Don’t insult Wales: Iceland sacks PR chief Keith Hann

Welsh supermarket chain Iceland has sacked its PR director Keith Hann after he repeatedly insulted the country and its language.

Iceland said, “We would like to reiterate that these comments in no way reflect the values or philosophy of our business. We are a proud Welsh company, with a long history of investment in communities.” Iceland’s move came as many in Wales said they would boycott the store as a result of Hann’s views.

Some defended Hann. Consumer journalist Harry Wallop tweeted:

Keith Hann is entitled to his views, however tedious and juvenile. He may think it clever and funny to mock the Welsh language as gibberish. Too many English people are proud of their inability to say more than a few words in another tongue. They are unwilling to see the glory of different cultures – even those in their own island.

But that’s not why Iceland sacked Hann. The simple reason is that he was not wise enough to see that mocking the country in which his company is based is not compatible with his role as the director responsible for Iceland’s reputation.

As the Western Mail said in an editorial, Iceland recognised that it didn’t make business sense for one of its most senior executives to insult an entire nation. It went on to point out how jokes that portrayed the Irish as stupid have thankfully and rightly died out. The Times also published a leader explaining why Iceland was right to sack Hann:

“Mr Hann’s comments have cost him his job. It may surprise him that there are hundreds of thousands of Welsh speakers in Britain, along with a small but thriving Welsh-speaking community in Argentina, and they are justifiably unhappy. So far from being gibberish, Welsh, like any other natural language, has a complex system of grammar and can express a full range of meanings. And it is integral to the culture of Britain. It is, in fact, in the form of its predecessor Brittonic Celtic, the oldest language of these isles and long predates English.”

Companies are under constant scrutiny. Those of us in PR have to judge our comments, far more than was the case even a decade ago. None of us is perfect, and everyone should be allowed the occasional mistake. But we also need to take the advice that we’d give to executives. If you make a mistake, say sorry. Treat others how you’d want to be treated yourself. Applaud diversity. Be open minded about other opinions. While it is sad to see someone losing their job, if Keith Hann had been a good head of PR, he’d surely have told himself that insulting Wales was bad news.

British Airways outrages Wales by backing England rugby in Llanelli clash

British Airways lost a lot of goodwill in Wales today by tweeting support for England in the autumn nations cup rugby international at Llanelli.

The airline may be a sponsor of the England team but a moment’s thought should have revealed that such a tweet would upset a lot of Welsh supporters – like me.

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething put it well: “Good way to annoy 3m potential customers. BBC News at Ten presenter Huw Edwards tweeted, “I love @EasyJet.” The super-active YesCymru independence campaign was quick to draw attention to BA’s blunder.

Some have countered, saying that BA’s tweet was understandable as the airline sponsors England rugby. But that misses the point. For a UK brand to choose one nation over the others is ill-judged, especially today, when the union is under pressure and national consciousness is stronger than ever in Scotland and Wales. Nationwide Building Society was wiser, sponsoring all four UK football nations, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, earlier this century.

Other brands have been less sensible. I got so annoyed by emails from O2 urging me to cheer on England’s rugby team that I blocked all marketing emails and then moved to EE. I should add that I have nothing against others supporting England rugby – just that brands need to understand national identity.

To end on a positive note. To its credit, British Airways quickly deleted its tweet and apologised, saying it had strayed offside. Let’s hope that it has learned its lesson.

PS: Wales lost – but it’s unlikely that BA’s support for England made any difference.

Coronavirus: explaining and balancing risks

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The risk question: helmet or no helmet?

The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?

Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.

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Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.

Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.

Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.

But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.

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Lesley Whittle

It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)

The communications lessons

Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?

There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.

Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.

Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)

But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.

Dominic Cummings: the lies that shame Boris Johnson’s government

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Dominic Cummings: shameless

Boris Johnson’s failing government was on the ropes tonight after the prime minister’s chief adviser refused to resign after breaking England’s lockdown rules. Dominic Cummings travelled 260 miles to Durham when his wife developed COVID-19 symptoms.

The government had already been fiercely criticised for its car crash response to coronavirus – see my previous blog posts here and here.

The government’s response to Cummings’ disastrous mistake will make it far more likely that others will decide to ignore the rules. After all, if the rules don’t apply to the PM’s chief adviser, then logically they don’t apply to anyone else. It’s just the latest example of the government’s PR own goals. And on the day that The Times published an editorial asking ‘Where is Boris Johnson?”:

“The government is … paying the penalty for its poor communications. This risks undermining public confidence at a vital stage in the fight against the pandemic. For this much of the blame lies with Mr Johnson. It is the prime minister’s job to provide leadership. Yet he has been largely missing in action and not only when he was in hospital. Since his televised address two weeks ago, he has made one statement to the House of Commons, which remarkably was his first since the crisis began, and he has turned up twice to prime minister’s questions. Apart from that he has attended no press conferences and given no interviews. Instead he has left the communication of public policy to a succession of ministers, whose uneven performances have often added to the confusion.”

It was pitiful tonight to see an array of cabinet ministers sycophantically tweeting support for Cummings:

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It is beneath contempt to claim that criticising an unelected official for breaking the law is politicising the matter. Cummings will surely be gone in 48 hours.

Cummings has been regarded as a political and communications genius by many after his role campaigning for Britain to leave the EU. It is clear tonight that his reputation as a messiah has been overstated. In reality, he’s just a very naughty boy.

Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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RIM’s Stephen Bates – disaster in motion on BBC 5 live

If you’re a business launching a make or break product, a prime time national radio interview is a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, Research in Motion (RIM) European boss Stephen Bates completely blew it on BBC 5 live breakfast today.

He was on to explain BlackBerry 10, the long-delayed new operating system designed to compete with hugely successful Apple and Android smartphones. Yet he was unable to give a single reason to buy a BlackBerry – criminal given the importance of today’s launch.

We learned that BlackBerry was a unique proposition – whatever that means. We learned that RIM was taking the essence of the BlackBerry experience and moving it forward. Apparently BlackBerry 10 gives users a new and unique experience – though we still have no idea what that means.

Worst of all, he completely ignored the question ‘What did you learn from the iPhone?’ Repeatedly. Nicky Campbell mocked Bates: ‘It sounds like you’re reading from a press release’. Yet Bates could have turned that most predictable question to his advantage: ‘The iPhone has had a big impact, but BlackBerry 10 is better for consumers and businesses because it does X, Y and Z’.

Stephen Bates’ woeful performance – repeated on BBC TV’s Breakfast – underlines why business leaders must be able to tell their story simply and convincingly. I can’t imagine Bates speaking such gobbledegook at home. So why do so in a radio interview?

He must have expected questions about BlackBerry’s fall from grace and the rise of the iPhone and Android. He had a perfect chance to answer those questions honestly followed by a straightforward explanation of why the BlackBerry is still a must-have device that will give Apple and Samsung a run for their money.

His failure to take that opportunity is baffling.

PS: RIM has a history of disastrous PR. Former CEO Mike Lazaridis stormed out of an interview with BBC’s Rory-Cellan Jones two years ago. The company horribly mishandled its service failure in October 2011. It needs some decent PR direction before it’s too late.

Remembering Douglas Smith Hon FCIPR

UPDATED 20.35 4 January 2012 with comment from Bob Skinner

Britain’s PR profession is today mourning a legend: Douglas Smith, one of the best known public affairs practitioners of the past 50 years.

Doug, who died of a heart attack just before Christmas, was president of the (Chartered) Institute of Public Relations the year I joined the institute, 1990. He also chaired the Public Relations Consultants Association. Doug set up Westminster Advisers and was also involved with a number of other public affairs agencies. It’s ironic that Doug died when debate is raging again about Britain’s membership of the European Union. Early in his career, he worked as a press officer with Ted Heath on Britain’s first (unsuccessful) bid to join the EU’s forerunner, the EEC.

Doug helped the triumphant 1989 campaign against Foxley Wood, a proposed new town in Hampshire – taking advantage of the growing concern about the impact of large developments on the environment.

I first met Doug soon after that triumph, when I was working for Eagle Star insurance, one of his clients. (Eagle Star was proposing a similar new town, Micheldever Station; the outcome was the same – eventually.)

Doug was a joy to work with: astute, professional, brilliantly connected and above all joyous company. Over lunch in Westminster in 1998, after I left Eagle Star, he was full of ideas about what I might do next. ‘Why don’t you write the definitive book about PR for the insurance industry?” he asked me. ‘You’d be perfect for it!” I never wrote the book – I didn’t share Doug’s confidence in my expertise, and doubted whether the industry’s PR needs were distinct enough to justify the publication. But the encounter was typical of Doug’s concern for a colleague and enthusiasm for a new project.

Enthusiasm – that was the essence of Doug. He brought energy and passion to everything he did, whether it was making a case for or against a new development, explaining the vital need to educate people on the danger of fires – or sharing his love of cricket. His infectious, slightly high-pitched laugh made any meeting or party unforgettable.

I last met Doug last July, at my first CIPR fellows’ lunch at the House of Lords. Happily, my father Bob Skinner, a 1973 CIPR Fellow, joined me and greeted Doug years after they cooperated as PR local government pioneers. Dad gave Doug a copy of his book about his career in PR and journalism, Don’t Hold the Front Page. On a glorious summer’s day, Doug’s smile illuminated the terrace of the House.

Thanks for the laughter and memories, Doug.

PS: My father, Bob Skinner, adds:

“Doug was exceptional. He was the most effective advocate and supporter of local government I have ever met and that commitment continued throughout his incredibly distinguished career that reached national and international level. And he never lost that enthusiasm for local government, which he served so well in many ways.”

Savile: BBC in crisis

The BBC seems to totter from crisis to crisis. But the corporation’s veteran reporter John Simpson may be right to call the Jimmy Savile scandal the BBC’s worst crisis for 50 years.

Yes, it could prove worse than 2004, when its chairman and director general resigned after the Hutton report condemned the BBC Today’s account of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The BBC actually gained support back then as many dismissed the report as a whitewash.

Savile is – potentially – different. But there are two separate threads to the story and it’s important not to confuse them.

First, did BBC executives know about Savile’s abuses and turn a blind eye? This would be appalling (despite those saying the world was very different in the 1970s), but could be seen as a by-gone issue unless today’s BBC executives were involved.

Second, did BBC executives order Newsnight to scrap its story last year because it would embarrass the corporation, which was planning Christmas tribute shows? Did bosses, including the then head of TV George Entwistle, ignore warnings about Newsnight’s evidence against Savile?

In my view, the greatest danger to the BBC’s reputation lies in what happened over the last year, not what it did 40 years ago. We don’t yet know the facts. John Simpson may be right. It’s possible that newly promoted Entwistle could go down in history as the BBC’s shortest lasting director general.

The BBC’s enemies are enjoying its discomfort. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But the truth may be mundane. Newsnight is not an investigative programme. Editor Peter Rippon may have got cold feet. Once he took his decision, he’s likely to have been utterly absorbed by a thousand other news stories. (Although he must have looked at the Savile tribute shows and thought back uneasily to the damning testimony of Savile’s victims in the interviews.). A serious misjudgement but understandable.

We’ll know soon if the truth is more damning.

In all the fury, we must remember two truths. The scandal is primarily about Savile and his victims. And for all its faults, the saga has shown the BBC’s strengths as well as its flaws. How many other media organisations would examine their failures in public as forensically as the BBC has this week? Panorama’s report was a triumph, as was the performance of the BBC News. Remember this when you hear politicians bashing the corporation over the coming weeks. The BBC can be infuriating, clumsy, arrogant and complacent at times. But Britain would be a far poorer country without it.

Asil Nadir, Roger Levitt and me

Disgraced tycoon Asil Nadir was jailed for 10 years today for robbing his company Polly Peck of millions. It marked the end of a 22 year fight for justice. Nadir spent years on the run in Northern Cyprus.

The news took me right back to 1990, that year of economic slump and Margaret Thatcher’s fall. Many of the boom years companies and tycoons hit the buffers – some through ill luck, others through criminal behaviour like Polly Peck. In January 1990 I was approached by a headhunter asking if I’d be interested in a PR job with tycoon Roger Levitt, who ran a huge investment and pension business, the Levitt Group. I remember looking at details of the job and the company at Waterloo station while I was struggling to get home after the terrible storm that critically injured ‘Allo ‘Allo star Gordon Kaye. (I was delayed as the storm devastated the old Windsor line station at Waterloo, which never reopened and was redeveloped as the short-lived original Eurostar terminal.)

I decided very quickly that Levitt looked like a spiv, and wanted nothing to do with him or his company. (Unlike Sebastian Coe and Adam Faith.) By the end of the year, Levitt was in disgrace and facing criminal charges when Levitt Group collapsed with debts of £34 million.

One of my better decisions.