralding the final chapter of a dramatic plunge into disgrace. I have been watching this disaster unfold with morbid fascination as, like many construction folk, I have multiple connections with the firm.

During the mid-late 1990s, I worked for Tarmac Professional Services, part of the group of businesses rebranded as Carillion in 1999 (my pension remained with Tarmac, so – fingers crossed – part of my retirement fund has been unaffected by today’s revelations). I retain many friendly connections with former colleagues employed by the group, and – as a technology evangelist, PR practitioner and writer – I have had frequent contact with Carillion and supply chain friends working with extranets, mobile technologies and BIM, and with industry PR, marketing and journalism.

At TPS I was part of a group of people endeavouring to apply the 1994 Latham reforms, and we had some notable successes in promoting more collaborative forms of working. However, the sudden death of CEO Steve Redding (for a while my line manager and friend) in a motorway accident was followed by other personnel changes, and, after I left in 1998, the business until today known as Carillion largely reverted to its hard-nosed adversarial contracting origins, with a culture that embraced primitive industry practices such as employee blacklisting and late subcontractor payment.

This formative experience coloured my view of UK construction, and in debates about the “the image of UK construction” I have repeatedly drawn on that background to highlight why construction deserves its poor reputation. As I have previously written, UK construction, in too many businesses, is:

  • 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)
  • conservative in its adoption of new technologies, and
  • short-termist and reactive in its approach to human skills development and R&D.

(Other scandals – too often denied or side-stepped – include poor health and safety, shoddy workmanship, workplace sexism, racism and homophobia, and feudal practices such as spiralling ground rent payments.)

The recent history of Carillion adds to the overall sense of industry failure, not least in terms of boardroom complicity and lack of transparency. Earlier this month, the UK Financial Conduct Authority said it was to investigate the timeliness and content of Carillion announcements from December 2016 regarding its financial situation. The self-serving nature of these announcements has been called into question given the Carillion board’s recent decisions to continue dividend payouts to shareholders, and to award and protect bonus payments to key executives, while the debt mountain and pension deficit continued to mount and while failing contracts exacerbated the problems (I would also question the wisdom of Government ministers in awarding new contracts to Carillion despite the financial warnings – but, hey, let’s not be too political!).

These are, in part, strategic communication failures that could have been avoided. Instead, a poor business culture at multiple levels within the company was allowed to persist, and to reinforce the poor image of construction rather than helping to rectify it. Carillion’s demise is putting construction in the headlines for the wrong reasons yet again, and helping reinforce negative views of the sector as devious, outdated and Dickensian. However, I fear Carillion’s eventual disappearance won’t detoxify an industry where many businesses exemplify the same old behaviours and attitudes.

Launching a CIPR independent PR practitioners network

CIPR logoLong-term readers of my PR blog will know that I have been seeking to improve CIPR provision for independent practitioners since 2014 when I chaired a CIPR roundtable of independent PR practitioners (aka freelance PRs, or solo PRs) at the institute’s Russell Square HQ.

Once elected to the CIPR’s Council, I began to agitate about how the CIPR might help its solo practitioners. Buoyed up by data from its State of the Profession survey (comprising around 13% of respondents, we apparently tend to be older, more experienced in PR, and more likely to work part-time), I helped with a CIPR SoloPRs tweetchat in March 2015. We also updated the CIPR’s freelance guide, started a CIPR Independent Practitioners group on Linkedin, and I did a podcast with Stephen Waddington (note to self: find out where that Soundcloud podcast got moved to).

Things then quiet-ish for a while (mainly due to some family bereavements), though I have continued to talk to numerous independent practitioners more informally, meeting up with them at events such as the CIPR Greater London Group’s Drink ‘n’ Link sessions, and contributing occasionally to discussions on the excellent Freelance PRs group on Facebook alongside other active CIPRIPs such as Lindsey Collumbell, Stuart Bruce and Laura Sutherland, among others.

More recently (and taking advantage of my role as a CIPR group chair), I have begun to push for CIPR groups to nominate committee members to be coordinators or points of contact for CIPRIPs in their groups, and to interconnect with the coordinators in other groups.

New CIPRIP network

May 2017 saw impetus added by a “Going Independent” event run at Russell Square, out of which emerged a small working group which proposed to establish a CIPR Independent Practitioners network (as distinct from a CIPR group – recognising that independents can be found across every region and in every vertical sector group in the CIPR). May also saw the creation of CIPRnet, launched to empower CIPR volunteers (not to be confused with the Critical Infrastructures Preparedness and Resilience Research Network). And so the CIPRIP network now has a presence in that volunteer community, which is slowly growing.

And I have continued to support other CIPR groups wanting to help independent PR practitioners, or those considering the move to independence. For example, I will be at a “Being Independent” event in Manchester on 21 November 2017.

If you are a CIPRnet volunteer and want to be added to the CIPRIP group, please let me know, or contact either of the other people behind the CIPRIP network: Ebony Gayle (of Ebony Gayle Communications) and Dominic Ridley-Moy (Ridley Moy Communications).

Heathrow Holiday Inn hell

An enforced stopover called by British Airways overselling its flight led to a hellish night at a Heathrow hotel.

I was due to fly to Singapore with British Airways on the evening of Friday 6 October, for the Bentley Systems Year in Infrastructure conference (an event I’ve participated in since 2013 – though these were all in London). However, when I arrived at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, I couldn’t check in and was referred to “flight administration”. After a short wait, I was told that the flight had been oversold and that I probably wouldn’t be able to fly. Given a voucher for a coffee, I was told to come back an hour before the scheduled departure time.

When I did, I was one of a gaggle of around 20 people all bumped off flights (to Hong Kong, Brisbane, and Shanghai, as well as Singapore). A group of four were given boarding cards, but any spark of optimism was soon extinguished. Three others, myself, included, were told we couldn’t fly, and that we’d be put up in hotels and booked on to new flights. Two of us were phlegmatic about the situation; the other, flying on Singaporean government business, was incensed, raging about the inefficiency and saying: “BA treated its customers like shit.”

As I had to be in Singapore for a Bentley event meeting on the Sunday morning, I pleaded for the first available flight the following day, which turned out to be a Singapore Airlines departure. After patiently deflecting the Singaporean, Steve, BA’s manager at T5 was efficiency and helpfulness personified. He sorted out a compensation payment, hotel accommodation and bus vouchers, then ensured that I was allocated a seat on the Singapore Airlines flight. In a few minutes, my frustration at BA’s overselling had been replaced by quiet admiration for his customer relationship management skills.

Noisy pipes

My positive outlook didn’t last overnight however.

Heathrow Hopper 55 took me to the Holiday Inn Express T5 at Colnbrook, a four-story concrete block situated alongside the A4 dual carriageway. I checked in at the hotel’s reception OK, but – ever the social media user – while I was waiting I also checked-in on Swarm, glancing at a tip which warned “don’t have a far end room as the pipes are noisy and you’ll have to change”. Sure enough, room 89 was at the end of a snaking groundfloor corridor.

It seemed quiet enough – not that I lingered long, as the hotel’s dinner buffet was set to close a few minutes later. I retraced my steps, and ate a plate of rice and Thai vegetarian curry (it looked like sick, but tasted OK). I had a beer, got online and checked in to my Singapore Airlines flight, and then returned to my room around 11.30, mindful that I would be catching the Hopper again at 6.15am.

But any hopes I had of a getting a decent night’s sleep were soon dashed. Pipes behind the walls of room 89’s bathrooms were rattling and banging. Closing the bathroom door muffled the din a little, but the noise carried into the bedroom. The sound wasn’t constant – sometimes it would cease for a few seconds, lulling you into thinking it was going silent, only to restart even more loudly.

I tried to sleep, and, after a long day, I managed to fall asleep until around 2.30am…. The rattling seemed louder and more incessant …. Just after 3am, I gave up, got dressed, gathered my bags, took a quick video on my phone, and stalked back to reception.

The duty manager seemed surprised that I had a complaint, and offered barely a word of apology or explanation. I got a card for a different room, on the first floor. It faced the A4, but the noise of the passing traffic was more manageable than the din I’d endured earlier. I finally fell asleep around 4am, sleeping fitfully for a couple of hours before my alarm went off.

“Have you enjoyed your stay?” I was asked when I returned the keycard to reception. The young man seemed surprised when I grumpily responded: “No, it’s been dreadful!” I explained about the “diabolical din” of the pipes, noted that I wasn’t the only one to have reported the problem this year, and said I’d be complaining. He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I hope you have good day.”

Once I got to Heathrow, dropped my case, and passed through security, I emailed a complaint to the hotel. The attitude of the staff I dealt with, though, doesn’t give me any confidence that I will get anything like the positive customer response that BA provided. In the meantime though, I’ve had some tweets from the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Update (14 October 2017) – While I was away in Singapore, the twitter exchanges continued and eventually, I got a reply from the manager. It doesn’t use the word “sorry” or “apologies” (though I have been offered a 50% discount on any future Holiday Inn stay)….

Having gone through your email I can understand how frustrating it would have been for you not to have a quiet sleep especially after the events of day that you had gone through. …

Mr. Wilkinson, as you can understand for the size of the building and the volume of room inventory that we hold, maintenance issues are unpredictable and cannot be fully abated – especially ones relating to plumping [sic] when the air bubbles get trapped into the pipe lines.

Going through your booking I understand that your accommodation was paid by British Airways via hotel voucher and hence I would not be able to offer you a refund but Mr. Wilkinson, as a good will gesture we would like to offer you 50% discount on your room rate when you decide to stay with us next.

So the noisy pipework may continue to disturb guests. You have been warned.

Load more