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January, 2012

Solar farms – what do you know about them? Nothing?

Guess what? We’ve been asked to help out with the PR for a very special project in the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire area – the launch of the Westmill Solar Cooperative.

A beautiful site in the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire landscape....

This is very thrilling for us because renewable energy is something that it’s easy to talk about – but how many of us get to see it working up close? Here on our doorstep is one of the UK’s newest and largest solar farms and it’s amazing. And Mellow Media is playing just a small part in a bid to make this site as cooperatively owned as possible….

In a few weeks – date to be confirmed – a share option will be opened for investors to own a part of the solar farm (and you don’t have to be a millionaire to take part). The minimum investment will be around the £250 mark, though details are still being finalised.

Like artist David Hockney admitted recently, I’m one of those people who loves wind turbines so to see a site where turbines sit alongside more than 20,000 solar panels is astonishingly beautiful. You might say to yourself – well you have to say that – but I’d say it any way. I think it’s a lovely part of the landscape just off the A420 close to Swindon and on the Oxford Road.

When asked to be involved I did think -‘what do I know about solar farms or renewable energy?’ and the truth is – not much more than anyone else. And I suppose that’s the key, I’m representing the person who would not normally connect with such a project. However, I’m also one of those people who are thinking that we have to look at and embrace new technologies to secure sustainable energies for the sake of our children and their children.

So here I am, and for the first time I’m able to see how such a project works, how the energy is harvested, how it serves the local community and where any excess energy goes.

It’s a privilege to be part of such a project and I hope for everyone involved it’s a huge success. For me, it’s about personal learning, understanding the infrastructure that’s building up around renewable energy, hearing the arguments and seeing it in action.

I just know when this project finishes – I will have, as always, learned new things, made new friends and earned new contacts. Goodness me, could this really be business or journalism or life…..

 

(and I should just say, if you want to find out more it’s www.westmillsolar.coop)

 

 

Building a business – towards a bright future

This week, rather than a rant, I thought I’d share some good news with you. We have already added two new clients to our bourgeoning business this year.  It’s all very exciting and it’s still only the end of January.

It’s a strange thing building a business. You would think that it would happen in a steady stream with one customer coming along to follow another but the reality is that sometimes there’s a drought and then all of a sudden there’s the promise of a glut. Obviously a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to get those clients and, as Fiona wrote in her last blog, there’s been plenty of networking going on with us.

That’s been our attitude this year. We’ve been very proactive, getting ourselves out there, meeting potential clients, interacting with new people and simply talking about the business. There’s been plenty of self-promotion and it’s begun to pay off.

We’ve learnt that when business is quiet the worse thing to do is go underground, blaming anyone or extenuating circumstances for the lack of work. We are in a very challenging working climate at the moment, where people tend to be cautious about spending money, but I think that if you show that you can help a client with an aspect of their business by providing a skillset that they don’t have in house, then there is a market for experienced freelancers and small companies to fill that gap.

Despite the economic climate there are lots of small businesses out there – we know because we meet the owners – and they all need different skills to expand. It can be graphics, accountancy, personnel expertise or if we are lucky to be in the right place, PR, writing and film making. I keep meeting more and more specialist skilled freelancers, perhaps because of the amount of redundancies going on, but these are people who are keen to take the leap to work for themselves.

This year is going to be very interesting, seeing clients increase their business through the skills we provide and seeing our business expand in equal measure. It could be a very good year all round.

Who cares what a journalist thinks? You?

Sue and I have just attended a networking event in Swindon which we regularly attend.

We like the event’s very relaxed, social atmosphere and had invited a client along too (Tailored For You). When I arrived, Sue and our client were chatting away happily – and not with each other. Always a good sign.

 

If you’re wondering, the event was run by Business Scene.

There’s a guest speaker at every event and this one was no exception. This time it was a marketing expert sharing tips about how to make marketing, selling, business enjoyable and easier. Lots of good stuff in there and I’m glad to say that Sue and I felt we’d already, quite naturally, employed some of her tactics.

But it made me think. Should I be a guest speaker?

One of the tips was to tell personal stories – what personal stories would anyone out there want to hear from me? Well, as a journalist I’ve had a varied and interesting career. I’ve probably got stories coming out of my ears. But could I talk about business, SMEs in particular? I thought tonight I’d have a go.

As a business person, I get loads of stuff through my door inviting me to this free business seminar, or that business event – and when I see these flyers they are soon decorating my orange box. Do you feel like that? Is the word business a turn-off? What do you think a journalist thinks?

When I was told I was to be appointed business editor of my local newspaper in the mid-1990s, I almost stifled a yawn. How dull would that be? A more senior role writing about dull and boring stuff.

What I learned was that business isn’t actually dull at all – not when you realise you are writing about PEOPLE who happen to be in business.

You are writing about events which are organised, attended and enjoyed by PEOPLE. A human face can be put on almost anything.

It was at that time my job to go out and do that very thing. Tell business stories in an interesting way. Then there were multiple reporters on the newspaper. Today there are a handful. If businesses want publicity, more often than not, they need to blow their own trumpet or they won’t be noticed by any journalist.

If you look at your business and you think ‘who will want to read about my work, my company, it’s so mundane’. STOP IT! Your stories are all before you, if you just take the time to look. It’s about PEOPLE, it’s about ‘QUIRKY’, it’s about ‘UNUSUAL’. Put a human face on your business and you are a long way towards having a news sense.

Don’t forget pictures too, especially moving ones – essential for some businesses eg. hotels, venues. Moving pictures are becoming more and more important – think social media, think You-Tube, think about the choice that consumers enjoy today.

 

think people, think quirky, think pictures...

And of course, if writing or pictures are not  for you, you may need a Sue or a Fiona to help – (sorry had to get that plug in!)

Recession – time to change how things are done?

Grab yourself some 'me' time

Talk of a John Lewis economy has set me thinking. The idea is to give employees a share in the business that they work for so that they are working for their own prosperity rather than all the profits going to the bosses. Very laudable but it’s only a start.

We are in a recession which is proving difficult to get out of. It’s affecting people’s lives in work and out. Those in work seem to be doing the jobs of more than one employee as increasing workloads are heaped on them as others are laid off. Those out of work are finding it hard to get jobs because employers find it hard to commit to taking people on when expansion plans are uncertain. And those who’ve just left university, without relevant experience, are finding it hard to get any work at all.

If we are really going to think about how business is run, then it’s time to consider hours and flexibility. One of the major things that leaps out at me is the long hours culture that occurs in this country. Why is it not possible to work a 3 or 4 day week as standard and for companies to employ more people to cover the job?

It used to be that people in jobs worked a six day week – we’ve progressed from that but there’s been little change in reconsidering full time work as a five day week job.

To have no work is a situation of misery and saps at a person’s confidence. To have too much work stresses people out and causes strain on home life and relationships. Why not be radical and have a complete change of culture within organisations?

Make a five day week a rarity not the norm.

I know the first objection is going to be about having a reduced salary and that compromises would have to be met. But again, radical thinking is required. The pay at the top of big organisations is acknowledged to have increased exponentially in the last 10 years. Surely something could be redistributed from that? Rather than dismiss radical ideas as utopian ideals, isn’t it time to embrace change and do things better?

Another objection would be that if only a few did this, rather as women now go part-time often after having children, they are seen to be on the ‘slow track’. Change has to come across the board, so that the odd people are the ones who work 5 days or even more a week.

For some people, having that extra day at home would free them up to create new businesses. Perhaps develop that product or train for a second career. As long as the bills are covered one less day a week’s work could help rebalance the economy and unleash a whole new level of creative projects from previously exhausted employees.

Families would benefit as both parents would be more available to give time to their children. There would be more volunteering as people would seek to use their extra day in interesting ways. Think about how much more relaxed people would be with a bit more balance in their working lives.

Would it suit you? How would you go about making changes?

Worst customer service award of 2012 so far? Thomas Cook

I hate poor customer service – it’s one of those things which drives me completely mad.

This personal story, which is currently unfolding, smacks of everything that’s wrong about companies taking customers for granted.

And it reminds me of a little saying I’ve often shared with SMEs  – treat all customers well, you never know if one could be a journalist….oh dear!

Last year, we had a fantastic family holiday booked through Thomas Cook – with the invaluable help of an agent in a shop. This year we visited the same agent, who was lovely, but couldn’t match the prices quoted online at www.thomascook.com.

So we started booking through the website. At some point though we needed to call in as we couldn’t add baggage to our flights without making a telephone call. This is where the problems began – we called the number on the Thomas Cook website and spoke to a call centre operative.

She then proceeded with our booking and all went well until we got to the confirmation of credit card payment when she suddenly, without explanation, transferred us to someone different.

This person then wanted all of our details again.

Panicked we questioned this man – but he insisted that no booking had been made. What about our credit card payment? It hadn’t gone through.

We asked to speak to a supervisor. Eventually we got through to someone who said we couldn’t speak to the original woman as she was ‘in a meeting’ and we needed to go through the process again. We were then told we couldn’t have that package as the airline couldn’t confirm the flights. Deflated we cancelled. That had taken over an hour.

We then got several telephone calls – our credit card would show two payments requested and not taken. We could have the booking as the airline had confirmed but the price had gone up – by £6. Did we want to go ahead? With some reservations we agreed. We were promised a confirmation e-mail that evening.

Today (Monday) guess what? No confirmation e-mail. We called the same Thomas Cook number and spoke to someone who told us they hadn’t dealt with us at all. It wasn’t them. Panic is really setting in now.

No, new woman said,  we had spoken to Expedia – put through by the Thomas Cook switchboard. At no point until this time had the name Expedia been mentioned at all. Our booking reference number (which thankfully I had taken) wasn’t recognised by Thomas Cook.

So they  couldn’t help me in any way to deal with my queries. WHAT THE HELL? If I buy a PC from a high street retailer, they don’t make the PC, but they are responsible and so, in my book, is Thomas Cook.

Tonight we have spent more than two hours on hold trying to get the correct booking numbers, confirmation e-mails, weblinks to Easyjet to try to make sure that our holiday is going to happen.

Booking a family holiday should be a positive experience, leaving you looking forward to the time away. Now we are deeply worried that the whole thing will be a disaster with missing paperwork and bookings. 

And what about transparency? Where on Thomas Cook’s website does it say – ‘we may pass you, without warning, on to another company and, if anything goes wrong, refuse to help you out’. Or ‘We might say sorry a lot but in the end it’s down to you to fight your way through it’. This is what’s happening to us. A second evening wasted trying to sort out something which should be easy.

 

When is Thomas Cook not Thomas Cook?

If I behaved like that with my clients I know where I would soon be – without work.

So first tip of the year, if you are thinking of Don’t Just Book It, Thomas Cook it – swap that catchphrase in your head to this one Thomas Cook Dot Com – Don’t Bother Dot Com…..

Has the murder of Stephen Lawrence made you reflect? Are you rascist?

Stephen Lawrence was a young man murdered by rascists. We’ve known this for 18 years. Many of us have looked at the Lawrence family and been inspired by their dignity in the face of such horror – again and again and again.

It seems that we should reflect on rascism as a result of the court case and  the conviction of two of up to six people responsible for Stephen’s murder.

Thanks to the dedication of his mother and his father, Stephen’s death has impacted upon the Metropolitan Police (and rightly so) and it’s certainly made me think about how rascism can creep up on you. Watching the BBC’s Panorama revealed a little of that in the behaviour of investigating officers immediately following Stephen’s death. What initial actions would have been taken if a white youth had been stabbed to death?

I, for one, am very glad that some members of that awful gang have been convicted and I hope a situation arises when others can face the same justice. However, let’s face it, their lives have been haunted by Stephen and his family these past 18 years. And that’s not going to end any time soon. Good.

But are we really any less rascist today? Or is it simply more hidden? Or simply directed elsewhere?

As a journalist, I’ve encountered rascism on numerous occasions. Often I’ve been shocked and saddened. But equally I’ve encountered such sentiments from acquaintances and that’s equally shocking. I try so hard not to be rascist – but it would be naive of me to think that I’m totally free of it.

I have many friends whose skin colour is different than mine, whose nationality is different to mine and whose culture and belief system is different. I adore all of those friends and feel enriched by them. A good friend of mine who is French recently reminded me how good our care system for the elderly is here compared with France – it was a sobering reminder of how we stack up against other countries.

But there are a few incidents I recall which I have found shameful. One was many years ago when a friend of mine (I won’t be too specific) lived in the East End of London. On visits, if you went out into the garden there was a delicious smell of curry cooking, of spices and exotic aromas. Many people living in that area were (or their parents, grandparents) from Asia. I also remember going on a bus with that friend and we were the only white faces on board and I did find it strange. It gave me a brief insight into what it must be like to be ‘the only black in the white village’.

But the most shocking thing about this was that this friend’s brother was so rascist as to be unbelievable. Always using rude words about people of colour and talking about what he’d like to do to them. Soon after my  friendship ended, this brother became (yes you’ve guessed it) an officer in the Met. I’ve often worried about someone who was so meek on the outside but so rascist on the inside, could get into a police force. This all took place a couple of years after Stephen Lawrence’s death. So when the Met was found to be institutionally rascist – I wasn’t surprised.

More recently though, another friend went through a bad time which meant he had to claim benefits for a while. He had real trouble getting it sorted, while at the same time having a family to feed. He shouted out loud about it and I understood. It was a difficult financial time.

And then he went on to say something about ‘if his skin had been a different colour, he’d wouldn’t have had this trouble’ and ‘if he’d come from Eastern Europe, he’d have been given money hand over fist’. He lost me at these comments, I’m afraid. All of my sympathy drained away. Because these broad sweeping statements are simply not true, apart from being offensive to me.

In Swindon we do have an influx of people from Eastern Europe at the moment – often from Poland. They’ve come into the more middle class area of West Swindon. But the reality is that a large number of people from Poland have come here for many, many years – they’ve just lived in different areas of the town. We also have people coming from Afghanistan, Iran and many other places. Welcome, I say. All of these people enrich our town, hardly any of them are lazy, unwilling to work – in fact often the opposite.

The lesson of Stephen Lawrence for me is that rascism is still there – just below the surface and we must destroy it, one tiny drop at a time.

 

Fighting the drip, drip, drip of rascism....

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