Alert Alert !!!

My eyes are peeled. I’m scanning the horizon.  I check behind.  And to the sides.   Everyone I see will be scrutinised from head to foot, until I am satisfied they offer no threat.  Every vehicle will be checked.  Every house I pass will be noted and its details recoded.  Nothing goes unnoticed.  I am a coiled spring.

I am alert. So alert.  I am positively tingling with alertness.  Alert is my new middle name.  Beyond alert.  I’m more alert than Alert Ali McAlert, winner of last year’s ‘Mr. Alert’ competition.

I must be safe from the COVID-19 virus right?

Stay alert

If you didn’t know (because either you’ve been living in a cave, or somewhere outside Britain) this is the British Government’s campaign to keep the public safe from corona virus.

Stay Alert (what?) Control the Virus (er, how?) Save lives (but, who, where, how, che?)

My main question is this:  Is this the worst piece of public policy communication in history?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.  It’s the biggest stinker ever.

Why do I say that? (I don’t hear you ask)

Well for a start it makes no sense.  Staying alert will make no difference whatsoever to anything relating to the virus.  Or anything else, except I’ll be exhausted rather quickly.  Is alertness somehow relevant?  Am I at more at risk while sleeping than I am when fully ‘on my guard’?  I think not.

Controlling the virus is not something I know how to do, nor something it’s in my power to do so instructing me to do it leaves me floundering.

And saving lives, while undoubtedly a good thing, is not really in my remit – I don’t think I’m being asked to find someone in danger and rescue them, so what exactly is it I’m being urged to do?

Alice Bennett, a senior lecturer in contemporary literature, put it better than me, on Twitter:

“It’s a fantasy that we can ‘control the virus’, but we can’t actually control our attention either. ‘Stay Alert’ is the ‘Never Forget’ of public safety messaging: actionless, objectless, infinitely expansive”

Inevitably the authors of the campaign have felt compelled to defend it:

“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program .

In fact, polling by YouGov, on the Monday following its launch, suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.

Apparently, the original intention was that the five letters making up ALERT would form an acronym for five actions people could take to prevent the spread of the disease.  But according to Politico, the graphics for the new campaign were leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, the weekend before, leading to what is known in the trade as a ‘botched launch’.  And no acronym was forthcoming.

No wonder the campaign has been met with a mixture of derision and confusion.

I couldn’t help take a quick peek at what some experts in Government communications thought about it.  A couple of senior staffers at the Central Office of Information (The Government’s centre of excellence for public communications, until it was broken up a few years ago) summarised their thoughts as follows (no names, no pack-drill):

“I wonder what was the thought process that went into the new slogan: BE ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES.  This slogan is meaningless and confusing.”

“It’s a box-ticking exercise that clearly doesn’t give a shit about whether it actually changes behaviour or helps people.”

So far so utterly damning.  But there’s another side to this.  Because, if there’s one area where the current British Government is generally sure-footed, it’s mass communications made simple.  The Brexit campaign was a triumph of persuasion, where the case to be made was logically er flimsy at best.  And the last general election saw the Conservative Party wipe the floor with their opponents, despite a fairly iffy record in government.  All of this was achieved with a single-minded approach to communications based on a religious adherence to polling and feedback from focus groups.  It has been a thoroughly professional job.  They gave every impression of knowing what they were doing.  Until now.

So what went wrong?

Stay alert for further bulletins…….

Don’t over hype social listening – it’s useful not revolutionary

The other day, I found myself, yet again, marvelling at the “that’s bleeding obvious, but so true and I wish I had thought of it’ wisdom of marketing professor, Mark Ritson.

He had written an article recommending that the best way to get a top job in marketing was to pretend to buy into vogueish, digital bullshit, rather than correcting your potential employer and giving a more balanced strategic perspective.

“To put it more bluntly: if you are a proper marketer, your brain might answer a recruitment question correctly but you will consequently lose the role to a lesser marketer. So, ignore the technically correct answer and go with the vocationally prudent one instead.”

His premise – that marketers have been swept away by digital tactics, and have lost the plot when it comes to more rigorous strategic thinking – rings very true with me. The expression ‘digital first‘ marketing is the epitome of the tactical tail wagging the strategic dog.

One of the areas of digital hype in Ritson’s firing line is social listening:

“Social listening is a very cool, very unrepresentative real-time barometer of brand sentiment that you should look at but it should never be more than 5% of your insight pool “

This area – sometimes called online anthropology (cool eh?) has long fascinated me. I even attended the BrandWatch annual conference specifically to learn everything about social listening, so I could wow my friends with the most current buzzy techniques. I was disappointed, nothing genuinely compelling here, but concluded that I just didn’t get it. Simply not cool enough to capture the zeitgeist.

Then a couple of ears ago, I was working on a marketing campaign in a therapy are that was new to me – autism. In these situations, the first thing to do is to furiously hoover up every bit of research, medical coverage, editorial and opinion around the therapy area, so I immersed myself in all things autistic.

One research source, commissioned at great expense by the client, jumped out at me – a study which beautifully segmented the audience of autistic kids, teens and their parents. It was packed with insight. It described a spectrum of perspectives ranging (and I’m not remotely doing it justice here) from those who had limited horizons and were largely defined by their ‘condition’ to others who seemed to excel in many ways and could almost be said to treat autism as their ‘super-power‘.

For the purposes of developing an advertising strategy, this was a compelling piece of work. If the ‘super power’ angle was tenable, and if it represented an aspirational, yet realistic proposition, it was a massively fertile creative territory. The agency was salivating at the prospect. A host of exciting storylines rapidly presented themselves – the narrow line between madness and genius, the unsung hero (tortoise) who quietly excels ahead of the flamboyant charlatan (hare), the power of concentration to go beyond what was thought possible etc.

Being a bit of a research nerd, I was interested in the methodology for this segmentation, so I dug a bit deeper. It turned out the segmentation was based on a deep-dive, social listening exercise. What does that mean? It means they ‘scraped’ a large number of conversations happening online, around autism, and set about grouping the attitudes expressed, into segments. Nothing wrong with that – it was incredibly insightful, yielding some fascinating angles.

But there’s a huge assumption here – that the opinions expressed in this ‘scraping’ are in some way representative of the population concerned, in this case autistic kids, teenagers and their parents. A moment’s reflection confirms this is likely the opposite of the case. Online conversations, of the kind elicited by the researchers, almost certainly reflect a sub-set of our population who are atypical. They are by definition high-performing, literate, tech-savvy and opinionated. A brief dive into all the other autism literature tells us that this is very far from typical.

So when Ritson says social listening is “a very cool but very unrepresentative real-time barometer of sentiment” I can absolutely concur.

Unfortunately, we never got to create a campaign about autism as a super-power. It would have been a fantastic creative opportunity. But it would have been based on a tiny, unrepresentative insight based on a small, atypical sub-set of our audience.

Narrow escape or missed opportunity?

Can’t decide, but when it comes to social listening, I don’t feel so bad about ‘not getting it’ any more. Having said all that, it’s a technique that can add something really valuable to the insight armoury, For example, when good tracking study researchers report their findings, they often supplement the survey data on attitudes with concurrent metrics covering online sentiment. It makes perfect sense.

If you don’t believe the hype, this digital revolution can be genuinely helpful.

Nobody will ever ‘do as you say, not as you do’

As Britain goes into another coronavirus lockdown, it’s time to despair, once again, over the authorities’ inability to create single-minded communications.

Advertising 101 – the basic essentials of understanding how to communicate – states we need to create a single minded proposition in order to move people to action. It’s really that simple. As a professional communicator, if you do only one thing, then just get this right.

In the old days people would dress it up with analogies – imagine you are thrown a tennis ball; you catch it but if you are thrown six tennis balls, you won’t catch any. Yes, I know, it’s really rather obvious isn’t it?

Yet we don’t seem to be able to follow this simple rule when it comes to instructions about coronavirus and lockdown restrictions.

Partly it’s because communications is more than just what you say. It’s also how you say it, what you do, how you look and so on. If we say one thing and do another, it creates dissonance and people aren’t sure which message to believe. This is where our leaders have made it incredibly difficult for themselves. In the earliest days of lockdown, back in 2020, the authorities told us to stay at home but the PM’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, famously travelled across the country, to stay with relatives, recklessly flouting the advice. Worse, when the story emerged, he was not rebuked, disowned or criticised by ministers but defended to the hilt.

At the time, the response was one of outrage – it was one rule for them, another rule for the rest of us. It was the unfairness and elitism that caused most offence. I’m not so worried about that (well, maybe I am, but that’s not my main worry today) but, more by the way this undermined all subsequent government instructions. Various reports and studies in the following months showed that large numbers of people simply stopped believing what they were being told, after ‘l’affiaire Cummings’. This is doubly problematic in a world where trust in our leaders has never been lower, but that’s a bigger question for another day.

After that experience – and the clear evidence of the damage done – it’s surely unthinkable that the government could get it so wrong again. Isn’t it?

Fast forward to January 2021. The state of the pandemic is significantly worse than it was in the Spring of 2020, when Dominic Cummings went rogue. So much so that PM Boris has had to go on National TV to announce a new lockdown.

Let’s evaluate the messages he’s communicating:

Serious tone of voice (no jokes, no latin, no tortured metaphors) – check

Sensible suit, trappings of office, serious backdrop – check.

A single consistent story being told (the new COVID variant has made the situation worse, so we have to impose a new lockdown, we are telling you to stay at home, except for a few essential exceptions) – check

But why does he appear to have spent the night sleeping on the lawn?

And why does he seem to have adopted the manner of a naughty schoolboy who has been compelled to apologise for something he has done, which he doesn’t really regret?

The precise instructions were as follows – “You must stay at home. You may only leave home for certain reasons permitted in law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if you absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance or to escape domestic abuse…..If you do leave home for one of these reasons, you should stay local – unless it is necessary to go further, for example to go to work. 
Stay local means remaining in the village, town, or part of the city where you live.

19 Fairfield Drive enough.

So what are we to conclude when PM Boris was spotted by the London Evening Standard, a couple of days later, cycling in the Olympic Park, some seven and a half miles away from his home in Downing Street?

He would have had to cycle for at least three quarters of an hour and cross several London boroughs to get there – hardly staying in the same part of the city where he lives, one would think.

Official response has been that Boris didn’t break any rules – which suggests the announcement was at best, confusing, at worst, absolute nonsense. Or they’re lying.

Once again, we are likely to infer that either the PM doesn’t actually believe what he told us a few days earlier so the situation is not that serious after all – we can all ignore the rules – or that the rules only apply to us plebs, while the ruling classes can simply ignore the restrictions. This may become known as ‘doing a Dominic’.

Whichever interpretation you take, it leaves the government’s communications in tatters. On the same day as Boris’ misdemeanour was reported, the Metropolitan police chief was doing the rounds of media outlets telling us how enforcement would be stepped up to ensure compliance with the lockdown rules.

You couldn’t make it up.

I’d love to know what Cressida Dick was saying in private, once her serious “do what the government tells you” face was dropped.

There’s an added irony here, for those of us who once worked in government communications. Until a few years ago, there was a government agency, known as the Central Office of Information (COI), which served as a centre for excellence, in exactly these kinds of questions. It masterminded government campaigns to achieve the policy goals of the day, using the best practices from advertising, PR, design and all the other related disciplines. Above all, it understood that communication is about understanding the response we are looking to evoke, rather than the messages we are trying to project. It’s about designing the totality of peoples’ experience with a message and the inferences they will draw. Saying one thing and doing the opposite will always be flawed.

COI would regularly sweep the board in the awards for communications effectiveness. Being accountable for spending public money, it was under constant scrutiny and hugely focused on producing campaigns which delivered results. The COI was disbanded by David Cameron’s government in 2011, largely because it was deemed to be too ‘political’ in an era when government interventions in peoples’ lives was seen to be best avoided. That was the political approach that brought us austerity in the face of recession; a policy which now looks ridiculous, bordering on the cruel.

How things have changed.

How desperately we need the COI today.

The bare necessities of life

Ahh yes.

I was just watching the modern version of Jungle Book the other day (yes, I know, but it’s been a tough few months, what with the pandemic and all). It raised a few questions.

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The UK’s COVID-19 regulations (January 2021 version) define a list of ‘businesses providing essential goods and services’ which can remain open during lockdown. That’s very sensible, but the selection of what constitutes an ‘essential’ service is interesting.

This list represents what our leaders reckon are the bare necessities of life.

It includes the obvious essentials – food shops, banks, post offices, pharmacies and the like.

Then there are the inevitable anomalies.

Place of worship are open, but gyms have to close. The body representing gyms has made a strong case that they are not a significant source of COVID transmission, to no avail. But then bosses of gyms don’t sit in the House of Lords.

Botanical gardens are open, but not golf courses. Despite the fact golf is surely the perfect COVID-friendly activity with minimal risk, as long as the catering side is restricted. Two people walk in the outdoors, naturally socially distanced, due to the fact one is typically in the fairway, the other in the deep rough or the trees (that’ll be me).

Bafflingly, the fancy sweet shop in my High street remains open. I know. Me neither.

Other venues deemed essential include garden centres (whose demographic are at most serious risk of hospitalisation and death) DIY supplies, animal groomers (don’t get me started) and, for some reason W. H. Smith, which doesn’t seem to fit in any of these categories. Digression – I’m developing a theory that W. H. Smith should somehow engineer the word ‘British’ into its brand name, because it represents part of the fabric of UK culture, like BP, BT or British Gas.

Of course, there’s a case to be made for any or all of these goods and services being a priority. Especially if that’s your business, probably under extreme financial pressure. But in the present climate, where it’s clear there’s been plenty of skulduggery and awarding of lucrative contracts to friends and family, it’s hard to have faith in the decisions, nor in the rationale behind them. It seems likely the organisations, with the lobbyists closest to the centre, got what they wanted, and others didn’t.

At a less conspiratorial level, I was reminded of studies of recession behaviour that became topical in the 1990s economic downturn. Previously, economists had had a pretty mundane definition of what were ‘luxuries’ and what were ‘necessities’. But empirical studies, around this time, began to show that some things previously considered luxuries had become ‘sanity’ costs – and therefore necessities. So, no matter how poor people felt, they would resist giving them up. For some, the gym or swimming pool was now very much a necessity – as much for mental health as for fitness. Ditto the hairdresser for some groups. A friend recently explained she couldn’t survive without the fancy stationer, Paperchase.

This is surely the thinking behind keeping elite sport going, despite continuous disruption to squads that will make the season’s final league placings a bit arbitrary. Several Premier League football fixtures, as well as high profile rugby and cricket matches, have been cancelled because one team literally ran out of players, due to the pandemic. But, for football fans, at a time of national crisis and economic meltdown, following your team may be the only thing that keeps you going.

I imagine, if you’re a vegan, then plenty of foodstuffs deemed luxuries by others, are absolutely essential. Or if your culture makes other peoples’ ‘exotic’ foods your daily staples.

So the bare necessities of life are very much a moveable feast.

In a sane world, we would have some analysis of what activities represent the greatest and least threat of COVID infection. The activities representing the least threat would stay open and those with greater threat would close, unless it was absolutely critical – like food shops or pharmacies. This isn’t happening. In fact, you could argue the opposite is happening, with large scale lobbying to keep hospitality venues open, even when it seems likely that these are relatively high risk. Schools and colleges are surely a top breeding ground for the virus – that’s based on my own anecdotal experiences, in the absence of any reliable data. But the authorities were at huge pains to keep education open even in the face of a body of opinion pointing out, months ago, it would put more people at risk.

So much for ‘following the science‘.

Unfortunately, the way Government now works, our definition of the bare necessities of life is more likely to be influenced by businesses, lobbying for their economic interests, than anything connected with the task at hand.

It’s increasingly hard to be a Yankophile

I have always been a bit of a self-confessed yankophile.  I grew up admiring all things American.  The films.  The music.  The sports.  The Apollo space-program.  The USA was a leader in almost everything.

Later, when I grew up and studied politics, the US was hailed as the model of a successful, modern, democratic liberal State.  The all-important separation of powers would safeguard its values.  There were checks and balances.  It would be impervious to sabotage from within and it was a proud and powerful player on the world stage.

It was impossible not to have respect for the USA.

Admittedly, we’d sometimes hear rumors that the average American was a bit insular. They might not know name of the capital of Denmark, or which continent Luxembourg was in.  But all the Americans I knew and liked were fine, literate, open-minded, enlightened types, just like the Brits and Europeans I knew and liked.

How times have changed.

Sadly, it’s impossible to have lived through the last few years of history, without having your respect for America undermined.  

From being a model, advanced democracy, it’s sad to see that the US has become ridiculous.  

Think I’m overreacting? Well consider this:

We used to sneer, when the autocratic leaders of far-flung dictatorships would appoint their close relatives to the key positions in government, despite being in-no-way-qualified.  They were corrupt and untrustworthy, but, hey, they didn’t know better, they’re not mature democracies.  Not like us.

When leaders would try to have their opponents thrown into jail, simply because they were their opponents, we’d shake our heads gravely, muttering about how, thankfully, it couldn’t happen here.

If an elected leader refused to accept losing an election, we’d call it an attempted coup – the sort of thing you see in a banana republic.

If the Head of State lied brazenly and unapologetically, was openly misogynistic and racist, we’d say they weren’t fit to govern.

I could go on. But it would annoy me. maybe it would annoy you too – maybe not for the same reason. Whatever.

Ivanka Trump also appeared with world leaders at a meeting on women’s entrepreneurship.
First family faces criticism and sarcasm after president’s daughter joined Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping and others during meeting on African migration and health – The Guardian

How was America ever reduced to this?

How is it possible that America elected Donald Trump as President? Surely we knew – didn’t we? Surely we all knew. Worse, how is it that many millions supported a second term?

The legacy of Donald Trump’s presidency is sadly that the US is no longer a model democracy, but a case study of how it can all go horribly wrong. I’m sad to say I can’t see Americans the same way either.  They are responsible.  

Worse, the American experience isn’t an exception. The forces that brought you Trump are working across the Western world and – whisper it carefully – it could happen here. Indeed, many will tell you, it’s already happening.

I’m normally the most pessimistic person I know, but just for once, I’m going to give two reasons why we, in the UK, have a better chance of resisting the forces of darkness than our hapless Yank cousins.

  1. We don’t teach creationism in schools. Some US States do – alongside evolution for the most part, to be fair. But it’s crazy and it has always bugged me. Its one thing to have freedom of speech – it seems reasonable that religions have the freedom to teach their beliefs to their followers. In church. But not in school: let’s not beat around the bush – creationism is an incorrect way to describe history. To teach it in schools is to place a low value on the facts – and ultimately on truth. In these circumstances, America laid the foundations for a regime that ignored the truth and governed through lies. Controversial? Maybe. But teaching untruths routinely in school certainly won’t help people weed out fake news in later life.
  2. We have the BBC. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the BBC, a bastion of fairness and impartiality, and the envy of proper journalists across the globe, in a world where fake news and ludicrous propaganda have become commonplace. The fact the Beeb has been under attack from the UK’s current, dodgy, government (“this country has had enough of experts” – don’t get me started….) only goes to show how valuable it is as a rare body that will speak truth to power. Let’s hope it can survive under its new leadership and resist the attacks that will inevitably come its way.

None of this means we’re safe. But there’s hope. It’s New Year’s Day 2021 as I write and it seems appropriate to be positive, even if it’s a bit out of character.

Make the most of it. Can’t imagine it’s going to last.

The footballification of Everything

Trump.  Brexit.  Nigel Farage. Marine Le Pen. Everything.  It’s just so awful.

How did it come to this?

Where did we go wrong?

It’s not enough to say ‘we were lied to’.  That doesn’t wash.

Dr. Anthony Fauci rubs his face as President Donald Trump speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the White House.

Ian Dunt and others have written at length about the growth of Identity Politics, and the way this has undermined sensible debate around, well, everything.  

“Emotion and tribalism have replaced reason and the individual has been subsumed into the whole.”

“The misfortunes of the group are blamed on an outside force, either as a form of pollution or as an enemy conspiracy.  Leaders emerge who claim to speak on behalf of the group, by virtue of a mythical association.”

(Ian Dunt; How to be a Liberal)

Sound familiar?  Nazi Germany.  Viktor Orban.  Marine Le Pen.  Trump.  Brexit.

My preferred explanation comes from the author and broadcaster, James O’ Brien.  He talks about the ‘footballification’of politics.  I recognize his analogy.  We don’t have debates about policy any more.  Rather we decide whose side we’re on, we support our team and we oppose the other lot.

I remember it well.

Years ago, I would take my son to watch Chelsea play in the English Football Premier League.  At that time, we were winning trophies and things were good for Chelsea.  We were fans.  And that spirit of partisanship overrode everything.  If our player went down in the box, we would scream for a penalty until we were hoarse – even (no, perhaps especially) when it wasn’t valid.  Conversely, if an opposition player went down under a challenge, and was awarded a foul, we would howl with derision at the injustice, again, whether it was or not.  That’s just what you do. Truth has taken a holiday.

Remembering Luis Garcia's ghost goal vs Chelsea in the 2005 UCL semi-finals  - ronaldo.com

To this day, I swear Luis Garcia’s goal for Liverpool, that eliminated Chelsea from the 2005 European Champion’s League did not cross the line. You can decide for yourself here, but, for myself, I am certain.

And, as I reflect, when it comes to politics, I have always been guilty of this – just as O’ Brien describes it. In fact I suspect I may have been a pioneer of this kind of self-delusional thinking. From the dawning of my political consciousness in the 1970s and 80s, I could never have voted Tory, regardless of the policies, the personnel or the messages. I have told myself it’s because of the damage the Thatcher Government did to the social fabric of the UK in the 1970s and 1980s but, looking back, I’m not sure that really rings true. I think it’s more like my support for Chelsea. It’s tribal. It defines who I am and the sort of person I want to be.

Ironic that Chelsea play in blue. I support the blues on the pitch, but I could never support the blue party.

This whole diagnosis ties in perfectly with the understanding, emerging from neuroscience and behavioural economics, of human rationality. Most of our decisions are based more on instincts located in the pre-thinking reptilian brain than in the conscious deliberative part. We make our significant decisions based on gut feelings, then, later on, we create a rational justification using our intellect. It’s what Daniel Kahneman describes as System 1 and System 2 thinking.

It’s a convincing explanation of the irrationality of human behaviour and beliefs.

But it’s really not a good way to run a country.

Amazon’s rugby sponsorship reveals a sport in trouble

Sports sponsorship is a hoot.

Once upon a time, corporations would simply lob money towards the Chairman’s sport of choice, and the reward would come in the form of tickets, hospitality and opportunities for mingling with your idols. Oh yes, and there was probably some kind of sales benefit in there too, but it’s terribly difficult to measure exactly, so we won’t worry unduly about that.

Not so much nowadays. The commercial imperative for sponsorship is, at least in part, based in science. Marketing teams can seek out sports or teams whose audience matches their desired profile and identify a partnership that makes sense, both in terms of targeting and in terms of brand values. The targeting bit is obvious – match the people who might buy the brand with the people who love the sport or the team – but the values equation is more subjective – find the team or the sport that reflects the values your brand, or your people, aspire to.

Red Bull is the most obvious (and probably the best) example of this. The high energy drink has been associated with adrenaline-fuelled events since its very early days. The fit is perfect. Betting brands have a clear overlap with football teams – say what you like about the ethics of that.

F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

When there’s a good match between a brand and the sport it sponsors, it really does cheer me up. Guinness‘ long-running sponsorship of rugby union is another beauty, which has also spawned a wealth of great advertising.

But rugby union has been strangely missing from the wish-lists of major corporations in recent years. The rugby authorities have been famously conservative over the years, and I’m sure they could have liberated a whole lot more money if they were less discriminating. This does them credit – they need some of that because they have been lurching from one PR crisis to the next over recent years.

It seems to me, rugby is a hugely attractive sports partner. Not only is the audience attractive (it’s Britain’s 6th biggest sport with a passionate, affluent and highly educated following); it’s also a sport with a tradition of dignity, fairness and high moral values. That’s important because it means that (with a very small number of high profile exceptions) your brand ambassadors won’t turn up in the headlines, having dome something unmentionable, which would now be reported ad nauseam, under your brand’s logo.

As a fan or a brand user, it affects you both ways. Just as you want your brands to find the right sports and teams to be friends with, you also want the sports and clubs you care about to have good, decent, reputable sponsors.

So, as I watched the autumn international rugby series recently I experienced a sinking feeling. The series (or at least the broadcasting) was being supported by Amazon Prime.

Amazon is one of the modern world’s necessary evils. Whatever we feel about its failure to pay tax, its abusive workplace practises and its monopolistic status, it is bloody useful.

But in terms of corporate reputation, there’s hardly any company on earth I admire less. And I’m not alone in that perspective.

So I really don’t want to see Amazon climbing on the back of my favourite sport. Rather than improving the reputation of the brand, this association actually diminishes the reputation of the sport. It’s that bad.

I’m worried that, with its rigorous (and excellent) sales and marketing evaluation, Amazon will see the value of its rugby partnership and follow up this toe in the water with further, more substantial, rugby sponsorships.

For my part, I just say “please, God, no”.

It’s intersting to see what happens when fans take this further. In the German Fußball-Bundesliga, fans of some clubs were so disapproving of the backers of their team, they effectively boycotted the team.

It led to RB Leipzig, the team supported and, pretty much created, by Red Bull, to become what many have called “the most hated team in the league

Which is ironic, because, as I mentioned earlier, I see Red Bull as a shining star in the world of sports sponsorship.

But sport can be tribal like that. It’s irrational and its complicated.

I am pleased to announce this announcement, which will be announced next Monday

When did it become the norm for Governments to trail their announcements a week in advance?

On the surface, it’s a pretty odd way to go about things. You formulate a policy, debate it, refine it and agree it internally, then you leak it to your friendly lobby journalists, who will write it up and broadcast it in all the fine detail, a week ahead of your ‘official’ announcement.

I saw a perfect example this morning. The Politico website (along with every other major national news outlet) writes on Tuesday that the Prime Minister will announce the next set of coronavirus post-lockdown measures the next Monday. Politico goes on to describe the measures in step by step detail. The story is attributed to ‘a No. 10 official’. They have a paragraph on what the PM will say, when he will say it (in the House of Commons at 3.30 on Monday) what will and won’t be included and how he will fend off questions. Then there is analysis with comment from other sources, on all sides of government and opposition. It is rigorous, considered and has clearly been laid out in detail, in a series of meetings and documented releases.

I’m sure there was a time when announcements were just announced, but that was long ago. These days it is part of a universal protocol, which has grown up over time.

I asked some former Government communications experts about this. I assumed that it was a tried and trusted ‘best practice’ adopted as official policy. It would feature in any standard training for young government comms people. I was somewhat surprised to learn that, on the contrary, this leaking of policy ‘in advance’ is highly illegal and is still ‘officially’ frowned upon…. despite being universal employed by every UK government department, including the Prime Minister’s office in 10 Downing Street.

Isn’t that just a classically British way of working? There’s an official rule book and there’s a working protocol and the two have no point of contact. It has all the twisted opaqueness we have come to expect from the workings of the British constitution.

So why does it happen?

Some observers describe it as ‘drawing the sting’ from the announcement. Since all the discussion has happened in advance, when the matter is officially launched, there is unlikely to be any great surprise or outrage. And any serious reservations can be headed off in advance, negotiated away or rehearsed. In extreme cases, the announcement could even incorporate new elements to see off objections raised.

So in many ways it’s a way of avoiding any nasty surprises.

It is also part of the daily currency of the lobby. Career politicians have this symbiotic relationship with lobbyists and journalists where each pre-warns the other of forthcoming events so they can get ahead. The back scratching is selective so journalists need to play nicely in order to keep getting briefed while politicians benefit from their patronage and the story may lean in their favour when it’s written up.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Like much of the British system, its opaqueness is troubling, but it works to the advantage of the government of the day – usually.

Some will object that it cuts parliament out of the process. If the House of Commons hears an announcement on Monday which has been shared with the whole country the previous week, it tells us something about their influence.

Occasionally it gets out of hand. The recent blood bath in the PM’s office (leading to multiple resignations / firings and bitterness all round) came to a head with government aides briefing and counter briefing to undermine each other, in a way that makes a seven year olds’ playground spat look dignified. The same principles of press patronage and lobby briefings were at play, but nobody was playing nicely.

News management can often look a bit Machiavellian. I recently had a drink in one of those Westminster pubs where the dodgy deals are reputed to be done. It’s all dark cubby holes and quiet corners where hushed conversations can take without being overheard. It reeks of the covert worlds of Hogwarts or His Dark Materials. Which makes it, all at once, seedy as hell but strangely intoxicating.

Like so much in the, increasingly opaque, British system of government.

The mystery of the booming stock market

It had been bugging me for a while. How can it be that, at the peak (so far) of the Corona virus pandemic, as we go into a deep recession, stock markets are in rude health?

There’s no doubting the seriousness of the recession. Any data you like will confirm that this will be the deepest economic downturn any of us has seen, dwarfing the 2008 slowdown, which was itself the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This chart shows data for the UK, but it’s the same elsewhere:

Makes you want to scribble ‘biff’, ‘kerpow’ or ‘whammo’ at Q1 2020.

And yet, after a short term blip, early in the pandemic, stock markets rapidly recovered to previous levels and, in some cases even posted record highs. I’m no economist, but surely, this is the opposite of what should be happening.

This is the weekly Dow Jones industrial average index performance from January to October 2020 (I know I’m mixing up US and UK data here, but the trends are the same):

Turns out I’m not the only person to have noticed. In October, McKinsey published a think piece entitled ‘Wall Street versus Main street: Why the Disconnect?’ dealing with exactly this inconsistency.

As they expressed it:

“In the middle of the deepest recession in memory, stock markets are reaching new highs. Why the disconnect?”

McKinsey’s analysis finds three points of explanation:

1.Investors are taking a long term view, so where there’s an underlying healthy business, they see that the investment prospects are still good once the recovery comes.

2. Stock markets, especially in the US disproportionately represent stocks like the tech giants, who are largely insulated against the worst effects of the pandemic.

3. Stock markets mostly represent big business, whereas it is smaller, unlisted companies who will be worst hit in the recession.

Hence they conclude, it is not to surprising that stock markets can do well while aggregate indicators like employment and GDP are severely depressed.

Sounds sensible, especially when we hear rumours of the massive financial gains made by a few billionaires during the pandemic.

On the other hand, I’m a little disturbed to observe quite how far the markets over-represent a few sectors – namely tech, finance and pharma. These three categories, according to McKinsey/Standard &Poor, make up 18% of the US economy, but nearly 60% of the market capitalisation of corporate America. As McKinsey summarises it, the market value of listed US companies, does not reflect the dynamics of the real economy.

Should it? Is it a problem if it doesn’t?

Either way, it helps explain why markets have a life of their own, seemingly independent of the real world of business.

Forbes Magazine goes even further, in a piece entitled This is why the stock market is rallying, while the economy tanks, concluding that stock markets are surprisingly healthy because they are simply predicting the recovery.

In their words, when the recovery comes, “the economy could grow very strongly ….. it could result in one of the fastest growth periods in US history”.

Are these commentators deluded?

Or are they simply optimists? (Nothing wrong with that.)

It does make you revisit the fundamental question – what is the stock market for?

When I studied economics, it was a marketplace, intended to raise money for businesses to grow, and in doing so, to extend ownership of those businesses to a wider group. Through supply and demand, the value of stocks would reflect the health of the businesses quoted and so, in aggregate, the health of the economy more broadly. But that was before the nature of the markets changed to focus on abstract investments like derivatives, futures and the opaque mysteries we now call ‘financial instruments’ with the resulting trend to speculative investments. Stock markets became casinos.

My instinct is to think more like The Guardian, where Larry Elliott explains the disconnect between the real and financial worlds thus:

The reason for that is simple. Financial markets were once seen primarily as places where businesses and governments could raise capital for productive investment. Over the years, the centre of gravity of western economies – and the US and the UK in particular – shifted from production to speculative finance, most of it debt-fuelled.

Should we be worried?

The reliance of pension funds, in particular, on the markets makes them one of those institution which has become worryingly ‘too big to fail’ ensuring they will be protected. Arguably, this in turn encourages reckless speculation, like that which created our previous worst ever recession in 2008.

So, yes, I’m worried. But the optimists are probably happier than me, so maybe I should be more like them.

Keep your communications single-minded please

I loved this opinion piece penned by Imogen West-Nights in the Guardian a little while ago:

Go to the pub, but don’t come into contact with other people. Only meet in groups of six, but also sit in a restaurant with 30 other diners. Go to your office, but don’t go by public transport. Listen to the scientists, except when we’re ignoring them. Relax. Under no circumstances should you relax.

It is sometimes difficult, in the face of such mixed messages from the government, to resist the urge to crescendo directly into a full-throated scream on getting out of bed in the morning.

The government has an unenviable job in dealing with coronavirus, as the situation changes from day to day, but other governments have undoubtedly done it better. According to a June YouGov poll of 27 countries, Britons had the second lowest level of confidence in their government’s handling of the pandemic.

First because it embodies the most basic but crucial rule of mass-communicating, namely ‘thou shalt be single minded’. In advertising agencies, the common analogy was to talk about catching tennis balls: if I throw six balls to you at once, you won’t catch any, but if I throw one, you stand a good chance of catching it.

Geddit?

Unfortunately, as succinctly demonstrated, Corona virus public-facing communications have been anything but single-minded.

I know my former colleagues in Government communications despair at the flakiness of current offerings. Analogies tend to be more often made with human body parts, especially those below the waist, hanging in a sack.

Secondly, and even more gratifyingly, because it represents the only occasion I have ever known where someone correctly used the term crescendo as a verb. Crescendo is not the peak you reach (that’s a forte or fortissimo) but the ascent to get there.

Crescendo | Definition of Crescendo by Merriam-Webster

For that, I will be eternally grateful to Ms West-Nights.

Is this ad moving or is it an outrage?

Take a look at this ad, created by the McCann for Unfinished Votes – a quirky but highly emotive project brought to us by the anti-gun lobby. It was brought to my attention by the researcher Graham Booth, a marketing commentators I respect highly.

Now, I looked at this ad and immediately thought a couple of things:

Great use of AI – among the best I’ve seen of its kind.

Great cause – I am the kind of liberal lefty type who supports gun control.

Great to see the people I support matching their more cynical and malevolent opponents in using smart and progressive techniques to get their message across. I often despair that it often seems the more decent and principled the cause, the more lumbering and naive the communications (I’m particularly thinking of Brexit here).

What I didn’t expect to see was a response ‘below the line’ full of vitriol from those rejecting the message, the cause and the technique.

A few examples from YouTube:

Beyond disgusting. Shame on these parents

This is messed up and you guys are deranged

This is disgusting and hits uncanny valley lows unlike anything I’ve ever seen before

One of, if not the, most disturbing, creepy and horrible videos i have ever seen

And so it goes on; there are pages of condemnation. And it doesn’t, on the face of it, appear to be written by the reactionary, pro-gun militants but by regular people, genuinely disturbed.

I usually reckon I can predict when there’s going to be a backlash to advertising, but this took me by surprise.

Years ago, we used to tell clients they should aim to achieve controversy – it was a good thing disguised as a bad thing – a catalyst to spark a conversation.

Is that what we have here?

Or is it genuinely creepy and ill-judged?

I’m in two minds about it now I’ve seen the outrage. Makes you think, as we used to say.