Posts Tagged 'World peace'



Core value judgement

Obviously I looked younger in those days

I know the exact moment I decided to give up playing rugby. I was being carried off the pitch on a stretcher with blood pouring out of my head, and one of the prop forwards patted me on the leg and said, “Well, Tim, looks like your journalism days are over”.

Whether or not you find this joke funny probably depends on whether you think rugby is a noble pursuit for tough people or 80 minutes of institutionalised assault. To tip public perception towards nobility and away from criminality, the English Rugby Football Union has just done what the establishment usually does in these cases: made a big statue.

At least when the Victorians did this, they usually had the subtlety to try and hide their hidden agenda. The RFU, with all the subtlety of a prop forward, decided to call the latest addition to the Twickenham furniture the Core Values sculpture. Why now? I looked it up: “Two years ago the RFU put together a task group to run an extensive consultation exercise. The Core Values project – the first time a sport has set out to define its value system in formal terms – identified the following principles…”

Speaking as a big fan of Rugby Union, it has always had hypocrisy as one of its unspoken core values. The game was proudly amateur when my dad played, and you were banned if you were even suspected of taking money to play – so his club secretly stuffed money in his boot instead.

There have been a lot of people bragging about their core values recently: companies in the US and UK are about three times as likely to claim in their press releases that they have core values as they were in 2000, as the graphs below show.

But where, I thought, are we most likely to find an increase in these core values? I thought it might be good to look for the phrase in press releases on military procurement. Defence contractors discovered many more core values during the period between 2003 and 2006 – which is an improvement on the 1990s, when they didn’t mention core values at all. I shaded the area during which BAE Systems was investigated over accusations of corruption (In 2010 it admitted false accounting and, in a settlement, agreed to pay £257m criminal fines to the US and £30m to the UK – but the company denies bribery).

Banks, however, had a core value growth peak much earlier. This time I shaded a period which covers the Senate Committee of Finance’s investigation into Enron and the complicity of banks in the creative accountancy that took place.

But the real stars of the core values show are in the securities business. They didn’t make much noise about core values in the past: again, not a single mention of the phrase in the early 1990s that I could find. But they are making up for it now. You are now about six times as likely to read a securities industry press release that mentions core values as you were in 2000.  I’m not going to insult you by pointing out which relevant period I’ve highlighted in the final graph:

Of course, my simple measurement doesn’t explore what those core values might be. A few weeks ago I spoke to  Dr Doug Hirschhorn, who is one of the top trader coaches in the world. I asked his what the values of his trainees are: “These people get paid an obscene amount of money. They are not curing cancer or creating new ways to feed people. It draws the sort of people attracted to sensation-seeking,” he said.

The sensation-seeking search for obscene personal wealth is a core value, I guess. I’m also guessing that it’s not the core value mentioned in those press releases.

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Talk Normal in meatspace

"Tools that help us": keeping my options open on instruments of torture; you never know.

Thanks to Claire Thompson and her extremely constructive The Tools That Help Us initiative, I’ll be a panellist in a session called Cleaning Up Communications at Tempero, 14-16 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QW, on 25 June at 2pm.*

Click on the link to sign up. It’s free. Also on show: Darika Ahrens, Grapevine Consulting, on #fixpr; Richard Ellis of the Public Relations Consultants Association; Molly Flatt, 1000 Heads; Adam Parker, An Inconvenient PR Truth.

I’m allowed to talk for five minutes – rather than the five hours I’d prefer – so I’m taking advice on what to say if you’re coming along and want me to do requests.

Otherwise, show up and ask me a question, and we can exchange ideas. Remember when we used to do that? Now we can go to Twitter and ask the opinion of millions of people we don’t know, instead of just five of us. But let’s give this conversation thing one more go. For old time’s sake. Promise I won’t ask again.

* To save you the trouble of looking it up: North Korea v Ivory Coast, Brazil v Portugal.

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Seeing right through it

Transparency is not always an advantage

If you want to sound honest, it’s popular to describe your organisation as accountable, ethical, or having integrity right now. These attributes are all twice as common in press releases as they were in 2002.

But if you’re looking for the really hot word at the moment to show you’re not a bunch of liars or crooks, then there really isn’t anything to compare with saying that you provide, support or exhibit transparency – a term which was almost unused 10 years ago. In Factiva’s press release archive for 2009, one out of every 44 press releases was claiming some sort of transparency. That’s almost twice as many mentions as goody-goody integrity, and four times as many as dull old accountability. Last year a claim of some type of transparency was six times as frequent as it was in 2002, when Enron and Worldcom were on our minds:

Which industry claims the most transparency? First I looked in the obvious place: the glass manufacturing industry. Its press releases rarely claim transparency:

Banking was barely above average. Perhaps the score is dragged down because when the board didn’t even understand the risks the banks faced, it’s hard for them to claim too much transparency a year or two later. Software press releases, where so many vague buzzwords are popularised, scored higher:

In the week that an ex-minister told a fake lobbyist he was a cab for hire to peddle behind-the-scenes influence for £5,000 a day, political press releases optimistically mention transparency far often more than the average:

But nothing can compare, in its determination to talk about transparency, with our winning category. It’s obviously a great relief to find that, the week after Ernst & Young was forced to deny accusations of malpractice, negligence and failure to exercise professional care in its audit of Lehman Brothers, accountancy press releases were the biggest users of transparency that I could find in 2009 – by a factor of five:

Though, perhaps, it’s less reassuring to find out that E&Y alone issued 49 press releases that mention the T-word since the beginning of 2006.

Provided you are not a glass manufacturer, your actual level of transparency is impossible to measure. It is one of those aspirational words that anyone can claim for free. Unless you are accused of helping to hide $50bn of debt for a client (for example), a claim that you provide/support/exhibit accountability/integrity/transparency will go untested. Transparency, as the least testable of the three, is also the most useful in this regard.

So good news for those of you who work for unaccountable, integrity-lite companies, if indeed such frightful companies exist: if you want to claim some fake transparency in a press release, nobody will find out that you’re bullshitting. After all, by definition, a lack of transparency is pretty hard to spot.

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I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand

Durham Tees Valley: flights 56 per cent off

There’s good news and there’s bad news, but there’s more good news. I’m not just trying to make you feel better, there really is. I divided the number of stories mentioning “good news” by those mentioning “bad news”, and there’s a steady increase in good news stories in the last 15 months:

We certainly have pluck. On this sophisticated measure, levels of non-specific hope are even higher than at the height of the boom:

It’s also worth pointing out that the long-term good news ratio in the newspapers is consistently above where it was 20 years ago. And in those days newspapers were in black and white and you had to pay to read about misery rather than just ignoring it on the internet. Terrible days. Still, they didn’t have Richard Littejohn then, so not everything’s changed for the better.

The press might be at a historical hope high because of the dead cat bounce theory (even a dead cat will bounce if it falls far enough. Try it). In this case there is so much real-life bad news that papers have just looked harder for something chipper to write about.

Exhibit A: “Bosses of the region’s two airports say they are seeing the green shoots of recovery,” said a hope-filled article in the Newcastle Journal this week, which, as far as I could see, contained almost no evidence of any green shoots at all. The article is about how the managers of local airports were hoping things would improve after average passenger numbers in the UK fell 7.4 per cent last year. At Newcastle Airport the drop was 9 per cent, and Durham Tees Valley 56 per cent. If you exclude the better-performing airports, the article points out, Newcastle declined less than the average.

Of course, if you exclude enough of the better-performing airports, even Durham Tees performed better than the average. But if you’re the boss you have to tell the local press that stuff is going to get better, honest. It’s your job. I note that it is a journalist’s job to point out when you’re talking crap (a 56 per cent decline in business is a clue in this case). But, sometimes, we all need a hug.

So it is with the “green shoots” mentioned above, now used not as economic analysis, but as a signal of faint and desperate hope that we won’t have to cook our pets for dinner or traffic the kids yet. Business Minister Baroness Vadera in January 2009 and Solicitor General Vera Baird in March 2009 both claimed to have spotted these shoots. They must have a big magnifying glass in the UK Treasury, because GDP fell 2.64 per cent in the quarter beginning in January 2009 , and 0.63 per cent the next quarter.

If you want an example of how meaningless and transient news-based optimism can be, there was a gigantic peak in UK green shoots stories last summer – mostly, in the ones I read, estate agents saying they were a bit busier:

But note how quick they died away. Hope is a powerful drug – but it wears off quickly. Dead cats bounce; just not very high.

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Passionate on demand

No matter how well the corporate communications job interview goes, best not to demonstrate this type of passion

More correspondence this week. See how good Talk Normal is when you join in?

I have just read a job application where someone writes that they are passionate about corporate communication… in the last few days, three young people in interviews have told me they are passionate about PR or technology. OFGS!

says our correspondent.

I think our chipper hooray-for-everything applicants are merely responding to their job market conditioning. If you doubt me, do a Google search for “Are you passionate about”. We understand that employers don’t necessarily want experience, it’s no secret that recruiters are a bitt iffy about people who sound like they might be black, but we’re apparently thrilled by candidates who lie about how passionate they are.

If you are selecting on passion you’re also probably going to disqualify the best applicants, because they are the ones who, when you ask if they are passionate about vegetables for example, will say “Of course not. I’m not mental”.

Yet we all know the requirement to pretend to be passionate on demand is part of the interview. If you’re recruiting at the moment maybe you could spice up your recruitment process by adding a short test with questions like “Do you find repetitive dull tasks thrilling?”, or “Is being treated like a child extraordinarily motivating for you?”, I bet you’d find a large proportion of people who would tick “yes”, simply because it’s an interview.

A quick scan of the job boards shows that that I could enhance my employability (let’s be honest, there’s quite a bit of headroom there) if I could bring myself to admit that, yes, I am passionate about change control (a business analyst), beer, tax, cake, and telesales. “IF YES THEN APPLY NOW!!!” the last advert says, hinting that it might be one of those telesales jobs where the ability to bully vulnerable people is the type of passion they’re looking for. But thanks to political correctness going mad you can’t put that in an advertisement any more.

I was surprised to find several advertisements asking if I was passionate about recruitment. You’d have thought that recruiters, of all people, would have realised the limitations of asking for fake passion; or maybe they just want to attract extremely insincere people. In the job you might have to simultaneously lie about the employer to the candidate, and the candidate to the employer. This is difficult for most people, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it requires a passion for commission than a passion for recruitment.

About.com even has a page of user-supplied answers for the interview question “What are you passionate about?”. I’d suggest that, if you need someone at About.com to tell you the answer to this question, your passion might be lacking an essential element; but then again, if recruiters are so bored that they have to ask you this question, it’s probably a crappy job anyway.

If I ever go to a telesales job interview I’m using this model answer from the article, as suggested by “Scar”:

I’m passionate about everything in the way most people are only passionate about their ‘pet’ subjects. This is both an advantage and a downfall at times: it means I give 110% to everything I do, whether it’s watching paint dry, stuffing envelopes, writing an article or running a company.

Please, please can someone let this guy run a company passionately for us, and tell us how it goes. He’s probably available: I looked up “Are you passionate about watching paint dry?” on the internet and, sad to report, it’s one of the few manifestations of passion on demand that recruiters aren’t seeking.

Sugar pill cynicism

A Punch cartoon about homeopathy which, like homeopathic medicine, simply makes no sense at all

Just a quick Friday afternoon update to say the Talk Normal massive is in favour of the 10:23 campaign: a bunch of protestors is going to take a massive overdose of homeopathic remedies tomorrow. It’s in protest at the spread of these sugar pills to parts of the world where they can have a genuinely damaging effect on health, but also at the decision of pharmacists like Boots to market them.

There’s no point in me going over the arguments again why something that is diluted so much that it doesn’t have a single molecule of the active ingredient in it might not work beyond the placebo effect. That has been covered excellently elsewhere, and if you can’t believe that homeopathy is silly you’re unlikely to be convinced by me; or, furthermore, to worry because I think you’re an idiot.

Boots makes a different argument: if the pills don’t actively harm people, and customers like to buy them, why shouldn’t Boots sell them?

Because, I say, Boots has a privileged position in the UK which allows it to make surplus profits as long as it acts ethically. To explain: when I was researching Scoring Points, my book about what Tesco did with its Clubcard data, I heard how Tesco discovered that its young female customers often stopped buying products from the pharmacy aisle for no obvious reason. Tesco did some more research, and discovered that they were going to Boots instead. What suddenly sent them to Boots? They were pregnant, and more concerned about their health. Even though Boots was, on average, 20 per cent more expensive, they valued it as one of the few retailers that they trusted to do more than just sell them stuff.

Which is why it’s ethically not good enough for Boots to admit to a parliamentary committee that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective, but continue to profit from them (“I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It’s about consumer choice and a large number of our customers think they work,” is the quote). It’s an example of how customer service is mutating from “we’re here to help because sound advice is more important than short term financial gain for you and us” (the reason why the mums-to-be swapped from Tesco to Boots, or what banks used to do) to “If you’re paying, then we’ll give it to you”.

In the first case, the sort of brand trust that Boots enjoys has a meaning, and can conceivably justify charing higher prices than a supermarket. In the second, the Boots brand is just a label to help separate you from your disposable income.

Boots certainly isn’t the only company that’s going down this path, and maybe commercial homeopathy is small beer in the the face of the Great Branding Cynicism of the early years of the 21st century. When it comes to cynical marketing, it’s not as if Big Pharma’s got clean hands, is it?

Homeopaths seem, in my experience of them, to be pleasant people who believe in what they are doing. Good for them. Boots, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to believe in homeopathy as anything more than a source of revenue from gullible people – and for that it deserves any bad publicity it receives.

Indoctrinate your children now, before it is too late

A quick extra post for those of you with small children. You want to be a good parent, so start them off in life with a clear signal that they’re not going to take any crap in meetings.

The tiny clothes are nothing to do with me (I just found them on CafePress while Googling myself. Come on, we all do it), but I endorse the message. Order one for the special toddler in your life – or maybe they will sell a large size for your boss to wear at weekends when he goes to that special house where he sleeps in a big cot.


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