Aug 20 2015

Desperate – and false – PR?

“I know, let’s invite some construction industry people and have a round-table discussion. We could use the conversation as the foundation for a white paper…. We could share the outputs with influential bloggers, issue a news release ….”

Similar conversations probably happen more than most PR agencies or in-house teams would like to admit (I’ve been there). Some of them result in (I hope) genuinely useful discussions and documents that justify wider dissemination. But others deliver little of value, and normally never surface. However, just occasionally, a team might try to brazen it out, perhaps especially if it’s August and there’s little going on….

As a construction industry blogger, I today received a news release saying:

“Can I interest you in the below conustruction [sic] industry news regarding key leaders who recently met at [company]‘s office in [location] to discuss the barriers to innovation in construction and how we must overcome them. Subsequently they have released the following whitepaper…”

Bloomberg building - under constructionHoping for some new insights, I clicked on the link, but found a PDF summary of a conversation involving just five people, one of whom was an organiser; in short, this “roundtable” included four “key leaders” (only one from a company’s whose name I recognised; these may have included the IT services provider’ customers, though it sadly didn’t declare its allegiances). I persevered, only to find that the white paper was padded out with quotes from online resources – and, to rub salt into this particular blogger’s wounds – it quoted something that I had written for Constructing Excellence (along with contributions from industry friends including Tekla’s Duncan Reed, Acumen7’s Simon Murray, and fellow CE member Richard Saxon).

False PR

A PR and media storm has erupted this week about fabricated case studies at the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions (roundly condemned by the CIPR’s president as a blatant disregard for the CIPR’s standards of ethical conduct) and about a PR agency’s dubious anti-perspirant case study involving one of its own staff (search #sweatygate). This construction ‘white paper’ may not be in the same league, but – in my view – this IT services provider’s pretence of a “roundtable” (more accurately just about a square!) of industry “leaders” is just as misleading, exaggerated and unethical.

Aug 19 2015

When your people are not your greatest assets

Using offensive language may affect people’s view of your industry sector, but if you’re wearing clothing bearing your employer’s name, it can also damage the reputation of the company.

It has become something of a cliche: “our people are our greatest assets“. This and similar phrases are used by many UK construction industry businesses, sometimes with justification – in the professional services sector, for example, the skills, experience, knowledge and creativity of individual engineers, architects and other professionals will often be the critical factor in deciding between different company’s teams. However, there can be times when the attitudes and behaviours of employees can be a liability….

A quiet pint

Not a quiet pint

I stopped off for a quiet pint in my local southeast London pub yesterday evening and found a table not far from two middle-aged white men talking about their work – though, if I’d quickly realised how loud and foul-mouthed they were going to be, I would have found another place to sit.

From their accents, they came from the West Midlands, and from their mentions of ductwork, wiring, switches and other kit, it was clear they both worked in the building services sector. However, both men peppered their conversation with expletives: just about every sentence included “f***ing” this or “f***ing” that, with fellow workers, company processes, managers – and the pub: “it’s like a f***ing bistro now” – all disparaged.

No wonder most nearby tables were empty, but at one that wasn’t I noticed a man I vaguely know who had evidently just finished a meal with his elderly mother. As the expletives flowed, he caught my eye and shook his head; he and his mother left the pub shortly after; I soon followed. (I bumped into him again today, and he told me that he and his mother had been appalled by the workers’ stream of “industrial” language – “typical builders”, he said. Ouch.)

As someone who cares about the poor image of the UK construction industry and wants to improve it, this incident just showed how construction people’s own behaviours can reinforce negative stereotypes. Such inconsiderate language can easily offend people, but direct impacts on the reputation of individual businesses will be rare.

However, I noticed both the off-duty workers were wearing company polo shirts embroidered with the name “J S Wright & Co Ltd“. Not only were they creating a negative perception of the construction industry, they were doing it while wearing their employers’ name and logo. This is a long-established Birmingham-based company proud of its heritage, but managing director Marcus Aniol’s website talk of staff who are “ever courteous and helpful” wasn’t borne out by my experience yesterday.

In its values statement, J S Wright & Co says it wants people in its team who “understand that people are our most important asset“. Sorry, Mr Aniol, on this occasion, two of those ‘assets’ were, at least so far as I was concerned, anything but.

Jul 16 2015

Rallying independent PRs

It’s about eleven months since a CIPR independent practitioner roundtable galvanised me into action on behalf of solo, or isolated, UK PR practitioners. Since then we’ve updated the CIPR’s freelance guide, done a podcast, started a CIPR Independent Practitioners group on Linkedin, surveyed the state of solo PR, and held a very lively tweetchat. These and other efforts continue….

Pints and Pinots all round!

IP tweetchat wordle2Inspired by the CIPR Wessex Group’s PR and a Pint networking group for independent PR practitioners, and by the #CIPRchat that we did earlier this year (post), other regional groups are starting to get organised with respect to their local solo PRs.

  • On behalf of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Group, Helen Kitchen (Helen Kitchen PR) selected (in my opinion) one of Leeds’ best city centre pubs, the Brewery Tap, to bring a handful of independent practitioners together on 11 June.
  • If you are an independent PR practitioner in Scotland, you might be interested in hopefully the first of a series of events for ‘solo’ PR practitioners north of Hadrian’s Wall. The event on the evening of Thursday 10 September is organised by Laura Sutherland (Aura PR) and supported by CIPR Scotland, and is taking place at the Bath Street Palomino in Glasgow. It will be an opportunity to bounce ideas off other like-minded PR practitioners, and also to set an agenda for future events. More details at Pint/Pinot and PR.
  • As I can’t get to Scotland, I am planning to attempt another London PR and a Pint meetup – also on 10 September. Venue to be decided, but will be somewhere central. If you want to help out with this, suggest a venue, or just be notified when we identify which pub, let me know.*
  • And if you are organising or know of any other UK #soloPR events, please let me know.*

Outside of the CIPR, the PRCA has also formed an independent consultants group. I was approached to help with this by Georgina ‘George’ Blizzard of the PR Network, one of the two co-chairmen. Workload and other commitments meant I had to decline, but we still met for a coffee and a discussion of all things solo, and I was invited to the the group’s 8 July launch event (which, unfortunately, got cancelled as it was scheduled for the day of a London tube strike).

Small businesses under attack!

What could we talk about at a #soloPR event? Well, you could do worse than consider some of the implications of recent Budget proposals by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to IPSE, the Association of Independent Professionals and Self-Employed, solo professionals – particularly if they have established themselves as limited companies – could be penalised under new HMRC proposals:

HMRC dealt not one, not two, but three blows to the UK’s smallest businesses yesterday. In all cases we believe the blows are below the belt!

  • First, arcane rules known as IR35 are ominously to be made ‘more effective’. These rules try and almost always fail to separate disguised employees from genuine businesses.
  • Second, new restrictions on travel and subsistence expenses are to be imposed on one-person limited companies.
  • Third, there is a significant tax hike on dividends – a change that will affect all company directors, not just independent professionals.

In February, the CIPR’s first Election Manifesto made particular mention of the training needs of independent practitioners and other small businesses (post); I am hoping it will now start to lobby on behalf of its #SoloPR and SME members with respect to these changes.

What to charge?

Another subject ripe for discussion is what independent practitioners might charge for PR services. Bodies such as the CIPR and the PRCA are not allowed to provide recommended, or even “indicative”, fee scales or pricing structures (the Competition and Markets Authority, CMA, implements the EU Competitions Directive seeking to prevent professional bodies becoming ‘cartels’ operating only in the interests of their members). However, that doesn’t stop us thinking about how we charge. I am considering a questionnaire survey scoping out the criteria used for setting rates and strategies used by different independent PR practitioners to negotiate rates. Again, if you’d like to help with this, let me know.*

* Tweet me – I am @EEPaul – or email me, or leave a comment on this post.

Jul 08 2015

Be authentic, not automated, on Twitter

A UK consulting engineering firm has a fatally flawed Twitter strategy: tweeting 246 times a day but engaging with hardly anyone.

Regular twitter followers will know that I tweet prodigiously from some construction industry events. Yesterday was no exception. Between two other events, I tweeted from an education and skills event (Alison Watson’s #5050London; see Storify) at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London; some of my output was retweeted and favourited, and I had one or two Twitter conversations about it too. At the same event, however, #UKBIMcrew friend Casey Rutland alerted me to a retweet by a UK firm of consulting mechanical and electrical engineers (“seems a bit spammy” was his view). I had a closer look….

Quantity over quality?

To any even moderately experienced Twitter user, it is clear the Stafford and London-based firm of consulting mechanical and electrical engineers, BCA Consulting (@BCAtweets), believes in quantity rather than quality in its social media.

BCAtweets statsThe company’s account was set up on 7 January 2015, and, in just six months, it has tweeted 13,524 times – averaging around 75 times a day. Even at my most prodigious levels, I struggle to tweet that frequently, let alone every hour, round the clock, seven days a week (my current average is 19.75 tweets/day). But the current BCA rate is actually even higher; as BCA told me the account “hasn’t been used until within the last month” – analysis of its last 3200 tweets (I used Twitonomy for this) shows it is now tweeting over 246 times a day!

IFTTT at first you don’t succeed….

BCAtweets statsBCA is hugely reliant upon automated tools to tweet. I really like IFTTT, but I use it sparingly (and not for Twitter). BCA, however, uses it almost exclusively – over 99% of its tweets are automatically generated by IFTTT recipes, harvesting content from other sources, churning it out incessantly and inserting key phrases and hashtags such as “Construction news”, “#Conservation news” or “#Restoration #heritage news” at the front.

As anyone who has seen me talk about social media may recall, I define it as “people having conversations online“. BCA rarely engages in conversations – in fact, my six exchanges with the company yesterday immediately made me the person most often replied to and most mentioned (and these exchanges were among the 0.625% of BCA tweets not generated by IFTTT); among its last 3200 tweets, the company has replied to just five people via Twitter.

Twitter for interaction

My Twitter conversation with BCA started with me asking if anyone human tweeted or was it all automated. To their credit, they replied promptly: “We’ve automated some of them especially the construction related ones but we’re here too”. I observed that “the automated stream isn’t particularly engaging. Hardly surprising BCA only has 117 followers,” to which they responded: “We seem to be on a par with you for followers per month if that’s a representative statistic.” Well, “I didn’t have to tweet 13,000 times to grow my Twitter following to 117” (the number later dropped to 114).

Perhaps that conversation (or this blog post) will prompt a rethink at BCA about its Twitter strategy. It is clearly not earning many useful followers – recent ones include Homer Simpson Quotes, Gametime Milwaukee, Celebrity Gossip and Divine Promo Kings – and many are not even in the UK. Casey quickly unfollowed BCA due to the deluge of content that was irrelevant to him, and I believe other potential followers of BCA will have done the same, finding their Twitter stream cluttered with its automated tweets.

My Twitter workshops with businesses starting out on Twitter tell them, to quote Euan Semple, “Organizations don’t tweet, people do” and that, as we have two ears and one mouth, we should use them in roughly that proportion, listening and adapting our twitter strategies as we get feedback on what resonates with those we tweet to. BCA’s twitter account:

  • tells us nothing about what people at the company think or do
  • fails to provide many users with information of interest and value
  • fails abysmally as a channel for two-way communication with potential customers or other stakeholders, and
  • generates time-wasting “noise” on Twitter while delivering little or no value to the business.

Automating a Twitter account is lazy and misguided, removing the vital human touch from what should be a channel for two-way communication. Time for a rethink at BCA, I think.

Update (8 July 2015, 6pm) – An apparently human-powered BCA tweet sent at 12.04pm said:

We’ve drastically reduced our automated content let’s see how we get on from here

Jul 06 2015

CIPR taking more active role in construction

CIPR logoCIC logoThe Chartered Institute of Public Relations is to take a more active role in the UK construction industry, having joined the Construction Industry Council (CIC) as an associate member. The CIC represents professional bodies, research organisations and specialist business associations in the construction industry in the UK.

The CIPR will be represented at CIC meetings by a nominated member of its construction and property special interest group (CAPSIG). The application for membership was agreed at the CAPSIG AGM in May (which also featured the chair of the CIC’s diversity panel, Bridget Bartlett, in its debate on diversity in construction and PR – post) and approved by the CIC at its June council meeting, and as chair of CAPSIG I am looking forward to participating in CIC activities. As quoted in a CIC news release:

CAPSIGlogo-2014The traditional media image of business sectors such as construction is a continuing challenge, and, contrary to many people’s view, PR is not to blame. The industry’s reputation is the result of what it does, what it says, and what others say about it. It can’t control the latter – it can only control its own behaviour and communications. As associate members of the CIC, we aim to bring the expertise of professional communicators to bear on this challenge.”

Graham Watts OBE, CIC chief executive, added:

Graham Watts“CIC warmly welcomes the CIPR as an Associate Member.  By working together with our professional colleagues in the field of communications, industry will be better placed to improve its public image and perceptions of the built environment as a career path.  This in turn will attract the new talent we need to help deliver the economic, sustainability and climate change imperatives that lie before us.”

Incidentally, I will be at the International Building Press Communication and PR Awards party this Thursday, 9 July (still time to book!), representing CAPSIG, sponsor of the best in-house team category.

Jun 23 2015

#ProtectFOP or lose your marketing collateral

Proposed EU changes to national Freedom of Panorama (FoP) rights could have a profound potential impact on individuals and organisations taking photographs or videos of modern buildings and sharing them in any public media.

I blogged about it yesterday, musing also on the extent to which architects and other design firms would be prepared to administer a deluge of requests for copyright licenses for images taken from public spaces. Industry reactions to my blog post (via the comments and Twitter) were broadly incredulous: “bonkers”, “scary”, “unworkable”, “unnecessary”, “extremely worrying”, “ominous”, etc.

PublicLondon exhibitYesterday, I dropped into the Building Centre in central London and talked to a few more people about the issue. FoP rights changes would potentially cause problems for many of the organisations that use the Building Centre for offices and for marketing purposes. For example, the basement exhibition area is used by several construction product manufacturers and suppliers to showcase their wares (the sector’s umbrella organisation, the Construction Products Association, also has its headquarters in the Building Centre). And the ground-floor hosts exhibitions about the built environment – the current New London Architecture display is ‘Public London‘: “public space is where the daily life of the city is played out,” says the welcoming banner.

Selectaglaze exhibitBoth the product exhibits (Selectaglaze’s, right, is typical) and the NLA exhibition feature numerous photographs of modern buildings (as do most of  the brochures, leaflets, datasheets, case studies, websites, CPD presentations, blog posts, Facebook posts and other pieces of social media content, etc, produced to support products). Potentially, unless these images have been expressly sanctioned by the building’s designer, the proposed European Parliament FoP changes would mean they were in breach of copyright.

I hope the Chartered Institute of Marketing and its construction group CIMCIG will oppose the proposed EU steps. I spoke to people from the Association of Consultant Architects, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Construction Industry Council (among others) yesterday, trying to both alert organisations to the issue and to put them in contact with Wikimedia UK’s Stevie Benton. He is coordinating signatories to a letter from cultural and heritage organisations protesting about the proposed FoP changes – if you want to add your body’s support, please email him.

Jun 22 2015

City-Insights: hyper-local story-telling

As a construction technology blogger, I sometimes encounter tools that have wider potential including use by communications professionals. City-Insights helps ‘tell stories about places’ via mobile devices, and could be used for a host of hyper-local internal and external communication purposes.

City-Insights logoAt a recent COMIT* community day, I met Tim Gardom, the founder of City-Insights, a young (c. 2013) angel-backed startup based in The Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey in south-east London. After a brief conversation at the COMIT event, we had a follow-up meeting, including his colleagues Mike Gardom and Mohammed Rahman, in the ‘Almond’ building at the former Peek Frean factory last week.

Story-telling

City-Insights - Regents CanalCity-Insights has created an HTML5-based toolset that works across all popular smartphones and tablets, along with a supporting cloud-based content management system (Tim said clients can learn to use the system “in anything from 25 minutes to four hours”; City-Insights can also manage content for its clients, if they prefer). In Tim’s words, the mobile application “tells stories about places” – and story-telling is a powerful tactic for the PR professional (the CIPR Social Media Panel* recently devoted its second #hackday to social story-telling).

Tim’s background is in heritage and museum-related projects, but the scope for City-Insights is much wider, and the business has identified property developers, housing associations and contractors as potential customers for the solution. Essentially, City-Insights allows a customer to share interactive multi-media content specific to particular locations or contexts, and to update that content as the location develops. Using their own devices, end-users might scan a QR code, use near-field communication (NFC), click a link, receive a text message or even just use their device to recognise an image; the result will be access to rich multi-media content relevant to the end-user’s location and information needs.

A developer might use the solution for local community engagement (it can be used for surveys too), or to explain features to potential buyers or tenants, while a contractor might use it to brief subcontractors, support handover documentation or streamline maintenance.

Use cases

Example use cases included use by the King’s Cross Partnership and developer Argent at London’s King’s Cross area to create a digital heritage trail (KXplore, due to launch shortly), celebrating the area’s industrial past while also communicating rich background about its future development. Videos, photographs, audio files and interactive text-based data could all be accessed to share information about the past, present and future of specific structures, spaces or objects.

City-Insights - electricalIn collaboration with housing associations such as Octavia Housing and Family Mosaic, City Insights has explore new ways of delivering information about equipment and buildings to housing tenants and subcontractors.

Fit-out specialist contractor Overbury has deployed the application to provide progress information for client visitors to ongoing developments. Material includes profiles of workers, video interviews, archive photographs, time-lapse imagery (reusing design imagery), and slider-controlled progress photographs – with content shareable by Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (and, yes, we talked about using LinkedIn too – particularly relevant to a professional audience well versed in use of that social media).

City-Insights - tenant careAnd – showing the toolset can be used equally for different phases of a development – Overbury is also planning to use it for handover support; for example, when a tenant or new owner starts to occupy a space, the tool can be used to provide online ‘how to’ information about installed equipment (potentially saving numerous face-to-face briefings).

My view

The application’s mobile focus is timely:

  • First, we increasingly prefer to access data on our mobile devices. (something the CIPR Social Media Panel identified when drafting its guide to mobile and PR). According to Ofcom’s 2015 report on media use, two-thirds of UK adults now use smartphones (compared to 30% in 2010), with use in the 16-44 age group around 87%. Tablet use lags, at around 45% for the same age group, but adoption remains on an upward trend. Moreover, these devices are immediately familiar and simple to use, enabling both professional and lay (re)use of data and content.
  • City-Insights - handoverSecond, many professionals in the built environment sector are increasingly focused on capturing and reusing data, particularly to support future occupation and use of built assets. BIM has started to focus people’s minds beyond construction and handover, and – in the process – we are creating data that can be efficiently re-purposed for reuse by owners, occupiers, visitors, tourists, maintainers and others.
  • I was also interested in the potential to capture location-specific stories that capture ‘social history’. City-Insights could be used to record photos, a video interview, or background information about someone working on a project that could later be viewed by historians or anyone interested in how an asset was delivered. We talked at length about how the platform might be used to tell stories associated with major projects; the London Bridge station redevelopment, Crossrail, HS2 and Thames Tideway are just some of the epic contemporary projects we might compare to Bazalgette’s London sewerage network, the Manchester Ship Canal or Scotland’s hydroelectric schemes; and we wandered off on tangents including QRpedia (post), the UCL Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and Andy Hudson-Smith’s Tales of Things, too.
  • City-Insights offers a 2015 alternative to tools I’ve previously seen, such as UK-based ResidentsHQ or Finland’s Howzee (post) that created hyper-local information services to manage the tenant/property management communications at the level of individual blocks. City-Insights potentially narrows that down to individual apartments, rooms and even items of equipment.
  • City-Insights - engagementThe application potentially complements platforms such as StickyWorld (post; and, before that, YouCanPlan), which have used gaming engines, panoramic 3D photography, video and social media tools to enable interactive community consultation projects. I know StickyWorld has also been recently testing its platform to capture geo-located and hashtagged tweets about neighbourhoods for consultation processes.
  • As a PR professional, I can also see great potential in the City-Insights platform to provide new mobile ways to communicate with a range of publics – investors, potential customers or tenants, employees, local residents, tourist visitors, suppliers, etc – regarding different aspects of built environment projects, from early planning stages through delivery to post-handover occupation and use. And, importantly, the insights aren’t just for the end-user – the PR team will be able to access analytics and measure how frequently the tool is used and what information is accessed, helping them judge the success of their place-centric story-telling.

[* Disclosures: I am a member of the COMIT steering group, and of the CIPR’s social media panel; Stickyworld is a past pwcom.co.uk client. This is an edited version of a blog post first posted on my ExtranetEvolution.com blog.]

Jun 21 2015

PR use of public images under FOP threat

Photographs including modern buildings and other creative works may fall foul of new European Parliament copyright proposals. New constraints on ‘freedom of panoroma’ may stop PR businesses using photos and videos taken in public places for professional purposes, including reuse on social media.

Statue, ScheveningenDo you take photographs on your foreign holidays? Perhaps share some of them on Facebook, Instagram or Flickr? Or maybe even put some in the public domain for reuse on places like Wikipedia? Depending on where you took those photographs and what they show, it seems that this innocent activity may already be breaking copyright law, particularly if your photos (or videos) show modern buildings or sculptures.

And it could get a whole lot worse, impacting PR professionals using photos and videos taken in public places for professional purposes, including sharing them on social media.

Freedom of Panorama

Stevie Benton of Wikimedia UK blogged on 11 June about the UK being at risk of losing Freedom of Panorama:

“Every day, millions of Europeans are breaking copyright law. Due to an obscure rule known as Freedom of Panorama, those innocent snapshots of modern buildings you’ve taken in countries such as France and Belgium are breaches of copyright. While the UK has this freedom, we are at risk of losing it in the ongoing copyright reform negotiations taking place in the European Parliament.”

Freedom of Panorama in Europe NC.svgCopyright reformers led by Julia Reda MEP would like to introduce UK-style freedom of panorama (FOP) across the EU (evaluation report explained here; para 16 addresses FOP), but other MEPs are proposing a non-commercial clause in the FOP rules which would make it useless. They suggested: “use of reproductions of works in public spaces should require express permission by the rightsholders.” Posting your holiday snaps on Facebook, Flickr or Instagram, or taking PR shots or video against the backdrop of well-known public buildings could become illegal.

In the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and several other countries (see image, right **), the right of FOP is protected, so photos taken in public spaces are fine. However, in countries including France, Italy and Greece, any unapproved photograph of a modern public building is an automatic infringement of the architect’s copyright in the building’s design (I expect the same could be said of an engineer’s copyright in designs of bridges and other structures). Taking and uploading your own photos of those works is unlawful unless approved in writing by the copyright holder.

Benton also echoes Reda’s point that even photos of older buildings may still be banned:

“For example, you can share a photo of the Eiffel Tower because of its age – but only if it is taken during the day. If the photo is at night, the lighting is considered a separate installation and falls foul of Freedom of Panorama.”

Wikipedia cannot even use such images for free educational purposes, as Wikimedia UK chair Michael Maggs says:

wikipedia-logo“The problem we have today is that many Wikipedia articles about buildings and monuments cannot be appropriately illustrated when the structure is located in a country without Freedom of Panorama. … It’s important that the European Parliament takes care of freedom of panorama. We support the very long-standing right of UK citizens and visitors to these shores to take photographs of buildings in public places and to do what they want with their own photos without having to seek permission from any third party commercial rights holder.”

It is not just posting of images to Wikipedia and social media sites that is giving rise to concern. Taking photographs in public spaces that include modern buildings, structures and/or sculptures will also fall foul, creating a potential new bureaucratic nightmare where – to comply with the law – PR, marketing and advertising professionals (among others) will have to seek out and gain permissions from architects, engineers, other designers and artists if photos or videos include views of their work.

And – having worked with various UK construction professional services businesses – I can’t see architects, engineers and other design firms being keen to, or even capable of, administering a potential flood of incoming copyright license applications.

UK PR bodies protest

CIPR logoOn Friday 19 June, the CIPR and PRCA launched a joint attack on European Parliament’s failure to protect the ‘Freedom of Panorama’. The two PR membership criticised the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee’s decision to reject proposals to protect FOP, saying:

“… the failure to protect this Freedom threatens the legality of photo-sharing and social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Under the proposals as agreed on by the Committee, full permissions, clearances, royalties, and/or use of authorised images would be required for videos, photographs, paintings or drawings with any potential commercial use.

CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra said:

We … call on MEPs from the UK, as well as other affected countries, to ensure that these disastrous proposals are not enacted into law. We also call on the UK government to make very strong representations in the European Council to stop this proposal in its tracks.

UK Construction and FOP

The CIPR has already started to contact other professional membership organisations regarding FOP, with a view to lobbying UK and other MEPs ahead of a critical vote on 9 July. A late flurry of tweets on Friday and a few exchanges over the weekend have started to put FOP on the radar of bodies such as the Construction Industry Council and its members including the RIBA, the ICE and the Landscape Institute (among others). I’ll be watching developments closely over the next couple of weeks.

[* I took the ‘grumpy statue’ image in Scheveningen, Netherlands, recently – and it’s freely available on Flickr on a Creative Commons license. / ** “Freedom of Panorama in Europe NC” by Made by King of Hearts based on Quibik’s work – Derivative work of File:Freedom of Panorama in Europe.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.]

May 15 2015

If challenged… engage

Faced with criticism and detailed questions about a female dress code policy change, Dartford Grammar School’s comms strategy has, from a PR perspective, failed ….

It may be a storm in a tea-cup, but, as outlined in my previous blog post, a sudden change of policy implemented, with little apparent consultation, by Dartford Grammar School has irritated some students at the school and parents like me.

On Monday 11 May, my wife sent a detailed letter to the DGS deputy head teacher and head of sixth form, Mr Robert Tibbott, summarising our concerns about the abrupt, seemingly discriminatory, and expensive, changes to the sixth form female dress code (prescribing collared tops and skirts of knee-length or longer). In particular she highlighted DfE 2013 advice to governors to consider the impacts, timing and costs of uniform policy changes (and she included a link to my blog post).

In the Western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.Two days later, we received a response from Mr Tibbott.

  • Did he respond to the specific points made regarding the DfE guidance? No.
  • Were DGS school governors consulted on the policy change? Not saying.
  • Were parents consulted about the changes? Not going to tell you.
  • Did they consider they gave adequate notice of the change, enough time for parents to respond to the change, and make the changes at an appropriate time academically? Not listening.
  • Did they deny apparent discrimination against their female students?. La, la, la….

OK, I jest a bit …. Make up your own mind….

DGS letter reponseApart from a final sentence about extending the deadline for compliance for our daughter, this is the complete DGS response. It fails to address any detailed issues or admit any shortcoming. Their ‘strategy’, apparently, is:

  • Seek to minimise (“minor revisions”) the changes to the code.
  • Don’t answer detailed points. Better still: ignore them.
  • Obfuscate: suggest “careful consideration” is somehow adequate.
  • Present a fait accomplit: claim a “positive response” vindicates the change.

If challenged, engage

All organisations may find themselves the subject of complaints, and how organisations respond to complaints has an impact on their reputations. As a PR practitioner, I advise clients and employers on how to respond to disaffected stakeholders, and the school’s approach is unwise.

I advise clients to engage with complainants, and respond in detail to as many of the concerns raised or questions asked as possible. Failure to do so treats legitimate stakeholders with disdain and is arrogant; it suggests their views are clearly unworthy of any detailed response or any further discussion; it may also appear an organisation is trying to sweep an issue under the carpet . It can also increase the risk that complaints might be escalated to other authorities.

Moreover, if those concerns have been publicly aired (on Twitter, Facebook, in a blog, in a newspaper, etc), then the organisation should be particularly diligent in its response, aware that its reaction may be shared and judged by others.

Sorry Mr Tibbott, sorry Mr Oakes (head teacher), but you have not passed this communication test. Must try harder.

May 11 2015

Be conscientious about diversity

CAPSIGlogo-2014On Wednesday, I introduced the panel at a CIPR construction and property special interest group (CAPSIG) discussion on diversity in construction and PR. It was clear from the contributions (see the Storify stream, watch the YouTube video) that UK construction has a long way to go to build a new reputation as genuinely diverse, equal and inclusive, rather than “male and pale”. We heard anecdotes regarding wolf whistles and male attitudes to women that belonged in the 1960s – not 50 years later – but also ideas about how professional communicators can help by capturing and sharing positive stories.

Cover your knees, girls!

Dartford Grammar School arms

Attitudes reminiscent of the 1960s, and professional communication, have been in my mind this weekend too. My daughter, a sixth-former at Dartford Grammar School, was last week informed of a new dress code at the school (which is boys-only, apart from the sixth form). Eight months ago she started at DGS after we had invested in suitable attire for her “appropriate to a professional work environment“; last Wednesday (6 May), an email from the school announced an amended policy “which will be effective from Monday 11th May.”

The most significant changes include an insistence that female sixth formers wear “a dark tailored suit … worn with a plain collared blouse or shirt,” (previously, the requirement was for a “plain blouse or top”) and that “skirts should be knee-length or longer” (previously, “skirts should be no shorter than 10cm above the knee”).

DGS jeopardising its reputation

To me, this is a poorly managed and poorly researched change, and one with potentially damaging effects on Dartford Grammar School’s reputation. Let me explain:

  1. For a start, this policy change has been announced at very short notice, with seemingly no prior consultation with parents (advised in DfE guidance to school governors) and with just four days for parents to buy their daughters new tops and longer skirts (no requirement on boys to buy new clothing).
  2. Implementation is also poorly timed, coinciding with a key coursework requirement (an ‘extended essay’ for many of the lower sixth form doing the International Baccalaureate) – and some girls have been sharing their frustration on social media regarding the policy (while the boys study, the girls must shop?).
  3. The “collared blouse or shirt” requirement is surprisingly difficult to find. My wife looked in four large local stores and found nothing suitable; online searches were similarly unsuccessful. Moreover, not only are women’s plain blouses or shirts difficult to buy, the requirement is potentially discriminatory insofar as Google searches showed men’s plain shirts are about six times more common, and less expensive, than those for women.
  4. And as for the “knee-length or longer” requirement…! Applying contemporary standards of conventional dress, it seems to me that girl members of DGS’s sixth form are being treated less favourably than boys, restricting girls’ choice of what to wear in order to achieve the required standard of smartness – whereas, in the real world, professional work environments carry no such constraints. Other school sixth forms (Altrincham Grammar School, for example) apply DGS’s previous 10cm hemline policy (even nearby Dartford Girls and Wilmington Grammar allow 2 inches above the knee), and I fail to see what educational purpose is served by lowering DGS hemlines – unless it is to manage the testosterone levels of surrounding male pupils (and teachers)? And is insisting girls cover up the best way to do this?

Research, consult, listen … then communicate

The lesson for DGS is that even something as apparently simple as a dress code change can, if mishandled, have unforeseen consequences and result in different treatment of individuals by virtue of their sex. To me, the school failed to research the implications of its policy change, and did not (at least as far as this parent is concerned) consult or listen.

Unfortunately, this kind of approach is sometimes still applied in construction organisations. Decisions may be taken with little (or even no) thought to the effects on different groups (preparing for the CAPSIG diversity event, for example, my previous blog post had comments including one relating to personal protective equipment, PPE – almost the construction industry equivalent of school uniform). We clearly need to be particularly conscientious regarding any potential diversity, equality and inclusion issues in a policy change and associated communications programme – unanticipated consequences can sometimes derail an organisation’s best intentions.

(My wife telephoned DGS about the policy change last week and is writing to the school to complain. If other parents do the same, the situation may change. Watch this space.)

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