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.

“Big data exposes a widening construction knowledge gap”

According to a Designing Buildings analysis of six million pieces of data, the knowledge framework underpinning the construction industry is no longer fit for purpose.

Designing Buildings Wiki has undertaken what it says is the “first ever comprehensive mapping of construction industry knowledge”. It analysed data relating to its 5,000 articles, looking at the popularity of the subject areas it relates to, the links between those subjects, how long people spend reading those subjects, and the age, sex and location of the readers. Over a representative, two month period from March to April 2017, the site was used by 724,000 people, generating six million pieces of data. Cross-referencing this data allowed the report authors to build a map of construction industry knowledge, visualising knowledge cluster densities and relationships.

The construction knowledge gap

The results have been published in a report entitled ‘Fit for purpose? Big data reveals the construction knowledge gap’ (download here). The report says:

  • The industry is lacking the strategic leadership needed to coordinate the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
  • The emergence of the internet has fundamentally changed the way practitioners access knowledge, but the industry has not kept up.
  • Knowledge that is difficult to understand, buried in long documents or locked behind pay walls will not be used – even if it is critically important.
  • Practitioners need accessible, practical, easy-to-use guidance to help them carry out everyday activities.
  • Differences in the way users access knowledge creates opportunities to target information, for example, to encourage women to stay in the industry or to encourage participation in the regions.
  • BIM remains a specialist subject, disconnected from other industry knowledge (the report goes on to recommend “there is a need for more non-expert guidance about BIM and how it relates to wider project activities”).

The report suggests the industry needs to get organised and stop leaving the dissemination of knowledge to chance – or more mistakes will be made.

Designing Buildings Wiki chairman David Trench said:

“A lot of construction knowledge published at the moment is niche research aimed at making the top performing 1% of the industry better. But it is leaving the other 99% to fend for themselves. It is well established that construction performance in the UK lags behind other industries and other countries, this report gives some clues about why this is and what could be done to turn things around.”

Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast Consultancy and author of ‘Modernise or Die’, said:

“The concept of open data networks and the increasing democratisation of data and knowledge were concepts I explicitly referenced in my recent review of the construction industry ‘Modernise or Die’. The findings of this report reaffirm that current knowledge and innovation is not being captured in a way that is broadly and strategically accessible to enable industry at large to benefit. Knowledge and data ‘silos’ are a feature of our industry and we clearly need to break these open through more collaborative forums and platforms that have greater reach into the mainstream of our industry.

“The assertion that much academic work is not influencing industry’s improvement is one that I identify with and we need a step up in the vetting of what research is commissioned that has sufficient applied value for the wider industry rather than specialist interest groups that does not necessarily make it relevant or scalable.”

“More work is needed”

The report provides some really interesting insights into the demographics of users and their information interests or needs. How far one platform could genuinely be said to represent the knowledge of an industry, however, is open to question, as I suspect there will be many construction industry people who use multiple sources of online information, drawing upon company and professional body websites, newspapers and journals’ websites, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Linkedin and other social media. As the report authors admit: “More work is needed.”

The report says:

Every year, more than 3.5 million people use Designing Buildings Wiki to access more than 5,000 articles about the planning, design, construction, operation and disposal of built assets. This generates an enormous amount of data about the knowledge that exists in the construction industry and how it is used. And because the articles have been written by, and read by, people from every part of the industry, that data is representative of construction knowledge as a whole.

I wrote about the launch of the Designing Buildings Wiki in November 2012, and, from a content marketing point of view, subsequently noted how well its articles performed in Google searches. I subsequently provided some consultancy services to the project which grew to over 700 articles achieving over half a million page impressions in its first year. It has continued to grow as a source of knowledge and information, some of it crowd-sourced from the industry it was established to serve. It now claims 900,000 page views a month (though I suspect the user figures and page views relate to global traffic, not just the UK – which leaves some question marks regarding the 724,000 people’s interactions studied).

While it uses the same underlying MediaWiki technology as Wikipedia, content-wise it has a different style and tone. Some articles are magazine-like, rather than encyclopaedic, in their presentation and content, and some content is copied from other publications or websites, or from press releases. The magazine-like tone is underlined by inclusion of news stories on the home page, plus clickbait such as the “Top 10 most expensive construction projects in the world“.

wikipedia-logoIt is also broadly UK-focused, whereas articles in the English edition of Wikipedia will tend to provide more global coverage of their subjects. For example, the Designing Buildings article on BIM is very skewed towards UK policy and practice, while the Wikipedia article on BIM is longer and more international in its perspective, reflecting inputs from editors across the English-speaking world. And Designing Buildings is less insistent than Wikipedia upon inclusion of references from reliable sources, which reduces the value of some articles in signposting readers to useful sources of further information.

Designing Buildings is obviously more of a commercial venture, supported by sponsors and carrying advertising, and even accepts payment for its editorial team to write articles for those who don’t have the time. When I browsed the site today and looked at the edit history of several articles, ‘Editor’ and ‘Designing Buildings’ were sometimes almost the only contributors to articles. While it claims over 6500 registered users (as of May 2017), few seem to have contributed substantially to any of the articles that I reviewed (it would be useful to know how many ‘active’ users it has – people who have edited articles in the past 30 days, say). Without a good volume of active editors, articles may lack the depth and neutral consensus (‘the wisdom of the crowd’) often achieved in mature Wikipedia articles, to which dozens of editors may have contributed.

The report is a useful starting point to identify how knowledge is used, but could be expanded if researchers were able to adopt a similar look at some of the other sources of information. Mapping UK use of Wikipedia articles on construction-related topics would be interesting (particularly if it compared to patterns of use of the Designing Buildings wiki), I think, as would data about pageviews and downloads of relevant documents and data from UK public sector organisations’ websites. And it would be helpful to track the importance of social media in all this, particularly if ‘influencers’ are helping people navigate around the “information gaps” and paywalls to connect to sources of useful information.

PR can help construction modernise, not die

Modernise or DieBy combining construction-specific communication expertise, strong industry leadership, and a clear vision of the future, we can tackle structural issues in ‘the industry currently known as construction’ that perpetuate its poor image.

This post was stimulated by two things – a discussion about construction-specific communication skills, and a conversation about the need for strong leadership and a clear vision of the future of construction.

The need for construction-specific communication skills

Chris Ashworth, a stalwart of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Construction Industry Group (CIMCIG), asked, on LinkedIn, What are your thoughts on a marketing qualification specific to construction? (following the launch of construction-specific marketing training by the CIM – read this Marketing Week article).

In his article, Chris says construction is a sector where specific knowledge is needed, alongside more general marketing skills. It is a B2B sector, but a highly complex and fragmented one, often working to long decision cycles. Construction covers an enormous range: from domestic repair and maintenance through house-building to delivery of major national infrastructure projects. And its personnel range from ‘white van men’ to industry professionals such as architects and engineers. Supporting the delivery of projects – often procured on ‘lowest price’, delivered by transient short-lived groups of individuals (I hesitate to call them ‘teams’ as this implies they all share a common goal), and prone to delays, disputes and cost overruns – makes marketing or PR in the sector a complex challenge.

The need to address structural issues in ‘the industry currently known as construction’

The second stimulus for this article was listening to the former Chief Construction Advisor (2009-2012), Paul Morrell, who spoke at a Construction Industry Council Economics and Policy Forum at the ICE in London last week.* His talk, reflecting on his review of the role of industry training boards (publication delayed due to the General Election), focused on what the sector needs to do to resolve the skills crisis. He covered some depressingly familiar themes, notably industry fragmentation and silos

  • “Problems in industry are structural and cyclical.”
  • Disconnections between end-use and delivery don’t help.
  • “Where is the motivation for innovation or for training, where nobody owns the whole process?”
  • Too many contractors think skills shortages in trades are “not my problem.”
  • “This industry doesn’t have supply chains. It has phone directories.”
  • Continuity of workload makes continued delivery of training (and expenditure on it) manageable ….

Concern about the industry's future is not evenly spreadAnd in relation to the skills issue (inextricably linked to the “image of construction“), Paul also highlighted the need for the industry to communicate a stronger vision of its future purpose, and – as part of that vision – to modernise:

  • “A better presentation of ourselves is needed, with jobs at the end of the process.”
  • The CITB does not address future skills capacity – it is mainly concerned with meeting current needs. “Too often, we design training to keep people today, not to help them tomorrow.”
  • The Construction Leadership Council is developing strategy but needs mechanisms to deliver the vision of what it wants.
  • “Do we work in an industry we can genuinely be proud of?”… and, with an ageing workforce, “concern about the construction industry’s future is not evenly spread”
  • And, supporting the ‘Modernise or Die’ message of the October 2016 Farmer Review, “Integration, digitalisation and prefabrication should be three core themes for future of construction.”

Leadership + vision + professional communicators = change

After 30 years working in the construction sector, I wish we could educate the many different parts of the construction industry about the strategic role and functions of ‘marketing’ or ‘public relations’. Too often, it is seen as tactical work done by “the colouring-in department”, something that can be turned off when times are tight, and C-level understanding of the communications disciplines is often woeful (small wonder that they often ask PR folk to measure PR in terms of advertising value equivalents, AVEs, not business outcomes). Some marketing or PR skills may well be transferable, but in-depth knowledge and experience of how the industry is structured and operates – and being able to counter this poor understanding of marketing/PR – is critical to being able to deliver strategic support.

The sector also complains that it is poorly perceived. The “image of construction” is often raised as though it is, somehow, the media, marketing’s or PR’s fault! Too often, I hear comments such as “We all know our industry is great, but we don’t communicate it well enough”….

As I have written several times before (“To change the “image of construction,” first change construction” a year ago, for example), construction needs to realise that its reputation is fundamentally the result of what it does and how it behaves. If it wants to improve its image it needs to address the root causes of these perceptions.

It should take Paul Morrell’s advice: integrate, modernise and digitise. It should break down the industry silos, focus on a shared vision of the future of the sector, think long-term, be customer and end-user centric, procure on best whole life value not lowest price, be lean and collaborative rather than bloated and adversarial, and invest in 21st century methods and technologies. Fairly rewarded for genuine value creation, such an industry invests in R&D, innovates, pays suppliers on time, rewards workers adequately for their value adding contributions, and delivers built assets that continue to satisfy social, economic and environmental needs for years to come. And arguably, such an industry would build a better reputation – or image – and be more attractive to people to work in.

[* I attended the CIC Forum as a representative of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a CIC associate member. I chair the CIPR’s construction and property special interest group, CAPSIG, sit on the CIPR’s Council and Board, and chair its policy and campaigns committee.]

The blunder of Crewe

Crewe Alexandra belatedly tried to change its communication strategy, but its continued reticence regarding the football sexual abuse scandal attracts attention for the wrong reasons.

This week marks four weeks since former Crewe Alexandra defender Andy Woodward first went public with his allegations of sexual abuse by Barry Bennell, and set in motion a scandal which has sparked new revelations almost daily ever since.

In the immediate aftermath of the Woodward’s revelations it was perhaps tempting to hope they were just the tip of a small iceberg affecting a handful of northwest England clubs. But as the days and weeks have passed, it has become clear that child sexual abuse was a largely hidden issue at possibly almost 100 clubs, ranging from grassroots youth teams in Scotland to the current Premiership leaders Chelsea.

As a long-time Crewe fan and a PR professional, I have naturally looked closely at how the club has handled the crisis it faces, and found it lacking. Five days into the scandal, its initial “No comment” strategy was proving disastrous, but it only briefly transformed its approach.

This most positive step came after what looked like a particularly dark day. On 25 November Woodward was joined by four other Bennell victims on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire talk show, while newspapers reported a former director’s allegations that Bennell had been allowed to stay at the club because directors hadn’t wanted to rely on hearsay evidence of abuse. The club briefly took the initiative: Crewe announced it would be holding an independent review into how they dealt with historical child sex abuse allegations: “an independent review, to be conducted via the appointment of external legal counsel, is the correct way forward,” it said.

Similar reviews were instigated at Chelsea and at the Football Association, with the latter responding flexibly to the changing situation, publishing the terms of reference of its review and naming the senior lawyer appointed to head it. But after that initial announcement, from Crewe … nothing! No news about its own terms of reference or about who will be heading up the review. And barely a comment or statement from anyone at the club in relation to the scandal – even the FA suspension of Crewe director of football Dario Gradi, announced on Sunday, only warranted a terse one-sentence statement.

While the club may have been advised not to say anything that might be legally sensitive, its communications about the scandal with supporters — after all, its main source of revenue — have been poor to non-existent, and have (rightly) been criticised by some of the constantly-watching journalists, like George Caulkin in The Times:

Crewe have played two home games since Woodward spoke out. There are legal issues to consider and a process to be adhered to, but neither match programme has contained a single reference — not a solitary word — about it. No admission, no apology, no reassurances, no acknowledgement that anything is happening, not even a few clichés about tough times on and off the pitch. One hundred and 36 pages. Nothing.

Caulkin signs off: “Dirty washing has been aired and Crewe have been found wanting. Business as usual.” Sadly only too true.

Watching a news story unfold on Wikipedia

The English football sexual abuse scandal is being extensively covered in newspapers and on TV and radio. It is also being captured in Wikipedia articles; articles about organisations or individuals involved are being widely read. Wikipedia statistics can help indicate interest in a subject, but care is needed in editing articles relating to an ongoing news story.

It’s now more than two weeks since the English football sexual abuse scandal [Wikipedia article] first started to evolve following allegations made by former Crewe Alexandra players. As a Crewe fan and PR professional, it was painful to watch the club I support say too little too late (see my previous post), and to see Crewe in the eye of the media storm last Saturday when I went to Colchester (and saw the Alex lose 4-0 – yes, we have problems on the pitch as well as off it!). There were ITN vehicles outside the ground, cameras filming Crewe fans as we walked up to the turnstiles, and photographers training their lenses on Crewe chairman John Bowler in the directors box.

However, as the scandal has expanded and embraced more clubs, Crewe has started to drop from prominence, with allegations centred on big city clubs including Newcastle United and Chelsea, among others, taking the limelight. I sometimes use Wikipedia statistics to gauge interest in breaking or ongoing news stories. For example, here is the last 90 days of page views of the Crewe Alexandra article on the English edition of Wikipedia:

Crewe Alexandra page view on Wikipedia

It is possible to discern a small uptick in page views around 17 November (the day after Andy Woodward first went public), but it shot up the following week (after more players waived their anonymity and made similar allegations), peaking at around five times the normal daily levels.

Wikipedia’s statistical tools also let you track page views of multiple subjects. For months, the pages of three former Crewe players (Woodward, Steve Walters and Anthony Hughes) rarely got more than 10 page views/day, while the daily average for former Crewe manager Dario Gradi was c.104 throughout September and October 2016. When the players went public with their allegations, views of their pages immediately rocketed (the 25 November peaks coincided with BBC2 appearances by Woodward and Walters), as did views of the Dario Gradi page.

Crewe people - Wikipedia page views

Biographies of Living People

Wikipedians take special care over articles about living people (BLPs), and, as I contributed to some of the articles relating to the scandal, I noted a couple of things:

  • Care is needed to ensure articles relate to the correct person. For example, Wikipedia already had an article about a footballer called Derek Bell (ex Halifax Town and Lincoln City), but not the Derek Bell alleging abuse at Newcastle United. A new article was quickly added about the latter, though his contemporary enjoyed a day in the Wikipedia spotlight, vaulting from single figure page views to almost 5,000. A short ‘headnote’ added at the top of each article also helped point readers in the right direction (avoiding four other Derek Bells).
  • The Wikipedia article about Andy Woodward was repeatedly edited by an anonymous editor to remove a sentence and supporting Guardian newspaper reference about Woodward’s recent dismissal from Lancashire police for gross misconduct. An ‘edit war’ ensued as other editors repeatedly reinstated the information, with the page being semi-protected for a few days to stop further anonymous edits. Wikipedians aim to ensure articles are accurate, balanced and impartial (read WP:NPOV).
  • Tabloid newspaper coverage is often quickly edited out of Wikipedia BLPs and related articles repeating information about the individuals concerned. BLP editing pages warn: “Take extra care to use high-quality sources. Material about living persons should not be added when the only sourcing is tabloid journalism.

Hold the front page

Update (12 December 2016) – The football sexual abuse scandal has continued to expand, and no longer relates solely to England. Last week, police forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland became involved, and Wikipedia editors quickly decided to rename the article: United Kingdom football sexual abuse scandal. Almost simultaneously, a link to the article was added to the home page of the English edition of Wikipedia (under ‘Ongoing’ in “In the News”). The impact was almost immediate – almost doubling page views:


The ‘English’ article now redirects traffic to the main ‘UK’ one (which is why the ‘English’ one hasn’t disappeared). By the way, yesterday’s FA announcement that it had suspended Crewe’s Dario Gradi clearly prompted a lot of interest in the Wikipedia article about him.

[Disclosure: I am a Crewe Alexandra supporter, I started the Wikipedia article on the sexual abuse scandal, and have edited other articles relating to it – see my contributions.]

“No comment” strategy hurts crisis-hit Crewe

Football supporters have a deep emotional bond with their clubs, whatever their faults, but loyalty can be seriously tested if the club appears uncaring or unwilling to comment on a looming crisis.

Crewe Alex vs Notts CountyAs many friends know, I am a football fan, a follower of one of English football’s perennial under-achievers: Crewe Alexandra F.C. I have supported this club since the early 1970s, when I grew up roughly three miles from Gresty Road. My first visit to my even-more-local team, Nantwich Town to see a 1-1 draw against Rhyl hadn’t impressed me, but the Fourth Division ‘big match’ atmosphere regularly tempted me back to Crewe (OK the average ‘crowd’ in 1973 was around 2000 or so, but it was substantially more than the ‘Dabbers’ ever got). When I moved away from south Cheshire, I continued to follow ‘the Alex’ whenever they played anywhere nearby, even co-founding the Alex Exiles fan club (now a Facebook group), running an Exiles fanzine (“Without a Dream in My Heart”) and creating the mid-1990s Crewe Alexandra Extravaganza website.

Fortunately, during those times, the club enjoyed some modest success, clambering up the league tables to play several seasons in what is today known as the Championship (the second tier) during the late 1990s and early 2000s, before sliding down and returning to more familiar fourth tier positions. Key to that success was manager Dario Gradi and the club’s policy of developing home-grown talent via its academy set-up (Danny Murphy, Dean Ashton, Seth Johnson were among the most notable graduates).

However, during the past week the reputation of that academy and the club has become tainted.

Child sexual abuse scandal

One of the club’s early youth system products was a Stockport-born defender Andy Woodward, and he was persuaded to join Crewe in the early 1980s when he was aged about 11. According to the first of a series of newspaper articles in The Guardian, plus broadcast interviews (extensively re-reported by other media), he was targeted by a football coach and scout, Barry Bennell (convicted in 1998 as a paedophile), employed at Crewe and other clubs in the area, including Manchester City and Stoke City. Woodward suffered repeated sexual abuse by Bennell, which he says led to later panic attacks and other psychological problems. The press revelations apparently extend to other players and include child sexual abuse by at least one other coach, but in the midst of this scandal, this crisis, Crewe Alexandra has refused to say anything.

“No comment”

The club I support, a club repeatedly held up as a fertile production line of young footballing talent, has, to the disappointment of many supporters (I talked to some before and after the match at Barnet on Saturday), made no statement about the affair. This tight-lipped approach is frustrating journalists – Daniel Taylor, who broke the Woodward story, wrote in this weekend’s Observer:

“… there are so many questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. … What a cop-out, what a dereliction of duty, for the club, the directors and their media department to think this can be swatted away like a bothersome fly.”

Other journalists have badgered the club for statements, but the chairman John Bowler’s view – shared by the Mail on Sunday‘s Oliver Holt – remains ‘no comment’:

“The press office was polite but firm: ‘We are not making any comment.’ I asked if there were any plans to make any comment. ‘It depends what unravels,’ the club said.”

I know Crewe fans who have said they won’t watch the club again until a fuller picture emerges; others (like me) are disillusioned or worried, sharing views on Twitter: “The ‘no comment’ line is pathetic & makes you wonder what they’re hiding,” said one-time Alex Exile Tim Robinson, continuing: “The tone of these articles is designed to make you think there’s more ugliness to come.” Long-time friend, fellow fanzine editor, and prolific Crewe Alexandra author Jules Hornbrook writes:

That the club – our club – cannot even issue a public message of support to a former player during this time, or openly state backing for any subsequent investigation, is beyond contempt.

I am sure there are legal considerations, but we can only hope that such a basic statement is forthcoming soon.

Of course, we are horribly conflicted, hopelessly biassed. As football supporters we have an emotional bond with the club, whatever its faults, but our loyalty is being seriously tested, as Jules concludes

The way things are playing out at Crewe Alexandra, there’s a danger that many of the club’s supporters will lose all faith in an organisation that for many years has been a beacon of hope in a murky football world.

The game should be about fun, excitement and celebration. It should not leave dreamy, impressionable young players fearful for their personal safety.

What many of us know as a rock-solid football club, famed for decades of work with young up-and-coming footballers, is in danger of falling apart.

Crewe Alexandra, and clubs across the country, should step up, confront this issue head on and ensure that historical abuse cases are investigated properly.

Stonewalling is not acceptable. Men like Andy Woodward deserve better than that.

Don’t feed the social media echo chamber

It pains me to watch the club I support try to carry on as though nothing has changed. It also pains me, as a PR professional, to watch a communication vacuum being created, allowing all manner of speculation to thrive, damaging the club’s reputation and threatening to alienate its most important audience: the Crewe fans whose hard-earned pounds are vital to the club’s financial survival.

In 1998, after Bennell was tried and convicted at Chester Crown Court, Crewe Alexandra FC was not subject to detailed investigations, but the case has remained the subject of occasional awkward conversations among its fans for years. The Woodward revelations – particularly if not addressed – add fuel to speculation, accurate or not, that, perhaps, there is more to come out at Crewe.

At Leyton OrientMaybe the club thinks that, because it was able to ride out the storm in 1998, it can do the same 16 years later. But a “lie low and say nothing” approach to crisis management can seriously backfire these days. Now we have a content-hungry 24/7 news media and a huge social media echo chamber. Saying “no comment” has three impacts:

  1. It suggests Crewe may have something to hide
  2. It can be seen as an admission of guilt or complicity
  3. It makes Crewe look evasive or defensive

And a further consequence is that news media will look elsewhere for ‘expert’ comment – some of it almost certainly less well informed. Such ‘experts’ may engage in damaging speculation about what happened, how Crewe responded, and what the club should now be doing about it.

And should the club need to communicate some awkward information in due course, its short-term “say nothing” strategy has already undermined its relationship with journalists and with key local stakeholders; without explanation, even a well-intentioned delay can begin to look like deception to outsiders.

In my view, Crewe need to be seen to be pro-active in dealing with the situation. A statement of concern or sympathy towards Woodward would help, plus a simple ‘holding statement’ along the lines of:

“We have fully cooperated with past investigations and will cooperate / are cooperating with the relevant authorities in any further enquiries. We will give further updates when we have more information.”

Update (11pm: 21 November 2016)The Guardian‘s Daniel Taylor has reported comments from Crewe chairman John Bowler (it was also reported that six other individuals had contacted the police, and that the Football Association was setting up a helpline). The comments suggest an abrupt change of policy during the day (Dario Gradi earlier said he understood nobody from the club should talk to the media). Bowler is quoted:

“All this came out of the blue. … When things come out of the blue you want to make some inquiries from within. There is no doubt we concur with what the FA have said and we are now looking at it from within and considering what our actions should be going forward.

“We are a proud club and when allegations are made that we didn’t take it seriously we want to reflect. I will be meeting with the directors to review the situation. I’m the chairman but we have a board of very dedicated people who are at the heart of what Crewe Alexandra are about. We don’t take lightly – and I don’t mean that aggressively – any of these comments. We are not belittling anything.

“I’m not asking you to be kind but please don’t be too unkind because we really are taking it seriously and looking at the whole issue. We are talking about something 30 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time, but we must look at the current climate and, if we are to make changes, not just at Crewe but in football.”

Too little, too late

In short, Bowler (who also expressed sympathy for Woodward) has broadly followed good practice in terms of content – be seen to be taking it seriously, empathise with victims, be seen to be cooperating, and indicating next steps (a board meeting).

However, these words have finally been voiced several days too late for many fans and for the media. The club’s reputation remains damaged. It will need to be more responsive and proactive if it wants to limit this damage.

Updates (4pm and 10pm, 22 November 2016)A statement repeating much of John Bowler’s comments was posted on the club’s website at around 2.45pm today, but the club has still been criticised by Woodward for failing to apologise:

“… not one person from Crewe Alexandra has ever contact me to see if I was OK or to say they were really sorry this happened at their football club. Even now, they’re still failing to say they are really sorry this happened. I need them to say sorry. Everyone who was involved – and there are people coming forward every day – will want them to say sorry but unfortunately this statement doesn’t surprise me and it feels like to me there is almost an air of arrogance on their part.”

Porting a telephone number – a sorry story

What started out as a Virgin Media #fail has now become an OpenReach #fail, facilitated by a #TalkTalkfail.

Virgin: how can we help (how about having a chat service that works?)Having experienced some poor TalkTalk service in respect of my telephone landline, and had some generally positive customer experience over several years with Virgin Media (notwithstanding the Great SE London Broadband Outage last December), it seemed logical to finally sever my connection with TalkTalk and transfer my existing telephone number so that it runs over Virgin Media’s network. How wrong I was….

The initial call experience was OK. While a parallel upgrade of my broadband got slightly delayed when equipment wasn’t delivered as expected, this was quickly resolved, but the transfer of the telephone number has become a tortuous month-long tale of missed deadlines, apologies and excuses – complete with one glaring example of poor customer service training.

I called Virgin Media in mid August, and when I received a “sad to see you go” email from TalkTalk on the 19th, it was clear Virgin Media had started the ball rolling; TalkTalk said they would be transferring my service on 27 August 2016. All well and good.

That date came and went, but the transfer hadn’t taken place. In fact, it wasn’t until 8 September that I got a Virgin Media text saying “we’re transferring your old number on 19/09/16” (OK, maybe it takes a month to effect a transfer, I thought).

“Your phone line’s not working….”

That date came … and went … and now the phone just stopped ringing. After a couple of days of silence, I tested the line. I could call out, but the line would not receive incoming calls. I called Virgin Media on the 24th and again on the 26th, and was told that there had been a problem with porting the number. Two more dates for the transfer were set, but still the phone didn’t ring.

(What makes this particularly painful is that not only do I use this telephone when working from home, but it has prevented relatives calling us – my wife’s family is going through a particularly distressing time over in Belfast, but she can’t even be contacted via our landline. And without a properly functioning service, I haven’t been able – or willing – to agree a call package to get the most economic deal, so her outgoing calls have been costing us a small fortune!)

Phishy fail

I called again on Friday 30 September, and the unfailingly sympathetic and apologetic customer service representatives I spoke to told me the number port would now take place on 5 October; I was also told that my complaint would be registered and someone would be in touch about recompense. Shortly after, I got a call on my mobile from someone saying they were from Virgin Media’s number porting team – I only had his word for this, but he then asked for my account password, and – when I refused to give this over the phone – asked which bank I used to pay my Virgin account and my date of birth. Given the publicity given to ‘phishing’ attacks, I said I wasn’t going to give out such information in an unsolicited call.

Ending the call, I once again rang Virgin. The next customer service agent I spoke to said the number couldn’t be ported because it had been disconnected (“Only because you instigated the number transfer on my behalf!” I raged; the agent also said the previous caller should have just asked for two characters from my password – clearly a training issue there); they tried to put me through to the relevant department, but the first attempt failed, as did the second. I then gave up for the day – work was too pressing to waste time on interminable service menus, ‘hold’ music, and telling the story over and over again.


I am now keeping my fingers crossed that the number transfer is finally completed on Wednesday. In the meantime, if you have been trying to get hold of me on 020 8858 1104 – call my mobile instead: 07788 445920.

And after a patient Twitter silence on the issue, I have started to vent online….

This is my second poor experience with Virgin Media. Other people would be less patient. Should I move, or should I adopt a “three strikes and you’re out” approach….?

Update (5 October, 4.45pm): Got a Twitter response after a few minutes – then nothing for 2.5 hours until someone spotted this post…. And then the chat service was too busy, providing the visual message equivalent of an engaged tone…. (5.45pm) Eventually got a chat response and ‘Mark’ confirmed that our service should be reinstated on 5 October. More conversations to happen once if and when that happens…..

Update (6 October): Well, 5 October arrived … and went – we still can’t receive incoming calls on our preferred number. In the meantime, I got an email from Mark; when I replied, it was bounced back with an email saying:

“Unfortunately we’re unable to deal with your request via this email address. Here are a few useful places to visit that are perfect for finding answers….”

Needless, to say, I was less than impressed, but I was later told, via Twitter, “You can ignore the auto-response, it will have been received and Mark will pick this up when he is back in the office” (tomorrow).

Update (24 October) – Still our old telephone number remains unobtainable to callers, and now it appears that BT is the obstruction. According to my latest email from Virgin Media:

BT have advised that they will not release the number as it was closed by TalkTalk and not exported to us. Our porting team are continuing to try and get them to change their position on the basis TalkTalk closed the number down before we could bring it over for you and therefore there’s no fault on our or your part.

I regret that, in the event that this position doesn’t change, there would be no way to get the number back for you and I’m really sorry if that does become the case.

We’re not giving up yet though, so we’ll continue to chase and escalate with BT.

Based on my previous experiences, TalkTalk’s mistake comes as no surprise, but now it’s BT OpenReach that is perpetuating a problem that is not the fault of Virgin Media, nor me, nor – even – BT OpenReach itself. Their intransigence couldn’t have come at a worse time (a working telephone line would really have helped us last week in arranging to attend a family funeral in Belfast!). Let’s see if @BTcare-s OpenReach cares… Not holding my breath….

Update (12 November 2016) – So the Virgin Media / TalkTalk breakdown has resulted in us losing the telephone number we’ve used for over 20 years. I have accepted a goodwill offer of compensation from Virgin Media. From now on, if you need to call me, it’s 020 8480 6601.

Atmotube: Mobile air pollution monitoring

atmotube-logoAtmotube puts air pollution monitoring in your hands, and enables users to share readings in real-time and via social media.

Earlier this year, I participated in a COMIT community day workshop which asked us to think about ways in which air quality might be monitored for construction workers in tunnels. As a cyclist and someone employed at various civil engineering consultancies (Halcrow and then Tarmac Professional Services subsidiary Stanger Science and Environment), I have long held an interest in air quality issues, and that has been heightened in recent years by living close to the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – notorious for creating occasional pockets of poor air quality in south-east London (my children attended a primary school less than 50m from the northbound carriageway, prone to long queues of stationary traffic in the morning rush-hour).

In 2012, I participated in a Kickstarter campaign and took delivery of an Air Quality Egg set – but this proved difficult to set up, left wires dangling between devices, and while it could share air quality readings to the web it needed a permanent IP connection, and when a firmware update required me to ship the kit back to the USA, I gave up on it.

However, earlier this year, I saw another crowd-funded campaign, this time on IndieGoGo, to support Atmotube, a wireless personal air pollution monitoring device that connects to a mobile phone. After a few months of updates from the Atmotube team my device was delivered just over a month ago (with my investor discount, it cost me $69 plus shipping), and within a couple of hours I was capturing and sharing air quality scores from my office and other locations.

Atmotube website clipAtmotube MapOnce charged up via a USB connection, the device can take readings every second, monitoring carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, while also measuring humidy and temperature. To access these measurements, a free app is available (iOS and Android), and my Samsung smartphone was soon giving me a steady flow of readings. These readings can also be shared with other users of the app via a simple map interface, and – even better for a social media addict – the readings can also be shared via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Swarm (though the latter is a bit clunky – mainly because the main sharing is via FourSquare, not Swarm). The readings can also be exported to Excel, but I have mainly been using the app’s dashboard and reporting tools (I can, for example, view results for the past hour, past day, or past week).

Atmotube app screenshotThe device is about the size of a cigarette lighter, with the casing made of titanium – making it hard-wearing and good to look at (I’ve gone for the standard metal finish, but coloured options are also available!) – and it can be easily attached to a bag or keyring. I have used it to check air quality close to busy roads, in trains (both overground and on the London underground), as a car and bus passenger, and in various offices and meeting places, and, so far, I don’t appear to have been exposed to any particularly poor air quality. As the summary (right) shows, most of my air quality scores have been in the 80s and 90s – though my son managed to get it to read in the 50s and 60s by the simple tactic of exhaling hard into the mesh at the top of the tube!

I talked about Atmotube at the September 2016 COMIT community day and suggested such devices could be invaluable as a simple, user-friendly way for workers to monitor air quality around them both on-site and inside buildings. Typically, we take around 20,000 breaths a day, so Atmotube potentially provides greater awareness of what we are breathing in. In society at large, it could be helpful to asthmatics and those suffering from other lung conditions, as well as helping parents of young children and the elderly.

In the built environment, it might also help alert us to malfunctioning air conditioning or heating, or to leaks of gases, etc. I am not sure if the current devices can be networked together (at least not yet), but such personal climate monitoring tools might potentially help provide facilities or HR managers with constant updates from employee users about their working conditions.


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