Dec 20 2015

A minor rant about VirginMedia

I wish VirginMedia would provide more extensive, detailed and realistic information via its customer services.

I am now almost two weeks into a long-running conversation with my broadband and TV service provider VirginMedia, some of it conducted via Twitter, some of it via online chat and via telephone and email. The problem started on the morning of Tuesday 8 December when I understand an external contractor working in Lewisham cut through some VirginMedia cables cutting connections for 1000s of users in southeast London areas including Greenwich and Blackheath. But this explanation of the fault was only picked up via Twitter, not from VirginMedia (though my online chat with ‘Laura May’ later confirmed it)

It was six days before some semblance of normal service was re-established (late on Sunday 13 December). The following day, I spoke again to customer services and got a refund for the days without service (which included my son’s 15th birthday; he was off school with flu: hell hath no fury like a sick Xbox fanboy deprived of his online gaming!). But no refund for the data bundles I had purchased from my mobile phone provider to keep my 4G dongle working.

Then, having emailed a complaint to VirginMedia head office (thanks, Twitter, for the email address), I also got a telephone call, a personal apology and a reduction on future bills. We also discussed the lack of information provided to customers about the apparent reasons behind the outage, and the dispiriting succession of missed target dates/times set for resumption of normal service (as a PR practitioner, I thought VirginMedia could have been more open and informative about the reasons behind the prolonged outage and that it could have set more realistic expectations of a resumption of full services).

It now appears that resumption is distant. An adequate broadband service started to fail again four days later. Short interruptions quickly grew into prolonged outages. On Friday (18 December), I spent half an hour on the phone to a VirginMedia technician who confirmed I had no upload service at all, and then said that repairs to finally resolve issues created by the cut cables were likely to mean intermittent service until 29 December (three weeks after the initial incident). My son missed out on a gaming tournament with his friends yesterday, my wife was unable to book some tickets online, and I am only able to get online via my dongle.

Crisis of customer confidence

After water, electricity and gas, telecommunications is the fourth utility in our household – as it is for many millions of other UK citizens. When its services are working, I understand VirginMedia provides a higher bandwidth connection to my home than any other available provider, using the fibre-optic cables also supplying our television services, so I am reluctant to switch to a competitor.

It may not exactly be a crisis, but I am suffering a crisis of confidence. I just wish VirginMedia would provide more extensive, detailed and realistic information via its customer services. Here are three suggestions:

  • If the problems are due to an external issue, tell us (it would also mean some customer anger might be redirected at those really at fault).
  • If the issue is likely to persist, give us a realistic expectation, not a succession of optimistic – but missed – targets.
  • If the issue is prolonged, set up a dedicated site giving information on the progress of repairs, etc. Refer people to this resource rather than offering empty platitudes and mock expressions of concern.

Nov 20 2015

The (sexist) “image of construction”

HammersXRumblings of Twitter discontent quickly surfaced last night from the 10th Construction Computing Awards (hashtag: #Hammers2015) in London. I was at a different event (the IBP Journalism awards), but I had half an eye on what was happening across the city, and early signs of negativity were quickly apparent.

Su Butcher has detailed the events. Briefly, it appears that a so-called “comedian” (Josh Daniels) decided to poke fun, first, at a table of women and then an Irish male guest (Tony Ryan of SaaS software vendor Asite, who I know well) who complained about Daniels’ sexism. Two members of the audience walked out in protest, and the story has been well discussed on Twitter today, with the organisers hurriedly apologising to two of the attendees this morning (see this Storify) – but not, so far as I know, more publicly to others (less vocal) who were also offended.

Awards and PR – an awkward marriage

Viewpoint Hammers 2015 winners - at an event overshadowed by online protests about sexist comments from the event's 'comedian'.

Viewpoint Hammers 2015 winners – at an event overshadowed by online protests about sexist comments from the event’s ‘comedian’.

I have long held an ambivalent view of the “Hammers” (I had a protracted online exchange with one of the previous organisers of the event in 2007, and, after years of muttering about its decision-making processes, in July this year I again suggested it might make its awards process more transparent and impartial). Of course, awards events can provide strong content for PR practitioners and their employers/clients (today, for example, I’ve seen several tweets and a couple of blog posts from companies, including Asite, Viewpoint and Conject, that won “Hammers”); ignoring them can be difficult if it leaves the door open to competitors to shout about winning industry accolades, however prestigious. And they are a hugely lucrative earner for awards promoters with award sponsorships and entertainment packages to sell.

However, as this latest episode shows, they can also backfire unexpectedly. As Su outlined, the “Hammers” has not been the only construction industry awards event hit by accusations of sexism this autumn (she mentions the CIOB CMYA Awards, and the Bentley Be Inspired Awards – both of which I attended). Such storms underline how deep-rooted some industry attitudes remain; while an industry awards event may seek to show the sector at its best, misguided attempts at “humour” or “championing women” can end up exposing the misogyny (conscious and unconscious) that still lurks beneath many parts of the sector. And sometimes the protests aren’t greater because:

  • guests don’t want to upset their hosts
  • PR and marketing people don’t want to upset their clients or employers
  • award hopefuls don’t want to upset organisers and risk being excluded from future awards (kind of underlining my point about the need for transparency and separation between the commercial and judging elements of such events), and
  • ultimately, sometimes we’re just too damned polite!

I responded to Su’s post, citing my very different impression of the IBP event:

There was no sexism apparent at last night’s IBP awards. This is hardly surprising given that in construction and property journalism, PR and marketing, we have – compared to other parts of the construction industry – a much higher representation of women among our professions (though the same might also be true in other construction areas such as HR, law, accounting, administration and clerical support).

Awards nights should be about celebrating what is best about our industry, not about perpetuating sexist, stereotypical views that perpetuate the industry’s current poor reputation. I applaud those people that took a stand against the so-called “comedy” act. This is the 21st century, and such “entertainment” has no place in a modern industry event.

Update (23 November 2015)BIMCrunch reports an apology from Construction Computing Awards organiser Josh Boulton:

“We are a small team, and we are absolutely devastated about this. Some of the routine on the night was not what we had seen before and we sincerely apologise to anyone who was offended by the comedian. Two people did walk out, and we apologised to them swiftly on Twitter. Those people have kindly accepted our apologies on social media and we will work hard to ensure that an instance like this does not happen again.”

Oct 06 2015

Time for TICKAC to change

The industry currently known as construction needs to do more than incremental tinkering with technology or scoping out skills. Big, joined-up thinking is required.

Watching recent developments regarding UK construction skills shortages and “the image of construction“, I fear the sector’s typically conservative and incremental approaches will do little to bring about much-needed major change.

According to HM Treasury’s National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, 250,000 of the existing workforce will have to re-train in new skills and a further 100,000 new recruits must be found (read TCI story). Yet industry initiatives tend to focus on delivering more of today’s constructors, not tomorrow’s built environment collaborators.

Take the recent launch by the CITB of its Go Construct campaign, for example…. The CITB says:

Responding to feedback from employers, CITB is supporting the campaign with £5million of levy funding over three years. CITB has brought all of the industry to speak with one voice. More than 400 organisations including employers, careers advisors, teachers, lecturers and construction ambassadors have been involved in the design of the campaign that has been tested with 700 real users.

The campaign aims to challenge some of the outdated stereotypes about what working in construction is really like, and demonstrate the hundreds of career options and entry routes available. It is launching against growing skill needs and opportunities in construction.

Construction businesses need more than constructors

Go Construct’s online portal includes “a careers explorer that matches users’ interests and skills to a wide range of roles”. I tried out the portal from the perspective of someone (for example, my 17-year-old daughter – currently considering her university options) wanting a career in construction law, in finance, in product design or manufacture, in marketing or PR, or in IT, HR or other areas of administrative support, and was repeatedly told: “We’re sorry, based on your selection we have been unable to find a suitable match.”

Scrolling through the 144 job titles currently listed on the portal (perhaps one day there will be “hundreds”), there were almost no roles in any of these key support areas; the vast majority were conventional construction trade, technician and professional roles (plus a couple of lecturer roles, and “Partner or managing director”). Go Construct, it appears, is focused on training people to work almost purely in project delivery, ignoring the opportunities that the industry can offer to a wide range, and huge number, of other workers in support roles and in supplier organisations without which most construction businesses and projects would grind to a halt.

[Update (20 October 2015) – The CITB has come under fire for the £1.2m cost of its Go Construct website – see Construction Enquirer.]

The CITB may think it has “brought all of the industry to speak with one voice”, but I seriously doubt it (just a month ago, I noted Build UK claims that it was “ideally positioned to promote collaboration and provide industry-wide solutions for the benefit of everyone”). The sector is hugely diverse and fragmented, and the CITB is seemingly just marketing its traditional strengths and trying to pick off some low-hanging fruit.

As I’ve said before, the current immense challenges facing the sector – chief construction adviser Peter Hansford today listed them as skills, productivity, innovation, collaboration and image – will not be solved by pretending we work in a monolithic entity and tinkering in a few areas to achieve incremental change. We have to identify deep-rooted changes we could make across many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and  customers and end-users.

“Make no little plans”

We have to tackle the existing siloed structures, attitudes, cultures and resulting behaviours within the sector. These helped create the industry’s poor reputation (arguably, if we could tackle the skills, productivity, innovation and collaboration challenges, the image issue would be resolved too), and this reputation makes construction less attractive to potential home-grown employees at a time when there are deep skills shortages and the existing workforce is ageing.

Make no little plans. Jason McLennan talking at LivingFutureLondon event.

The future direction and shape of the industry currently known as construction (TICKAC?) will be affected by political, economic, social, legal and environmental factors. Globalisation, carbon, population growth and resource shortages will have an increasingly important and direct bearing on what industry clients identify as desirable business outcomes, making them more alert to whole-life performance and to wider business, social, economic and sustainability outcomes (yesterday, I attended a Living Future conference organised by Arup Associates – review Storify here – where biology, psychology and sociology were mentioned just as much as architecture and engineering, and where ILFI CEO Jason McLennan urged us all to think big).

Supply chain organisations in TICKAC will be rationalised and more integrated, transformed into providers of leaner, safer, lower-carbon and data-supported “asset services”, rewarded across the life-cycle for the economic and social value delivered by the built assets they create, and having the reputations and market valuations more commonly found among sophisticated manufacturers.

And workers will be rewarded for their value-adding contributions; many will be recruited and trained to apply their skills in off-site manufacturing facilities; there will be a more strategic and long-term view of employment supply and demand (managed through pan-sector open platforms such as Ethos’s SkillsPlanner project – soft-launched yesterday, and to which CITB is contributing data; see Construction Manager story),* and new professions will emerge as we start to “build for living” (see Arup/RAEng report) and exploit the rich data opportunities of Future Cities.

This is not achieved solely by tinkering with technology or scoping out new silo-based skills. It is achieved by thinking big, by radically overhauling existing structures, processes and cultures, driving out waste, creating just and collaborative business relationships (both corporate and interpersonal) that nurture innovation, and having supply chains focus on what delivers best whole life economic and social value.

[* This post draws on a blog post I wrote for Ethos – of which I am a partner – in July. I am part of the SkillsPlanner team.]

Sep 23 2015

ICE joins DBwiki supporters

Designing Buildings infographicThe Institution of Civil Engineers has become the latest supporter of the Designing Buildings Wiki.*

Launched in 2012 (see my November 2012 post and February 2013 follow-up), Designing Buildings Wiki is an industry-wide endeavor to share best practice, promote innovation and break down single-discipline barriers. Just like Wikipedia, anyone can access, create and edit articles, free of charge, on the site, which is also now supported by the BRE Trust, BSRIA, CIOB, Buro Happold, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Development Securities.

The site grew to over 700 articles and achieved over half a million page impressions in its first year, and now includes more than 2,400 articles and is used by 170,000 people per month, making it one of the most popular construction industry websites.

ICE’s Director of Engineering Knowledge Nathan Baker said:

“ICE is the world’s oldest engineering institution, established nearly 200 years ago. We have over 86,000 members based in 150 different countries. Our knowledge base is rich and diverse, and as a Leaned Society, fostering and sharing this knowledge through a variety of resources sits at the heart of what we do. It encourages innovation and excellence in the industry – and ultimately benefits society.

“Working with Designing Buildings Wiki will help to ensure this knowledge is integrated with other content created by many other disciplines. By collaborating like this we can reach the widest possible audience.”

DBwiki or Wikipedia – why not both!?

Of course, Designing Buildings will always lag a long way behind Wikipedia in terms of its sheer breadth and popularity. The English edition of Wikipedia alone currently features over 4,972,000 articles across every area of human interest, and also includes a huge array of articles on architecture, engineering and construction-related topics: the Wikipedia Architecture WikiProject alone links to over 44,000 articles, while there are over 1,700 and 4,300 linked from the civil engineering and engineering Wikiprojects respectively

With me, the ICE has actively encouraged contributions to Wikipedia, hosting a workshop in April 2012 (From dead pigeons and a statue of King Kong to civil engineering) and an editathon in July 2013 (see Raising civil engineering awareness via Wikipedia), and publishing a briefing sheet about the Wikimedia projects.

Other institutions have supported projects to boost the extent and quality of articles about their disciplines in Wikipedia. A recent Wikimedia Science Communications conference in London, for example, heard from Wikimedians-in-Residence from the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry and Cancer Research, and heard impassioned debates about Open Access to knowledge.

If organisations are keen to share information about the discipline, perhaps they should follow the examples set by the ICE and such bodies: hold editathons and appoint Wikimedians-in-Residence, share images and content via the Wikimedia Commons (which already holds over 28m images and other media files). Colleges and universities could challenge students to write objective and well-referenced Wikipedia (or DBwiki) articles about relevant subjects – indeed, why not write a Wikipedia article and then reuse the content in Designing Buildings?

And there are always efforts to increase the volume of content about under-represented subjects – on 15 October 2015, for example, events around the world will be taking place to improve Wikipedia content about women in architecture.

[* Disclosure: Designing Buildings is a past client of Ltd; I am deputy chair of the ICE’s information systems panel.]

Sep 22 2015

“The image of construction” (again)

Leonie Thomas blog - guest post by Paul WilkinsonFor my friend Leonie Thomas, I recently wrote a guest blog focusing, yet again, on “The image of construction”. My starting point was the the merger of the UK Contractors Group and the National Specialist Contractors Council to form Build UK, which launched on 1 September with a five-point action plan for the UK construction industry:

  • the image of construction
  • industry’s skills needs
  • effective pre-qualification
  • health and safety performance, and
  • fair payment practices.

I won’t rehash the arguments again (you can read the post) but it sparked a few tweets – particularly during the Construction Industry Council’s industry summit on 8 September – and I’ve talked in several gatherings about the need for the industry to address its fundamental behaviours if it is to change its reputation. A Constructing Excellence collaborative working champions debate (and tweetchat – Storify) last week about the future of integrated collaborative working reminded me of a handful of past good examples of culture change (eg: MOD Andover North), but, sadly, such ground-breaking projects remain the rare exception rather than the norm.

It’s no good, in my view, simply saying we need to shout from the rooftops about the industry’s achievements. However fantastic some of our work is, the wider perception of construction is coloured by “cowboy builder” stories and other negativity; the industry’s reputation is the natural legacy of a host of past (and – too often – still current) inefficiencies and bad practices:

  • adversarial attitudes built on mistrust and mutual suspicion
  • poor health and safety
  • blacklisting
  • industry fragmentation and silo mentalities
  • a lack of diversity (and resulting issues of sexism, racism and homophobia)
  • procurement processes fixated on lowest price (not best value)
  • low/no investment in R&D
  • belated use of sophisticated IT, and
  • often antiquated, unfair and late payment practices.

I’ve been contacted by people trying to make things better:

  • Last week, for example, I attended an industry round-table looking at issues of late payment organised by Construction News and Textura, and the latter* is collaborating with another publication Heating and Ventilation News to run an online Tweetchat (on Friday 25 September between 12 noon and 1pm BST; hashtag #latepayment) about late payment.
  • And on Friday I received a call from LaVern Brown, a builder based near Milton Keynes and author of a book – How to win when dealing with builders – who is doing his bit to help the building industry, frustrated by the negative TV programmes such as Channel 5’s Cowboy Builders, etc. While his book was aimed at clients, he’s also written from an industry perspective and he’s keen to help any business who feels they might benefit. (We also talked about how many small builders could go a long way towards improving their efficiency and their image by marketing and communicating more efficiently using technology). If you’re interested, email LaVern.
  • Pushing the theme of technology, October will also see Digital Construction Week (see my May EE post), helping promote the digitisation of the industry (I believe I am due to participate in a session on Thursday 22 October).

In the meantime, I will continue my personal crusade to try to move the debate beyond the “Lipstick on a pig” discussion of “The image of construction”.

[* Disclosure: Textura is a client of Ltd.]

Aug 28 2015

Peddling false perceptions

Cloak and dagger PR tactics should have no place in local planning application campaigns. ‘Astroturfing’ is unethical and brings PR into disrepute.

After the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions’ fabricated case studies, a PR agency’s anti-perspirant case study involving its own staff (#sweatygate), and my own minor example of an industry leaders’ roundtable that wasn’t, I heard this week of further unethical behaviour, this time relating to a shopping centre’s planning application in Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes CitizenAccording to the local Milton Keynes Citizen newspaper, employees of the shopping centre’s owner, Intu Group, submitted supportive statements during the local council’s consultation process. Apart from being employed by the company, some of these employees had no local connection with the Milton Keynes centre – writing from addresses in Manchester, Essex, Norfolk and southeast London – and not disclosing their Intu Group affiliation. Moreover, staff from the centre’s PR agency, Milton Keynes-based Perception PR, also “disguised themselves as ordinary shoppers to comment” – in short, they engaged in the same misleading and unethical conduct (perhaps tellingly, the agency’s website homepage features a chimpanzee on a telephone…).

According to the newspaper report, the council has no choice but to accept the statements at face value, while, sadly, an Intu Group executive is said to be “openly proud” of her colleagues’ actions.

Meanwhile, some PR professionals are appalled. I have spoken with staff at the CIPR who tell me that Perception PR has no CIPR members, so no sanction can be applied by the Institute. Perception PR agency also doesn’t appear to be a PRCA member (ditto). However, I understand that the CIPR President President Sarah Pinch has spoken on BBC local radio about this unethical behaviour – publicly distancing responsible PR professionals from this deeply questionable activity, almost on the eve of the CIPR’s Ethics Month.

Collaboration for Change

Looking at this from a construction and property industry perspective, I know that many of its professional membership organisations would be similarly appalled. In the planning context, for example, the Royal Town Planning Institute has a Code of Professional Conduct with clear rules about declaring conflicts of interest.

And the sector’s professional services bodies are being urged to collaborate for change. The Edge Commission report on the Future of Professionalism (PDF) published in April 2015, and authored by former Government Chief Construction Adviser Paul Morrell, has called for industry institutions to engage in joint action to demonstrate their effectiveness and thereby enhance their relevance and value. And ethics is at the top of the list:

Edge Report Cover

  • Ethics and the public interest, and a shared code of conduct
  • Education and competence
  • Research and a body of knowledge
  • Collaboration on major challenges, including industry reform in the interests of a better offer to clients, climate change and building performance

To help contribute to this debate, in July, the CIPR, represented by its Construction and Property Special Interest Group (CAPSIG, which I currently chair), became an associate member of the industry’s professional services grouping, the Construction Industry Council (see my post: CIPR taking more active role in construction). Both within the CIC and more widely, we will be seeking to show that PR professionals share the industry’s aspirations for the highest possible levels of ethical behaviour in the public interest. And actions such as Perception’s need to be highlighted as unprofessional and unacceptable in modern society.

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

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