Archive for the ‘News’ Category

How to lose a customer

Forgive me for hi-jacking my own work blog, but I wanted to get this down before the details fade and I start gibbering incoherently when I try to recall what happened. If you want a communication steer on it, let’s just say the following story highlights the need for clear and honest communication between a company and its customers.

Take a deep breath now, we’re going in…

At the end of August, my 83-year-old father moved from the house where my three siblings and I grew up and where he lived happily for 46 years. Last year my mother died and Dad found himself rattling around in this six-bedroomed pile with an acre and a half of land. He has Parkinson’s disease too, so finding somewhere sensible to live became urgent.

He found a nice flat overlooking his beloved Dover Harbour and with stunning views of the castle from his kitchen window. The move was emotionally and practically difficult for all of us but he made it and is now well on the way to settling in to his new home. And my siblings and I are all really proud of him for the way he took on these huge challenges. I think they say the death of a spouse and moving house are two of the most stressful things anyone has to deal with in life – imagine what it’s like doing them both within a year when you’re in your eighties.

Because he’s on his own and has Parkinson’s, for some time now Dad’s had an SOS alarm – one of those things you wear around your neck that has a button on it that you can press in an emergency. The alarm, which works through the phone line, is operated by Saga and has always functioned perfectly. This is just as well because his condition has worsened over the months and he is now decidedly unsteady on his feet.

When he moved he decided to switch providers to Sky. He already had – and liked – Sky TV and wanted to simplify matters by using the same company for phone and broadband too. I ordered his new services and was impressed by how straightforward it all seemed.

There were a few technical hiccoughs when he moved in on 24 August, which was a bit disappointing but not altogether surprising. Most of them were ironed out quickly but one proved more stubborn: the SOS alarm didn’t work.

After a few days of hoping for the best and blaming teething problems, I called Saga to ask why they thought it might not be working. They suggested I speak to a chap called Gary (contact details available) from Chubb Alarms, which makes the units in question, and he told me that the issue would most likely be with the kind of technology used on the line.

Apparently these alarms don’t work on the kind of line Sky gives you by default – what they call an SVBN line (which stands for Sky Voice and Broadband Network). You have to request a non-SVBN line, otherwise known as a wholesale line rental package, I think. This information is available in Sky’s terms and conditions, he said, but you have to be looking for them to find them and in the excitement of the move it never occurred to us to look (would it to anyone?)

So I called Sky on 6 September, said we’d made this mistake and asked if it could be rectified quickly, since we were worried about dad having no reliable way of alerting anyone in an emergency. I was assured that it would be sorted out but that it might take up to 30 days to happen.

This seemed a bit sluggish but I know how big companies work so I reluctantly accepted it – but made a point of stressing the importance of resolving it as quickly as possible. The woman I spoke to (whose name I didn’t take…always take their names!) seemed very sympathetic and assured me that she’d push the case personally.

On 27 September I called back, to make sure everything was on track and see if there was any chance they could make the switch more quickly than the 30 days they’d said it might take. This time I spoke to a man (again, no name) who sounded a bit less switched on than the woman I’d spoken to before. He looked up the notes and told me he could see that the request had been made but could find no evidence of anyone picking it up and actually doing anything.

I asked if this meant we were back to square one; that the request would have to be made again and that it could take another 30 days. “I’m afraid so”, he said. I asked if there was any way he could escalate the case to make things happen any faster, given the circumstances. “I’ll do my best”, he said.

These things happen I suppose – although an apology would have been nice.

But then I called back on 5 October and spoke to yet another person. This one was called Barry and his dad also has Parkinson’s so he fully understood why I might be feeling concerned. “Let me just check for you”, he said, before slipping into an ominous silence.

Sure enough, yet again there had been no progress. The wrong form was submitted on both previous occasions, it seems, and no one picked up on it. So once again we were starting from scratch – another 30 days of dad without an alarm, another 30 days of concern.

On 6 October Barry left a message to say that Dad would need a new phone number.

On 7 October I called to check things were still moving forward and ask if there’s any way it would be possible to keep the number. I was told there probably wouldn’t be. Barry also assured me he was doing all he could to expedite the case.

On 8 October Dad called me to tell me he’d received a letter from Sky acknowledging that he’d asked to cancel his phone and broadband service and leaving Sky.

On 10 October I called Sky to check on this and was told not to worry, it was just a standard letter. Perhaps, but it’s a standard letter that should never have been sent. It caused unnecessary anxiety – and really would it have been that hard to stop? I was also told that there might be a ‘small gap in service’ when the change was finally made, but that it shouldn’t be for longer than 48 hours.

On 14 October Barry called to say the line should be switched by Tuesday 18 October.

On 18 October I called Barry to check on progress. While we were speaking, he received an email saying that the change had been made. It was at this point that he said – for the first time – that Dad would lose his broadband service for up to two weeks since the new line couldn’t support the normal broadband service and a new one couldn’t be ordered until the new line was up and running. I asked if this could be expedited, Barry said he’d do what he can.

On 20 October the alarm started working again, thank goodness. So our main concern had finally been addressed, seven weeks into this process. Barry called to say he was having problems circumventing the internal processes to speed up the provision of Dad’s broadband service but that he was still working to find a way of doing this. Meanwhile the order still hadn’t been placed. He also said he’d be on holiday for the week commencing 24 October but gave me a reference number to quote when discussing the case with his colleagues.

On 27 October I called to chase. The person I spoke to couldn’t figure out what was going on so put me through to provisioning, who seemed very confused. According to the records, Sky doesn’t provide any phone or broadband services to Dad’s address. They offered to place an order for talk and broadband, which I told them not to do as I was worried it might mean going back to an SVBN line and thus stopping Dad’s alarm working again.

I asked to speak to a supervisor but was told that the supervisor was too busy to speak to me. This really wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I remained calm and was civil throughout but by this stage I was angry and said that the constant expressions of confusion and ignorance I was hearing really weren’t good enough. The operator was defensive and took my criticism of her company’s pitiful systems and processes personally, which was pathetic really. Eventually she suggested I ask Dad to ring 150 and see who answers as conclusive proof of which company supplies his phone service (Dad tried this later in the day and got through to a Sky operator, funnily enough).

I couldn’t bear to speak to this woman any longer so I called complaints. I spoke to a man who seemed just as mystified as the woman I’d spoken to earlier. He said there are no records on the number before October and he can’t escalate the case since there’s no case to escalate.

Then he put me through to yet another woman in provisioning who confirmed that the system says dad’s number is no longer Sky. She tested the line and said: “That’s definitely not a Sky number, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not one of ours.”

She went away to investigate and called back to tell me that “the system” has randomly decided to cease the line so as far as it’s concerned, Dad is not a Sky Talk or Broadband customer. This leaves us with three options:

1. Order a new Sky line (which would take up to 2 weeks to be supplied) then order broadband (which could take another 2 weeks)

2. Order broadband first, on the phantom BT line we now have, then order a new Sky line (again, both take 2 weeks but at least we’d get broadband within a fortnight)

3. Just stick with BT for everything.

By this time, I’d been on the phone for something like two hours, almost all of which was at my own expense.

I spoke with Dad, who was understandably overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation and left the decision with me. I think we’re going to get as far away from Sky as we possibly can so I reckon option 3 is the way we’re going to go – although ironically Dad would prefer to use AOL broadband than BT, since that’s what he’s used to, so we’ll end up with exactly the same three-provider model we had in the first place.

While I was mulling all this over, Sky phoned back, to say “We hear you want to order a new talk service account”. Er, no I don’t thanks.

So now Dad’s still without broadband and will be for at least another two weeks. He’s got no idea who’s providing his phone service so doesn’t know where to turn for advice, and he has no confidence that the line will even work if the Sky system ever wakes up enough to realise its mistake. According to Sky, BT is now providing the service, but Sky also acknowledges that BT might well not know this, which leaves us…where? I just don’t know.

Mistakes happen, I know, but this isn’t just about mistakes. It’s about those first two people I spoke to telling me what they thought I wanted to hear to get rid of me and then forgetting all about it – spinning a line for a quiet life. It’s about lying and no one caring enough for it to have any consequences.

It’s also about systems that don’t work and don’t talk to each other and left hands neither knowing nor caring what right hands are doing. For a short time during that two-hour epic phone session on 27 October I honestly thought I was losing my mind.

The thing is, we actually expect big companies to do this. We enter into these dreaded exchanges with corporate customer service departments with a heavy heart because we know they won’t give a monkey’s; that they’ll read some script to us to make us feel better and then forget about us; that the only reliable way we have of getting real satisfaction is circumventing that first line of defence and connecting with someone higher up who’s paid more and whose job it is to clean up the mess created by other people’s indifference.

If I did this as a sole trader I’d be bankrupt in weeks. So why do we accept it in big companies? How big does a company have to be before they can afford to throw integrity and trustworthiness out of the window? Sky-sized, it seems.

Hari off the hook?

It seems I am in danger of turning into a bullshit merchant for sounding off about Johann Hari as I did last week.

Someone who would possibly call me a friend but whom I regard as nothing more than a malevolent mischief-maker (hi Bob) drew my attention to this Daily Mash article, which variously describes high-profile Hari-haters as “witless, lunch-filled oafs”, “puffed-up monkeys” and “smug piss-artists”.

Luckily, I’m not one of those commentators who “get paid six figures to piss directly into their readers’ faces”, so I felt comfortable absolving myself of blame in the rather unseemly attacks-on-Hari game.

The article goes too far of course. But it did make me question my position a bit and I’ve now shifted it, like the slippery, inconsistent toe rag I’m sure the Daily Mash would describe me as, if they had the faintest idea I even existed.

Thinking about all the bile that’s being directed at Hari and reading the eminently sensible Roy Greenslade’s views on the issue in the Guardian, I wondered if I’d carelessly jumped on the bandwagon and stayed on board for one or two stops too many.

My reasons for coming down in the anti-Hari camp were believing that he didn’t really mean it when he said he was sorry, that he should have known better all along, that he embellished his stories to make himself seem impressive, and that he’d only shifted from defensiveness to contrition when everyone started shouting at him.

The first and third of these are clearly just opinions, based on nothing in particular and potentially completely wrong. The second I stand by – I’m still genuinely gobsmacked that he thought it was okay to embellish as he did.

And the fourth? Well, maybe he just changed his mind when he came to realise he’d written something ill judged. It happens.

On reflection, I think the real reason for my irritation had nothing to do with Hari. I think I was still cross with the paper that refused to stick up for me all those years ago. Far from being too soft on a bad apple, it’s just possible that The Independent is doing what I’d hoped my paper would do with me: issue a huge public bollocking and then move on – together.

I’m just wild about Hari

I confess I was torn over the Johann Hari case. For those who don’t know, Hari is a journalist at The Independent who has been exposed as a serial embellisher, passing off quotes in various interviews as original when he’d actually found them in his subjects’ writings – or even in other hacks’ interviews in a few cases.

In what seems like an odd aside, but which could actually be rather revealing, he also admitted to adopting a pseudonym to make what he himself describes as ‘juvenile and malicious’ comments in his enemies’ Wikipedia entries, as well as buffing up his own entry and those of some people he admires, including George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee.

Following an internal enquiry by the Independent’s founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith, Hari issued a lengthy public apology and promised to return the George Orwell Prize he won in 2008. He also promised to take some unpaid leave to get some journalism training – at his own expense! – which seems a bit of a post-bolt stable door locking exercise but there you go.

His apology includes attempts to explain his behaviour, including this one: “When I recorded and typed up any conversation, I found something odd: points that sounded perfectly clear when you heard them being spoken often don’t translate to the page. They can be quite confusing and unclear. When this happened, if the interviewee had made a similar point in their writing (or, much more rarely, when they were speaking to somebody else), I would use those words instead. At the time, I justified this to myself by saying I was giving the clearest possible representation of what the interviewee thought, in their most considered and clear words.”

This seems to me a bizarre and extraordinary statement that displays a woeful misunderstanding of the contract that exists between interviewer and subject – and which is entirely undermined by his own self-flagellatory comments in the very next paragraph: “But I was wrong. An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter. If you want to add material from elsewhere, there are conventions that let you do that. You write ‘she has said,’ instead of ‘she says’. You write ‘as she told the New York Times’ or ‘as she says in her book’, instead of just replacing the garbled chunk she said with the clear chunk she wrote or said elsewhere.”

How could someone of his obvious intelligence – and surrounded by excellent journalists to boot – not get this? It suggests to me that including all of that paraphrased stuff was more about ego than a desire to clarify his subjects’ positions. People thought he was getting all this amazing material by interviewing his subjects so well and he liked that this is what they thought.

Even if he was driven by entirely selfless motives – seeking the best way to represent his subjects’ views – this was clearly a foolish and arrogant way to go about it.

But hey, we all make mistakes, right? We’re all allowed to learn from them and move on, right?

Well it depends who you are. I once lost a job I loved because I’d implied that someone had told me something when in fact it was someone working on that person’s behalf…

Oh sod it this isn’t going to work unless I dish the dirt is it?

So I was the business reporter on a small daily newspaper. One of my recurring stories was the impact that high business rates were having on city-centre retailers. One of these small independent retailers decided to put his business on the market. His shop was a family business that had been around for donkey’s years so it was emblematic of the difficult times all retailers were living through.

I tried and tried to speak to the shopkeeper but I couldn’t get hold of him. So I spoke to his solicitor, who wasn’t terribly forthcoming (and quite right too). Then I tried his estate agent, who was rather looser and within minutes had told me what I wanted to hear: the shopkeeper was moving on because he couldn’t afford the rates.

So we ran the story. I fudged the sources a bit but there were no out-and-out lies or even embellishments in the piece.

The next day the editor received a letter from the shopkeeper’s solicitor. He was moving on because of ill health, not unpayable rates. His client had never told me he was struggling to pay the rates and was in fact having no such problems. We’d damaged his prospects of selling the business by highlighting issues that weren’t real so we were going to be sued for the difference between the asking price and the price they finally achieved for the business.

The never-knowingly-pleasant deputy editor hauled me into the editor’s office and the pair of them tore me off a strip or seven. I folded pitifully, admitting that I’d not interviewed the shopkeeper but adding that I hadn’t made anything up and that the estate agent had confirmed what everyone knew was the real reason for the sale.

They were having none of it. I was bollocked more often in the following days than I’d ever been before and ever hope to be again. No one had the slightest interest in my defence. It was soon spelled out to me in no uncertain terms that my position was, to coin that dreadful phrase, untenable. I was strongly encouraged to resign so I wouldn’t have a blot on my CV.

With heavy heart, I trudged into the editor’s office and offered him my resignation, which he accepted with a stony, unforgiving face.

I’d screwed up, no doubt about it. And maybe I just wasn’t cutting it there – maybe they were looking for an excuse to get rid of me, I don’t know. All I do know is that I was given no quarter.

When the sale of the shop went through while I was still working out my notice and the former owner immediately started working there as the new manager there were no questions asked about his remarkable powers of recovery. Nor were there any law suits. But I was too spineless to kick up a fuss. So off I went, tail between legs, to seek my fortune elsewhere.

And that brings us back to the beginning. Hari’s got away with far worse than I ever tried to pull. He’s broken some fundamental laws of journalistic integrity and I think he’s a fool for trying to defend them by implying, as he does in his apology, that his rise was so meteoric that he didn’t have time to learn the rules properly.

So should I be happy for him? Glad that someone’s showed him the kind of tolerance and human decency that I missed out on? Or should I be hopping mad about the way high profile national hacks are treated differently to their lesser-known regional counterparts?

I guess it boils down to how much I believe Hari’s contrition and I’m afraid I’m not sure I do. The fact that he defended his actions so robustly when they were first uncovered and that he took part in those spiteful Wikipedia activities suggests to me that Nick Cohen might have been right when he described Hari as “a journalist who is better at attention-seeking than truth-telling.”

But never mind the irksome Hari, it’s the integrity of The Independent I’m worried about. What are they playing at?

The impossible poetry of headline writing

I’ve learnt lots in my newish role as occasional Sunday Times sub editor.

I’ve learnt that the Sunday Times prefers its numbers as words up to nine, not 10 as I’ve always done. I’ve learnt that they prefer learnt to learned. I’ve learnt that they don’t like ‘like’ but they do like ‘such as’. And I’ve learnt that if you allow the phrase ‘any time soon’ you can expect withering looks from the editor very soon indeed.

But perhaps the hardest lesson has been how to write a decent headline. I’ve always felt reasonably confident about my headline-writing skills, having been required to think of up to ten a day while running an online corporate news service for several years.

I used to get the occasional email from colleagues congratulating me on the cleverness, wit or otherwise noteworthiness of my headlines. When a new head of the comms team I was part of arrived and started imposing her ultra-literal approach to headline writing I resented her input enormously. Leave me to do what I do and I’ll leave you to do what you do, I frequently muttered. To myself. Out of her earshot.

But I had no idea how difficult it could be to come up with a decent headline under pressure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been reduced to a sweaty wreck after working on a Sunday Times story for perhaps 45 minutes only to find myself sitting there half an hour later, still agonising over the bloody headline.

“You’re trying too hard”, a wise fellow sub advised. “Just relax and they will come.”

So I sit there, fists clenched, head bursting, furiously willing myself to relax and free up the creative channels so the magic can flow and the poetry can appear.
But to do that successfully when the pressure’s on takes the kind of self-control you only usually find in old men sporting wispy beards and inscrutable smiles and sitting alone on mountaintops.

My favourite book about writing, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, which remains as relevant today as it was when she wrote it in 1936, talks about how every writer has two practitioners within: the artist and the editor.

To produce anything worthwhile, the artist must first be allowed untrammelled access to the page. The creative channel must be fully open and the muse fully unleashed or the result will not be all it could be.

To analyse the output of this stage of the process while it’s underway is to stifle it. So get the words down and don’t worry about them. Walk away, go for a bike ride (my advice, not Dorothea’s), have a cup of tea (likewise)…

Then, some days later at least, unleash the editor. Let that eagle-eyed, hypercritical monster loose on your precious words and let him pour scorn on them, slash them to pieces, or even kill them. For while he can recognise your brilliance when (if?) it comes, he can also spot your mistakes and misjudgements from a mile away. And to let him expose and expunge them is to make yourself a better writer, however much it may hurt to see your babies slaughtered.

But headline-writing subs do not have this luxury of time. They are required to muster the two alter egos simultaneously – something that shouldn’t be possible. It’s like seeing Jekyll and Hyde at the same time! You’re messing with the very laws of creativity!

So you’re destined to criticise your work even as you’re producing it – a recipe for disaster if ever I saw one.

All of which is very interesting – to me, anyway – but doesn’t help to solve the problem of how to write a decent headline under pressure.

Perhaps I should follow my wise colleague’s advice and take up yoga – or perhaps I should start growing a wispy beard…

Open data cities – visionary way forward or just TMI?

Another interesting evening at the Brighton Future of News Group (BFONG) tonight, at which Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and current director of strategic projects at Brighton-based digital agency Cogapp, talked about his desire to see Brighton & Hove turn into an open data city.

Don’t know what that is eh? Don’t worry, neither did I. An open data city is one that freely shares all the information it holds about housing, policing, education, health and every other aspect of life over which there is some institutional control and around which there is some public interest.

The information on hand in an open data city is not filtered, spun, presented or managed in any other way. It’s merely made available in all its glorious rawness, for anyone to do whatever they want with.

In the wake of the MP expenses revelations and the Wikileaks saga, among other recent stories built around the release of huge data sets, I’ve been coasting along with what I think is a fairly mainstream view that’s built around two assumptions. The first is that all of that raw data makes it hard for your regular news consumer to home in on the stuff that really matters – that there’s the danger of a form of information overload, if you like. Which leads me – albeit slightly reluctantly – to the view that I’d rather some trusted journalist filtered the information for me so I know what to concentrate on.

The second assumption is that no public institution in its right mind would ever agree to this kind of information exhibitionism because the risk of sharing something damaging is not so much substantial as inevitable.

Last week’s police.uk site launch fiasco didn’t help. It seemed to provide damning evidence of what a slavish adherence to the principle of being overly generous with ones data can lead to. I could imagine senior trustees of potentially public data all over the place pulling in their horns and vowing that no such disaster would ever befall them. And I could kind of sympathise with that – what real use is the information on police.uk to anyone except twitchy house-hunters? We’re very good at going off half-cocked in this country, after all.

But tonight Greg Hadfield changed my mind. Rather than criticise the Home Office for making a bodge of the way it presented the crime data on police.uk, he suggested we should be criticising it for ‘presenting’ the data at all. Because if all the raw crime data had been freely available in the first place, the chances are that some outlets (the Home Office among them, perhaps) would present it badly while others would not. And we could choose from whom to glean our information.

Whatever the problems associated with information overload – and goodness knows there are a few – wouldn’t we all prefer to put our trust in the collective than in precisely the people who have the biggest vested interest in presenting data in a way that suits them? Even if we’d rather not filter the raw data ourselves, wouldn’t we rather have the option of aggregating the output of numerous information providers to get a more rounded picture of what the data means?

Less easy to get past is the notion that institutions will fight to the death to prevent having to share data in this most un-English of ways. And in truth this one is going to be a hard nut to crack. Greg told me after the event tonight that there are many individuals in the crucial Brighton & Hove organisations – the council, the police, the parole service, the transport operators and so on – who have the vision to see the benefits of sharing their data. But he also acknowledged that there’s an institutional nervousness about the idea that runs deep and will be hard to shift. And it’s this deep-seated caution that I fear may scupper Greg’s plans for a while yet. But I do hope he proves me wrong.

Zen and the art of networking

How do you make an event about networking a good networking event? By not banging on too much about networking so people can get on with actually meeting each other and making connections, I’d say.

Last week’s Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce event, which I’m afraid was called Knowing Me Knowing You, (no problem with that really – I’m just not an ABBA fan) delivered on this score, allowing plenty of time for general milling, chat and card-swapping.

This was just as well because if I’d gone to the event hoping for guidance on effective networking I’d have come away disappointed. The formal content meandered a little, focusing rather more than it should have on the idea of Brighton becoming a ‘super city’, as defined in a recent HSBC report (an executive summary of which you’ll find here). In a nutshell, super cities (the others are London, Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool) are those with a particular concentration of the kind of knowledge that is much in demand in the 21st century. In Brighton’s case, we’re awash with MDMA people – that’s marketing, design, media and advertising, obviously.

Read the report summary yourself if you’re interested in this notion. I have to confess that I’m not really. I’m not bothered about Brighton being grouped with those other cities by some remote analyst looking to make a point. I’m more interested in living here, loving the place and thriving in its creative energy. Brighton’s unique – just like all those other cities are in their different ways – and I’d rather celebrate that uniqueness than intellectualise it.

But back to networking. The point was made several times by different people in various ways that the best way to benefit from networking was, in effect, to focus on giving rather than taking; to come prepared to listen more than you speak and to offer more help than you ask for. I suspect that this approach is one that can only comes with practice – to begin with, it all seems so much more pressing, somehow.

I remember the first networking event I attended – the splendidly unstructured Likemind. I turned up armed with a fistful of freshly printed business cards and a few butterflies in my stomach, only to find a café full of interesting people chatting about whatever they felt inclined to chat about. Topics covered during that first session included fractals, search engine optimisation and learning to speak Spanish. Entirely by accident, I fell in with a couple of blokes who just happened to be able to help me sort out some minor issues I had around setting up my website. I’m not sure I helped either of them but that didn’t seem to matter.

The other local network I have a lot of time for is WriteClub, a loose association of people in Brighton – and now London too – who write, for a living or just for fun. The group was set up by Leif Kendall, a Brighton copywriter who personifies all that’s good about networking with his laid back and selfless approach. WriteClub meets twice each month, one morning in a cafe and one evening in a pub, and after a tiny bit of that initial awkwardness that usually attends any physical meeting of a group that started online, the conversation quickly starts flowing all over the shop.

Despite its splendid informality, WriteClub has led directly to paid work for me and several other members – work that simply wouldn’t have come up if we hadn’t been part of the collective. In my experience, this less-is-more approach seems to work very well.

And I suppose that’s the point of this post: going into any form of networking with a relaxed attitude and looking to bring more to the event than you take from it is much more likely to result in you benefitting from it. I hope that’s reassuring to hear for anyone just starting out. Just be patient and generous – the work will eventually follow.

As a postscript, I attended another informal networking session last Friday – the Brighton Tweetup – expecting nothing but Twitter talk. There was some of that but there was also just a light touch of business networking. Those of us who felt like it put our business cards on a table and chatted a bit about how we used Twitter to promote our businesses.

Then a chap came in, studied the cards, picked up mine and another copywriter’s, came over to the group and asked who the copywriters were. Stepping deftly in front of the other copywriter so she couldn’t be seen, I flashed a winning smile and said I was one of them. He said, “Great, I’m looking for a someone to write some marketing material.” Within five minutes we’d agreed a follow-up meeting. My kind of networking!

Local journalism – alive, well and working at the nationals

The Brighton Future of News Group (#bfong) is a heartening place to spend some time for someone who trained on local newspapers and whose only early ambition was to land a job on one of the nationals.

The prevailing wisdom would have us believe that journalism is in a state of crisis, with old business models crashing down and traditional career paths wiped out by new technology and public indifference to local newspapers.

It’s hard to disagree with that. Local papers all over the country are in crisis and reporting jobs are as thin on the ground as they are poorly paid.

But the parochial romance of local journalism – the pride that young reporters take in being allowed into people’s lives at extraordinary times to find out how those lives are being affected – is alive and well. That’s if Josh Halliday (@joshhalliday) is any kind of measure.

Josh is a 22 year-old journalist who was on an NCTJ-accredited journalism course at Sunderland University just last year. He wasn’t satisfied by the amount of proper local journalism techniques taught on the course – most of his peers had no interest in pursuing careers in local media (and who can blame them, the state of the industry being what it is?)

So Josh started a news blog, called SR2 Blog, after the name of the Sunderland postcode it covered. The patch is just 1.5 square miles but Josh filled his blog with what he calls hyper-local news, gleaned by rolling up his sleeves and actually talking to people in the community.

At last night’s bfong meeting the delightfully self-effacing Josh enthused about the work he did in Sunderland and modestly outlined how the Guardian noticed his efforts. Unfortunately for local journalism, but very fortunately for Josh, the Guardian offered him a job as a trainee media and technology reporter, which he started just two weeks after finishing his course.

Without its dynamic creator, the SR2 Blog will now almost certainly wither away, more’s the pity, but I have no doubt that the Guardian is a richer place for Josh’s arrival.

What really struck me about Josh was his answer to one of last night’s questions: where do you see yourself in five years? After some thought he said he could think of nothing better than to be working on a local newspaper as a news reporter. At the time I wondered if he’d really thought this through, or whether he was perhaps being a bit disingenuous, or that perhaps he had rather limited ambition. But I think these thoughts did him a disservice. I think he really meant it – and that gives me great hope for the future of local news media.

Accepting help

I’m beginning to think I don’t read enough. Not good for a writer – and especially not good for a writer struggling to survive as a freelance during what must be one of the trickiest times in recent history to set up a freelance business.

There are countless books out there about how to make a living out of writing (I wonder how many of them advise writing books about how to make a living out of writing). The law of averages alone dictates that some of them will contain good advice about generating business and sustaining it. But I have resolutely refused to read any of this advice, let alone heed it. I have been winging it furiously since I started, with varying degrees of success, but it’s true to say that overall I’ve not been generating enough business. Who do I approach? How, and how often? What do I say? How do I set myself apart from the squillion other  freelancers out there, most of whom have been in the business longer than me and thus have a more impressive body of previous work to show off?

I cannot explain this stubborn refusal to be helped. It’s not as though I’ve not had the time to read or that I don’t need the help. The more I think about this anomaly the more bizarre it seems. A psychoanalyst would probably have a field day working it all out. I expect it revolves around some seemingly insignificant event in my early childhood…

But it hardly matters why I’ve handicapped myself in this way. What does matter is that I stop doing it and start taking note of the advice of those who have made a success of this lifestyle that I desire so much.

So I’ve ordered a book called Write Copy Make Money (see why I chose it?) by Andy Maslan which is promoted with such cocksure gusto that I couldn’t resist buying it – a good sign surely. I’ll report back once I’ve read it – if I ever get round to reading it that is…

When worlds collide

My passion for writing and helping people to communicate effectively is matched – maybe even exceeded – by my love of cycling, so it’s pleasing to notice those worlds harmoniously colliding every now and then.

I heard about a company called Shutt Velo Rapide on the road.cc website (where you’ll find my other blog – you know, the one about preparing for this June’s Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride…the one you’ve probably already sponsored me for).

Someone on road.cc was singing the praises of Shutt VR’s clothing, specifically their range of Sportwool jerseys. I had a question about the availability of one of these jerseys and sent an email via their website. Within a day I’d received a helpful reply from Simon Warren, the managing director, which was followed up by several more equally helpful messages from Simon and Peter Bragg, the sales and marketing director.

So I bought a jersey – and a gilet, because I was feeling good about the company.

Then I found Shutt VR on Twitter and on Facebook and started following them. I was pleased but unsurprised to see that they use both channels exactly how they should be used. The Twitter feed maintains a genuine dialogue with people and promotes special offers, website developments, new products and the like. And the Facebook page has generated a growing virtual community with its mixture of company-related information and general cycling-related content.

When I lost my gilet last weekend I mentioned it on Twitter (I know that sounds strategic, but I promise it wasn’t – I was just venting) and within minutes I’d been offered a discount on a new one, which I eagerly snapped up on the spot. It arrived today.

All my experience with the company tells me that Shutt VR is the real deal. They come across as informal, amusing, generous and self-deprecating, but they’re clearly knowledgeable, efficient, responsive and reliable too. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it’s a small and young company, so it’s relatively easy for them to be responsive and for the people in charge to conduct personal conversations with customers rather than having to hire someone to manage such conversations for them.

But that should take nothing away from what Shutt VR has achieved in a very short time through good communication. They’re well on the way to building a superb brand and they’re doing it in a way that’s as simple as it is cost-effective.

The principles of good communication are really straightforward: be authentic, be inclusive and be crystal-clear – and do it promptly. It’s amazing how quickly some companies lose sight of that. But it’s also very gratifying to see it done properly.

Content strategy: UX minus page layout or IA over time?

Yesterday I visited a hip Shoreditch drinking spot to attend a seminar and networking event called Content Strategy, Manhattan Style.

It was an interesting experience – not least because it’s always fun to watch tribes other than your own doing their thing. There were quite a few asymmetrical haircuts in evidence but also rather a lot of spectacles and pot bellies – I think I may have been treading on that hallowed ground where geek meets new media whore.

On arrival, most people seemed to assuage any feelings of social awkwardness by grabbing an iPhone and poking it with a sense of urgency (as I noted, sitting alone on the sidelines waiting for my companions to turn up and writing pointlessly in a scuffed notebook – I’m old-school me). I realised later that most of them were Tweeting furiously to each other throughout the event. In fact suspect there may have been more Tweeting than speaking.

One chap approached me with completely unwarranted familiarity and pointed towards his iPhone screen with a knowing smile. I didn’t have my specs on and I didn’t want to get too close to him for obvious reasons so I couldn’t tell what it said, but it was obviously a Twitter screen. After a few increasingly embarrassing false starts he managed to convey that he’d wrongly identified me as some Tweeter who’d invited people to come and say hello to him, identifying himself as the bloke in the purple sweater. How we laughed when we realised there was more than one purple sweater in the place!

There were three expert Americans and a British journalist on the slightly raised stage and us audience members were standing casually around the room nursing drinks – pub gig style.

I wasn’t really sure what they were going to talk about – and to start with it seemed they weren’t either. They opened with some rather platitudinous remarks about the importance of keeping on top of your web content and how pleased they were to be earning money to tell people how to do this. I bet you are, I thought.

The PA system was awful so I missed quite a bit of what was said but I don’t think there was all that much added to these opening remarks: it really is a good idea to stay on top of your web content because allowing it to get out of hand sends the wrong signal. It seems the people who do this for a living are called content strategists.

There has always been a lot of smoke and mirrors around website creation and maintenance and it’s still a young industry but I was still struggling to accept that content strategists are in any way necessary. The notion that anyone who has a website upon which they depend to any extent for their livelihood could be foolish enough to neglect it or allow it to be swamped by out of date content seemed ridiculous.

That’s until I recalled the ludicrous complexity of corporate life and how easy it is for massive websites to get completely out of hand because of the relentless focus on new content.

And how companies tend to throw plenty of resource at the creation of sites but rarely anything like as much to maintain them properly.

And how rare it is to find sites where you can point to one person with the authority to change anything who has a proper grasp of both the workings of the site and the strategy of the business it’s supposed to serve.

It was around then that I realised it’s been nearly three weeks since the last blog update on this miniscule site of mine – and that’s despite having been a proto-content strategist of sorts myself a decade ago and responsible for many acres of web real estate since.

My wise friend Tweeted the following after the event, “So, in summary. Content strategy is UX [user experience] minus page layout. Ta da! New consultancy offering!”

To which someone replied, “I prefer ‘content strategy is information architecture over time’”.

Maybe content strategy should be the next big thing after all.