Thursday, May 29, 2008

Response to the Governance Commission report

Yesterday was a very important day for Stoke-on-Trent. The Governance Commission reflected back a picture of Stoke politics that everybody will recognise. You can read the full report here.

Given how many people who had given evidence were in the room, it was surprising how quick people were to distance themselves from its findings. Unfortunately, the same habits of divisionism and negativity that have turned off most of the people of city were all evident. The cabinet were accusing the Independents and BNP of causing all the problems while simultaneously claiming they wanted to move away from negative politics. The main campaign group was asking for an entirely different option that the ones we are able to choose. The vast majority of people in the chamber were white and over 40. In the press conference afterwards, the cabinet, who were quite clearly in the firing line, seemed to be denying that their leadership style had in any way contributed to the report. Meanwhile the national Guardian newspaper have been to Bentillee and gave the world a three-page view on the rise of the BNP in Stoke. Brilliant.

So, what choice do people in the city have? Nothing, except to get involved right now. Unless you want the same people who have caused this demise to create the solution, you need to find a way to be a part of it. I've been discussing the report with a few people so far and everybody has some view on what should be done. 'Leaders' may decry apathy but people are far from apathetic. I believe where they are missing the point is by failing to realise that where there is a lack of trust it's no good asking people to be involved in the sky-high policy, it is the issues on the ground that they care about and the short term. Just take parking as an issue. If the people of Burslem have been able to have absolutely no dialogue with anybody on an issue that they almost universally agree adversely affects the town, how can you say they are being engaged?

Little things have a massive effect on people's lives and the council need to accept that if they're in a huge fight over them, that's not good leadership. Dialogue can prevent issues and build trust. Of course it's hard to get people involved, but that's your job. Why did the closure of Dimensions need to turn into a petition issue instead of being discussed with Residents Associations and, dare I say, the users of Dimensions? Who has ever been asked about whether parts of Hanley should be rebranded, wiping its name entirely from roadsigns? Not the communities of Hanley, I'll suggest.

The report is well thought-through, leaving options open for discussion where possible and clarifying the areas where choices are more limited. Reporting it simply as a row over whether we have a referendum for a mayor rather misses the point: that our system is so damaged that the system doesn't really matter. If we accept the Commission's view of the problem - and there is no reason why we shouldn't because it echoes all of the views expressed every day in the City, at least the parts I see - we need to accept their solutions. The council need to take immediate action to fix the breakdown in engagement and start to show people it is worth getting involved again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The World is watching

“When I climbed to the boat pier, I saw a corpse of a young child, wearing a rubber band on his wrist. Thousands of lives, thousands of innocent people, lost in the water, lost on the land.”
- Nyi Lynn Seck

If May 2008 will be remembered for the massive tragedies in Burma and China, it could also be credited for being the month when the global community stepped up and became a real force for action.

In years gone by, the aid response to Cyclone Nargis might have remained an issue for governments and aid agencies to fight over in the corridors of the UN. Now, the immediate direct reports of victims via blogs and Twitter feeds mean that few people in the world can say they didn’t know.

Few governments will openly say they want to kill off their people and would normally rely on the darkness of media blackouts. However, the ongoing work by organisations like Reuters-backed Global Voices, and web users themselves, to encourage blogging in countries where self-expression has always been dangerous now means that we have direct reports from countries whose people have had no voice. On Sunday, Myat Thura translated a report by Nyi Lynn Seck, quoted above. With the honesty of the citizen journalist, Myat Thura writes: “When I read Nyi Lynn Seck's article, I really wanted to cry” and the article ended with links to pages where people could donate.

While bloggers could bring individual human experiences to world attention, Google Earth swung into action immediately to support aid agencies and the UN agency UNOSAT in using maps and satellites to view the area affected. Even if visa restrictions mean that the vast majority of them have not been able to get into the area yet, they can be better prepared for when they do and any of the 200 million users who have reportedly downloaded Google Earth can see the extent of the devastation and relief work.

In China, Google were also able to provide services for people to find lost relatives and track relief efforts, which may give critics some assurance that they have been able to have a positive impact even while they have played to the Chinese government’s rules. In addition, Google is matching donations to relief efforts in both China and Burma.

At the time of writing, over 8,000 people had signed a petition calling on the UN to apply the new doctrine ‘Responsibility to Protect’ to enforce international aid. Few governments have endorsed the idea of taking on Burma’s military regime but the public response has given weight to diplomatic efforts by the UN and governments.

While in the Olympic year the Chinese government were unlikely to leave the victims of the earthquake, there’s no doubt that they will have seen the advantage of their fast reaction: hundreds of rescue pictures being beamed around the world, perhaps helping to fade memories of the protests about Tibet and associated web coverage that doggedly pursued the Olympic torch.

Governments, no matter how bad, will rarely declare that they are out to let all their people die and so rely on international ignorance and apathy to let crimes against humanity pass by. The fact that the Cyclone aftermath has been so high profile will certainly have had an impact on the Burmese government’s willingness to engage. The fact that there are more voices than just those in the West also means that they are not being backed into a corner by British and American governments waving aid. On Sunday the British diplomat Lord Malloch-Brown explained to the BBC that although they would like to see aid moving in faster, they were reassured by the fact that Association of East Asian Nation countries were able to broker a link that the "Burmese can work with".

The events of the past two weeks have shown that while ‘responsibility to protect’ has some way to go before becoming a fast-track to prevent mass deaths, the global community are willing to react and have a sense of common humanity. The next challenge for global activists will be to find out how the same power can be harnessed to prevent the ‘slow burning’ crises such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As pressure continues to let aid through in Burma, the world will continue to watch and wait, and pray, for the survivors of May’s natural disasters.

First published on Knewsroom

Why you can no longer buy the media

First published on Knewsroom
(with thanks to the kommuknity for the incredibly ego-boosting 41,860 watts :) )

Social Media Marketing is increasingly popping up all over the web as the bandwagon of choice for communications strategists. While there will be plenty of helpful contributions like this article, I fear that there will be some very tedious and expensive attempts to hijack the internet for commercial or political use, which will fail. In the meantime, the risk is that advertising revenue will decline, putting at risk the very model that much of the social media depends on while companies try to market themselves on the cheap.

The great development of the internet is how far individuals are in control of what they view. People decide what to open themselves up to based on trust. The links are between individuals grouped into communities. Best of all, people recommend things to each other because they want to, not because they are paid to. Attempts to cut into those relationships with marketing messages are binned as the spam that they are.

The public relations industry has been able to take advantage of the mainstream media's refusal to invest in journalism (see: churnalism) but the internet gives us the chance to bypass media pointlessness and go straight to the source. If journalists stop worrying about the effect of all this on their own jobs, they could do what they were always meant to do - report what's new in a way that is clear and simple to the reader who wants to find out what happened this hour/yesterday/this week. They could signpost to what's online and add healthy amounts of real-life questioning and investigation. Novel, no?

Where does it leave the PR workers? Well, since so many of them turned from journalism to PR out of necessity, there's nothing to stop them using their talents to feed more information onto the web and stopping the obsessive drive for control that makes it so difficult to find out anything about what is happening in our institutions. If you were asking me how Stoke's extensive public relations budget should be spent, for example (and I don't suppose for a minute that anybody will), I'd suggest one PR officer for each of the six towns (yes, even Fenton), whose role would be to channel information between councillors, council workers and the community in whatever ways were most appropriate, whether that means talking (yes, talking) to people on the street (bejeezus!), writing articles for their own web presences or sending information to the local media.

If politicians and businesses really want to take advantage of the potential of the social web, they need to relax and realise that what people are really interested in is authenticity and the chance to build trust. I've been quite impressed by Gordon Brown's Twitter feed in the last couple of weeks. There's very little spin you can fit into a 140 character tweet, so the unnamed tweeter (tweeterer?) just posts updates about what Gordon is up to. He also follows all his own followers, meaning that you can get into a direct dialogue - again, there's no room for long boring discussions but you can give instant feedback or ask short questions. Undoubtedly, some media pundit will try to say how very cringe-worthy it all is, but since we've all stopped finding the time to read what they say, it doesn't really matter.

And because of that Twitter feed, what did I, an avid hater of the Labour party, find myself doing yesterday? Posting Gordon's comments from the press release and the BBC report onto Knewsroom in a story that subsequently got 'invested' onto the front page. Free PR in the old-fashioned sense, and purely because Gordon said something that I thought was useful and would be of interest to the Knewsroom audience. I would be very happy to follow any of my political representative's Twitter feeds if they started them, because it cuts out the party political rubbish and simply lets me know what they're doing.

Moving on to businesses, it is a similar lesson. People need to think of the way they do business or make buying choices. Increasingly for me, it is about personal connection. We all know and accept that everyone has to make a living, but we'd be more likely to work with people we have come to trust through some form of collaboration. It's about giving as much of yourself as you want to, but being clear about what it is you are selling. I am about to change all my business bank accounts to a new bank in Burslem, firstly because they were recommended to me and secondly, when I went in to open a separate account they were kind over my chronic inability to fill in forms. Thirdly, I was reminded in the branch of the advertising that I liked on TV and I thought "Oh yes, I like them". Amazing what a pretty cartoon and song can do for a business's reputation.

This combination marks several brands that I like and I'd name Apple and Honda as good examples. Their advertising is well-made and sticks in the mind, making their products more desirable. Advertising reinforces personal recommendation and gives me specific calls to action. Targeted advertising is often useful to me. Sites have enough of my personal information and even the words I am using to mean that the ads alongside my web use can be complementary, while still separate from my surfing.

So to conclude this terribly long article, it's the combination of advertising and people-resources that will set apart successful marketing strategies. By investing in advertising, businesses are much more likely to get themselves close to the audiences they want to reach than by indulging in passing fads like viral marketing, which are much more risky, or by producing old-style PR which will increasingly be ignored. If they want to use networking as a method, they need to invest in people to spend time establishing themselves in communities and building trust by making a useful contribution to the internet. Those people will need to believe in what they are doing and have the freedom to tell the truth and use their own initiative to add value to their company's work. The new wave of big websites have got it sussed out, it remains to be seen whether the old regimes can change as effectively.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

..."like herding cats"

This is one of my favourite phrases. It gave me a moment of delight during a particularly tiresome few days spent in Brussels with a group of multi-national, multi-age Quakers. Delightful though they were, trying to manouvre round a city with them was as frustrating as the time I had a go at walking an ill tabby:

Let's go here...

No... let's look here ...

RUN!!!!!!!!!!! .... and stop ... & escape ... and ...

let's look here.


And so on.

So anyway, this post by David Parrish reflects on the similarities between creatives and cats, centring on one company's difficulty in 'leading' these high and mighty pests. It's a good article and he asks if anybody has any further thoughts...

My view's this. It's not just creatives, cats are the best personality type for anybody to take on. Any talk of herding suggests that what you really want is sheep. Human beings, I would argue, were never meant to be herded. Signs that they are being herded suggests something unhealthy, dehumanising in society. And I don't include armies in that (except the most unhealthy armies). Good armies are disciplined teams.

What David doesn't mention is the reason why cats and humans became so vital to each other in the first place. People may have worked out how to harness nature and create fields of delightful foodstuffs, but without the cat, rats and mice would have eaten the whole harvest before man got it anywhere near his bread-grinder. Cats played an essential role in the development of society. Nobody drew up a contract with the cat, they just formed a happy partnership based on their skills.

The same people who tend to be compared to cats have a tendency to be highly effective in the right circumstances: they are self-motivated, they work out what they need to do and they do it well and they're not afraid to take the initiative when they see an opportunity scuttling by. Partnered with the right organisations who will provide them shelter and let them be themselves, they can be transformational. Many web 2.0 companies have this sussed. Provide free board, nice snazzy bedding and a toy or two and your cats will create the likes of Wikipedia or Facebook. The most advanced companies have trusted their users with their code and have found that, far from stealing the baby's breath, they've changed society again and again. For providing the infrastructure, they are very well rewarded.

I worry a little every time I see mention of 'leaders' anywhere near consultants (not counting David as I've heard very nice things about him). It tends to go alongside an assumption that you have, or need, a compliant population and that with the right leadership everything will be better. Your people are your problem and we, the well-paid consultants, can show you how to change them. Personal empowerment doesn't really come into it. Recent developments in the business support model are following other government trends by creating structures that are overly paternal and creating deep mistrust amongst the people they are supposed to be trying to help. And no matter how good your intentions are, if a cat doesn't like what you're trying to do it will opt out of your system and find some other way to be happy.

This is important in the context of the creative sector because in our area, creatives are being feted as the potential catalysts for growth. If we do well, we will need coffee shops, food shops and the rest. It is the case in Burslem that because we have a very low cost base and from that many remarkable collaborations have sprung up. This week, we're putting together the Arts & Crafts Festival that will hopefully fill the streets with fun. Why are we doing it? Because it's good for business and we want to. But creatives aren't different from anyone else. Britain's future, I have heard a senior minister say, is not in the jobs where you need to be a gentle cow, the jobs for life where no imagination was required. Where that leaves the mass service industry is anybody's guess. But looking at it positively, it requires a population of people who work hard for their own means, in small partnerships, following their passions, whether that means running a cafe, a newspaper, gardening company or an IT company. The owners of small businesses work harder than anybody else, increasing productivity (if undercutting the minimum wage). The only effective way to deliver this change is to give people the confidence to find their own niche, to become the cat.

The difference in approach is one of trust and having faith that people's actions are for good intentions and will have good effects, even if the outcomes are not the ones you have on your stupid bloody outcome ticksheet. Let people off the lead, but provide a supportive atmosphere and we could really change things.

OK, I've probably taken the analogy far enough now, someone else should have a go :)