A woolly tale of reincarnation

Breaking news logo in front of a Woolworths high street store

 

Pick’n’mix is back! Or so said the news media as they reported claims by a random Twitter account that the defunct UK stores group Woolworths was making a comeback. 

Journalists rushed to file their stories, egged on by editors keen to be first with the news. 

Oops.

As later reported, the entire story was the invention of a 17 year old schoolboy who had put the fake tweet out as part of a study into digital marketing. The news media picked it up and what happened next will likely be the subject of media studies degrees for years to come. 

The scale with which the story spread ought to sound a loud alarm about the quality of the editing process at many news organisations. 

How did we get here? Well, in the 2000s as websites proliferated, media owners looked for savings and saw the subs bench – as it was known – as an easy target for redundancies. 

Sub editors were dispensed with and reporters were left to type their copy directly into a content management system before hitting ‘publish’. It’s quicker and cheaper.

When mistakes do happen, they can be corrected later. ‘Not wrong for long’ is the maxim. And we are all worse off for it. 

Years ago, one of the first stories I filed attracted the ire of a subeditor, who loudly summoned me over to his desk for a public earbending. My crime? I’d got a key fact wrong.

I gulped. Colleagues had been fired for less.

I recall opening my mouth to plead my defence.

The subeditor raised his index finger.

I paused. Wisely, it turned out.

“Always, always check your facts,” he growled. “And then read your story aloud to yourself before you file. You’ll be surprised at what you find you’ve missed.” 

I felt humiliated. Though not as much as I would have been had we gone to press with my error. I had learned my first lesson – and the subeditor’s job was done. 

This week’s Woolworths story is a salutary reminder of their value.

Crisis? What crisis?

Competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, mid-ocean Rowing 3,000 miles late last year across an ocean is the toughest thing I have done so far. With just over four months left to the start of this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I know how fortunate we were not to have had our training disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet the crews I know taking part this time have adapted well to cope, spending more time on their ergometers, pumping iron in their home-made gyms and honing the navigation, nutrition, and boat maintenance skills that will keep them alive when circumstances change. 

The nineteenth century military strategist Helmuth von Moltke maintained that no plan survives wholly intact after contact with the enemy. It’s a lesson we kept in mind during our row as key pieces of equipment broke, our power failed, and promised breaks in the weather failed to materialise.

It’s also a lesson I’ve applied in my day job as a communications director. Crisis communications strategies have to be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, adaptable even in the heat of an apparent disaster, and honed through rehearsal. Persuading senior executives to take time out to prepare, to role play, stress test, and to learn with you, is vital.

Company directors and ocean rowers alike will do well to consider that crisis management isn’t just a manual to pick up and dust off when things go awry, it’s an approach and a mindset that will determine whether you succeed or fail. 

The Uxbridge connection

boris
The last time I met the sitting MP for Uxbridge was in 1988 while a politics student at nearby Brunel University. Michael Shersby, the then Parliamentary representative for our local constituency, generously hosted Brunel’s annual Government Society dinner at the House of Commons, and arranged an array of guest speakers.

One year, we were fortunate to have the Speaker, the then Bernard (later Lord) Weatherill, who came to talk about democracy and the importance of being actively involved.

On another occasion, sharing the evening with the local Conservative Association, we were slightly less impressed by Minister of Education Angela Rumbold. Possibly labouring under the misapprehension that we were the University’s Conservative Students Group, she decided to lecture us about how the Tories were ‘good for education’. Continue reading

Offshore, out of sight, out of order

My fifth call of the month from an offshore financial adviser. These are the people who lurk outside the highly regulated ambit of UK financial services industry legislation, in just about every place where Britons work abroad – Hong Kong, Dubai, Guernsey, Malta, most major European capitals.

What’s wrong with them? Well, how long have you got? They’re usually unqualified, mostly paid by commission so hugely incentivised to sell unsuitable, cost-loaded products. Oh, and they’re also unregulated. Or at least not registered to give financial advice – with no onshore financial regulator bothered enough about checking up on what they do. In some countries it’s worse – they’re often self-regulated. All of which amounts to much the same thing: there’s no protection available for consumers when it all goes wrong. And it does go wrong, frequently. Continue reading

Brits abroad are prey for poor advice


It must be the warm weather that brings them out. It’s February and 15 degrees in Switzerland, bright sunshine and not a cloud in sight. And the phone’s ringing.

It’s yet another cold call, the fifth this week, from one of the earnest young Britons hired in droves by the usually greedy, often desperate financial services organisations that reside in lightly-regulated financial markets around the world.

Wherever you find Britons working abroad, you’re sure to find a cluster of these financial outfits, mostly managed by oleaginous shysters who couldn’t hack it in London, and staffed by ingenues with barely a grasp of finance know-how beyond the obligatory in-house crash-course in hard-selling. Continue reading