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October, 2011

Are you a good communicator? Review this poor example of communication.

Don't shut the door on free, independent, credible publicity...

Today’s I’m going to tell you about the kind of public relations person that journalists despair about and subsequently avoid like the plague. Why am I telling you?


To show you how journalists work, how they think, and how a bad communicator causes untold damage to a company’s reputation and significantly reduces their opportunities for future, credible publicity.


This story I’m going to relate is true, it involves an organisation which is real and which is active now – but I won’t name it as I don’t want to put any particular individual in the firing line. Simply because if an organisation is mad enough to appoint poor communicators, then it needs to look at itself rather than at any individual. That individual may simply be representing the view taken by the paymaster. So it’s the paymaster  or paymasters who should re-think, in my view.

Preparing to make a short film for a broadcaster, us journalists almost always need case studies. Someone who has experienced the issue that concerns us at any one time. For example, if you are writing about the effects of prostate cancer, you want to interview several people who have it. This is sometimes very easy, some subjects generate loads of people who want to shout about their experiences. Others are far more tricky. How easy is it to get someone to talk openly, on camera about abuse they suffered as a child? Believe me, it’s difficult.

Then there are other subjects where people would think – ‘why is that difficult?’. Poverty is one of them. If you are struggling to pay the bills, are in debt, have lost your job, are overwhelmed by circumstance, it’s very difficult to go on camera to talk about these very personal things. It would involve talking about your income, your expenditure. Details which many of us feel are very personal and private.

So journalists like myself will contact a range of organisations and ask them to approach their members, people they’ve had dealings with or helped, to ask if they’ll take part in any filming. This gives potential interviewees time to consider, and then when they make contact they’ve often already decided they will take part. This is just one tactic we use as journalists to reach people.


Most organisation bend over backwards to help. They know the difficulties of getting case studies but they also know that if they find one, they increase their chance of being interviewed for a film, or at least mentioned. It also gives them a PR opportunity themselves to link their work to a film. So for a little effort, there could be credible, independent publicity.


This particular organisation has a membership based approach. It produced a report which accurately described the kind of circumstances which would work in the film. Having made a telephone call, explained the project to the ‘communications manager’, asked if she could help – this conversation ensued.

She said: ‘The report we did was based on anonymous interviews so we didn’t keep personal details so we cannot contact those people for you. Sorry about that.”

Me: “I understand. Is there any chance, in that case, that you could send out a request by e-mail to your members to see if they would be interested in taking part , or if they know anyone who can help?”

She said: “No, I cannot do that. We only do that for our members, not for any outside body.”

Me: “Oh…right….that seems unfortunate from a communications point of view. Wouldn’t your members want to know about an opportunity to take part in a film?…I find that extraordinary, oh well (goes to end call)”

She said: “Hang on a minute. I’m only telling you that we can’t help and we’re sorry, you don’t have to jump down my throat about it.”

Me: “I’m not jumping down your throat…anyway….thanks for your help. Goodbye.”

On ending the call, all the journalists sitting round me say ‘what was all that about?’. And I tell them.


So what has that communication manager achieved?

In one conversation she’s told five  journalists within a news organisation that that body is not open to publicity, is not helpful. So when poverty comes up as an issue again in the coming weeks or months – will that organisation be the first that those journalists approach? No.

If  that organisation has done something wonderful and sends out a press release publicising its work – what will those journalists do? Answer – probably nothing. And if it’s a slow news time and they do pick up on it – what do you think the chances are that the negative contact will be explained face-to-face with the individual put up for interview? Probably the boss. Answer, very high.

Being a defensive, uncommunicative communications manager has consequences – you will find it much harder to get good publicity when you want it as you’ll always be at the bottom of the pile, the last contact to be considered.

However if bad news strikes, you are unlikely to be spared the full consequences of it.

Tuition fees – they’re a great idea? Aren’t they?

Facing the future - to pay or not to pay? for university.

Today was a proud day for me – my beautiful step-daughter embraced the spotlight and appeared on BBC1 in the West presenting a film about tuition fees.

In a short film for regional current affairs programme Inside Out West, she talked about the decision she faces when it comes to going to university or not. Pride aside, it’s an issue we’ve discussed a lot. We cannot pay for her to go to university so she would have to pay her way, through debt.

This has made me think of my own experience of higher education and question the whole issue of tuition fees. At a basic level, I hate the idea, I want all education to be free. It feels as if it’s something that all young people should be able to enjoy.

I’m not coming from a political view-point – I try to avoid that as I’m a journalist and am not keen on pinning my colours to the mast. 

It was 1984 when I was in my step-daughter’s situation. This was a time when just six per cent of those eligible – went to university.

In fact I wasn’t clever enough to go, I went to a college of higher education. I had a great time and have no regrets. I’ve always worked since, but I’ve never earned big bucks. However, for most years, I’ve earned more than £21k.

What have I got out of it? Huge life experience, a knowledge of how to seek knowledge effectively, friends from all walks of life, a worldview that means that life has no boundaries when it comes to career or travel, dreams can be chased, education is enriching. I also work in a career where a degree is essential, it gives you a head start – and that’s all.

But there is one big difference. I left with minimal debt – less than £1,000 after three years. Each year, my fees were paid and I got a grant of £2,200 to pay my bills. I did do a weekend job in my last year of study.

So it’s shocking to me that my own step-daughter or my other children could face a debt of up to £50,000 – and with interest this could rise to £75,000.

Now, almost 50 per cent of young people can go to university, is it realistic that we, as a society, can fund in the way that I was funded?

And is the cost really so high? Martin Lewis of Martins Money Tips says the actual cost will not be as much as that.  If you earn enough to pay it all back, then you will. If not, then you won’t. And there’s something in that. But it still feels like a tax on education.

And the fact that if you’re rich enough you can pay fees upfront undoubtedly gives young people from wealthier families an advantage. The price tag does put off young people from low and middle income families, so there’s another issue there for me. Applications are almost ten per cent down already, and it’s early days.

In all, I understand tuition fees, though I don’t like them. I’m not confident that poorer students will choose university and I’m pretty sure that those from middle income families will also think twice.

I’m not sure if that’s good for a society which wants to compete at the highest level –  but time will tell.  

Do you dare to live? Meet my friend, she did.

I’ve just returned from the funeral of good friend of mine. She died of breast cancer at the young age of 45. I think that whenever someone you know dies young, it always makes you more reflective on your own life.

Rebecca was always a fighter. She was dealt a rough hand in life when at the age of 16 she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that appears in the lymph tissue. With her customary determination she fought it, passed her ‘A’ levels and went to university. After qualifying the cancer reappeared, but again she fought it and began a successful career as a vet.

She then lived her life to the full. A girl who could never do things by halves, Rebecca ran half-marathons, took part in charity cycle races, and organised a charity ball. Perhaps glad to be given this second bite at life she made the most of it. As her list of achievements was read out at the funeral service it was clear that here was someone who challenged herself not just to be the best but to do her utmost for others too.

Of course, she wasn’t always the easiest person to be around. She was very angry about her situation and sometimes made it hard for people to be around her. But despite that, so many people were, and wanted to be. She was no victim, but a laughing, joking, ball of energy who could hardly pause breath for the amount of talking she had to get through.

Her funeral was full of her family and friends. There were so many tears that someone so young should die, but we all knew the friendship and kindness she had given to all of us and the inspiration that she was. In that, she has left her legacy.

So this blog post is dedicated to Rebecca, who dared to live and showed us how to.

What do you think of self-service at the supermarket? Review my findings….

the hard sell at the orange supermarket.....

Smarter shopping – that was the subject of a blog post I recently wrote for where I talked about my strategy for saving money on the weekly shop.
Do have a look – but in a nutshell, it’s now core shopping at Lidl and top-up shopping at the more traditional supermarkets in my home town of Swindon eg. Asda & Sainsbury’s.

Just a few months of shopping in this way is now saving me an average of £80 a month and I’ve got the spreadsheet to prove it.

However, at the weekend, I realised how seduced I’ve been for so long into buying from the Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tescos of this country.
I whizzed into the orange shop to quickly pick up a few things that we needed. As I emerged from my car – I’m accosted by ‘car wash madam?’ at least once – no, no, no.

I don’t know about you but I really object to being harassed every time I go shopping about having my car washed.

If a business is going to run from the orange supermarket’s car park, let me use it if I want to.


Please don’t bother me every time I park up which is probably twice a week. I’m never rude by the way, I just don’t like being sold to in this way.


The green supermarket has a much better system – a corner of the car park is given over to such a business and the motorist chooses to go there. No pressure, and very, very busy at weekends.
Charity collecting by the door I can just about cope with – after all, I’ll give if it’s a charity close to my heart. Generally I’m not accosted by anyone, it’s a matter of choice if I want to make a donation.

But if someone shakes a can under my nose, I’m unlikely to stump up cash.
Once in the shop, I’m no longer seduced by smells, special offers etc – I just head for the aisles which stock what I need. If a special offer applies to those products, brilliant. If not, then so what?
But please don’t try to then harass me to switch my electricity and gas (this has happened to me several times as well). I don’t want to think about that when I’m shopping. So I use this ruse every time – ‘I’m already with you…..’.

The worst and most annoying thing though are the ‘quick’ (and I use the term extremely loosely) self-service check-outs at the orange supermarket.

I must try these at least once a week in the hope that they actually will be quicker. Today I was lucky, in and out in a flash.
Last week, I was not so. And most of my experience has been like this….


Loose peppers caused it to almost explode – that meant searching through menus to find a pepper.

Then there are the bar codes, the machine can’t read. So I’ll type in the mile-long number to get that item through.
Then that awful message ‘unknown item in the bagging area, unknown item in the bagging area’ at 300 decibels so everyone in the store can hear.


I don’t know why they don’t go the whole hog and have a spotlight on the unfortunate shopper who has an ‘unknown item in the bagging area’ so that we can all take a good gawp. 


It would be more honest for the machine to say ‘idiot who cannot use the technology’ just to complete the humiliation. 

Having grappled with the ‘unknown item’ phenomenon (after all, it’s not usually because you’ve been trying to shoplift) you look around for help.


The three ‘hovering’ staff who were there about 30 seconds ago have all gone. There you are, like a lemon, wasting time and negating the effect of having speedier service.
I love the idea of speedy, self-service in the supermarket but I look forward to the day when it works properly.


Until then, when I’m not in a hurry, I’ll take the human being sitting at a till and when I’m in a rush – I’ll try to make do with what’s in the fridge.

Pontins – do you want to go there on holiday now?

Fancy having a holiday here? If so, send us a review...

Anyone watch Watchdog tonight?

You know the programme you ‘cannot afford to miss’. BBC 1 – Thursday?

If you are in business and you want to know anything about handling a negative story, you must tune in.


Tonught was a classic. Under the spotlight this time was Pontins holidays in general but the Somerset site at Brean Down in particular.

On the menu were stained bed clothes (yes,everything), mould, human hair in places which should have seen disinfectant and dusters.

All captured in stills and video, as well as the filming by the team featuring the alternative seven dwarves – Stinky, Grimy and Mouldy to name three.

Back to the studio with a woman representing the new owner Britannic Holidays.


Then followed a master class in how to make your company look as amateur and second class as possible. Even worse, how to make your business sector look awful.

Tip One – immediately be confrontational, especially to a presenter like Anne Robinson and try to make her look small. This makes Miss Robinson even more determined to undermine you.


Tip Two – use the tired excuse that you had 50 million satisfied customers and only ten had complained to Watchdog. Pointless. We aren’t going to hear from the satisfied customers. All customers should be satisfied, that should matter. Remember the adage ‘the customer is always right’? Well, when they’ve got photographs and video to support their case, they are right.


Tip Three – shout out and sound as if you are about to cry, quickly followed up by a suggestion that ‘we offer affordable British holidays’. Sadly, the message we hear therefore is that British holiday makers who are on a budget should expect poor standards. Shut up you whinging Brits with little money and taste…

Media training clearly went amiss here. If indeed any had taken place. 

Reading between the lines, I suspect that this lady is passionate about upgrading Pontins – it needs it!


But by taking it personally and trying to criticise Watchdog for covering the story, her message was completely lost and she spent valuable airtime trying to score points off Anne Robinson and the Watchdog team.

How would you have handled it if you had been Mrs Pontins in the hotseat? Would you have behaved differently. Do let me know……(I’ll share my advice if you are good enough to comment).

A portfolio career – is it for you?

Every so often, Fiona and I like to branch out and do something a little different. While Fiona never stops, whether she’s making a documentary, writing a column or advising on PR work, I find my other interests are in a very different direction. So here I am, fresh from having delivered my first gardening blog this weekend.

I think the days of a regular 9-5 job are long gone and the way forward for many people is a portfolio career. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking like this and would be curious to know what unusual combinations of jobs people put together in their working week. I’ve always been interested in lots of things and so to diversify my career makes sense. It also opens up your life to new people who have shared interests.

My family were supportive last year when I signed up for a one year course with the Garden Design School at the Botanic Gardens in Bristol, but I knew that secretly they were wondering, why? I’ve been an obsessive gardener for years, but became really hooked after helping out on a show garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show. It was so much fun that I came back and immediately investigated how I could develop this side of my life.

I found, at times, the course was very inconvenient as the workload meant that family life went out the window for days at a time. There I was, middle-aged with three young kids, working through the night to complete, of all things, a gardening course! Ask anyone, and they would expect such a course to be fun and relaxing, as you learn about a subject you are really interested in. I signed up in haste, but it was the right thing to do. I’ve learnt so much about design in the last year as it was a really well-taught course, even if I emerged rather pale and bedraggled from behind my drawing board on many days.

Having taken more than a few months to recover, I now find myself keen to use my new skills and to this end will be writing a weekly blog. At the moment it can be found at Birdsontheblog/food/strawberries in October, and I think the ‘Birds’ plan to set up a dedicated gardening section in time. Every two weeks I plan to write about jobs to do in the garden now, and every other week write a regular ‘Ask Sue’ section where I answer reader’s gardening queries. So if you have a question about plants, growing vegetables or best place to site a pergola, contact me.

Glamping in the Dark – how was it for you?

What is it with men and the big outdoors?

Taking advantage of the good weather my husband booked us into a campsite to go ‘Glamping’ at the weekend. Nice gesture, don’t you think. And a very good weekend it was too as all the family were able to be outdoors the whole time enjoying the sunshine.

So there we were, sitting in a field, passing cows the only view, watching the sun go down. And then I remembered – that meant no more daylight in ten minutes time. It was only 7.30pm but – wake up call – it’s October. As I manically rushed around lighting every lamp and candle I could find I could see my hubby happily stoking the wood stove and preparing to cook our food.

Now I like a break from the norm, but the bit I just don’t get is the need to sit in a field without electricity or hot water. Yet men seem to relish it. And I’m not just talking about their excited reaction to the opportunity to barbecue each night.

All the mundane domestic chores that we have to do every day become extraordinarily labour intensive when camping. You have to heat water to clean the dishes – that adds at least an extra hour to the job. And when you’ve heated the water, you can’t see to wash up because the light’s gone down. While I would rather get the boring chores out the way as fast as possible, he is relishing it as a challenge. And yet this is a task that is performed the world over many times a day, laboriously so.

Is it just a male thing because they don’t get to experience washing up enough?

Some modern inventions are good. A dishwasher is one, and hot water on tap is another. Even better is electric light so that you can see to read. Why the need to turn the clock back?

Have you forgotten Meredith? It’s all about Miss Knox.

Let's not forget Meredith....

Social media world is buzzing tonight with the freeing of Amanda Knox, as an Italian appeal court quashes her conviction for killing Meredith Kercher, from London.


It’s interesting as a UK resident to see the American reaction to this result – it seems many, many people always believed Amanda Knox to be innocent.


Even Oprah Winfrey apparently did a programme

involving Miss Knox’s parents.


In fact, the reaction suggests that Miss Knox will almost be welcomed home as a hero. All in keeping with the impression I have of this lady, an outgoing, all-American girl, confident and, to me it seems, a bit in-your-face.

I wasn’t there to hear the case in its entirety and as my Italian allows me to ask for an ice-cream and that’s all – well, it wouldn’t have made much difference any way.


But on seeing this reaction, I just keep thinking what about Meredith Kercher and her family?


What must they be feeling now? Does any one care about them? Will we ever truly know what happened to poor Meredith?

This family has kept themselves very private during this latest twist in a tale of murder and sex.

And while, it’s right that any miscarriage of justice is revealed, what about the victims in all of this?

We must not forget that at the centre, there is a family whose child was murdered in horrible circumstances and there is, to me, something grating about celebrating an all-round awful situation.

A man is serving a sentence for his involvement in the killing of Meredith. But this appeal case does raise so many questions about what happened to her.


I feel so uneasy about all of this. I don’t want innocent people to spend time in prison but let’s not forget that a young woman died here and her family don’t have the answers.


So as I see the buzz and watch the media reports, my heart goes out to the Kercher family – because for them, nothing has changed. Meredith has gone and they have to deal with that day in, day out. Tomorrow won’t bring a day of freedom for them.

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